The Code of Hammurabi is not only a well preserved example of ancient sculpture dating back to 1772 BC, but its surface also contains some of the oldest to date discovered and deciphered writings of considerable length in the whole world. Moreover, these preserved lines constitute the oldest known set of state laws – 282 in total, which regulated various aspects of social life and depending on the social status of the subject – varying measures of punishment (Bartz). One of the most prominent rules, which later echoed in the Old Testament was “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Dyneley).
Hammurabi was the ruler of Babylon for 43 years circa 1792 to 1750 BC according to the Middle chronology. Hammurabi proclaims in the writings on the stele, he made four quarters of the planet bow to his will and law. The top of the stele features Hammurabi and god Shamash, holding power over thunderbolts, which was bound to allude to the relentless power of the law in the state. Hammurabi also made a very wise decision to associate himself with the gods and to make it seem that he laws inscribed were received by him from Shamash himself. So, Hammurabi did not only pose himself as a powerful leader, but also as an obedient servant to the gods, which brought him to the position of being their messenger, the herald of their will. The trick of using religion to impose the will of the ruler will be re-used many times over the course of the history. The fact that Hammurabi stand on the same level as Shamash indicates the former’s status in the eyes of the people and the level of piety that Hammurabi was granted as a result.
The great ruler was a typical micro-manager, for he was clearly concerned with all spheres of the country’s existence, because the law encompasses quite a huge spectrum military service, religion, slavery, trade, code of conduct, the duties of workers, miscellaneous laws. There was also a group of laws dealing with the matters of child obedience, one of the most vivid examples being: “if a boy struck his father they would cut off the boy’s hand or fingers”. The code also features perhaps the earliest mentioning of what is now called the presumption of innocence together with the notion that both the accusing and the defending party have to provide evidence for their claims. There is also a certain part, which lists the benefits acquired by the cities not long before annexed by Hammurabi.
Another idea is that the stele and other objects, on which this set of laws was engraved, performed the function of glorifying Hammurabi rather than genuinely trying to make an outline of ground rules, which could not be stepped over, particularly by those of the lower social statuses. The stele surviving until nowadays gives evidence of certain egocentrism on Hammurabi’s part, not only imposing his wisdom on the populace but also equating himself to the gods in terms of both power and righteousness.
The stele bears resemblance to a giant finger pointing upwards with Hammurabi and Shamash being engraved on its fingernail. The symbolism is rather apparent here: the hand of truth in the embodiment of Hammurabi will always point the way for right decisions.
Bartz, G., König, E. (2005). Arts and Architecture. Könemann, Köln.
Dyneley Prince, J. (1904). Review: The Code of Hammurabi. The American Journal of Theology Vol. 8, No. 3. The University of Chicago Press Stable, 601-609.