Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The Laws of Hammurabi

In 1902, in what is now southwestern Iran, archaeologists found a diorite stele which had been looted by the King of Elam and which contained a number of legal stipulations enacted by the Babylonian ruler Hammurabi. At that early stage of Mesopotamian archaeology, it was mistakenly dated far earlier than its correct date in the 18th century BCE, and proclaimed the world's oldest law code, an assertion still found today in textbooks and cultural references even though, as mentioned by Amanda Podany in her recent book Brotherhood of Kings, specialists in the field have known of earlier examples as far back as 1915. At present, the earliest known law code is the Code of Ur-Nammu.

Beyond that, however, most scholars today doubt that such monuments, including that of Hammurabi, were even actual law codes as opposed to monuments of royal justice. Bruce Wells's article on "Law and Practice" in Blackwell's Companion to the Ancient Near East elaborates, noting most significantly that despite a reasonably large number of cuneiform texts recording judicial decisions, we have no examples of the law being applied. The stipulations are seen as somewhat random, and occasionally presuppose knowledge of an existing body of law. The purpose of this monument was not to establish law, but to serve as a visual reminder the peace and justice in the land derived from Hammurabi's rule, the same sort of propaganda purpose which ancient monumental building usually served.



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