How Hammurabi Transformed Babylon Into a Powerful City-State
More than 3,800 years after taking power, the former Babylonian king Hammurabi is best known for the Code of Hammurabi which was inscribed on human-sized stone pillars that he placed in the cities of his kingdom.
But the 282-law system was just one of the achievements of a ruler who transformed Babylon, a city-state 60 miles south of modern-day Baghdad, into the ruling power of ancient Mesopotamia.
During his reign, which lasted from 1792 until his death in 1750 BC, Hammurabi also served in many ways as a model for combining military might, diplomatic finesse and political skill to build and control an empire that s ‘stretched from the Persian Gulf inland for 250 miles along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
In addition to carving his laws in stone, “there are many other aspects to this king’s achievements,” writes Marc Van De Mieroop, professor of history at Columbia University in his 2005 book. King Hammurabi of Babylon: a biography. “He was a ruler, a warrior, a diplomat and an administrator.
Hammurabi became the region’s most powerful ruler because he was “a wise statesman,” according to Kelly-Anne Diamond, assistant professor of history at the University of Villanova, whose expertise includes the ancient history and archeology of the Near East. She explains how the former king skillfully maneuvered his way to domination.
“Hammurabi had no problem forming alliances and breaking them as he saw fit,” says Diamond. “He had a complex network of diplomats and spies working for him to be the most knowledgeable ruler in the region.”
For much of his reign, Hammurabi relied on diplomacy to advance Babylon’s interests, while strengthening its army. It wasn’t until years later that he turned to strength. It was a long-range game, but he had time to play it, since he had been crowned at a much younger age than the other kings in the area.
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Hammurabi as a builder and a conqueror
When Hammurabi became king in 1792 BC, Babylon was no match for its southern rival, Larsa, whose king Rim Sin I had defeated Hammurabi’s father in battle. But Hammurabi quickly set out to strengthen his city-state. He became the first Babylonian king to erect protective walls around the city, according to historian Susan Wise Bauer. At the same time, Hammurabi made sure to indulge himself with his subjects, issuing a proclamation canceling all their debts – a gesture he would repeat four times during his reign.
Like a modern governor or senator who bolsters his popularity by having roads and bridges built in his home state repaired, Hammurabi has grown even stronger politically by embarking on a succession of massive infrastructure projects. He built temples, granaries and palaces, built a bridge over the Euphrates which allowed the city to span both banks, and dug a large irrigation canal which also protected the land from flooding.
The investments he made paid off as Babylon gradually grew into a rich and prosperous place. But Hammurabi also made sure everyone knew he was responsible for all the good fortune. When he built his canal, for example, he made sure that everyone knew that he was only fulfilling his obligations to the gods, who had given him the land.
“Its shores on both sides, I turned into cultivated land,” Hammurabi proclaimed, according to historian Will Durant. History of civilization. “I have gathered heaps of grain, I have provided infallible water for the lands … The scattered people that I have gathered with pastures and water that I have provided for them, I have them. grazed abundantly and settled them in peaceful dwellings.
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After several decades of building Babylon, Hammurabi was strong enough to be able to engage in wars of conquest, as Stephen Bertman writes in the Handbook of life in ancient Mesopotamia. In rapid succession he moved to Eschnunna in the east, Assyria in the north, Larsa in the south, and Mari in the west.
Hammurabi had a clever, albeit duplicative, way of combining strength and diplomacy. As the Encyclopedia of Ancient History details, he formed alliances with other rulers and then broke them whenever it suited him.
He also waged the war in a roundabout way. One of his tricks was to block the water supply to a rival city. Then he would use thirst to pressure his leaders to surrender, or else suddenly release the waters and cause a devastating flood that softens his target for his attack.
The Hammurabi code remains a legal model
Hammurabi’s elaborate legal code covered issues ranging from building and inheritance security to slave discipline and the fees that former vets should be paid to operate on oxen and donkeys.
It was not the first legal system, and as Diamond points out, Hammurabi actually included laws created by previous kings. But what resonated was the idea of a society founded on the principle of law and order – applied to all.
“There are many laws that we would classify today as harsh or barbaric, but there are others that suggest that marginalized groups are careful and responsible,” says Diamond.
Hammurabi’s legal system included features that are familiar today, such as the principle that evidence must be gathered and evidence established in order to convict someone of a crime. “The theme of ‘the innocent until proven guilty’ always resonates with us,” says Diamond. In addition, it provides for what could have been the first child support payments.
Hammurabi as a benevolent ruler
In some ways, the Code of Hammurabi was also a public relations tool, a way for the king to subtly meditate on himself as a wise and benevolent ruler. To this end, a surviving example of the stone pillars of Hammurabi shows him meeting Shamash, the Babylonian god of justice.
“There is no doubt that Hammurabi wanted to be seen as a righteous ruler who protected his citizens, in addition to a substitute for the gods on Earth, warlord, builder and final judge,” says Diamond.
But while Hammurabi may have been one of the first great political self-promoters in history, the image he created was not just hype. He was a truly benevolent ruler who wanted his subjects to enjoy a better life. In the former king’s correspondence with his officials, he makes it clear that anyone who felt mistreated by his courts could appeal to the king for a stay.
As biographer Van De Mieroop writes, “he ensured that everyone was judged fairly and did not have to fear his power”.