What was Hammurabi’s Code?
Hammurabi’s Code is known as the oldest collection of codified law ever to exist. The Code, which was written down sometime around 1780 B.C. was created by Hammurabi, the sixth King of Babylon. Hammurabi’s Code extends to all aspects of law and includes areas concerning wages; criminal law; and the rights of citizens, even slaves and women.
The laws set out the first real code for civilized society. The laws helped to maintain order, create consistency in handing down punishments and, for the first time, allowed citizens to be aware of what actions were permissible in society.
Hammurabi’s Code was discovered in 1901 A.D. by French archaeologists working in Persia. The object takes the form of a basalt pillar, known as a stele, about 6 feet high. On the top of the stele is an engraving of Hammurabi receiving the laws from the Babylonian Sun-God Shamash. Below the engraving are 42 columns describing 282 “laws” that the citizens of Babylon were required to follow, as well as guidelines for trade and penalties for violating the laws.
There is no organized method to the laws laid down in Hammurabi’s Code. They seem to be strewn about in no particular order. Hammurabi’s Code is where the term “eye for an eye” comes from. Involving criminal matters the laws were very strict and the penalties severe. In the area of trade, there were set guidelines involving how trade should occur and the appropriate prices that could be charged for certain goods and services. The code can be broken up into 5 types of codes including: Legal Procedure, Household, Slavery, Miscellaneous and Trade.
From the text of Hammurabi’s Code it can be noted that there was a rigid form of adjudication involved in legal proceedings. The code often mentions witnesses, judges and evidence. It is definitely the first true form of legal procedure to present itself. Some examples to show the extent of legal procedure in Hammurabi’s code include: the putting to death of a false accuser; the idea that an individual must prove that a crime has been committed against him; the ability of a judge to enforce money judgments; penalties for certain crimes; time limits for producing evidence and witnesses; and probably the most progressive, the imposition of fines and the removal from office of judges who neglect their duties.
The laws numbered 128 – 149 deal solely with the issue of husband and wife. Unlike legal doctrines that have come about long after Hammurabi’s Code, these laws show a surprising amount of effort towards women’s equality. For example, law 130 states “If a man violate the wife of another man who has never known a man and still lives in her father’s house and sleep with her and be surprised, this man shall be put to death, but the wife blameless.” The law essentially means that if the wife of a man is raped then the offender shall be put to death but the wife shall not be held responsible. This goes to show that Babylonian civilization treated women more as citizens than even present day Islamic countries. Under Sharia law, which is practiced as the secular law of a number of Islamic countries, a woman who is raped is considered to be the criminal and put to death.
There are 10 laws in Hammurabi’s Code that deal exclusively with slavery. They can be considered to be a stricter form of the Fugitive Slave laws that were enacted in the United States at various points before the Civil War. The majority of the laws involving slavery in Hammurabi’s Code deal strictly with the return and harboring of escaped slaves. The punishment for most crimes involving the harboring of slaves is death and there are designated rewards for the return of escaped slaves. 3 of the laws involving slavery also involve the non-payment of debts. Law 117 strictly permits an individual who is owed a debt to take the debtors wife and/or children as slaves, as payment of the debt, for a period of 3 years at which time the debt will be forgiven.
The section on trade is the most extensive of all the laws in Hammurabi’s Code. The laws go on to explain the conduct of all professions including builders, shipbuilders, physicians and barbers. This section also helps to give insight into the value that the society gave to different classes of people. Laws 221 – 223 explain this perfectly. Those three laws outline the fees to be paid to a physician for the repair of broken bones of “diseased soft part” man. If it is a citizen the fee is 5 shekels; a freeman, 3 shekels; and if it is a slave the fee is 2 shekels. The trade portion of Hammurabi’s Code also gives weight to the “eye for an eye” mentality that the Code is so famously known for. Law 229 states that “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.” Coinciding with that is law 230 which states “if it kill the son of the owner the son of that builder shall be put to death.” One more aspect of the trade laws in Hammurabi’s Code is that the idea of restitution is prevalent. When a professional who is being paid for his services acts negligently and damages property then the laws note that that professional is responsible for reimbursement of the others loss.
The extent of the other laws deal primarily with the “eye for an eye” mentality of dealing with punishment. There are also a few laws that deal with negligence in maintaining water rights. These include the negligent operation of one’s dam that results in the flooding of a neighbor’s property. In these situations the accused is forced to pay for the repairs and the losses to the other individual’s property.