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Hammurabi’s Code of Laws: Historical Background and Comparison with Modern Laws Essay

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Updated: Oct 13th, 2021

Introduction

Hammurabi’s Code of Laws is one of the earliest surviving laws that were aphasia, which was the ancient civilizations of Babylonia. The code of laws is dated to around 1760 BC and was,was drafted by the sixth King of Babylon, Hammurabi. The laws are one-line edicts that tell the common people how to behave in dealings with others, how slaves were to be treated, the position of women in society, and other aspects of life in the kingdom. This paper analyses the laws and presents historic facts concerning the laws and how relevant they are in today’s society.

Historical facts

A brief discussion of the history related to the laws is given in this section.

About King Hammurabi

Hammurabi ascended the throne of Babylonia during 1800 BC and he was the from the Amorite dynasty and the sixth king of the kingdom. As was the custom of those days, he started waging wars and expanding his kingdom and soon his empire extended to the regions of Assyria and Northern Syria. He was an able administrator and realized that his kingdom could be best governed by a transparent set of laws. These laws were engraved on giant stones and placed in temples around his country. The idea behind making the laws known to everyone was to make his subjects aware of what was right and wrong and to ensure that justice was swift and the same for all people. The king claimed to have received the laws from the Sun god, Shamash. Over the years, the laws have been appended and there are 282 laws in all (Bryant, 2005).

Discovery of the laws

The laws were carved on a seven feet slab made of basalt, called a stele and the laws were carved on the stone in the ancient cuneiform script of the civilization. Two archeologists, Gustave Jéquier and Jacques de Morgan discovered the slab while exploring the area of Khuzestan in Iran. There is only one example of the stele and others have been presumed destroyed or lost. The stele is put up for display in Paris in the famed Louvre Museum. The laws are carved in 51 columns on the slab. It is presumed that many more copies of the laws must have been made. Kings of those times liked to leave their mark for posterity and King Hammurabi was no exception. To make the laws seem authentic, the stele has an engraving at the top showing Hammurabi standing in front of the Sun-god, Shamash who is seated on a throne. As a mark of respect, the relief has the King‘s hand is raised to his mouth while he listens to the sun god. The cuneiform script was deciphered later and the translated versions of the laws have been published in various publications. The original slab, the only one of its kind is beyond value and stored safely behind the bullet and explosion-proof case (Bryant, 2005).

Analysis of the laws

The laws were written in straight columns and later historians have attempted to groups them based on the issues such as slaves, criminal acts, women, property and so on.

Social Groups

According to Davies (2006), the concept of social groups was very strong in the ancient civilizations and the differences, rights and were very distinct. It was not possible for a person from one social groups to move to another and any movements were very rare and exceptional. Important social groups were the Amelia or free citizens, the Mushkinu or the merchants and laborers, the slaves. A brief discussion of these groups is provided as under (Powis, 1926):

  • Amelu: This was the free citizen who enjoyed the full rights of the city but also had to observe the rules and laws. The group included soldiers, officials of the government, priests, and other people except for the royal family members. The Amelu could demand much higher punishments when they felt that they were wronged but the fines, dues, and punishments they had to bear were much higher. The code of Hammurabi did not overtly favor the ruling classes and they could not expect any partial treatment. As the free citizens, they owned slaves, lands, and wealth but higher conduct was expected from this group. They also contributed much more to the temples and the priests for the upkeep and were answerable only to the Judiciary and the royal family.
  • The Mushkinu: This group was made up of tradesmen, farmers. Laborers, fishermen, artisans and craftsmen, school teachers, and other groups of people who lived by their labor alone. They did not have much wealth but while they were also free citizens, they did not have too much of a presence in the court. When found guilty, these people were often faced with lesser taxes and fines and they also gave less to the temples for their upkeep.
  • The Slaves: Slaves were regarded as wealth, they were often purchased or captured during battles, and they were regarded as property, not very different from animals. Slaves were identified by their dress and a mark of ownership that was often branded on their arms and they were not allowed to remove it. However, in ancient Babylonia, slaves were allowed to own property, have their possession, keep slaves themselves, indulge in business in their name and they could also purchase their freedom, once for all by paying a price. They belonged to the master who was supposed to feed, protect and take care of them.
  • Property: Commercial transactions, details of the property, and other commercial and trading activity were recorded in detail on clay tablets and these served as legal documents. Archeologists have found hundreds of such tablets. Property could be sold, traded, bartered, given on lease, or exchanged. If a free citizen was not able to pay off his debts, then he could give his wife to the creditor or arrange for a slave who would then work and pay off the debts.

Discussion of the laws in the modern context

Some of the laws that Hammurabi drafted would seem barbaric, unjust, and unacceptable in modern times. However, it should be remembered that those were the days when death by the sword was a very common and frequent end. Thievery, cheating and other forms of anti-social behavior were very ruthlessly put down and the people were very barbaric, and harsh laws were required to keep peace and harmony in the society. A brief discussion of the laws is given in this section. The laws have been numbered for identification by translators.

Prologue

The stele begins with a prologue where King Hammurabi proclaims his right to give the laws by invoking the names of several gods such as Anu, Bel, Mardul, Shamash and he proclaims that these gods have given him the power to proclaim the laws so that the wicker can be punished. The section occupies several lines and the king has made strenuous efforts to show himself as the rightful authority to give the laws and codes of conduct that people of Babylon would have to obey (Davies, 2006).

Analysis of the laws

  • Laws against theft and a false accusation:

These laws relate to the punishment that would be meted out to people when they would attempt to steal from others, bring false charges on others or claim the property of others by using illegal means. Some examples of the laws are: “1. If anyone ensnares another, banning him, but he cannot prove it, then he that ensnared him shall be put to death. 3. If anyone brings an accusation of any crime before the elders, and does not prove what he has charged, he shall, if it is a capital offense charged, be put to death. 6. If any one steals the property of a temple or the court, he shall be put to death, and also the one who receives the stolen thing from him shall be put to death.” (King, 2004). Interestingly, there is no law with the number 13 since the people of those times regarded 13 as an unlucky number bringing bad luck and this myth has persisted to this day.

The laws show the extent of severity the ancient civilizations placed on the good name and reputation of a person. The laws gave capital punishment when a person brought false charges on another citizen. If false accusations were made and if the accuser was not able to prove the charges, then he was put to death. Temple property and also the property of the king were held in high esteem and if a person stole this property and sold it to another, then the seller and the buyer were both put to death. Capital punishment has been used as a great deterrent in ancient times since by imprisoning a prisoner, the state would undergo expenses in providing him food and guarding him. These laws are radically from modern times where suing another has become a lucrative profession and if the charges are not proved, then the accuser goes away free. Hammurabi instituted these laws to prevent time wastage of the judiciary who would have to record the conversation, store them in archives, and so on. (Kan, 1996)

  • Laws against the Judge:

Judges and members of the office were not exempt from being subjected to the laws and they were expected to weigh the arguments and facts carefully before making a decision. If a judge was found to have committed an error then he was put to death “5. If a judge tries a case, reach a decision, and present his judgment in writing; if later error shall appear in his decision, and it is through his fault, then he shall pay twelve times the fine set by him in the case, and he shall be publicly removed from the judge’s bench, and never again shall he sit there to render judgment.” (King, 2004)

  • Laws on Agriculture:

The laws were just for the poor, the oppressed, and the unfortunate. Giving out fields on the rent was a common custom in those days and the tiller was supposed to pay the fees by giving a part of the grain. However, if there was a drought, pestilence and crops were not able to grow properly, then the tiller was exempt from paying the fees “48. If anyone owes a debt for a loan, and a storm prostrates the grain, or the harvest fails, or the grain does not grow for lack of water; in that year he need not give his creditor any grain, he washes his debt-tablet in water and pays no rent for this year.” (King, 2004)

Fields, agriculture, gardens, and other forms of agriculture received the highest priority in Babylon, and the land was regarded as wealth and property and while the tiller had certain rights and was protected in case of draughts, he could not afford to be lazy and reuse to till the land he had taken on contract. The tiller had a duty to farm the land to the best of his ability and to ensure that the owner got a decent return on his investment. “62. If he does not plant the field that was given over to him as a garden if it is arable land (for corn or sesame) the gardener shall pay the owner the produce of the field for the years that he let it lie fallow, according to the product of neighboring fields, but the field in arable condition and return it to its owner“. (King, 2004)

  • Laws on trade and cheating

Ancient Babylonia supported trade and commerce as this was a vital source of income for the city. There were many laws to prevent cheating for both the trader and the merchant and seller of goods. Death was not the usual punishment since the parties belonged to the trading community and by killing off a trader or a merchant, a valuable link in the commerce would be lost forever. However, offenders were made to pay a hefty fine when they were caught cheating “106. If the agent accepts money from the merchant but has a quarrel with the merchant (denying the receipt), then shall the merchant swear before God and witnesses that he has given this money to the agent, and the agent shall pay him three times the sum“. (King, 2004)

  • Laws on Conspirators

The ancient Babylonian kings dreaded conspiracy and treachery and had framed strict laws to prevent such occurrence. The city was usually not heavily defended as there were fewer soldiers left after the innumerable wars and besides, the loyalty of unknown soldiers and mercenaries was always under question. Subsequently, people who conspired against the king were death very severely. The king expected people who came to know about any conspiracy to come forth and relate the incidents or face death. If a conspiracy was hatched in a tavern and the tavern keeper failed to report the act, then he too was put to death “109. If conspirators meet in the house of a tavern-keeper, and these conspirators are not captured and delivered to the court, the tavern-keeper shall be put to death“. (King, 2004)

  • Laws against women

While many of the laws of Hammurabi can be called just by even modern standards, the laws against women were very discriminatory by modern standards. Women were not regarded as very high in the ancient civilizations and were kept to ensure male progeny and lesser for carnal pleasures. Men had many female slaves whom they could use as they wanted but legal heirs could only be brought from a wife. Subsequently, women had plenty of free time on their hands and probably carnal desires, and the laws were designed to prevent illicit relations between a married woman and her lovers (Davies, 2006). “129. If a man’s wife is surprised with another man, both shall be tied and thrown into the water, but the husband may pardon his wife and the king his slaves”. “132. If the “finger is pointed” at a man’s wife about another man, but she is not caught sleeping with the other man, she shall jump into the river for her husband“. “143. If a wife is not innocent, but leaves her husband, and ruins her house, neglecting her husband, this woman shall be cast into the water.” (King, 2004). There was a sustained suppression and victimization of women and this is unthinkable in modern times.

However, Hammurabi also put in a few laws that were designed to protect the wife if she was blameless and it was the husband who was at fault. “137. If a man wishes to separate from a woman who has borne him children, or from his wife who has borne him children: then he shall give that wife her dowry, and a part of the usufruct of field, garden, and property, so that she can rear her children. When she has brought up her children, a portion of all that is given to the children, equal as that of one son, shall be given to her. She may then marry the man of her heart“. (King, 2004). These laws were designed to protect the rights of the wife and her children so that they would not grow destitute and would not become a burden on the state or the temple.

  • Laws against incest

There were very strict laws that banned incest in all forms. When such incidents were reported, the convicted were either burned, impaled, or bound and thrown in the water. The idea was to give such people a slow and agonizing death that would serve as a warning to others. “157. If anyone is guilty of incest with his mother after his father, both shall be burned”. (Davies, 2006).

Many other laws were designed to provide discipline among the masses and ensure that societal rules were followed. Many of the laws have been carried over to modern times in one form or the other but justice is not so swift or cruel as it was then. In those days, only the crime was considered, and not what made a person commit the crime was not relevant.

Conclusion

The paper has examined in detail the Hammurabi code of laws and has discussed the historical background, social groups, and other important issues. Some of the laws have been presented as per the issues they addressed and these laws have been further analyzed with respect to modern laws.

References

  1. Bryant Tamera. 2005. The Life & Times of Hammurabi. Mitchell Lane Publishers.
  2. Davies W., W., 2006. The Codes of Hammurabi and Moses. Apocryphile Press.
  3. Kan Steven S. 1996. Corporal Punishments and Optimal Incapacitation. Journal of Legal Studies. Volume 25. pp: 121-132
  4. King Leonard W. 2004. The Code of Hammurabi. Kessinger Publishing
  5. Powis Smith JM. 1926. Archaeology and the Old Testament during the First Quarter of the Twentieth Century. The Journal of Religion, Vol. 6, No. 3. pp: 284-301.
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