The Code of Hammurabi

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The Code of Hammurabi

Hammurabi, the ruler of Babylon, compiled one of the first written law codes in about 1750 B.C.E. The code reveals a stern ruler who wished to strengthen the power of the central government, keep order in his realm, and maintain the hierarchy (rigidly structured) nature of society. At the same time, it showed his desire to give some protection to his less privileged subjects – commoners, women, and slaves.

The code was inscribed on a seven-foot-high stone pillar. At its top, a relief lends the weight of divine authority to the laws by showing Hammurabi standing before the sun god.

The following laws from Hammurabi’s code reveal almost as much about the society that he ruled as it does about his concept of justice.

  1. If a man weave a spell and bring a charge of murder against another man and has not justified himself, the accuser shall be put to death.

  2. If a man has put a spell upon another man, and has not justified himself, the one who is charged with [witchcraft] shall go to the holy river, he shall plunge into the holy river, and if the holy river overcomes him, his accuser shall take his estate. If the holy river shows that man to be innocent and has saved him, he who charged him with [witchcraft] shall be put to death and the man who plunged into the river shall take the estate of him who brought the charge against him.

  1. If a man has stolen ox or sheep or ass or pig, whether from the temple or from the palace, he shall pay thirty [times the value of the stolen goods]; if he stole from a commoner, he shall [pay] ten [times its value]. If the thief cannot pay, he shall be put to death.

  1. If a man has helped a male or female palace slave, or a commoner’s male or female slave, to escape out of the city gate, he shall be put to death.

  1. If a man has broken into a house, he shall be killed before the [gap] and walled in it.

  1. If the robber has not been caught, the man who has been [robbed] shall [tell] before the god what he has lost, and the city and governor in whose territory the robbery took place shall make good to him his loss.

  1. If a man has neglected to strengthen the dyke of his canal, and a [gap] has opened in his dyke, and the waters have [damaged] the meadow, the man who dyke the [gap] has opened shall make good the corn he has caused to be lost.

  1. If a nun, a lady of god, who is not living in a convent, has opened the door of a wine shop or entered the wine shop for a drink, that woman shall be burned.

  1. If a debt came due against a man, and he has given his wife, his son, his daughter for the money, or handed himself over to work off the debt, for three years they shall work in the house of their buyer or exploiter. In the fourth year they shall be set free.

  1. If the wife of a man has been caught lying with another man, they shall bind them and throw them in the waters.

Analysis Questions

  1. What evidence in the Code of Hammurabi indicates that Babylonian justice was based on an individual’s social class? (Make sure to give at least TWO specific examples.)

  2. How did the code tend to punish crimes against property?

  3. How did the code tend to punish crimes against persons?

  4. Why was the code carved onto a stone pillar?

  5. How does the Code of Hammurabi compare to today’s law? (Make sure to make at least TWO direct comparisons.)

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