Hammurabi’s Law Code

Hammurabi was the oldest son of Sin-Muballit and did not inherit much from his father, but by the time of his death, his empire came to dominate all of Mesopotamia. Hammurabi also established a set of laws that is called the Code of Hammurabi today. Being one of the most influential codifications of law in ancient history, the text provides a concrete example of the expanding influence of centralized government on the personal and professional lives of the general population. Despite Hammurabi’s stupendous success as a conqueror and a king, he is best remembered for his accomplishments beyond the battlefield such as becoming the father of legislation.

The code set fines and punishments to meet the requirements of justice and governed the people living in Hammurabi’s fast-growing empire. At the time of Hammurabi, Babylon had become a large city with crowded streets.

Hammurabi’s Law had to rule over nomads, Assyrian merchants, aristocratic Babylonians, Elamite slaves, and Sumerian housewives. By the time of Hammurabi’s death, his empire included modern-day Iraq, extending from the Persian Gulf along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The Code consisted of 282 laws with punishments based on social status (slaves, free men, and property owners). There were three social classes: the amelu (the elite), the mushkenu (free men) and the ardu (slaves). Women had limited rights which were mostly based around marriage contracts and divorce rights.

Hammurabi's Law Code

One of the best surviving examples of the code is written on the “diorite stele”. Today it can be found in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. The stele was found at the site of Susa, in modern-day Iran. Historians believe that it was brought to Susa in the 12th century BC by an Elamite ruler who conquered Babylon and then who erased a portion of the text in preparation for creating his own inscriptions. The stele is in two parts: in the upper part you can see two figures in relief, and in the lower part the text of the laws. The upright figure on the left is Hammurabi himself, symbolically receiving the laws from the sun god Shamash, the patron of Justice, recognizable by the flames behind him.

Scribes wrote these laws on 12 tablets. The code consists of rules and punishments that were imposed if those rules were broken. The structure of the code is very detailed: each offense receiving a particular punishment. Hammurabi’s Law Code contains some important principles like having people provide evidence of a crime, innocent until proven guilty, and protection of the weak.

Examples of the Laws

The Laws Concerning Social Structures

141. If a free man’s wife wishes to divorce him, the man may divorce her and give her no settlement. If the man does not wish to divorce her, he may marry another woman and keep his first wife in his house as a slave.

143. If a married woman commits adultery, then she shall be executed by being thrown into the water.

129. If the wife of a free man is caught lying with another man, they shall both be tied up and drowned in the water, but if the husband decides to let his wife live, then the king shall let the man live.

The Laws Concerning Economic Structures

122. If a free person wishes to pawn anything, that person is responsible for drawing up a contract signed by witnesses before completing the transaction.

233. If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction sound, and a wall cracks, that builder shall strengthen that wall at his own expense.

The Laws Concerning the Operation of the Judicial System

5. If a judge delivers a written verdict and later changes it, that judge shall pay twelve times the amount of the damages awarded in the verdict. Then the judge shall be publicly expelled from his office.

The Laws Concerning Trade

88. A merchant may collect interest of thirty-three percent or one-third on a loan of grain, and twenty percent interest may be charged on a loan of silver.

108. If a wine seller does not take grain for the price of a drink but takes money by the large weight, or if she makes the measure of a drink smaller than the measure of grain, they shall call that wine seller to account and throw her into the water.

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