The Code of Hammurabi

The Code of Hammurabi

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The Code of Hammurabi was written by King Hammurabi, who began ruling the Babylonian Empire in about 1800 BC. Hammurabi came to power using his strengths as a military leader, conquering many smaller city-states to create his Empire. Hammurabi believed that the gods appointed him to bring justice and order to his people, and he took this duty very seriously. Not long after his ascent to power, he created his Code, 282 laws written to define all relationships and aspects of life in the kingdom. The laws were displayed in a public place so that all the people could have the opportunity to study them. The laws applied to everyone, though application of the laws and punishment differed according to social class. The punishments for disobeying the laws were swift and harsh, further encouraging compliance.
     The form of the Code of Hammurabi is significant in the way that it is written. The simple language used to write the Code allowed the average member of Babylonian society to understand the expectations placed on them. Each of 282 laws was written separately with specific examples of indiscretions that were illegal, and the precise form of punishment that would occur. The Code also sets guidelines for the fees that were paid to doctors, veterinarians, shipbuilders, ferryboat operators, and to the owners of rented livestock.
The author of the Code also makes some key assumptions while writing his laws. Hammurabi must assume that the members of his kingdom have the same values and morals that he does. He writes as if everyone will agree with each law written, and makes no provision for members of society to disagree with him. Hammurabi also assumes that the punishment he prescribes will be enough to deter crime and prevent repeat offenders. When prescribing the incentives given to doctors, Hammurabi made assumptions about how much money it would take to encourage doctors to practice medicine and shipbuilders to build ships.
     The Code of Hammurabi, carved into stone, leaves no questions about its credibility. It stands out because it was the most complex and most advanced collection of law in its time.
     Much can be learned about Babylonian society through reading the Code of Hammurabi. At a very basic level, the document itself and the materials used to produce it tell a lot about how advanced the empire was.
     The Code reveals the priorities that Hammurabi and his kingdom held.

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The family unit was regarded very highly in the Code of Hammurabi, and numerous laws were created to protect it. Honesty is another important topic in the Code. Lying or bringing false accusations against another brought great punishment, sometimes a man’s life. The Code covers crimes such as cheating, stealing, and lying, and punishment for these crimes varied from having an ear cut off to death.
     The Code also provides many laws about property. Property rights were very important to the Babylonians, and specific provisions are made about slaves, fields and crops, homes, personal property, and inheritances. For example, if a man left personal property with a friend for safe-keeping, and instead of returning it, uses it himself, he must pay the owner of the property five times the value of all of the items entrusted to him.
     Perhaps the virtue that Hammurabi most wanted to instill in his people was personal responsibility. If a man built a house that was not properly constructed, and the walls caved in, resulting in the death of the owner, the builder was to be put to death. If a farmer did not tend to his dikes, and the resulting floods ruined the fields of his neighbors, the farmer had to compensate his neighbors.
     The Code of Hammurabi illustrates the class structure that the Babylonians had, and the Code was designed with this structure in mind. Power to demand more severe punishments was given to the Amelu, what we would today call the upper class, but they also received harsher punishments if they broke the law. The Mushkinu, or middle class, did not receive such stiff fines or punishments, however they were restricted in their contributions to religion and were required to give money to people they injured. The Slaves were treated as little more than property, although they were able to do business, own their own property, and purchase their freedom. Their punishments were the most severe.
     The Code of Hammurabi is still studied by historians and students for its contributions to history to the beginnings of civilization and law.
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