How to Run an Empire
During the Bronze Age, kings in the ancient Near East concentrated power in increasingly large empires. In these empires, cities grew larger and more complicated, nomadic and sedentary people intermingled, leadership changed often, the economy expanded, and militaries grew. New legal systems had to be created to manage all the changes. Kings especially needed to handle social inequality and frequent natural disasters.
Organizing a Kingdom
The Eshnunna Law Code is the first ever written in the Akkadian language. It appeared during the reign of the Amorite king Bilalama, who ruled in Eshnunna during the twentieth century BCE. At the time, Eshnunna was a powerful kingdom, although it was soon absorbed into Babylon.
Kings like Bilalama needed to organize the societies they ruled, and they often did this through legal codes like this one. The Eshnunna Law Code gave much-needed structure to everyday situations by setting the price of certain commodities, establishing punishments for crimes, and standardizing wages.
More than Meets the Eye
At first glance, the Code of Hammurabi looks like a typical law code. From the famous “eye for an eye” instruction to statements about slavery and property rights, it lists specific punishments for common crimes in the ancient world, including sorcery, theft, murder, and adultery. Though it is an example of civil rather than religious law, it shows King Hammurabi receiving these instructions directly from the Babylonian sun god Shamash.
However, historians have questioned whether this is really a law code at all. Other Babylonian law codes of the time make no reference to Hammurabi’s laws. Sometimes they even contradict. Instead, this is probably more like a monument showing Hammurabi’s commitment to justice and order than a statement of actual Babylonian laws.
The Royal Standard
In a barter economy, value was measured by weight. People needed to agree on how much something weighed if they wanted to trade fairly, but exchange rates varied by region and over time. To solve these problems, kings created royal standards for measuring weight, like the three standards described in the Ur-Namma Law Code of 2050 BCE.
This weight comes from Nimrud in the seventh century BCE and has Aramaic inscriptions. Its shape references the lion hunts which were a favorite pastime of kings in this era. It may have been used to measure precious metals or even grains like barley, which was sometimes used to pay workers’ wages.