The Code of Hammurabi

The Code of Hammurabi

Hammurabi’s code of law on a basalt stele in Louvre Museum Paris, France.

Statues with laws written on them was a way for King Hammurabi to present his laws to the general public.


The Code of Hammurabi showed the Babylonian legal innovations that King Hammurabi was trying to enforce upon the kingdom and the values this ancient Sumerian society held. Originally, in what would be united as Babylon under Hammurabi, an individual would have to track down a person guilty of committing a crime and get that person to court in order for the victim to receive justice. However, in about 1780 B.C. the code of Hammurabi brought about a change in the legal system where the government hunted down criminals and brought them to justice. That being said, there was no real incarceration system or police force. This is why so many punishments consisted of the death penalty. Quick death penalty justice was the only real way to administer judgements and keep control since no such institutions existed. For example the second law in the code of Hammurabi reads,

“If any one bring an accusation against a man, and the accused go to the river and leap into the river, if he sink in the river his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if the river prove that the accused is not guilty, and he escape unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death, while he who leaped into the river shall take possession of the house that had belonged to his accuser.”

This quick sort of justice was used as a determinant for those seeking to commit future crimes and impose control of an unstable empire that was barely unified. It also set up a system of state based crimes for religious infractions displaying the value of religion in Babylonian society. This value of religion in the second law states that if you drown it was a choice by the Gods as a sort of secondary punishment of breaking the law. The first was leaping into the river because an individual was accused.

On the reverse side there was also a direct governmental punishment for disobeying religious rules as pointed out in the hundred and tenth law. “If a ‘sister of a god’ open a tavern, or enter a tavern to drink, then shall this woman be burned to death.” Here a a direct punishment for a religious woman drinking or coming in close contact with alcohol is issued.This law shows that although women had some governmental rights under the code of Hammurabi Babylon was still a predominantly patriarchal society.

Even though though the code of Hammurabi was a high point in ancient legal administration it still did not retain a perfect control over the empire and not everyone received unbiased justice. The value of men over women meant that women were more likely to be killed for crimes committed whereas men sometimes received lesser punishments. Higher social status meant that nobles received justice in favor over those of lower positions namely free persons and slaves. Lastly the code of Hammurabi did not permanently install unity though governmental control and by Hammurabi’s death in 1686 B.C. Mesopotamia had fractured to a state of disunity once again.


Fordham University The Jesuit University of New York. “Ancient History Sourcebook: Code of Hammurabi, c. 1780 BCE,” (accessed March 7, 2015).

Mathisen, Ralph W.. Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations: From Prehistory to 640 CE. 2nd Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

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