More than 3,800 years after he took power, the ancient Babylonian king Hammurabi is best remembered for the Code of Hammurabi which was inscribed on human-sized stone pillars that he placed in the towns of his realm.
But the system of 282 laws was just one of the achievements of a leader who turned Babylon, a city-state located 60 miles south of modern-day Baghdad, into the dominant power of ancient Mesopotamia.
During his reign, which lasted from 1792 to his death in 1750 B.C., Hammurabi in many ways also served as a model for how to combine military power, diplomatic finesse and political skill to build and control an empire that stretched from the Persian Gulf inland for 250 miles along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Besides carving his laws in stone, “there are many other aspects to this king’s achievements,” Columbia University history professor Marc Van De Mieroop writes in his 2005 book King Hammurabi of Babylon: A Biography. “He was a ruler, warrior, diplomat and administrator.”
Hammurabi became the region’s strongest ruler because he was “a shrewd statesman,” according to Kelly-Anne Diamond, a visiting assistant history professor at Villanova University, whose expertise includes ancient Near Eastern history and archaeology. She explains how the ancient king deftly maneuvered his way to dominance.
“Hammurabi had no issue with forming alliances and then breaking them as he saw fit,” says Diamond. “He had a complex network of diplomats and spies working for him in order to be the most informed ruler in the area.”
For much of his reign, Hammurabi relied upon diplomacy to advance Babylonia’s interests, while building up his military. It wasn’t until later years that he turned to force. It was a long-range game, but he had time to play it, since he was crowned at a much younger age than other kings in the region.
Hammurabi as a Builder and Conqueror
When Hammurabi became king in 1792 B.C., Babylon wasn’t a match for its rival to the south, Larsa, whose King Rim Sin I had defeated Hammurabi’s father in battle. But Hammurabi quickly set about strengthening his city-state. He became the first Babylonian king to erect protective walls around the city, according to historian Susan Wise Bauer. At the same time, Hammurabi made sure to ingratiate himself with his subjects, issuing a proclamation that canceled all their debts—a gesture that he would repeat four times in the course of his reign.
Like a modern governor or senator who boosts his popularity by getting roads repaired and bridges built in his home state, Hammurabi further strengthened himself politically by embarking upon a succession of massive infrastructure projects. He built temples, granaries and palaces, constructed a bridge across the Euphrates River that allowed the city to expand on both banks, and dug a great irrigation canal that also protected land from floods.
The investments he made paid off, as Babylon gradually developed into a wealthy, prosperous place. But Hammurabi also made sure everybody knew he was responsible for all of the good fortune. When he built his canal, for example, he made sure everyone knew that he was only keeping up his obligation to the gods, who had entrusted him with the land.
“Its banks on both sides I turned into cultivated ground,” Hammurabi proclaimed, according to historian Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization. “I heaped up piles of grain, I provided unfailing water for the lands…The scattered people I gathered with pasturage and water I provided them, I pastured them with abundance, and settled them in peaceful dwellings.”
After several decades of building up Babylon, Hammurabi was strong enough that he could embark on wars of conquest, as Stephen Bertman writes in the Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. In quick succession, he moved on Eschnunna in the east, Assyria to the north, Larsa to the south and Mari in the west.
Hammurabi had a deft, though duplicitous, way of combining force and diplomacy, As the Ancient History Encyclopedia details, he would form alliances with other rulers, and then break them whenever it was convenient to do so.
He also waged warfare in devious ways. One of his tricks was to dam up a rival city’s water supply. Then he would either use thirst to pressure its leaders into surrendering, or else suddenly release the waters and cause a devastating flood that would soften his target for his attack.
Code of Hammurabi Remains a Legal Model
Hammurabi’s elaborate legal code covered matters ranging from building safety and inheritances to the discipline of slaves and the fees that ancient veterinarians should be paid for operating on oxen and donkeys.
It wasn’t the first legal system, and as Diamond points out, Hammurabi actually included laws created by previous kings. But what resonated was the idea of a society built upon the principle of law and order—applied to everyone.
“There are many laws that today we would categorize as harsh or barbaric, but there are others that suggest care and responsibility for marginalized groups,” Diamond explains.
Hammurabi’s legal system included features that are familiar today, such as the principle that evidence had to be gathered and proof established in order to convict someone of a crime. “The ‘innocent until proven guilty’ theme still resonates with us,” Diamond says. Additionally, it provides for what might have been the first alimony payments.
Hammurabi as a Benevolent Ruler
In some ways, the Code of Hammurabi also was a public relations tool, a way for the king to subtly hype himself as a wise, benevolent ruler. To that end, a surviving example of Hammurabi’s stone pillars depicts him meeting with Shamash, the Babylonians’ god of Justice.
“There is little doubt that Hammurabi wanted to be perceived as a just ruler who protected his citizens, in addition to a surrogate for the gods on Earth, war leader, builder and final judge,” Diamond explains.
But while Hammurabi might have been one of history’s first great political self-promoters, the image he created wasn’t all hype. He was a genuinely benevolent ruler who wanted his subjects to enjoy better lives. In the ancient king’s correspondence with his officials, he makes clear that anyone who felt they’d been mistreated by his courts could appeal to the king for a reprieve.
As biographer Van De Mieroop writes, “he guaranteed that all people were judged fairly and did not have to fear his power.”