What does Hammurabi's Code reveal about Babylonian society?

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Hammurabi's Code reveals that ancient Babylonian society was sophisticated, hierarchical, and valued private property rights. The laws aimed to enact social justice, although they favored the upper classes. The concept of 'an eye for an eye' was prevalent, and a person was considered innocent until proven guilty. Despite this, punishments varied based on social status. The Code also shows a patriarchal society with strong family structures and trade practices. Interestingly, it didn't include laws related to religion, focusing instead on daily life, trade, and commerce.

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Any law code will show what problems a society is dealing with. If an issue is not a problem or causing conflict, there is no need to make a law about it. Societies make laws to resolve or reduce their conflicts so that their society can run more smoothly. Furthermore, laws reveal what a society values and how the society is structured.

The Hammurabi Code reveals that people in ancient Babylonia owned private property and needed laws and contracts to protect their property rights. Laws in the Code, for example, dealt with who was liable for property damage and helped regulate the inheritance of property. This shows that protecting private property and enforcing clear ownership rules were important to this culture.

The Code also reveals that the Babylonians lived in a hierarchical society. Penalties for crimes against a lower caste person, such as a slave, were less harsh than if committed against an upper class person. For example, a doctor whose poor medical treatment allowed a rich person to die was punished more harshly (having his hands cut off) than in the case of a slave, where he would only be required to pay a fine.

The Code, however, also showed a society struggling to enact social justice. While it did not perfect this concept, it strove towards an ideal of an "eye for an eye": justice that treated people with (some) equity. It also adhered to the idea that a person was innocent until proven guilty.

The Code reveals a sophisticated and diversified hierarchical society with private property rights and a legal system that privileged the upper classes and yet honored the ideal (if not the reality) of universal justice. A hunter-gather society that was more nomadic and had far less wealth would be less concerned with property rights. It also would not have had the resources to break into privileged and less privileged classes. Therefore, its laws would not specify different penalties for members of different classes.

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Hammurabi’s Code is one of the oldest comprehensive set of laws governing ancient society.  King Hammurabi ruled Babylon from 1792–1750 BCE and expanded the smaller city-state into a full-fledged empire.  He wanted a set of laws which would serve to solidify Babylonian values and govern all of his people, so he commissioned a set of laws to be inscribed on a large stone stele. They are seen to serve as amendments for strict Babylonian laws already in place. It is now used as a lens through which we can view ancient Babylonian society.

First, we can look at what it tells us about their societal values and beliefs.  The Babylonians were a strict society who believed that for every crime committed, someone would need to be punished.  They strongly believed in justice and did not want to anger the gods, who were watching each and every action committed. Since they were so strict, the punishment had to fit the crime.  They were the first to develop the idea of “an eye for an eye.” Though it was important that anyone who committed a crime be punished, they still favored the elite class, also known as the patricians, and protected them against this law of retaliation.  For example, if a patrician harmed a slave, he would pay a fine, but he would not be killed or physically injured for his transgression.

Babylonians also believed in the importance of family structure and trade. Their society had a hierarchical structure with slaves at the bottom, plebeians in the middle, and patricians at the top.  Still, everyone was protected under the law, even, to a certain degree, women.  This was because everyone was seen as a Babylonian, regardless of social status. The law was meant to govern over everyone, every single day, regardless of what tasks they were performing. However, the law also reveals a patriarchal hierarchy, with wealthy males and men of the family at the top.  For example, if a son hurt his father in Babylon, his hand would have been cut off.

What is interesting about the code for the time period in which it was written is that it contains no law which mentions the role of religion.  This code was meant to lay out procedure and punishments for already existing laws.  For instance, it focuses on issues such as unjust accusations, false testimony, property rights, personal injury, domestic property, loans, debts, family rights, rates of service for duties of trade and commerce, and so on. These are all things that are outlined in our modern laws as well. In fact, many  modern ideas of justice and fairness can be seen reflected in the stone. Clearly, we had much to learn from this ancient civilization.

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

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

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

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

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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