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Read the below article and then write a short paper answering the following
1. Why was the city of Alexandria created? What famous buildings were
2. Why did the ancient city end up underwater?
3. How are they learning about the ancient city?
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More than 2,000 years after
Alexander the Great founded
Alexandria, archaeologists are
discovering its fabled remains
By Andrew Lawler
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SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE | SUBSCRIBE
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Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from its original form and updated to include new
information for Smithsonian’s Mysteries of the Ancient World bookazine published in
There’s no sign of the grand marbled metropolis founded by Alexander the Great on the
busy streets of this congested Egyptian city of five million, where honking cars spouting
exhaust whiz by shabby concrete buildings. But climb down a rickety ladder a few
blocks from Alexandria’s harbor, and the legendary city suddenly looms into view.
Down here, standing on wooden planks stretching across a vast underground chamber,
the French archaeologist Jean-Yves Empereur points out Corinthian capitals, Egyptian
lotus-shaped columns and solid Roman bases holding up elegant stone arches. He
picks his way across the planks in this ancient cistern, which is three stories deep and
so elaborately constructed that it seems more like a cathedral than a water supply
system. The cistern was built more than a thousand years ago with pieces of
already-ancient temples and churches. Beneath him, one French and one Egyptian
worker are examining the stonework with flashlights. Water drips, echoing. “We
supposed old Alexandria was destroyed,” Empereur says, his voice bouncing off the
damp smooth walls, “only to realize that when you walk on the sidewalks, it is just below
With all its lost grandeur, Alexandria has long held poets and writers in thrall, from E. M.
Forster, author of a 1922 guide to the city’s vanished charms, to the British novelist
Lawrence Durrell, whose Alexandria Quartet, published in the late 1950s, is a
bittersweet paean to the haunted city. But archaeologists have tended to give
Alexandria the cold shoulder, preferring the more accessible temples of Greece and the
rich tombs along the Nile. “There is nothing to hope for at Alexandria,” the English
excavator D. G. Hogarth cautioned after a fruitless dig in the 1890s. “You classical
archaeologists, who have found so much in Greece or in Asia Minor, forget this city.”
Hogarth was spectacularly wrong. Empereur and other scientists are now uncovering
astonishing artifacts and rediscovering the architectural sublimity, economic muscle and
intellectual dominance of an urban center that ranked second only to ancient Rome.
What may be the world’s oldest surviving university complex has come to light, along
with one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Pharos, the 440-foot-high lighthouse
that guided ships safely into the Great Harbour for nearly two millennia. And
researchers in wet suits probing the harbor floor are mapping the old quays and the
fabled royal quarter, including, just possibly, the palace of that most beguiling of all
Alexandrians, Cleopatra. The discoveries are transforming vague legends about
Alexandria into proof of its profound influence on the ancient world.
“I’m not interested in mysteries, but in evidence,” Empereur says later in his comfortable
study lined with 19th-century prints. Wearing a yellow ascot and tweed jacket, he seems
a literary figure from Forster’s day. But his Center for Alexandrian Studies, located in a
drab modern high-rise, bustles with graduate students clacking on computers and
diligently cataloging artifacts in the small laboratory.
Empereur first visited Alexandria more than 30 years ago while teaching linguistics in
Cairo. “It was a sleepy town then,” he recalls. “Sugar and meat were rationed, it was a
war economy; there was no money for building.” Only when the city’s fortunes revived in
the early 1990s and Alexandria began sprouting new office and apartment buildings did
archaeologists realize how much of the ancient city lay undiscovered below
19th-century constructions. By then Empereur was an archaeologist with long
experience digging in Greece; he watched in horror as developers hauled away old
columns and potsherds and dumped them in nearby Lake Mariout. “I realized we were
in a new period—a time to rescue what we could.”
The forgotten cisterns of Alexandria were in particular danger of being filled in by new
construction. During ancient times, a canal from the Nile diverted floodwater from the
great river to fill a network of hundreds, if not thousands, of underground chambers,
which were expanded, rebuilt and renovated. Most were built after the fourth century,
and their engineers made liberal use of the magnificent stone columns and blocks from
Few cities in the ancient or medieval world could boast of such a sophisticated water
system. “Underneath the streets and houses, the whole city is hollow,” reported Flemish
traveler Guillebert de Lannoy in 1422. The granite-and-marble Alexandria that the poets
thought long gone still survives, and Empereur hopes to open a visitors center for one of
the cisterns to show something of Alexandria’s former glory.
The Alexandria of Alexandrias
At the order of the brash general who conquered half of Asia, Alexandria—like Athena
out of Zeus’ head—leapt nearly full grown into existence. On an April day in 331 B.C.,
on his way to an oracle in the Egyptian desert before he set off to subdue Persia,
Alexander envisioned a metropolis linking Greece and Egypt. Avoiding the treacherous
mouth of the Nile, with its shifting currents and unstable shoreline, he chose a site 20
miles west of the great river, on a narrow spit of land between the sea and a lake. He
paced out the city limits of his vision: ten miles of walls and a grid pattern of streets,
some as wide as 100 feet. The canal dug to the Nile provided both fresh water and
transport to Egypt’s rich interior, with its endless supply of grain, fruit, stone and skilled
laborers. For nearly a millennium, Alexandria was the Mediterranean’s bustling center of
But less than a decade after he founded it, Alexander’s namesake became his tomb.
Following Alexander’s death in Babylon in 323 B.C., his canny general Ptolemy—who
had been granted control of Egypt—stole the dead conqueror’s body before it reached
Macedonia, Alexander’s birthplace. Ptolemy built a lavish structure around the corpse,
thereby ensuring his own legitimacy and creating one of the world’s first major tourist
Ptolemy, already rich from his Asian conquests and now controlling Egypt’s vast wealth,
embarked on one of the most astonishing building sprees in history. The Pharos,
soaring more than 40 stories above the harbor and lit at night (no one knows exactly
how), served the purpose of guiding ships to safety, but it also told arriving merchants
and politicians that this was a place to be reckoned with. The city’s wealth and power
were underscored by the temples, wide colonnaded streets, public baths, massive
gymnasium and, of course, Alexander’s tomb.
Though schooled in war, Ptolemy proved to be a great patron of intellectual life. He
founded the Mouseion, a research institute with lecture halls, laboratories and guest
rooms for visiting scholars. Archimedes and Euclid worked on mathematics and physics
problems here, and it was also here that the astronomer Aristarchus of Samos
determined that the sun was the center of the solar system.
Ptolemy’s son added Alexandria’s famous library to the Mouseion complex. The first
chief of the library, Eratosthenes, measured the earth’s circumference to an accuracy
within a few hundred miles. The library contained an unparalleled collection of scrolls
thanks to a government edict mandating that foreign ships hand over scrolls for copying.
And the ships arrived from all directions. Some sailing on the monsoon winds imported
silks and spices from the western coast of India via the Red Sea; the valuable cargo
was then taken overland to the Mediterranean for transport to Alexandria. One ship
alone in the third century B.C. carried 60 cases of aromatic plants, 100 tons of elephant
tusks and 135 tons of ebony in a single voyage. Theaters, bordellos, villas and
warehouses sprang up. Ptolemy granted Jews their own neighborhood, near the royal
quarter, while Greeks, Phoenicians, Nabateans, Arabs and Nubians rubbed shoulders
on the quays and in the marketplaces.
The go-go era of the Ptolemies ended with the death, in 30 B.C., of the last Ptolemy
ruler, Cleopatra. Like her ancestors, she ruled Egypt from the royal quarter fronting the
harbor. Rome turned Egypt into a colony after her death, and Alexandria became its
funnel for grain. Violence between pagans and Christians, and among the many
Christian sects, scarred the city in the early Christian period.
When Arab conquerors arrived in the seventh century A.D., they built a new capital at
Cairo. But Alexandria’s commercial and intellectual life continued until medieval times.
The Arab traveler Ibn Battuta rhapsodized in 1326 that “Alexandria is a jewel of manifest
brilliance, and a virgin decked out with glittering ornaments” where “every wonder is
displayed for all eyes to see, and there all rare things arrive.” Soon after, however, the
canal from Alexandria to the Nile filled in, and the battered Pharos tumbled into the sea.
By the time Napoleon landed at Alexandria as a first stop on his ill-fated campaign to
subdue Egypt, in 1798, only a few ancient monuments and columns were still standing.
Two decades later, Egypt’s brutal and progressive new ruler—Mohammad Ali—chose
Alexandria as his link to the expanding West. European-style squares were laid out, the
port grew, the canal reopened.
For more than a century, Alexandria boomed as a trade center, and it served as Egypt’s
capital whenever the Cairo court fled the summer heat. Greek, Jewish and Syrian
communities existed alongside European enclaves. The British—Egypt’s new colonial
rulers—as well as the French and Italians built fashionable mansions and frequented
the cafés on the trendy corniche along the harbor. Though Egyptians succeeded in
throwing off colonial rule, independence would prove to be Alexandria’s undoing. When
President Nasser—himself an Alexandrian—rose to power in the 1950s, the
government turned its back on a city that seemed almost foreign. The international
community fled, and Alexandria slipped once again into obscurity.
The First Skyscraper
The rediscovery of ancient Alexandria began 14 years ago, when Empereur went for a
swim. He had joined an Egyptian documentary film crew that wanted to work
underwater near the 15th-century fort of Qait Bey, now a museum and tourist site. The
Egyptian Navy had raised a massive statue from the area in the 1960s, and Empereur
and the film crew thought the waters would be worth exploring. Most scholars believed
that the Pharos had stood nearby, and that some of the huge stone blocks that make up
the fortress may have come from its ruins.
No one knows exactly what the Pharos looked like. Literary references and sketches
from ancient times describe a structure that rose from a vast rectangular base—itself a
virtual skyscraper—topped by a smaller octagonal section, then a cylindrical section,
culminating in a huge statue, probably of Poseidon or Zeus. Scholars say the Pharos,
completed about 283 B.C., dwarfed all other human structures of its era. It survived an
astonishing 17 centuries before collapsing in the mid-1300s.
It was a calm spring day when Empereur and cinematographer Asma el-Bakri, carrying
a bulky 35-millimeter camera, slipped beneath the waters near the fort, which had been
seldom explored because the military had put the area off limits. Empereur was stunned
as he swam amid hundreds of building stones and shapes that looked like statues and
columns. The sight, he recalls, made him dizzy.
But after coming out of the water, he and el-Bakri watched in horror as a barge crane
lowered 20-ton concrete blocks into the waters just off Qait Bey to reinforce the
breakwater near where they had been filming. El-Bakri pestered government officials
until they agreed to halt the work, but not before some 3,600 tons of concrete had been
unloaded, crushing many artifacts. Thanks to el-Bakri’s intervention, Empereur—who
had experience examining Greek shipwrecks in the Aegean Sea—found himself back in
diving gear, conducting a detailed survey of thousands of relics.
One column had a diameter of 7.5 feet. Corinthian capitals, obelisks and huge stone
sphinxes littered the seafloor. Curiously, half a dozen columns carved in the Egyptian
style had markings dating back to Ramses II, nearly a millennium before Alexandria was
founded. The Greek rulers who built Alexandria had taken ancient Egyptian monuments
from along the Nile to provide gravitas for their nouveau riche city. Empereur and his
team also found a colossal statue, obviously of a pharaoh, similar to one the Egyptian
Navy had raised in 1961. He believes the pair represent Ptolemy I and his wife,
Berenice I, presiding over a nominally Greek city. With their bases, the statues would
have stood 40 feet tall.
Over the years, Empereur and his co-workers have photographed, mapped and
cataloged more than 3,300 surviving pieces on the seafloor, including many columns,
30 sphinxes and five obelisks. He estimates that another 2,000 objects still need
cataloging. Most will remain safely underwater, Egyptian officials say.
Franck Goddio is an urbane diver who travels the world examining shipwrecks, from a
French slave ship to a Spanish galleon. He and Empereur are rivals—there are rumors
of legal disputes between them and neither man will discuss the other—and in the early
1990s Goddio began to work on the other side of Alexandria’s harbor, opposite the
fortress. He discovered columns, statues, sphinxes and ceramics associated with the
Ptolemies’ royal quarter—possibly even the palace of Cleopatra herself. In 2008,
Goddio and his team located the remains of a monumental structure, 328 feet long and
230 feet wide, as well as a finger from a bronze statue that Goddio estimates would
have stood 13 feet tall.
Perhaps most significant, he has found that much of ancient Alexandria sank beneath
the waves and remains remarkably intact. Using sophisticated sonar instruments and
global positioning equipment, and working with scuba divers, Goddio has discerned the
outline of the old port’s shoreline. The new maps reveal foundations of wharves,
storehouses and temples as well as the royal palaces that formed the core of the city,
now buried under Alexandrian sand. Radiocarbon dating of wooden planks and other
excavated material shows evidence of human activity from the fourth century B.C. to the
fourth century A.D. At a recent meeting of scholars at Oxford University, the detailed
topographical map Goddio projected of the harbor floor drew gasps. “A ghost from the
past is being brought back to life,” he proclaimed.
But how had the city sunk? Working with Goddio, geologist Jean-Daniel Stanley of the
Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History examined dozens of
drilled cores of sediment from the harbor depths. He determined that the edge of the
ancient city had slid into the sea over the course of centuries because of a deadly
combination of earthquakes, a tsunami and slow subsidence.
On August 21, in A.D. 365, the sea suddenly drained out of the harbor, ships keeled
over, fish flopped in the sand. Townspeople wandered into the weirdly emptied space.
Then, a massive tsunami surged into the city, flinging water and ships over the tops of
Alexandria’s houses, according to a contemporaneous description by Ammianus
Marcellinus based on eyewitness accounts. That disaster, which may have killed 50,000
people in Alexandria alone, ushered in a two-century period of seismic activity and
rising sea levels that radically altered the Egyptian coastline.
Ongoing investigation of sediment cores, conducted by Stanley and his colleagues, has
shed new light on the chronology of human settlement here. “We’re finding,” he says,
“that at some point, back to 3,000 years ago, there is no question that this area was
The Lecture Circuit
Early Christians threatened Alexandria’s scholarly culture; they viewed pagan
philosophers and learning with suspicion, if not enmity. Shortly after Christianity became
the official religion of the Roman Empire, in A.D. 380, theological schools sprang up
around the Mediterranean to counter pagan influence. Christian mobs played some part
in the destruction of the Library of Alexandria; the exact causes and dates of assaults
on the library are still hotly disputed. And in A.D. 415, Christian monks kidnapped and
tortured to death the female philosopher and mathematician Hypatia, long considered
the last of the great pagan intellects. Most historians assumed that Alexandria’s learned
glow dimmed as the new religion gained power.
Yet now there is evidence that intellectual life in Alexandria not only continued after
Hypatia’s death but flourished more than a century later, apparently for Christian and
pagan scholars alike. Less than a mile from the sunken remnants of the royal quarters,
in the middle of Alexandria’s busy, modern downtown, Polish excavators have
uncovered 20 lecture halls dating to the late fifth or sixth century A.D.—the first physical
remains of a major center of learning in antiquity. This is not the site of the Mouseion but
a later institution unknown until now.
One warm November day, Grzegorz Majcherek, of Warsaw University, directs a power
shovel that is expanding an earthen ramp into a pit. A stocky man in sunglasses, he is
probing the only major piece of undeveloped land within the ancient city’s walls. Its
survival is the product of happenstance. Napoleon’s troops built a fort here in 1798,
which was enlarged by the British and used by Egyptian forces until the late 1950s.
During the past dozen years, Majcherek has been uncovering Roman villas, complete
with colorful mosaics, which offer the first glimpses into everyday, private life in ancient
As the shovel bites into the crumbly soil, showering the air with fine dust, Majcherek
points out a row of rectangular halls. Each has a separate entrance into the street and
horseshoe-shaped stone bleachers. The neat rows of rooms lie on a portico between
the Greek theater and the Roman baths. Majcherek estimates that the halls, which he
and his team have excavated in the past few years, were built about A.D. 500. “We
believe they were used for higher education—and the level of education was very high,”
he says. Texts in other archives show that professors were paid with public money and
were forbidden to teach on their own except on their day off. And they also show that
the Christian administration tolerated pagan philosophers—at least once Christianity
was clearly dominant. “A century had passed since Hypatia, and we’re in a new era,”
Majcherek explains, pausing to redirect the excavators in rudimentary Arabic. “The
hegemony of the church is now uncontested.”
What astonishes many historians is the complex’s institutional nature. “In all the periods
before,” says New York University’s Raffaella Cribiore, “teachers used whatever place
they could”—their own homes, those of wealthy patrons, city halls or rooms at the public
baths. But the complex in Alexandria provides the first glimpse of what would become
the modern university, a place set aside solely for learning. Though similarly impressive
structures may have existed in that era in Antioch, Constantinople, Beirut or Rome, they
were destroyed or have yet to be discovered.
The complex may have played a role in keeping the Alexandrian tradition of learning
alive. Majcherek speculates that the lecture halls drew refugees from the Athens
Academy, which closed in A.D. 529, and other pagan institutions that lost their sponsors
as Christianity gained adherents and patrons.
Arab forces under the new banner of Islam took control of the city a century later, and
there is evidence that the halls were used after the takeover. But within a few decades,
a brain drain began. Money and power shifted to the east. Welcomed in Damascus and
Baghdad by the ruling caliphs, many Alexandrian scholars moved to cities where new
prosperity and a reverence for the classics kept Greek learning alive. That scholarly
flame, so bright for a millennium in Alexandria, burned in the East until medieval Europe
began to draw on the knowledge of the ancients.
The Future of the Past?
The recent spate of finds would no doubt embarrass Hogarth, who at the end of the
19th century dug close to the lecture-hall site—just not deep enough. But mysteries
remain. The site of Alexander’s tomb—knowledge of which appears to have vanished in
the late Roman period—is still a matter of speculation, as is the great library’s exact
location. Even so, ancient Alexandria’s remains are perhaps being destroyed faster than
they’re being discovered, because of real estate development. Since 1997, Empereur
has undertaken 12 “rescue digs,” in which archaeologists are given a limited period of
time to salvage what they can before the bulldozers move in for new construction. There
is not enough time and money to do more, Empereur says; “It’s a pity.” He echoes what
the Greek poet Constantine Cafavy wrote nearly a century ago: “Say goodbye to her, to
the Alexandria you are losing.”
Passing a new gaudy high-rise, Empereur cannot conceal his disdain. He says that the
developer, fearful that striking archaeological treasures would delay construction, used
his political connections to avoid salvage excavations. “That place had not been built on
since antiquity. It may have been the site of one of the world’s largest gymnasiums.”
Such a building would have been not just a sports complex but also a meeting place for
For two years, Empereur examined an extensive necropolis, or burial ground, until the
ancient catacombs were demolished to make way for a thoroughfare. What a shame, he
says, that the ruins were not preserved, if only as a tourist attraction, with admission
fees supporting the research work.
Like archaeologists of old, today’s visitors to Egypt typically ignore Alexandria in favor of
the pyramids of Giza and the temples of Luxor. But Empereur is seeking funding for his
cistern museum, while the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities envisions a
series of transparent underwater tunnels in Alexandria’s harbor to show off the sunken
city. The dusty Greco-Roman Museum is getting a much-needed overhaul, and a
museum to display early mosaics is in the works. A sparkling new library and
spruced-up parks give parts of the city a prosperous air.
Yet even on a sunny day along the curving seaside corniche, there is a melancholy
atmosphere. Through wars, earthquakes, a tsunami, depressions and revolutions,
Alexandria remakes itself but can’t quite shake its past. Cafavy imagined ancient music
echoing down Alexandria’s streets and wrote: “This city will always pursue you.”
Read the following excerpt from Polybius’s Histories (book 6) and then write a short
paper answering the following questions.
1. What powers did Roman consuls legally exhibit within the limits of the Roman
2. What powers did the Roman Senate legally exhibit within the limits of the
Roman governmental system?
3. What powers did the Roman people legally exhibit within the limits of the
Roman governmental system?
4. Explain why agree or disagree with his final thoughts about the true nature of
the Roman governmental system.
I have given an account of the constitution of Lycurgus, I will now endeavour to describe
that of Rome at the period of their disastrous defeat at Cannae.
As for the Roman constitution, it had three elements,
each of them possessing sovereign powers: and their respective share of power in the
whole state had been regulated with such a scrupulous regard to equality and
equilibrium, that no one could say for certain, not even a native, whether the constitution
as a whole were an aristocracy or democracy or despotism. And no wonder: for if we
confine our observation to the power of the Consuls we should be inclined to regard it
as despotic; if on that of the Senate, as aristocratic; and if finally one looks at the power
possessed by the people it would seem a clear case of a democracy. What the exact
powers of these several parts were, and still, with slight modifications, are, I will now
The Consuls, before leading out the legions, remain in Rome and are supreme masters
of the administration. All other magistrates, except the Tribunes, are under them and
take their orders. They introduce foreign ambassadors to the Senate; bring matters
requiring deliberation before it; and see to the execution of its decrees. If, again, there
are any matters of state which require the authorisation of the people, it is their business
to see to them, to summon the popular meetings, to bring the proposals before them,
and to carry out the decrees of the majority. In the preparations for war also, and in a
word in the entire administration of a campaign, they have all but absolute power. It is
competent to them to impose on the allies such levies as they think good, to appoint the
Military Tribunes, to make up the roll for soldiers and select those that are suitable.
Besides they have absolute power of inflicting punishment on all who are under their
command while on active service: and they have authority to expend as much of the
public money as they choose, being accompanied by a quaestor who is entirely at their
orders. A survey of these powers would in fact justify our describing the constitution as
despotic,—a clear case of royal government. Nor will it affect the truth of my description,
if any of the institutions I have described are changed in our time, or in that of our
posterity: and the same remarks apply to what follows.
The Senate has first of all the control of the treasury, and regulates the receipts and
disbursements alike. For the Quaestors cannot issue any public money for the various
departments of the state without a decree of the Senate, except for the service of the
Consuls. The Senate controls also what is by far the largest and most important
expenditure, that, namely, which is made by the censors every lustrum for the repair or
construction of public buildings; this money cannot be obtained by the censors except
by the grant of the Senate. Similarly all crimes committed in Italy requiring a public
investigation, such as treason, conspiracy, poisoning, or wilful murder, are in the hands
of the Senate. Besides, if any individual or state among the Italian allies requires a
controversy to be settled, a penalty to be assessed, help or protection to be
afforded,—all this is the province of the Senate. Or again, outside Italy, if it is necessary
to send an embassy to reconcile warring communities, or to remind them of their duty,
or sometimes to impose requisitions upon them, or to receive their submission, or finally
to proclaim war against them,—this too is the business of the Senate. In like manner the
reception to be given to foreign ambassadors in Rome, and the answers to be returned
to them, are decided by the Senate. With such business the people have nothing to do.
Consequently, if one were staying at Rome when the Consuls were not in town, one
would imagine the constitution to be a complete aristocracy: and this has been the idea
entertained by many Greeks, and by many kings as well, from the fact that nearly all the
business they had with Rome was settled by the Senate.
After this one would naturally be inclined to ask what part is left for the people in the
constitution, when the Senate has these various functions, especially the control of the
receipts and expenditure of the exchequer; and when the Consuls, again, have absolute
power over the details of military preparation, and an absolute authority in the field?
There is, however, a part left the people, and it is a most important one. For the people
is the sole fountain of honour and of punishment; and it is by these two things and these
alone that dynasties and constitutions and, in a word, human society are held together:
for where the distinction between them is not sharply drawn both in theory and practice,
there no undertaking can be properly administered,—as indeed we might expect when
good and bad are held in exactly the same honour. The people then are the only court
to decide matters of life and death; and even in-cases where the penalty is money, if the
sum to be assessed is sufficiently serious, and especially when the accused have held
the higher magistracies. And in regard to this arrangement there is one point deserving
especial commendation and record. Men who are on trial for their lives at Rome, while
sentence is in process of being voted,—if even only one of the tribes whose votes are
needed to ratify the sentence has not voted,—have the privilege at Rome of openly
departing and condemning themselves to a voluntary exile. Such men are safe at
Naples or Praeneste or at Tibur, and at other towns with which this arrangement has
been duly ratified on oath.
Again, it is the people who bestow offices on the deserving, which are the most
honourable rewards of virtue. It has also the absolute power of passing or repealing
laws; and, most important of all, it is the people who deliberate on the question of peace
or war. And when provisional terms are made for alliance, suspension of hostilities, or
treaties, it is the people who ratify them or the reverse.
These considerations again would lead one to say that the chief power in the state was
the people’s, and that the constitution was a democracy.
Hammurabi’s Code of
“Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to
bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the
evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak; so that I should rule over the
black-headed people like Shamash, and enlighten the land, to further the well-being of
So begins the Law Code of Hammurabi, a list of nearly 300 laws etched into a two and
one-half meter high black diorite pillar, discovered in 1902 but dating back to the time of
Hammurabi himself (1792-1750 B.C.E).
Some laws were quite brutal, others rather progressive. Members of the upper-class
often received harsher punishments than commoners, and women had quite a few
Most of the nearly 300 laws written on the pillar pertain to property rights of landowners,
slavemasters, merchants, and builders.
Here are some of the more unusual laws that seem very foreign to a modern society:
If any one finds runaway male or female slaves in the open country and bring them to
their masters, the master of the slaves shall pay him two shekels of silver.
If any one is committing a robbery and is caught, then he shall be put to death.
If a tavern-keeper (feminine) does not accept corn according to gross weight in payment
of a drink, but takes money, and the price of the drink is less than that of the corn, she
shall be convicted and thrown into the water.
If a son of a paramour or a prostitute say to his adoptive father or mother: “You are not
my father, or my mother,” his tongue shall be cut off.
If a son strike his father, his hands shall be hewn off.
If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out.
If a man strike a free-born woman so that she lose her unborn child, he shall pay ten
shekels for her loss.
If a barber, without the knowledge of his master, cut the sign of a slave on a slave not to
be sold, the hands of this barber shall be cut off.
If a slave says to his master: “You are not my master,” if they convict him his master
shall cut off his ear.
Hammurabi’s own words illustrate this point: “If a man has destroyed the eye of a man
of the gentleman class, they shall destroy his eye …. If he has destroyed the eye of a
commoner … he shall pay one mina of silver. If he has destroyed the eye of a
gentleman’s slave … he shall pay half the slave’s price.” The Babylonians clearly did not
live under a social system that treated all people equally.
The code deals with many topics of concern other than assault. It outlines rules for
witnesses and those making accusations of crimes. For example, “If any one bring an
accusation of any crime before the elders, and does not prove what he has charged, he
shall, if it be a capital offense charged, be put to death.” It details how theft or
destruction of property should be handled and gives guidelines for dealing with trade
and business problems.
In some cases, these rules are quite reasonable and fair: “If any one owe a debt for a
loan, and a storm prostrates (kills) the grain, or the harvest fail, or the grain does not
grow for lack of water, in that year he need not give his creditor any grain; he washes
his debt-tablet in water and pays no rent for this year.”
The code also gives rules for family matters, such as marriage, divorce, incest, and
adoption. Payment amounts for the work of doctors and other professionals are
outlined. Although the pay for doctors was good, they suffered severe punishments for
fatal errors. The code states that “if a physician make a large incision with the operating
knife, and kill him, … his hands shall be cut off.” (Talk about a need for malpractice
The Code covers all types of issues related to farming and herding animals, and it also
lays out rules on the ownership and sale of slaves.
Go Jump in a River!
Hammurabi’s Code may not seem very different from more recent laws and precedents
that guide the processes of a trial. But, there are a few major differences between
ancient Babylonians and today’s laws. Hammurabi’s Code required accusers to bring
the accused into court by themselves.
A number of the laws refer to jumping in the Euphrates River as a method of
demonstrating one’s guilt or innocence. If the accused returned to shore safely, they
were deemed innocent; if they drowned, they were guilty. This practice follows the
Babylonians’s belief that their fates were controlled by their gods.
From the code, it is evident that the Babylonians did not believe all people were equal.
The code treated slaves, commoners, and nobles differently. Women had a number of
rights, including the ability to buy and sell property and to obtain a divorce. The
Babylonians understood the need for honesty by all parties in a trial and for court
officers to be free of corruption so that the justice system could function effectively.
Hammarabi’s Code serves as a window into the prevailing values of ancient Babylon.
(Links to an external site.)
After reading through this short article, write a brief (2 page max) paper
answering these two questions:
1. Punishments varied from crime to crime and based on the victim. How
was this determined in the Code?
2. What did you learn about the life and people of Mesopotamia in
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