Mesopotamian men and women viewed themselves as subservient to the gods and believed humans were at the mercy of the god's arbitrary decisions. To counter their insecurity, the Mesopotamians not only developed the arts of divination in order to understand the wishes of their gods, but also relieved some anxiety by establishing codes that regulated their relationships with one another. These law codes became an integral part of Mesopotamian society. Although there were early Sumerian law codes, the best-preserved Mesopotamian collection of law codes was that of Hammurabi (fl.18th century B.C.).
The Code of Hammurabi reveals a society of strict justice. Penalties for criminal offenses were severe and varied according to the wealth of the individual. According to the code, there were three social classes in Babylonia: an upper class of nobles (government officials, priests, and warriors), the class of freemen (merchants, artisans, professionals, and wealthy farmers), and a lower class of slaves. An offense against a member of the upper class was punished with more severity than the same offense against a member of a lower class. The principle of retaliation ("an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth") was fundamental. It was applied in cases where members of the upper class committed criminal offenses against their own social equals. But for offenses against members of the lower classes, a money payment was made instead.
Mesopotamian society, like any other society, had its share of crime. Burglary was common. If a person stole goods belonging to the temples, he was put to death, and so was the person who received the stolen goods. If the private property of an individual was stolen, the thief had to make a tenfold restitution. If he could not do so he was put to death. An offender caught attempting to loot a burning house was to be "thrown into that fire."
Private individuals were often responsible for bringing charges before a court of law. To insure that accusations were not brought lightly, the accuser in cases of murder was responsible for proving his case against the defendant. If the accuser could not, he was put to death. Providing false testimony in a murder case meant the same fate.
The law code also extended into the daily life of the ordinary citizen. Builders were held responsible for the buildings they constructed. If a house collapsed and caused the death of its owner, the builder was put to death. Goods destroyed by the collapsed must also be replaced and the house itself rebuilt at the builder's expense.
The number of laws in Hammurabi's code dedicated to land and commerce reveal the importance of agriculture and trade in Mesopotamian society. Numerous laws dealt with questions of landholding, such as the establishment of conditions for renting farmland. Laws concerning land-use and irrigation were especially strict. If a landowner or tenant failed to keep dikes in good repair he was required to pay for the grain that was destroyed. If he could not pay he was sold into slavery and his goods sold, the proceeds of which were divided among the injured parties. ode of Hammurabi also specified the precise wages of laborers and artisans.
The largest number of laws in the Code of Hammurabi were dedicated to marriage and family. Parents arranged marriages for their children. After marriage, the party signed a marriage contract. Without this contract, no one was considered legally married. While the husband provided a bridal payment, the woman's parents were responsible for a dowry to the husband. Dowries were carefully monitored and governed by regulations.
Mesopotamian society was a patriarchal society, and so women possessed far fewer privileges and rights in their marriage. A woman's place was at home and failure to fulfill her duties was grounds for divorce. If she was not able to bear children, her husband could divorce her but he had to repay the dowry. If his wife tried to leave the home in order to engage in business, her husband could divorce her and did not have to repay the dowry. Furthermore, if his wife was a "gadabout, . . . neglecting her house [and] humiliating her husband," she could be drowned.
Women were guaranteed some rights, however. If a woman was divorced without good reason she received the dowry back. A woman could seek divorce and get her dowry back if her husband was unable to show that she had done anything wrong. The mother also chose a son to whom an inheritance would be passed.
Fathers ruled their children as well as their wives. Obedience was expected: "If a son has struck his father, they shall cut off his hand." If a son committed a serious enough offense, his father could disinherit him. It should be clear that the Code of Hammurabi covered virtually every aspect of an individual's life. Although scholars have questioned the extent to which these laws were actually employed in Babylonian society, the Code of Hammurabi provides us an important glimpse into the values of Mesopotamian civilization.
Selected Laws from Hammurabi’s Code
2. If anyone bring an accusation against a man, and the accused go to the river and leap into the river, if he sink in the river his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if the river prove that the accused is not guilty, and he escape unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death, while he who leaped into the river shall take possession of the house that had belonged to his accuser.
3. If anyone bring an accusation of any crime before the elders, and does not prove what he has charged, he shall, if it be a capital offense charged, be put to death.
4. If he satisfy the elders to impose a fine of grain or money, he shall receive the fine that the action produces.
5. If a judge try a case, reach a decision, and present his judgment in writing; if later error shall appear in his decision, and it be through his own fault, then he shall pay twelve times the fine set by him in the case, and he shall be publicly removed from the judge's bench, and never again shall he sit there to render judgment.
6. If anyone steal the property of a temple or of the court, he shall be put to death, and also the one who receives the stolen thing from him shall be put to death.
8. If anyone steal cattle or sheep, or a donkey, or a pig or a goat, if it belong to a god or to the court, the thief shall pay thirtyfold therefore; if they belonged to a freed man of the king he shall pay tenfold; if the thief has nothing with which to pay he shall be put to death.
21. If anyone break a hole into a house (break in to steal), he shall be put to death before that hole and be buried.
22. If anyone is committing a robbery and is caught, then he shall be put to death.
108. If bad characters gather in the house of a wine seller and she does not arrest those characters and bring them to the palace, that wine seller shall be put to death.
110. If a "sister of a god" open a tavern, or enter a tavern to drink, then shall this woman be burned to death.
117. If anyone fail to meet a claim for debt, and sell himself, his wife, his son, and daughter for money or give them away to forced labor: they shall work for three years in the house of the man who bought them, or the proprietor, and in the fourth year they shall be set free.
136. If anyone leave his house, run away, and then his wife go to another house, if then he return, and wishes to take his wife back: because he fled from his home and ran away, the wife of this runaway shall not return to her husband.
137. If a man wish to separate from a woman who has borne him children, or from his wife who has borne him children: then he shall give that wife her dowry, and a part of the field, garden, and property, so that she can rear her children. When she has brought up her children, a portion of all that is given to the children, equal as that of one son, shall be given to her. She may then marry the man of her heart.
138. If a man wishes to separate from his wife who has borne him no children, he shall give her the amount of her purchase money and the dowry which she brought from her father's house, and let her go.
141. If a man's wife, who lives in his house, wishes to leave it, plunges into debt, tries to ruin her house, neglects her husband, and is judicially convicted: if her husband offer her release, she may go on her way, and he gives her nothing as a gift of release. If her husband does not wish to release her, and if he take another wife, she shall remain as servant in her husband's house.
142. If a woman quarrel with her husband, and say: "You are not nice to me," the reasons for her prejudice must be presented. If she is guiltless, and there is no fault on her part, but he leaves and neglects her, then no guilt attaches to this woman, she shall take her dowry and go back to her father's house.
143. If the woman has not been careful but has gadded about, neglecting her house and belittling her husband, they shall throw that woman into the water.
144. If a man be in debt and is unable to pay his creditors, he shall sell his wife, son, or daughter, or bind them over to service. For three years they shall work in the houses of their purchaser or master; in the fourth year they shall be given their freedom.
185. If a man takes in his own home a young boy as a son and rears him, one may not bring claim for that adopted son.
186. If a man adopt a son, and if after he has taken him he injure his foster father and mother, then this adopted son shall return to his father's house.
195. If a son strike his father, his hands shall be hewn off.
196. If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out. [ An eye for an eye ]
197. If he break another man's bone, his bone shall be broken.
198. If he put out the eye of a freed man, or break the bone of a freed man, he shall pay one gold mina.
199. If he put out the eye of a man's slave, or break the bone of a man's slave, he shall pay one-half of its value.
200. If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out. [ A tooth for a tooth ]
201. If he knock out the teeth of a freed man, he shall pay one-third of a gold mina.
202. If any one strike the body of a man higher in rank than he, he shall receive sixty blows with an ox-whip in public.
203. If a free-born man strike the body of another free-born man or equal rank, he shall pay one gold mina.
204. If a freed man strike the body of another freed man, he shall pay ten shekels in money.
205. If the slave of a freed man strike the body of a freed man, his ear shall be cut off.
228. If a builder build a house for someone and complete it, he shall give him a fee of two shekels in money for each wall of surface.
229 If a builder build a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built fall in and kill its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.
235. If a shipbuilder build a boat for someone, and do not make it tight, if during that same year that boat is sent away and suffers injury, the shipbuilder shall take the boat apart and put it together tight at his own expense. The tight boat he shall give to the boat owner.
236. If a man rent his boat to a sailor, and the sailor is careless, and the boat is wrecked or goes aground, the sailor shall give the owner of the boat another boat as compensation.
273. If anyone hire a day laborer, he shall pay him from the New Year until the fifth month (April to August, when days are long and the work hard) six gerahs in money per day; from the sixth month to the end of the year he shall give him five gerahs per day.
274. If anyone hire a skilled artizan, he shall pay as wages of the . . . five gerahs, as wages of the potter five gerahs, of a tailor five gerahs, of . . . gerahs, . . . of a ropemaker four gerahs, of . . .. gerahs, of a mason . . . gerahs per day.
275. If anyone hire a ferryboat, he shall pay three gerahs in money per day.
276. If he hire a freight-boat, he shall pay two and one-half gerahs per day.
282. If a slave say to his master: "You are not my master," if they convict him his master shall cut off his ear.