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Stele of Hammurabi: Definition & Concept

Instructor: Mary Deering

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

Learn about the use of stele to communicate information about a society in the ancient world. Discover the Stele of Hammurabi and explore its impact on the ancient world and the modern world.

Definition of Stele

Stele is a term that archaeologists use to describe large wooden or stone slabs that were carved with images and information about a particular society. Usually, a stele was taller than it was wide and was placed in a public location.

The Stele of Hammurabi

In some cases, steles were used to communicate ideas to a group of people. The ruler of Babylon, Hammurabi, developed a new legal code that provided guidelines for every aspect of Babylonian society. Hammurabi's code differentiated people according to their social class and gender, and applied laws and punishments that corresponded. For example, Hammurabi's code required that tenant farmers cultivated carefully the land and kept all canals and ditches in good repair. A farmer who neglected his fields and canals either had to pay for the damages or, if the costs were particularly high, the farmer could be sold into slavery to pay off the debt.

Close up of Stele of Hammurabi
Close up of Stele of Hammurabi

Another section of Hammurabi's code controlled the private lives of the citizens of Ancient Babylon. According to the code, the parents of a young couple were responsible for arranging a marriage. The bride would receive a dowry from her father and the groom's father was required to provide a gift to the father or the bride. Once the couple were married, the new wife was expected to remain completely faithful to her husband. An unfaithful wife was tried under a court of law and could be sentenced to death if she was found guilty.

Because the code of Hammurabi addressed so many different aspects of Babylonian life, Hammurabi had his laws carved onto tall steles. The Stele of Hammurabi was placed in public locations throughout the kingdom and was written in the native language of the people of Babylon. This ensured that anyone who was literate could read the code of Hammurabi and see how the laws applied to their lives.

Stele of Hammurabi at Louvre Museum
Stele of Hammurabi at Louvre Museum

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