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Hammurabi. The King of Babylonia.

A great deal of what we know about ancient history can only be guessed at from the things they left behind. Although there is evidence that societies that lived a very long time ago might have had rules and a very well-organized society, there is very little actual evidence that this was so. Some societies, such as the society that developed in Babylon, did leave behind evidence of their social structure that enables us to learn more about what life might have looked like for these ancient people. One of the earliest leaders we have evidence of is Hammurabi, who provided us with a great deal of this kinds of evidence.

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Hammurabi was a king in Babylonia almost 4000 years ago. “Estimates on the emergence of the state of Babylonia corresponds with the rise of Hammurabi, even if he was the sixth king in his dynasty” (Kjeilen, 1996). History indicates that he was a successful military leader, securing control of the Euphrates River for his people which assured them long-term prosperity. “In the thirtieth year of his reign, Hammurabi defeated the army of Kudur-Lagamar (?), King of Elam, thereby winning Babylonia’s independence; the ensuing year he completed this success by conquering the lands of Iamuthala (W. of Elam) and Larsa, and taking, in consequence, the title of King of Sumer and Akkad.

Other triumphs followed: Rabiqu, Dupliash, Kar-Shamash, possibly Turukku, Kakmum, and Sabe fell into his power so that towards the end of his life he had knit together into a mighty empire N. and S. Babylonia, and very likely extended his sway, at least nominally, over the land of Amurru as far as Chanaan” (Souvay, 1910). However, he was not a fantastic nation builder. This was “principally due to the existence of relatively few models for states and their structure” (Kjeilen, 1996).

However, he did engage in many public service projects that made his people stronger as well, including building temples, canals, and protective walls. He is perhaps most known, though, for his codification of the existing laws in his society, having them all inscribed in a large stone that survives to this day.

By understanding these laws, one can begin to formulate a picture of the average image of the daily life of the people who lived in that society based upon how many of the rights of the people are protected versus how many forms of punishment are dictated and the severity of punishments assigned to the severity of the crime. Although an extensive study of the laws would be too lengthy for a short analysis, looking at one element of these laws can suggest how just the society was overall.

Since women were often treated with a lack of respect, laws regarding women can be particularly enlightening. This can reveal the esteem with which women were treated within that society and therefore, assimilate a picture of the female role within that group as it compared to the men. Examples of societies in which women were held in high esteem would have numerous laws and other records indicating various rights have been provided for women such as the right to divorce, consent to marriage, inherit or own family property.

Societies in which women were subjugated will typically show numerous laws protecting the rights and advantages of men but will prevent women from gaining any power of their own. In these types of societies, women are forced to depend upon the men in their lives to provide them with the necessities for life because they are unable to own anything, inherit anything or make any of their own decisions. Societies that treat women with equality are more likely to be a just society than those that treat women with second-class or subhuman status.

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King Hammurabi (1795-1750 B.C.) was the ruler of the world’s earliest known major city and his legal code reveals that the society he ruled over was at least somewhat justified. Marriage laws within this code are very specific regarding the rights of the woman being almost equal to the rights of the man (“Babylonian Law”, 2005). For example, the bride’s family had to agree to the marriage by accepting the bride price from the groom’s family.

That the girl was a valued member of society is indicated in that this bride price, along with a dowry provided by her family, went with her into her new marriage and remained her property for life. “If a man wishes to separate from a woman who has borne him children, or from his wife who has borne him children: then he shall give that wife her dowry, and a part of the usufruct of field, garden, and property, so that she can rear her children” (Koeller, 2005).

Underscoring the value of the bride to her family is the idea that the bride is always a member of her father’s house, regardless of to whom or how long she has been married and her honor is strongly protected regardless of her position in the family. “If a man is guilty of incest with his daughter, he shall be driven from the place (exiled)” (Koeller, 2005) unless she is his daughter-in-law in which case he’ll be drowned. She was also protected against illness and desertion: “If a man take a wife, and she is seized by disease, if he then desires to take a second wife he shall not put away his wife, who has been attacked by disease, but he shall keep her in the house which he has built and support her so long as she lives” (Koeller, 2005).

The code of King Hammurabi also provided for a near equal chance to divorce. When the man opted to divorce the woman, she retained custody of any children and he had to pay the ancient day equivalent of child support. “If a woman quarrels with her husband, and say: ‘You are not congenial to me,’ the reasons for her prejudice must be presented. If she is guiltless, and there is no fault on her part, but he leaves and neglects her, then no guilt attaches to this woman, she shall take her dowry and go back to her father’s house” (Koeller, 2005).

She could retain property held by her family, could inherit property from her husband, and could even cohabit with another man without penalty if she had been left without maintenance during the involuntary absence of her husband as long as she returned to her husband upon his return. “If a man be taken prisoner in war and there be no sustenance in his house and his wife go to another house and bear children; and if later her husband return and come to his home: then this wife shall return to her husband, but the children follow their father” (Koeller, 2005).

However, she was not required to return to her husband if he had run away from the house. The records that have survived even indicate tavern-keepers were generally women and laws had been written requiring them to send anyone conducting “treasonable activity” or behaving in a disorderly manner to the palace.

However, even in Sumeria, things weren’t quite equal. If the woman was proven to be a bad woman, she could be legally drowned or be demoted within her own house to the position of a slave with access to food and clothing only. “If a man’s wife, who lives in his house, wishes to leave it, plunges into debt, tries to ruin her house, neglects her husband, and is judicially convicted: if her husband offers her release, she may go on her way, and he gives her nothing as a gift of release.

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If her husband does not wish to release her, and if he takes another wife, she shall remain as servant in her husband’s house” (Koeller, 2005). Although there were numerous conditions in which a woman might be drowned as punishment, she could also simply be released with or without her dowry and ‘purchase price’. These laws should not be considered necessarily anti-woman, though, as there were easy as many laws on the books that condemned men to death.

Hammurabi was a famous king who brought together the largest society to date for his time. He did this through a series of important military conquests that not only gave him control over many territories and groups of people but also over important natural resources, such as the Euphrates River, one of the only sources of water in the area. Although he wasn’t noted for his abilities at state-building, this isn’t necessarily his fault as he was the first great nation. However, he did codify a set of laws that give us a chance today to guess what society was like in ancient Babylonia.

Works Cited

“Babylonian Law.” LoveToKnow 1911 Online Encyclopedia, 2004. Web.

Kjeilen, Tore. “Hammurabi.” LookLex, 1996. Web.

Koeller, David W. “Laws on the Household.” Code of Hammurabi. Primary Source, 2005. Web.

Souvay, Charles. “Hammurabi.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. Web.

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