When you entered my home here in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, you may
not have heard of Hammurapi (or Hammurabi, as my
name is also spelled) or my laws. Well, I can fix that.
My story begins a few thousand years ago in Mesopotamia, where you
humans started what you call civilization.
This meant that men and women settled into cities, increased their crop yields
through irrigation, opened trade routes to distant lands, divided themselves into
different occupations and invented writing to keep track of the whole
experiment. But there was also lots of conflict. And people used weapons made
of bronze, not stone like me. If humans were to survive such conflicts, stone
would have to step up and lay down the law. It did, and I am the result.
The city’s fame would eventually have as much to do with culture
as with conquest. Gifted in mathematics, astronomy and engineering, the
Babylonians built with precision, devised complex calendars and used advanced
mathematical concepts. Every time you calculate an angle or glance at a clock,
you honor the Babylonians’ choice of 60 as their base unit of measure. At the
same time as Hammurapi was leading his armies to
victory, he cultivated the arts and sciences.
Near the end of Hammurapi’s reign, I
made him more illustrious than ever. I, Pillar of Justice, crowned his
achievements by publishing a set of laws to govern the lives of his quarrelsome
subjects. I was not the first to try this, but my success speaks for itself.
Thanks to me, the name of Hammurapi will forever be
linked with the rule of law.
To get everyone’s attention, I knew I had to make a strong
impression. I let the king polish me into a freestanding pillar called a stele,
the ultimate message board of ancient Mesopotamia. I stand 2.25 meters (over 7
feet) tall, my rounded conical shape topped with an arresting bas-relief carved
into my “face.” Enthroned on the right sits Shamash the sun-god,
whose piercing light exposes crime. Menacing flames rise from his shoulders. Hammurapi stands on the left, receiving the deity’s
instruction. He raises his right hand to his mouth, a sign of obedience. All
Babylonians did the same whenever they saw the king. This scene put people in
the correct frame of mind to receive the extraordinary words cut into the
remaining surfaces of my body. Some 3800 lines of cuneiform cover me front and
|There’s the code for all to see. And, look, there’s the god Shamash seated at
top, and Hammurapi with his right hand to his mouth, showing he’s ready to obey
My first section honors Hammurapi, who
enriched temples and cities, increased the harvest, pardoned enemies, protected slaves and, not least, established peace. Next
comes the important part: a collection of at least 282 legal rulings, the bedrock of legal history. In
these, I answer evil with punishment: “If anyone accuses another of a capital
offense but fails to prove his case, then that accuser shall be put to death.”
This judgment is among several that focus on giving false testimony. After all,
any legal system is only as good as the evidence it allows. My text then turns
to matters of theft, land holdings, loans, wages, family disputes, personal
injury and professional misconduct. In other words, I tackle the many ills
arising from the daily interactions among people.
Some of what I decree you moderns will find quite familiar,
including my prohibition of kidnapping and slander. What may surprise you are
my rules governing aspects of life no longer commonplace in your world. For
example, I say much about oxen. What should be done if a person rents an ox and
then somehow harms the animal? I also cover disputes arising when the ox itself
does the hurting. My rulings here, however, hinge on whether the owner knew his
ox was dangerous and took appropriate measures to protect the public.
My laws brim with decisions involving slaves and the rights of
wives. I refuse to let a husband abandon an ill wife when he marries another. I
protect both husbands and wives from debts incurred by their mates before
marriage. I put few obstacles in the way of divorce, except for grave concerns
about the fair division of property and the welfare of any small children.
a day it was in December 1901 when Jacques de Morgan and his team found half
the “Pillar of Justice.” And what luck they found the other half in early 1902.
My penalties for misconduct might astonish you. I execute thieves,
liars, neglectful wives and tavern-keepers who do not
arrest conspirators meeting in their establishments. I must point out that
Mesopotamian civilization organized itself into three distinct classes, and
that the punishments meted out differed accordingly. The awilum (upper class) fared better than the mushkenum (dependants and commoners), who in turn enjoyed many social and legal
advantages over the wardum (slaves). Between
Babylonians of equal rank, I followed the principle of an eye for an eye, a
tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. But, if an awilum should blind the eye of
a mushkenum, then the noble keeps his eye and instead
pays a fine to his victim. Injuries to a wardum draw
a fine payable to the slave-owner. I allow physicians to charge more for performing
the same operation on an awilum than on patients of a lower class. But, botch the
medical procedure on an awilum and the doctor loses
the incompetent hand that held the scalpel. In some rulings, I may appear
extreme. For example, when the builder’s shoddy work causes the death of a
homeowner’s son, then I decree the death not of the builder but of the
builder’s son in return. My discipline may seem hard as stone, but I set up a
legal system for rich and poor, free and slave. I spelled out a person’s rights
In the final section of my text I call down curses upon any who
might dare to deface me. I warn that the sky-god Anu will destroy the scepter of any king who corrupts my words. I swear that
Babylon’s great god Marduk will likewise bring him
famine, that incorruptible Shamash will crush his troops, that Sin the moon-god
will fill his shortened life with heavy sighs and sorrows, that the storm-god Adad will dry up the rivers and springs.
|Illustrator Norman MacDonald wrote of this scene depicting the United Nations
International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in April 2003, as its
members prosecuted Miroslav Tadic (fourth from left) for the crime of ethnic
cleansing in the former Yugoslavia: “To me there is little difference between
the trial scene in Babylon and the one [here] in The Hague [in the
Netherlands]. In each, there is the accused and the opportunity for defense.
Then and Now are pretty much the same.”
Then, in December of 1901, one of my fragments emerged from the
soil. A few weeks later, the other half came to light. A team of archeologists
led by the Jacques de Morgan from France had found me. I, Pillar of Justice,
was immediately hailed as the most complete code of ancient Mesopotamian laws
ever discovered. And so, I came to live in the Louvre.
Now, the wrinkle has smoothed across your brow. You know my story.
But, as you leave, do obey all the posted rules on your way out—NO FLASH
PHOTOGRAPHY, DO NOT TOUCH THE ARTWORKS, NO FOOD OR DRINK IN THE
GALLERIES—or else I might have to toss you into the Seine River in Paris!
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||Frank L. Holt ([email protected]) is a professor of history at the University of Houston and most recently author of Into the Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan. He is writing another book on ancient Afghanistan. This is his seventh article in the “I Witness History” series.
||Norman MacDonald (www.macdonaldart.net) is a Canadian free-lance artist. “To me there is little difference between the trial scene in Babylon and the one [above] in The Hague,” he says. “In each, there is the accused and the opportunity for defense. Then and Now are pretty much the same.”
Teachers: This article and accompanying activities correlate to US national McREL standards as follows: