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Code of Hammurabi: Laws and Facts

Code of Hammurabi: Laws and Facts

The Code of Hammurabi was one of the earliest and most complete written legal codes and was proclaimed by the Babylonian king Hammurabi, who reigned from 1792 to 1750 B.C. Hammurabi expanded the city-state of Babylon along the Euphrates River to unite all of southern Mesopotamia. The Hammurabi code of laws, a collection of 282 rules, established standards for commercial interactions and set fines and punishments to meet the requirements of justice. Hammurabi’s Code was carved onto a massive, finger-shaped black stone stele (pillar) that was looted by invaders and finally rediscovered in 1901.


Hammurabi was the sixth king in the Babylonian dynasty, which ruled in central Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) from c. 1894 to 1595 B.C.

His family was descended from the Amorites, a semi-nomadic tribe in western Syria, and his name reflects a mix of cultures: Hammu, which means “family” in Amorite, combined with rapi, meaning “great” in Akkadian, the everyday language of Babylon.

In the 30th year of his reign, Hammurabi began to expand his kingdom up and down the Tigris and Euphrates river valley, overthrowing the kingdoms of Assyria, Larsa, Eshunna and Mari until all of Mesopotamia was under his sway.

Hammurabi combined his military and political advances with irrigation projects and the construction of fortifications and temples celebrating Babylon’s patron deity, Marduk. The Babylon of Hammurabi’s era is now buried below the area’s groundwater table, and whatever archives he kept are long dissolved, but clay tablets discovered at other ancient sites reveal glimpses of the king’s personality and statecraft.

One letter records his complaint of being forced to provide dinner attire for ambassadors from Mari just because he’d done the same for some other delegates: “Do you imagine you can control my palace in the matter of formal wear?”

What Is the Code of Hammurabi?

The black stone stele containing the Code of Hammurabi was carved from a single, four-ton slab of diorite, a durable but incredibly difficult stone for carving.

At its top is a two-and-a-half-foot relief carving of a standing Hammurabi receiving the law—symbolized by a measuring rod and tape—from the seated Shamash, the Babylonian god of justice. The rest of the seven-foot-five-inch monument is covered with columns of chiseled cuneiform script.

The text, compiled at the end of Hammurabi’s reign, is less a proclamation of principles than a collection of legal precedents, set between prose celebrating Hammurabi’s just and pious rule. Hammurabi’s Code provides some of the earliest examples of the doctrine of “lex talionis,” or the laws of retribution, sometimes better known as “an eye for an eye.”

The 282 edicts are all written in if-then form. For example, if a man steals an ox, then he must pay back 30 times its value. The edicts range from family law to professional contracts and administrative law, often outlining different standards of justice for the three classes of Babylonian society—the propertied class, freedmen and slaves.

A doctor’s fee for curing a severe wound would be 10 silver shekels for a gentleman, five shekels for a freedman and two shekels for a slave. Penalties for malpractice followed the same scheme: a doctor who killed a rich patient would have his hands cut off, while only financial restitution was required if the victim was a slave.

Stele of Hammurabi Rediscovered

In 1901 Jacques de Morgan, a French mining engineer, led an archaeological expedition to Persia to excavate the Elamite capital of Susa, more than 250 miles from the center of Hammurabi’s kingdom.

There they uncovered the stele of Hammurabi—broken into three pieces—that had been brought to Susa as spoils of war, likely by the Elamite king Shutruk-Nahhunte in the mid-12th century B.C.

The stele was packed up and shipped to the Louvre in Paris, and within a year it had been translated and widely publicized as the earliest example of a written legal code—one that predated but bore striking parallels to the laws outlined in the Hebrew Old Testament.

The U.S. Supreme Court building features Hammurabi on the marble carvings of historic lawgivers that lines the south wall of the courtroom.

Although other subsequently-discovered written Mesopotamian laws, including the Sumerian “Lipit-Ishtar” and “Ur-Nammu,” predate Hammurabi’s by hundreds of years, Hammurabi’s reputation remains as a pioneering lawgiver who worked—in the words of his monument—”to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak and to see that justice is done to widows and orphans.”


Hammurabi Edit

Hammurabi (or Hammurapi), the sixth king of the Amorite First Dynasty of Babylon, ruled from 1792 to 1750 BC (middle chronology). He secured Babylonian dominance over the Mesopotamian plain through military prowess, diplomacy, and treachery. When Hammurabi inherited his father Sin-Muballit's throne, [1] Babylon held little local sway the local hegemon was Rim-Sin of Larsa. Hammurabi waited until Rim-Sin grew old, then conquered his territory in one swift campaign, leaving his organisation intact. [2] Later, Hammurabi betrayed allies in Eshnunna, Elam, and Mari to gain their territories. [3]

Hammurabi had an aggressive foreign policy, but his letters suggest he was concerned with the welfare of his many subjects and was interested in law and justice. [4] He commissioned extensive construction works, and in his letters, he frequently presents himself as his people's shepherd. [5] Justice is also a theme of the prologue to the Code, [6] and "the word translated 'justice' [ešērum]. is one whose root runs through both prologue and epilogue". [7]

Earlier law collections Edit

Although Hammurabi's Code was the first Mesopotamian law collection discovered, it was not the first written several earlier collections survive. These collections were written in Sumerian and Akkadian. They also purport to have been written by rulers. There were almost certainly more such collections, as statements of other rulers suggest the custom was widespread. [8] The similarities between these law collections make it tempting to assume a consistent underlying legal system. [8] As with the Code of Hammurabi, however, it is difficult to interpret the purpose and underlying legal systems of these earlier collections, prompting numerous scholars to question whether this should be attempted. [9] Extant collections include:

  • The Code of Ur-Nammu of Ur.
  • The Code of Lipit-Ishtar of Isin.
  • The Laws of Eshnunna (written by Bilalama or by Dadusha).
  • Another collection, which Martha Roth calls the "Laws of X", [10] but which may simply be the end of the Code of Ur-Nammu. [11]

There are additionally thousands of documents from the practice of law, from before and during the Old Babylonian period. These documents include contracts, judicial rulings, letters on legal cases, and reform documents such as that of Urukagina, king of Lagash in the mid-3rd millennium BC, whose reforms combatted corruption. Mesopotamia has the most comprehensive surviving legal corpus from before the Digest of Justinian, even compared to those from ancient Greece and Rome. [12]

Louvre stele Edit

The Louvre stele was found at the site of the ancient Elamite city of Susa. Susa is in modern-day Khuzestan Province, Iran (Persia at the time of excavation). The stele was excavated by the French Archaeological Mission under the direction of Jacques de Morgan. [20] Father Jean-Vincent Scheil published the initial report in the fourth volume of the Reports of the Delegation to Persia (Mémoires de la Délégation en Perse). According to Scheil, the stele's fragments were found on the tell of the Susa acropolis (l'Acropole de Suse), between December 1901 and January 1902. [19] The few, large fragments made assembly easy. [19]

Scheil hypothesised that the stele had been taken to Susa by the Elamite king Shutruk-Nakhunte and that he had commissioned the erasure of several columns of laws to write his legend there. [19] Roth suggests the stele was taken as plunder from Sippar, [21] where Hammurabi lived towards the end of his reign. [22]

Other copies Edit

Fragments of a second and possibly third stele recording the Code were found along with the Louvre stele at Susa. [23] Over fifty manuscripts containing the laws are known. They were found not only in Susa but also in Babylon, Nineveh, Assur, Borsippa, Nippur, Sippar, Ur, Larsa, and more. [24] Copies were created during Hammurabi's reign, and also after it, since the text became a part of the scribal curriculum. [25] Copies have been found dating from one thousand years after the stele's creation, [18] and a catalogue from the library of Neo-Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (685–631 BC) lists a copy of the "judgments of Hammurabi". [26] The additional copies fill in most of the stele's original text, including much of the erased section. [18]

The editio princeps of the Code was published by Father Jean-Vincent Scheil in 1902, [15] in the fourth volume of the Reports of the Delegation to Persia (Mémoires de la Délégation en Perse). After a brief introduction with details of the excavation, [27] Scheil gave a transliteration and a free translation into French, [28] as well as a selection of images. [29] Editions in other languages soon followed: in German by Hugo Winckler in 1902, [30] in English by C. H. W. Johns in 1903, [31] and in Italian by Pietro Bonfante, also in 1903. [32]

The Code was thought to be the earliest Mesopotamian law collection when it was discovered in 1902—for example, C. H. W. Johns' 1903 book was titled The Oldest Code of Laws in the World. [31] The English writer H. G. Wells included Hammurabi in the first volume of The Outline of History, and to Wells too the Code was "the earliest known code of law". [33] However, three earlier collections were discovered afterwards: the Code of Lipit-Ishtar in 1947, the Laws of Eshnunna in 1948, and the Code of Ur-Nammu in 1952. [34] Early commentators dated Hammurabi and the stele to the 23rd century BC. [35] However, this is an earlier estimate than even the "ultra-long chronology" would support. The Code was compiled near the end of Hammurabi's reign. [36] This was deduced partly from the list of his achievements in the prologue. [37]

Scheil enthused about the stele's importance and perceived fairness, calling it "a moral and political masterpiece". [19] C. H. W. Johns called it "one of the most important monuments in the history of the human race". [38] He remarked that "there are many humanitarian clauses and much protection is given the weak and the helpless", [39] and even lauded a "wonderful modernity of spirit". [40] John Dyneley Prince called the Code's discovery "the most important event which has taken place in the development of Assyriological science since the days of Rawlinson and Layard". [41] Charles Francis Horne commended the "wise law-giver" and his "celebrated code". [42] James Henry Breasted noted the Code's "justice to the widow, the orphan, and the poor", but remarked that it "also allows many of the old and naïve ideas of justice to stand". [43] Commentators praised the advanced society they believed the Code evinced. [44] Several singled out perceived secularism: Owen Jenkins, [45] for example, but even Charles Souvay for the Catholic Encyclopedia, who opined that unlike the Mosaic Law the Code was "founded upon the dictates of reason". [15] The question of the Code's influence on the Mosaic Law received much early attention. [46] Scholars also identified Hammurabi with the Biblical figure Amraphel, [47] but this proposal has since been abandoned. [48]

Relief Edit

The relief appears to show Hammurabi standing before a seated Shamash. [23] Shamash wears the horned crown of divinity [49] and has a solar attribute, flames, [50] spouting from his shoulders. [51] Contrastingly, Scheil, in his editio princeps, [15] identified the seated figure as Hammurabi and the standing figure as Shamash. [19] Scheil also held that the scene showed Shamash dictating to Hammurabi while Hammurabi held a scribe's stylus, gazing attentively at the god. [19] Martha Roth lists other interpretations: "that the king is offering the laws to the god that the king is accepting or offering the emblems of sovereignty of the rod and ring or—most probably—that these emblems are the measuring tools of the rod-measure and rope-measure used in temple-building". [52] Hammurabi may even be imitating Shamash. [53] It is certain, though, that the draughtsman showed Hammurabi's close links to the divine realm, [54] using composition and iconography. [55]

Prologue Edit

The prologue and epilogue together occupy one-fifth of the text. Out of around 4,130 lines, the prologue occupies 300 lines and the epilogue occupies 500. [17] They are in ring composition around the laws, though there is no visual break distinguishing them from the laws. [56] Both are written in poetic style, [57] and, as William W. Davies wrote, "contain much . which sounds very like braggadocio". [58]

The 300-line prologue begins with an etiology of Hammurabi's royal authority (1–49). Anum, the Babylonian sky god and king of the gods, granted rulership over humanity to Marduk. Marduk chose the centre of his earthly power to be Babylon, which in the real world worshipped him as its tutelary god. Marduk established the office of kingship within Babylon. Finally, Anum, along with the Babylonian wind god Enlil, chose Hammurabi to be Babylon's king. Hammurabi was to rule "to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak" (37–39: dannum enšam ana lā ḫabālim). He was to rise like Shamash over the Mesopotamians (the ṣalmāt qaqqadim, literally the "black-headed people") and illuminate the land (40–44). [59] [note 1]

Hammurabi then lists his achievements and virtues (50–291). These are expressed in noun form, in the Akkadian first person singular nominal sentence construction "[noun] . anāku" ("I am [noun]"). [60] The first nominal sentence (50–53) is short: "I am Hammurabi, the shepherd, selected by the god Enlil" (ḫammurabi rē'ûm nibīt enlil anāku). Then Hammurabi continues for over 200 lines in a single nominal sentence with the anāku delayed to the very end (291). [61] [note 1]

Hammurabi repeatedly calls himself na'dum, "pious" (lines 61, 149, 241, and 272). The metaphor of Hammurabi as his people's shepherd also recurs. It was a common metaphor for ancient Near Eastern kings, but is perhaps justified by Hammurabi's interest in his subjects' affairs. [62] His affinities with many different gods are stressed throughout. He is portrayed as dutiful in restoring and maintaining temples and peerless on the battlefield. The list of his accomplishments has helped establish that the text was written late in Hammurabi's reign. After the list, Hammurabi explains that he fulfilled Marduk's request to establish "truth and justice" (kittam u mīšaram) for the people (292–302), although the prologue never directly references the laws. [63] The prologue ends "at that time:" (303: inūmišu) and the laws begin. [64] [note 1]

Epilogue Edit

Unlike the prologue, the 500-line epilogue is explicitly related to the laws. [63] The epilogue begins (3144'–3151'): "these are the just decisions which Hammurabi . has established" (dīnāt mīšarim ša ḫammurabi. ukinnu-ma). He exalts his laws and his magnanimity (3152'–3239'). [65] He then expresses a hope that "any wronged man who has a lawsuit" (awīlum ḫablum ša awātam iraššû) may have the laws of the stele read aloud to him and know his rights (3240'–3256'). [66] This would bring Hammurabi praise (3257'–3275') and divine favour (3276'–3295'). [67] Hammurabi wishes for good fortune for any ruler who heeds his pronouncements and respects his stele (3296'–3359'). [68] However, he invokes the wrath of the gods on any man who disobeys or erases his pronouncements (3360'–3641', the end of the text). [69] [note 1]

The epilogue contains much legal imagery, and the phrase "to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak" (3202'–3203': dannum enšam ana lā ḫabālim) [70] is reused from the prologue. However, the king's main concern appears to be ensuring that his achievements are not forgotten and his name not sullied. [71] The list of curses heaped upon any future defacer is 281 lines long and extremely forceful. Some of the curses are very vivid: "may the god Sin . decree for him a life that is no better than death" (3486'–3508': sîn. balāṭam ša itti mūtim šitannu ana šīmtim lišīmšum) [72] "may he [the future defacer] conclude every day, month, and year of his reign with groaning and mourning" (3497'–3501': ūmī warḫī šanāt palēšu ina tānēḫim u dimmatim lišaqti) [72] may he experience "the spilling of his life force like water" (3435'–3436': tabāk napištišu kīma mê). [73] Hammurabi implores a variety of gods individually to turn their particular attributes against the defacer. For example: "may the [storm] god Adad . deprive him of the benefits of rain from heaven and flood from the springs" (3509'–3515': adad. zunnī ina šamê mīlam ina nagbim līṭeršu) [72] "may the god [of wisdom] Ea . deprive him of all understanding and wisdom, and may he lead him into confusion" (3440'–3451': ea. uznam u nēmeqam līṭeršu-ma ina mīšītim littarrūšu). [73] [note 1] Gods and goddesses are invoked in this order: [69]

  1. Anum (3387'–3394')
  2. Enlil (3395'–3422') (3423'–3439')
  3. Ea (3440'–3458')
  4. Shamash (3459'–3485')
  5. Sin (3486'–3508')
  6. Adad (3509'–3525') (3526'–3536') (3537'–3573') (3574'–3589') (3590'–3599') (3600'–3619')
  7. All the gods (3620'–3635')
  8. Enlil, a second time (3636'–3641')

The Code of Hammurabi is the longest and best-organised legal text from the ancient Near East, [74] as well as the best-preserved. [75] The classification below (columns 1–3) is Driver & Miles', [76] with several amendments, and Roth's translation is used. [77] Laws represented by letters are those reconstructed primarily from documents other than the Louvre stele.

false charges (1–2)
false testimony (3–4)
falsification of judgement (5)

stealing and receiving stolen property (6–13)
kidnapping (14)
harbouring fugitive slaves (15–20)
breaking and entering (21)
burglary (22–24)
looting burning houses (25)

tenure of fiefs (26–41)
duties of farmers (42–48)
debts of farmers (49–52)
irrigation offences (53–56)
cattle trespass (57–58)
cutting down trees (59)
care of date orchards (60–a)
offences connected with houses (b–k)

loans and trade (l–107)
innkeeping (108–111)
fraud by couriers (112)
distraint and pledge of persons for debt (113–119)
safe custody or deposit (120–126)

slander of ugbabtum-priestesses or married women (127)
definition of "married woman" (128)
adultery (129–132)
remarriage in husbands' absence (133–136)
divorce (137–143)
marriage to nadītum-women (144–147)
maintenance of sick wives (148–149)
gifts from husbands to wives (150)
liability of spouses for debt (151–152)
murder of husbands (153)
incest (154–158)
inchoate marriage (159–161)
devolution of marriage-gifts after wives' deaths (162–164)
gifts to sons inter vivos (165)
succession amongst sons (166–167)
disinheritance of sons (168–169)
legitimation (170)
widows' property (171–174)
marriage of awīlum-class women to slaves (175–176)
remarriage of widows (177)
sacral women (178–184)
adoption and nursing of infants (185–194)

assaults on fathers (195)
assaults on awīlum-class men (196–208)
assaults causing miscarriage (209–214)

surgeons (215–223)
veterinary surgeons (224–225)
barbers (226–227)
builders (228–233)
shipbuilders and boatmen (234–240)

oxen (241–252)
theft of fodder by tenants (253–256)
hire of agricultural labourers (257–258)
theft of agricultural implements (259–260)
hire of herdsmen (261)
duties of shepherds (262–267)
hire of beasts and wagons (268–272)
hire of seasonal labourers (273)

wages of craftsmen (274)
hire of boats (275–277)

warranties on sale of slaves (278–279)
purchase of slaves abroad (280–282)

The purpose and legal authority of the Code have been disputed since the mid-20th century. [87] Theories fall into three main categories: that it is legislation, whether a code of law or a body of statutes that it is a sort of law report, containing records of past cases and judgments and that it is an abstract work of jurisprudence. The jurisprudence theory has gained much support within Assyriology. [88]

Legislation Edit

The term "code" presupposes that the document was intended to be enforced as legislation. It was used by Scheil in his editio princeps, [89] and widely adopted afterwards. C. H. W. Johns, one of the most prolific early commentators on the document, proclaimed that "the Code well deserves its name". [40] Recent Assyriologists have used the term without comment, [90] as well as scholars outside Assyriology. [91] However, only if the text was intended as enforced legislation can it truly be called a code of law and its provisions laws.

The document, on first inspection, resembles a highly organised code similar to the Code of Justinian and the Napoleonic Code. [92] There is also evidence that dīnātum, which in the Code of Hammurabi sometimes denote individual "laws", were enforced. [93] One copy of the Code calls it a ṣimdat šarrim, "royal decree", which denotes a kind of enforced legislation. [94]

However, the arguments against this view are strong. Firstly, it would make a very unusual code—Reuven Yaron called the designation "Code" a "persistent misnomer". [95] Vital areas of society and commerce are omitted. [96] For example, Marc Van De Mieroop observes that the Code "deals with cattle and agricultural fields, but it almost entirely ignores the work of shepherds, vital to Babylonia's economy". [97] Then, against the legislation theory more generally, highly implausible circumstances are covered, such as threshing with goats, animals far too unruly for the task (law 270). [98] The laws are also strictly casuistic ("if . then") unlike in the Mosaic Law, there are no apodictic laws (general commands). These would more obviously suggest prescriptive legislation. The strongest argument against the legislation theory, however, is that most judges appear to have paid the Code no attention. This line of criticism originated with Benno Landsberger in 1950. [87] No Mesopotamian legal document explicitly references the Code or any other law collection, [92] despite the great scale of the corpus. [99] Two references to prescriptions on "a stele" (narû) [100] come closest. In contrast, numerous judgments cite royal mīšarum-decrees. [92] Raymond Westbrook held that this strengthened the argument from silence that ancient Near Eastern legal "codes" had legal import. [101] Furthermore, many Old Babylonian judgments run entirely counter to the Code's prescriptions. [102]

Law report Edit

A second theory is that the Code is a sort of law report, and as such contains records of past cases and judgments, albeit phrased abstractly. This would provide one explanation for the casuistic format of the "laws" indeed, Jean Bottéro believed he had found a record of a case that inspired one. [103] However, such finds are inconclusive and very rare, despite the scale of the Mesopotamian legal corpus. [104] Furthermore, legal judgments were frequently recorded in Mesopotamia, and they recount the facts of the case without generalising them. [105] These judgments were concerned almost exclusively with points of fact, prompting Martha Roth to comment: "I know of only one case out of thousands extant that might be said to revolve around a point of law". [106]

Jurisprudence Edit

A third theory, which has gained traction within Assyriology, is that the Code is not a true code but an abstract treatise on how judgments should be formulated. This led Fritz Rudolf Kraus, in an early formulation of the theory, to call it jurisprudence (Rechtssprüche). [107] Kraus proposed that it was a work of Mesopotamian scholarship in the same category as omen collections like šumma ālu and ana ittišu. [107] Others have provided their own versions of this theory. [108] A. Leo Oppenheim remarked that the Code of Hammurabi and similar Mesopotamian law collections "represent an interesting formulation of social criticism and should not be taken as normative directions". [109]

This interpretation bypasses the problem of low congruence between the Code and actual legal judgments. Secondly, the Code does bear striking similarities to other works of Mesopotamian scholarship. Key points of similarity are the list format and the order of the items, [110] which Ann Guinan describes as a complex "serial logic". [111] Marc Van De Mieroop explains that, in common with other works of Mesopotamian scholarship such as omen lists, king lists, and god lists, the entries of the Code of Hammurabi are arranged according to two principles. These are "opposition"—whereby a variable in one entry is altered to make another entry—and "pointillism"—whereby new conditions are added to an entry, or paradigmatic series pursued, to generate a sequence. [112] Van De Mieroop provides the following examples:

If a physician performs major surgery with a bronze lancet upon an [awīlum] and thus heals the [awīlum], or opens an [awīlum]'s temple with a bronze lancet and thus heals the [awīlum]'s eye, he shall take ten shekels of silver (as his fee).

If a physician performs major surgery with a bronze lancet upon an [awīlum] and thus causes the [awīlum]'s death, or opens an [awīlum]'s temple with a bronze lancet and thus blinds the [awīlum]'s eye, they shall cut off his hand.

Laws 215 and 218 illustrate the principle of opposition: one variable of the first law, the outcome of the operations, is altered to create the second. [114]

If there is either a soldier or [an auxiliary] who is taken captive while serving in a royal fortress [. ] if he should [. ] return and get back to his city, they shall return to him his field and orchard and he himself shall perform his service obligation.

If there is either a soldier or [an auxiliary] who is taken captive in a royal fortress, and his son is able to perform the service obligation, the field and orchard shall be given to him, and he shall perform his father's service obligation.

If his son is young and is unable to perform his father's service obligation, one third of the field and orchard shall be given to his mother, and his mother shall raise him.

Here, following the principle of pointillism, circumstances are added to the first entry to create more entries. [116] Pointillism also lets list entries be generated by following paradigmatic series common to multiple branches of scholarship. It can thus explain the implausible entries. For example, in the case of the goat used for threshing (law 270), [117] the previous laws concern other animals that were used for threshing. The established series of domesticated beasts dictated that a goat come next. [118]

Wolfram von Soden, who decades earlier called this way of thinking Listenwissenschaft ("list science"), [119] often denigrated it. [120] However, more recent writers, such as Marc Van De Mieroop, Jean Bottéro, and Ann Guinan, have either avoided value judgments or expressed admiration. Lists were central to Mesopotamian science and logic, and their distinctive structural principles let entries be generated infinitely. [118] Linking the Code to the scribal tradition within which "list science" emerged also explains why trainee scribes copied and studied it for over a millennium. [24] The Code appears in a late Babylonian (7th–6th century BC) list of literary and scholarly texts. [121] No other law collection became so entrenched in the curriculum. [122] Rather than a code of laws, then, it may be a scholarly treatise. [100]

Much has been written on what the Code suggests about Old Babylonian society and its legal system. For example, whether it demonstrates that there were no professional advocates, [123] or that there were professional judges. [124] Scholars who approach the Code as a self-contained document renounce such claims. [125]

One principle widely accepted to underlie the Code is lex talionis, or "eye for an eye". Laws 196 and 200 respectively prescribe an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth when one man destroys another's. Punishments determined by lex talionis could be transferred to the sons of the wrongdoer. [123] For example, law 229 states that the death of a homeowner in a house collapse necessitates the death of the house's builder. The following law 230 states that if the homeowner's son died, the builder's son must die also. [84]

Persons were not equal before the law not just age and profession but also class and gender dictated the punishment or remedy they received. Three main kinds of person, awīlum, muškēnum, and wardum (male)/amtum (female), are mentioned throughout the Code. A wardum/amtum was a male/female slave. As for awīlum and muškēnum, though contentious, it seems likely that the difference was one of social class, with awīlum meaning something like "gentleman" and muškēnum something like "commoner". [126] The penalties were not necessarily stricter for a muškēnum than an awīlum: a muškēnum's life may have been cheaper, but so were some of his fines. [127] There was also inequality within these classes: laws 200 and 202, for example, show that one awīlum could be of higher rank than another. [128]

Martha Roth has shown that ideas of shame and honour motivated certain laws. [129] Most readers will also be struck by the violence of many of the punishments. This prompted Driver and Miles to remark that "the Babylonians believed in corporal punishments . and did not highly value human life". [130]

The above principles are distant in spirit from modern systems of common and civil law, but some may be more familiar. One such principle is the presumption of innocence the first two laws of the stele prescribe punishments, determined by lex talionis, for unsubstantiated accusations. Written evidence was valued highly, [131] especially in matters of contract. [42] One crime was given only one punishment. [132] The laws also recognized the importance of the intentions of a defendant. [123] Lastly, the Code's establishment on public stelae was supposedly intended to increase access to justice. Whether or not this was true, suggesting that a wronged man have the stele read aloud to him (lines 3240'–3254') [note 1] is a concrete measure in this direction, given the inaccessibility of scribal education in the Old Babylonian period. [133]

One last question is what source the Code claims for its legitimacy. The prologue asserts that Hammurabi was chosen by the gods. Raymond Westbrook observed that in ancient Near Eastern law, "the king was the primary source of legislation". [134] . However, they could delegate their god-given legal authority to judges. [135] However, as Owen B. Jenkins observed, the prescriptions themselves bear "an astonishing absence . of all theological or even ceremonial law". [45]

The laws are written in the Old Babylonian dialect of Akkadian. Their style is regular and repetitive, and today they are a standard set text for introductory Akkadian classes. [136] However, as A. Leo Oppenheim summarises, the cuneiform signs themselves are "vertically arranged . within boxes placed in bands side by side from right to left", an arrangement already antiquated by Hammurabi's time. [137] Since Akkadian learners today tend to begin by studying later phases of cuneiform, where the signs have been rotated ninety degrees, they have to turn their head on one side to read the Louvre stele. [54]

The laws are expressed in casuistic format: they are conditional sentences with the case detailed in the protasis ("if" clause) and the remedy given in the apodosis ("then" clause). The protasis begins šumma, "if", [138] except when it adds to circumstances already specified in a previous law (e.g. laws 36, 38, and 40). [139] The preterite is used for simple past verbs in the protasis, or possibly for a simple conditional. [138] The perfect often appears at the end of the protasis after one or more preterites to convey sequence of action, or possibly a hypothetical conditional. [138] The durative, sometimes called the "present" in Assyriology, may express intention in the laws. [138] For ease of English reading, some translations give preterite and perfect verbs in the protasis a present sense. [140] In the apodosis, the verbs are in the durative, though the sense varies between permissive—"it is permitted that x happen"—and instructive—"x must/will happen". [141] In both protasis and apodosis, sequence of action is conveyed by suffixing verbs with -ma, "and". [142] -ma can also have the sense "but". [143]

The Code is relatively well-understood, but some items of its vocabulary are controversial. As mentioned, the terms awīlum and muškēnum have proved difficult to translate. They probably denote respectively a male member of a higher and lower social class. [144] Wolfram von Soden, in his Akkadisches Handwörterbuch, proposed that muškēnum was derived from šukênum, "to bow down/supplicate". [145] As a word for a man of low social standing, it has endured, possibly from a Sumerian root, into Arabic (miskīn), Italian (meschino), Spanish (mezquino), and French (mesquin). [146] However, some earlier translators, also seeking to explain the muškēnum's special treatment, translated it as "leper" and even "noble". [147] Some translators have supplied stilted readings for awīlum, such as "seignior", [148] "elite man", [149] and "member of the aristocracy" [150] others have left it untranslated. [151] Certain legal terms have also proved difficult to translate. For example, dīnum and dīttum can denote the law in general as well as individual laws, verdicts, divine pronouncements and other phenomena. [152] mīšarum can likewise denote the law in general as well as a kind of royal decree. [153]

Other Mesopotamian Edit

The Code of Hammurabi bears strong similarities to earlier Mesopotamian law collections. Many purport to have been written by rulers, and this tradition was probably widespread. [8] Earlier law collections express their god-given legitimacy similarly. [154] Like the Code of Hammurabi, they feature prologues and epilogues: the Code of Ur-Nammu has a prologue, the Code of Lipit-Ishtar a prologue and an epilogue, and the Laws of Eshnunna an epilogue. Also, like the Code of Hammurabi, they uphold the "one crime, one punishment" principle. [155] The cases covered and language used are, overall, strikingly similar. [8] Scribes were still copying e.g. the Code of Ur-Nammu when Hammurabi produced his own Code. [156] This suggests that earlier collections may have not only resembled the Code but influenced it. Raymond Westbrook maintained that there was a fairly consistent tradition of "ancient Near Eastern law" which included the Code of Hammurabi, [157] and that this was largely customary law. [158] Nonetheless, there are differences: for example, Stephen Bertman has suggested that where earlier collections are concerned with compensating victims, the Code is concerned with physically punishing offenders. [159] Additionally, the above conclusions of similarity and influence apply only to the law collections themselves. The actual legal practices from the context of each code are mysterious. [160]

The Code of Hammurabi also bears strong similarities to later Mesopotamian law collections: to the casuistic Middle Assyrian Laws and to the Neo-Babylonian Laws, [161] whose format is largely relative ("a man who . "). It is easier to posit direct influence for these later collections, given the Code's survival through the scribal curriculum. [24] Lastly, although influence is more difficult to trace, there is evidence that the Hittite laws may have been part of the same tradition of legal writing outside Mesopotamia proper. [162]

Mosaic, Graeco-Roman, and modern Edit

The relationship of the Code of Hammurabi to the Mosaic Law, specifically the Covenant Code of Exodus 20:22–23:19, has been a subject of discussion since its discovery. [46] Friedrich Delitzsch argued the case for strong influence in a 1902 lecture, in one episode of the "Babel und Bibel" ("Babel and Bible", or "Panbabylonism") debate on the influence of ancient Mesopotamian cultures on ancient Israel. However, he was met with strong resistance. [163] There was cultural contact between Mesopotamia and the Levant, and Middle Bronze Age tablets of casuistic cuneiform law have been found at Hazor. [164] There are also similarities between the Code of Hamurabi and the Covenant Code: in the casuistic format, in principles such as lex talionis ("eye for an eye"), and in the content of the provisions. Some similarities are striking, such as in the provisions concerning a man-goring ox (Code of Hammurabi laws 250–252, [85] Exodus 21:28–32). [165] Certain writers have posited direct influence: David P. Wright, for example, asserts that the Covenant Code is "directly, primarily, and throughout dependent upon the Laws of Hammurabi", "a creative rewriting of Mesopotamian sources . to be viewed as an academic abstraction rather than a digest of laws". [166] Others posit indirect influence, such as via Aramaic or Phoenician intermediaries. [167] The consensus, however, is that the similarities are a result of inheriting common traditions. [168] In 1916, George A. Barton cited "a similarity of antecedents and of general intellectual outlook". [169] More recently, David Winton Thomas has stated: "There is no ground for assuming any direct borrowing by the Hebrew from the Babylonian. Even where the two sets of laws differ little in the letter, they differ much in the spirit". [170]

The influence of the Code of Hammurabi on later law collections is difficult to establish. Marc Van De Mieroop suggests that it may have influenced the Greek Gortyn Code and the Roman Twelve Tables. [171] However, even Van De Mieroop acknowledges that most Roman law is not similar to the Code, or likely to have been influenced by it. [172]

Knowing the Code's influence on modern law requires knowing its influence on Mosaic and Graeco-Roman law. Since this is contentious, commentators have restricted themselves to observing similarities and differences between the Code and, e.g., United States law and medieval law. [173] Some have remarked that the punishments found in the Code are no more severe, and, in some cases, less so. [174]

Law 238 stipulates that a sea captain, ship-manager, or ship charterer that saved a ship from total loss was only required to pay one-half the value of the ship to the ship-owner. [175] [176] [177] In the Digesta seu Pandectae (533), the second volume of the codification of laws ordered by Justinian I (527–565) of the Eastern Roman Empire, a legal opinion written by the Roman jurist Paulus at the beginning of the Crisis of the Third Century in 235 AD was included about the Lex Rhodia ("Rhodian law") that articulates the general average principle of marine insurance established on the island of Rhodes in approximately 1000 to 800 BC as a member of the Doric Hexapolis, plausibly by the Phoenicians during the proposed Dorian invasion and emergence of the purported Sea Peoples during the Greek Dark Ages (c. 1100–c. 750) that led to the proliferation of the Doric Greek dialect. [178] [179] [180] The law of general average constitutes the fundamental principle that underlies all insurance. [179]

The Code is often referred to in legal scholarship, where its provisions are assumed to be laws, and the document is assumed to be a true code of laws. This is also true outside academia. [181] Some writers incorrectly state that the Code of Hammurabi is the oldest code of laws. [182] All stress its importance and positive attributes: the Louvre, for example, calls it "the emblem of the Mesopotamian civilization". [13] Iraq's Hammurabi Human Rights Organization was named after the Code. [183]

Hammurabi leads Babylon in five of the six Civilization video games, and in Civilization VI his leader ability is "Ninu Ilu Sirum". [184] This is an early reading of the Code's incipit, [185] īnu anum ṣīrum ("when the august god Anu[m] . "). [186] The soundtrack to the South Korean television series Ms. Hammurabi, which is about a judge, features the track "Code of Hammurabi". [187] The thrash metal band Testament's 2020 album Titans of Creation also features a track called "Code of Hammurabi". [188]

Who was Hammurabi?

The ancient king of Babylon compiled a code of laws called Hammurabi's Code that applied to all lands under his rule.

The Amorite ruler Hammurabi (unknown–1750 B.C.), crowned king of Babylon around 1792 B.C., was both an avid warrior and a shrewd administrator who honored the traditions of Sumer, Akkad, and other lands he brought under his authority. He could be merciless to enemies, destroying cities that defied him. But he also provided unity and stability to his empire by compiling a code of laws, or legal precedents, that applied to all of his subjects.

Inscribed in stone on a monument showing Hammurabi being blessed by the sun god Shamash, the code governed domestic disputes as well as crimes committed outside the home. Its purpose, he declared, was to cause justice “to rise like the sun over the people, and to light up the land.”

Hammurabi’s Code was based partly on Sumerian laws but prescribed its own harsher penalties for some offenses, including death or mutilation for crimes by commoners resulting in bodily injury. Like the ancient Israelites, the Amorites may once have applied the principle of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” to those who harmed others.

The code certainly favored people of wealth and rank, who were required only to pay a fine if they injured commoners. The code also favored men over women. Adultery by a husband might go unpunished, but an unfaithful wife would be executed.

Despite such inequities, the laws promulgated by Hammurabi offered some protection to women, commoners, and slaves. For example, wives abused by their husbands could sue for divorce, and all defendants were somewhat shielded from false testimony by a law prescribing the death penalty for witnesses who committed perjury. Setting laws down in writing discouraged judges from ruling arbitrarily and promoted the idea of justice as universal and enduring. Hammurabi’s Code did not allow for personal acts of vengeance that alone was a significant contribution to law and order in civil society.

Hammurabi and other ancient conquerors weren’t above seeking vengeance themselves. There were no rules restraining kings or emperors from attacking one another, even when they had formed alliances and pledged eternal friendship. For instance, Hammurabi turned against his long-time ally the king of Mari, the ruler of a flourishing city on the upper Euphrates River. Hammurabi destroyed his rival’s palace—along with a temple to Shamash. In so doing, he ignored an inscription that cursed anyone who desecrated the shrine and entreated the gods to cut the offender’s throat and annihilate his offspring.

In strife-torn Mesopotamia, such curses were often fulfilled. Hammurabi’s dynasty lasted only a few generations before it toppled. But his code of laws set a vital and enduring precedent. Rulers down through Napoleon Bonaparte issued their own codes to unite realms that contained people of many different customs and conceptions of justice—and to discourage them from taking the law into their own hands.


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]

Categories with related articles in this website: Mesopotamian History and Religion (35 articles) factsanddetails.com Mesopotamian Culture and Life (38 articles) factsanddetails.com First Villages, Early Agriculture and Bronze, Copper and Late Stone Age Humans (50 articles) factsanddetails.com Ancient Persian, Arabian, Phoenician and Near East Cultures (26 articles) factsanddetails.com

Websites and Resources on Mesopotamia: Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu.com/Mesopotamia Mesopotamia University of Chicago site mesopotamia.lib.uchicago.edu British Museum mesopotamia.co.uk Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu Louvre louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_periode.jsp Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/toah University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology penn.museum/sites/iraq Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago uchicago.edu/museum/highlights/meso Iraq Museum Database oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/dbfiles/Iraqdatabasehome Wikipedia article Wikipedia ABZU etana.org/abzubib Oriental Institute Virtual Museum oi.uchicago.edu/virtualtour Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur oi.uchicago.edu/museum-exhibits Ancient Near Eastern Art Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org

Archaeology News and Resources: Anthropology.net anthropology.net : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology archaeologica.org archaeologica.org is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe archeurope.com features educational resources, original material on many archaeological subjects and has information on archaeological events, study tours, field trips and archaeological courses, links to web sites and articles Archaeology magazine archaeology.org has archaeology news and articles and is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America Archaeology News Network archaeologynewsnetwork is a non-profit, online open access, pro- community news website on archaeology British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine is an excellent source published by the Council for British Archaeology Current Archaeology magazine archaeology.co.uk is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine HeritageDaily heritagedaily.com is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries Livescience livescience.com/ : general science website with plenty of archaeological content and news. Past Horizons : online magazine site covering archaeology and heritage news as well as news on other science fields The Archaeology Channel archaeologychannel.org explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history Best of History Websites besthistorysites.net is a good source for links to other sites Essential Humanities essential-humanities.net: provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory

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, infidels.org ]

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..

Eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth

We best know Code of Hammurabi for some of its laws leaking to popular culture. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. But Babylonian law covered various subjects ranging from liability for flooding neighbor’s fields, to divorce.

Among 282 laws, there are at least four laws pertaining to beer, alcohol and taverns. Their exact translation is as follows:

If a tavern-keeper (feminine) does not accept grain according to gross weight in payment of drink, but takes money, and the price of the drink is less than that of the grain, she shall be convicted and thrown into the water.

If conspirators meet in the house of a tavern-keeper, and these conspirators are not captured and delivered to the court, the tavern-keeper shall be put to death.

If a “sister of a god” open a tavern, or enter a tavern to drink, then shall this woman be burned to death.

If an inn-keeper furnish sixty ka of usakani-drink to (…) she shall receive fifty ka of corn at the harvest.

Trial before Hammurabi (Public Domain)

The Babylonian economy was based mainly on barter (exchanging goods for other goods). The first law concerns punishing tavern keepers who cheat customers by serving smaller amount of beer than it would result from the price. The punishment was death by drowning. There are some articles circulating online, claiming that it was punishement for watering down the beer, but the issue of watering down the beer is not directly mentioned in Code of Hammurabi.

Law 109 was created to warrant loyalty of tavern-keepers to the monarchy. Allowing disgruntled citizens to gather in a tavern, and potentially plot against the monarchy, was an act punishable by death.

“Sister of a god” mentioned in law 110 is a priestess. It’s not the drinking itself that is punishable by burning to death. Priestesses were allowed to drink alcohol, but not with commoners. It’s the act of spending time among commoners, that was considered sacrilegious.

Part of the last law is missing, and it is not clear what it means.

Babylonia considered beer an important part of everyday life. In fact, beer was considered a citizen’s right. Production of beer was controlled by the monarchy, and was distributed among citizens according to their social standing. Daily beer ration for priests and administrators was five liters (more than one gallon), and for laborers two liters (about half gallon).

What is the significance in today’s world?

The code of Hammurabi helps us understand the social, economic, and mental structure of the people of that time. It is like looking through a window into ancient Babylon.

It also helps us to understand how they managed matters related to property and commerce including debt, interest, and collateral.

The code of Hammurabi tells us about different standards of justice for the three classes of Babylonian society – the propertied class, freedmen, and slaves, and what was the perspective of government toward them.

It also gives a glimpse of the status of women. How they were suppressed in the society. For example, men were allowed to have affairs with their servants and slaves, whereas married women would be harshly punished for committing adultery.


LAWS of justice which Hammurabi, the wise king, established. A righteous law, and pious statute did he teach the land. Hammurabi, the protecting king am I. I have not withdrawn myself from the men, whom Bel gave to me, the rule over whom Marduk gave to me, I was not negligent, but I made them a peaceful abiding-place. I expounded all great difficulties, I made the light shine upon them. With the mighty weapons which Zamama and Ishtar entrusted to me, with the keen vision with which Ea endowed me, with the wisdom that Marduk gave me, I have uprooted the enemy above and below (in north and south), subdued the earth, brought prosperity to the land, guaranteed security to the inhabitants in their homes a disturber was not permitted. The great gods have called me, I am the salvation-bearing shepherd, whose staff is straight, the good shadow that is spread over my city on my breast I cherish the inhabitants of the land of Sumer and Akkad in my shelter I have let them repose in peace in my deep wisdom have I enclosed them. That the strong might not injure the weak, in order to protect the widows and orphans, I have in Babylon the city where Anu and Bel raise high their head, in E-Sagil, the Temple, whose foundations stand firm as heaven and earth, in order to bespeak justice in the land, to settle all disputes, and heal all injuries, set up these my precious words, written upon my memorial stone, before the image of me, as king of righteousness.

The king who ruleth among the kings of the cities am I. My words are well considered there is no wisdom like unto mine. By the command of Shamash, the great judge of heaven and earth, let righteousness go forth in the land: by the order of Marduk, my lord, let no destruction befall my monument. In E-Sagil, which I love, let my name be ever repeated let the oppressed, who has a case at law, come and stand before this my image as king of righteousness let him read the inscription, and understand my precious words: the inscription will explain his case to him he will find out what is just, and his heart will be glad, so that he will say:

“Hammurabi is a ruler, who is as a father to his subjects, who holds the words of Marduk in reverence, who has achieved conquest for Marduk over the north and south, who rejoices the heart of Marduk, his lord, who has bestowed benefits for ever and ever on his subjects, and has established order in the land.”

When he reads the record, let him pray with full heart to Marduk, my lord, and Zarpanit, my lady and then shall the protecting deities and the gods, who frequent E-Sagil, graciously grant the desires daily presented before Marduk, my lord, and Zarpanit, my lady.

In future time, through all coming generations, let the king, who may be in the land, observe the words of righteousness which I have written on my monument let him not alter the law of the land which I have given, the edicts which I have enacted my monument let him not mar. If such a ruler have wisdom, and be able to keep his land in order, he shall observe the words which I have written in this inscription the rule, statute, and law of the land which I have given the decisions which I have made will this inscription show him let him rule his subjects accordingly, speak justice to them, give right decisions, root out the miscreants and criminals from this land, and grant prosperity to his subjects.

Hammurabi, the king of righteousness, on whom Shamash has conferred right (or law) am I. My words are well considered my deeds are not equaled to bring low those that were high to humble the proud, to expel insolence. If a succeeding ruler considers my words, which I have written in this my inscription, if he do not annul my law, nor corrupt my words, nor change my monument, then may Shamash lengthen that king’s reign, as he has that of me, the king of righteousness, that he may reign in righteousness over his subjects. If this ruler do not esteem my words, which I have written in my inscription, if he despise my curses, and fear not the curse of God, if he destroy the law which I have given, corrupt my words, change my monument, efface my name, write his name there, or on account of the curses commission another so to do, that man, whether king or ruler, patesi, or commoner, no matter what he be, may the great God (Anu), the Father of the gods, who has ordered my rule, withdraw from him the glory of royalty, break his scepter, curse his destiny. May Bel, the lord, who fixeth destiny, whose command can not be altered, who has made my kingdom great, order a rebellion which his hand can not control may he let the wind of the overthrow of his habitation blow, may he ordain the years of his rule in groaning, years of scarcity, years of famine, darkness without light, death with seeing eyes be fated to him may he (Bel) order with his potent mouth the destruction of his city, the dispersion of his subjects, the cutting off of his rule, the removal of his name and memory from the land. May Belit, the great Mother, whose command is potent in E-Kur (the Babylonian Olympus), the Mistress, who harkens graciously to my petitions, in the seat of judgment and decision (where Bel fixes destiny), turn his affairs evil before Bel, and put the devastation of his land, the destruction of his subjects, the pouring out of his life like water into the mouth of King Bel. May Ea, the great ruler, whose fated decrees come to pass, the thinker of the gods, the omniscient, who maketh long the days of my life, withdraw understanding and wisdom from him, lead him to forgetfulness, shut up his rivers at their sources, and not allow corn or sustenance for man to grow in his land. May Shamash, the great Judge of heaven and earth, who supporteth all means of livelihood, Lord of life-courage, shatter his dominion, annul his law, destroy his way, make vain the march of his troops, send him in his visions forecasts of the uprooting of the foundations of his throne and of the destruction of his land. May the condemnation of Shamash overtake him forthwith may he be deprived of water above among the living, and his spirit below in the earth. May Sin (the Moon-god), the Lord of Heaven, the divine father, whose crescent gives light among the gods, take away the crown and regal throne from him may he put upon him heavy guilt, great decay, that nothing may be lower than he. May he destine him as fated, days, months and years of dominion filled with sighing and tears, increase of the burden of dominion, a life that is like unto death. May Adad, the lord of fruitfulness, ruler of heaven and earth, my helper, withhold from him rain from heaven, and the flood of water from the springs, destroying his land by famine and want may he rage mightily over his city, and make his land into flood-hills (heaps of ruined cities). May Zamama, the great warrior, the first-born son of E-Kur, who goeth at my right hand, shatter his weapons on the field of battle, turn day into night for him, and let his foe triumph over him. May Ishtar, the goddess of fighting and war, who unfetters my weapons, my gracious protecting spirit, who loveth my dominion, curse his kingdom in her angry heart in her great wrath, change his grace into evil, and shatter his weapons on the place of fighting and war. May she create disorder and sedition for him, strike down his warriors, that the earth may drink their blood, and throw down the piles of corpses of his warriors on the field may she not grant him a life of mercy, deliver him into the hands of his enemies, and imprison him in the land of his enemies. May Nergal, the might among the gods, whose contest is irresistible, who grants me victory, in his great might burn up his subjects like a slender reedstalk, cut off his limbs with his mighty weapons, and shatter him like an earthen image. May Nin-tu, the sublime mistress of the lands, the fruitful mother, deny him a son, vouchsafe him no name, give him no successor among men. May Nin-karak, the daughter of Anu, who adjudges grace to me, cause to come upon his members in E-kur high fever, severe wounds, that can not be healed, whose nature the physician does not understand, which he can not treat with dressing, which, like the bite of death, can not be removed, until they have sapped away his life.

May he lament the loss of his life-power, and may the great gods of heaven and earth, the Anunaki, altogether inflict a curse and evil upon the confines of the temple, the walls of this E-barra (the Sun temple of Sippara), upon his dominion, his land, his warriors, his subjects, and his troops. May Bel curse him with the potent curses of his mouth that can not be altered, and may they come upon him forthwith.

Law Code of Hammurabi

Law Code of Hammurabi is a Mesopotamian Diorite Sculpture created in 1750 BCE. It lives at the Musée du Louvre in Paris. The image is used according to Educational Fair Use, and tagged legal document and Phallic Symbols. Source

The Code of Hammurabi is a well-preserved Babylonian law code of ancient Mesopotamia, dating back to between 1755 and 1750 BCE. It is one of the oldest deciphered writings of significant length in the world. The sixth Babylonian king, Hammurabi, enacted the code of 282 laws, partial copies existing on a human-sized stone stele and various clay tablets. The full translation of the laws can be read here:

Reed Enger, "Law Code of Hammurabi," in Obelisk Art History, Published May 14, 2015 last modified May 05, 2021, http://arthistoryproject.com/timeline/the-ancient-world/mesopotamia/law-code-of-hammurabi-1/.

Inscription by Naram-Sin: Temple Construction

Hinge inscripted with Entemena

Male Worshiper of Ninshubur

Hinge inscripted with Entemena

Statue of Gudea

Head of Gudea

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Men Defining Rape: A History

In 2 Samuel 13:1-22, Amnon rapes his half sister Tamar. Nothing happens to him. <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Rape_of_Tamar_-_Le_Seur.jpg">Eustache Le Sueur</a>/Wikipedia

Men have been in the business of deciding when it is okay and when it is not okay to rape women for thousands of years. If Missouri Rep. Todd Akin’s claim that women’s bodies magically fend off rapist sperm or the GOP’s meditation on what’s really rape sound medieval to you, that’s because they are. Check out our timeline of the male notions and common-law statutes that have defined rape over time, and see for yourself which eras the GOP’s views on rape line up with:

Property theft: The Code of Hammurabi, one of the first sets of written laws, which dates to about 1780 BC (and contains the old “eye for an eye”), defines rape of a virgin as property damage against her father. If you were married, sorry lady: You were an adulteress. Punishment? You get thrown in the river.

Translation: Girl, you’re screwed. Batigolix/Fotopedia God is a dude: Deuteronomy 22:28-29 says if you rape a virgin, you have to give her dad 50 shekels and take her to the altar.

Et tu, Roma? The Latin root raptus referred to the abduction of a woman against the will of whatever male controlled her life. What the abductor did with her was secondary.

Rape of the Sabine Women, by Giuseppe Cesari. Dirk Huijssoon/Fotopedia Todd Akin, 1.0: As the Guardian recently pointed out, one of the earliest British legal texts, Fleta, which was written around 1290, laid the foundation for Akin’s notion that if you get preggers, you weren’t raped: “Without a woman’s consent she could not conceive.”

(Mississippi and) The Middle Ages: During the 13th century, the severity of punishment under Saxon law varied according to the type of woman raped—whether she was a virgin, a wife, a widow, a nun, or a whore. That’s appropriately medieval. But in the United States, well into the 󈨞s (yes, the nineteen-nineties) some states still had laws that held statutory rape wasn’t rape if the woman was “impure“. Mississippi was the last state to ditch such a law—in 1998. King Edward I and his wife Eleanor. From an early 14th century manuscript/Wikipedia

Pre-wave feminism: King Edward I of England was a forward-thinking chap. He enacted the landmark Statutes of Westminster at the end of the 13th century. They redefined rape as a public wrong, not just a private property battle. The legislation also cut out the virgin distinction and made consent irrelevant for girls under 12, laying the basis for the modern principle of statutory rape.

“The wife hath given up herself”: In a treatise on capital crime and punishment from around 1670, English judge and lawyer Sir Matthew Hale wrote this little gem: “[T]he husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract.” The law had quite a bit of traction. A man could legally rape his wife in North Carolina until 1993.

If you were brown: It didn’t count, whether you were a slave or a “savage.” And after abolition, the white legal establishment pretty much ignored rape against black women.

Rape to prove rape: Men in common law courts in the 18th and 19th centuries had a bit of trouble agreeing on how much proof a woman had to give to show she wasn’t lying. Some said the hymen had to be broken. Some said she had to provide evidence of semen. Virginity test, anyone?

Egyptian women protest the ruling military council’s “virginity tests” in December 2011. Ayman Mose/ZUMA Press “Absolute rape,” kind of like “legitimate rape”: English physician Samuel Farr was pretty certain women couldn’t get pregnant without an orgasm. The Guardian quotes the mansplanation from his 1814 Elements of Medical Jurisprudence: “For without an excitation of lust, or the enjoyment of pleasure in the venereal act, no conception can probably take place. So that if an absolute rape were to be perpetrated, it is not likely she would become pregnant.”

You can’t thread a moving needle: Or: If you don’t squirm a lot, it’s not rape. Dr. Lawson Tait, an eminent 19th century gynecologist and medical officer who helped police with criminal investigations, was “perfectly satisfied that no man can effect a felonious purpose on a woman in possession of her sense without her consent.” Said he: “You cannot thread a moving needle.”

Irina Misevic/Shutterstock

The FBI calls rape by its name: As the Post‘s Gerhart explains, the federal government used the “rather prim euphemism, ‘indecent assault,’ a phrase that seems as linguistically tortured as ‘legitimate rape,’ from the 17th century until 1929, when the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program renamed it like this: “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.” That definition was still totally 17th century, btw.

Lady rules: Feminists had been fighting to raise the statutory rape age in states since the 1890s (in response, some legislators proposed raising the age of consent to 81). Nonwhite feminists had been fighting for equal treatment under the law. Second wavers gave the movement another push, demanding a range of other expansions to make the definition of rape gender neutral, include date rape, and scrap medieval marital exceptions and virginity requirements.

Sue Lyon in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 Lolita. Zellaby/Fotopedia 83 years later: January of 2012: that’s when the FBI decided to update its definition of forcible rape. As Kate Sheppard pointed out last year, the year 1929 “was quite a while ago—before the Great Depression, before Mickey Mouse, and before the Empire State Building, to name a few. It was also before roofies had been invented and before date or partner rape were even concepts.” The new, expanded definition includes other forms of sexual assault, other genders, and instances where the “victim is incapable of giving consent because of temporary or permanent mental or physical incapacity, including due to the influence of drugs or alcohol or because of age.”

Backward, ho!: Last year, House Republicans pushed to limit taxpayer funding of abortions by excluding non-“forcible” rapes from federal abortion funding. Their plan failed. But the Republican war on women was just starting to heat up.

Johnny Andrews/ZUMA Press “Legitimate rape”: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Or, as Urban Dictionary puts it: “Rape between one man and one woman who are not married or even acquainted the only rape sanctioned by the Republican Party.”

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