Thursday, December 09, 2004

Guest Blogger: Mesopotamia Redeemed, Part 5 

In today's fifth part of guest blogger Daniel Foty's series of the forgotten legacy of ancient Mesopotamia, a look at how Sumeria became Babylonia, and the coming of the reformer Hammurabi. As Daniel writes, Hammurabi's famous legal code, for many years thought to be the world's oldest, of course wasn't - merely the culmination of work started centuries before by the ancient Sumerians.

A lot of food for thought, as efforts continue to re-introduce the rule of law to the land where it first arose more than four thousand years ago.

For earlier parts:
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Mesopotamia Redeemed, Part 5

Throughout its existence, Sumerian civilization was well acquainted with the various Semitic peoples whose origins were in the deserts to the west of Mesopotamia. Occasionally, various Semitic tribes would invade Sumer as either raiders or conquerors. But during the same period, many Semitic tribes established permanent settlements and cities to the northwest of Sumer, further up the Tigris-Euphrates valley. Many of these cities became quite powerful, and as described earlier, by the beginning of the 23rd century B.C. the Akkadian king Sargon had established a far-flung empire which included Sumer, Akkad, and other lands much further afield.

During the early part of the 2nd millennium B.C., the city-states of Akkad once again began to grow in strength and power; soon, Akkad would once again take political control of Sumer. However, in contrast to Sargon's empire, this time the rise of the Semitic city-states to the north would effectively be permanent; ethnically Semitic kings and kingdoms based in northern Mesopotamia would come to dominate the Fertile Crescent for many centuries.

At the beginning of the 2nd millennium B.C., the political structure in Akkad was much the same as it had usually been in Sumer; the main political entity was the city-state. As had also been the case in Sumer, the various city-states were at times very cooperative and at other times very competitive, and occasionally one ruler and city-state (such as Sargon the Great of Agade) would establish hegemony over Akkad and even further afield - and also like in Sumer, these larger empires rarely long outlived their creators.

However, great and essentially permanent changes were in the offing for Mesopotamia, although undoubtedly this wasn't obvious at the time. In the early part of the 18th century B.C. (about 1792 B.C.), Hammurabi became king of the city-state of Babylon - which, coincidentally, was situated not too far from the long-abandoned site of Sargon the Great's capital of Agade. Hammurabi proved to be an exceptionally able and energetic leader, and his reign as king of Babylon lasted for some 42 years. Apparently, his policy of territorial expansion proceeded slowly, for most of his reign being confined to the immediate vicinity of Babylon. However, by 1764 B.C., Babylon had become a very strong power; stunningly, Hammurabi led Babylon to victory over the nearby city-state of Eshnunna, which had formed a powerful alliance with the perpertually-dangerous (to Mesopotamia) tribes of Elam and Subartu. Hammurabi was able to follow each success with another one, and by 1762 B.C. he is described as having made himself king of all of Sumer and Akkad. When he moved an army well up the Euphrates valley in 1759 B.C. and defeated the city-state of Mari, he became ruler of all of Mesopotamia and a rather far-flung empire.

Following Hammurabi's death in 1750 B.C., the old pattern emerged once again of Mesopotamian empires fragmenting after the passing of their founders. Shortly after Hammurabi's death, several of the more remote provinces were able to successfully break away from Babylon's empire. However, in contrast to its predecessors, the Babylonian state was much better organized; Babylon was able to retain control over the main "heartland" of Sumer and Akkad in Mesopotamia. From this point forward, political control in Mesopotamia passed forever from that of city-states, and was instead to be found in larger empires and kingdoms which were able to maintain control over large swathes of territory for extended periods of time. The "Old Babylonian Empire" which Hammurabi founded lasted well into the 16th century B.C., and its successor the Kassites assumed political and dynastic control in Babylon but otherwise retained the empire and its functionalities.

Hammurabi and the founders of the Old Babylonian Empire were well aware of the earlier successes of their Semitic cousin Sargon the Great; the kings of the Old Babylonian Empire claimed to be Sargon's successors and saw their kingdom as the lineal descendant of Sargon's empire. Of similar significance, the territory of Akkad, which drew its name from Sargon's capital city of Agade, came instead to be referred to as Babylonia, in recognition of the new seat of power in the region.

Of course, Hammurabi is now best known for the introduction of a code of laws in Babylon. Seemingly in direct reflection of the changes in the political landscape of Mesopotamia, the origins of Hammurabi's code are an inversion of its Sumerian predecessors. In the cases of both Urukagina of Lagash and Ur-Nammu of Ur, both men came to the kingship of their cities following a period of harsh and autocratic rule, and were brought to power with the intent of instituting reform. In both cases, the first order of business was to restore the threatened political and territorial integrity of the state; it was only after that was accomplished that both Urukagina and Ur-Nammu were able to turn their attention to formalizing the processes of internal reform in, respectively, Lagash and Ur - most clearly embodied in the law codes which they promulgated and the abuses (detailed in the codes) which they were seeking to abolish.

In contrast, Hammurabi introduced his code very early in his reign, apparently during the very first year. Until rather recently, this seemed to be an astounding achievement - since for many years Hammurabi's code was the oldest known law code and was thought to have been created from scratch. However, it is now known that Hammurabi's code had Sumerian predecessors, that these law codes were well-known in the society of Hammurabi's time, and that Hammurabi made extensive use of these earlier codes in formulating his code. This should not be seen as a denigration of Hammurabi as a "copy-cat" who merely used earlier work without imagination. It is now clear from the archaeological record that Sumerian law codes and the Sumerian legal system had been astonishingly successful in Sumerian society over a number of centuries before Hammurabi; it is likely that Hammurabi sensibly made use of the successful aspects of Sumerian society which were readily available. It is also likely significant that Hammurabi promulgated his own law code so early in his reign; undoubtedly, he had studied the law codes which had been produced in Sumer over many centuries, and came to the throne with the clear intent of establishing a similar style of the "rule of law" in Babylon - essentially, as his first order of business.

Hammurabi's code is interesting in and of itself - for what it tells about the society of 18th century B.C. Babylon and the various intricate legal and social matters which confronted the Babylonians. In addition, Hammurabi's code is a direct descendant of Lipit-Ishtar's code; while little of Lipit-Ishtar's code has been reconstructed, most of Hammurabi's code is now known - so it likely tells us a great deal about its predecessor. These issues will be considered in Part VI.


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