The Law Code Stele of King Hammurabi


(smooth piano music) – [Steve] We’re in the Louvre, in Paris, looking at one of their
most famous objects. This is the Law Code
Stele of King Hammurabi. – [Beth] It’s interesting
to me that this is one of the most popular
objects to look at here (it was made in the Babylonian Kingdom which is now in Iraq) and I think it’s because of our modern interest and reliance
on law as the founding principles of a civilization. And this is such an ancient object, this is nearly 4,000 years old. – [Steve] A stele is a tall carved object. This one is carved in relief at the top, and then below that, and on all sides, we have inscribed cuneiform (script that is used on the stele) It’s written in the language of Akkadian (which is the court language of the Babylonians). – [Beth] Which was used for
official government decrees. – [Steve] But that’s the language. The script is cuneiform. It’s divided into three parts. There’s a prologue, which talks about the scene that’s being
represented at the top, the Investiture of Hammurabi. What we see is the king on the left, he’s smaller, and he’s
facing the god, Shamash. This is the sun god, the god of justice. – [Beth] And we can tell he’s a god because of the special
horned crown that he wears and the flames or light that
emanate from his shoulders. – [Steve] We can think of this as a kind of divine light, the way that in so much Christian imagery, we see a halo. – [Beth] And we have that composite view that we often see in Ancient Egyptian and Ancient Near-Eastern art, where the shoulders are frontal but the face is represented in profile. – [Steve] Shamash sits on a throne, and if you look closely you can see under his feet the
representation of mountains that he rises from each day. He’s giving to the king
a scepter and a ring, these are signs of power.
– Hammurabi is demonstrating here that these are divine laws. – [Steve] That his authority
comes from Shamash. – [Beth] So we have
more than 300 laws here. – [Steve] And they’re very particular. Scholars believe that they weren’t so much written by the king as listed from judgments that have
already been meted out. – [Beth] They’re legal
precedents, and they take the form of announcing an
action and its consequences. So if you do X, Y is the consequence. – [Steve] So, for example,
if a man builds a house and the house falls on the owner, the builder is put to death.
– So there’s a kind of equivalence, and this might remind us of the Biblical law of, “An eye for an eye “or a tooth for a tooth.”
– Which is also found on the stele, and it’s
important and interesting to note that the stele
predates that Biblical text. The last part of the text, what is often referred to as the epilogue, speaks to the posterity of the
king, of the importance of his rule and the idea that he will be remembered for all time. – [Beth] This is certainly
not a unique stele in terms of recording laws, but it
does survive largely intact. When it was discovered, it was broken only into three parts, which
you can still see today. – [Steve] These laws,
almost 4,000 years old, tell us a tremendous amount about Babylonian culture, about
what was important to them. So many of these laws deal
with agricultural issues, issues of irrigation, and are clearly expressing points of tension in society. – [Beth] A lot of them have
to do with family life, too, and the king is, after all, responsible for the peace and prosperity and feeding of his people.
– And the stele is such a wonderful reminder that Mesopotamia was such an advanced culture. Here, almost 4,000 years
ago, we have cities that are dependent on good crop yields, that require laws to
maintain civil society. And a reminder of the
debt that the world owes to the ancient
civilizations of Mesopotamia and the area that is seeing
so much conflict now. (smooth piano music)

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

  1. Did steles normally function as law codes? Or is this just a unique example from Mesopotamian culture?

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