Code of Hammurabi: History, Content, Ethics and Punishment

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so-called head of Hammurabi

The Babylonian king Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.) is credited with producing the Code of Hammurabi, by some reckonings the oldest surviving set of laws. Recognized for putting eye for an eye justice into writing and remarkable for its depth and judiciousness, it consists of 282 case laws with legal procedures and penalties. Many of the laws had been around before the code was etched in stone. Hammurabi codified them into a fixed and standardized set of laws. He also instituted a highly developed administration that included courts and a system for the enforcement of laws.

The legal code of Hammurabi is listed on an 8-foot-high black diorite stele from the 18th century B.C. On the top of the stele Hammurabi is shown standing before Shamash, the sun god and god of justice, receiving the laws. The stele is believed to be one of many that were set up throughout the Babylonian domain to inform people of the law of the land. The Code of Hammurabi slab that exists today was moved to Susa in Iran in 1200 B.C. and discovered in 1901. It is currently at the Louvre.

Charles F. Horne wrote: Hammurabi’s code of laws is “the earliest-known example of a ruler proclaiming publicly to his people an entire body of laws, arranged in orderly groups, so that all men might read and know what was required of them. The code was carved upon a black stone monument... and clearly intended to be reared in public view. This noted stone was found ... not in Babylon, but in a city of the Persian mountains, to which some later conqueror must have carried it in triumph. [Source: Commentary by Charles F. Horne, (1915)]

Morris Jastrow said: “It was carried as a trophy by the Elamites in one of their incursions into Babylonia. Fragments of a second copy have also been found. The code was originally set up in the temple of Marduk at Babylon. Copies were probably prepared and set up in other centres. At the top is a design representing Hammurabi in an attitude of adoration before Shamash, the sun-god, who as the god of justice and righteousness is the presiding genius of the king as law-giver, and from whom in their ultimate analysis the laws are derived. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 ]

Nancy Demand of Indiana University wrote: It was not a code of law in the modern sense, but probably a collection of legal decisions made by Hammurabi in the course of his activities as a judge and published to advertise his justice. Several similar collections are known from other areas and periods, and Hammurabi's cannot be taken as representative of all Mesopotamian justice — in fact, it is outstanding for its application of the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, while other "codes" allow monetary penalties.”[Source: The Asclepion, Prof.Nancy Demand, Indiana University - Bloomington]

Websites on Mesopotamia: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia ; International Association for Assyriology ; Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures, University of Chicago ; University of Chicago Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations ; University of Pennsylvania Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations (NELC); Penn Museum Near East Section; Ancient History Encyclopedia ; British Museum ; Louvre ; Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Ancient Near Eastern Art Metropolitan Museum of Art; Iraq Museum theiraqmuseum ABZU; Archaeology Websites Archaeology News Report ; : ; Archaeology in Europe ; Archaeology magazine ; HeritageDaily; Live Science

Content and Impact of Hammurabi’s Code

Morris Jastrow said: “The inscription, covering originally 44 columns, running around the stone and comprising over 3000 lines, is almost perfectly preserved. Forty-four columns, aggregating 2644 lines, are intact, while five columns (approximately 300 lines) have been intentionally erased, presumably to receive an inscription of the Elamite plunderer who proposed to perpetuate his vandalism by inscribing his name and titles on the polished portion. For some reason he failed to do so. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 ]

” Through fragments of late Assyrian copies in Ashurbanapal’s Library parts of the missing columns can be restored. After an invocation to the gods and an enumeration of what he did to beautify and enlarge the sanctuaries in various parts of his extensive realm and to promote the wellbeing of his subjects, Hammurabi proceeds to enumerate the laws which may conveniently be divided into 282 paragraphs. The last three columns are taken up with a concluding statement on the part of the king of his career, emphasising his purpose in preparing the Code, and closing with the usual curses against any one who defaces or injures the monument or who alters any of its decrees.”

Claude Hermann and Walter Johns wrote in the Encyclopedia Britannica: “ The fragments of it which have been recovered from Assur-bani-pal's library at Nineveh and later Babylonian copies show that it was studied, divided into chapters entitled Ninu ilu sirum from its opening words, and recopied for fifteen hundred years or more. The greater part of It remained in force, even through the Persian, Greek and Parthian conquests, which affected private life in Babylonia very little, and it survived to influence Syro-Roman and later Muslim law in Mesopotamia.... The law in Assyria was derived from Babylonia but conserved early features long after they had disappeared elsewhere. [Source: Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian Law — The Code of Hammurabi. Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-1911 ]

Justice and Law in Hammurabi’s Code

Fragment of the Code of Hummurabi

The legal code of Hammurabi dealt with theft, marriage, debt, slavery, commerce. One of the central tenets of the laws was to protect the weak against the strong. The "an for an eye" saying reads: "If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye...If a son strike his father, they shall cut of his fingers...if one break's a man's bone, they shall break his bone." It came from list of penalties for surgeons. If a surgeon caused someone to lose an eye through negligence the surgeon could lose his eyes.

Hammurabi justice could be quite cruel. One law stated: “If a fire has broken out in a man's house and a man who has gone to extinguish it has coveted an article of the owner of the house and takes the article of the house, that man shall be cast in that fire." Hammurabi instituted the death penalty for illegal timber harvesting after wood became in such short supply that people took their doors with them when they moved. The shortages degraded agriculture land and cut production of chariots and naval ships.

Charles F. Horne wrote: Hammurabi’s code of laws “begins and ends with addresses to the gods. Even a law code was in those days regarded as a subject for prayer, though the prayers here are chiefly cursings of whoever shall neglect or destroy the law. The code then regulates in clear and definite strokes the organization of society. The judge who blunders in a law case is to be expelled from his judgeship forever, and heavily fined. The witness who testifies falsely is to be slain. Indeed, all the heavier crimes are made punishable with death. Even if a man builds a house badly, and it falls and kills the owner, the builder is to be slain. If the owner's son was killed, then the builder's son is slain. [Source: Commentary by Charles F. Horne, (1915)]

“We can see where the Hebrews learned their law of "an eye for an eye." These grim retaliatory punishments take no note of excuses or explanations, but only of the fact — with one striking exception. An accused person was allowed to cast himself into "the river," the Euphrates. Apparently the art of swimming was unknown; for if the current bore him to the shore alive he was declared innocent, if he drowned he was guilty. So we learn that faith in the justice of the ruling gods was already firmly, though somewhat childishly, established in the minds of men.

“Yet even with this earliest set of laws, as with most things Babylonian, we find ourselves dealing with the end of things rather than the beginnings. Hammurabi's code was not really the earliest. The preceding sets of laws have disappeared, but we have found several traces of them, and Hammurabi's own code clearly implies their existence. He is but reorganizing a legal system long established.”

Hammurabi’s Code and Ethics in Mesopotamia

the whole thing at the Louvre

Morris Jastrow said: “The spirit of Hammurabi’s Code further illustrates the ethical standards imposed alike upon rulers, priests, and people. The business and legal documents of Babylonia and Assyria show that the laws, codified by the king, and representing the summary of legal procedures and legal decisions down to his day, were not only enforced but interpreted to the very letter. To be sure, the Code embodies side by side enactments of older and later dates. It contains examples of punishment by ordeal, as, e.g., in the case of a culprit accused of witchcraft, where the decision is relegated to the god of the stream into which the defendant is cast. If the god of the stream takes him unto himself, his guilt is established. If the god by saving him declares his innocence, the plaintiff is put to death and his property forfeited for the benefit of the defendant, wrongfully accused. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 ]

“The lex talionis —providing “eye for eye, bone for bone, and tooth for tooth”—also finds a place in the Code; but in both the ordeal and in the lex talionis, it does not differ from the Pentateuchal Codes, which, likewise compilations of earlier and later decrees, prescribe the ordeal in the case for instance of the woman accused of adultery; and if it be maintained that the principle of “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” is set up in the Old Testament merely as a basis for a compensation equal to the injury done, the same might hold good for the Ham-murapi Code and with even greater justification, since the Code actually limits the lex talionis to the case of an injury done to one of equal rank, while in the case of one of inferior or superior rank, a fine is imposed, which suggests that the lex talionis as applied to one of equal rank has become merely a legal phrase to indicate that a return, equal to the value of an eye or a tooth to him who suffers the assault, is to be imposed.

“This, of course, is a mere supposition, but at all events the underlying principle is one of equal compensation, and in so far it is ethical in its nature. On the other hand, there can be no doubt that the original import of the lex talionis , among both Babylonians and Assyrians (as among the Hebrews), involved a literal interpretation, as may be concluded from the particularly harsh and inconsequent application to the case of the son of a builder, who is to be put to death should an edifice, erected by his father, fall and kill the son of the owner.

Intention and Neglect in the Hammurabi Code

Claude Hermann and Walter Johns wrote in the Encyclopedia Britannica:“The Code recognized the importance of intention. A man who killed another in a quarrel must swear he did not do so intentionally, and was then only fined according to the rank of the deceased. The Code does not say what would be the penalty of murder, but death is so often awarded where death is caused that we can hardly doubt that the murderer was put to death. If the assault only led to injury and was unintentional, the assailant in a quarrel had to pay the doctor's fees. [Source: Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian Law — The Code of Hammurabi. Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-1911 ]

“A brander, induced to remove a slave's identification mark, could swear to his ignorance and was free. The owner of an ox which gored a man on the street was only responsible for damages if, the ox was known by him to be vicious, even if it caused death. If the mancipium died a natural death under the creditor's hand, the creditor was scot free. In ordinary cases responsibility was not demanded for accident or for more than proper care. Poverty excused bigamy on the part of a deserted wife.

“On the other hand carelessness and neglect were severely punished, as in the case of the unskilful physician, if it led to loss of life or limb his hands were cut off, a slave had to be replaced, the loss of his eye paid for to half his value; a veterinary surgeon who caused the death of an ox or ass paid quarter value; a builder, whose careless workmanship caused death, lost his life or paid for it by the death of his child, replaced slave or goods, and in any case had to rebuild the house or make good any damages due to defective building and repair the defect as well. The boat-builder had to make good any defect of construction or damage due to it for a year's warranty.”

Punishments in Hammurabi’s Code

Morris Jastrow said: ““Another unfavourable feature of the Code...lies in the extreme severity of many of its punishments. The penalty of death is imposed for about fifty offences, some of them comparatively trivial, such as stealing temple or royal property, where, however, the element of sacrilege enters into consideration. Even the claimant of a property, alleged to have been purchased from a man’s son or servant, or of a member of the higher class, who is unable to show the contract, is held to be a thief, because of the fraudulent intent, and is put to death [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 ]

“The law is, however, fair in its application, and punishes with equal severity, when there is a fraudulent attempt to deprive one of legally acquired property. He who aids a runaway slave is placed in the same category as he who steals a minor son, or as he who conspires to take property away from his neighbour, and is put to death for the fraudulent attempt. A plunderer at a fire is himself thrown into that fire, and he who has broken into a man’s house is immured in the breach that he himself has made.

“In cases of assault and battery, a distinction is drawn according to the rank of the assailant and the assailed. If a person of lower rank attacks a person of higher rank, the punishment is a public whipping of sixty lashes with a leather thong, whereas if the one attacked is of equal rank, the whipping is remitted, but a heavy fine— one mana of silver—is imposed. If a slave commits this offence, and the victim is of high rank, the slave’s ear is cut off At the same time, an ethical spirit is revealed in the stipulation that, if the injury be inflicted in a chance-medley, and the blow not intentionally aimed at any particular person, the offender is discharged with the obligation to pay the doctor’s bill, or, in the event of the death of the victim, with a fine according to the rank of the deceased. A lower level of equity is, however, represented by the enactments that, in case a man shrikes a pregnant woman and the woman dies, a daughter of the offender is put to death, or in case a surgical operation on the eye is not successful, and the patient loses his eye, the surgeon’s hand is to be cut off, or in the event of the death of a slave under an operation, the surgeon must reimburse the owner by giving him another slave.

Hammurabi's Code Versus Bible Punishments

the novel by Malorie Blackman

Housebreaking: Hammurabi's Code: Thief is put to death. The Bible: Exod. 22:2-3. If the thief is injured or killed during darkness there is no blood guilt on his killer. [Source: Gerald A. Larue, “Old Testament Life and Literature,” 1968, ]

Giving False Testimony: Hammurabi's Code: In murder cases: death penalty. In sorcery cases: ordeal by water. In property cases: according to the individual case. The Bible: Exod. 23:1-3. Perjury prohibited and no penalty given.

Theft of an Animal: Hammurabi's Code: Restitution 10 to 30-fold. The Bible: Exod. 22:1. Restitution 2 or 4 or 5-fold. Theft of a Person: Hammurabi's Code: Thief is put to death. The Bible: Exod. 21:16. Thief is put to death.

A Son Strikes His Father: Hammurabi's Code: The son loses his hand. The Bible: Exod. 21:15 The son is put to death.

Personal Injury: Hammurabi's Code: The lex talionis (law of retaliation) is invoked among equals; fines are paid when a noble strikes a freeman or slave. The Bible: Exod. 21:20-27. The lex talionis is invoked among equals; freedom is granted to a slave permanently injured.

Injury Causing Miscarriage: Hammurabi's Code: A fine is paid for the death of the fetus. If the woman dies, restitution is made in silver, but if she is a noblewoman the killer's daughter is put to death. The Bible: Exod. 21:22. A fine is paid. If physical injury occurs to the mother the lex talionis is invoked.

Goring by an Ox: Hammurabi's Code: No penalty unless the ox was known to be a gorer and then reparations are paid. The Bible: Exod. 21:28-32. If an ox known to be a gorer kills a man, the ox and its owner are killed. If a slave is gored the ox is killed and reparations paid.

On the origin of Hebrew Law, Gerald A. Larue wrote in “Old Testament Life and Literature”: “It is possible to surmise the probable sources of Hebrew law and to suggest that codification began during the period of the early monarchy, although it is impossible to determine which laws may have come from that time. The process appears to have involved the adoption of certain Canaanite civil and agricultural laws which probably reflected the effects of Egyptian control and the proximity of Mesopotamian culture; the modification of Canaanite jurisprudence by tribal traditions (cf. Judg. 19-20) ; the role of king as interpreter and enforcer of law; and contributions from prophetic and priestly circles. Some form of national code must have developed, and there can be little doubt that it is preserved in part in the Bible. The abundance of religious law designed to guide the professional in the various responsibilities of the priesthood, may have originated in guidance-giving oracles. The placing of all law within the framework of a God-given code reflects the conviction that the nation-including its coming-into-being, its organization and administration and the status of every individual within it-was, so to speak, under Yahweh.”

Hammurabi Code and the Three Classes of Babylonian Society

By the time the Babylonians were dominate there were three distinct classes: 1) nobles with hereditary estates; 2) freemen, who could own land but not pass it on to their children; and 3) slaves.

Claude Hermann and Walter Johns wrote in the Encyclopedia Britannica: The Hammurbai “Code contemplates the whole population as falling into three classes, the amelu, the muskinu and the ardu. The amelu was a patrician, the man of family, whose birth, marriage and death were registered, of ancestral estates and full civil rights. He had aristocratic privileges and responsibilities, the right to exact retaliation for corporal injuries, and liability to heavier punishment for crimes and misdemeanours, higher fees and fines to pay. To this class belonged the king and court, the higher officials, the professions and craftsmen. The term became in time a mere courtesy title but originally carried with it standing. [Source: Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian Law — The Code of Hammurabi. Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-1911 ]

“Already in the Code, when status is not concerned, it is used to denote "any one." There was no property qualification nor does the term appear to be racial. It is most difficult to characterize the muskinu exactly. The term came in time to mean "a beggar" and with that meaning has passed through Aramaic and Hebrew into many modern languages; but though the Code does not regard him as necessarily poor, he may have been landless. He was free, but had to accept monetary compensation for corporal injuries, paid smaller fees and fines, even paid less offerings to the gods. He inhabited a separate quarter of the city. There is no reason to regard him as specially connected with the court, as a royal pensioner, nor as forming the bulk of the population. The rarity of any reference to him in contemporary documents makes further specification conjectural.

“The ardu was a slave, his master's chattel, and formed a very numerous class. He could acquire property and even hold other slaves. His master clothed and fed him, paid his doctor's fees, but took all compensation paid for injury done to him. His master usually found him a slave-girl as wife (the children were then born slaves), often set him up in a house (with farm or business) and simply took an annual rent of him. Otherwise he might marry a freewoman (the children were then free), who might bring him a dower which his master could not touch, and at his death one-half of his property passed to his master as his heir. He could acquire his freedom by purchase from his master, or might be freed and dedicated to a temple, or even adopted, when he became an amelu and not a muskinu. Slaves were recruited by purchase abroad, from captives taken in war and by freemen degraded for debt or crime..

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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