Babylon reached its first height with the reign of the great King Hammurabi, an Amorite prince, the sixth of his dynasty. The Amorites were a semi-nomadic people who migrated east into Mesopotamia from Syria. During the reign of Hammurabi’s father, Babylon’s kingdom contained only a few cities: Babylon, Kish, Borsippa and Sippar. When Hammurabi took the throne, that began to change, although slowly at first.
In King Hammurabi’s first few years, he focused on his first primary objective: to improve the lives of his people through improving agriculture and irrigation (always a prime goal for Mesopotamian kings), strengthening his city’s defenses and building public spaces, roads and temples. His first act was a jubilee, a forgiveness of the people’s debts, which of course, made him popular among the people.
Elamites, a people located just to the east of Mesopotamia in what is today’s Iran, often raided into Mesopotamian territory. Hammurabi allied with Babylon’s rival city Larsa to defeat the Elamites, which they did. Hammurabi then instituted a tactic he was to use many times: he broke the alliance, quickly made alliances with other city-states, and proceeded to conquer Uruk and Isin, cities in thrall to Larsa. Hammurabi went on to conquer Lagash, Nippur and Larsa itself. Another favorite tactic was to dam up a city’s water supply, withholding the water until the city surrendered. Once southern Mesopotamia was under his control, Hammurabi turned his military campaigns to the north and west until all of Mesopotamia was conquered in 1755 B.C.
Even when he conquered cities, Hammurabi looked after the people under his governance. He made sure vital irrigation canals and dams functioned, maintained the infrastructure of the cities in his control and built splendid temples to the gods. While Sargon the Akkadian emperor continually had to put down revolts, the people under Hammurabi’s rule were not rebellious as Hammurabi governed well.
Hammurabi’s Law Code
Hammurabi promulgated his Code of Law circa 1772 B.C. Hammurabi’s was not the first such law code, but it was the most famous and important. Previous law codes, such as that of Ur-Nammu, were made to rule over a single ethnic group, people all of the same family, more or less. By Hammurabi’s time, Babylon had become a large, cosmopolitan city with many different people rubbing shoulders on its busy streets. Hammurabi’s Law had to rule over nomads, Assyrian traders, aristocratic Babylonians, Elamite slaves and Sumerian housewives. His law code had to be simple, specific and direct. Hammurabi’s laws sought to avoid the blood feuds that could easily arise among people of different cultures.
To modern minds, Hammurabi’s laws are harsh; they established the principle of an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, literally. If a man took out another man’s eye in a fight, he then lost his own eye. Punishments for breaking the law included dismemberment, disfigurement and death. The lightest punishments were fines. Hammurabi had his Code inscribed on a stele, an eight-foot tall diorite rock where all could see the law. While harsh, Hammurabi’s law included the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
This article is part of our larger resource on Mesopotamian culture, society, economics, and warfare. Click here for our comprehensive article on ancient Mesopotamia.