Code of Hammurabi

Feature, Ancient Period

Ancestor of Modern Law

Where did men first live together in cities, as citizens? Where, in other words, did civilization begin? Practically everybody who has studied the matter has concluded that it was somewhere in that “Fertile Crescent” that joins Africa to Asia in a great curve of green lowlands; but while some hold that priority should be given to the Nile Valley, others are of the opinion that the more likely place is that other great river valley that is today comprised within Iraq but is still better known, perhaps, as Mesopotamia. 

That is what the Greeks called it, and the name is thoroughly well chosen: The Land between the Rivers, the rivers in question being the Euphrates and the Tigris. Now and for a long time past the two have discharged their waters into the Persian Gulf through a single mouth, the Shatt el-Arab, but in ancient times each had its own mouth, and the Gulf reached much farther inland than at present. Slowly, but appreciably, the land is encroaching on the sea, seventy feet a year, it has been estimated, for the two great streams bring with them from their mountainous sources immense quantities of silt which push back, as it were, the sea, year by year, and so they have been doing for uncountable ages past. A great deal of this silt, however, is dropped on the way, and the whole vast plain through which the rivers flow has been built up in this fashion. It is on this fertilizing layer that the prosperity of the region depends and has depended on the beginning. 

This plain is one of the most fertile places in the entire world, and as such was settled exceedingly early in the human story. There are relics of Stone Age occupation, but the first invaders of whom we have any real trace were the Sumerians, a white-skinned race who arrived in the land certainly before 5000 B.C. They were mountaineers from somewhere in the heart of central Asia, and when they appeared on to the vast flat expanse they must have been astounded by the contrast with their homeland. 

They colonized the lower part of the plain, what in after centuries became known as Babylonia, and their little towns or cities were built on the islands of slightly higher ground which were not liable to the annual floods. Out of hard and bitter experience they learnt how to control in some measure the waters, and round their settlements they planted fields of wheat and barley, which grew there marvelously well. They also had their religion, and they built little temples on the tops of mounds, each with its tower in which the god was supposed to dwell. They built these towers as high as possible in order that the gods, who had been used to mountain dwellings in their former country, might feel more at home. 

In the northern part of the plain another people arrived and settled. These were of a different race and origin; they were Semites, and it has been surmised that they came from somewhere near the Mediterranean coast. The part of the plain that they occupied became known as Akkad, and for a long time there was rivalry and often war between the dwellers in the south and the north. But the civilization in Akkad and Babylonia was very much alike. Each had its basis in cities, although we must not read too much into that term: the biggest of the Mesopotamian cities could hardly rival an English village or small country town. Each of the cities had its patesi or priest-king, its upper class and lower classes, its officials and businesspeople, its artisans and laborer’s in the fields and on the dykes and irrigation ditches. Each, too, had its army, its temple and attendant priests, its law courts, and its prison. In these little mud-walled centers of busy life, systems of law and theology were worked out, ambitions found their scope, and in the more important cities, such as Nippur, Lagash, Eridu, and Ur in Sumeria, and Kish (the oldest city in the world?), Sippar, Agade, and Babylon in Akkad, dynasties of kings flourished with fantastic names and who were alleged to have had fantastically long reigns. 

More than two thousand years B.C. the northern group seem to have been overrun by a fresh wave of Semitic invaders, belonging to the Amorite family of nations, and some hundreds of years later there arose at Babylon a monarch whose name bulks large in ancient history. This was Hammurabi, and the period of his flourishing may have been as early as 2285 B.C. or (and this seems more probable) as late as 1750 B.C. whenever it was, there is no doubt of Hammurabi’s achievement. He not only established his rule over the whole of Akkad, but he brought within his empire, the word is surely permissible, the group of city-states in the Sumerian region to the south. All the ancient records that have been preserved speak well of him; as one of the inscriptions puts it, “he put order and righteousness in the land.” Several of his letters (written in cuneiform characters on little tablets of baked clay) have been preserved, and in these he shows a worthy concern about the state of the canals and other matters of his people’s welfare. “I gathered the scattered people of Sumer and Akkad,” reads one of his inscriptions; “with pasturage and watering I provided them. I pastured them with plenty and abundance and settled them in peaceful dwellings.” But his fame does not rest on these things, however great and estimable, but on his Code of Laws. 

For our knowledge of this we are indebted to the discovery by a band of French archaeologists, working on the site of the ancient Persian city of Susa in the winter of 1901, of an upright stone slab or pillar, technically known as a stele, on which the “laws” are engraved in twenty-one columns of writing in cuneiform script. At the top of the stele Hammurabi is represented receiving the laws from Shamash the Sun-god, who was also the god of Justice in heaven and on earth, and the inscription concludes with a vigorous curse on any man who “heeds not the words that I have engraved on my pillar, scorns my curses and fears not the curse of God, if he has annulled the law that I have given, or altered my words, or changed my inscription, or erased my name in order to make room for his own… may the great god Anu, the father of gods, extinguish the glory of his throne, may he shatter his scepter, may he curse his end!” 

How the pillar got to Susa is still a mystery, but it is surmised that originally it was set up by Hammurabi in the temple of the god Marduk in Babylon, so that it might be consulted by any man who wanted to know what the law was on any matter that concerned him; that it remained there for a thousand years or so, until a king of Elam overran Babylonia and removed the pillar to his own land as one of the spoils of victory and set it up in a temple in Susa. There, after some long time, it got buried in the rubble when the city was sacked and destroyed by an invader, and so it remained until the French archaeologists discovered it and restored it to the light of day. They took it back with them to France, and ever since it has been one of the most treasured exhibits in the great national museum at the Louvre, in Paris. A fine copy of it may be seen in the British Museum in London. 

There are some two hundred and eighty-two “laws” decipherable on the column, but originally there were another thirty-five in a space at the bottom, which seems to have been cleared to make room for some enactments of the Elamite conqueror. But these were never engraved on the pillar, for whatever reason we can only guess. Hammurabi’s curse had its effect! 

On the face of it, the “laws” are a very mixed bag. It is hard to discover any sort of order among them, and there are some very obvious gaps in the enactments, as, for instance, when punishments are prescribed for a man who steals from the great house of a noble or from a temple, and yet nothing is said of thefts from the ordinary citizen. But even so, the Code is of extraordinary interest and value, and throws a flood of light on the social and religious and political conditions in Babylonia all those many centuries ago. 

The Code opens with the enactment that “if a man has thrown a curse upon another man, and it is not justified, the layer of the curse shall be slain.” The second is similar, recalling the witch-finding ordeals practiced in this country up to a couple of centuries ago. But then come several laws having to do with matters of practical ethics and morality. A man who has harbored a fugitive slave shall be slain, but he who apprehends one in his field and takes him back to his master shall be appropriately rewarded. A man who out of laziness has neglected to repair his dyke, with the result that his neighbor’s field is flooded, shall make good the latter’s loss. A man, who is caught breaking into a house, shall be slain in the breach he has made in the wall, and shall be buried there. If a fire breaks out, and one of the fire-fighters seizes the opportunity of stealing some of the victim’s goods, he shall be thrown himself into the blaze. If plotters against the state meet in the house of a wine-seller, and she does not seize them and deliver them up to the “great house,” she shall be slain. 

If a priestess slips out of her convent and enters a wineshop for a drink, she shall be burned alive. A man, who has contracted a debt and cannot otherwise pay, may sell his wife, his son, or his daughter, as slaves, for a period of three years to his creditor, after which time they shall be allowed to return home and the debt will be liquidated. If a man’s wife is taken in adultery, she and her lover shall be bound together and thrown into the river, “unless the husband lets his wife live, and the king lets his servant live.” A man may divorce his wife should she prove barren, but he must return her dowry before she goes back to her father’s house. If, however, a wife mismanages the house and neglects her husband, all he has to do is to say, “thou art divorced,” and she must return to her father and her husband is under no obligation to return her dowry or bride-price. 

If a man’s wife falls sick and he wants to marry another, he shall quite clearly, we are observing a state of affairs far removed from the culture of the latest of the Stone Ages, when men for the first time came together in settled communities and took the first giant strides towards civilization. Civilization, it is plain, had been in being for centuries, even thousands of years, for such social rules and regulations as we have noticed cannot have sprung up overnight, as it were. They were the outcome of generations of experiment and experience of living together in close proximity and co-operation in all the occupations. 

Out of such living together, the need for Law arose. Where there is property, there must be someone to make laws against theft, and with power to see that they are enforced. Where social classes have grown up, there must be someone to keep the peace between them, and to ensure that they do not overstep their boundaries. Where religious rights are involved, and there may arise a conflict of loyalties between the gods’ servants and the king’s, it must be clearly laid down which should have the preference. Thus, it was for an amazingly complex society that King Hammurabi drew up his Code. 

Sometimes it is urged that he was not the creator of the Code but that he merely collected all the laws that had come down from his predecessors and revised and re-stated them. But this does not lessen from his achievement. He it was who saw the necessity for a stable and accepted code, and he it was who framed the code, established it, and made it work. What if fragments of earlier codes have been discovered in the ancient ruins? They are but fragments, not to be compared with Hammurabi’s masterpiece. When all is said, his pre-eminence is assured as the greatest of the Lawgivers of the ancient world, and his Code is the ancestor of the laws administered in all the later civilizations up to our own time. 

In imagination, then, we may see the great king giving a fair copy of the Laws to his sculptors to engrave on the pillar that had been made ready and watching them as they made the wedge-shaped marks on the hard stone. Then when they had finished, he supervised its transport and erection in the temple he had chosen. No doubt there was something an unveiling or dedication. It was a wonderful day in the history of Babylonia, and one that we may well recall, for in this as in so many other things that have entered our civilization, it was Babylonia that pointed the way and showed the path of progress.