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Hammurabi of Babylon: Code, Summary & Stele

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Taught by

Mary Fogle

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

Learn about Hammurabi, the ruler of Babylon, and the code of laws that he created. Explore the oldest written law code in the world, and learn about the giant stones the code was inscribed on.

Ancient Babylon and Hammurabi

The Babylonians were a group of people who lived in an area called Mesopotamia, which is now called Iraq. The Babylonians were part of a larger group called the Semites, who all spoke the same language. Hammurabi united all of the Semites under one rule and established a capital in Babylonian territory. With all of Mesopotamia united under one rule, Hammurabi established a code of law to be used throughout his kingdom. The code became known as the Code of Hammurabi, and it is the first recorded code of law in human history. The Code of Hammurabi provided laws and punishments that were applicable to citizens based on their social status and gender.

Map of Babylon during the time of Hammurabi
Map of Babylon during the time of Hammurabi

The Code of Laws

Hammurabi claimed that his code of laws was authored by Marduk, the most important Babylonian god. He also claimed that Marduk required Hammurabi to rule in his name. The divine authority vested in Hammurabi by Marduk gave him extensive religious and political authority over the ancient Babylonians. The Code of Hammurabi contained 282 laws and was written in Akkadian, the daily language used by the people of Babylon.

Akkadian script from Code of Hammurabi
Akkadian script from Code of Hammurabi

The Code of Hammurabi provided a set of rules that could be used in most aspects of Babylonian life. It ensured that there was a consistent system in place for people to solve problems and understand their place within the society. Let's review some aspects of the code below.

Family Life and the Code of Hammurabi

Under the Code of Hammurabi, men had considerable power over their families. Babylonian men could sell their wives or children into slavery in order to pay off their debts. They could also disinherit a son if they chose to. These measures were extreme and required men to justify their actions in a court of law. Men who wanted to sell their family members or disinherit their wives or children had to prove that it was necessary and, especially in the case of disinheriting a child, evidence of bad behavior. This procedure gave women and their children some protection from a clearly patriarchal society.

Despite this protection, women and children were not fully protected under the law. A child, especially a son, could have his hands cut off if he struck his father. If a child did something wrong once under the code, he or she could not be punished; however, if a child made a second error, then the father could punish him or her in any way he wanted. Fathers were the center of Babylonian family life, and the Code of Hammurabi reflected this position and gave fathers considerable powers over their family members.

Economic Life and the Code of Hammurabi

The code also dealt extensively with the economic life of ancient Babylonians. The code governed the duties and rights of tenant farmers. Tenant farmers were required to carefully cultivate their plots and also to keep any canals or ditches clean and in good repair. Tenants who were negligent of their duties were responsible for paying for the cost of damaged crops and could be sold into slavery if the debt was high enough. Other workers could also be punished for poor workmanship. For example, if a house built by a builder collapsed and killed the son of the owner, the son of the house builder would also be killed in retaliation.

Women and the Code of Hammurabi

Women and men had different roles in society, and the Code of Hammurabi acknowledged and supported this difference. For example, the code stated that the fathers of prospective couples were in charge of making the marital arrangements. The bride would receive a dowry, or financial gift, upon her marriage. Unlike many later European cultures, a Babylonian bride kept her dowry for the rest of her life and could take her dowry with her in some cases of divorce. The father of the groom would provide a financial gift to the bride's father at the wedding as well.

Babylonian women were expected to be perfectly faithful to their husbands in order to ensure that their children were their husband's legitimate heirs. If a woman was accused of adultery and proven innocent in a court of law, she could take her dowry and leave her husband. Women were unable to go into business for themselves; however, they could inherit property from their husbands, and records show that many women became active in the business world after their husbands died.

Criminals and the Code of Hammurabi

Criminals were punished harshly under the Code of Hammurabi. A criminal who removed the eye of an enemy was required to have his own eye removed. The notion of 'an eye for an eye' is commonly attributed to the Code of Hammurabi. Thieves were required to pay back up to ten times the value of the object they had stolen, and murderers were often sentenced to death for their crimes.

Stele and Modern Museums

In an effort to make sure that all Babylonians understood and had access to the code, Hammurabi had his set of laws carved onto stone pillars, or steles, and placed in a public place. The code was written in the daily language of the Babylonians so that all literate members of the society could read it and act according to the laws of the land.

Hammurabi ruled for 42 years (1792 -1750 B.C.E.). Throughout his reign, the people of Babylon enjoyed peace and prosperity. Although the kingdom of Babylon eventually fell to foreign invaders, Hammurabi's laws were emulated throughout the ancient world. Rulers in a variety of different cultures found that instituting written code of laws accessible to the people kept their kingdoms running smoothly.

One of the groups that invaded Babylon stole one of the enormous steles created by Hammurabi and moved it to Persia, where it was re-discovered in 1901. Scholars were able to translate the Akkadian script of the steles and interpret the laws carved in it. Today, that stele is in the Louvre Museum in France, and replicas are in museums all over the world.

Backside of stele containing the Code of Hammurabi
Backside of stele containing Hammurabi Code

Lesson Summary

Between 1792 and 1750 B.C.E., Hammurabi led the Babylonian people into a period of peace and prosperity. A crucial event in the Hammurabi's reign was the implementation of a code of laws. Under Hammurabi's Code, Babylonian family life and gender roles were clearly delineated. Women and children operated under the authority of more powerful husbands and fathers, though there were some protection for women and children in cases of inheritance and in cases where women were falsely accused of adultery. Tenants and workers had rigidly defined roles, and poor workmanship could result in hefty fines or enslavement. Criminals under the Code of Hammurabi were penalized harshly and could lose a hand or their lives depending on their crime. Despite its occasional harshness, the Code of Hammurabi provided people with a clear set of rules to follow and was emulated and admired across the ancient world.

Stele showing Marduk giving the law to Hammurabi
Stele showing Marduk giving the law to Hammurabi

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