The Code of Hammurabi

Last Updated: 13 Jan 2021
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After the fall of the third dynasty of Ur, King Hammurabi came to power in ancient Babylon from 1792 to 1750 BC. As an influential ruler, he accomplished many things, including the reunification of Mesopotamia. His interest in state affairs and his opinion of himself as a "shepard to his people" most likely led to his greatest contribution to Mesopotamian life, the Code of Hammurabi. The 282 laws mainly focus on responsibilities of public officials, standards for agriculture and commerce, expectations for women, and regulations of sexual relations.

Hammurabi believed that the laws were sent by the gods, which explains their strict expectations. In addition, the laws generally follow the philosophy of "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth", revealing the importance of a strict justice system in Mesopotamian society and establishing the authority of the gods and the state. Overall, the punishments were very harsh, with most offenses resulting in death or disfigurement.

Although today's legal standards greatly differ from those of 18th century BC, the Code of Hammurabi can be seen as the foundation for modern day Western legal codes. One reason why modern society's legal system differs from Hammurabi's is because the concept of order in society and, even, in the family has changed greatly. While there are still economic classes today, they are not judged differently in the court of law. In ancient Babylon the social classes of the offender and victim were factors in determining the severity of the penalty.

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Family life has also changed from a power based (patriarchal) system to a more nurturing and supportive (unified) atmosphere. For example, during Hammurabi's reign, if a son were to hit his father, he would be punished by having his hand cut off. In today's society this would be considered "cruel and unusual". Except in extreme situations, the law would not even have reason to get involved. Such is the case for many of the 18th century BC's codes. Mahatma Ghandi made this distinction clear when he said, "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Modern legal codes aim more at consequences that will help change the behavior, as opposed to punishments that "get back at" the offender. Despite the differences, Hammurabi's approach to justice was very influential to the development of modern Western legal systems. They were not the first set of laws of this time, but they were the most structured and thorough. In other cultures the law was simply whatever the king said it was, which inevitably would change depending on certain factors.

However, with Hammurabi's laws set in stone and displayed for everyone to see, it was clear what was expected of the people. This concept of a fixed law is the primary similarity between Hammurabi's legal codes and those of today. In addition, the code of Hammurabi established that there be a "process" in law. Because there were now penalties for wrongfully accusing another, it made people think twice before bringing up false charges against somebody. In modern society, specifically the U. S. , this concept is found in the fifth amendment under the clause "without due process".

The Code of Hammurabi may seem harsh when applying it to modern society, but since values, practices, and standards were different at that time, it really wasn't too far fetched. The inhabitants of Mesopotamia valued the individual rights of the people and the means by which to protect those rights. Even though the process may be different today, the general goal of establishing justice within the society is the same. Hammurabi not only marked his place in Babylonian history, but also throughout the world, by constituting a model of moral codes that civilizations would duplicate for centuries.

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The Code of Hammurabi. (2018, Sep 25). Retrieved from

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