Hammurabi's Code

Blaise Joseph, Dickson College 2009



The Code of Hammurabi is the most fascinating and useful source on Ancient Babylonian culture and justice. The intricately carved cuneiform record of a legal code is evocative of Hammurabi and his authoritarian style of leadership, and indicative of how important his legacy was to him. It also reveals that the kingdom under his rule had an organised society, with a rigid class-structure. This code was no mere theoretical exercise, but a series of practical laws that extended to shaping the society’s way of life.

The manner in which Hammurabi’s Code was recorded, an eight-foot-high work of art, reveals much about Hammurabi. As king, Hammurabi had a responsibility to bring about justice. To affirm that he was fulfilling this obligation, he characterised himself as “…the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land…” (King, 1910). He also wanted it to be known that he had done his duty, and as a result, pleased the gods. He therefore ordered that his laws and judgments be carved on steles, and be placed in temples (Roux, 1964, p.184). By making the Code go hand-in-hand with places of worship, Hammurabi was spreading the perception that the Code was not his mortal view but rather the gods’ divine will. The stele which was discovered in Susa in 1901 is a good example of how Hammurabi reinforced this perception: on the top, the stele depicts him receiving the laws from the god Shamash, the provider of justice (Koutsoukis, 1994, p.15). This indicates that Hammurabi wanted the Code to be looked on as a summary of the gods’ eternal commands. Hence, Hammurabi took great pains to ensure that he and his code would be considered important, not only by his current subjects, but by future generations as well. The epilogue of the Code makes this clear, where Hammurabi orders his teachings to be passed down: "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…” (King, 1910)

The introduction to the Code, with a long list of his achievements, also indicates that Hammurabi’s legacy was important to him: “Hammurabi, the prince, called of Bel am I, making riches and increase, enriching Nippur and Dur-ilu beyond compare, sublime patron of E-kur; who reestablished Eridu and purified the worship of E-apsu; who conquered the four quarters of the world, made great the name of Babylon…” (ibid.) Hammurabi was successful in both securing a complimentary legacy for himself and creating a code that would have a long-lasting effect. One indication of this is to be found in archaeological records, which were discovered in the library of Ashurbanipal. One fragment of these records, dating from c.1600 B.C., reveals a Babylonian proverb, which is clearly derived from the eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth philosophy that Hammurabi’s code teaches: “If you go and take the field of an enemy, the enemy will come and take your field.” (Halsall, 1999). The fact that proverbs, a popular part of Babylonian culture, reflected the Code over a century after it was written, illustrates the great mark that Hammurabi and his laws left on Babylon. But these principles lasted far longer than Babylon did. As recently as 2005, the Code has been acknowledged by a medical journal as significant in terms of outlining the duty of doctors: “…the Code of Hammurabi, includes legislation pertaining to the practice of medicine, dating back to the year 2200 B.C. It covered the topic of medical malpractice and set out for the first time the concept of civil and criminal liability for improper and negligent medical care.” (Wecht, 2005) This is proof that Hammurabi’s Code, nearly four-thousand years after it was enacted, is still considered to retain some relevance. Truly, this code, which has been indentified with Hammurabi’s ancient kingdom, has had an enduring effect.

Hammurabi’s Code provides an in-depth understanding of the values and structure of the society under his rule. The 282 laws present a variety of insights into the Babylonian society, ranging from class structure to some basic human rights and to specific instructions on commercial contracts. Law seven is particularly significant because it establishes the rules of commerce and the role of government in overseeing justice and honesty regarding the law of property: “If any one buy from the son or the slave of another man, without witnesses or a contract, silver or gold, a male or female slave, an ox or a sheep, an ass or anything, or if he take it in charge, he is considered a thief and shall be put to death.” (King, 1910) This particular law was looked on not as a technicality to be ignored but as a serious law to be obeyed. Proof of this is that archaeologists in Mesopotamia have uncovered an immense number of clay tablets used as receipts and contracts, with witnesses, for commercial transactions (Gordon, 1960, p.4). Rules such as these, where the penalty for violating the formalities of buying and selling was capital punishment, reveal an extremely organised society. The detailed nature of the Code implies that Hammurabi had established a bureaucracy to police these serious regulations. The resulting vital, life-and-death decisions given to bureaucrats indicates that Hammurabi believed that a powerful government was essential to a productive kingdom. This approach to the role of government represents one of the earliest forms of the philosophy that maintains that government should have absolute power and authority over the people, who are required, in return, to provide faithful and efficient service to king and kingdom. Indeed, the Code says that crimes against the state should be punished more severely than crimes against the individual. As law six says: “If any one steal the property of a temple or of the court, he shall be put to death.” (King, 1910). This same crime, theft, against an individual was punished with a lesser sentence (Gordon, 1960, p.4). This demonstrates Hammurabi’s belief that, in order to maintain a cohesive society, the people must be made to show great respect for the government. These measures, although harsh, appear to have worked, for he managed to create a peaceful and united kingdom (Roux, 1964, p.178). The principles of this code extended beyond everyday justice, and provided authoritarian but practical rules for establishing and maintaining a prosperous and organised way of life.

The Code of Hammurabi was far more than just a group of laws: it was a way of life. This lifestyle was taken seriously by the Babylonians, and profoundly shaped their culture. By entering into internal family affairs (Grosvenor, 1951, p.20), the Code was well and truly inserted into the heart of the Babylonian culture. It required parental consent for marriage and told fathers what they were able to do about inheritance (Gordon, 1960, p.16). In law 168, it even went so far as to stop fathers from unfairly evicting their sons: “If a man wish to put his son out of his house, and declare before the judge: "I want to put my son out," then the judge shall examine into his reasons. If the son be guilty of no great fault, for which he can be rightfully put out, the father shall not put him out.” (King, 1910) So Hammurabi believed that order within the family was vital. The Code provides balance in family relations, and goes on to say that sons must show paternal respect. The penalty for disobeying this principle was severe indeed, as shown in law 195: “If a son strike his father, his hands shall be hewn off.” (ibid.) Therefore, every-day disputes within families had to be resolved by the Code. This is a sign of just how far Hammurabi had extended his principles. But these principles were not limited to families, but stretched to dealings between friends as well. As law 122 illustrates, simple trust and favours among friends were standardised, and had to be done in writing: "If any one give another silver, gold, or anything else to keep, he shall show everything to some witness, draw up a contract, and then hand it over for safe keeping.” (ibid.) Thus, Hammurabi, through his code, insisted on regulating every-day life situations. Even in minor affairs, the people of Babylon had to adhere to the Code.

The Code of Hammurabi is an enthralling document that reveals much about both the man behind it, and the kingdom he controlled. Hammurabi was a man with ambitious goals: to leave for himself a flattering legacy; to establish a highly organised society, with an effective bureaucracy; to write a legal code which would be adhered to even after his death; and to create a powerful, authoritarian government, which exercised jurisdiction over all aspects of both commercial enterprises and family life. His Code indicates that these were his aims, and reflects his aspiration to establish a unified, cohesive kingdom, governed by a strict, but consistent, set of laws. The immense significance of the Code is to be seen in its content, and in the manner in which it was recorded. That the Code held an important position throughout and beyond Hammurabi’s kingdom is confirmed by the authenticity of the remnants of the Code that were discovered in diverse places. Many elements of Hammurabi’s Code survived his death, and were still regarded as significant within Babylon centuries after his death, not to mention those which have lasted to this day. Certainly, traces of the Code are found in the modern way of life, where many principles and laws can be attributed to Hammurabi.


Bibliography


Koutsoukis, A., 1994, Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne

Roux, Georges, 1964, Ancient Iraq, The Chaucer Press Limited, Suffolk

Halsall, Paul, 1999, Babylonian Proverbs, viewed 1 March, 2009.

King, L., 1910, Code of Hammurabi, viewed 25 February, 2009

Grosvenor, Gilbert, 1951, Everyday Life in Ancient Times, The National Geographic Society, Washington D.C.

Gordon, Cyrus, 1960, Hammurapi’s Code, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York

Wecht, Cyril, 2005, The History of Legal Medicine, viewed 17 March, 2009,