Babylon: Law And Empire

In the past ten days, I’ve increased my following on Twitter by a factor of eight, thanks mostly to a couple of awesome fellow writers who have made it their mission to boost other writers’ networking, which is one of my main foci this year. It occurred to me that as a history teacher, MANY people have said to me, “I wish I could take history again; I hated it as a kid, but love it as an adult,” or alternatively, “History was so boring; my teacher was a coach who sat around all day and handed out worksheets.”
So, in recognition of this need, I offered to blog on requested history topics. The first request I got was “Babylon or the Chinese Empire.”
Sigh. To this I can only say, “serves me right for asking,” because these two topics span, conservatively, about 5,000 years of history, concurrently, and trying to cover one, let alone BOTH, in their entirety would reduce the project to a joke. So, thanks very much to the requester: I’m going to talk about ONE aspect of Babylonian history that we all remember from school: Hammurabi’s Code.

I generally taught Hammurabi’s Code in my Honors World History classes for a couple of reasons. It’s pretty much our most influential surviving, readable code of laws. There’s little to compare it to in scope until you get to the laws laid out in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. And as we will see, the contrast between the two is interesting to explore.

Hammurabi himself is an interesting historical figure: he inherited a Babylon that had only just begun to expand power over the weaker city-states of the Tigris-Euphrates. These huge twin rivers are, of course, the reason that the Middle East was considered for so long to be the center of the world. The rivers meant regular irrigation for crops, easy travel for people and goods, and a useful sewer system to get rid of waste. As a young king, Hammurabi fought off an invasion by a more powerful kingdom to the east, and then, after fighting it off, turned on his allies who had been unwilling and unable to provide more aid. The upshot of this was that Hammurabi ended his days (1750 B.C.) in command of a sizable empire running most of the length of the rivers.

What would it have been like to live in Hammurabi’s Empire? One of the hardest things I had to impress upon my students was the utter difference between our own lives and people who lived almost 4,000 years ago. To us, even nobles would have seemed ridiculously poor. Oh, they would have owned much more than we do in terms of farmland, animals, personal weapons and precious metals. But consider how little that wealth could buy them. There were no medicines worth the name: if you got sick, you got better or you didn’t. Meat was an expensive luxury. Fruit existed only in season. Beer and wine were incredibly weak, with an alcohol content of something like 5% for strong wine. And beer was a necessity, because drinking water was a good way to die of diarrhea. And disease was endemic. You could expect to lose at least half of your children to disease before they reached adulthood. There was no real concept of hygiene aside from, “don’t handle poop,” which was not always avoidable. Humans had parasites: fleas, lice and worms all the time. Itching was a fact of life.
Entertainment would have meant religious feasts and celebrations where there was dancing, music and plays. Or it would have meant singing, playing instruments and storytelling with friends at home. Nothing else existed.
The primary difference in the lifestyle of the nobles, besides better food, was the ability to command slaves to do their menial work, and to remain clean. But they had no plumbing, and no machines, just prettier tools.
Literacy was a study for nobles, and took years to achieve, because the writing system consisted of symbols that had as many as eighty meanings, dependent upon context.

However, Hammurabi’s Code was unique in that it was written in the language of the common people, so they could have heard and understood it when it was proclaimed, rather than it being a secret code among nobles. Hammurabi’s Code introduced the concept of at least a moderate presumption of innocence (not a complete one — it was quite possible to be accused and have to “prove” your innocence by surviving, e.g. being thrown in the river). It was based on compensation to the victim and retribution to the offender. Imprisonment as a punishment was unknown, because no one had the time or money to lock a man up in idleness. Fines, maiming and death were the most common punishments.

Hammurabi’s Code bears many similarities to the code of the Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, not because the latter directly copied it, but because of shared culture and tradition in that part of the world. Notably, while both codes recognize the differences between a slave and a free man, only Hammurabi’s code recognize a state of nobility. The Israelites who wrote the Law doubtless were not wealthy enough to allow a noble class to exist. In addition, Hammurbi’s code is a bit freer with the death penalty, which again likely reflects a wealthier culture’s ability to kill off a greater number of its subjects without endangering itself.

So there you have a quick look at life in ancient Babylon. If you want to see a really excellent novel in which a slightly later Babylon is portrayed in fiction, I recommend S.M. Stirling’s brutally and beautifully vivid Island In The Sea Of Time trilogy. This portrays the Babylon of the Kassites, which is about 600 years later than Hammurabi. And it doesn’t show up until Book 2, but it’s worth the read.

So these are details you can use in historical fiction, but if you’re writing fantasy, these conditions may be useful to bear in mind too, unless you choose to give your characters anachronistic knowledge or magical remedies for them. Hope you find it useful.

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