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Law & Order – Hammurabi’s Code Division

In Babylon’s criminal justice system, the people were governed by a code of justice and the king who wrote that code. These are their stories. Welcome to Law and Order: Hammurabi’s Code Division.

The Code of Hammurabi is revered as one of the best-documented systems of ancient justice. It was written around 1750 BC by Hammurabi, the sixth king of the First Dynasty of Babylon. It consists of a collection of 282 rules, established standards for commercial interactions, and set fines and punishments to meet the requirements of justice. Hammurabi’s Code was carved onto a massive, finger-shaped black stone stele (pillar) that was rediscovered in 1901.

The best-known feature of the Code is the “Lex Talionis” provision, “An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth.” While seeming a bit harsh to some, it is remarkable for its time by imposing a limit on the level of retribution that could be inflicted upon the aggrieving party.

It isn’t just the “eye for an eye” bit that makes the Code remarkable. Some of the lesser-known provisions of the Code are at least as interesting, beginning with the author himself.

Hammurabi, the Not-So-Humble

The Code begins with an introduction by its author, King Hammurabi. He used a fair amount of space to let the world know exactly what he thought of himself. No one ever accused the king of being overly humble:

The relief on the upper part of the stele of Hammurabi’s Code, depicting Hammurabi (standing) receiving his royal insignia from Shamash (or possibly Marduk).

“When Anu the Sublime, King of the Anunaki, and Bel, the lord of Heaven and earth, who decreed the fate of the land, assigned to Marduk, the over-ruling son of Ea, God of righteousness, dominion over earthly man, and made him great among the Igigi, they called Babylon by his illustrious name, made it great on earth, and founded an everlasting kingdom in it, whose foundations are laid so solidly as those of heaven and earth; then Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak; so that I should rule over the black-headed people like Shamash, and enlighten the land, to further the well-being of mankind.

Hammurabi, the prince, called of Bel am I, making riches and increase, enriching Nippur and Dur-ilu beyond compare, sublime patron of E-kur; who reestablished Eridu and purified the worship of E-apsu; who conquered the four quarters of the world, made great the name of Babylon, rejoiced the heart of Marduk, his lord who daily pays his devotions in Saggil; the royal scion whom Sin made; who enriched Ur; the humble, the reverent, who brings wealth to Gish-shir-gal; the white king, heard of Shamash, the mighty, who again laid the foundations of Sippara; who clothed the gravestones of Malkat with green; who made E-babbar great, which is like the heavens, the warrior who guarded Larsa and renewed E-babbar, with Shamash as his helper; the lord who granted new life to Uruk, who brought plenteous water to its inhabitants, raised the head of E-anna, and perfected the beauty of Anu and Nana; shield of the land, who reunited the scattered inhabitants of Isin; who richly endowed E-gal-mach; the protecting king of the city, brother of the god Zamama; who firmly founded the farms of Kish, crowned E-me-te-ursag with glory, redoubled the great holy treasures of Nana, managed the temple of Harsag-kalama; the grave of the enemy, whose help brought about the victory; who increased the power of Cuthah; made all glorious in E-shidlam, the black steer, who gored the enemy; beloved of the god Nebo, who rejoiced the inhabitants of Borsippa, the Sublime; who is indefatigable for E-zida; the divine king of the city; the White, Wise; who broadened the fields of Dilbat, who heaped up the harvests for Urash; the Mighty, the lord to whom come scepter and crown, with which he clothes himself; the Elect of Ma-ma; who fixed the temple bounds of Kesh, who made rich the holy feasts of Nin-tu; the provident, solicitous, who provided food and drink for Lagash and Girsu, who provided large sacrificial offerings for the temple of Ningirsu; who captured the enemy, the Elect of the oracle who fulfilled the prediction of Hallab, who rejoiced the heart of Anunit; the pure prince, whose prayer is accepted by Adad; who satisfied the heart of Adad, the warrior, in Karkar, who restored the vessels for worship in E-ud-gal-gal; the king who granted life to the city of Adab; the guide of E-mach; the princely king of the city, the irresistible warrior, who granted life to the inhabitants of Mashkanshabri, and brought abundance to the temple of Shidlam; the White, Potent, who penetrated the secret cave of the bandits, saved the inhabitants of Malka from misfortune, and fixed their home fast in wealth; who established pure sacrificial gifts for Ea and Dam-gal-nun-na, who made his kingdom everlastingly great; the princely king of the city, who subjected the districts on the Ud-kib-nun-na Canal to the sway of Dagon, his Creator; who spared the inhabitants of Mera and Tutul; the sublime prince, who makes the face of Ninni shine; who presents holy meals to the divinity of Nin-a-zu, who cared for its inhabitants in their need, provided a portion for them in Babylon in peace; the shepherd of the oppressed and of the slaves; whose deeds find favor before Anunit, who provided for Anunit in the temple of Dumash in the suburb of Agade; who recognizes the right, who rules by law; who gave back to the city of Ashur its protecting god; who let the name of Ishtar of Nineveh remain in E-mish-mish; the Sublime, who humbles himself before the great gods; successor of Sumula-il; the mighty son of Sin-muballit; the royal scion of Eternity; the mighty monarch, the sun of Babylon, whose rays shed light over the land of Sumer and Akkad; the king, obeyed by the four quarters of the world; Beloved of Ninni, am I.”

Sheesh. Imagine if the guy had a Twitter account.

Fortunately, his vanity compelled him to have the Code and its needlessly-flamboyant introduction engraved in stone. When it was discovered in 1901, it created a sensation among archeologists and legal scholars, alike.

Hammurabi would have been thrilled to know people are still talking about him nearly 4,000 years after his birth.

Lenient-ish Punishments

As mentioned above, many people view the “eye for an eye” bit as unduly harsh. It was quite the contrary, however. In an age where the death penalty could be handed out for just about anything, the Code was notable for the limits it imposed on punishment.

Code of Hammurabi Stele, located in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.

Lex Talionis, Latin for “law of retribution,” was designed to take revenge out of the equation. The punishment to be inflicted on an offender was to be proportional to the harm caused in the commission of the offense. From our perspective, gouging out the eye of a person who blinded another could make even the toughest fellow feel squeamish. It was a fair sight more lenient, however, than the default response of killing the offender — and possibly the offender’s family.

Before you get too indignant about the severity of the Code, even with its great strides toward leniency, you might stop and consider how the Babylonians might view a $2 million judgment against McDonald’s for serving hot coffee.

That’s not to say the non-terminal punishments were anything like the In-School Suspensions handed out in schools today. (Seriously… How is it a punishment for a pupil to be sentenced to sit in a classroom during regular school hours to do his or her schoolwork? But we digress….) Some of the punishments handed out by the Code were a bit harsh from our perspective. If, for example, a man broke another man’s bone, the offender was to have the corresponding bone broken. If a son struck his father, the boy’s hands were to be “hewn off.”

Presumption of Innocence

While the Code is remembered for its punishments, it was revolutionary in the way it protected the innocent. It was one of the first legal systems to introduce the radical notion of “innocent until proven guilty.”

Unlike most of the legal philosophies of its day, Hammurabi’s Code places the burden of proof on the one making the accusation and provides strong disincentives to make false accusations. In capital cases, the Code states, “If any one bring an accusation of any crime before elders, and does not prove what he has charged, he shall, if it be a capital offense charged, be put to death.”

Dealing with Medical Malpractice and Judicial Error

There is an old adage that doctors bury their mistakes, while the errors of lawyers end up in prison. Hammurabi evidently thought these two professions needed some special attention in his Code.

As far as doctors go, the Code provided:

If a physician make a large incision with an operating knife and cure it, or if he open a tumor (over the eye) with an operating knife, and saves the eye, he shall receive ten shekels in money.

If a physician make a large incision with the operating knife, and kill him, or open a tumor with the operating knife, and cut out the eye, his hands shall be cut off.

This tells us a couple of things about the state of healthcare in Babylon. For one thing, it wasn’t cheap. According to another section of the Code, the cost of a boat was two shekels, but this tells us that a physician could charge ten shekels for conducting successful surgery.

Another part of the Code states that physicians can charge 5 shekels for healing a freeborn man of a broken bone or other injury, but a freed slave could only be charged three shekels for a freed slave, and a slave’s bill was capped at two shekels.

It also tells us that surgeons had a good incentive to try other remedies before resorting to the operating table. If the procedure didn’t go quite as planned, it would cost the doctor his hands. On a positive note, it’s fairly certain that no surgeon ever made the same mistake twice. If the same penalty were imposed today, one-fourth of all orthopedic surgeons would be in need of prosthetic hands.

Judges were not in danger of losing their limbs, but they had powerful motivation to make the right decisions:

If a judge try a case, reach a decision, and present his judgment in writing; if later error shall appear in his decision, and it be through his own 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.

For judges and surgeons, making a mistake would cost them their jobs. A good option would be for each to take up the profession of the other. A former judge, still with two hands, could perform surgery, and a handless ex-physician would have no trouble sitting on the bench (and could do no worse than the judge who declared himself to be an idiot).

Why Bother With a Jury When You Have a River?

If you find yourself miraculously transported to ancient Babylon, and you don’t want to deal with the risks associated with being a surgeon or judge, you might consider a career as a swimming instructor. A person’s ability to survive a plunge into the Euphrates River was a big factor in how he or she would fare in a legal dispute. The Code addresses a number of offenses by subjecting the matters to the River Ordeal.

If, for example, someone accuses you of practicing sorcery, the Euphrates will decide your fate:

If any one bring an accusation against a man, and the accused go to the river and leap into the river, if he sink in the river his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if the river prove that the accused is not guilty, and he escape unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death, while he who leaped into the river shall take possession of the house that had belonged to his accuser.

Several of these River Ordeals were limited to women, such as:

If a [female] tavern-keeper does not accept corn according to gross weight in payment of drink, but takes money, and the price of the drink is less than that of the corn, she shall be convicted and thrown into the water.

If a man is taken prisoner in war, and there is a sustenance in his house, but his wife leave house and court, and go to another house: because this wife did not keep her court, and went to another house, she shall be judicially condemned and thrown into the water.

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.

Again, this may sound harsh to modern ears, but note the comparative leniency of the last provision. If a woman is merely accused of marital infidelity, but there is no actual proof, the woman is allowed to jump into the river, rather than be unceremoniously tossed in like last week’s trash.

Don’t you feel better about it, now?

Unequal Under the Law

As we have already seen, women were not viewed as equals to men. Not all men were considered equal, either.

The amount of justice dispensed under the Code was largely dependent on the class of the offender and that of the victim. One of the laws stated, “If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out.” If the same offense is committed against someone of a lower class, however, the punishment was just a fine.

Another provision stated that if a man killed a pregnant maidservant, he was to be punished with a fine, but if he killed a free-born pregnant woman, his own daughter would be killed as retribution.

Minimum Wage

Hammurai’s Code contains one of the first historical references to a minimum wage. Field laborers and herdsmen were guaranteed a wage of eight gur of corn per year, and ox drivers and sailors received six gur. A gur was approximately 300 liters. We’re not sure how that stacks up to what a teenager would make flipping hamburgers, nor do we know what they got to put in their pockets after taxes. Even so, it’s better than nothing.

Enduring Legacy

Hammurabi died in 1750 BC. His empire began to unravel after his death and met its demise in 1595 BC at the hands of Hittite attackers. The invaders sacked Babylon and carried off its treasures, including the original steles inscribed with Hammurabi’s Code. By then, it had served as an influential legal guide for the entire region, even as governments rose and fell.

Copying the code was a common assignment for scribes in training, at least until the 5th century BC. Clay tablets with fragments of the Code, dated to more than 1,000 years after Hammurabi’s death, have been uncovered by archeologists throughout the region.

It was only with the rediscovery of one of the original steles in Iran in 1901 that modern scholars had an opportunity to piece together the entirety of the ancient law. In retrospect, we can see that many of our most treasured principles of justice can trace their early development to that megalomaniac king nearly 4,000 years ago.


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