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It’s been nearly 3,800 years since Hammurabi extended his rule across ancient Mesopotamia, a region that between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that includes what is now Iraq, as well as portions of Kuwait, Turkey and Syria. But the Babylonian king, whose likeness is among the pantheon of ancient lawgivers carved into the south wall of the U.S. Supreme Court chamber, has an influence that’s still felt today.
That’s because of the Code of Hammurabi, a collection of 282 laws and regulations written in cuneiform script on the surface of a seven-foot, four-inch stone monument, which was discovered by French researcher Jacques de Morgan in 1901 and today is part of the collection at the Louvre in Paris.
Historians describe the Hammurabi code as a surviving symbol of an ancient Mesopotamian system for solving disputes, punishing crimes and regulating business practices, which was an early influence upon the development over many centuries of the systems of laws and courts that govern the U.S. and other modern societies.
The code “represents a well-preserved and detailed ancient inscription about law and order during the First Dynasty of Babylon,” explains Kelly-Anne Diamond, an assistant teaching professor of history at Villanova University.
As Diamond notes, some of Hammurabi’s laws might seem excessively harsh, and even barbaric today—selling stolen property and building a defective house that collapsed were both punishable by death, for example, and the penalty for a slave who denied a master’s authority was to have an ear amputated. “But there are others that suggest care and responsibility for marginalized groups,” she says. “For example, we see in Hammurabi’s code what could be considered the earliest alimony payments.”
The code also depicts an ancient Mesopotamian legal system with principles that are still followed in American courtrooms. The code mandates, for example, that in order to find someone guilty of a crime, evidence needs to be gathered and proof established, Diamond says. ”The ‘innocent until proven guilty’ theme resonates with us,” she says.
The Hammurabi stele is topped by a carving that depicts the king receiving the laws from Shamash, the Mesopotamian sun deity, who also served as the judge of both gods and men. That origin story may have helped to promote Hammurabi’s image as a ruler whose power was derived from the gods, but scholars say that in reality, his code evolved from existing laws and previous court cases.
“The earliest known law collection, put together by King Ur-Namma 300 years before Hammurabi, included proportionally fewer physical punishments and more monetary fines than we see in Hammurabi’s laws,” explains Amanda H. Podany, a professor emeritus of history at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and author of the book Weavers, Scribes and Kings: A New History of the Ancient Near East. “But in Hammurabi’s time most punishments were actually fines, no matter what the laws said. So the judicial system probably worked in much the same way across those centuries.”
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Hammurabi’s code “differs from earlier Mesopotamian law codes as it is more detailed, giving us more insights into the laws and rules of the day, social structure, and how laws were applied to different groups of people,” explains Dawn McCormack, associate dean of the College of Graduate Studies at Middle Tennessee State University, and a historian whose expertise includes Egypt and the Near East. “As the population diversified, the law codes adapted to meet the new circumstances.”
But how much practical importance Hammurabi’s code had in its time is unclear. As historians point out, it’s not a comprehensive collection of laws. While the code contains detailed regulations on matters ranging from doctors’ fees for setting broken bones to the cost of renting an ox for threshing grain, there also are conspicuous gaps, such as the absence of a basic law against murder. “Hammurabi made no attempt to cover all possible infractions, or to come up with any organizing principles behind them,” Podany says.
And even though Hammurabi made a big deal out of carving his laws into a stone monument, Podany says that surviving Mesopotamian court records don’t indicate that judges even consulted the king’s code in making their rulings.
Hammurabi’s collection of laws also may have been as much about appearance as actual governance. He promulgated them near the end of his 43-year reign, at a time when he may have been thinking a lot about how he would be remembered by future generations. “They do show that Hammurabi cared a lot about being viewed as a fair and just king, both in his own time and in future,” Podany says. “He emphasized this in the prologue and epilogue to the laws.”
“There is little doubt that Hammurabi wanted to be perceived as a just ruler who protected his citizens, in addition to a surrogate for the gods on earth, war leader, builder, and final judge,” Diamond says.
It may be more important to see the Code of Hammurabi as a symbol of the existing Mesopotamian legal system of his time, whose innovations exerted a lasting influence.
“The Mesopotamians had a system that put a lot of emphasis on getting to the truth of a case, through the use of witnesses, oral testimony, and written evidence, and by having individuals swear oaths that they were telling the truth,” Podany explains. “Oaths were particularly effective because of the people’s profound belief that the gods would punish them if they lied under oath. A panel of judges heard a case and scribes often recorded the events that took place during a trial. They show that the system was effective and trusted. It provided a way to avoid vigilante justice.”
The code is also significant because it promoted the notion that justice ought to be fair and impartial. Through the codes, Hammurabi conveyed that he was a king who wanted to ensure that anyone—not just the rich and powerful, but even the poor—could obtain justice, Podany says. It’s an idea that modern justice still strives to achieve, even if it doesn’t always succeed.