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Hammurabi's Code Of Laws

Hammurabi, King of Babylonia (from: 1795- 1750 BC

), was the greatest ruler of the Babylonian dynasty. During his reign, he extended his empire northward from the Persian Gulf through the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys (the present day Iraq) and westward to the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Apart from his considerable achievements as a military leader and administrator, he is primarily remembered for his codification of the laws governing Babylonian life. "The Code of Hammurabi" is a collection of the laws and edicts of Hammurabi, the earliest legal code in consolidated form as yet known to man. This paper traces the discovery of Hammurabi's Code of Laws, describes its main contents and discusses how important the Code is in giving us an insight into the social structure of the Babylonian society as well its governmental and justice systems.

Discovery of the Code

The Code of Hammurabi was unearthed by a team of French archaeologists led by M.J. de Morgan at Susa, Iraq, formerly ancient Elam, during 1901 and 1902. The stele containing the Code was found in three large fragments. When fitted together, the pieces formed a column of black diorite measuring 7 ft. 41/2 in. In height and 6 ft 91/2 in. In circumference at the base. The top portion of the Stele of Hummarabi, shown in the photograph at right, depicts Hammurabi with Shamash, the sun god, who is presenting a staff and ring (symbolizing the power to administer the law) to Hammurabi. Below the carving, the stele was covered with forty-four columns (over 3800 lines) of text in beautifully cut cuneiform Semitic script. The stele was most likely engraved for the temple of Shamash at Sippar, and another copy of the Code was placed in the temple of Marduk in the city of Babylon. The stele was carried away from Sippar, in around 1120 B.C. By Shutruk-Nahhunte, King of Elam, who set it in his capital as a trophy of his victory. It is now placed in the Louvre Museum, Paris. (Suavay)

A Collection and Redaction of Older Codes

The archeologists and historians agree that Hammurabi's Code is not a series of Laws invented by the King himself, but a collection and redaction of old partial or local codes and of customs, usages, and decisions of priests and judges. (Hertzler, 87) Before Hammurabi, the Babylonian region consisted of small city-states, each having its own laws, which they administered according to their age-old customs. The region had seen the ascent of the Akkadians, the Sumerians and other Semitic invaders. Each had been influenced by the people they came in contact with. Hence, while the waves of Semitic invaders brought their own nomad law and culture with them, they also incorporated the customs of the local populace and the old Akkadian ways into their way of living. Hammurabi's code of laws, therefore, is a combination of the Sumerian and the Semitic traditions that reflect elements of the Akkadian and Sumerian legal systems. (Hertzler, 87-88)

Parts of the Code

The code consists of three parts, the prologue, the body of law, and the epilogue. In the prologue Hammurabi describes (rather boastfully) the good deeds he had done and the considerable benefits he had conferred on the people, cities, and gods of Babylonia. He starts the prologue by mentioning that it was the gods themselves who had conferred on Hammurabi ("the exalted prince who feared God") the task of bringing about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers so that the strong should not harm the weak, enlighten the land, and further the well-being of mankind. In a sense, therefore, Hammurabi's "mission statement" was to promulgate a set of laws that would ensure justice in the land and protect the weak from the strong and to promote prosperity for his people. The prologue of the Code then goes on to enumerate a number of other notable acts performed by Hammurabi such as increasing abundance in the land under his rule, the restoration of cities, rebuilding of temples, promoting of agriculture, building water-supply systems, and subduing invaders. As if to emphasize his role as protector of the oppressed, Hammurabi closes the prologue with the words, "When Marduk

sent me to rule over men, to give the protection of right to the land, I did right and righteousness in . . ., and brought about the well-being of the oppressed." (Translation by L.W. King)

The next part is the main body of the Code that lists out Hammurabi's laws numbered 1 to 282.

There is no consistent theme of classification of the laws throughout the body of the Code, although regulations relating to the same theme are generally grouped together. At times, laws are grouped together because they deal with similar crimes or legal questions, but more commonly because they concern the same class or profession. (Hertzler, 90)

In the epilogue, Hammurabi once again enumerates his accomplishments and advises the "oppressed" who has a case at law to "come and stand before this my image as king of righteousness" and read the laws in which he shall find the justice he is looking for. He also advises the future rulers of the land to observe the laws inscribed by him which would be good for the ruler as well as his subjects. The epilogue also contains a long list of curses on the rulers who do not follow the laws as set forth by him, alter or deface the laws.

Main Contents of the Code

Hammurabi's laws are quite clearly a collection of a civil code and contain no religious or ceremonial regulations. Crime is considered to be an offense against the state, and is punishable with merciless but impartial justice. In punishments, the Code follows the principal of "an eye for an eye,"

although the severity of punishments is not uniform for all classes. It prescribes the death penalty for a wide range of offenses including various forms of theft, brigandage, disorder, shirking of state service, and criminal negligence. An intriguing aspect of the Code is its severe punishment for carelessness, neglect, and inefficiency. For example, Code # 55 specifies that the careless farmer has to pay for damages if water floods the fields of his neighbor while he is watering his own fields. The mistakes of a surgeon are punishable with heavy fines or even the loss of his hands (# 215~218); and the careless builder of houses pays dearly if the building collapses (# 229).

A significant portion of the Code (almost one-fourth) deals with the institution of marriage and the family. Marriage is treated as a commercial and financial contract in which appropriate dowry and settlements apply, wherever applicable. For example, one of marriage laws specifies that "if a man wish to separate from a wife who has borne him children: then he shall give that wife her dowry, and a part of the field, garden, and property ... " A long list of laws lay out the rights and obligations of the husband and the wife in different situations. Adultery and incest, for instance, are punished according to the circumstances and degree of relationship. The Hammurabi Code also gives the right of divorce to women.

Laws relating to property, its sale, lease, rental, deposit or pledge are extensively covered in the Code. Proper documents, supported by oath of witnesses are required for all such transactions. Although most property laws favor the landlord rather than the tenant, they are not totally one-sided.

The subject of inheritance of property is also given due importance and some of the inheritance laws are remarkably similar to present-day laws in the Western World.

In short, the laws laid out in the Code are harsh and severe in some respects, but are not devoid of humanitarian considerations. In the words of Hertzler (102), "the code is characterized by a despotic, and yet on the whole beneficent, paternalism."

Babylonian Society

Perhaps the most important aspect of Hammurabi's Code to students of history, is the invaluable glimpse it provides of the ancient Babylonian society.

The secular characteristic of the Code indicates that the government in Hammurabi's time was also secular in character, although the influence of religion and priesthood was very much evident in the society. Hence, Hammurabi found it necessary to claim in the Code that he had received authority from the gods and, therefore, become the ruler by divine right. The form of government was monarchy in which succession to the throne was determined by birth and apparently there were no constitutional bodies that restricted the powers of the monarch. (Chamliss, 20,21)

The principle of lax tallion (law of equal retaliation) was followed in law to satisfy the yearning of revenge in human nature. However, the Babylonian conception of justice was not based on the democratic ideal of personal equality before the law as several laws in the Code specify severer penalties for committing the same offense against persons of higher…[continue]

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