Chapter 11

A Lawgiver, Land Overseers, and Soldiers

I don’t think there’s a world history survey in existence that fails to mention Hammurabi of Babylon (1792–1750 BCE). Even if only two or three pages are devoted to all of Mesopotamian history—all 3,500 years of it—Hammurabi still makes it in there. The reason for his presence, always, is his “law code.” Most of the histories even quote some of the laws, often favoring the “eye-for-an-eye” ones. These laws aren’t particularly typical (strictly speaking, there are just three of them in a collection of almost 300 laws),1 but they sound biblical, which makes for an interesting connection. Somehow, Hammurabi is the most familiar name in all of Mesopotamian history.

This might have surprised him. Like just about every Mesopotamian king, Hammurabi thought pretty highly of himself, but would he have believed that he was the most important king of all? For most of his reign, definitely not. He was far from being the first king to promulgate laws (we have already met Ur-Namma, who holds that distinction, at least as far as we know), and he didn’t assemble his law collection until the last years of his life; he didn’t start building an empire until he’d been on the throne for thirty years; he never used the divine symbol in front of his name to suggest that he was a god. So why do we have a disproportionate sense of his importance?

Hammurabi: Pious King and Lawgiver

Hammurabi’s laws were first discovered in 1902 at a time when most of the interest in the ancient Near East came from its association with the Bible.2 It didn’t hurt his immediate rise to fame that the laws were recovered on an impressive stone stela with a beautifully carved relief sculpture atop columns of cuneiform inscribed in a fine, archaizing script that is lovely to look at, even for those who can’t read it (see Fig. 11.1). And once the inscription was read (which was almost immediately), the contents were declared to be the world’s first laws, and scholars immediately drew comparisons with biblical law. Hammurabi was heralded as a predecessor of Moses, receiving the laws from his god, Shamash. Even the subsequent discovery of earlier laws, which quickly knocked Hammurabi from his pedestal as “first lawgiver,” did nothing to eclipse his fame. He was in the history books from day one of his rediscovery and he has remained there.


Fig. 11.1 Diorite law stela of King Hammurabi of Babylon, found in Susa, mid-eighteenth century bce. (© RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY/Art Resource)

Obviously, we will get to his laws, but I’d like to look first at Hammurabi in his early years on the throne. At that point he wasn’t very different, in his achievements and challenges, from Sumu-El of Larsa, Enlil-bani of Isin, or Zimri-Lim of Mari, or, for that matter, from most of the other kings who ruled in the early centuries of the second millennium BCE. Initially Hammurabi’s Babylonian kingdom existed in the shadow of three much more powerful states: Upper Mesopotamia to the north, Larsa to the south, and Elam to the east. When Hammurabi ascended to the throne in 1792 BCE at the death of his father, he was a young man. The now middle-aged Shamshi-Adad was still ruling the wide reaches of Upper Mesopotamia. Larsa, which continued to dominate Sumer, as it had for a century ever since the time of Sumu-El, was now ruled by king Rim-Sin (1822–1763 BCE). He, like Shamshi-Adad, was at least a generation older than Hammurabi; he had already been in power for thirty years and, during that time, had dramatically increased the size of his kingdom. He had even finally conquered Larsa’s longtime rival, Isin.3 Unlike almost all the earlier kings of Larsa, or of anywhere else in the 1790s BCE, Rim-Sin considered himself to be a god. The third power, Elam, is less well known to us, but was apparently the most powerful of them all. Siruk-tuh (early eighteenth century BCE) was its leader when Hammurabi first ruled.4 He and later kings of the Elamite dynasty were referred to as “great king” and “father” by kings in Syria and Mesopotamia and were the only kings that the Mesopotamian kings considered to be higher in status than themselves.5 The Elamite rulers had become increasingly involved in Mesopotamian politics; in fact, Rim-Sin of Larsa himself was of Elamite descent, notwithstanding his Akkadian name.

Hammurabi’s life is, however, considerably better known than those of his contemporaries; he even is the subject of two book-length biographies.6 Hammurabi seems initially to have had no delusions of grandeur. His year-names show that he busied himself with the usual concerns of the leader of a smallish kingdom—appeasing the gods, digging canals, restoring city walls, and so on. He married and had children. He wrote letters and sent his diplomats to negotiate with allies. He forged treaties with his vassals in which they pledged their allegiance to him, and treaties with his allies in which they pledged to support one another in times of war and to extradite fugitives. He fought small local wars. After the death of Shamshi-Adad and the independence of the kingdom of Mari, Hammurabi became friendly with Zimri-Lim. They corresponded and sent envoys to one another’s courts. Hammurabi sent his sons to visit Mari,7 and one of them may even have taken up residence in a house in Mari’s provincial capital of Terqa.8

In 1765 BCE, troops from Elam, the powerful kingdom to the east, began an aggressive campaign in Mesopotamia, attacking the northern kingdom of Eshnunna. Recognizing that Elam was about to become a threat to both Babylon and Larsa, Hammurabi agreed to join forces with king Rim-Sin of Larsa—they might stand a better chance together than apart.9 But their alliance didn’t last; Rim-Sin delayed sending troops to help Hammurabi, and then Hammurabi claimed that his own lands had been raided, not by Elamites but by soldiers from his supposed ally Larsa. A big shuffle in alliances took place, messengers stopped traveling between the courts of Babylon and Larsa, and, in 1763 BCE, Hammurabi, with assistance from Zimri-Lim of Mari, launched an attack on Larsa.

Babylon’s Conquest of Larsa

Hammurabi’s victory, in his thirtieth year on the throne, over Rim-Sin of Larsa marked a dramatic moment. It came at the culmination of a six-month siege of the capital city and was commemorated in his thirty-first year-name, in which he boasted:

Year: Hammurabi the king, trusting [the gods] An and Enlil, who marches in front of his army, and with the supreme power which the great gods have given to him, destroyed the troops of Emutbal, and subjugated its king Rim-Sin, and brought Sumer and Akkad to dwell under his authority.10

Emutbal was another name for Larsa; its now very elderly king, Rim-Sin, had been on the throne for an unprecedented sixty years. He would probably be better known to us today for his own achievements were it not for his bad luck in being a contemporary of Hammurabi, and his even worse luck in having been conquered by him. In all of Hammurabi’s forty-three year-names and among the twenty lands he boasted of conquering,11 Rim-Sin was the only enemy king he referred to by name. Rim-Sin was a legend among kings, and he had been defeated. He and his son were taken prisoner, an ignominious end to an extraordinarily long and mostly successful reign.

Hammurabi seems to have found a new passion for empire building after this. He didn’t rest on his laurels: he was off again on campaign the very next year, defeating the armies of three additional lands and conquering another, and commemorating that fact in the name of his thirty-second year. In the thirteen years from his thirtieth to his forty-third (and last) year on the throne, Hammurabi claimed the remarkable feat of having defeated seventeen lands and regions, returning to several of them over and over again.

This brings us back to the mysterious destruction of Mari that we discussed in the last chapter. In naming his thirty-third year, Hammurabi boasted that he “overthrew in battle the armies of Mari and Malgium,” and two years later, in his thirty-fifth year, he, “by the orders of An and Enlil, destroyed the city walls of Mari and Malgium.” But this just doesn’t make sense. Hammurabi’s own son was in residence in Mari just the year before the first supposed attack, and Hammurabi had given no indications of suddenly turning against Zimri-Lim.

A theory put forward by Jack M. Sasson might solve this question. Sasson has been researching and writing about Mari throughout his career and pondering the city’s strange fate. He proposes that Zimri-Lim died suddenly, and probably naturally, leaving no obvious heir. His surviving sons were both children and neither was old enough to take the throne.12 Hammurabi initially may have been invited to Mari to help, either to assist the officials and queens of Mari in finding a new king, or simply to provide troops to protect Mari during the difficult time when there was no obvious heir to the throne. Hammurabi was, after all, an old ally of Zimri-Lim’s. This helps to explain the last part of his thirty-third year-name in which he wrote that he caused “Mari and its territory . . . to dwell under his authority in friendship.”13 “Friendship” doesn’t sound like forced submission. That said, Hammurabi was in an empire-building mood, and Sasson suggests that the attraction of bringing Mari into his realm might have been too great to resist.

Hammurabi and his scribes scoured through the Mari palace archives, reading each letter, and choosing the most important ones to be taken back to Babylon. The tablets haven’t been found there, but inscribed clay tags survive in the ruins of the Mari palace providing evidence that this process took place. The Babylonians also chose some fine statues to remove (these statues from Mari were found in Babylon), along with other treasures from the palace that were made of metals or fabric that would not have survived to be found today.

Hammurabi claimed that the gods Anu and Enlil told him to destroy the city walls of Mari, and Sasson takes him at his word.14 If, through signs or omens, Hammurabi really believed that the gods had told him to carry out this destruction, who was he to argue? He seems to have made sure, at least, that no one would get hurt when the palace was burned down.

Mari now marked the northern boundary of Hammurabi’s empire. The city of Terqa, just a few miles upstream, continued to be occupied and soon had its own dynasty of local kings. Mari had been known as “the kingdom of Mari and the land of Hana.” The new kings, no longer in control of Mari, probably called their realm simply “the land of Hana.”15

Administration of Hammurabi’s Empire

While Hammurabi’s troops (and perhaps the king himself) were off on these almost annual campaigns all over the Euphrates and Tigris river valleys and up into the mountains, something had to be done about administering the newly conquered lands. Hammurabi seems to have decided not to try to enforce a brand-new system of government on his new subjects, but he certainly wanted to benefit economically from them.16 His subjects in the region of Larsa (now called the province of Yamutbalum) would still, of course, pay taxes, but they would continue to pay them to their local cities (the capitals of their former kingdoms), and the administrators there would send them on to Babylon. In governing, Hammurabi employed many of the existing officials and civil servants and made good use of institutions that were already in place. Some public officials who had previously worked for the palace of Larsa, or Mari, or Eshnunna, or anywhere else, now worked for the palace of Babylon, but Hammurabi also introduced high officials from Babylon to oversee everything. On the other hand, he left the local structures of towns almost completely alone; the mayors, assemblies, and councils of elders continued to function just as before. Local matters didn’t concern Hammurabi’s officials; these were dealt with entirely by the officials in that particular town or district.17 But the taxes from the new regions would be useful to him. In order to ascertain more about this potentially rich source of funds, Hammurabi imposed a census on Larsa. He probably did the same in other parts of the empire as well.

Sin-idinnam and Shamash-hazir: Governor General of Larsa and Land Overseer

That’s the big picture, but what did this mean on a day-to-day basis for people living in Larsa and adjusting to life under Babylonian rule? Fortunately, we have a view from the ground showing just how this worked (and sometimes didn’t work), in the careers of two men who worked directly for Hammurabi in Larsa: Sin-idinnam and Shamash-hazir. Both were Babylonians who were appointed by Hammurabi, and both wrote to the king and received replies from him on a regular basis. Luckily, many of these letters survive.18

Sin-idinnam was the more powerful of the two men, administering the province of Larsa, overseeing its governors, and reporting directly to Hammurabi.19 His title isn’t known, but it’s likely that he was the governor general for the province.20 Hammurabi wrote to him frequently, apparently micromanaging Sin-idinnam’s work, which may have meant that he didn’t have a lot of autonomy. On the other hand, he did have authority over the governors in his region and Hammurabi tended to write to Sin-idinnam, rather than directly to the governors, when he needed something from them.

Sin-idinnam was responsible, among other things, for making sure people paid their taxes and that the taxes subsequently arrived in Babylon. This wasn’t an enviable aspect of his job; people generally weren’t keen to pay taxes, and the king wasn’t patient in waiting for them. The Babylonian king wrote to Sin-idinnam on one occasion, demanding that livestock be sent quickly: “As soon as you have read this letter of mine, issue a written order to all the governors of the lower district who are under your authority, that they should bring up to Babylon oxen and sheep from the stores which are at their disposal (being) the contribution in accordance with the share (that is due).”21

It’s interesting to see from this that Sin-idinnam was clearly literate. Hammurabi said that Sin-idinnam would have “read” rather than “heard” the letter. And he was instructed to do some writing of his own—to “issue a written order” to the governors over whom he had jurisdiction, telling them that they were to bring their contributions of oxen and sheep directly to Babylon. Bringing the animals directly to Babylon was actually rather unusual, and must have been quite a challenge. The only way to get the oxen and sheep there was alive and on foot. So they must have been herded along the long route from Larsa to Babylon, a distance of 130 kilometers (81 miles).22

The king normally was more practical and wanted taxes to be paid only in barley and silver.23 But many taxpayers didn’t have barley or silver to contribute. They had the products of their gardens and orchards—garlic, onions, dates, and so on—or the products of their herds—wool, or living animals. These were brought in to the warehouses at Larsa and had somehow to be converted into barley and silver. This is where a man named Shep-Sin, the overseer of the merchants of Larsa, came in.24 He was a powerful man whose role intersected the worlds of the palace and the private sector. The taxes were paid to him and he found private distributors of grain and silver who were willing to buy the tax goods from him and to pay for them in the commodities he needed. He then owed a set amount of grain and silver that had been determined by the king and which he sent on to the palace.25 Anything extra that he took in was a bonus that he, and the officials he worked with, could keep.26

By the time of Hammurabi, much of the agricultural land in the expanding kingdom of Babylon was owned by the palace, but a lot (at least in the northern part of the kingdom)27 was now also privately owned and could be bought and sold. This resulted in a distinctive feature of this era—many city-dwelling people kept archives in their houses to keep track of their property, and many of those archives have been found. People bought and sold houses, fields, and orchards, or leased them out. They borrowed silver and negotiated terms to pay it back. They hired laborers to work their land and laid out the terms of their employment, even including holidays and bonuses after the harvest. Wisely, they kept records of all these transactions for future reference. Although scribes wrote the documents, many land-owning people were probably literate, at least in being able to read the contracts that pertained to them.

In the newly acquired southern part of Hammurabi’s empire, fields were not often bought and sold, though people did regularly sell houses and orchards.28 But the land that had previously belonged to the state of Larsa now was the responsibility of Hammurabi and it was his to allocate and manage.

Keeping track of land in the region of Larsa was the responsibility of our second official, Shamash-hazir, who had the title “shassukkum.”29 He had a complicated job. Around Larsa lay hundreds of square miles of land, broken up into fields and orchards, some of it in private hands, some of it belonging to the state, some belonging to temples. Once Hammurabi had defeated Rim-Sin and taken control of Larsa, he didn’t claim to own all the land in the kingdom; he recognized and respected the rights of landowners.30 But he was very keen to find out which properties were now his (that is, which lands had previously belonged to the palace of Rim-Sin), because he had a use for them. Rather than paying state employees in barley, Hammurabi granted the use of land to some of his soldiers, workers, and other servants for them to cultivate in order to support their families. When soldiers were paid this way it was called the “ilkum” system—the land allotted to a soldier or other worker was his ilkum, and the work associated with farming it, along with his military service, corvée labor, and the taxes he paid, were also considered to be his ilkum.31

This was, in many ways, an easier system than monthly salaries paid in barley and other staples. It did not require the redistribution of vast amounts of grain, wool, and oil, or the conversion of goods into silver. It did not require multiple documents to be written and preserved in order to record the goods a man had received and when he had received them. A man simply was allocated a plot of land, he took control of it, . . . and that was it. The food he produced from it constituted his salary, though he also had to pay a proportion to the government. It was palace land, after all. There were restrictions, of course: he couldn’t sell the land, and he may have lived in fear of its being taken away from him by the king, but it provided stability for his family.

Other palace land was awarded to high officials in much the same way, though in larger amounts, and this was not called an ilkum.32 The work on the land of high officials seems to have been allocated to entrepreneurs who paid a set rent in produce and silver. The state provided them with the necessities for farming, such as plows, draft oxen, and irrigation water.33 These men could potentially make a profit if they were able to produce more from the fields and orchards than the king anticipated, and in turn the king didn’t have to worry about finding a seasonal workforce for his fields; the entrepreneurs did that themselves. Entrepreneurs like this didn’t just work for the palace—they also farmed land for temples and wealthy landowners as well.34

The landscape around Larsa might have looked bucolic and uncomplicated—field beyond rectangular field stretching along the river to the horizon, interwoven with gently trickling irrigation canals—but each field had an individual story. It could be privately owned and farmed by its owner and his or her family, or owned by a private individual but farmed by a tenant or by hired laborers. It could be owned by the state and farmed by an entrepreneur, or owned by the state and awarded to a worker as an ilkum. It could be owned by a temple and farmed by temple employees, tenants, or hired laborers, or it could be owned by a temple and in the hands of an entrepreneur. Rich families who owned vast private land holdings could also function much like temples in the ways in which they managed their land.

Into this byzantine situation came Shamash-hazir, valiantly trying to track down information about who farmed, and who owned, every field in his region and sending regular reports to the king. He must have gone out regularly into the countryside, to talk to people as they plowed or weeded their fields and maintained their irrigation ditches. His first goal was to identify who was a tenant and who was an owner, and to find out which tenants worked for private owners and which worked for the state of Larsa. Owners would need to prove their right to the land by showing him contracts or providing witnesses. Shamash-hazir’s ultimate goal was to identify lands that Hammurabi could use for land grants and ilkum allocations. Lands that had belonged to the state of Larsa were sometimes seized from the person who had been farming them and reassigned to one of Hammurabi’s workers or members of the military.

When a soldier or worker was awarded an ilkum, giving him the right to cultivate some public land, he received a tablet from his supervisor, which he took to Shamash-hazir. The harried official then had to figure out which field to allocate to him. He headed out for the relevant plot of land, taking a surveyor with him, along with the man who would farm the land. Presumably this journey could take hours or even days. Larsa was a large province and Shamash-hazir seems to have overseen most of the state’s agricultural land. When they reached the place, the surveyor measured the sides of the field and Shamash-hazir then symbolically hammered a stake into the center, an action that was witnessed by its new recipient.35 What a relief it must have been for this man—he now had a means to support himself and his family. If he lived near the field (which was presumably the ideal situation) he could farm it himself, unless his work for the palace took him away from home. In that case, he could set his sons to work (if they were old enough), or hire a local workman. Sometimes, though, the field was simply too far from where the man lived for anyone in his family to farm it. He then had no choice but to hire a tenant from the region, to charge him rent, and to hope that the rent was paid.

This might seem to be the end of Shamash-hazir’s involvement in that particular field, but sometimes, regrettably, he made mistakes. Sometimes someone else showed up on that precious plot of public land and claimed that it was his property and that the new man had no right to it. As you might imagine, the original owner in such a situation was outraged and lost no time in hiring a scribe to write to complain—often directly to the king himself. One letter written by Hammurabi to Shamash-hazir noted that the king had received a complaint: “Sin-ishmeani, the . . . date gardener . . . brought this to my attention,” he wrote, and he quoted the date gardener: “Shamash-hazir has appropriated land of my family’s estate and has given it to a soldier.” Hammurabi was unhappy about this and reprimanded Shamash-hazir (see Fig. 11.2). The king wrote, “Is perpetual land ever to be taken away? . . . Return the field to him.”36


Fig. 11.2 Letter from King Hammurabi of Babylon to his official Shamash-hazir concerning a field, mid-eighteenth century bce. (Yale University, Peabody Museum)

In this case, it turned out that the land wasn’t actually the king’s to have awarded in the first place. But even public land that had been given out in the form of subsistence fields was seen as being “owned,” in a manner of speaking, by the person who had farmed it for a long time. The king couldn’t just take it away arbitrarily, unless the man no longer worked for the palace. Again Shamash-hazir would find himself in the middle of a dispute. One official wrote to him complaining that a particular man had enjoyed control of a field for forty years. Shamash-hazir had proposed that it be given to someone else. But, as the letter writer noted, this new man had “showed up for service (only) this year.”37 This wasn’t appropriate. The land should have stayed in the control of its longtime cultivator. Shamash-hazir would have to find a different field for the man who was new to the king’s service.38 By helping his subjects in this way, Hammurabi was able to be more than a distant overlord; he created a bond with them and seemed to be on their side.39 They, in turn, seem to have viewed the king favorably; the region didn’t rebel against Babylonian rule during his reign.

It was not just existing agricultural land that Shamash-hazir was responsible for allocating. Hammurabi also commanded the labor-intensive work of opening up new canals (some of them initially planned by Rim-Sin), creating new agricultural land that could be awarded to soldiers and civil servants for farming. A generation later, such new land was often given to soldiers from other lands, such as Elamites and Kassites, who were, by then, fighting in Babylon’s armies.40

The irrigation system that watered all these fields also had to be maintained. This involved periodic dredging of the canals, maintenance of water control mechanisms such as flow dividers and gates,41 and regulation of the users of the water to ensure that no one took more than their fair share. On one occasion Sin-idinnam was responsible for making sure that a main canal in the Larsa region was cleared so that neighboring Uruk got enough water—Hammurabi told him that he had just three days to get the work done; Uruk was suffering.42 Likewise, Shamash-hazir was responsible for organizing the local irrigation work and the laborers who could execute it. Among other things, he had to calculate the number of men and the number of days that would be needed. Hammurabi wrote once to instruct him to “determine the (amount of) earth that it is right to remove from the canal” and to send reports.43

Sometimes the water in the rivers and canals was too low, as in the case of the blocked canal that was causing the people of Uruk to suffer. At other times it could rise dangerously high, especially during flood season (which was also, diabolically, the harvest season). In this case more laborers were needed to dig diversion canals to deflect floodwaters to areas where they would do less damage. Again Shamash-hazir was called on to take care of all the details and to find enough local workmen.44

In one letter, Shamash-hazir wrote to tell Hammurabi that an opening on a river had been dammed and “all the water has been poured into the canal of Edinna.”45 He asked the king to have two other officials take over responsibility for this. The king wrote back, noting that he had done just as Shamash-hazir requested; he had commanded these offices to “assign the proportion to their troops, strengthen the (dammed) opening . . . , and make them cultivate the land of the state that they are managing.”46

In these letters to and from Shamash-hazir and Sin-idinnam we can observe the mechanisms they used for keeping the rivers and canals under control and in good order, but this was not just a phenomenon of their era. Systems like this existed throughout Mesopotamian history. Irrigation and flood control could never be neglected; the entire population of the region depended on them. Every person subject to the corvée labor draft (that is, most of the male population) must have spent some of his adult life in the backbreaking work of dredging canals, digging new channels, rebuilding flow dividers, and building up levees. The organization of this work fell to local administrators like Shamash-hazir.

In many of the letters to Shamash-hazir, Hammurabi reminded him to hold on to, or to consult, existing records—there is a lot of mention of “tablets” and “reports.” Shamash-hazir’s physical office hasn’t been excavated, but it must have included rooms full of documents that he could consult if disputes arose. The tablets may have been organized by date, with inscribed clay labels identifying the contents of shelves or boxes to help the administrator find the documents he needed. Such labels have been found at a number of sites.

For many people complaining about field allocations, Shamash-hazir also had the job of deciding who was in the right. He had to “investigate their cases and render them a final verdict.”47 This involved consulting records and talking with witnesses and landowners. At least once, Hammurabi summoned Shamash-hazir to come to see him and told him to bring tablets with him so as to account for his activities.48 One wonders how the tablets were transported safely so that they were easily accessed and didn’t break. Perhaps they were placed in boxes or baskets, each devoted to a particular case or period of time, and probably they were wrapped so that they didn’t bump up against one another. Land allocations and disputes were probably managed in a similar way in other Old Babylonian kingdoms, by men with similar positions to that of Shamash-hazir, but his is the most extensive archive that survives.49

As though Shamash-hazir didn’t have enough to do, he was also responsible for overseeing the shearing of sheep owned by the palace in Larsa. This was no small affair. It took place in the month that corresponds to our late December and early January, and must have involved tens of thousands of sheep. Shamash-hazir’s superior, Sin-idinnam, hired 1,000 workers for the job on one occasion. “Shearing” is actually a misnomer. The Akkadian term was “plucking.” Before the end of the Bronze Age, domestic sheep did not continuously grow wool, and the wool could be combed or plucked when their coats shed in the spring.50 The vast piles of plucked wool were stored in a dedicated building, known as the “plucking house,” ready to be transformed into thread and then cloth.

Even though we’ve repeatedly come back to the importance of textiles to the Mesopotamian economy, it’s a little hard to imagine the actual logistics of managing the herds of sheep and goats. Maintaining the health of the animals was just as important, to Mesopotamians, as farming their fields. The growing of wheat, barley, and dates is easier to follow in the records, with all its attendant worries about the seasonal agricultural cycle, irrigation canals, crop yields, orchard management, and so on, but the enormous numbers of sheep and goats would have been a very visible feature of the ancient landscape, as they grazed in the steppe lands just beyond the fields and regularly were herded together for plucking. Those textiles that the Assyrian merchants profited from in Anatolia remained central to the Mesopotamian economy throughout ancient times. In a way, sheep and goats were the ideal commodity. They ate grasses in areas that were too dry for cultivation, sheep provided vast amounts of wool and goats provided milk, and they reproduced themselves with minimal intervention.

Herds of goats and sheep made up a significant amount of the wealth of just about every temple and palace, and a “shepherd” of the royal herd was not the rustic, simple figure that might come to mind. Chief shepherds were required to keep accounts of their own activities and of the animals, to keep track of all the products that derived from the herds (such as milk, wool, skins, and lambs), and even to compensate the king if the expected quantities of goods were not forthcoming.51 When an animal died, a knacker was brought in to make sure that the carcass didn’t go to waste—the skin, wool, and even the tendons were removed and sold.52 The shepherd had to account for this to the king as well.

In return, the king was attentive to the needs of the shepherds. In one letter to Shamash-hazir and some others, Hammurabi wrote, “(As for) the herdsmen of the cattle and the sheep and goats . . . two-thirds of those herdsmen have been holding a field for a long time; one third of them do not hold a field.” The herdsmen who “held a field” had already been given land with which to support their families, by the palace. The others had not. Given that herdsmen needed to be with their flocks, they presumably hired tenant farmers to cultivate the land for them. This was common. Hammurabi continued his letter, reminding Shamash-hazir that he had written to him about this before and giving him additional guidelines:

When I instructed you, I told you to give fields to the herdsmen who do not hold fields. As I have instructed you, you shall not oust the herdsmen who have held fields for a long time from their fields; give fields to the herdsmen who do not hold fields, according to the proportion that has been told you. There shall be no one among the herdsmen of the cattle and the sheep and goats to inform me that no field has been given to him.53

Hammurabi didn’t want to hear any complaints about this; Shamash-hazir had to find land to support all the herdsmen.

Curiously, after the plucking of the king’s sheep had taken place, Hammurabi wasn’t interested in using all the wool that the sheep produced. Some of it was certainly transferred to palace textile workshops, perhaps in Babylon, but also perhaps in Larsa, to be transformed by palace spinners, dyers, and weavers into textiles for the king and his court. But the sheep produced much more wool than the palace needed. Now that many state employees were paid in land, rather than in food and wool, the rest of the wool from the palace herds could be sold, with the proceeds sent on to Babylon. Shep-Sin, the overseer of the merchants, got involved here as well, just as he did in the conversion of taxes from commodities to barley and silver. He sold much of the wool from the palace sheep to private individuals who processed it themselves, and some of whom were no doubt involved in the kind of long-distance trade that took the Assyrian merchants to Anatolia. Shep-Sin had to send a fixed amount of silver to the palace from the sale of the wool, but again he could profit nicely from this, keeping the amount that he received that was above what was due to the palace.54

Hammurabi seems to have been involved in every detail of the work of Sin-idinnam and Shamash-hazir. His letters to his officials in Larsa were well-informed and thoughtful. He seems to have cared a great deal about the welfare of his subjects and, in many instances, he protected them against the loss of their land or livelihood. He constantly asked for reports and had his officials send people to him in Babylon if his direct intervention was needed. Only a tiny fraction of his correspondence survives. Presumably he also wrote to officials in other provinces right across the empire, and one suspects that he cared about what happened in all of them. He seems to have been deeply involved in matters throughout his empire, not just with regard to year-name-worthy achievements like building city walls and defeating enemies, but even with regard to intricate details of the allocation of individual fields and the care of the palace herds. In return, he received vast amounts of wealth in taxes and rents on palace-owned land and his empire thrived.

Hammurabi’s Laws

Toward the end of his long life, Hammurabi decided to put out a proclamation that would be posted in public, on big stone stelas. One of them has survived intact and is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris. It’s the one I described at the start of this chapter: seven feet tall, a polished block of basalt, with a relief sculpture of Hammurabi at the top, receiving his right to rule from the sun god Shamash (Fig. 11.1).55 We know this stela best for the hundreds of laws that are preserved on it—this is the so-called “Code of Hammurabi”—though the laws do not make up the whole text.56

The inscription was written in a very archaic script, as though someone today were to use the font from the Guttenberg Bible, and the text runs in columns that were read from top to bottom, not in lines read from left to right as was normal in his time. Perhaps this lent a certain gravitas to the monument. The first five of the fifty-one columns of text laid out Hammurabi’s right to rule and his achievements. This section is known to us as the Prologue (comparable to the prologue to Ur-Namma’s earlier laws) and it translates into English as three very long sentences. In the longest, exhausting, middle sentence, Hammurabi emphasized his generosity and piety, and he did so over and over again. He named many of the cities he now ruled and noted how he had helped each one. He was one who “heaps abundance and plenty” for Nippur, the “enricher of the city of Ur,” who “shows mercy to the city of Larsa,”57 and so on. He reminded readers of his military victories, proclaiming himself to be a “peerless warrior,” and, more floridly, “the enemy-ensnaring throw-net” and “the fierce wild bull who gores the enemy.” But mostly Hammurabi presented himself as an all-around good guy, a “shepherd of the people,” “the protecting canopy of the land,” “the judicious one,” and “the pious one.”58 He ended the Prologue with the raison d’être for the laws (which comprises by far the shortest of the three sentences): “When the god Marduk commanded me to provide just ways for the people of the land (in order to attain) appropriate behavior, I established truth and justice as the declaration of the land, I enhanced the well-being of the people.”59 It was all, he said, for the people, it was all about being appropriate and truthful, and it was all done at the command of Marduk, the great god of Babylon. And then Hammurabi launched into almost 300 laws that covered many obscure circumstances of everyday life but, it must be said, failed to address some huge issues, such as what the penalty should be for murder.

The laws paint little pictures—you can imagine the court cases that generated them, hiding behind the words. Look at law 266, for example: “If, in the enclosure, an epidemic should break out or a lion make a kill, the shepherd shall clear himself before the god, and the owner of the enclosure shall accept responsibility for him for the loss sustained in the enclosure.”60 This must have happened, perhaps not often, but enough to warrant the law’s inclusion in the list. A shepherd woke up and found a sheep or goat dead in the enclosure where the herd was being kept, killed by a disease. Or perhaps several animals were dead. Or perhaps it was not a disease, and the shepherd was awake when the animal died but powerless in the face of a lion who might just as easily kill the shepherd himself. He was alone, without witnesses. You remember how the shepherds who answered to Shamash-hazir had to keep track of every animal in their care and even to detail the use of every part of an animal carcass. Was this shepherd responsible for the loss? These were not his own animals and he had not been negligent. It would have been a scary moment. How could he prove his innocence? Would he have to pay for the loss? That could have been financially devastating. But the gods knew the truth. So the shepherd went to the temple and swore an oath before a god’s symbol about what had happened, and that was enough. He, like everyone else, would never have sworn a false oath. The owner of the enclosure had to absorb the loss.

You can read almost any of the laws this way, envisioning, with little effort, the scenario behind it. As in the time of Ur-Namma, there is little evidence, in records of court cases, for the laws actually being consulted by judges or of the harsher punishments ever being imposed. We don’t even know how the basic death penalty was carried out in Mesopotamia at this time. When a law pronounced the verdict that “he shall be killed,” what did that mean? Was the guilty person hanged? Bashed in the head with a mace? The laws only elaborate if the death penalty was specifically designed to match the crime, but the normal death penalty was never specified. The laws were still probably drawn up from legal precedents; judges were under no obligation to follow them, and they seem to have avoided imposing the death penalty except in the case of truly egregious crimes. The judicial system worked in the same way that it had during the Ur III period, largely independent of the written law. But the laws do reveal wonderful details about daily life because they reflect the concerns that led people to go to court.

A whole group of the laws concerns the type of men for whom Shamash-hazir found land—soldiers called up for military service and rewarded with ilkum property. Since just about every able-bodied man in the land was subject to military service or corvée labor service, or both, the rules about the ilkum were important to a great many families.61

Mashum: Soldier

In order to look at how the laws reflected real dilemmas, let’s take as an example a soldier who was mentioned in two of Hammurabi’s letters to Shamash-hazir: Mashum. He was one of three soldiers who received an allocation of a field of 2 bur from the king, a field that had been part of a much larger estate belonging to another man.62 His allocation was equivalent to about 32 acres.63 A sergeant named in the same letter received twice as much, and a captain four times as much. Frankly, we know nothing else that was specific to Mashum; his name only appears in the two letters to Shamash-hazir, both discussing the same land provision.64

Like all soldiers, Mashum had an obligation to fight for the king in exchange for the land that he and his family were allowed to work. Hammurabi’s laws were strict about this ilkum obligation: Mashum couldn’t back out of it, nor could he hire someone to go in his place. The law was categorical; it proclaimed that if he hired a replacement, he “shall be killed; the one who informs against him shall take full legal possession of his estate.”65 Mashum also couldn’t sell the field; after all, it wasn’t his to sell.66

He was, though, protected from being abused by his superiors, or at least that was the ideal (if the laws were followed). One law specified that captains and sergeants were not allowed, on pain of death, no less, to “take a soldier’s household furnishings, oppress a soldier, hire out a soldier, deliver a soldier into the power of an influential person in a law case, or take a gift that the king gave to a soldier.”67 Hammurabi might have been tough in his demands of his troops, but he was on their side when it came to possible abuses by their commanding officers (though, admittedly, I know of no actual court cases in which a penalty like this was imposed).

For most of the year Mashum would have been at the farm that Shamash-hazir had allotted to him, working the land with his family, maintaining the small canals that provided water, feeding themselves from the barley grown in the fields, the dates from the orchard, and the vegetables from the garden, and paying taxes on what they produced. But for some specified number of months of the year, Mashum had to go off on campaign for the king. This was, of course, a dangerous undertaking and he was at risk; he could die, or he could be taken prisoner. Oddly, Hammurabi doesn’t specify in the laws who would take over the use of the land if a soldier like Mashum died on campaign. Would his wife and children be evicted? Where would they go? We don’t know. It’s one of the countless situations about which the king had nothing to say in the laws. But Hammurabi did make an allowance for a soldier being caught and imprisoned by the enemy: in this case, the soldier’s son could take over his ilkum land, but only if the son were old enough. (If so, Mashum’s son would have to fulfill his father’s military obligation as well.)68

Suppose, though, that Mashum was a relatively young man when he was captured and that his son was still a child. Mashum’s wife would have been in a terrible situation. She was living on a farm that was only hers to work because of her husband’s ilkum, but her husband was now a prisoner in some distant place, and she had young children to support. Hammurabi had thought of this: “If his son is too young and is unable to perform his father’s ilkum, one third of the field and orchard shall be given to his mother, and his mother shall raise him.”69 One third of the original field wasn’t much, but it was enough to keep the family fed. The woman would have worked the land and tended the orchard herself, perhaps with help from relatives and hired laborers, as she waited anxiously for word of her husband, their young son anticipating having to take over his father’s responsibilities as soon as he was old enough.

And what of Mashum, imprisoned, as we have imagined him, in a land that was an enemy of Babylon? Surprisingly, this was a common enough occurrence that a mechanism existed for his return. He would be ransomed. This seems to have been a given, to such an extent that it might have been more lucrative to the enemy to capture soldiers on the battlefield than to kill them. Hammurabi describes the process: “a merchant redeems him and helps him to get back to his city.”70 That was the first step. Merchants, in this era, were pretty much everywhere. They had the money to pay a ransom, spoke the local languages, and knew the local customs. But, of course, they wouldn’t have paid the ransom as a charitable gesture. Someone had to pay them back. According to the laws, a wealthy soldier had to pay the merchant back for the ransom with his own funds. But there was a kind of insurance for the poorer soldiers. “If there are not sufficient means in his estate to redeem him, he shall be redeemed by his city’s temple.”71

Temples were rich institutions, and most could afford this expense on behalf of their local soldiers. But apparently this was not true of all. “If there are not sufficient means in his city’s temple to redeem him, the palace shall redeem him.”72 One wonders if there were times when the priests or priestesses thought that the king should pay the ransoms, even if their temple had enough money on hand; it wasn’t the temple that had led the troops off on campaign, after all. But one way or another, a captured soldier like Mashum would get home and his ransom would be paid. There was just one proviso at the end of this law about ransoms: “his field, orchard, or house will not be given for his redemption.”73 Those still belonged to the king and they couldn’t be sold or traded or given away by the ilkum holder to anyone else, ever.

These insights into the lives of Mashum and soldiers like him come from just a handful of laws. It doesn’t really matter whether or not the laws were actually enforced to the letter. For example, it appears that the death penalty for hiring a substitute was a fiction, entirely an attempt at a deterrent; soldiers recruited substitutes to serve in their place all the time and could get permission to do so.74 Instead, the laws show us some of the basic features of their lives and the ways in which Hammurabi wished to make the system run smoothly. The laws do the same for innumerable other aspects of ancient life, providing us with a vivid sense of what people cared about, what regularly went wrong, and how the judicial system was designed to help.

They even show that poor people were treated differently from rich people, but generally not in the cruel way that many people assume.75 The poor were not necessarily treated more harshly than the rich. For example, the actual lex talionis laws are as follows:

If an awilum should blind the eye of another awilum, they shall blind his eye.

If he should break the bone of another awilum, they shall break his bone.

If he should blind the eye of a commoner or break the bone of a commoner, he shall weigh and deliver 60 shekels of silver.76

The term “awilum” meant a “gentleman” in the sense of a person of some means (though not necessarily a rich man). The only laws about these particular types of injury concern situations where the perpetrator was an awilum. So, clearly, the upper classes were not above the law. And the “eye-for-an-eye” rule here, had it been applied equally, would hardly be kind to a poor person. In that case, a poor man who had been blinded in one eye by a richer man would get nothing from the courts but the satisfaction that his attacker had suffered the same fate. The laws, instead, fined his attacker 60 shekels of silver. This was equivalent to 10,800 barleycorns of silver. According to the law 274, a textile worker earned 5 barleycorns of silver a day.77 Sixty shekels of silver therefore represented 2,160 days’ pay for a textile worker—almost six years. So no doubt the poor man would much prefer to receive six years’ salary than to know that the man who attacked him was now blind in one eye.

In a similar spirit, Hammurabi ruled that physicians should charge their patients for treatment on a sliding scale depending on wealth. An awilum was charged 5 shekels to have a broken bone fixed, whereas a commoner had to pay only 3 shekels for exactly the same procedure.78 This is hardly a system that was baldly weighted in favor of the wealthy. It was, however, weighted against enslaved men and women, who were valued less than commoners and awilums. But even they had some protections, including in situations in which a slave man married an awilum-class woman.79 Classes were not set in stone; people could marry outside their social class. They could even slip from awilum to commoner or from awilum to slave if life was tough—especially if they got into serious debt.

These kinds of details are what really make Hammurabi’s laws so valuable to us. It’s not that they were written particularly early, or that they were particularly brutal (for the time, they weren’t at all), or that they reflect some sort of rigid class structure, or that they were an important part of the legal system. They don’t even constitute a code of law, strictly speaking. There are way too many holes, way too many crimes and legal dilemmas that are simply not addressed. Like Ur-Namma before him, Hammurabi did not aim for the list to be comprehensive.

Hammurabi’s laws are just really well preserved, there are a lot of them, and they tell us a great deal about how society and the legal system worked. Like us, later Mesopotamian scribes thought the laws were useful to study. Sections of Hammurabi’s laws have been found among school texts from subsequent centuries, though, for once, we can also see the original stela—we are not dependent on those later copies made by scribal students. More than a thousand years after they were first written, a copy of the laws was kept by an Assyrian king named Ashurbanipal in his palace library. We will return to him later.

After forty-two columns of laws about marriage and divorce, inheritance, adoption, trade, land usage, irrigation, professional responsibilities, the hire of men and animals, and an attempt at price and wage controls, along with a relatively small number of laws about premeditated crimes such as theft, rape, and perjury, Hammurabi added an epilogue. In it, he claimed that “I enhanced the well-being of the land. I made the people of all settlements lie in safe pastures. I did not tolerate anyone intimidating them. . . . I held the people of the lands of Sumer and Akkad safely on my lap. They prospered under my protective spirit.” He wrote also that he promulgated his laws “in order that the mighty not wrong the weak, to provide just ways for the waif and the widow.”80 The letters he wrote to men like Shamash-hazir show that this wasn’t just propaganda. Hammurabi lived up to his promise, watching out for people who might otherwise have fallen victim to the system because they were not important or powerful.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!