At that time Anu and Bel called me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, the worshipper of the gods, to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil, to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak, to enlighten the land and to further the welfare of the people. Hammurabi, the governor named by Bel, am I, who brought about plenty and abundance. –preamble to the Code of Hammurabi
Hammurabi was an ancient Babylonian king who reigned from about 1792 B.C. to 1750 B.C. His family line could be traced back to the Amorites, and his name was a blend with the Babylonian culture: Hammu meaning “family” and rapi meaning “great” in Akkadian, the everyday language of the Babylonian people. He is best known for extending the territory of Babylon into Mesopotamia and inscribing and displaying the Code of Hammurabi.
Given the vastness of time that removes us from his life, not much is known about his youth besides the fact that he took over the throne from his father, Sin-Muballit, who had stepped down because of his failing health. During his reign, Hammurabi violently swept through the fertile land of the Euphrates and overthrew Larsa, Assyria, Mari, Eshunna, and other kingdoms, thus situating Babylon as one of the major world empires. He established irrigation systems and erected great temples to the chief Babylonian god Marduk. In fact, Hammurabi was known for being so interested in the people that he ruled over, that a common title of his was bani matim, or ‘builder of the land”.
The Code of Hammurabi was rediscovered in 1901 by Jacques de Morgan, a French mining engineer who was excavating the ancient city of Susa. Likely the spoils of war, the black stone stela depicts Hammurabi receiving the law from Shamash at the top, with cuneiform script of his law surrounding the rest of the 7’5″ pillar. There are 282 edicts, recorded in if-then form, and generally offer the earliest example of reciprocative justice:
If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If one break a man’s bone, they shall break his bone. — §196-201 (Code of Hammurabi)
In the words of his monument, Hammurabi wrote his rule in such a way ”to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak and to see that justice is done to widows and orphans,” and is thought to have inspired the laws of many other ancient cultures, specifically the Book of Exodus. He died in 1750 B.C., and soon after his son, Samsu-Iluna, proved incapable of sustaining his father’s vast empire and it fell apart. Still, the legacy of Hammurabi has survived all these years.
Extended reading: check out these 8 Things You May Not Know About Hammurabi’s Code
The Gryphon Editions consultation has placed Hammurabi on our list of the 100 Most Influential People because he was the first to introduce such a comprehensive, codified law to the ancient world. His legacy is as a law-giver who was genuinely concerned with the welfare of the people under his authority. The story of this great man will be immortalized once again in our leather-bound biography, part of our 100 Most Influential People Library.