Friday, September 13, 2013

Code of Hammurabi

Rule #1: Don't bring up King Hammurabi's nose.
Rules, rules, rules! They seem to be everywhere! In the classroom, at the airport, on that bottle of super glue (why can't I use it to stick sequins all over my sleeping roommate's face?). You can't go anywhere without having to follow some set of rules! Well we can blame an 18th century BC Babylonian king for that, who should have spent more time inventing the doughnut so they would stop living BC (Before Crullers). While Hammurabi (Rule #1) was not the originator of codifying the laws of the land, he was the first to popularize the idea, as well as transcribe it in the common language so that most everyone could understand it. After him, all civilizations from the Egyptians, Persians, Romans, and Grumpy British Nannies began to lay out everything that was expected from the population in writing for all to see, which is never good for folks like me that don't want to put their toys away or go to sleep by 9:30.

Rule #2: Just let Babylon conquer you, before you 
get your feelings hurt.
When Hammurabi ascended to the throne around 1790 BC, his hometown of Babylon was the lamest of the lame. It didn't have nearly as much land, wealth, or even a minor league baseball team like other Mesopotamian city-states such as Eshnunna or Larsa. Plus, they were under the hegemony of the powerful Elam Kingdom to the east and Assyrian Kingdom to the north, meaning Babylon had as much leg room as a kid sitting in the window seat on the bus to Fat Camp. Nonetheless, Hammurabi was able to play all of these rivalries against each other: he told Larsa that Elam said she was fat, then told Elam that Larsa said her nose was too crooked, then told Eshnunna that both Elam and Larsa weren't going to invite her to their Arbor Day party. The cat fights that quickly ensured allowed Hammurabi to slowly expand his territory, and the majority of Mesopotamia was under the control of the "Babylonian Empire" by 1760 BC. King Ishme-Dagan of Assyria decided to step up and check Babylon's power grab, but he was reduced to tears when Hammurabi spread the rumor that the Egyptian pharaoh of the time made a much better bundt cake than he did. The Assyrians were made to pay tribute to Hammurabi, and Babylon is believed to have become the largest city in the world by his death around 1750 BC. Not bad for what was originally the Topeka of Ancient Mesopotamia!

Of course, Hammurabi's conquests allowed him to put together his claim to fame: the Code of Hammurabi. This listing of 282 different laws, inscribed on a nearly eight-foot-tall rock stele (Rule #3), is considered the oldest piece of writing of significant length in the world, with the basis for "significant length" being that it is longer than the lyrics to "Stairway to Heaven." It is dated to about the middle of his reign, around 1772 BC, demonstrating that Hammurabi was able to multitask in devising the code while conquering his neighbors (as well as learning to play bass guitar for his sci-fi themed Maroon 5 cover band: Babyloon 5). The most complete copy of the Code that exists today is currently on display at the Louvre in Paris. This makes total sense since the French, above all other nations, have historically adhered to their established constitutions and never ever started rebellions or revolutions to make radical changes to the standing government. Hammurabi would have been more than glad to let them have it.

Rule #3: As tempting as it is, the 
Code of Hammurabi stele should 
not be used as a obstacle on a 
history-themed miniature golf 
The code established many laws and axioms we are familiar with today. The most famous is what is known as the "eye for an eye" rule, where if a person commits a crime to another person, the victim is entitled to some form of compensation equivalent to that crime. Back then, the law was pretty much taken literally, where a person who was proven guilty of having eye juices still under his fingernails actually had his own eyeball removed. While this may seem a bit barbaric, the law was in place to prevent the cycle of escalating retaliation, where people might naturally take a leg for an eye, then a liver for a leg, then a cerebral cortex for a liver, and so on from there. This idea continues to form the basis for many laws today, where typically monetary compensation and/or jail time is substituted for the eye-scratching. Such a shame, but it's the passive, non-violent, touchy-feely world we live in, I suppose.

Hammurabi's law code also opened the door for the idea that people accused of a crime are innocent until proven guilty. One rule stated:
If any one bring an accusation against a man, and the accused go to the river [metaphor for trial] and leap into the river, if he sink in the river his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if the river prove that the accused is not guilty, and he escape unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death, while he who leaped into the river shall take possession of the house that had belonged to his accuser.
It would certainly make Judge Judy a tad more watchable if the case between Dusty and Bobby-Sue (and who owes who child support) would decide which one meets their end and which one gets to keep that sweet mobile home. The Code also dealt with the responsibilities of certain professionals, and the dire consequences of their mistakes. Judges who make incorrect verdicts, builders who construct faulty homes, doctors who kill their patients through negligence, sports prognosticators who make reckless predictions like putting the Mets in the World Series; all were held accountable for their actions, and most were put to death. Thankfully, that and other concepts of the law that have faded away over time, most prominently that punishments were softened when the crime was committed against someone of a lower class. This is even evident in the "eye for an eye" princple, where the law applies to those of the same rank, but "if he put out the eye of a freed man...he shall pay one gold mina" and "if he put out the eye of a man's slave...he shall pay one-half of its value." So as long as you have the money, you can pull out the eyes of all the freemen and slaves you desire! Start a collection, why dontcha?!

Rule #4: Have pants with 
really big pockets.
Now Hammurabi wasn't a jerk who set down all of these rules and expected people to follow them without being able to know them. He had several copies of his Code inscribed on those tall slabs of diorite rock, as well as a pocket-size version on clay tablets for loyal citizens on the go (Rule #4). Most importantly, the Code was inscribed in the Akkadian Language, which is what the majority of the Mesopotamian population spoke at this time. You would think this would be a given, but the official state language of Babylon was actually Sumerian, with important things like government meetings, religious ceremonies, and cooking competitions using that language. Hammurabi could have easily put his Code in Sumerian and said, "Good luck, jerks!" to his citizens; alas, he thought it best to stick with the common tongue of the land to spread his heavy-handed laws and punishments to his faithful subjects. Being able to read those laws, however, that's another story. You better hope you have a literate friend!

The Code of Hammurabi spread like wildfire throughout the Near East, with copies of it found from Iran to Israel. With it, the idea that the laws of the land should be established and posted for all to see picked up steam as well; other examples throughout history have followed in the Twelve Tables of Rome, the Tang Code in China, the Napoleonic Code, and the original Dungeons & Dragons: Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures. While many of his laws were really meant to protect his citizens and prevent folks from taking the law into their own hands, I can't help but feel weighed down by all these responsibilities. People should be free, man! They shouldn't have to live under the thumb of some contrived code! I say we break free of our chains, and live like the human beings that... HEY! Someone just ran up behind me and clawed my eyeball right now! What a jerk! Someone should stop him and charge him at the fullest extent of the law! I demand justice, or else I'm going after his leg with a chainsaw!

On second thought, maybe rules are a good thing after all.  Carry on then!

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