The Code of Hammurabi was compiled by King Hammurabi of ancient Babylon in 18th century B.C. It consisted of 282 set of laws governing every sphere of life and society in ancient Mesopotamia. These laws regulated people’s conduct and rendered justice for everyone, even slaves. The Babylonian Law Code regulated rights relating to divorce, property, slavery and included commands to protect people from crimes. These codes also rendered harsh and bizarre punishments for criminal activity. The codes were written on an impressive stele, still preserved till date. Today, we will cover 13 interesting facts about the ancient world’s strictest Hammurabi Code Laws.
One very commonly held belief about these set of laws is that they are the oldest law codes from the ancient world. The truth is-they are not. Before these law codes were two others, namely Ur-Nammu and Code of Lipit-Ishtar of Isin, a Sumerian law code. Ur-Nammu law code was inscribed by Ur-Nammu, a ruler of ancient Sumer in 2100-2050 B.C, whereas, the Lipit-Ishtar of Isin law code was drawn up two centuries before Hammurabi came up with his own set.
However, the Code of Hammurabi was definitely the strictest of all ancient laws. Some historians claim that the codes are, in-fact, vengeful, unlike other two ancient codes. The law drawn up had different outcomes for different people. These were not uniform for all classes. Also, the punishments meted out were far more gruesome than those that were prescribed in the earlier Sumerian law codes.
2. A belief in the doctrine of innocent until proven guilty
Though, the Hammurabi Law Code is regarded as strict, and, often, barbaric by many historians for its inhuman punishments to offenders, yet, it was one of the first law codes that believed in justice for the innocent, and in the concept of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. Under it, an accused person was not liable to be held guilty unless his crime was proven by the accuser before an audience of elders. In case, an accuser was not able to prove the crime, then he was liable to be punished by giving a death sentence.
Any kind of dispute between two parties was settled before an authority, like modern laws. They had the right to bring evidences and proofs, and could fight their case legally. Under these laws, it was practically impossible for a person to accuse another for a crime without having substantial evidence.
Though, these law codes were class centric and included strict punishments for offenders, yet, these also had a few liberal laws that concerned property rights, divorce rights, matters related with dowry and incest. Some of these laws were quite modern and fair in their approach. For example, there was a law that offered protection to debt offenders in cases of climatic emergencies. According to this law, a person who failed to pay his debt, owing to destruction of his grains due to storm, or famine, such a person’s debt was waived off. He simply had to wash his debt tablet with water and was not required to pay any rent.
4. The existence of multiple specimens of this law code
You all will be thrilled to know that there exists not one, but many specimens or objects to have inscriptions of these ancient law codes. Apart from the famed diorite pillar or stele comprising of 282 carved laws in the language of Akkadian, and standing tall at 7.5 feet, there are clay tablets that also bear these codes. The Louvre in Paris houses one clay tablet that bears the prologue of this code. It comprises of the first 305 squares that are found drawn on the diorite pillar. Apart from these, there is another 1700 B.C tablet in clay that too bears this Babylonian Law Code in cuneiform Akkadian script. This tablet was found in a place called Tel Hazor.
The law code of Hammurabi was liberal and quite modern in many respects. But, it, nevertheless discriminated against slaves. The government promoted laws to ill treat slaves like former prisoners of war and the families of such people. A slave was given harsh punishments for small things, like, his eye could be damaged if he had attacked an upper class man and damaged his eye. The doctrine of ‘an eye for an eye’ was practiced for all slaves. For damaging the eye of a common man, the slave was required to pay him one silver mina. In case he had caused damage to a slave of an upper class man, he had to pay the man the price of his slave in half.
There were other similar punishments that were meted out to the slaves, and all were aimed at ill treating them. In case a sentence like ‘You are not my master’ came out from a slave’s mouth, his ear would be chopped off by his master.
6. The Code’s practical role in Babylonian society is debatable
Was the Code of Hammurabi a real working set of laws that governed the ancient Babylonians? Or was it simply a royal propaganda used by Hammurabi to present himself as a great world ruler? Nothing is clear till date, though, we do get a hands-on information relating to the class of people Hammurabi ruled, their social structure, their culture and their economy. Its quite possible that these set of laws were just inscribed on the stele and kept as a showpiece for the public to see. Some historians also have the opinion that the language used in the stele could have made reading the laws practically impossible for commoners.
7. The stipulation of a minimum wage for all workers
The code may have been biased, but, it was way ahead of its times as it brought out a stipulated minimum wage for all workers working in ancient Babylonian society. It is quiet surprising to know that the set of laws created by Hammurabi were actually beneficial for all workers like slaves, doctors, sailors and herdsmen. All workers had to be paid a minimum wage instituted by the state. For example, a doctor was paid 5 shekels for treating a bone injury of a free man. The herdsmen and farmers were paid 8 gur of corn each year, whereas, the freed slaves were paid three shekels. The slaves were at the receiving end as they were paid the least – only two shekels. Therefore, every worker, under the Hammurabi Law Code was paid a guaranteed amount.
In ancient Babylonia, under the rule of Hammurabi, the temple was given a very important and prime position. But, with that position, came duties and responsibilities that the temple could not shy away from. Most temples acted as granaries, and were obligated to render help to any citizen in hostage like circumstances. In case of such a citizen’s inability to pay ransom to his capturer, the temple had to take the responsibility and could not say no.
The Hammurabi code was quite just towards poor citizens as well. Poor farmers could come to the temple to borrow seed corn and other grains. These people had to be given not merely supplies but also interest free advances. Even the king could not borrow and forget. He too had to pay back like others.
Under the Hammurabi Law codes, citizens were governed as per their class and hierarchy in the society. This was mainly due to the fact that the ancient Mesopotamian society was a mix of natives, tribes, slaves, and foreigners coming from other regions who amalgamated into one society, thereby, forcing the state to create laws for each segment. The times were trying in ancient Mesopotamia and as such, each class had to abide by respective set of laws.
One such law pertained to thefts of cattle and sheep. According to it, if the cattle, sheep or goat belonging to a god had been stolen, then, the thief had to pay thirty times the cost of the animal. However, if the aggrieved party was a freed man, then, he would have to pay him only 10 times the cost. Apart from these types of laws, there were laws that were gender biased. In most cases, free men went without facing any trial or punishment, whereas women that had committed the same crime faced the flak of the state. Laws were so extreme for a woman that even in such cases where her guilt could not be proven, she would be asked to dive into a river for the honor of her husband.
Among the so called ‘progressive’ codes drawn by Hammurabi, are also a few like the Law of Retribution that forces us to re-consider calling these codes as humane and enlightening. Some of these codes were so severe and unjust that these would send shock-waves down your spine when you get to know about them. The Law of Retribution is based on the doctrine of taking revenge and giving it back in the same way. Under the code mentioned by Hammurabi, the aggrieved party had the right to retaliate.
Some of these laws were totally barbaric, such as, robbers when caught were given death. The hands of a son were hewn off if he had struck his father. For builders that had constructed houses that fell off and killed their owners residing in them, death was the ultimate punishment. Some laws were totally bizarre. If, in a fight, a man’s teeth had been knocked off by his rival, then, the rival would have his own teeth knocked off in much the same way.
11. The continuation of the Code of Hammurabi after the decline of Hammurabi’s empire
After Hammurabi’s empire declined in 1750 B.C with his death, Babylon switched several hands. But, the one thing that remained unbreakable was the code. After the empire was destroyed completely in 1595 B.C, Babylon came under the rule of ancient people of Anatolia known as Hittites. Though, the army ransacked the whole city, it, however, never stopped from referring the code in times of turmoil. The code remained in use for another couple of centuries. There are some evidences like the 5th century clay tablets that hint towards the fact that the code was in use 1000 years after the end of Hammurabi’s rule.
12. The discovery of the law codes in early 20th century
Another interesting fact about the ancient Hammurabi’s code is that it was discovered only in the early part of the 20th century, and that too, not in Babylonia, but, at Susa, an ancient city of Iran. Though, the dictum was a prominent feature of the ancient world, yet, it got lost over centuries of turmoil and switching of dynasties. It was only in 1901 that archaeologists discovered the diorite stele in Susa. Susa was the capital of Elamite Empire, and ruled over by Shutruk-Nahhunte. As per claims of historians, the king Shutruk raided Sippar, a city of ancient Babylonia and carried this stele back to Susa.
Since, Hammurabi ruled over an empire that was divided into myriad classes and strata, he devised a code to govern one and all in the most comprehensive manner. In doing so, he began a prologue which had divine claims by him. These claims were meant to motivate his citizens to follow the laws strictly and therefore, had divine elements in them.
With this, we come to the end of this post. And, we are sure you must have gained a little more knowledge today about this humongous code of the ancient world we all know as the Code of Hammurabi.