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The Code of Hammurabi

The code of Hammurabi is the most elaborate formulation of a style of law collections that was current throughout the ancient Near East.

code of hammurabi

Around 1755 B.C.E., after years of tiring warfare that ultimately united Babylonia, King Hammurabi issued a code of law. Written in the Babylonian language and chiseled in exquisite cuneiform script on a tall pillar of black basalt, the law code is both a bit of royal public relations and a detailed list of legal statements. It is the longest preserved inscription in Babylonian up to that moment but by no means the first law code from the region.

The core of the code is a list of almost 300 laws that address many aspects of daily life, from medical malpractice to the proper fees for the hire of an ox, ferryboat, or day laborer. Almost all the laws use the same format: if X happens, then Y will be the consequence.

If a man blinds the eye of another man, then they shall blind his eye (§ 196),

If he breaks the bone of another man, then they shall break his bone (§197).

 (Author’s translation)

The laws explore other possible scenarios, so that by law 199 we learn that:

If a man blinds the eye of another man’s slave or breaks the bone of another man’s slave,

then he shall pay (the owner) half his value. 

(Author’s translation)

There is little abstraction and no formulation of basic principles. Because of this, modern scholars do not regard the code as a manual that would have guided judges in their decisions, and many prefer to call it a proclamation of the king as guarantor of justice rather than a legal code.

Granted, there is some generality to the list, as it is not a record of actual court cases. So we can extract some legal principles from it, such as the law of talion (Latin talio) in the example above: if someone injures someone else, his punishment will be the same injury—an idea familiar to readers of the Bible as “an eye for an eye.” But this only applies when the person is of the same social status. If he injures someone of lower rank, he only pays a fine.

Hammurabi’s code is an extremely important document in the ancient history of law. It represents the most elaborate formulation of a style of law collections that was current throughout the ancient Near East, a style that also appears in Exod 20:22-23:33, the so-called Covenant Collection.

At the end of his law code, King Hammurabi of Babylon wrote these words of advice to his citizens:

Let any wronged man who has a court case come to the statue of me as King of Justice and let the words of my stela be read out to him. Let him hear my precious words. Let my stela make his court case clear to him. Let him see his verdict, and set his mind at ease.  (Author’s translation)

Hammurabi announced loud and clear that there was a system of justice in his land and that all its inhabitants could rely on it. His artists carved several copies of the text on stone monuments, but only one of them is well preserved; it now stands in the Louvre Museum in Paris. At the end of the inscription, Hammurabi urges future generations to admire the work as a sign of his greatness. Since we still read the text today, his wish has come true.

  • Marc Van De Mieroop

    Marc Van De Mieroop is professor of history at Columbia University. He has also taught at the University of Oxford and at Yale. He is the author of more than 80 articles and reviews and has published 16 books on various aspects of ancient Near Eastern history, including a biography of Hammurabi.