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Finding Meaning in Art & History

Law Code of Hammurabi

Hammurabi's Code, Paris 25 April 2012

The Law Code of Hammurabi stele was erected by the king of Babylon in the 18th century BC. It is a work of art, it is history, and it is literature, it is a complete law code from Antiquity that pre-dates Biblical laws. A stele is a vertical stone monument or marker inscribed with text or with relief carving. This particular example which is nearly 4,000 years old, looks like the shape of a huge index finger with a nail and imperfect symmetry.

The Law Code of Hammurabi stele is one of the oldest deciphered writings of significant length to be discovered. The Law Code of Hammurabi refers to a set of 282 rules or laws enacted by the Babylonian King Hammurabi who reign 1792-1750 B.C.

The Code of Hammurabi is a well-preserved law code of ancient Mesopotamia and has been found on numerous stele and clay tablets from the period. The Law is set out in graded punishments. For example, the law: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, depends on social status, of slave versus free man. “If a man destroys the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If one breaks a man’s bone, they shall break his bone. If one destroy the eye of a freeman or break the bone of a freeman, he shall pay one gold mina. If one destroy the eye of a man’s slave or break a bone of a man’s slave, he shall pay one-half his price.”

Codice di hammurabi 02

Approximately one-half of the code deals with matters of contract law. A third of the code deals with families and relationships such as inheritance, divorce and sexual behaviour. Other laws are related to military service or the penalties for a judge who issues incorrect decisions. Examples include:

  • “If a herdsman, to whose care cattle or sheep have been entrusted, be guilty of fraud and make false returns of the natural increase, or sell them for money, then shall he be convicted and pay the owner ten times the loss.”
  • “If anyone is committing a robbery and is caught, then he shall be put to death.”
  • “If a merchant gives an agent corn, wool, oil, or any other goods to transport, the agent shall give a receipt for the amount, and compensate the merchant therefor. Then he shall obtain a receipt from the merchant for the money that he gives the merchant.”
  • “If a woman quarrels with her husband, and say: “You are not congenial to me,” the reasons for her prejudice must be presented. If she is guiltless, and there is no fault on her part, but he leaves and neglects her, then no guilt attaches to this woman, she shall take her dowry and go back to her father’s house.”

The code is inscribed in the Akkadian language, using cuneiform script carved into the stele. The Script can be found in the front and the back of the stele.The stele was found at the site of Susa, in modern-day Iran. Historians believe that it was brought to Susa in the 12th century B.C. by an Elamite ruler who conquered Babylon and then who erased a portion of the text in preparation for creating his own inscriptions.

The sculpted scene at the top of the stele represents the King with his hand raised in front of his mouth, a traditional gesture of devotion, worshipping the sun-god. Note the flames bursting forth from his shoulders of the sun-god, Shamash. The sun-god is presenting the King with the symbols of kingship.

P1050771 Louvre code Hammurabi bas relief rwk

Some scholars have suggested that Moses, when he wrote the Laws of Israel, nearly a century and a half later, borrowed or was influenced by the Code of Hammurabi, which symbolised the Mesopotamian civilisation. Some of the laws, such as the law of retaliation, ‘an eye for an eye ‘, is similar to the principles set out by Moses.

Clearly, however, the Ten Commandments highlighted the worship of God, whereas the Code of Hammurabi is specifically interested in secular issues and in glorifying the King and serving his political interests.

Essential Facts:

  • Title:             Law Code of Hammurabi
  • Created:        c 1750 BC
  • Material:      Basalt rock
  • Author:         Hammurabi
  • Purpose:       Law code
  • Discovered: 1901
  • Height:         2.25 m (7.4 ft)
  • Museum:     The Louvre

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“The first duty of government is to protect the powerless from the powerful.” Hammurabi

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Photo Credit: 1) By Unknownctj71081 (Flickr: Hammurabi’s Code) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons 2) I, Sailko [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons 3) By UnknownMbzt (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons