Promulgation of Hammurabi’s Code Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Babylonian king Hammurabi promoted public order by amending and codifying existing laws and carving them on stone pillars in public places so that they were accessible to the entire populace.

Summary of Event

Hammurabi’s laws are neither the oldest extant laws nor even a law code as the term is popularly understood, but this does not alter the fact that their promulgation and preservation constitute a landmark in history. Early Sumerian political and religious thought, which became normative for subsequent peoples who invaded or conquered the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, did not make a clear distinction between divine and human societies. Among the gods, as among their human counterparts, the Sumerians pictured a divine assembly as the ultimate source of authority. This notion of a divine assembly added to the significance of the assembly on Earth. In Sumerian mythology, the cosmic body alone was competent to name the head of the pantheon, regulate the lengths of reigns, and to grant immortality to humans. Hammurabi

Hammurabi was the sixth Amorite king of a Semitic dynasty that had, some two hundred years earlier, imposed its rule on the native Sumerian population of the territory within about a 50-mile (80-kilometer) radius of Babylon. Late in the course of his forty-three-year reign, Hammurabi extended his rule in the direction of Assyria and northern Syria. He published what has come to be known as his code of laws at least in part as a means of unifying this heterogeneous society.

An almost complete copy of the laws, engraved on a diorite column or stela about 8 feet (2.4 meters) tall, was discovered in Susa in 1901. This stela is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris. The laws apparently were engraved on diorite, the most durable substance known to the Babylonians, so that a copy of the laws would stand as a public reference. Many fragments of other copies have been discovered and transcribed, and it is by comparing these that gaps in the Susa stela have been filled, providing a reasonably complete and accurate version of Hammurabi’s laws.

The laws are introduced by a prologue in which Hammurabi, in the first person singular, describes his efforts to make law prevail in his lands. He states that the gods Anim and Enlil had appointed him, as a god-fearing prince, to advance the welfare of the people by promoting justice. He was to destroy the wicked and curtail the oppression of the strong over the weak. This divine commission would cause him “to rise like the sun over the black-headed people, and to light up the land.”

Following the prologue, 282 articles or laws treat personal property, real estate, business, trade, agriculture, marriage, inheritances, adoption, contracts, and leases. The law also details penalties for injuries both to person and property. Finally, an epilogue recounts in detail Hammurabi’s achievements and concludes with a list of blessings for those who keep the laws, and for those who violate them a much longer and more elaborate set of curses.

The collection of laws is not a code, but a set of amendments of existing laws. In the prologue, Hammurabi never calls himself a codifier or legislator. Instead, his aim seems to be to promote public order by making easily available current interpretations and applications of the existing law. This becomes clear when his laws are compared with earlier laws in use in Mesopotamia. Sizable fragments of at least three antecedents of Hammurabi’s work remain. The threefold division into prologue, the laws themselves, and an epilogue glorifying the lawgiver, was a conventional form in Hammurabi’s time.

There are significant differences between Hammuabi’s code and law as it is understood in modern Western society. The laws were not enforced by the Babylonian courts; they were more like rules or norms in which the spirit is more important than the letter. This conclusion is based on the fact that there is no evidence of any kind of verbal interpretation of Hammurabi’s laws, nor any references to the exact wording of the laws in other Babylonian writings. It follows that the “laws” were not imperative; that is, parties to a dispute were free to make any agreements outside the law in an attempt to settle their differences. The Babylonian documents dealing with property matters should not be seen as contracts but as memoranda of transactions. The statements in the contractlike documents were liable to modification by oral evidence.

Hammurabi’s laws provide material for reconstructing the evidence of a remarkable civilization. What emerges is the picture of a society with a defined class system, well-developed agriculture, a viable economy based on foreign as well as internal trade, and a government with a strong judiciary.

At least three social classes are discernible in Babylonian society as reflected in the code: the highest class, including the king, civil and military officials, priests, landed proprietors, rich merchants, and manufacturers; a lower class consisting of laborers and farmers, including many tenant farmers; and finally, a slave class made up of those captured in war, together with men who had lost their freedom through debt. Here it should be noted that in Babylon, as in Israel, a slave was not a mere chattel, as he became later in Roman law and practice. In the ancient Near East, there was little difference between the hired workman and the slave. Indeed, the Hebrew noun for “slave” means simply a “worker.”

The role of women was significant in that the law accorded women marriage and property rights in advance of other societies of a considerably later time. Women could divorce, transact business, and inherit or bequeath property. The law recognized a clear distinction between the legitimate wife and the concubine. “If a man take a wife and do not draw up a contract with her, that woman is not his wife.” However, even the harlot was protected from wanton exploitation, as were slaves and children. If a man handed over his wife, his son, or his daughter to the service of another, they must work only three years in the house of their purchaser or master; in the fourth year, they secured their freedom.

In many respects, the laws of Hammurabi appear excessively harsh. Criminal law follows the lex talionis, the vengeful principle of an eye for an eye. “If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If he break a man’s bone, they shall break his bone.”

Undergirding the individual laws was an exalted ideal of justice and concern for the vulnerable members of society who were referred to in ancient literature collectively as “the widow and the orphan.” In the prologue of his laws, Hammurabi declared that he was the agent of the gods, appointed to protect the weak by enforcing just laws. Again in the epilogue, he stated that his purpose was to hinder the strong from oppressing the weak, to protect widows and orphans from injustice, and to affirm every person’s right to equitable treatment.

The legal system of Babylonian society as reflected in Hammurabi’s laws had a double function: It reflected the concept of government here described; it also implemented it. Unfortunately, there is little or no extant data about the legal theory that underlay the law. A good case can be made that this is not due to a loss of materials but rather to the fact that the Babylonians of the eighteenth century b.c.e. had not devised a body of legal theory. However, there is much data about legal practice, so that it is possible to reconstruct something of the court system both as to structure and procedure. A partial understanding of Babylonian legal theory can be reconstructed on the basis of two key concepts: kittum, which can roughly be translated “truth,” and mesarum, or “justice.”

Mesarum is a process of applying the law equitably, and this is one of the ruler’s principal duties. To fulfill his role adequately, the ruler must not only supervise the application of the laws, but must also adapt them to contingencies. The meaning of the lengthy account of his exploits that Hammurabi gives in the epilogue to his set of laws thus becomes clear: It is less a eulogy than an account of the conditions that provide a rationale for his selection and amendments of older and well-known laws.

An analysis of the concept kittum, or truth, shows that the king was not the source of the law but only its agent. Here the Babylonian notion is close to the medieval idea that law is something discovered rather than something contrived or constructed. In the Babylonian value system, the cosmos is seen as founded on certain truths. The function of the law is to safeguard these truths, truths that bind the king as well as the lowliest slave. The ruler, therefore, is clearly under the law, not above it. Hammurabi himself succinctly expresses the meaning of kittum and mesarum when he speaks of himself as “the just king [sar mesarum], to whom Shamash [the sun-god] committed the truths.” The collected statutes of Hammurabi’s code kept alive both the established traditions or customs and also made possible the topical amendments to fit new circumstances.

Significance

The laws of Babylonia are significant because of the light they throw on the ways of life of an ancient civilization. However, in the case of Hammurabi’s redaction, the importance transcends the geographic and historical boundaries of the ancient Near East. Hammurabi’s laws coincide with the period that saw a considerable expansion of Babylonian civilization, though recent research shows that the influence was more by commerce than by conquest. Not only Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean but also the Aegean lands knew the influence of the Babylonian culture. A chief means of transmission of this culture was the law.

It was especially in the case of the Hebrews that this influence was felt, and it was primarily through the Hebrews that some of the political and legal concepts of Hammurabi’s laws have become a fundamental part of the heritage of Western civilization and ultimately of the world. In some respects the Babylonian laws reveal a civilization in advance of that of the Hebrews; certainly this is true on the material and economic side. On the other hand, the Hebrew law implies a recognition of a fundamental human equality premised on a recognition of creation by one God, and from this developed a system of ethics far in advance of anything in the Babylonian law. Nevertheless, the historical connections between the two are direct and intimate, and Hammurabi’s laws continue to be seen rightly as an early crystallization of some of humankind’s deepest aspirations for social justice and public order and ultimately for the good life, conceived in much more than economic or even legal terms.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bottéro, Jean. Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. Translated by Antonia Nevill. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. This guide to early Mesopotamian life includes a chapter on law, showing how Hammurabi’s code affected daily life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harper, Robert Francis. The Code of Hammurabi, King of Babylon. Reprint. Stockton, Calif.: University of the Pacific, 2002. This translation of Hammurabi’s code was made three years after its discovery. The translation faces a transliteration of the original ideograms, as well as facsimiles of original cuneiform tablets, a glossary, index, lists of proper names, and tables of Babylonian weights and currencies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oppenheim, A. Leo. Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization. Rev. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977. A classic survey. Discusses Hammurabi’s code in its historical and cultural context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Skaggs, H. W. Babylonians. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. An excellent overview of Babylonian civilization, including a chronology, maps, further reading, and indexes of both subjects and biblical names.

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