Code of Hammurabi

An Ancient Blueprint for Justice

The Code of Hammurabi was a collection of 282 laws engraved in stone and created by the Babylonian king Hammurabi, who conquered and governed ancient Mesopotamia from 1795 to 1750 B.C. Although not the first of its kind, this legal codex stood out for its exceptional clarity and far-reaching influence on the legal systems of other cultures.

The laws covered various aspects of daily life, including family, commerce, property, and criminal justice. While the Code of Hammurabi was a significant advancement in legal history, it also reflected the hierarchical nature of ancient society. The laws favored the elite and lacked gender equality, with women having fewer rights and protections.

Code of Hammurabi. Photograph by Larry Koester.

Code of Hammurabi. Photograph by Larry Koester.

The Code of Hammurabi was inscribed on a black stone stele crafted from a single block of diorite weighing an astonishing four tons. The towering stele, standing over seven feet (2.2 meters) tall, left no room for anyone to plead ignorance of the law. At its pinnacle, Shamash, the god of justice, is depicted presenting the laws to Hammurabi, meaning these laws are divine and originated from the gods. The rest of the stele is covered in chiseled columns of cuneiform script, with each crime listed alongside its corresponding punishment.

Hammurabi’s Code is an example of the ancient principle of “lex talionis,” or the law of retribution, popularized by the saying “an eye for an eye.” It implemented a strict system of justice, where the severity of punishments depended on the social status of the perpetrator and the victim. For example, if someone caused harm by knocking out the teeth of their equal, their own teeth would be similarly knocked out. However, if the same act was committed against an individual from a lower social class, the penalty would be limited to a monetary fine.

In certain instances, the distinctions in penalties based on social status were even more pronounced. If a man was responsible for the death of a pregnant “maid-servant,” he would be subjected to a monetary fine. However, if he caused the death of a pregnant “free-born” woman, his own daughter would be put to death as a form of retribution. Additionally, Hammurabi’s Code outlined different punishments for men and women in cases of marital infidelity. Men can have extramarital relationships with “maid-servants” and slaves, but not women.

If the wife of a man is caught lying with another man, they shall bind them and throw them into the water. If the husband of the woman wishes to spare his wife, then the king shall spare his servant.

Code of Hammurabi, 129

Interestingly, Hammurabi’s Code displayed a surprising level of progressiveness in its provisions concerning divorce and property rights. However, one of its most notable advancements was the inclusion of an early form of minimum wage. Several edicts within the Code referenced different occupations and prescribed the appropriate wages for workers.

If a man wishes to divorce his wife who has not borne him children, he shall give her money to the amount of her marriage price and he shall make good to her the dowry which she brought from her father’s house and then he may divorce her.

Code of Hammurabi, 138

Hammurabi’s Code also stands as one of the earliest legal documents to endorse the concept of “innocent until proven guilty.” The Code places a burden of proof on the accuser.

If a man brings an accusation against another man, charging him with murder, but cannot prove it, the accuser shall be put to death.

Code of Hammurabi, 1

If a man has accused his wife but she has not been caught lying with another man, she shall take an oath in the name of god and return to her house.

Code of Hammurabi, 131

Following the demise of Hammurabi, his empire suffered a series of setbacks, leading to the fragmentation and eventual downfall of Babylon. But Hammurabi’s Code retained its influence, serving as a legal framework in the region for several centuries.

While Hammurabi’s decrees held a prominent position in the ancient world, they eventually vanished from historical records and remained lost until 1901. It was during this year that a team of French archaeologists discovered the renowned diorite stele at the ancient city of Susa, located in present-day Iran. Today, this remarkable pillar is proudly exhibited at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Words of Wisdom

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” ―Mahatma Gandhi

“It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not.” ―Andre Gide

“There is some good in this world, and it's worth fighting for.” ―J.R.R. Tolkien

“The trouble is, you think you have time.” ―Buddha


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