What's so important about the Code of Hammurabi?

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.

Relat­ed HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Berolzheimer, Fritz, et al. "The World's Legal Philosophies." The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 2002 (Feb. 7, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=1wQSnIjDh0MC
  • Bromiley, Geoffrey W. "The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: A-D." Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1995. (Feb. 7, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=BW_1mt4oebQC
  • Feldbrugge, Ferdinand Joseph Maria. "The Law's Beginnings." Marinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2003. (Feb. 7, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=DG_HMgPYMlMC
  • Homer, Sidney, Richard Eugene Sylla. "A History of Interest Rates." Rutgers University Press, 1996. (Feb. 7, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=w3hmC17-em4C
  • Iselin, Claire. "Near Eastern Antiquities: Mesopotamia: Law Code of Hammurabi, king of Babylon." Louvre Museum. (Feb. 7, 2009)http://www.louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_notice.jsp;jsessionid=JNLy43Ghytb8DL0xS2Vd2nQRy4Q02hlzZZr1QH6M1HPnv1ZDV7hp!415586341?CONTENT%3C%3Ecnt_id=10134198673226487&CURRENT_LLV_NOTICE%3C%3Ecnt_id=10134198673226487&FOLDER%3C%3Efolder_id=9852723696500800&baseIndex=0&bmLocale=en
  • Marin, Gus. "Juvenile Justice." SAGE, 2005(Feb. 7, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=PArJ9vwiK9wC
  • Mercer, Jeremy. "When the Guillotine Fell." Macmillan, 2008. (Feb. 7, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=f_aPIvKEnasC
  • Souvay, Charels. "Hammurabi." New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company, 1910. (Feb. 7, 2009)http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07125a.htm
  • Van de Mieroop, Marc. "King Hammurabi of Babylon: A Biography." Blackwell Publishing, 2004. (Feb. 7, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=GDr49Nd0jh4C