May Nin-karak, the daughter of Anu, who adjudges grace to me, cause to come upon his members in E-kur high fever, severe wounds, that cannot be healed, whose nature the physician does not understand, which he cannot treat with dressing, which, like the bite of death, cannot be removed, until they have sapped away his life.

Hammurabi[1]

This blog is about government, but we’ll get to that later. First, let’s put things in context, and talk about the rather creepy quote you’ve just read. It’s from Hammurabi, an ancient Babylonian king who lived about 3800 years ago, and it’s a part of 19 separate curses[2], invoking 12 different gods plus the “great gods of heaven and earth,[3]” that he levied on any future ruler who might change his laws. Wow! No appeal there! Change = Destruction.

Hammurabi was famous in his time as a conqueror and a law giver. He operated in the area of the Tigris – Euphrates Rivers[4], pretty much where southern Iraq is today. His early reign was relatively peaceful but, by 1763 B.C. the cut-throat politics of the day forced him into a series of battles to the north and south of his kingdom. When they ended he had consolidated most of Mesopotamia under his rule.[5]

Having won his wars it looks like Hammurabi decided he also had to win the peace. One of his solutions – there probably were others – was to develop a code of laws, and publish it for everybody to see.[6] He was called, he thought, “to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak; [and] … enlighten the land, to further the well-being of mankind.”[7]

Interesting, isn’t it, that a barbarian despot from so long ago would spend his time thinking about how to protect the weak from the strong, and further the well-being of mankind? Even if you think it’s all false advertising, the fact that he said such things is significant. It means that public opinion was important, even back then.

Now, we have to recognize that, by modern standards, Hammurabi’s Code was a bit, well, barbaric. The penalty for breaking and entering, and robbery, was death.[8] What if someone falsely accused another of a capital crime? The accuser died.[9] And what if a judge reached an erroneous decision in a case? Well, if it was the judge’s fault, “… he shall be publicly removed from the judge’s bench, and never again shall he sit there to render judgment.”[10]

It also featured what today would be considered extreme forms of consumer and labor protection. For example, if a builder erected a house, and later it collapsed and killed the new owner, the builder would be executed.[11] That was probably better protection than a modern home owner’s warranty. Also, prices for goods and labor were regulated. Specific rates were set down for medical treatments,[12] tavern drinks,[13] labor[14] livestock[15] and boats,[16] among other things. All in all, Conservative economists today probably don’t like Hammurabi; too many regulations.

But the really interesting thing is that his Code presupposes a legal system that looks very familiar. He was the first (that we know of) monarch to publish his laws so that people could read them. That’s why he’s famous today. Of course, he didn’t publish them the way we do today. There weren’t printing presses back then, much less an internet. But he did it right for his time. He had the 282 rules carved on an 8 foot diorite stele, and installed in a Babylonian Temple.[17] It was made to be read, and used, at least in Babylon.[18]

And how do we know this? We can go see it. The stele was lost for quite a long time, but in 1901 was rediscovered buried in the Persian mountains[19] and now resides in the Louvre.[20]

People back in Hammurabi’s time knew where they stood vis-a-vis their Government. Do something on the prohibited list and you were in trouble. Did officials go in the night and summarily dispense justice? You know, like a lynch mob? No, there was a public trial, with witnesses, judges and all the rest.[21] Proceedings, or at least their results, were carefully recorded on clay tablets.

What do we have today? For the most part we have a system that relies on published laws, warrant-based arrests, open trials, and carefully recorded proceedings. Except, of course, in the area of National Security. There we have a system for abducting or killing people, mostly foreign nationals, based on “actionable intelligence;” imprisoning the survivors for long periods of time; and trying them, if at all, in highly restricted, non-public, forums. Just pick them up and stick them on the railroad to Hell!

At the same time we have laws that, it is said, allow our government to accumulate massive amounts of information about its citizens just on the off-chance that it might be needed in the future. And all of this is authorized in a secret court. We’re not permitted to know about it, unless someone breaks the law and tells us.

Conservatives who push this kind of thing are really conservative! They want to bury Hammurabi again, and go back to the early Bronze Age. But before they push much more, they ought to reflect again on Hammurabi’s curses: He said, “In future time, through all coming generations, let the king, who may be in the land, observe the words of righteousness which I have written on my monument.[22] If they don’t, Hammurabi said, may

…the Great God…the Father of the Gods, who has ordered my rule, withdraw from him the glory of royalty, break his scepter, [and] curse his destiny.[23]

There’s more; he describes in graphic detail the breakdown of society, riot, sedition, foreign military defeats, etc.; but you get the drift.

So what’s my point? I’m not saying that Hammurabi was a great magician, or sorcerer, and that his curses live on today. I’m saying that he was a king, beleaguered by enemies, and he survived and prospered. Why? Because he knew how people thought about government; they wanted one that would protect the people; look out for their rights; protect the weak from the strong; and, in general would “speak justice to them [and] give right decisions.” When that stops, any government loses its legitimacy.

I’m saying that Hammurabi was a sociologist, and a good one. His system worked and his curses weren’t really that. They were predictions of what happens when a Government turns on its people.


[1] This is from the Epilogue to the Code of Hammurabi. It’s just one of numerous curses pronounced on anyone who might ignore, obscure or alter any parts of Hammurabi’s Code. The translation is by L.W. King, who is not otherwise identified. Hammurabi’s Code is available on the internet, at http://eawc.evansville.edu/anthology/hammurabi.htm and also from the Yale Law School. The Yale site is a real find, because it collects lots of different documents from the history of law. If you want to see more, go to http://avalon.law.yale.edu/ If you want to know more about L.W. King, you can find a short biography at, -guess where?- Wikipedia. Just go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L._W._King . Henceforth, the Code of Hammurabi will be cited as Hammurabi’s Code at __.

[2] Actually, some of the curses are compound, so a different reader might count more. Or, on the other hand, someone might count only one (compound) curse per deity, which would be 12, or 13 (if you count the “great gods of heaven and earth” who are separately invoked). I settled on 19 curses because 19 is the 8th smallest prime number.

[3] For those who have to know, the deities are, in order of appearance: Anu, Bel, Belit, Ea, Shamash, Sin, Adad, Zamama, Ishtar, Nergal, Nintu, Nin-karak, and the Anunaki (the great gods of heaven and earth.)

[4] If you want a chronology of that time and place, take a look at The History Files, Middle East Kingdoms, Babylonian Empire (Old Babylonian Period) at: http://www.historyfiles.co.uk/KingListsMiddEast/MesopotamiaBabylon.htm

[5] Wikipedia also will give you a good sketch of the period. You can find the Wikipedia version at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hammurabi

[6] See Horne, The Code of Hammurabi: Introduction (1915) available at http://avalon.law.yale.edu/ancient/hammint.asp  “[B]y far the most remarkable of the Hammurabi records is his code of laws, the earliest-known example of a ruler proclaiming publicly to his people an entire body of laws, arranged in orderly groups, so that all men might read and know what was required of them.”

[7] See Hammurabi’s Code at introduction, par. 1.

[8] See Hammurabi’s Code at 21, 22.

[9] See Hammurabi’s Code at 3.

[10] See Hammurabi’s Code at 5.

[11] See Hammurabi’s Code at 229. See also Nos. 230, 231.

[12] See Hammurabi’s Code at 215, 216, 217 (tumor operations); & 221 (broken bones healed); and 224 (veterinary operations on livestock)

[13] See Hammurabi’s Code at 111.

[14] See Hammurabi’s Code at 239 (sailors); 273 (day labor); 274 (skilled artisans);

[15] See Hammurabi’s Code at 242 (oxen); 243 (herd of cattle); 268 (ox for threshing); 269 (ass for threshing).

[16] See Hammurabi’s Code at 275 (ferry boats); 276 (freight boats); & 277 (ships).

[17] See Code of Hammurabi at Epilogue, par. 1: “That the strong might not injure the weak, in order to protect the widows and orphans, I have in Babylon the city where Anu and Bel raise high their head, in E-Sagil, the Temple, whose foundations stand firm as heaven and earth, in order to bespeak justice in the land, to settle all disputes, and heal all injuries, set up these my precious words, written upon my memorial stone, before the image of me, as king of righteousness”

[18] Apparently clay copies were used elsewhere.

[19] See Horn, The Code of Hammurabi : Introduction (1915) at http://avalon.law.yale.edu/ancient/hammint.asp

[20] There’s a brief history of the stele in Wikipedia. To find it, go to:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Code_of_Hammurabi

[21] See Johns, Babylonian Law – The Code of Hammurabi (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910- 1911), available at http://avalon.law.yale.edu/ancient/hammpre.asp :” The more important cases, especially those involving life and death, were tried by a bench of judges. With the judges were associated a body of elders, who shared in the decision, but whose exact function is not yet clear. Agreements, declarations and non-contentious cases are usually witnessed by one judge and twelve elders. Parties and witnesses were put on oath. The penalty for the false witness was usually that which would have been awarded the convicted criminal.

[22] See Code of Hammurabi at Epilogue, par. 3

[23] See Code of Hammurabi at Epilogue, par. 3

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