What's so important about the Code of Hammurabi?

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 cenĀ­ters. 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.