The Code of Hammurabi is often cited as the oldest written laws on record, but they were predated by at least two other ancient codes of conduct from the Middle East. The earliest, created by the Sumerian ruler Ur-Nammu of the city of Ur, dates all the way back to the 21st century B.C., and evidence also shows that the Sumerian Code of Lipit-Ishtar of Isin was drawn up nearly two centuries before Hammurabi came to power. These earlier codes both bear a striking resemblance to Hammurabi’s commands in their style and content, suggesting they may have influenced one another or perhaps even derived from a similar source.
Hammurabi’s Code is one of the most famous examples of the ancient precept of “lex talionis,” or law of retribution, a form of retaliatory justice commonly associated with the saying “an eye for an eye.” Under this system, if a man broke the bone of one his equals, his own bone would be broken in return. Capital crimes, meanwhile, were often met with their own unique and grisly death penalties. If a son and mother were caught committing incest, they were burned to death; if a pair of scheming lovers conspired to murder their spouses, both were impaled. Even a relatively minor crime could earn the offender a horrific fate. For example, if a son hit his father, the Code demanded the boy’s hands be “hewn off.”
For crimes that could not be proven or disproven with hard evidence (such as claims of sorcery), the Code allowed for a “trial by ordeal”—an unusual practice where the accused was placed in a potentially deadly situation as a way of determining innocence. The Code notes that if an accused man jumps into the river and drowns, his accuser “shall take possession of his house.” However, if the gods spared the man and allowed him to escape unhurt, the accuser would be executed, and the man who jumped in the river would receive his house.
Hammurabi’s Code took a brutal approach to justice, but the severity of criminal penalties often depended on the identity of both the lawbreaker and the victim. While one law commanded, “If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out,” committing the same crime against a member of a lower class was punished with only a fine. Other rank-based penalties were even more significant. If a man killed a pregnant “maid-servant,” he was punished with a monetary fine, but if he killed a “free-born” pregnant woman, his own daughter would be killed as retribution. The Code also listed different punishments for men and women with regard to marital infidelity. Men were allowed to have extramarital relationships with maid-servants and slaves, but philandering women were to be bound and tossed into the Euphrates along with their lovers.
Hammurabi’s Code was surprisingly ahead of its time when it came to laws addressing subjects like divorce, property rights and the prohibition of incest, but perhaps most progressive of all was a stipulation mandating an ancient form of minimum wage. Several edicts in the Code referenced specific occupations and dictated how much the workers were to be paid. Field laborers and herdsmen were guaranteed a wage of “eight gur of corn per year,” and ox drivers and sailors received six gur. Doctors, meanwhile, were entitled to 5 shekels for healing a freeborn man of a broken bone or other injury, but only three shekels for a freed slave and two shekels for a slave.
While it’s notorious for its catalogue of barbaric punishments, Hammurabi’s Code also set several valuable legal precedents that have survived to this day. The compendium is among the earliest legal documents to put forth a doctrine of “innocent until proven guilty.” In fact, the Code places the burden of proof on the accuser in extreme fashion when it says, “If any one bring an accusation of any crime before the elders, and does not prove what he has charged, he shall, if it be a capital offense charged, be put to death.” The Code also includes a modern take on judicial procedures. For example, when two parties had a dispute, legal protocol allowed them to bring their case before a judge and provide evidence and witnesses to back up their claims.
Hammurabi’s Code offers a valuable glimpse into what daily life in ancient Babylonia might have been like, but just how the laws functioned in society is still up for debate. The statutes could have been a list of amendments to an even earlier and more expansive set of general laws, but they might also have acted as a set of judicial precedents compiled from real world cases. Some historians have even argued the Code was not a working legal document at all, but rather a piece of royal propaganda created to enshrine Hammurabi as a great and just ruler. However the Code operated, there is little doubt that the pillar itself was intended for public display. In the epilogue to the Code, Hammurabi boasts that any man involved in a dispute can read his laws to “…find out what is just, and his heart will be glad…”
Hammurabi’s empire went into decline after his death in 1750 B.C. before unraveling entirely in 1595 B.C., when a Hittite army sacked Babylon and claimed its riches. Nevertheless, Hammurabi’s Code proved so influential that it endured as a legal guide in the region for several centuries, even as rule over Mesopotamia repeatedly switched hands. Copying the Code also appears to have been a popular assignment for scribes-in-training. In fact, fragments of the laws have been found on clay tablets dating to as late as the 5th century B.C.—more than 1,000 years after Hammurabi’s reign.
Hammurabi’s edicts were a fixture of the ancient world, but the laws were later lost to history and weren’t rediscovered until 1901, when a team of French archeologists unearthed the famous diorite stele at the ancient city of Susa, Iran, once the seat of the Elamite Empire. Historians believe the Elamite King Shutruk-Nahhunte plundered the four-ton slab during a 12th century B.C. raid on the Babylonian city of Sippar and then brought it to Susa as a treasure of war. Shutruk-Nahhunte is thought to have erased several columns from the monument to make space for his own inscription, but no text was ever added. Today, the pillar is kept on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris.