Hammurabi Code of Laws: Meaning, Summary, Examples, and Significance
Hammurabi’s Codes were a comprehensive set of 282 legal codes introduced by an 18th century BCE Babylonian king Hammurabi (reign – 1792 to 1750 BCE) in order to regulate trade, business transactions, as well as other social relationships in the ancient city-state of Babylon. Check out the article below to know about the origin story, summary and significance of the Code of Hammurabi.
Meaning of the Hammurabi Code
The Hammurabi Code encapsulates 282 legal codes that were used to basically govern the people of ancient Babylon during King Hammurabi’s reign. Written in the dominant language at the time, the Akkadian language, the code provided a legal framework for the exchange of goods and services in the ancient city-state of Babylon. Owing to the Code of Hammurabi, the standards for business dealings were known by all traders or merchants. Hammurabi’s Code had its set of punishments (mostly harsh punishments) to ward of potential breakers of the law. Enforcement of the codes was done in a fair and just manner.
Many historians have argued that the Hammurabi Code is in actual fact more of an anecdote of the judgements Hammurabi passed when faced with a situation. In the simplest of terms the codes could be compared to the English common law which derives its legal principles from cases and precedents.
Examples of the Code of Hammurabi
A very important point worth noting about the Hammurabi Code is the “lex talionis” doctrine (the “Law of Retaliation”). The doctrine simply translates into “an eye for an eye”. Hammurabi was one of the first ancient rulers to champion the doctrine meting out harsh physical punishment to certain criminals.
Many times, the “lex talionis” doctrine espoused very steep punishments (mostly bodily mutilations) for the culprit. Some of those punishments included scotching of the culprit’s tongue. In some cases, the guilty person could have his/her hands amputated for theft crimes. In cases of bearing false witness, the guilty person’s eye or ear is removed.
The stele of Hammurabi reveals that the death sentence was the most likely outcome if a person engaged in any one of about 28 crimes. Examples of those crimes included adultery, spell casting, and robbery.
The total number of codes proclaimed by Hammurabi was 282. The codes encompassed issues from a wide range of areas in the society, from family, business, and administrative law. All the codes were proclaimed using the if-then format. The following are some major examples of the codes about trade, theft, murder, bearing false witness, and adultery:
- If a person is proven to have stolen an ox, then he/she is slapped with a punishment of 30 times the value of the stolen ox.
- If a doctor is found to have killed (i.e. due to medical malpractice) a rich member from the upper class, then the said doctor would have his have his hands severed off. However, if the deceased patient is from the slave class, then the doctor is required to pay a financial compensation to the family of the slave.
- If a man damages the eye of another man, then the culprit shall have his eye destroyed. And if a person breaks another man’s bone, the bone of the culprit shall be broken (Law #196)
- If someone is found guilty of theft/robbery, then he shall be sentenced to death (Law #22)
- If a man gives false account or witness, then the man shall be put to death (Law #3)
- If goods of a merchant is given to an agent, then the agent shall furnish the merchant a receipt for the amount and thereafter compensate the merchant. The merchant in turn shall give a receipt for the money he receives from the agent. (Law #104)
The Babylonian judges under the rule of Hammurabi steered away from pronouncing punishment until the accused was proven to be guilty. Thus the code established the innocent-until-proven-guilty principle (presumption of innocence).
Although, the codes and the underpinning principles were quite novel and just for its era, judgments were passed according to the guilty party’s status in the society. The Babylonian society had three main classes – the upper class, non-slaves and slaves. For example, a member from the upper class was required to pay 10 shekels (the silver coin used in ancient Babylon) to a doctor for the healing of a bad wound. However, the freedman paid 5 shekels. As for the slave, his/her bill was in the region of 2 silver shekels.
The stele pillar that contains the Code of Hammurabi
Our current generation came to know of the Hammurabi’s Codes from the carvings on top a large black pillar, which was discovered in the early 1900s. The colossal slab, which is about seven feet tall (2.13 meters), weighs in at around four tons. The material of the slab is an intrusive igneous rock called diorite. Owing to its chemical properties, diorite does not easily lend itself to carving.
The slab has the 2.5-foot carving of a man standing, most likely Hammurabi. It shows Hammurabi receiving the codes from the Babylonian god of justice and truth, Shamash.
The codes were written (chiseled) into the slab using cuneiform writing, one of the earliest forms of writings in human history.
Where was the stele found?
The city-state of Babylon at its peak was one of the most advanced, politically and socially, in the world. Today, the ancient city of Babylon is all submerged below a massive groundwater, leaving very little in terms of ruins. Over the years, however, a few clay pots and slabs from Hammurabi’s era have been discovered in the Persian region. As a matter of fact, it was around the Elamite capital of Susa that French archaeologist and mining engineer Jean-Jacques de Morgan (1857-1924) discovered the only surviving slab of Hammurabi. The spectacular finding was made in 1901. At the time that it was found, the slab was broken into three pieces.
Historians believe that the stele was part of several items looted by the Elamite king Shutruk-Nahhunte from Hammurabi’s descendants. Majority of the loot were sent to Susa. This incident probably occurred between the 10th and 12th century BCE.
Where can the Stele of Hammurabi be seen today?
After Jacques de Morgan spectacular discovery, the stele of Hammurabi was sent to the famous Parisian museum, the Louvre. Subsequently, historians and archaeologists embarked on the arduous task of translating the script. The process took about a year or so to complete. Once the text was brought to life, the Hammurabi became synonymous with legal codes. It is for this reason he is considered the foremost lawgiver of the ancient world.
Did you know that the legal codes set out by Hammurabi predate (by about 200-300 years) the Mosaic Laws set out in the Hebrew Old Testament? Many historians state that the various commandments (particularly the Law of Moses in the Torah) in the Hebrew Scriptures most likely were derived from the Code of Hammurabi.
Significance of the codes
The significance of the Hammurabi Code lied in its ability to stop the strong in the society from preying on or oppressing the weak. The code made sure that everyone received justice, offering protection to the most vulnerable people (i.e. widows, orphans and children) in the society. Hammurabi’s law of retribution was perhaps one of the reasons the city of Babylon flourished for quite some time.
Hammurabi’s Laws in so many ways curbed the excesses of the wronged person in terms of retribution. There was clearly a standard set out for fines and punishments. This prevented people from acting arbitrary.
Long after the passing of Hammurabi, the codes played an important role in influencing countless city-states and kingdoms. It helped proliferate the lex talionis doctrine. This in turn kept many societies very stable and less likely to have many criminal activities.
Interesting facts about Hammurabi
- King Hammurabi was the Sixth king from the First Babylonian Dynasty (i.e. the Amorite Dynasty – 19th century BCE to 16th century BCE). Although he is most known for the Hammurabi Code, Hammurabi was a very prolific conqueror. At the time of his reign, his dominion spanned large parts of central Mesopotamia (a region in present day Iraq). He did what no other previous Babylonian king had done before. He united the various smaller city-states across Mesopotamia under his rule.
- Per the estimate given by scholars, Hammurabi most likely became king at the age of 18, succeeding his father, Sin-Muballit. It has been stated that he was a very just ruler. His family roots can be traced to a group of nomadic people called the Amorites. The Amorites are believed to have hailed from western part of present-day Syria. They were a multicultural group of people. And it is likely that the diversity is what drove Hammurabi to come up with his codes of law.
- The language the Babylonians spoke was Akkadian. Hammurabi’s name translates into “great family” in the Akkadian language.
- Not only was Hammurabi a wise and just king, he was also a prolific conqueror. His reign saw the Babylonians engulf several kingdoms along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. He conquered several city-states such as Mari, Larsa and Eshunna. He also brought the Kingdom of Assyria under his control by deposing King Ishme-Dagan I and replacing him with Mut-Ashkur. He then forced the Assyrians to pay yearly tributes to the city of Babylon. At the height of his rule, the Babylonians dominated the landscape of ancient Mesopotamia.
- Other notable achievements of Hammurabi came in the sheer scale of the social and economic projects he rolled out. For example, he took full advantage of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, building a number of irrigation canals. Hammurabi also built large walls to fortify his city-state, keeping away rogue nomads and invaders. The temples and obelisks that he built during his reign were considered very impressive for their time.
- Hammurabi and his empire worshiped a host of deities, including Marduk, ancient Babylon’s patron god. He was revered as someone who spread the worship of Marduk across ancient Mesopotamia. Additionally, he was also credited with the spread of civilization to large parts of the Mesopotamia.
- Owing to his impressive feats of accomplishments, Hammurabi was in seen as a god in some circles. He received the title “Hammurabi-ili”, which translates into “Hammurabi is my god”. He was glorified as a ruler who spread peace, justice and civilization.
- Scholars have discovered that the ancient region of Mesopotamia had written laws prior to the Hammurabi’s Code. Examples of such laws were the Code of Ur-Nammu and the Code of Lipit-Ishtar, which came from the Sumerians.
- In the U.S. Capitol, a marvelous marble bas-relief of Hammurabi can be found. At the south wall of the U.S. Supreme Court lies an amazing marble work of art with Hammurabi expertly carved into it.