The Code of Hammurabi: A King with Rules
As people formed societies, there was a need for rules to regulate the behavior of the individuals for the benefit of the group. In the earliest cultures, the rules were few and they dealt with obvious transgression, such as violation of personal and property rights. As the city-states of Mesopotamia and the great kingdoms of Egypt formed, the rules became more complex, but they were usually forced by the monarch and served to order the lives of the people for the benefit of the monarchy and realm.
Hammurabi was a sixth Amorite king of Babylon from 1792 BC to 1750 BC. According to Middle chronology we can say that he ruled for nearly 42 years over Mesopotamia. He was a first Babylon king who became a king by abdication of his father. Hammurabi was an Amorite First Dynasty king. Hammurabi was known for his earliest and most complete ancient legal codes.
A well-known and well-respected monarch, Hammurabi is remembered for putting “order
and righteousness in the land.” The code was carved on a single four-ton slab black stone. It was very difficult to carve this type of stone. At its top is a two-and-a-half-foot relief carving of a standing Hammurabi receiving the law—symbolized by a measuring rod and tape—from the seated Shamash, the Babylonian god of justice.
The code of laws was arranged in orderly groups, so that everyone who read the laws would know what was required of them. There was also some other Codes available include the Code of Ur-Nammu, king of Ur (c. 2050 BC), the Laws of Eshnunna (c. 1930 BC) and the codex of Lipit-Ishtar of Isin (c. 1870 BC), while later ones include the Hittite laws, the Assyrian laws, and Mosaic Law. These codes come from similar cultures in a relatively small geographical area, and they have passages which resemble each other. But the Code of Hammurabi was one of several sets of laws in the Ancient Near East. It is the longest surviving text from the Old Babylonian period.
In 1901 French archaeologists Jacques de Morgan discovered that the Code of Hammurabi was carved in cuneiform characters on a huge stone slab. There were 282 laws in the code, with evidence of another 35 having been chipped off and lost. There they find a stele-broken into three pieces. The stele was packed up and transported to Louvre, Paris, France. After that within a year all Codes were translated and publicized.
The Code identified specific crimes and stipulated specific penalties. For example, if a man steals an ox, he must pay back 30 times its value. The edicts range from family law to professional contracts and administrative law, often outlining different standards of justice for the three classes of Babylonian society—the propertied class, freedmen, and slaves. For instance, a man who failed to repair his dike would be compelled to compensate a neighbor whose land was flooded; a priestess could be burned alive for entering tavern without permission; a widow could inherit a portion of her husband’s property equal to that inherited by their son; and a surgeon whose patient died while under the knife would lose his hand. The Code also provided for debtor to get out of his debt by giving his wife or child to creditor for three years, etc.
The Code went beyond being simply a legal code by stipulating the structure of the government. And, since the king was also the chief priest, the Code governed Babylonian religious life as well.
The Code of Hammurabi was a milestone of world history because, for the first time, laws were published and codified for all to see, rather than being enacted by the whim of the monarch. In this sense, it was the precursor of the legal systems under which most modern societies function.