The Code of Hammurabi is one of the best preserved and most interesting legal codes of history. It was written by Hammurabi, a Babylonian ruler, around 1750 B.C.
The code is the oldest surviving text that we have from the Babylonians. Reading it helped me realize how old our civilization is, and that everything we do has been done before. We are not nearly as unique as we would like to imagine.
You can find the complete text here: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/ancient/hamframe.asp
How the code survived from 1750 B.C. until the present day is my favorite part of the story. The code was written in 1754 B.C. by Hammurabi, one of the earliest Babylonian kings. He ruled a territory roughly the size of Serbia in modern day Iraq.
Around 1200 B.C., 500 years after the code was written, it was taken as plunder from the declining Babylonian Empire. The tablet ended up in the hands of Shutruk-Nakhunte, who ruled over the kingdom of Elam. Elam was east of Babylon, in modern day Iran.
There, it was preserved in Iran for another 700 years. In 550 B.C., Hammurabi's code was as old to the people back then as the Mongol Invasion of Europe is to us. In 550 B.C., Cyrus the Great, ruler of the Persian Empire, undertook the process of increasing literacy in his empire. This project included the construction of libraries, and preservation of historical material. Cyrus viewed the Code of Hammurabi as a precious piece of his own history. He made copies of Hammurabi's code, and distributed them to every library across his vast empire.
In 1901, archeologists rediscovered one of Cyrus' copies of the code while excavating sites in south-east Iran.
Some of the laws are very much ahead of their time. For example, law #5: "If a judge try a case, reach a decision, and present his judgment in writing; if later error shall appear in his decision, and it be through his own fault, then he shall pay twelve times the fine set by him in the case, and he shall be publicly removed from the judge's bench, and never again shall he sit there to render judgement."
This law states that if a judge makes a mistake during a trial, he has to pay twentyfold of whatever the defendant paid. This law incentivizes judges to do a good job, and still exists in our legal system (albeit in a more modernized form).
Most laws however, aren't nearly as sophisticated as the rules concerning judges. Much of Hammurabi's Code is outright barbaric.
For example, almost all laws are punishable by death. This might seem harsh by our modern standards, but it is important to remember that Hammurabi lived in a world of extreme poverty. His early agricultural society simply lacked the resources to feed unproductive prisoners. Death was the only economical solution.
Many laws are harsh but fair. It is easy to imagine living in a society where these laws are consistently applied. For example, law #21 "If any one break a hole into a house (break in to steal), he shall be put to death before that hole and be buried."
Or law #7 facilitates commerce in its primitive, brutal way: "If any one buy from the son or the slave of another man, without witnesses or a contract, silver or gold, a male or female slave, an ox or a sheep, an ass or anything, or if he take it in charge, he is considered a thief and shall be put to death."
In Hammurabi's society, women are treated horribly. Law #143 says "If she is not innocent, but leaves her husband, and ruins her house, neglecting her husband, this woman shall be cast into the water." This law states that if a woman files for divorce, and the court rules that the divorce is void, the woman is to be thrown into the Holy River. If she survives being thrown into the Holy River, she can carry out her life on as usual. If she doesn't survive, then the Gods had punished her.
Very fun stuff.
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