Discuss the function of written law in ancient Babylon.

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larrygates eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Code of Hammurabi of Babylon is the first evidence of a written code. Hammurabi called himself "king of the four corners of the world" and proposed the code to remove the wicked, insure welfare, promote justice, and prevent oppression in order to be a "light" to the land:

To promote the welfare of the people...to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and evil, so that the strong might not oppress the weak, to rise like the sun over the people and to light up the land.

By modern standards, the Code of Hammurabi is harsh. Death was the proper sentence for theft or false accusations, and often death was imposed by means considered appropriate: Examples:

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.

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.

If fire break out in a house, and some one who comes to put it out cast his eye upon the property of the owner of the house, and take the property of the master of the house, he shall be thrown into that self-same fire.

Two important points about Hammurabi's code should be emphasized:

  1. It relied on the principle of lex talionis--the law of retaliation. Under this principle, the punishment fit the crime. A prime example of lex talionis is in the Old Testament Pentateuch:

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a foot for foot, and a burn for a burn

2.  Social Distinction was recognized and punishment meted out differently according to class distinction. For example, if a commoner were to injure a nobleman, he was put to death; yet if a nobleman injured a commoner, he paid a fine in silver.