What does Hammurabi’s Code tell us about the ancient Babylonian way of life?

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Hammurabi's Code is one of the most helpful windows that we have into examining Babylonian society. One thing we learn is that reputation was incredibly important as the Code specifically lays out punishments for slander (Law #127). Committing perjury in court could result in execution (#3). There are also a...

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Hammurabi's Code is one of the most helpful windows that we have into examining Babylonian society. One thing we learn is that reputation was incredibly important as the Code specifically lays out punishments for slander (Law #127). Committing perjury in court could result in execution (#3). There are also a number of laws for the protection of business transactions from fraud. Taken together, we can see that honesty and speaking the truth was an important value of the Babylonians.

The Code illustrates that property and ownership were extremely important. The punishment for certain types of theft was death. All business transactions required a receipt (#104) so that proof of sale and ownership could be established. If someone is responsible for the destruction of someone else's property through their own negligence, they had to pay for the loss (#53). This all shows that the Babylonians cared deeply about the rightful ownership of property.

Personal responsibility is also clearly a value. There are laws that require a judge to make personal recompense if he comes to a wrong ruling (#5). If someone buys a field but fails to tend it, he shall be forced to plow it and then return it to the original owner (#44).

Taken as a whole, Hammurabi's Code illustrates that the Babylonians of Hammurabi's time valued order. Having a codified legal system means that the ruler cannot interpret the law differently on each occasion. While this particular legal system clearly favors certain social classes over others, it still institutes a degree of fairness in that punishments for crimes become standardized.

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I think we can draw a few things about life in Babylonian society. From some of the laws, we can see that the Babylonians believed in the idea of having a trial by ordeal. We can see that in the following law:

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.

In this instance, we see that rather than hold a trial by jury, the person accused of a crime would instead have a trial by ordeal, in which, as a result of their either sinking or swimming in a river, they would be deemed innocent or guilty. This clearly would lead to many individuals accused of a crime not receiving the justice they actually deserved.

Another thing we can see in Hammurabi's Code is the strictness of the laws in Babylonian society. Many crimes, including those involving issues such as theft, were punishable by death.

We also see that punishment was not uniform for all people in Babylonian society. If a crime were committed against an individual of a higher social status, the punishment is harsher than it would be for committing a similar crime against an individual of a lower status.

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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. 

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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.
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