Hammurabi ruled Babylon by the sword

Posted in Ancient History, Royalty, War on Thursday, 25 August 2011

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This edited article about the Orangutan originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1040 published on 13 February 1982.

Hammurabi, picture, image, illustration

King Hammurabi goes to war, his chariot drawn by a specially toughened breed of ass. Picture by Roger Payne

For nearly 30 years King Hammurabi of Babylon had diligently worked to establish his kingdom. The firm hand of his government had been felt both in his capital city and in other towns of northern Akkad which acknowledged his suzerainty. But at this stage in his reign there was an abrupt change in his policy.

Till now he had in general relied on diplomacy to keep at bay the possible threats to Babylon’s security – for example, from the powerful Rim-Sin, an Elamite by descent, who ruled in the southern city of Larsa and dominated Sumer; from the Elamites themselves beyond the eastern borders; and the Assyrians to the north.

As far as the Elamites were concerned, Hammurabi had reason to be anxious about their ability to cut his eastern trade-routes. He relied on these for supplies of metals, none of which were mined in Akkad or Sumer.

In 1764 BC we find Hammurabi leading the Babylonians to war against the Elamites. The campaign was a triumph for Babylonian arms, and secured the kingdom’s eastern flank.

Next year he marched south to challenge the power of Rim-Sin. Attacking from the north, Hammurabi had one trump card in his hand – he could control the flow of the Euphrates above Larsa. By damming the river, he could deprive the enemy of water, or divert the waters to cause disastrous floods.

We do not know which of these methods was employed on this occasion, but no doubt the damming operation contributed to the decisive defeat inflicted on Rim-Sin. The siege of Larsa itself lasted several months before it at last fell.

Master now of Akkad and Sumer, Hammurabi had still to deal with the Assyrians to the north. In about a year these formidable neighbours, with their famous cities of Assur and Nineveh, were under Babylonian sway, as also was the Akkadian city of Eshnunna, east of the Tigris.

As a ruler, Hammurabi posed as a champion of justice. There was little that was just about his next operation. Some 400 kilometres upstream on the Euphrates stood Mari, capital of a thriving kingdom. Correspondence between Kimri-Lin, king of Mari, and Hammurabi, shows that the former was a friend and ally.

Yet in 1761 BC Hammurabi, flushed with his recent triumphs, turned on Mari. Possibly a quarrel had arisen over water rights, always a delicate matter in the region.

Zimri-Lin could not withstand the growing might of Babylon. The city fell, and Zim-Lin’s vast palace reduced to rubble. But it seems that the defeated people of Mari continued to give trouble; it is recorded that a year or two later it became necessary to destroy the city’s walls.

Hammurabi, as king, was also commander of his army, and would have personally led his warriors into battle. He himself would have ridden in a chariot. It would not have been the light, swift, horse-drawn vehicle that later dominated warfare for so long. It would have been drawn by asses of a sturdy breed specially kept for this purpose.

Though the horse was already in wide use among some Asian peoples, among the Babylonians it was still regarded as an outlandish creature. The ass was employed for riding and draught purposes, and as a pack animal.

Without horses there could be no cavalry. The main force of the armies of those days consisted of spearmen, fighting in a massed formation similar to the phalanx later used to such effect by the Greeks. Other weapons in use included bows and small axes.

Before the end of his reign, Hammurabi had won control not only of Babylonia, as we may now call Akkad and Sumer, but of the whole of Mesopotamia, to give the present day land of Iraq its ancient Greek name.

His method of rule was strictly personal. Though many officials were appointed to carry out his commands, surviving letters show that the king frequently intervened in quite minor matters. Babylon and other cities had citizen assemblies, probably a relic from earlier times; and we hear of sittings of the Elders in some cities. But what really counted was the royal will, in almost every branch of life.

Each city had a royal governor, but the king would issue directions on such every-day matters as the dredging of a canal, some petty dispute about taxes or the conduct of the keepers of the royal herds.

As supreme judge, the king decided many cases himself – or gave instructions as to how the courts should handle them. These courts were of two kinds, civil and religious. In the latter priests sat as judges at the temple gates.

The temple courts were of great importance, as religion played a big part in the life of the people. Every city had its patron gods and goddesses, and the people paid taxes, often in the form of agricultural produce, both to the king and to the priests. The rise of Babylon had enhanced the prestige of its own local god Marduk, whose worship later became widespread.

The people of Babylon probably led a reasonably prosperous and contented life, whether working in the fields or as members of the growing class of craftsmen or merchants. Even the slaves were fairly well treated; and women enjoyed more freedom than they have in some countries today.

The homes of the city-dwellers would usually have been two-floored houses, with foundations of tough baked brick and upper structures of sun-dried brick. The flat roofs, of poles and brushwood plastered with mud, provided sleeping or living quarters during the hot season.

Hammurabi had built up a seemingly powerful empire. But he had not established a durable government service, capable of running the empire without constant royal guidance. After his death in 1750 BC, with his strong hand removed from the helm, Babylon’s power suffered a decline. As we shall see, it needed the setting up of a new foreign dynasty to restore Babylonian power.

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