Hammurabi’s Code of Laws

Hammurabi was a king of Babylonia, an ancient civilization in present-day Iraq. He ruled from 1792 to 1750 BC and conquered several rival nations, but he is most famous as history’s first lawyer. Near the end of his reign, Hammurabi issued one of the first written codes of law in recorded history, which spelled out the rules for his citizens and the punishments for lawbreakers. The very concept of laws that applied to everyone was an unheard-of novelty in Hammurabi’s time, when most societies were governed only by the whims of their despotic rulers.

The code itself, however, was extremely cruel by modern standards. Hammurabi prescribed the death penalty for even minor infractions. Women who entered a tavern, men who harbored runaway slaves, and wives who left their husbands without “good cause” were all subject to capital punishment.

The crude code reflected the superstitions of its ancient society. In disputes between Babylonian citizens, Hammurabi’s code called for the accused to jump into a river. If he was guilty, he would drown. But if he was innocent, he would “escape unhurt,” and the accuser would be put to death for making a false charge.

The king’s scribes wrote the laws on a black stone pillar that was dedicated to the god of justice and displayed in public. In the inscription, Hammurabi called on “all coming generations” to observe the laws and not to “alter the law of the land which I have given.” Future kings, Hammurabi said, must uphold the rule of law rather than govern according to their own impulses. The notion that rulers could not arbitrarily change the laws governing their citizens was a revolutionary concept. Respect for the rule of law remains one of the fundamental hallmarks of successful governments.

ADDITIONAL FACTS

  1. The pillar that displayed Hammurabi’s laws was unearthed in 1901 by a French archaeologist and now stands in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
  2. Hammurabi’s code was inscribed in cuneiform, a complex writing system used by most ancient civilizations in the Near East. Modern scholars were unable to decode cuneiform characters until 1835.
  3. Babylonian scientists used a counting system based on the number sixty, which is why minutes have sixty seconds.
 
 
 

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