The Codex of Hammurabi is one of the oldest sets of laws in the world. The over-2-meter-long slabs with their engraved laws were created at the behest of Hammurabi (presumably c. 1792-1750 BCE), a significant ruler of the Babylonian dynasty and king of Sumer and Akkad. The Codex offers an early document of human law that is defined by its reference to the past; in other words, to the divine commandments and common customs that paved the way for the legitimacy of legal regulations.
Similar to its predecessors, among which the Codex of Ur-Nammu, the Codex of Lipit-Ishtar, and the Codex of Eshnunna are the best-known examples, the concept of a “codex” is misleading, because, in a modern sense, a codex is understood to be a generally valid legal system whose enforcement is guaranteed by the state. The ancient Oriental codices, however, are incomplete collections of individual legal cases that usually express the will of the lawmaker to reform outdated laws or traditions. This also applies to the Codex of Hammurabi. But it is different from earlier codices in that it aspires to exert a standardized system of law on the entire realm of the given ruler. This was unprecedented in the ancient Orient, where a generally binding common law in accordance with state regulations was still unknown; justice was usually administered by virtue of traditional customs. However, there are contradictory reports about whether Hammurabi’s project was successful or not: Some historians assume that the individual paragraphs were actually taken from everyday legal practice because many trial certificates express the same point of view in their verdict as the Codex. Other historians consider the Codex to have been a more theoretical manifesto that was never directly put into practice because, among other things, many of the reported verdicts refer to Hammurabi’s regulations, but none of them mention the inscriptions.
Also, similar to earlier collections of law, the Codex of Hammurabi consists of a prologue, laws, and an epilogue. Both the prologue and the epilogue serve to legitimize the text: for example, at the beginning, by showing the symbols of power that Hammurabi receives from the hands of the sun god Shamash; and, at the end, by referring to the social justice of the legal ordinances. The collection itself consists of 282 paragraphs that, in addition to regulating a number of classical criminal and civil law cases, deal with such seemingly modern areas as the law of tenants and landlords, building regulations, and tort laws. From a sociological point of view, these reforms were designed to solve problems that derived from the socioeconomic developments of the 2 centuries prior to the Codex, during which Babylon grew from a fortified settlement to a metropolis on the Euphrates with a complex social and economic structure.
The Codex’s principles of justice, the talion law as well as mirror punishment, are of particular importance to the history and philosophy of law: Talion (Latin talio, revenge; Greek talios, equal) was seen as a legal figure who sought to achieve a balance between the damage done to the victim and the damage that was to be done to the perpetrator. The best-known formula is “an eye for an eye,” which also found its way into the Judeo-Christian Bible. Mirror punishment goes beyond the idea of enacting the same action upon the criminal as the criminal perpetrated upon the victim. It also implies punishing the part of the perpetrator’s body used to commit the crime (e.g., chopping off the hand of a thief).
These punishments not only seem draconian today, they also seemed to some extent draconian in Hammurabi’s era in comparison to more ancient codices, such as the Codex of Eshnunna. The Codex of Hammurabi even permitted the death penalty for minor offenses like theft or libel. Certainly one of Hammurabi’s central motives was to employ methods of deterrence to consolidate his empire, which covered a large section of Mesopotamia. Another reason might have been that imprisonment was not really part of the nomadic tradition, which essentially knew no prisons. Nevertheless, the concept of justice expressed in the principle of talion was adapted again and again. A number of paragraphs from the Codex of Hammurabi can also be found elsewhere, for example, in the Bible, which is how the Codex exerted an influence on the Occident’s sense of right or wrong.
Oliver W. Lembcke
See also Bible and Time; Egypt, Ancient; Ethics; Law;
Morality; Ur; Values and Time
Mieroop, M. v. d. (2005). King Hammurabi of Babylon: A biography. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
Richardson, M. E. J. (2000). Hammurabi’s laws: Text, translation and glossary. Sheffield, UK: Academy Press Sheffield.