Hammurabi's Code: Babylonian Law Set in Stone

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published on 04 October 2011

Hammurabi was the first king of the Babylonian Empire, reigning from 1792 B.C. – 1750 B.C. During his time in power, he conquered Sumer and Akkad, amassing those cultures for his territory. He is probably best known for his enduring code of Babylonian laws, known as Hammurabi’s Code.

Hammurabi and Shamash

Though not the only law code around in the Ancient Near East (the codes of Ur-Nammu and Eshnunna predate it by a few hundred years), Hammurabi’s code stands today as a fundamental example of laws that are so simple that they can not be altered by anyone, not even a king. The laws, 282 of them in total, catalog a number of crimes and their applicable punishments, with little or no provision for the accused to offer explanation in his own defense.

Hammurabi’s code, a fine example of the “an eye for an eye” mentality of justice, was established in order to please the gods he worshipped. It was usual and customary for different Ancient Near Eastern civilizations to establish their own sets of law codes, and many of them are quite similar in content.

The laws were strict and absolute. Hammurabi’s Code was carved into a large slab of stone of black basalt (known as a stela) and displayed publicly. Thus, no citizen or slave could claim he was not aware of a certain law or infraction. This stela, which stood 8 feet high, was discovered in 1901 in Elam, and is now housed in the Musee de Louvre in Paris.

Some of the laws according to Hammurabi include:

If a man accuses another of a crime, but can’t prove it, the accuser will be put to death. If a man accuses another of a crime, and can prove it, the accuser shall receive a monetary reward. If a robber is caught while stealing, he is to be put to death. If a man marries a woman, but has no relations with her, it is not considered a marriage. If a slave strikes his owner, his ear shall be cut off. If a son strikes his mother, his hands shall be cut off.

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