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Grant Reynolds

Research Proposal: The Character of King Hammurabi


For better or for worse, it has long been the practice to study history by rulers and leaders
of nations. Individuals who have directed the path of history have been studied, evaluated, and
judged for as long as there have be rulers. All the way back to the birth of civilization in ancient
Iraq, we find rulers whose names we still know. King Hammurabi of Babylon ruled the first real
empire of the ancient world. It goes without saying that his abilities to conquer, command, and
rule were worthy of study. While we know very little of the man himself, we can gleam through
his actions a better vision of the character of King Hammurabi.
Hammurabi is one of the most well-known and researched leaders of the ancient world.
His code and his empire have inspired a fame that has lasted through the millennia. Modern
scholarship regarding the mighty ruler has created a variety of opinions regarding the character
and accomplishments of Hammurabi. Many have seen him as a grand force for good in
establishing human civilization. This opinion belongs to one of the oldest modern scholars on
Ancient Babylonia, William Rogers. Back in 1901 Rogers wrote that Hammurabi, displayed
extraordinary care in the development of the resources of the land, and in thus increasing the
wealth and comfort of the inhabitants.1 Rogers describes the Babylonian king as a caring, even
loving, king to his subjects. One can see the evidence of great public works commissioned by
Hammurabi and of the praiseful inscriptions on temple walls that might support such claims of
his benevolence. In correspondence with kings of other cities in his empire, Hammurabi often
deferred judgment to respect the proper line of authority and jurisdiction, an action of one

1 Rogers, 389.

concerned with proper justice.2 The more modern scholar Marc Van de Mieroop often makes a
similar argument, describing Hammurabi character as wise and clever. Mieroop concludes that
Hammurabis uncommon altruism was out of a genuine desire to be remembered as a good and
justice king.3 These and other such historians offer alternative motives that might have directed
Hammurabi's actions.
Part of understanding history is to be skeptical of it, and many historians have looked at
Hammurabi with a great deal of skepticism. Around sixty years ago many historians wrote
critically of the grand and noble reputation of Hammurabi. The famous Code of Hammurabi was
disproved as the oldest written code of laws, with many historians arguing that Hammurabis was
merely a compilation of older laws.4,5,6 Historian Leo Oppenheim argued that Hammurabis code
was not even new to Babylon, but merely an expression of the kings social responsibilities set
down by tradition.7 The historian James Wellard wrote that Hammurabi was so intent on
stabilizing his kingdom, and by extension his future dynasty, that he created a strong and fair
legal system to appease the demands of peasants and rulers alike.8 The argument also exists that
since the Code is primarily focused on economic and not social laws, Hammurabis governing

2 Charpin, Hammurabi King of Babylon, 106.


3 Mieroop, 114.
4 Saggs, 197.
5 Chambriss, 19-20.
6 Saggs, 211.
7 Oppenheim, 159.
8 Wellard, 122.

was only concerned with needs of the state.9 Dominique Charpin gives such an example in
explaining that the royal memorandums Hammurabi often gave to cancel the debts of the
peasantry was truly an effort to maintain the current economic system, not to change it.10 Other
historians point to the degree to which Hammurabi micromanaged the affairs of the empire as an
indication of a controlling and demanding personality. Historians Rollin Chambriss and Nicholas
Postgate paint Hammurabi as a ruler who lacked legitimate authority desperately trying to prove
himself in royal action and decrees as a divine king.11,12
The more contemporary view of Hammurabi is more mixed. Hammurabi had many remarkable
accomplishments, but he was far from a perfect ruler. Many historians have voiced the difficulty
in labeling Hammurabi as any single type of ruler given the extremely limited source material
available. In her book Babylon, Joan Oats argues it is impossible to know if Hammurabis code
was his creation or simply a code of traditional laws upheld by him.13 By starting from the most
established facts, historians can build a more accurate vision of Hammurabi. The empire ruled
from Babylon was a diverse and multi-ethnic place. It would make sense a king to create laws
and codes to hold it all together.14,15 To enact such a code and to manage the empire with such

9 Saggs, 221.
10 Charpin, Writing, Law and Kingship in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia, 96.
11 Chambriss, 20.
12 Postgate, 53.
13 Oats, 74.
14 Jastrow, 148.
15 Kriwaczek, 180

detail meant that Hammurabi was surely an educated, literate king.16 This is a greater
accomplishment than most medieval kings could claim.
With all that has been written on Hammurabi and his reign, there has been very little written on
him as an individual. Understandably, this is primarily due to the fact that so few sources exist
from which to draw from. None the less, one can still wonder about the character of Hammurabi.
Was he a pragmatic ruler who made decisions that would ensure the survival of his empire and
his personal power? Perhaps he ruled his kingdom based on moral virtues and ideals of justice
and equality? I believe that by looking at the actions of Hammurabi as described in a variety of
primary sources we can discover whether he was a pragmatic or idealist ruler.

In order to say

with any degree of certainty whether or not Hammurabi was a pragmatist or an idealist, one must
just have a solid distinction between the two. For the sake of this paper I will define idealism
more exactly as practical idealism. Practical idealism first became a distinguished as a
philosophy by John Dewey in the 1910s, but the practice of it is as old as humanity itself.17 Those
who follow practical idealism hold various ideals of goodness or moral correctness at the heart of
their decision making process. They are often unwilling to sacrifice these ideals even in the face
of negative consequences. A similar theory to utilitarianism, practical idealism is a more
grounded approach to idealism.18 Rulers, possibly including Hammurabi, have used ideals to
protect the helpless, create equality, and gain popular support, while still remaining practical
enough to rule and act within a governmental system.

16 Ibid, 191.
17 Wilson, 21.
18 Ibid, 22.

Contrasting practical idealism, what I would call pragmatisms, is what would be more exactly
called realism. Known as realpolitik when applied to political systems, realism is based on the
notion that those who hold power lead states to act within a system. The system is anarchic,
meaning that there is no wrong and no right.19 All states can act in their own self-interest,
regardless of consequences suffered by other states. Within realism, the power to act and control
others is the ultimate objective. Because realpolitik is not hamstrung by ideals of right and
wrong, leaders throughout history have adopted this model. It has enabled leaders, possibly
including Hammurabi, to secure stability and prosperity for their nations, even if morality and
ethics are forced aside. Under realism, survival of the state is the sole and highest
objective.20Trying to judge the motives of an individual is extremely difficult, past or present. To
some extent it is impossible to know exactly why a person acts the way they do. Even if a dig in
Iraq unearthed a library of tablets each with the letterhead Hammurabis Personal Handwritten
Diaries, we still couldnt claim to know Hammurabis motivations exactly. Instead, we are
forced to look at the general actions of Hammurabi and judge them as generally more pragmatic
or generally more idealistic; the more examples of either trait, the more certain we can be.
Unfortunately, time has left us with painfully few primary sources of Hammurabi's reign from
which to draw from.
There are numerous references throughout the ancient world of Hammurabi and the
empire he established. Some of these references are more useful than others. Inscriptions
commissioned by the royal court, such as those on temples or other public buildings, are less
useful. These inscriptions reach near propaganda levels in their praise and lauding of
19 Doyle, 12.
20 Doyle 21.

Hammurabi. Since most kings are concerned with how they will be remembered and perceived
by future generations, it makes sense that they would commission inscriptions praising their just
and benevolent nature. Similarly, recordings about Hammurabi written by those outside his
empire would be biased. Outsiders would judge Hammurabi not as he ruled, but as another
competitor, enemy, or ally and not with the unbiased lens that this study would require.
The best sources for this type of research would be sources what were never meant to be
public. While public sources, such as temple inscriptions, might be an attempt to bend the truth
for public opinion, private sources only have the audience of the creator and recipient. Luckily,
archeologists have given us a number of private and official letters sent by, or too, Hammurabi.
These seem to be the most useful sources.
One of the best topics to search for within these letters is corruption. If history teaches
anything, it is that corruption will exist where government and authority exist. If we look at
instances of corruption around Hammurabi, we will see one of two outcomes: Either Hammurabi
will ignore or abide the corruption, or he will try and stop it. In either case we will see some of
Hammurabis character as he tries to uphold the virtues of justice and law, or as he embraces a
pragmatic, realistic ambivalence towards the corruption.
Looking at the laws and edicts of Hammurabi is useful too. A great deal of analysis
already exists around Hammurabis famous Code. By looking at his code and other decrees we
can judge the altruistic nature of them. Some will surely be practical and needed in a realistic and
demanding world, and some may be compassionately aimed at uplifting the lives of his subjects.
While no record may exist of it, it would be extremely telling to find any accounts or records of
Hammurabi violating his own laws.

Legal justice can be an ideal that is often paved over in a class-based society, such as we
see in Ancient Babylonia. The wealthy upper-classes of these societies were often free from total
prosecution under the law. Officers and royal workers of the government tend to enjoy even
greater protection since they are most often the ones who prosecute. For a ruler to be committed
to stamping out corruption within his own circles of power show a great deal of character.
Hammurabi wrote in a letter to Sin-Idinnam,
Unto Sin-idinnam say:Thus saith Hammurabi. Ilisu-ibi, the merchant, hath
informed me, saying, I lent thirty gur of corn to Sin-magir, the governor, and I
hold his receipt for the same ; for three years I have besought him and he will not
repay the corn. After this manner hath he informed me. I have beheld his tablet,
and Sin-magir shall pay the corn and the interest thereon, and thou shalt give it
unto Ilisu-ibi.21
We see that a governor within Hammurabis administration as guilty of not paying his debts.
Surely Hammurabi could have ignored this appeal and brushed the man to the side, since this
case could cause public embarrassment to Hammurabis rule. However, the king stood by the
ideals of justice that no mans position should protect him from the law.
Part of establishing an empire, especially an empire based on law and justice, is to have a
proper chain of authority and jurisdiction. We see an example of Hammurabi honoring that very
system of justice in another letter to Sin-Idinnam. Hammurabi writes,
Unto Sin-idinnam say: Thus saith Hammurabi. Amelu-tummumu, the
man of Nippur, hath informed me, saying, In the city of Unabum I stored
up seventy gur of corn in a granary, but Apil-ili hath broken into the
granary and [hath taken] the corn. After this fashion hath he informed me.
Behold, I am now dispatching this same Amelu-tummumu unto thee. Thou
shalt send for Apil-ili and see that they bring him unto thee. Thou shalt
examine into their case, and the corn, which belongeth to Amelutummumu
and which Apil-ili hath taken, unto Amelu-tummumu shall he restore.

21 Brit. Mus., No. 12,864; pi- 39 No. 24-J, Figulla, H. H., Catalogue of the Babylonian Tablets
in the British Museum, I, London, BMP, 1961.

We see in this case how Hammurabi defers judgment to Sin-Idinnam, who was the presiding
authority where the defendant Apil-ili livedbecause King of Larsam Sin-Idinnam was the proper
judge of this dispute. For a ruler who micromanaged as much as Hammurabi, I would argue this
deferral of judgment shows a commitment to the ideals of law and justice.
During Hammurabis reign over a new empire, several public works were commissioned.
These public works included the building of city walls and the digging of great canals for
irrigation. While large scale public works could have either pragmatic or idealist motivations, it
is certain that they labor heavy and involved a huge work force. It is more than likely that slave
labor played a large role in this work force. While it is hard to argue idealism on the part of a
society that upheld slavery, we do find three letters from Hammurabi that might show justice
based on idealism. Hammurabi writes to Sin-Idinnam after hearing an appeal of men claiming
they had been wrongful stripped of their professions and enslaved into forced labor.22 This slaved
labor appeared to be of a public nature, possibly towards a public works project. Hammurabi
orders these men to be restored out of slavery to their previous professions. I would argue this
would be an example of Hammurabis idealism values that ruled in favor of justice instead of
furthering his own public goals.
In attempt to see Hammurabi through a pragmatic lens, we can look to actions involving
corruption and bribery. In a letter to Sin-Idinnam, the King of Larsa, we might be seeing
Hammurabis true colors.
Thus saith Hammurabi. Summan-la-ilu hath reported (unto me), saying, Bribery
hath taken place in Dur-gurgurri, and the man who took the bribe, and the witness
who hath knowledge of these matters, are here. In this wise hath he reported.
Now this same Summa(n)-la-ilu, and one DUGAB-officer and one .... officer. I
22 No. 15,848 ; pi. 43, No. 26. Sigrist, M; Figulla, H. H., Walker, C B F, Catalogue of the
Babylonian Tablets in the British Museum, II, London, British Museum, 1996.

am dispatching unto thee. When thou shalt behold this tablet, thou shalt examine
into the matter and, if bribery hath taken place, set a seal upon the money or upon
whatsoever was offered as the bribe, and cause it to be brought unto me. And the
men who took the bribe and the witness who hath knowledge of these matters,
whom Summan-la-lu will point out unto thee, shalt thou send unto me.23
In this letter it does seem that Hammurabi is concerned with corruption, especially if it was
among his officers. (Dugab was an office of the royal courts whose responsibilities varied,24) It is
interesting that Hammurabi orders the money or goods involved in the bribe to be sent to him.
While it is possible that Hammurabi ordered the bribe sent to him to stand as evidence against
the accused individual once they arrived at the courts. However it is just as possible that a
practical Hammurabi saw a large sum of money that could help his own prerogatives or possible
aid the palace economy. This might be an example of Hammurabis personal corruption, but
without more information on the event in question, it is impossible to be sure.
In our modern attempt to live up to universal ideals of equality and impartiality comes the
concept that justice is blind. A ruler can frequently encounter cases where a pragmatic choice
is wiser than holding to principles. In another letter to Sin-Idinnam in Larsa, Hammurabi shows
his concern over certain officials.
Unto Sin-idinnam say: Thus saith Hammurabi. Among the officials of the Palace
Gate, who are under the control of Erisa, there are certain men who are cumbered
with pledges and Erisa is going unto thee. Thou shalt examine into their affairs,
and thou shalt return their pledges unto them, that they be not involved in actions
at law.25

23No. 12,829; pi- No. ii. Figulla, H. H., Catalogue of the Babylonian Tablets in the British
Museum, I, London, BMP, 1961.

24 King, 7. See note 1.


25 Brit. Mus., No. 86,284; pi. 235, No. 103. King, Leonard William, The letters and
inscriptions of Hammurabi, king of Babylon, vol. III, London, 1900.

As Leonard King observed in this tablets translation, the Palace Gate was a general title given
to officials and professionals who had at one point been in direct service to the king.26 These
officials seem to have carried a burdensome amount of pledges or debt.27 Hammurabi orders
Sin-Idinnam to examine the problem, as is his responsibility, but is ordered to rule in their favor.
Regardless of guilt, Hammurabi did not want these officials linked to the royal courts to suffer
legal consequences.
In addition to the very cursory observations of Hammurabis writings above, this question
deserves a greater study of the additional writings and correspondence of Hammurabi. Additional
study should be given to the Samsu-iluna, Abesu, Ammiditana, and Ammizaduga Letters28, all
being correspondence to Hammurabi. Such letters might give additional details into the character
of Hammurabi. While inscriptions of Hammurabi on public buildings and in artwork might be
less credible that private letters, Im sure useful information may be gleaned from their study.
Finally, a larger, more comprehensive study of ancient rulers would be needed as well. In order
to properly judge the character of Hammurabi, one would have to compare his actions to the
pragmatism or idealism of other rulers of his day.
Im still inclined to believe that it is impossible to truly understand the motivations of any
one individual. In the end, God is the only one to judge the hearts of men. However, even with
the limited information we have surrounding Hammurabi and his reign, we can still make
pointed observations. In looking at letters from Hammurabi to others, we can see examples of
26 King, 36-37. See note 1.
27 King, 24. See note 3. P 37 See note 1. The translation hibiltu as a verb relates to wrong
doing and as noun to money or interest

28 King, xvi.

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both his pragmatic nature and idealistic values. In truth, it is unlikely that such a study would
reveal a totally justice driven idealist or totally survivalist, power-driven pragmatist. As is often
the case, Hammurabi was likely some of both.

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