What Does Hammurabi's Code Reveal About Babylonian Society

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jameadows's profile pic

jameadows | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Hammurabi's Code tells us that there was a social pecking order in ancient Babylonia in which nobles ranked above freedmen and slaves. For example, if a man broke the bone of a nobleman, the perpetrator's bones would be broken, but if a man broke the bones of a freedman, the perpetrator had to pay one mina. If, on the other hand, a man broke the bones of a slave, he had to pay one half the value of the slave. Crimes against nobles and freedmen were punished more severely than those against slaves, and enacting a crime against a nobleman received the most severe form of punishment.

The code also makes clear that women had some rights in ancient Babylonian society. For example, if a woman contracted a disease and her husband wanted to take a second wife, he still had to keep his first wife in his house and care for her. If a man wanted to separate from his wife and children, he had to provide his wife with property. After the woman's children were grown, she was allowed to remarry. These laws and others show that women had legal protections in Babylonian society. 

The code also shows that people had professional and contractual duties. For example, if a doctor performed surgery that killed someone, the doctor's hands could be cut off. Another law states that if someone did not repair his dam and it broke, he would be sold into slavery and the money would be used to repair the damages he caused. People were therefore expected to live up to their obligations to the society or pay the consequences. 

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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With as many laws as there are in that code, it has a lot to tell us about ancient Babylonian life.  For example:

  • It tells us that life in Babylon was stratified and people were not equal.  We can see this because, for example, there was a great difference in the punishment for killing a free woman as opposed to killing a maid.
  • It tells us that men had more power than women and women needed to be in some way protected from men.  You can see this in all the laws about what men have to do if they want to divorce their wives.  For example, a man can't divorce his wife if she has borne him children.  This kind of thing implies men tried this stuff and that it would have hurt women.
krishna-agrawala's profile pic

krishna-agrawala | College Teacher | (Level 3) Valedictorian

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Code of Hammurabi refers to a code of law proclaimed by Babylon King Hammurabi, who ruled from 1792 to 1750 B.C. This code represents revision of earlier codes such as Sumerian and Akkadian laws, some of which preceded Hammurabi code by nearly 300 years.

The code has 282 specific legal provisions. In addition there is a Prologue and an epilogue. The code covers a variety of subjects such as false accusation, witchcraft, military service, land and business regulations, family laws, tariffs, wages, trade, loans, and debts.

Inclusion of such matters in the code indicates presence of a well developed system of trading, taxation, and family structure. Above all the code suggests a system of rule of law in Babylon. The law was rather strict, following the principle of "a tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye". However, the law also shows concern for protecting the weak from injustice by the strong. The code also specifies procedures to be followed in the course of disposing justice. Provisions relating to slaves clearly indicates existence of slavery.

The link referred below gives a compete text of the code translated in English.