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The Code of Hammurabi

The Code of Hammurabi

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The Code of Hammurabi is the most important law code of the ancient Middle East and the predecessor of other ancient law codes. The Code, which dates back to the ancient Mesopotamian culture, is one of the oldest and most valuable deciphered writings. I deals with numerous legal questions and the social system of ancient Mesopotamia.  

The Hammurabi’s epoch, the so-called Old Babylonian Period, lasted from the end of the 20th century BC to the beginning of the 16th century BC.  At the end of the 19th century BC, ancient Mesopotamia was divided between several big states: Assyria, Babylonia, Eshnuna, and Larsa. When the first of these states fell apart, the Elamites took over the control of Mesopotamia. The Babylonian king Hammurabi took advantage of the situation and, after many years of war, managed to unite the whole Mesopotamia in 1755 BC.  To maintain order in the kingdom, it was necessary to unify the various groups from the conquered territories. Hammurabi realized that in order to reach that goal, there should be a universal set of laws for all people to follow. Having gathered, renewed, and changed the existing laws, Hammurabi compiled the Code in 1754 BC. It was etched into a two and a half meter high diorite pillar. In 1901, a French archeological expedition discovered the Code of Hammurabi in Susa (the modern province of Iran). An Elamite king brought it there in the 12th century BC.

Hammurabi created the Code to maintain order in his empire. The text consists of three parts. According to the first part, the purpose of the Code was “to stop the mighty exploiting the weak” (Jarus, 2013). The second and the third parts contain the laws and conclusions. There are 282 laws that cover such subjects as slander, theft, trade, slavery, and social relaions. The laws are not arranged according to certain patterns. However, one can see the internal system of the laws according to the subject division. The first part is devoted to court matters; this division aims to avoid self-will and procrastinations in the courts. Then come property laws, which deal with the issues of private property protection and punishment for encroachment. These laws mainly cover landowners, builders, and merchants. The third division is devoted to family matters, such as marriage, divorce, and adoption. The fourth part describes the crimes against an individual, a person’s life, honor, and dignity. The last part covers the matters concerning labor norms. The Code also sets the rules for farming as well as ownership and sale of slaves. The laws introduce a severe system of judgment; death penalty is among the possible punishments.  In addition, the Code describes various punishments for different offenses. They are based on the law of Talion; according to it, a person who injures another person should be treated in the same way. For example, if an individual harms the eye of another man, the offender must lose his/her eye as well.  

However, the laws were different for various classes.  There is a distinction between the punishment for nobles, commoners, and slaves. For example, if a commoner harms a noble’s eye, he/she will lose the eye too. However, if a noble harms the eye of a commoner, the offender will have to pay him/her a material compensation as a punishment.

The main purpose of the Code was to create universal laws for everybody, and Hammurabi considered the laws perfect. Nevertheless, it is questionable whether they were perfect, because according to the Code, classes did not have equal rights. The laws favored nobles, slaveholders, and wealthy people in general. Perhaps, keeping in mind the coonditions of that time, the Code was rather effective in maintaining order and providing universal laws.    

One should not interpret Hammurabi laws in the modern understanding of this term, but only as the pre-theoretical stage of law development. There is a dispute among historians concerning the question whether it was just a collection of older laws or Hammurabi’s own creation. Leo Oppenheim, one of the supporters of the first idea, claims, “Hammurabi’s Code was not even new to Babylon, but merely an expression of the king’s social responsibilities set down by tradition” (Oppenheim, 1964). The followers of the other idea claim that the territory of the empire was so large and multi-ethnic that it was a clever step to create the set of universal laws for all (Kriwaczek, 2010). On the one hand, the appearance of the Code did not solve the issue of nobles, common people, and slaves being treated differently, and the Code’s principles did not cover the subjective components – intention, negligence, and accident. On the other hand, the Code, with its statements about private property, a person’s life, family matters, and other aspects, provided a possibility of official relations between the government and social classes. In addition, the Code of Hammurabi is one of the earliest examples of the notion of the presumption of innocence.

In conclusion, the Code of Hammurabi is one of the significant records of legal thought of the ancient Eastern society. It is the first known detailed set of laws in history that sheds light on the slave-owning system, private property, and the exploitation of man by man. Moreover, the Code of Hammurabi is an exceptionally valuable historical source because it reflects almost the whole mode of life of people and the political, social, and cultural state of Babylonia.

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