Kings and Codes

I readily acquiesce to the suggestion that others are smarter than myself. In a world of overly competitive commerce that has wormed its way into higher education, I have found myself ill-equipped to compete against those who are more clever at working the system. At times I can be decidedly pre-medieval in my perception of fairness. Thus it was a combination of self-denigration and legitimate surprise to find a brief piece in the May edition of Wired magazine on the Code of Hammurabi. In this arena I would have supposed myself to be on firmer ground. The piece by Joel Meares appeared in the Blast from the Past section of the “Humor Issue” of the erudite magazine. The writers at Wired are by default well beyond my ability in the tech scene, but this piece was a consideration of how Hammurabi’s justice still plays its way out in popular culture. Beginning with the 1970’s movie series Death Wish, Hammurabi is given credit for inspiring Hamlet, The Count of Monte-Cristo, Red Dead Redemption, Frankenstein, Moby Dick, and Batman. Holy pedigree, Hammurabi!

Each semester I try to explain to my students why study of the ancient world is still relevant. It may be overly simplified to suggest that Hammurabi directly inspired all these works (the Akkadian language wasn’t really deciphered until the middle of the nineteenth century, CE, long after Shakespeare), but clearly the trajectory had been set long ago. Even before Hammurabi. The earliest known law-codes predate Hammurabi by many centuries and demonstrate that our sense of justice and fair play were being bandied about by the gods long before Hammurabi was a twinkle in Shamash’s eye. If we want others to play nice, the best way to convince them to do so is to lay the dicta in the realm of the gods.

Maybe I can’t figure out where Death Wish and Moby Dick share anything beyond a cursory resemblance to Hammurabi, but it is clear that the Mesopotamians were the first to articulate the idea that the gods set the rules and it is our duty not to upset them. Of course, in our society fair play is frequently sublimated to corruption at various levels. Someone is always willing to bend the rules if the covert payment is enticing enough. After all, doesn’t it look like Hammurabi is placing his fingers to his lips while receiving a kickback from Shamash on the pinnacle of the famous stele bearing the code that now bears his name?

Hammurabi winks at Shamash

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