Hammurabi Code of Laws
gods Anu and Enlil, for the enhancement of the well-being of the people, named me by my name: Hammurabi, the pious prince, who venerates the gods, to make justice prevail in the land, to abolish the wicked and the evil, to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak,…
(Hammurabi’s Code of Laws, Prologue)
Although Hammurabi’s Code of Laws is one of the most famous collections of laws from the ancient world, it is certainly not the oldest . In fact, it is preceded by at least two other codes of laws, namely the Laws of Ur-Namma (c. 2100 B.C., Ur) and the Laws of Lipit-Ishtar (c. 1930 B.C.., Isin). It may be pointed out these ancient Mesopotamian texts are not legal codes in the modern sense, i.e. collections of written laws compiled according to specific subject matters ( civil code, penal code, etc.), but were rather compilations of laws “carved in stone”. Although these collections preceded that of Hammurabi’s, it cannot be said that the latter borrowed directly from the former, as these were legal rules of political entities that were independent of each other.
Hammurabi, Ruler of the First Dynasty
So, who was Hammurabi? Hammurabi (reigned from 1792-1750 B.C.) was the sixth ruler of the First Dynasty of Babylon. During his long reign, he oversaw the great expansion of his empire, conquering the city-states of Elam, Larsa, Eshnunna and Mari, an act which he regarded was part of a sacred mission to spread civilization to all nations. By ousting the king of Assyria, Ishme-Dagan I, and making his son pay tribute, he made Babylon a major power in Mesopotamia.
Hammurabi streamlined administration, commissioned huge building projects, improved agriculture, repaired and rebuilt infrastructure, enlarged and heightened the walls of the city, and built extravagent temples dedicated to the gods. His focus was also military and conquest, but according to his own writings, his main goal was to improve the lives of those who lived under his rule.
By the time of Hammurabi’s death, Babylon was in control of the whole of Mesopotamia, although his successors were not able to maintain this control. This may be due to the lack of an effective bureaucracy, as his active participation on regional wars meant that he did not focus on establishing an administrative system that would ensure the continual running of his empire after his death.
A depiction of Hammurabi. Photo source .
Crimes and Penalties
Despite the rapid disintegration of his empire, Hammurabi’s Code of Laws has survived the ravages of time, though it was only in the 20 th century that they were rediscovered by archaeologists. These laws defined various types of crimes and the penalties to be applied. For instance,
If a fire breaks out in a man’s house, and a man who came to help put it out covets the household furnishings belonging to the householder, that man shall be cast into that very fire.
(Hammurabi’s Code of Laws, Laws, 25)
Despite the ‘eye for an eye’ type of punishments such as the above, Hammurabi’s Law Codes allowed different punishments to be meted out to persons of different social ranks. Thus, for instance,
If an awīlu (upper class person) should blind the eye of another awīlu, they shall blind his eye. If he should break the bone of another awīlu, they shall break his bone. If he should blind the eye of a commoner or break the bone of a commoner, he shall weigh and deliver 60 shekels of silver. If he should blind the eye of an awīlu’s slave or break the bone of an awīlu’s slave, he shall weigh and deliver one half of his value (in silver)(Hammurabi’s Code of Laws, Laws, 196-199)
Therefore, it can be seen that in some cases, an offender’s punishment depended on the social status of his victim.
Although some of the punishments are very harsh by modern standards – for example ‘If a son strike his father, they shall cut off his fingers’ – they were actually intended to prevent even worse acts of retribution carried out by the wronged person.
Hammurabi was worshipped as a god by his subjects and was highly revered throughout his kingdom. Commemorations during his lifetime gave thanks for three main achievements: bringing victory in war, establishing peace, and fighting for justice. However, after his death, his military accomplishments were minimized and his reputation as a merciful king and the ideal lawgiver became the central aspect of his legacy.
Featured image: Detail of Hammurabi’s Code of Laws, the Louvre Museum. Photo source