Excerpt from the Code of Hammurabi
Published in Hammurabi, King of Babylonia:
The Letters and Inscriptions of Hammurabi, King of Babylon, 1976
Translated by L. W. King
Hammurabi (1792 B.C.-?) established one of the world's first legal systems. As ruler of Babylonia (in what is now Iraq) during the 1700s B.C., Hammurabi conquered a large empire. To rule such a large and diverse area, he created a system of laws. Among the most notable features of this system are the protections it offered to the weak and vulnerable members of society, such as widows and orphans. On the other hand, it also established harsh punishments, and was the source of the idea "an eye for an eye," the belief that the punishment should be every bit as harsh as the crime itself.
The Code of Hammurabi consisted of 282 laws; thirty directly relate to the practice of slavery. These addressed various aspects of slavery, but there was one constant: the punishment depended on the status of the person harmed. In ancient Babylonia, there were three classes, or social groups: free men, who were the wealthiest and most powerful class; citizens or common men; and slaves. The greater the power of the person who committed a crime—and the lower the status of the victim—the smaller the penalty. The reverse was also true.
According to Laws 196 through 199, for instance, a free man who put out the eye of another free man would have his own eye removed. By contrast, if a free man did the same to a common man, he would merely have to pay a fee in silver; and if he poked out a slave's eye or killed the slave, he would have to pay half the slave's value, to the slave's owner and not to the slave.
Such aspects of Hammurabi's code may seem unfair to a modern person, but at the time it was an extremely generous set of laws. For instance, it established a number of provisions to protect women in situations such as divorce, which was highly unusual at a time when women had few rights. With regard to slaves, it at least provided a system of laws, which was much preferable to a system in which masters simply decided right and wrong on the spur of the moment.
Things to remember while reading
- The Gode of Hammurabi begins with a short prologue, or introduction, and ends with an epilogue, or conclusion, that offers blessings for those who obey, and curses for those who do not. In between are 282 laws, of which approximately thirty (including the last one) involve slavery.
- Of the laws discussed, numbers 15 through 20 deal with runaway slaves; 117 through 119 with slaves sold to settle debts; 175 and 176 with children of a male slave and a free woman; and 217 through 224 with the punishments and rewards for a physician who harms or helps various societal groups, including slaves. Moreover, laws 226 and 227 relate to barbers, whose job it was to mark a slave prior to sale, and laws 280 and 281 address slaves stolen and sold in another country. The last of Hammurabi's laws dictates a severe punishment for a slave who verbally defies his master.
- Despite the many harsh laws regarding slaves, a number of provisions in Hammurabi's code are quite generous—particularly by the standards of the day. For example, law 119 addresses situations in which an owner is unable to pay off his debts and sells a female slave with whom he has fathered children. Recognizing the difficulty this would pose for the slave, and the significance of the bond created by children, the code provides that the owner must later purchase the slave's freedom. Also notable are the provisions in numbers 175 and 176, whereby the children of a slave and a free woman are free, and the master of a deceased slave with children has a right to no more than half of the slave's property.
- As was typical of ancient documents, these laws primarily address males—whether free man, common man, or slave. Hammurabi's code was unusual in referring to women at all; more often, ancient laws simply ignored them.
The Code of Hammurabi
... 15. If any one take a male or female slave of the court, or a male or female slave of a freed man, outside the city gates, he shall be put to death.
16. If any one receive into his house a runaway male or female slave of the court, or of a freedman, and does not bring it out at the public proclamation of the major domus, the master of the house shall be put to death.
17. If any one find runaway male or female slaves in the open country and bring them to their masters, the master of the slaves shall pay him two shekels of silver.
18. If the slave will not give the name of the master, the finder shall bring him to the palace; a further investigation must follow, and the slave shall be returned to his master.
19. If he [the person who found the runaway slave or slaves] hold the slaves in his house, and they are caught there, he shall be put to death.
20. If the slave that he caught run away from him, then shall he swear to the owners of the slave [that he did not assist the slave's escape], and he is free of all blame.
...117. If any one fail to meet a claim for debt, and sell himself, his wife, his son, and daughter for money or give 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.
118. If he [slaveholder] give a male or female slave away for forced labor, and the merchant sublease them, or sell them for money, no objection can be raised [by the man who originally owned the slaves].
119. If any one fail to meet a claim for debt, and he sell the maid servant who has borne him children, for money, the money which the merchant [i.e. the buyer] has paid shall [later] be repaid to him by the owner of the slave and she shall be freed.
... 175. If a State slave or the slave of a freed man marry the daughter of a free man, and children are born, the master of the slave shall have no right to enslave the children of the free.
176. If, however, a State slave or the slave of a freed man marry a [free] man's daughter, and after he marries her she bring a dowry from a father's house, if then they both enjoy it and found a household, and accumulate means, if then the slave die, then she who was free born may take her dowry, and all that her husband and she had earned; she shall divide them into two parts, one-half the master for the slave shall take, and the other half shall the free-born woman take for her children. If the free-born woman had no gift [i.e. dowry] she shall take all that her husband and she had earned and divide it into two parts; and the master of the slave shall take one-half and she shall take the other for her children.
...215. If a physician ... open a tumor [over the eye] with an operating knife, and saves the eye, he shall receive ten shekels in money.
216. If the patient be a freed man, he receives five shekels.
217. If he be the slave of some one, his owner shall give the physician two shekels.
218. If a physician make a large incision with the operating knife, and kill him [freed man], or open a tumor with the operating knife, and cut out the eye, his hands shall be cut off.
219. If a physician make a large incision in the slave of a freed man, and kill him, he shall replace the slave with another slave.
...221. If a physician heal the broken bone or diseased soft part of a man, the patient shall pay the physician five shekels in money.
222. If he were a freed man he shall pay three shekels.
223. If he were a slave his owner shall pay the physician two shekels.
224. If a veterinary surgeon perform a serious operation on an ass or an ox, and cure it, the owner shall pay the surgeon one-sixth of a shekel as a fee.
...226. If a barber, without the knowledge of his master, cut the sign of a slave on a slave not to be sold, the hands of this barber shall be cut off.
227. If any one deceive a barber, and have him mark a slave not for sale with the sign of a slave, he shall be put to death, and buried in his house. The barber shall swear: "I did not mark him wittingly, " and shall be guiltless.
...280. If while in a foreign country a man buy a male or female slave belonging to another of his own country; if when he return home the owner of the male or female slave recognize it: if the male or female slave be a native of the country, he shall give them back without any money.
281. If they are from another country, the buyer shall declare the amount of money paid therefor to the merchant, and keep the male or female slave.
282. If a slave say to his master: "You are not my master, " if they convict him his master shall cut off his ear....
What happened next...
Hammurabi died in approximately 1750 B.C., and with him died the power and glory of his reign. It would be many centuries before another powerful king emerged in Babylonia; indeed, the country entered a period of decline soon after his death, and the next thousand years would be characterized by a series of invasions from all sides.
Hammurabi's son fought off a number of attacks from invading peoples, among them the Hittites from Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). In 1600 B.C. the Hittites destroyed Babylonia. Five years later, a group called the Kassites seized control of the region and held it for three centuries.
In the turmoil that followed Hammurabi's death, it is not surprising that his laws held little influence. In fact there is no evidence that his legal code was ever enforced in the years that followed his reign. Ultimately, however, the Code of Hammurabi would be highly influential: though it was not the first legal code in history, it is the first known code. As such, it provides much insight into how legal systems work and develop.
Did you know...
- Strictly speaking, the Code of Hammurabi is not a true code of law because it only added to already existing laws. Nonetheless, it is the oldest statement of laws known in the world and formed the basis for later legal systems.
- Among the issues dealt with in the Code of Hammurabi are personal property, real estate, business, trade, agriculture, marriage, inheritances, adoption, contracts, and leases.
- The code was carved into a large stele, or stone pillar, with an illustration of Hammurabi receiving the laws from Babylonia's gods.
- More than ten percent of Hammurabi's code, specifically, the laws between number 65 and number 100, is missing.
For more information
King, L. W., trans. Hammurabi, King of Babylonia: The Letters and Inscriptions of Hammurabi, King of Babylon. New York: AMS Press, 1976.
Baumann, Hans. In the Land of Ur: The Discovery of Ancient Mesopotamia. Translated by Stella Humphreys. New York: Pantheon, 1969.
Landau, Elaine. The Babylonians. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press, 1997.
Malam, John. Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent: 10,000 to 539 B.C. Austin, Tex.: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1999.
"Ancient History Sourcebook: Code of Hammurabi, c. 1780 BCE." Ancient History Sourcebook. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/hamcode.html (accessed on January 17, 2000).
"Hammurabi's Code of Laws (1780 BC)." World Wide Legal Information Association. (accessed on January 17, 2000.)
"You Be the Judge on Hammurabi's Code." http://members.xoom.com/_XMCM/PMartin/hammurabicodeoflaw.htm (accessed on January 17, 2000).