Ancient Practices: Code of Hammurabi

Hammurabi was the sixth king of the first dynasty, Amorite, of Babylon who ruled circa 1792 – 1750 BCE and is mostly seen as the first law giver whose text survived. Like his predecessors, claiming the god gave him the law in order to rule peacefully; Hammurabi’s code of laws, after 4000 years, still transcends today’s standards of equality and free society. Most laws, though, have punishment integrated, disfigurement and/or death in terms of eye for an eye (one of the earliest example of such punishments!); however, it is important to keep in mind that in ancient civilizations the punishment were not routine and only performed in severe circumstances. Foucault makes a similar point for late antiquity and medieval periods.

Also, even though some of the code give the impression of leaning toward status, power or gender bias, but again, one must look it from the ancient lens and see the purpose in the milieu, not the literal meaning in the contemporary context. For example, there are numerous references to slavery but it is neither similar to classic nor modern concepts of slavery. It is even dissimilar to any other historical concept of slavery such as early Greek. In Babylon, slaves were part of the household and had legal rights; they also belonged to same race, spoke same language and could marry a free person. It was possible to get in and out of slavery and so the boundary between freedom and slavery was extremely fuzzy (read more about related laws and degrees of freedom).

Nonetheless, comparing it to today’s dominant civil or religious laws, we can trace the ancient roots of modern practices. Some lost, some preserved, and others simply mutated into the discourse.

The code of laws were inscribed in stone in common language and placed in the city state – a feature which is completely missing in modern constitutions which are riddled and plagued by the legal jargon and virtually impossible to have a clear interpretations. Hammurabi’s laws covered nearly every domain of life from justice, work, estate, equality, family, sex, health, travel and probably the first ever regulation of alcoholic drinks. Some interesting points are (taken from Project Gutenberg):

§ 20.  If the slave has fled from the hand of his captor, that man shall swear by the name of God, to the owner of the slave, and shall go free.

§ 109.  If a wine merchant has collected a riotous assembly in her house and has not seized those rioters and driven them to the palace, that wine merchant shall be put to death.

§ 126.  If a man has lost nothing of his, but has said that something of his is lost, has exaggerated his loss, since nothing of his is lost, his loss he shall recount before God, and whatever he has claimed he shall make up and shall give to his loss.

§ 128.  If a man has married a wife and has not laid down her bonds, that woman is no wife.

§ 130.  If a man has forced the wife of a man who has not known the male and is dwelling in the house of her father, and has lain in her bosom and one has caught him, that man shall be killed, the woman herself shall go free.

§ 134.  If a man has been taken captive and in his house there is no maintenance, and his wife has entered into the house of another, that woman has no blame.

§ 136.  If a man has left his city and fled, after him his wife has entered the house of another, if that man shall return and has seized his wife, because he hated his city and fled, the wife of the truant shall not return to her husband.

§ 141.  If the wife of a man who is living in the house of her husband has set her face to go out and has acted the fool, has wasted her house, has belittled her husband, one shall put her to account, and if her husband has said, ‘I put her away,’ he shall put her away and she shall go her way, he shall not give her anything for her divorce.  If her husband has not said ‘I put her away,’ her husband shall marry another woman, that woman as a maidservant shall dwell in the house of her husband.

§ 142.  If a woman hates her husband and has said ‘Thou shalt not possess me,’ one shall enquire into her past what is her lack, and if she has been economical and has no vice, and her husband has gone out and greatly belittled her, that woman has no blame, she shall take her marriage portion and go off to her father’s house.

§ 148.  If a man has married a wife and a sickness has seized her, he has set his face to marry a second wife, he may marry her, his wife whom the sickness has seized he shall not put her away, in the home she shall dwell, and as long as she lives he shall sustain her.

§ 152.  If from the time that that woman entered into the house of the man a debt has come upon them, both together they shall answer the merchant.

§ 154.  If a man has known his daughter, that man one shall expel from the city.

§ 170.  If a man his wife has borne him sons, and his maidservant has borne him sons, the father in his lifetime has said to the sons which the maidservant has borne him ‘my sons,’ has numbered them with the sons of his wife, after the father has gone to his fate, the sons of the wife and the sons of the maidservant shall share equally in the goods of the father’s house; the sons that are sons of the wife at the sharing shall choose and take.

§ 177.  If a widow whose children are young has set her face to enter into the house of another, without consent of a judge she shall not enter.  When she enters into the house of another the judge shall enquire into what is left of her former husband’s house, and the house of her former husband to her later husband, and that woman he shall entrust and cause them to receive a deed.  They shall keep the house and rear the little ones.  Not a utensil shall they give for money.  The buyer that has bought a utensil of a widow’s sons shall lose his money and shall return the property to its owners.

§ 180.  If a father to his daughter a votary, bride, or vowed woman has not granted a marriage portion, after the father has gone to his fate, she shall share in the goods of the father’s house a share like one son, as long as she lives she shall enjoy, after her it is her brothers’ forsooth.

§ 188.  If an artisan has taken a son to bring up, and has caused him to learn his handicraft, no one has any claim.

§ 229.  If a builder has built a house for a man and has not made strong his work, and the house he built has fallen, and he has caused the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death.

§ 250.  If a wild bull in his charge has gored a man and caused him to die, that case has no remedy.

The full code is available at Project Gutenberg, Yale’s Law library, and The Online Library of Liberty (OLL).


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