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Hammurabi's Code
Nancy L. Stockdale
Department of History, University of Central Florida

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Hammurabi's Code

An extremely useful source for discussions of Mesopotamian government and society is the Babylonian document Hammurabi’s Code (circa 1780 BCE). One of the most influential codifications of law in ancient history, the text provides students with a concrete example of the expanding influence of centralized government on the personal and professional lives of the general population. It also gives students a clear sense of the ways ancient Babylonians invested divine authority in their secular leaders. I have used this text very successfully in my lower-level undergraduate World Civilizations course, integrating it not only into units on the contributions of Tigris-Euphrates civilizations, but also in the context of thematic discussions of the influence of patriarchy and religion on government structures.

Preparing students is essential for a solid understanding of how to contextualize this source. My approach is to provide an introductory lecture about the social, political, and spiritual values of the Mesopotamians, as well as to assign readings from a textbook1 that provides primary evidence to support my points. Because I approach the source from a position of gender and class, I have also assigned Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy2 in conjunction with the source. This book provides a hypothesis about the way patriarchal control developed in prehistoric societies, and uses Hammurabi’s Code as supporting evidence for the eventual codification of patriarchal values in extensive, bureaucratic civilizations. Thus, by the time we come to discuss the source in class, students have been introduced to several key concepts regarding the text, both theoretical and historically specific.

One of the most important lessons to focus on in preparation for a discussion of Hammurabi’s Code is a unit on the significance of cuneiform. The transition from pictographs and hieroglyphics to cuneiform, and its possibilities for the spread of bureaucracy and literacy, is something that is not immediately obvious to students. However, when they learn about the efficiency of cuneiform for the expansion of literacy, and subsequent governmental regulation and authority over an increasingly literate public, they are better able to understand the importance of codified laws such as Hammurabi’s Code for the development of expansive civilizations.

After presenting the above contextual information, I mediate a class discussion about Hammurabi’s Code itself. I begin by showing a picture of Hammurabi receiving his authority from the Babylonian deities, taken from monument copies of the Code. I find this to be a useful exercise because it provides a visual representation of the Mesopotamian belief that government officials received their authority from the gods. This is an important concept for students to recognize because it lends tremendous credibility for Hammurabi in his ability to enforce the laws he presents in his Code. Also, I conduct a discussion with students about the meaning of governments writing down laws for public consumption. This usually provokes them to think about the responsibilities of the public and their need to know the laws once they are written down, as well as the enforcement privileges that codification gives to those maintaining law and order.

At last, the time comes to talk about the source itself. Sitting with students in a circle, I lead a discussion of the Code, with a particular focus on selections illustrating the varied punishments for crimes according to class and gender. Students are usually shocked to see the way Hammurabi’s Code laid out different punishments for the same crimes according to the class and/or gender of the victims and the perpetrators.

For example, the 8th law of the Code reads: “If any one steal cattle or sheep, or an ass, or a pig or a goat, if it belonged to a god or to the court, the thief shall pay thirty fold; if they belonged to a freed man of the king he shall pay tenfold; if the thief has nothing with which to pay he shall be put to death.” With an example such as this, students are able to see the ways that the Code worked to reinforce class distinctions as it also established specific punitive rules for social order.

This point is well illustrated with laws 196-223. These laws, which have inspired the clichés, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” lay out graduated punishments for inflicting bodily harm based on the class of the victim. According to these passages, attackers of slaves are to pay less compensation than attackers of free men and women. This is a particularly fruitful section of the Code for class discussions because of its blatant distinctions between the material value of victims.

In terms of gender, the Code also demonstrates clearly the extensive nature of patriarchal authority in Babylonian culture. For example, the 117th law of the Code states: “If any one fails to meet a claim for debt, and sell himself, his wife, his son, and daughter for money or gives them away to forced labor: they shall work for three years in the house of the man who bought them, or the proprietor, and in the fourth year they shall be set free.” In this passage, students are able to recognize the way the Code reinforces the privileges of free men, such as the selling of family members into slavery by a father to absolve his debt.

Patriarchy is further illustrated with the many laws that grant protection to women from patriarchal abuse. Laws placing restrictions on the use of women’s dowries, the bride prices paid for women, and the manner in which divorce can happen all point to the state’s recognition that women needed some legal protections from male authority. However, students are usually quick to realize that all of these protections discuss women in terms of chattel, similar to slaves. This provides, then, another example of the way the Code reflects upon larger issues of social stratification in Babylonian society.

Finally, students often recognize that the Code demonstrates the way the Babylonian state attempted to regulate morality in an effort to maintain social order. For instance, laws regulating adultery, incest, and marriage illustrate the extensive power that the centralized government was able to wield in Hammurabi’s time. By codifying, and subsequently enforcing, laws of morality, the government extended its power over the private lives of its population, as well as their economic relationships or religious beliefs.

By studying Hammurabi’s Code, students are given concrete evidence of the extensive reach of ancient Babylonian government into the lives of its population, as well as several excellent examples of the far-reaching legal distinctions of class and gender in the society. I have found that the usefulness of this particular source reaches far beyond an understanding of Babylonian history. Students are able to draw on this Code for comparison to other ancient legal systems, such as those found in Leviticus; they can compare Hammurabi’s relationship to his deities with the later European ideal of the “Divine Right of Kings”; and they can refer to this as a codified example of social regulations of class and gender difference.

1 Palmira Brummett, et al., Civilization Past and Present, Volume I, 10th edition (New York: Longman, 2002)
2 Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 101-104

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