Stele with law code of Hammurabi, Susa, Iran, 1780, Basalt

As we have seen, the Mesopotamian people have been revolutionary in many ways. Another first achieved by these people is the creation of a law code. In the early 18th century BCE, King Hammurabi of Babylon created a comprehensive law code for his people. This event really goes to show just how advanced the people of Mesopotamia were. At the time, parts of Europe were still in the Stone Age and even in Greece, it took more than a thousand years later for Draco to provide Athens with its first written set of laws. Thus, I think that it’s important to discuss the stele containing King Hammurabi’s law code.

King Hammurabi’s law code is engraved on a tall black stele made of basalt. The top of the stele is a high relief carving which depicts the king receiving authority from one of the Mesopotamian gods. King Hammurabi is in the presence of Shamash, the flame-shouldered sun god of the Mesopotamian people. The god is handing King Hammurabi a rod and a ring that symbolize authority. According to Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, the symbols derive from builders’ tools— measuring rods and coiled rope— and connotes the ruler’s capacity to build the social order and to measure people’s lives, that is, to render judgments and enforce laws spelled out on the stele. This depiction was meant to justify King Hammurabi’ s authority as God-given and to justify his right to formulate the comprehensive set of written laws for the Babylonian people.

King Hammurabi’s stele is noteworthy from an artistic standpoint. Shamash, the god, is depicted in the traditional composite view, combining front and side views, but with two important exceptions. The god’s headdress is in complete profile view so that only four horns, not all eight horns, are visible to the viewer admiring the work. The second exception is the use of foreshortening, that is, a way of alluding to depth in a work of art by representing the figure or the subject at an angle instead of in strict frontal or profile view. Its use can be seen in Shamash’s beard, which is a series of diagonal lines, not horizontal lines. Thus, the artist used foreshortening to suggest a recession into space.

The importance of King Hammurabi’s written set of laws in the history of mankind cannot be overstated. It was the first ever written legal document and it provided society with order and structure. Because it governed all aspects of Babylonian life (from commerce to property to marriage to infidelity to theft), it teaches us a lot about Mesopotamian society.

The extensive set of laws that King Harmmurabi formulated are carved under the high relief sculpture. The judicial code was written in Akkadian and carved in 3,500 lines of cuneiform characters.

The following are a few examples of laws inscribed on the stele:

1. If a man puts out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.

2. If he kills a man’s slave, he shall pay one-third of a mina.

3. If someone steals property from a temple, he will be put to death, as will the person who receives the stolen goods.

4. If a man rents a boat and the boat is wrecked, the renter shall replace the boat with another.

5. If a married woman dies before bearing any sons, her dowry shall be repaid to her father, but if she gave birth to sons, the dowry shall belong to them.

6. If a man’s wife is caught in bed with another man, both will be tied up and thrown in the water.

Thus, it is quite evident that this work of art is significant for its artistic and historical impact.

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