On the Code of Hammurabi

Code of Hammurabi Essay
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The Louvre Stele in Louvre Museum, Paris. Gary Todd from Xinzheng, China, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Many have probably heard about the Code of Hammurabi in either their history or law classes, although very few might remember anything relating to it, its date or contents, laws or its purpose, or anything else regarding it.

Most people just know that the Code of Hammurabi was laid down by a certain king named Hammurabi. And that is a good enough start, to be honest.

In this essay, we will take a brief look at what the Code of Hammurabi actually is, what are its contents, what was its purpose, and why is it significant.

For the unversed, the Code of Hammurabi is a Babylonian legal text that was composed sometime between 1755 BC to 1750 BC by king Hammurabi (or under his supervision at least), the sixth Amorite king of the Old Babylonian Empire (also known as the First Dynasty of Babylon), reigning from 1792 BC to 1750 BC. The contents of the text suggest that it was probably composed sometime toward the end of his reign.

The code is written in the Old Babylonian dialect of Akkadian and is the longest, most preserved, and most organized legal text existing from the ancient Near East.

Many historians and scholars consider it one of the earliest legal texts dealing with human rights, as already mentioned in my essay On the History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Middle Ages. Several modern and contemporary scholars admire the code for its respect for the rule of law and for its apparent fairness at least in theory. They also marvel at its broad scope which included commercial law, property law, criminal law, and family law.

Now, how, where, and when did we find this code in the first place? you might wonder.

Well, the first copy of the text was found inscribed on a basalt stele 7 feet 4 and a half inches tall at the site of the ancient Elamite city of Susa, then Persia (modern-day Iran). The stele was found in three large fragments by the French Archaeological Mission led by French archaeologist Jean-Jacques de Morgan. The large fragments were found on the tell of the Susa acropolis between December 1901 and January 1902 and were easy to assemble and reconstruct.

The stele is 7 feet 4 and a half inches high with a circumference of 5 feet 5 inches at the summit and 6 feet 3 inches at the base. The top of the structure has the image of Hammurabi with the Babylonian god of the sun and justice, Shamash, in which Hammurabi is shown standing before a seated Shamash, who is wearing the horned crown of divinity and has flames spouting from his shoulders.

Needless to say, just as in every aspect of ancient history, there are scholars who have come up with contrasting interpretations of the image, some proposing that Hammurabi is the one who is seated holding a scribe’s stylus, while Shamash is standing and dictating the code to Hammurabi.

Unfortunately, since it is not possible for us to determine the true interpretation now, it would be wise not to get into this particular rabbit hole. So I will let it go as we have other things to discuss.

Below the image of Hammurabi and Shamash is about 4,130 lines of cuneiform text, a logo-syllabic script that was used to write several languages of the ancient Middle East. One-fifth of the text contains the prologue and the epilogue, while the remaining four-fifths contain the laws. The bottom of the stele is also said to have had seven columns of the laws with more than 80 lines each, which were polished and erased in antiquity.

As the stele is now displayed in the Louvre, it is commonly referred to as the Louvre stele. Several copies of the code were created during Hammurabi’s rule and even after it. The text became a part of the scribal curriculum and more than fifty copies of it were found in various regions even outside of Susa, such as Assur, Nippur, Nineveh, Borsippa, Larsa, Sippar, Ur, and Babylon, indicating that the laws were widely known and circulated during and after Hammurabi’s reign.

Copies of the text have been found dating around 1,000 years after the original stele was created. These additional copies helped fill in and complete the original text, including some of the erased sections below.

Now that we have some context as to what the code is and the structure on which it was inscribed, let us discuss its content.

As mentioned above, below the image of Hammurabi and Shamash are 4,130 lines of cuneiform text, starting with the prologue. The prologue occupies 300 lines and is written in a poetic style, beginning with an etiology of Hammurabi’s royal authority to lay down the code. The etiology goes something like this:

Anum, the Babylonian sky god and king of the gods, granted rulership over humanity to Marduk, who chose the center of his earthly rule to be Babylon and became the city’s patron deity. And then Anum, along with Enlil, the Babylonian wind god, chose Hammurabi to be the king of Babylon in order to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak.

In the prologue, Hammurabi claims that he was to rise like Shamash over the Mesopotamians and illuminate the land. Then follows a list of his accomplishments and virtues laid down in first person singular nominal sentences, starting with I am Hammurabi, the Shepherd, selected by the god Enlil. The metaphor of him being the shepherd of his people occurs often and so does his calling himself pious.

The list includes his affinities with the various gods and goddesses and shows him as being peerless on the battlefield and dutiful for restoring and maintaining temples.

After the end of the list, Hammurabi claims that he was successful in fulfilling the request of Marduk to establish truth and justice for the people, thereby bringing an end to the prologue.

After the prologue ends, the laws are laid down in the following 3,330 lines. These laws cover the following legal areas:

  1. Offenses against the administration of law – dealing with false charges, false testimony, and falsification of judgment.
  2. Property offenses – dealing with stealing and receiving stolen property, kidnapping, harboring fugitive slaves, breaking and entering, burglary, and looting burning houses.
  3. Land and houses – dealing with tenure of fiefs, duties of farmers, debts of farmers, irrigation offenses, cattle trespass, cutting down trees, care of date orchards, and offenses connected with houses.
  4. Commerce – dealing with loans and trade, innkeeping, fraud by couriers, distraint and pledge of persons for debt, and safe custody or deposit.
  5. Marriage, family, and property – dealing with slander of ugbabtum-priestesses or married women, the definition of “married woman”, adultery, remarriage in husbands’ absence, divorce, marriage to nadītum-women, maintenance of sick wives, gifts from husbands to wives, the liability of spouses for debt, murder of husbands, incest, inchoate marriage, devolution of marriage-gifts after wives’ deaths, gifts to sons inter vivos, succession amongst sons, disinheritance of sons, legitimation, widows’ property, the marriage of awīlum-class women to slaves, remarriage of widows, sacral women, adoption, and nursing of infants.
  6. Assault – dealing with assaults on fathers, assaults on awīlum-class men, and assaults causing miscarriage.
  7. Professional men – dealing with surgeons, veterinary surgeons, barbers, builders, shipbuilders, and boatmen.
  8. Agriculture – dealing with oxen, theft of fodder by tenants, hire of agricultural laborers, theft of agricultural implements, hire of herdsmen, duties of shepherds, hire of beasts and wagons, and hiring of seasonal laborers.
  9. Rates of hire – dealing with wages of craftsmen and hire of boats.
  10. Slaves – dealing with warranties on the sale of slaves and the purchase of slaves abroad.

These laws are all casuistic in nature, written in the form of conditional sentences such as ”if……then”.

Ideally, I would love to list certain examples of the laws laid down for each of these legal areas, but I think it would be a bit too much. If one really wishes to see examples, one can easily find them on the internet. So I guess I will skip that part.

Now let us move on to the epilogue.

The epilogue toward the end (also written in a poetic style) is 500 lines long and relates to the laws laid down above. Hammurabi declares that the above laws are just decisions established by him and proceeds to exalt his own magnanimity and praise the laws. He states that any wronged man who has a lawsuit against him may have the laws read aloud to him and that this would bring him praise and divine favor. He then wishes good fortune on any ruler who heeds and respects the laws and invokes the wrath of the god on any man who disobeys or erases his laws.

The epilogue keeps reusing the phrase to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak, but rather than seeming as if Hammurabi was concerned about his subjects, the epilogue gives one the impression that he was more concerned with ensuring that his achievements and legacy are not forgotten and his name not sullied.

Hammurabi then goes on to dedicate the next 281 lines to heaping curses upon any future defacer of his laws, some of which can be considered harsh and extremely vivid, such as may he [the future defacer] conclude every day, month, and year of his reign with groaning and mourning, or may he experience the spilling of his life force like water, or may the god Sin… decree for him a life that is no better than death.

Hammurabi also requests the various gods to turn their particular individual attributes against the defacer. In total, he goes on to invoke 14 gods and goddesses.

Now, this brings an end to the contents of the code as found in the stele. However, in spite of everything we now know and understand about the Code of Hammurabi, there is still a lot of uncertainty and speculation surrounding its intended purpose. Debates and disputes between scholars regarding the purpose and legal authority of the code have been going on since the mid-20th century with no common consensus found yet.

In all likelihood, there will never be a theory that is unanimously agreed upon by various scholars. There will always be a contradictory theory, a different and unconventional interpretation of the code. But that is understood and expected and simply part of the game when one wishes to talk about ancient history.

Theories of the code’s intended purpose roughly fall into three categories:

  1. Legislation
  2. Law Report
  3. Jurisprudence

The first theory supposes that the code was intended to be enforced as legislation, that is, as a code of law or a body of statutes. This is because the text resembles a highly organized code of law similar to the Code of Justinian (which is one part of the Corpus Juris Civilis, the codification of Roman law ordered in the early 6th century AD by the Eastern Roman Emperor in Constantinople Justinian I) and the Napoleonic Code (the French Civil Code established during the French Consulate in 1804 and signed by Napoleon Bonaparte). A discovered copy of the code also refers to it as ṣimdat šarrim, meaning royal decree, which implies a kind of enforced legislation.

The second theory supposes that the code is somewhat of a law report containing records of past cases and judgments phrased and written abstractly. Some scholars believe that this theory might explain the casuistic format of the laws. This theory gained some credit when a record of a case similar to one of the laws was found by French historian Jean Bottero. However, finding such cases is quite rare, thereby making the theory inconclusive. Also, legal cases and judgments were usually well-recorded in Mesopotamia with the actual facts of the case recorded in detail. Hence, this theory has failed to gain much traction.

The third theory is that the code is an abstract treatise on how judgments should be formulated, but not a true legal code. This led some scholars to regard the code as jurisprudence rather than legislation. Some propose that it is a work of Mesopotamian scholarship as it bears a striking similarity with other works of Mesopotamian scholarship in the way it is written.

Some scholars even propose that the Code of Hammurabi, like other Mesopotamian law collections, represents an interesting formulation of social criticism and must therefore not be regarded as normative directions. Also, the fact that the code became such an intrinsic part of the late Babylonian curriculum as a scholarly and literary text (something no other law collection had become) made scholars suspect that it was intended to be a scholarly treatise rather than a code of laws.

Today, it is quite difficult to pinpoint with utmost accuracy and certainty which theory is correct and true. Chances are that the real purpose for which the code was intended will never be known to us. Therefore, one is free to speculate and argue and debate and dispute over which of these theories is right or wrong.

In spite of such uncertainty, one cannot ignore the influence of the Code of Hammurabi on subsequent centuries. By no means was it the first law collection laid down in ancient Mesopotamia (The Code of Ur-Nammu of Ur, Code of Lipit-Ishtar of Isin, and The Laws of Eshnunna were composed before the Code of Hammurabi), but it is definitely one of the most popular and influential ones.

Although the underlying principle of the Code of Hammurabi, which is, the principle of lex talionis (meaning eye for an eye), may be far from the spirit of modern legal systems of civil and common law, other principles such as the presumption of innocence, the importance of written evidence (especially in contract matters), one crime one punishment, the importance of the intentions of a defendant, and the right of a wronged man to have the laws read aloud to him, have no doubt influenced our modern legal systems to a great extent.

The Code of Hammurabi was lauded and praised by modern and contemporary scholars for having humanitarian laws protecting and providing justice to the weak and helpless, the poor, the widow, and the orphan. Scholars have referred to it as one of the most important monuments in the history of the human race, have called it a moral and political masterpiece, and have praised it for its modernity of spirit. Although, if one reads the code today, the laws may seem harsh, brutal, and even somewhat unfair due to the violent corporal punishments advocated for some laws.

Although the influence of the Code of Hammurabi on later law collections is difficult to determine, its influence is also presumed to be found in the Mosaic Law, also called the Law of Moses.

One thing is for sure, in spite of all the speculation and uncertainty surrounding the Code of Hammurabi, we must consider ourselves fortunate to have discovered it in its original form, for it is no doubt a significant discovery of our rich yet complicated history.