Law Code of Hammurabi

7 July 2016

Throughout the history of civilization there has been a need for order amongst societies. This order has been seen in the ruling of kings and the laws they created. Most of these laws were set into motion on the basis of whatever the king said is what happened. With the Code of Hammurabi there is a written law that was portrayed as something that not even the king could change. The purpose of this paper is to give a general background of ancient Babylon during the reign of Hammurabi, present the background of the Code of Hammurabi, and discuss the medium and manner in which it was presented.

Hammurabi was the sixth king in the old Babylonian period. He became king in 1792 B. C. while still a young man. During his rule he spent time on many traditional aspects such as building and restoring temples, building city walls, and building canals. However, many accounts note Hammurabi as being the king to unite Mesopotamia under the rule of the Babylonian Empire. Hammurabi did this through a series of military and diplomatic alliances, as well as, through series military conquests. He had an organized and well-disciplined military.

Law Code of Hammurabi Essay Example

This allowed him to greatly extend his original empire in every direction. Despite the many wars and military conquest Hammurabi brought peace and prosperity into Mesopotamia. He was also thought to be concerned with being a just ruler and was viewed as a “guarantee of justice” (Ascalone, 114). The unification of the empire under Hammurabi led to increased trade with the Persians which ultimately led to more wealth being acquired. It also led to the incorporation new deities such as Shamash, Ishtar, and Adad. Shamash especially became important during Hammurabi’s rule.

Shamash initially was the sun king and later also became known as the “guarantor of equity and social justice” (Ascalone, 136). Hammurabi was unique in comparison to the rulers before him in that he did not deify himself. Instead he chose to think of himself as being a “favorite of the gods” or as being a chosen one of the gods (Martell, 22). Hammurabi was the first of the Mesopotamian rulers to view himself as separate from the gods in this manner. This gave him a position of leadership that was simply to enforce and interpret the will of the gods.

This also set a precedent for rulers in later times. The expanded territory and unification meant there was more people and land that had to have order maintained. This led to the item that Hammurabi is most famous for, his code of law. Hammurabi was said to have received these laws from Shamash. Many of the laws created were based specifically on the growing culture. Though Hammurabi’s code of law was not the first known law code in ancient Mesopotamia, it is the most complete still in existence today. The official code of Hammurabi contained 242 laws in all.

These laws were carved in relief into a basalt or granite pillar called a stele that stood seven and half feet tall. The laws were carved into the stele in 1760 B. C. The written laws took up the majority of the pillar and were separated into 49 columns. At the top of the pillar there is a scene depicting Hammurabi receiving the laws from Shamash. Hammurabi is standing before Shamash. Shamash is seated and holding a ring and a staff. Shamash can be identified by the flames or rays of the sun rising from his shoulders (Chrisp, 25).

This depiction is thought to indicate that the king was making the laws on the gods behalf. The written law itself is written using cuneiform in the Akkadian language. The Akkadian language is believed to be the common language of this time, whereas Sumerian was the official language. In writing the law code in the common speech Hammurabi had hopes of making the law more accessible and understandable to the common people. There is some disagreement about where it is thought that Hammurabi erected the pillar. Some believe that it was erected in the Temple of Marduk in Babylon.

Others believe that it was erected in Sippal as a monument to Shamash. One thing that scholars and researchers seem to agree on is that the pillar was moved to Susa as spoils when the Elamites attacked Babylon in 1165 B. C. It was in Susa that it was discovered in 1901 by French archeologist Jean-Vincent Scheil. When Scheil discovered the stele it was in 3 pieces. He reassembled the pieces and spent 6 months translating the text. The stele currently resides in the Louvre Mueseum. The text was organized into three main parts.

It begins with description of Hammurabi receiving the laws from the sun king, Shamash. Hammurabi describes the event as he was given the responsibility “to make justice appear in the land, to destroy the evil and the wicked that the strong might not oppress the weak, to rise like the sun-god…to give light to the land” (Schomp, 14). He also presents himself as being “the protector of the weak and oppressed” (Iselin). This prologue was followed by the actual laws. The laws were written in simplified terms as well as the common language as it was important to Hammurabi that everyone understood them.

The laws were organized into chapters or sections and covered every aspect of their life. All the written laws followed the same format in that a problem or issue is stated followed by a response in the future tense that described the punishment of the guilty party or the solution to the issue (Iselin). The laws were often harsh but recognized the difference between accidental injury or harm and intent. The penalties also varied depending on the status of the offender. The laws themselves governed economic provisions, family law, criminal law, and civil law.

The laws were written specifically so they could be integrated into everyday life. There were laws governing slaves, for example. One law stated that any slave that struck a free citizen would have his ear cut off. Another stated that any citizen that stole a slave or was caught hiding a runaway slave would be put to death. One interesting law stated that if a barber cut off the “abbuttu,” the topknot of hair distinctive to slaves, without the knowledge and permission of the slaves master would have his hands cut off (Schomp, 63).

Other laws included the punishments for robbery and arson, as well as how property should be distributed, and how contracts should be handled. Many of the laws were very exact when it came to the punishment. One example of this is found in a law discussing a death from shoddy building; “If a builder has constructed a house…with the result that the house he built collapses and so caused the death of the owner, the builder shall be put to death.

If it has caused the death of the son of the owner of the house, they shall put to death the son of the builder” (Service, 71) Another example of this exact punishment is seen in the well-known law of “if a man puts out the eye of a man, they shall put out his eye” (Service, 71). This eye for and eye concept is what is known as the lex talionis (latin for “law of retaliation”). The lex talionis was utilized by many different cultures and survived into the modern world in the form of the death penalty for murder.

The laws written by Hammurabi didn’t just include penalties but also items such as appropriate fees to charge in different professions. One example of this is seen when a doctors fees are discussed. A doctor who treated “the broken bone or diseased soft part” was to charge 5 shekels for upper-class citizens, 3 shekels for commoners, and 2 shekels to the master of a slave being treated (Shomp, 68). Stating the fees for certain services likes this protected people from being taken advantage by merchants or tradesmen. After the laws are listed, is the final section or the epilogue.

In the epilogue Hammurabi reiterates that the laws were given at the direction of the sun-god Shamesh. Hammurabi also indicates that he recorded the laws in order for them to be an example for later rulers. He states, “To the end of days, forever, may the king who happens to be in the land observe the words of justice which I have inscribed on my stele…let the stele reveal to him the accustomed way, the way to follow, the land’s judgments which I have judged” (Chrisp, 25). This is extremely interesting considering that’s exactly what they turned out to be.

The Code of Hammurabi is extremely important in that it became a model after which many systems of law were founded since then. It became something that other cultures could learn from and model themselves after. It also represented a new style of ruling, in which not only were the common people bound to laws but so was the king, as he did not create them. The stele and the style it was written in also gave huge amount of insight into the culture, religious beliefs, daily activities, and economics that were present during this time in the Babylonian Empire.

The precedent that Hammurabi set when he created his law code is an important aspect of history that carried into the modern day. There was a written law that was portrayed as something handed down by the gods and that even the king had to obey to some extent. The background of Hammurabi’s stele and the detail the text portrays about Babylonian society will continue to be extremely interesting and important when looking at ancient Babylon.

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