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The Law Code Stele of King Hammurabi

The Law Code Stele of King Hammurabi is a 4,000-year-old Babylonian monument that shows the king receiving authority from the sun god Shamash. The stele contains over 300 laws that reflect the culture and issues of ancient Mesopotamia, such as agriculture, family, and justice.

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Video transcript

(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)