June 9-13, 2014 The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

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Code of Hammurabi

King Hammurabi ruled Babylon around 2000 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) for about 55 years. He was the sixth king of the First Dynasty of Babylon, which was the commercial center of the known civilized world. Babylon’s strength and the length of Hammurabi’s reign created a time of great stability. To enhance this stability of both social and commercial life, Hammurabi created a code that established rules for all aspects of his subjects’ lives (Gordon, 1957).

This code was intended to replace clan blood feuds with a system of laws sanctioned and administered by the state. The code contained five sections (Gordon, 1957):

  1. A code of basic laws.

  2. A manual of instruction for judges, police officers, and witnesses.

  3. A handbook of rights and duties of husbands, wives, and children.

  4. A set of regulations establishing wages and prices.

  5. A code of ethics for merchants, doctors, and officials (Masters and Roberson, 1985).

In essence, the Code of Hammurabi was a set of laws, an administrative manual, a set of Old Testament-type commandments, a collection of commercial regulations, and a statement of professional ethics. Western society has all of these, but they are often found in separate volumes under the jurisdiction of separate administrative entities. This code was indeed a broad undertaking to provide order and stability in its time.

The code established three major changes in society’s view of the law that directly affected the stability of society and the treatment of crime victims. Again, these changes were directed at terminating the clan rule by the blood feud, which often was perpetuated for generations and affected the basic continued existence of an entire society (Wallace, 1998). The three major changes were:

  1. An assertion of the power of the crown or state. This was the beginning of state-administered punishment. Blood feuds between private citizens were banned under the code.

  2. Protection of the weaker from the stronger. Widows were to be protected from those who might exploit them; elderly parents were protected from sons who would disown them; and lesser officials were protected from harassment by higher officials.

  3. Restoration of equity between the offender and the victim. The victim was to be made as whole as possible, and, in turn, he or she was required to forgo vengeance and forgive the offender.

Of significance for the later victims’ movement was that this was one of the first victims’ rights statutes in history. Punishment of the offender and restitution to the victim were equally important in Babylonian society. Two other ancient societies also attempted to deal with victims’ rights. Both of these influenced English and American law.

Roman Law

The next major attempt to codify the law to avoid personal disputes and blood feuds was Roman law. During the period known as the Pax Romana, Roman law affected most of the civilized world, including England. These laws were derived from the Twelve Tables, which were written in about 450 B.C.E. As with the Code of Hammurabi, these tables delineated a set of basic rules pertaining to family life, religious practices, and economic endeavors. For the first time in Roman life, written laws now applied to all classes of society (Wallace, 1998).
Later, Emperor Justinian I codified these tables into a set of writings. The Justinian Code distinguished two types of laws:

  • Public laws. These dealt with the organization and administration of the Republic.

  • Private laws. These addressed issues such as contracts; possession and other property rights; injuries to citizens; and the legal status of various persons, such as slaves, husbands, and wives.

This code contained elements reflected later in both English and American civil and criminal law. From 100 B.C.E. to about 400 C.E. (Common Era), Roman law and customs were forced on the English people and influenced the development of English legal practices into the Middle Ages.

Jewish Law

The oral tradition of the Mosaic Code probably began several centuries B.C.E., and it was written for the first time in the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible, Deuteronomy, around 100 B.C.E. This covenant or contract between Yahweh and the 12 tribes of Israel has had a long-lasting effect on all Judeo-Christian societies, especially England and America. The Ten Commandments’ prohibition against murder, perjury, and theft became the basis for the laws in these two societies (Wallace, 1998).
Of equal influence was Deuteronomy’s prescription for the punishment of these and other crimes: “an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deuteronomy 19:21 TNIV). This early pronouncement of basic justice owed to victims was not meant to be taken literally, according to rabbinic tradition. Rather, it was interpreted to mean that the victim of a crime should receive from the criminal the value of an eye, a tooth, a hand, a foot, and so forth. This was the first formalized proposal of victim restitution since the Code of Hammurabi.

English Law

From the Middle Ages until the Norman conquest in 1066 C.E., England was a decentralized country with multiple kings and nobles holding power over their individual lands. There was little written law, and crimes during this period were viewed as personal wrongs, not the concern of the state as in the Code of Hammurabi. Restitution for the offense (known as wergeld) was paid directly to the victim or the victim’s family. If the offender failed to make payment, revenge was exacted, and often a blood feud ensued. The victim’s right to equity was preeminent, but the stability of society was very tenuous.

However, with the advent of William the Conqueror’s rule in 1066, royal administrators rode the circuit and rendered justice. To make this new system more palatable, these administrators combined Roman law with local custom and rules of conduct to guide their judgments. This system of standing “by the decided law” would have a direct effect on the later development of English common law (Wallace, 1998).

Common law was recognized before William’s rule. This traditional body of unwritten legal precedents created by court decisions (as distinguished from written statutory law) was used by the royal judges as they started their deliberations. They would review past decisions that were similar to their current case and apply them when possible. Then, in the 11th century, King Edward the Confessor (1042–1066) proclaimed that common law was the law of the land, and court decisions were then recorded that could be used by lawyers in pleading their cases. Common law was the melding of existing legal practices known as Dane law and Mercian law with West Saxon legal practice. The concept of common law greatly influenced the development of American law and its early emphasis on restitution and victims’ rights.
The final step in the codification of laws in England was the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. This was a written statement of the basic liberties granted to English noblemen and the people. The U.S. Constitution and its unique statement of individual rights and liberties, and American legal practices in general, were greatly affected by the way this document evolved as a claim of everyone’s rights against the state.
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