The Code of Hammurabi was proclaimed by Babylonian king Hammurabi, who reigned from 1792 to 1750 B.C., and was one of the earliest and most comprehensive written legal codes. Hammurabi united all of southern Mesopotamia by expanding the city-state of Babylon along the Euphrates River. The Hammurabi code of laws, which consists of 282 regulations, established norms for economic relations as well as fines and punishments to ensure that justice was served. Invaders looted a large, finger-shaped black stone stele (pillar) inscribed with Hammurabi’s Code, which was recovered in 1901.
From c. 1894 to 1595 B.C., Hammurabi was the sixth monarch of the Babylonian dynasty, which governed central Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq).
His ancestors were the Amorites, a semi-nomadic tribe in western Syria, and his name combines two cultures: Hammu, which means “family” in Amorite, and rapi, which means “great” in Akkadian, Babylon’s everyday language.
Hammurabi began to expand his power up and down the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys in the 30th year of his reign, defeating the kingdoms of Assyria, Larsa, Eshunna, and Mari until all of Mesopotamia was under his control.
Hammurabi combined his military and political achievements with irrigation projects, castles, and temples dedicated to Babylon’s patron deity, Marduk. Although the Babylon of Hammurabi’s reign is now buried beneath the area’s groundwater level, and whatever records he may have retained have long since crumbled, clay tablets recovered at other ancient sites provide glimpses of the king’s personality and statecraft.
In one letter, he complains about being forced to supply evening attire for Mari diplomats simply because he had done so for other delegates: “Do you think you have any control over my palace’s formal attire?”
What is the Hammurabi Code?
The Code of Hammurabi’s black stone stele was cut from a single four-ton slab of diorite, a durable yet exceedingly difficult stone to chisel.
At the top is a two-and-a-half-foot relief carving depicting a standing Hammurabi receiving the law from Shamash, the Babylonian deity of justice, signified by a measuring rod and tape. Columns of chiseled cuneiform script fill the rest of the seven-foot-five-inch monument.
The work, written near the conclusion of Hammurabi’s reign, is more of a collection of legal precedents sandwiched between prose praising Hammurabi’s just and pious rule. Some of the first examples of the notion of “lex talionis,” or the laws of retribution, are found in Hammurabi’s Code, which is also known as “an eye for an eye.”
What if I told you that The Code of Hammurabi contains a slew of draconian punishments, including the amputation of the offender’s tongue, hands, breasts, eye, or ear. The code, on the other hand, is one of the oldest examples of a person being presumed innocent unless proven guilty.
All 282 edicts are written as if-then statements. If a guy steals an animal, for example, he must repay 30 times its value. The edicts cover a wide range of topics, from family law to professional contracts and administrative law, and they frequently outline various standards of justice for Babylonian society’s three classes: the landed class, freedmen, and slaves.
For treating a severe wound, a doctor would charge a gentleman ten silver shekels, a freedman five shekels, and a slave two shekels. The same method applied to malpractice penalties: a doctor who murdered a wealthy patient would have his hands cut off, while if the victim was a slave, only financial reparation was required.
Hammurabi’s Stele Has Been Rediscovered
In 1901, a French mining engineer named Jacques de Morgan led an archaeological expedition to Persia to excavate the Elamite capital of Susa, which was located more than 250 miles from Hammurabi’s empire.
They discovered the broken stele of Hammurabi, which had been taken to Susa as a booty of war, most likely by the Elamite ruler Shutruk-Nahhunte in the mid-12th century B.C.
The stele was packed and brought to the Louvre in Paris, where it was translated and highly advertised as the world’s first written legal code—one that predates but had striking parallels to the regulations contained in the Hebrew Old Testament.
The marble carvings of historic lawgivers that line the south wall of the courtroom in the United States Supreme Court building include Hammurabi.
Despite the fact that other later-discovered written Mesopotamian laws, such as the Sumerian “Lipit-Ishtar” and “Ur-Nammu,” predate Hammurabi’s by hundreds of years, Hammurabi’s reputation as a pioneering lawgiver who worked “to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak and to see that justice is done to widows and orphans” remains intact, according to his monument.