Hammurabi the Lawgiver

Hammurabi the Lawgiver

Although built on earlier precedents, the law codes published under Hammurabi are forever associated with his name. In his 42nd year, Hammurabi had his judgments immortalized by publishing them as a set of codes inspired by Shamash, the sun god, a copy of which was found in Susiania (in what is now Iran) and transported to the Louvre Museum in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. It is important to understand that Hammurabi’s codes were not law statutes but grew out of day-to-day regulations adopted by the king while adjusting previous edicts to new socioeconomic realities.

In this way, they should be seen as practical instructions, not as fully worked out laws ensuring universal application. And yet, they have not only achieved worldwide acclaim but infl uenced all modern law up to our day.Consisting of 282 laws engraved on a basalt stela (stone slab or pillar used for commemorative purposes), the Code of Hammurabi dealt with various crimes, as well as with trade, family law, property, agricultural issues, and even the buying of slaves.

The codes describe three classes in society: free men, mushkenu (perhaps military men attached to the state by land grants or other forms of service), and slaves (Roux 1992, 204). According to Roux, the principal change in the codes was the de-emphasis on compensation in cash or tribute, which was part of the Sumerian penal code, and the stress laid on “death, mutilation or corporal punishment” (Roux 1992, 205).

Thus, if a surgeon killed his patient, his hand would be cut off; if a house collapsed, its architect would be put to death; if a slave were killed when the house collapsed on him, the builder of the house would compensate the slave’s owner with another slave. But there was leniency, too. For instance, an adulterous woman’s sentence was to be put to death, but she could also be pardoned by her husband.

If a man was determined to divorce his wife because she had not given birth to sons, then he had to compensate her with the full amount of the dowry or bride wealth given to her by her father. According to Roux, the advances made in Hammurabi’s codes are innumerable; chiefl y, however, “. . . it remains unique by its length, by the elegance and precision of its style and by the light it throws on the rough, yet highly civilized society of the period” (Roux 1992, 206).