Scholia Reviews ns 15 (2006) 12.

Marc van de Mieroop, King Hammurabi of Babylon: A Biography. Blackwell Ancient Lives Vol. 1. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Pp. xii + 171, incl. 10 black-and-white illustrations and 1 map. ISBN 1-4051-2660-4. UK£14.99.

Sakkie Cornelius
Ancient Studies, University of Stellenbosch

The book deals with Hammurabi (or Hammurapi -- the name can mean 'great family' or in Amorite 'the kinsman heals', pp. 2-3), king of Babylon (ca. 1792-1750 BCE), who is widely known because of his laws, but less so as a brilliant diplomat and conqueror. It is the first book in the Blackwell Ancient Lives series. Books on Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar are planned. The book is advertised as the first biography in English of a king who left no autobiography himself and of whom no biography has been written, as has been done for other great ones from ancient times such as Alexander of Macedon. It is written by Marc Van de Mieroop, Professor of Ancient Near Eastern History at Columbia University in New York, who is very well equipped for the task.[[1]] Other books on Hammurabi are in German by Klengel and more recently in French by the Mari scholar Charpin.[[2]]

As far as original sources are concerned, there are the Old Babylonian letters (AbB = Altbabylonische Briefe) dealing with the internal administration, and the 'eloquent' (p. 139) letters from the archives of the city of Mari on the Middle Euphrates (ARM = Archives royales de Mari) dealing with foreign affairs up to the destruction of Mari in 1761 BCE, later references to Hammurabi and, of course, the ideological historical prologue and epilogue on the law stela. All these are incorporated into this study and often referred to in translation.

The book has a preface, a note on chronology,[[3]] a list of abbreviations, eleven chapters, a glossary of terms and names, bibliographical notes, a bibliography, a guide to further reading and an index. There are ten black-and-white illustrations (one is of the famous law stela in the Louvre in Paris) and one on the front cover (with a thumbnail on the back cover).[[4]] The illustrations are functional. However, the aerial photograph (Plate 6.1 on p. 66) intended to indicate the size of the enormous palace of Zimri-Lim at Mari is somewhat unclear. The map of the Middle East in the time of Hammurabi (p. ix) is very detailed as far as the names of places in the region of Mesopotamia between the Euphrates and the Zagros are concerned. What one misses is a graphical indication of the extent of the empire. Throughout the book the term 'Middle East' is used, a term popular in the news media for the region under discussion, but rather referring to the former region under British colonial control from the Sudan to India and today technically referring to only Pakistan and India.[[5]]

Chapter 1 (pp. 1-14)looks at the early years, Chapters 2-6 (pp. 15-78) at the defeat of Elam, Larsa, Eshnunna, Assyria, and Mari. Chapters 7-10 (pp. 79-134) look at the management of the empire, Hammurabi the lawgiver, his character, and his legacy. The last chapter (pp. 135-145) discusses problems in writing a biography of a king who lived four thousand years ago.

Because it is usually of interest to students of the Classics, some remarks on the chapter on the laws are given. The author states clearly that the so-called 'Code of Hammurabi' is not a code in the true sense of the word (p. 99), although he does refer to it as a 'code' on page 122. These laws were not intended to guide legal proceedings and are not referred to in Babylonian court cases. It is 'a monument presenting Hammurabi as an exemplary king of justice.'[[6]] There are between 275 and 300 laws on the black diorite stela now in the Louvre in Paris -- four to five columns were wiped out by the Elamite king Shutruk-Nahhunte I, the king mentioned in the movie 'The Emperor's Club' (Hoffman 2002), when he carried it away to Susa where it was found by the French in 1901-1902. These are not the oldest laws, as one finds claimed in some books or in popular thought. The oldest are the laws of Ur-Nammu of Ur and were formulated 200 years before Hammurabi.[[7]] The depiction on the stela is described as the god of justice, with the sun god Shamash giving a rod and ring to him (p. 124), but it is rather a case of the deity holding these symbols as is done by the moon god on the stela of king Ur-Nammu and they can be identified as a measuring line and rod, which is very clear on the Ur-Nammu stela.[[8]] A helpful overview of the subject matter of the laws is given (pp. 103f.).

Other matters of interest are the river ordeal (pp. 67f.), the divine river as judge and divine intervention in time of war (p. 57).[[9]]

What exactly Hammurabi looked like is still unknown (p. 136). Even the figure on the law stela is stereotyped. The problem arises because, in contrast to Egypt -- where the name of the pharaoh is usually given in hieroglyphs (going as far back as the palette of Narmer 3000 BCE) -- depictions of Mesopotamian rulers contain only their names in a few cases.[[10]]

At some points the author tries to give the reader a glimpse of the personality and character of the great king. In the letters we do read of his emotions, for example, when he gets angry: 'When Hammurabi heard this, he yelled out: 'What a scandal!'' (p. 59; cf. pp. 117f.).

This is an excellent book, also easy accessible for the uninitiated. It provides authoritative information on a ruler who was a conqueror, the ancient lawgiver -- a man of justice or as expressed in Akkadian shar mesharum ('king of justice'). For this reason he is depicted with other famous lawgivers in the House Chamber of the USA Capitol.[[11]] He was a brilliant ruler -- the 'good shepherd,' someone who made war to establish peace and unify a region known for its political instability up to the present day. Hammurabi truly believed in the proverb si vis pacem para bellum ('if you want peace prepare for war'). One can only look forward to the future volumes in the series on the lives of great men and women of ancient times.


[[1]] He is the author of A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000-323 BC (Malden 2004), which discusses Hammurabi in section 6.2 (pp. 104-11), and Cuneiform Texts and the Writing of History (London 1999).

[[2]] H. Klengel, König Hammurapi und der Alltag Babylons (Düsseldorf 1999) and D. Charpin, Hammu-rabi de Babylone (Paris 2003). The last appeared after Van de Mieroop's manuscript had been completed. Hammurabi is also dealt with in the new book by B. T. Arnold, Who Were the Babylonians?(Atlanta 2005).

[[3]] The author uses the so-called 'Middle Chronology' of the CAH and developed independently by the German F. Cornelius (Leipzig) and the American W. F. Albright from Baltimore.

[[4]] For details cf. D. Collon, Ancient Near Eastern Art (London 1995) fig. 79, p. 100.

[[5]] Cf. Van de Mieroop's History [1] Map 6.1. On the other terms 'Ancient Near East' and 'Western Asia' see I. Cornelius, review of Daniel C. Snell (ed.), A Companion to the Ancient Near East. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World (Oxford 2004) in Scholia Reviews ns 15 (2006) 11.

[[6]] Cf. Van de Mieroop's History [1], 106.

[[7]] M.T. Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia (Atlanta 1997) and in general R. Westbrook (ed.), A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law (Leiden 2003).

[[8]] T. Jacobsen, 'Pictures and Pictorial Language (The Burney Relief),' in Figurative Language in the Ancient Near East, ed. M. Mindlen et al. (London 1987) 4.

[[9]] Cf. I. Cornelius, 'The Iconography of Divine War in the Pre-Islamic Near East'. Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 21.1 (1995) 15-36.

[[10]] Cf. I. Winter, 'Eannatum and the 'King of Kish'?: Another look at the Stele of the Vultures and 'Cartouches' in Early Sumerian Art'. ZA 76.2 (1986) 204-12.