Hammurabi’s Code Historical Context

The Laws of Hammurabi


Hammurabi’s Code, a remarkable cluster of legal thoughts that embodied the ancient regulations of various matters of life, still remains in the centre of attention among the historians as well as lawyers. This huge collection of stone represents the primitive views on what should be considered as right or wrong. Some of the rules are also quite relevant for the modern lawyers; some of them should be considered for incorporation in the legal system. This paper provides an overview of the key provisions of the Hammurabi’s Code and determines the historical context surrounding its adoption; it also evaluates the most crucial principles underlying the rest of the document and discusses which of them are still relevant in today’s society.

Historical Context of the Hammurabi’s Laws

The Code of Laws later followed and copied by many ancient nations was designed by Hammurabi who was the sixth king in the Babylonian dynasty. He ruled over the territories of central Mesopotamia. His relatives came from the tribes of Amorites that previously resided in western Syria (Horne n.p.). Being 30 years old, Hammurabi started the great expansion of the neighboring territories down the Euphrates capturing Larsa, Assyria, Eshunna, Mari, and other areas. He started to accompany his military and politic advancements with the installation of the large irrigation facilities. The areas that were then under his control definitely needed the uniform regulating act that would create the common legal space and ensure that everyone is treated more or less equally regardless of the place of his or her residence. Thus, the adoption of Hammurabi’s laws could be considered as an urgent need of those times or the uniting factor for the diverse population that was governed by one ruler.

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The Code itself was made out of black stone stela carved with the slab of diorite. The stone was beneficial in terms of the perseverance; yet, it was enormously difficult in practical use. At the top of the column was Hammurabi receiving the laws from the Gods, which meant that they were of divine origin. At those times, the personalities of the governors were tightly connected with the Gods, and the fact that the Gods transferred the laws provided them with extra authenticity and made everyone follow them strictly. Everyone was warned that in case of breaking the law, the Gods would punish by either circular bodies or behavior. The rest of the column is covered with the texts of the laws.

The Hammurabi Code, of course, contained more legal proclamations than interpretations. In total, there were 282 edicts regulating different spheres of life ranging from marriage to agriculture. Remarkable for the legal content, the Laws of Hammurabi are also an exclusive source of information about religion, sociology, society, and history of that far period in the history of humanity.

Key Principles of the Hammurabi’s Code

There are few principles which make the fundamental part of the Hammurabi’s Code. The first one relates to the responsibility. Thus, everyone who commits the crime or any wrongdoing was submitted to the punishment which depended on the few factors including the social status of the violator and victim. It was mentioned that if a son strikes father, then his hands should be hewn off. As could be seen from this provision, corporate punishments were frequently used in the ancient Babylonian society. Another principle refers to the settlement of civil law disputes. It should be noted that the Hammurabi’s Code, on the contrary to other sources of law of those times, encompassed a huge number of legal provisions regulating the commerce and agriculture; it even ensured the protection measures for the victims of force majeure. Moreover, the Code provided for the regulation of the primitive banking relations and operations which, of course, stimulated the economic advancement of the kingdom (Nagarajan, 2011). Many provisions are dedicated to the integrity of the commerce agents and representatives of other professions. For example, one of the edicts provides that if a man builds a house badly and it falls and kills the owner, then the builder should be killed. Of course, the sanction of the edict is rather severe or even inhumane; yet, it encourages the professionals to take care of their clients and perform their functions qualitatively.

Justice is embodied in the principle ‘eye for eye’ which means that the offender was deprived of something that he had deprived another person of. For example, if someone’s actions result in the death of a person, then the wrongdoer should be killed as well (Stone n.p.). However, there was one exception from this principle due to the divine origin of the Code. Hammurabi believed that the Gods were powerful and could intervene and save someone’s life if that person was wrongfully convicted. Thus, everyone who considered himself or herself innocent was offered to go through the Ordeal in the Euphrates River. If the violator sang in the river, the victim could seize his or her property. However, if the person survived, then the person that brought the accusation was to be killed.

The Criticism of Hammurabi’s Code

Not all the laws of Hammurabi seem to fit the modern interpretation of justice and humanity; thus, the academic and legal community admonishes them. Hammurabi’s Code provides different scope of responsibility for the offender linking the personality of the violator and his social status with the charges pressed. For example, if an aristocrat and slave committed a murder, the latter would most probably be deprived of life while the former would pay a fine or avoid the responsibility for his deeds at all (Stone n.p.). If elite member harmed the bone or an eye of the commoner, then he was subjected to compensate one-pound silver to cover the damages. However, if the commander committed the same offense, the punishment expected was considerably severe.

Naturally, certain provisions of this legal document are to seven, yet totally acceptable for those times. For example, the Code states that if someone accuses a person of homicide but cannot provide enough proves, or it is revealed that the person is innocent, the accuser should be killed. Another example refers to stealing. The person who has stolen the items from the divine facilities as well as the one who has purchased it or received should be killed. Generally, the Hammurabi’s Code encompassed a lot of articles that provided for the capital punishment of the offender.

An unequal treatment of man and woman could also be traced in Hammurabi’s Code. If a woman was suspected in having relations with another man even without evidence, she had to go through the Ordeal to prove her innocence to her husband. Yet, there are no such provisions regarding men.

The famous principle “eye-for-eye” is quite controversial. On the one hand, there are some communities that still prefer to use this principle. Yet, it is totally unacceptable in modern times when the key function of the law is to ensure that it equally protects everyone. Additionally, it contradicts the principle of the personal responsibility when the punishment is awarded in accordance with the circumstances of the case bearing in mind the features of the offender. For example, nowadays a pregnant woman is treated less severely than the murderer that committed a crime while being under the influence of drugs or other similar substances. The amount of guilt and the scope of responsibility should depend on the nature of the offense. Of course, it is the determinant for the consideration of the punishment. Yet, a lot more circumstances and factors should be analyzed in order to ensure social equality and justice.

The Hammurabi’s Laws that Are Preserved until Today

In some cases, the laws of Hammurabi are reasonable and fair. For example, they provide that if someone has a debt for loan and due to the natural cataclysms or weather, the harvest is prostrated, he is exemplified from paying debt that year. It is what now the legal professionals call force majeure that relates to the unexpected events that occur out of someone’s will and free the person from meeting his or her obligations under the contract.

Additionally, the Code refers to the marriage and family issues. It regulates the basics of the matrimonial law. Some of these rules indeed survived until today and are applied in the majority of states, especially in succession law. For example, if a woman bears no children and dies, then all the estate that she has received from her parents before the marriage is returned to them. However, if she leaves children after her, then they inherit her possessions. The husband gets nothing, and it seems to be rather fair.

The laws also outlined the labor rights of various professionals and determined the pay for their services. At the same time, they imposed the responsibility on doctors for performing certain medical interventions. These provisions could be considered as the prototypes of the fundamental rules of consumers’ protection laws.

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The Provisions of the Hammurabi’s Code I Agree with

There are several rules of Hammurabi’s Code that seem to be reasonable. First, it prohibits the false witnessing. It provides that everyone who accuses another person of the murder but lacks proves should be killed. It stimulated people to press charge only if they had credible evidence, and it naturally prevented the spreading of rumors and labels.

Finally, it should be stated that the formulation of the provisions itself is shrewd, Hammurabi aimed at frightening his subordinates by the severe punishments. The accent was made not on the wrongdoings, but rather on the punishment waiting for everyone who dares not to follow the will of the Gods. In my opinion, it is quite effective normative techniques that might be considered by modern legislators and law-makers.

Additionally, the rules regarding the marriage and the family are worth attention and borrowing. Among others, the Code provides that if a husband decides to divorce his wife, he should leave her with the bride wealth and restore her dowry. Nowadays, there are a lot of pairs that divorce and leave spouse without a penny. The current laws enable such precedents; in my opinion, it contradicts the basic principles of law and social equality.


In conclusion, the Hammurabi’s Code was mainly adopted to ensure the uniform legal system within the kingdom ruled by Hammurabi. A lot of its provisions could be admonished, for example, the eye-for-eye principle or the overall severity of the punishments. Yet, some of them concerning the matrimonial law and the customer’s protection provisions might be incorporated in current laws. The designing of the legal rules is also highly appreciated as it has the greatest effect on the society and cleans it from the criminals, wrongdoers, and non-integrated commerce agents.

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