What's so important about the Code of Hammurabi?

The Code of Hammurabi contains an extensive list of laws that have opened historians' eyes to the highly sophisticated society of Babylonia.
The Code of Hammurabi contains an extensive list of laws that have opened historians' eyes to the highly sophisticated society of Babylonia.
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When we think of a­ncient paga­n kings, the ideas of justice and fairness probably aren't the first things to come to mind. We moderns may be more likely to imagine fickle, power-hungry despots who were ready to put someone to death on a whim. But King Hammurabi, who ruled a prosperous and thriving Babylonia almost four millennia ago, doesn't quite fit that mold. He claimed to have helped protect the weak from oppression, and scholars believe he fostered an atmosphere of justice and righteousness for his people.

This belief is based on an object that was discovered only a century ago. It has already earned a place alongside the Rosetta Stone as one of the most important artifacts of the ancient world. This stela (stone pillar) bears the inscription of the Code of Hammurabi, and it has shed light on the laws, culture and life in Babylonia.

Unearthed in 1901 by French archaeologist Jean-Vincent Scheil, the stela holds the most well-preserved and comprehensive lists of ancient laws in existence. Today, the basalt monument stands in the Louvre Museum in Paris. It's just more than 7 feet (2.13 meters) tall -- clearly, it was meant for public display when it was first erected in an ancient Babylonian city. It wasn't the only one of its kind, which we learned from both the inscription and fragments of other copies that have been found in sites of other Babylonian cities.

At the top is an engraved depiction of Hammurabi with the god of justice, Shamash. Below that picture are columns of inscription in the Akkadian language. The tablet has 16 columns of text on the front and 28 on the back. Between a prologue and epilogue (in which Hammurabi invokes the gods and discusses the greatness of his justice) lies the meat of the artifact. It enumerates almost 300 laws, all in a conditional if/then format. These laws illuminate the Babylonians' sense of justice, which was surprisingly ahead of its time in some ways.

When Scheil found the stela, excited scholars published numerous books and commentary about it -- as well as dubbed it the "Code of Hammurabi." Historians continue to discuss the code's significance and lingering mysteries to this day. It offers remarkable insights into the history of law, social justice and even the Bible. To understand why, we'll inspect some of the most important aspects of the code.

Laws in the Code of Hammurabi

Inspecting the Code of Hammurabi is like looking through a window into ancient Babylon, a bustling agricultural empire with urban cen­ters. These laws established stability and kept the society flourishing. Some historians have claimed the code paints a picture of a society even more advanced and sophisticated than the early medieval period in Europe, which began around A.D. 500 [source: Feldbrugge].

About 100 of these laws concern matters of property and commerce, including debt, interest and collateral. For instance, if a dam broke and subsequent flooding destroyed crops, the laws chalked it up to the negligence of the dam's owner, who had to compensate the farmers who lost crops. Because Babylonia's economy functioned partly on metal currency and partly on barter, the laws also established certain standards and limits for loan agreements to control an abuse of usury. The code stipulates that a lender could charge at most 20 percent for a silver-based loan and 33.3 percent for a grain loan. Lenders also had to finalize the contract in front of witnesses and wait for harvest time before demanding repayment. What's more, the code addresses the idea of a secured loan (one backed by valuable collateral) as well. Property in the form of land and houses -- or even wives and children -- could serve as collateral, too. Those in severe debt could enter indentured servitude to pay it off.

Another set of approximately 100 laws concerns family and issues ranging from marriage and children to inheritance, adultery and incest. Marriages were often a business arrangement between the prospective husband and father of the desired wife. Divorce was attainable, though more easily for the man than the woman. Divorce often carried a fee and sometimes required the husband to return the dowry. Incest and a wife's adultery were punishable by exile or death. The code sees the father, as you might expect, as the head of the household. Until the child married, the father had legal rights to use children for labor for himself or his debtors. Fathers could even choose to sell their children off. Not only that, but were a child to strike a father, the child's hands were cut off.

These last punishments bring us to the matter of criminal laws as well as the nature of punishment in the Code of Hammurabi. Some scholars think this is the most fascinating and significant aspect of the code.

An Eye for an Eye: Code of Hammurabi Punishments

To keep ­his society stable, King Hammarubi instituted some very harsh punishments for certain crimes. As we've learned, physical mutilation was one common option for punishment -- whether that meant a child's hands or a woman's breasts cut off. Death was another punishment. The code explicitly mentions about 28 crimes that warrant death, including robbery, adultery and casting spells of witchcraft [source: Mercer].

Punishments often depended on the social status of the perpetrator. When a member of the elite committed a grievous crime against a person of lower status, he or she may have been asked to pay a fee. When the roles were reversed, the lower-class criminal might receive a harsher punishment.

You've probably heard of the ancient law of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." For a time, people thought this idea, called lex talionis (law of retribution), originated with Moses and Hebrew law. The discovery of the Code of Hammurabi cast doubt on this. The code not only included lex talionis, but it literally dictated such laws for eyes and teeth. If one put out another's eye, he or she would lose an eye. The same went for teeth and bones. Although it might be a little bizarre to our modern sentiments, this was perfectly rational and fair -- at least to Hammurabi.

Historians were surprised to find the idea of lex talionis in a code that predated Mosaic Law (the laws of Moses and the Hebrews) by a couple hundred years. Many jumped to the conclusion that Mosaic Law evolved from the Code of Hammurabi. Scholars quickly dismissed this idea and have come to accept that both probably share a common origin; there are too many significant differences between the two sets of laws to conclude that Mosaic Law is based on the Code of Hammurabi [source: Bromiley]. Historians frequently point out that Mosaic Law is more humane, and while the Code of Hammurabi designates punishments according to a perpetrator's class, Mosaic Law doesn't make this distinction [source: Berolzheimer].

Today, we continue to study the Code of Hammurabi for many reasons, but perhaps most importantly because it sheds light on the history of lex talionis. As nations today continue to struggle with questions of how fair and ethical this policy is, the Code of Hammurabi offers one context for the debate.

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Sources

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