Code of Hammurabi

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An inscription of the Code of Hammurabi

The Code of Hammurabi (also known as the Codex Hammurabi and Hammurabi's Code), created ca. 1780 B.C.E., is one of the earliest sets of laws found and one of the best preserved examples of this type of document from ancient Mesopotamia. The code is a collection of the legal decisions made by Hammurabi during his reign as king of Babylon, inscribed on a stele.

The text contains a list of crimes and their various punishments, as well as settlements for common disputes and guidelines for citizens' conduct. It focuses on theft, property damage, women's rights, marriage rights, children's rights, slave rights, murder, death, and injury. The Code does not specify a procedure for defense against charges, though it does imply one's right to present evidence. The stele was openly displayed for all to see; thus, no one could plead ignorance of the law as an excuse. Scholars presume that few people could read in that era and that much of the code was handed down through oral communication.

Although a social hierarchy placed some in privileged positions, the code proscribed punishments applicable to all classes, notwithstanding that punishments varied depending on the status of offenders and victims.


As the rule of conduct was binding on all members of the community, state, and nation, the code provided coherent boundaries for citizens in a complex society. Citizens understood that abiding by these rules meant freedom to live and prosper. Although punishments for many minor infractions appear draconian by contemporary standards, the code formalized the fundamental responsibility of the individual to act in the context of the public interest. The code was grounded in commonly accepted principles of morality and ethics and provided a clear set of norms for all members of society to live together in peace.

Origin of the code

The code of Hammurabi (1728 B.C.E.-1686 B.C.E.) is a collection of the legal decisions made by Hammurabi during his reign as king of Babylon, inscribed on a stele. At the top of this stele is an image of a Babylonian god (thought to be either Marduk, or Shamash), and Hammurabi, presenting himself to the god, with his right hand raised to his mouth as a mark of respect. Unlike many earlier and contemporary kings, he did not consider himself related to any god, although he did call himself "the favorite of the gods." The image on the stele is done in bas-relief on basalt, and the text completely covers the bottom portion with the laws written in cuneiform script.

Did you know?
The term "written in stone" comes from the Code of Hammurabi, first King of the Babylonian Empire, who had the laws inscribed on a large stone stele

The laws (numbered from 1 to 282, but numbers 13, and 66-99 are missing) are inscribed in Old Babylonian on an eight foot tall stela of black diorite. It was discovered in December 1901 in Susa, Elam, which is now Khuzestan, Iran, where it had been taken as plunder by the Elamites in the twelfth century B.C.E. It is currently on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.

The code is often pointed to as the first example of the legal concept that some laws are so basic as to be beyond the ability of even a king to change. By writing the laws on stone they were immutable. This concept lives on in most modern legal systems and has given rise to the term written in stone.

Historical background

The Code of Hammurabi was one of many sets of laws in the Ancient Near East. Most of these law codes, coming from similar cultures and racial groups in a relatively small geographical area, necessarily have passages that resemble each other. For example, the laws found in the later Hittite code of laws (ca. 1300 B.C.E.) have some individual laws that bear a passing resemblance to those in the Code of Hammurabi, as well as other codices from the same geographic area. The earlier Ur-Nammu, of the written literature prolific Ur-III dynasty (twenty-first century B.C.E.), also produced a code of laws, some of which bear resemblance to certain specific laws in the Code of Hammurabi. The later Mosaic Law (according to the modern documentary hypothesis ca. 700-500 B.C.E. - under Hezekiah/Josiah; traditionally ca. 1200 B.C.E. - under Moses) also has some laws that resemble the Code of Hammurabi, as well as other law codes of the region.

View of the bas-relief image at the top of the stele.
View of the back side of the stele.

Tribal influences

When the Semitic tribes settled in the cities of Mesopotamia, their tribal customs passed over into city law. The early history of the country is the story of a struggle for supremacy between the cities. A metropolis demanded tribute and military support from its subject cities, but left their local cults and customs unaffected. The city rights and usages were respected by kings and conquerors alike.

As late as the accession of Assur-bani-pal and Shamash-shum-ukin, we find the Babylonians appealing to their city laws that groups of aliens to the number of twenty at a time were free to enter the city; that foreign women, once married to Babylonian husbands, could not be enslaved; and that not even a dog that entered the city could be put to death untried.

The population of Babylonia was of many races from early times, and intercommunication between the cities was incessant. Every city had a large number of resident aliens. This freedom of intercourse must have tended to assimilate custom. It was, however, reserved for the genius of Hammurabi to make Babylon his metropolis and weld together his vast empire by a uniform system of law.

Almost all trace of tribal custom had already disappeared from the law of the Code. It is state-law: self-help, blood-feud, marriage by capture, are all absent; though the Code of family solidarity, district responsibility, ordeal, the lex talionis, are primitive features that remain. The king is a benevolent autocrat, easily accessible to all his subjects, both able and willing to protect the weak against the highest-placed oppressor. The royal power, however, can only pardon when private resentment is appeased. Judges are strictly supervised, and appeal is allowed. The whole land is covered with feudal holdings, masters of the levy, police, and so forth. There is a regular postal system. The pax Babylonica is so assured that private individuals do not hesitate to ride in their carriage from Babylon to the coast of the Mediterranean. The position of women is free and dignified.

Adjudication by the code

Provided the parties could agree, the Code left them free to contract, as a rule. Their deed of agreement was drawn up in the temple by a notary public, and confirmed with an oath "by god and the king." It was publicly sealed, and witnessed by professional witnesses, as well as by collaterally interested parties. The manner whereby it was thus executed may have been sufficient guarantee that its stipulations were not impious or illegal. Custom or public opinion doubtless secured that the parties would not agree to "wrong." In case of dispute, the judges dealt first with the contract. They might not sustain it, but if the parties did not dispute it, they were free to observe it.

The judges' decision might, however, be appealed. Many contracts contain the proviso that in case of future dispute, the parties would abide by "the decision of the king." The Code made known, in a vast number of cases, what that decision would be, and many cases of appeal to the king were returned to the judges with orders to decide in accordance with it. The Code itself was carefully and logically arranged, and the order of its sections was conditioned by their subject-matter.

The Code did not merely embody contemporary custom or conserve ancient law. In the temple archives of each city, vast stores of precedent in ancient deeds and records of judicial decisions had accumulated, and that legal history had assimilated into city custom. The universal habit of writing, and perpetual recourse to written contract, even more modified primitive custom and ancient precedent.

Three classes

The Code defines the whole population as falling into three classes: the amelu, the muskinu and the ardu. The amelu was a patrician, a man of family, whose birth, marriage, and death were registered; of ancestral estates and full civil rights. He had aristocratic privileges and responsibilities, and the right to exact retaliation for corporal injuries, but was liable to a heavier punishment for crimes and misdemeanors, including higher fees and fines. To this class belonged the king and court, the higher officials, the professions and craftsmen. The term became a mere courtesy title over time, but originally carried with it a certain status. Already in the Code, when status is not concerned, it is used to denote "anyone." There was no property qualification, nor does the term appear to be racial.

It is most difficult to characterize the muskinu exactly. The term came in time to mean "a beggar," and with that meaning has passed through Aramaic and Hebrew into many modern languages; but though the Code does not regard him as necessarily poor, he may have been landless. He was free, but had to accept monetary compensation for corporal injuries, paid smaller fees and fines, and even paid less offerings to the gods. He inhabited a separate quarter of the city. There is no reason to regard him as specially connected with the court, as a royal pensioner, nor as forming the bulk of the population. The rarity of any references to him in contemporary documents makes further specification conjectural.

The ardu was a slave, his master's chattel, and formed a very numerous class. He could acquire property and even hold other slaves. His master clothed and fed him, and paid his doctor's fees, but took all compensation paid for injury done to him. His master usually found him a slave-girl as wife (the children were then born slaves), often set him up in a house (with farm or business) and simply took an annual rent of him. Otherwise, he might marry a free woman (the children were then free), who might bring him a dower that his master could not touch, and at his death, one-half of his property passed to his master as his heir. He could acquire his freedom by purchase from his master, or might be freed and dedicated to a temple, or even adopted, when he became an amelu and not a muskinu.

Slaves were acquired by purchase abroad, from captives taken in war, or as freemen degraded for debt or crime. A slave often ran away; if caught, the captor was bound to restore him to his master, and the Code fixes a reward of two shekels—about one-tenth of the average value—that the owner must pay the captor. To detain, harbor or attempt to get a slave to leave the city was punishable by death. A slave bore an identification mark, over time consisting of his owner's name tattooed or branded on the arm, removable only by a surgical operation. On the great estates in Assyria and its subject provinces, there were many serfs, mostly of subject race, settled captives, or quondam slaves; tied to the soil they cultivated, and sold with the estate, yet capable of possessing land and property of their own. There is little trace of serfs in Babylonia, unless the muskinu are considered serfs.

Citizens tenants of gods

The god of a city was originally considered the owner of its land and the citizens were his tenants. The city was encircled with an inner ring of irrigable arable land and an outer fringe of pasture. The god and his vice regent, the king, had long ceased to disturb tenancy, and were content with fixed dues in naturalia, livestock, money or service.

One of the earliest monuments recorded the purchase by a king of a large estate for his son, paying a fair market price and adding a handsome honorarium to the many owners, in costly garments, plate, and precious articles of furniture. The Code recognized complete private ownership of land, but apparently extended the right to hold land to votaries, merchants (and possibly resident aliens?). But all land was sold subject to its fixed charges. The king, however, could free land from these charges by charter, which was a frequent way of rewarding those who deserved well of the state.

It is from these charters that we learn nearly all we know of the obligations lying upon land. The state demanded men for the army and the corvée, as well as dues in kind. A defined area was bound to find a bowman, together with his linked pikeman (who bore the shield for both), and to furnish them with supplies for the campaign. This area was termed a "bow" as early as the eighth century B.C.E., but the practice was much earlier. Later, a horseman was also due from certain areas. A man was only bound to serve so many times, but the land still had to find a man annually. This service was usually discharged by slaves and serfs, but the amelu (and perhaps the muskinu) also went to war. The "bows" were grouped in tens and hundreds. The corvée was less regular. The letters of Hammurabi often dealt with claims to exemption. Religious officials and shepherds in charge of flocks were exempt.

Special liabilities lay upon riparian owners to repair canals, bridges, quays, and so on. The state claimed certain proportions of all crops, livestock, etc. The king's messengers could commandeer any subject's property, giving a receipt. Further, every city had its own octroi duties, customs, ferry dues, highway and water rates. The king had long ceased to be owner of the land, if he ever was. He had his own royal estates, his private property, and dues from all his subjects. The higher officials had endowments and official residences.

The Code regulates the feudal position of certain classes. They held an estate from the king, consisting of house, garden, field, stock, and a salary, on condition of personal service on the king's errand. They could not delegate the service, on penalty of death. When ordered abroad, they could nominate a capable son to hold the benefice and carry on the duty. If there were no capable son, the state put in a locum tenens, but granted one-third to the wife to maintain herself and children. The fief was otherwise inalienable; it could not be sold, pledged, exchanged, sublet, devised or diminished. Other land was leased from the state. Ancestral estate was strictly tied to the family. If a holder would sell, the family kept the right of redemption, and there seems to have been no time-limit to its exercise.


The temple occupied a most important position. It received vast support of all sorts, including money and permanent gifts from its estates, tithes and other fixed dues, as well as the sacrifices (a customary share) and other offerings of the faithful. The larger temples had many officials and servants.

Originally, perhaps, each town clustered round one temple, and each head of a family had a right to minister there and share its receipts. As the city grew, the right to so many days a year at one or other shrine (or its "gate") descended within certain families, and became a kind of property that could be pledged, rented or shared within the family, but not alienated. Despite all these demands, the temples became great granaries and store-houses, as they were also the city archives. The temple had its responsibilities. If a citizen were captured by the enemy and could not ransom himself, the temple of his city must do so. To the temple came the poor farmer to borrow seed, grain, or supplies for harvesters — advances that he repaid without interest.

The king's power over the temple was not proprietary, but administrative. He might borrow from it, but repaid like other borrowers. The tithe seems to have been considered the rent due to the god for his land. It is not clear that all lands paid tithe; perhaps only such as once had a special connection with the temple.

The Code deals with a class of persons devoted to the service of a god, as vestals or hierodules. The vestals were vowed to chastity, lived together in a great nunnery, were forbidden to enter a tavern, and, together with other votaries, had many privileges.

Property law and commerce

The Code recognized many ways of disposing of property: sale, lease, barter, gift, dedication, deposit, loan, or pledge, all of which were matters of contract. "Sale" was the delivery of the purchase (in the case of real estate, symbolized by a staff, a key, or deed of conveyance) in return for the purchase money, receipts being given. for both. Credit, if given, was treated as a debt, and secured as a loan by the seller to be repaid by the buyer, for which he gave a bond.

The Code admits no claim unsubstantiated by documents or the oath of witnesses. A buyer had to convince himself of the seller's title. If he bought (or received on deposit) from a minor or a slave without power-of-attorney, he would be executed as a thief. If the goods were stolen and the rightful owner reclaimed them, he had to prove his purchase by producing the seller and the deed of sale, or witnesses to it; otherwise he would be adjudged a thief and die. If he proved his purchase, he had to give up the property but had his remedy against the seller or, if he had died, could reclaim five-fold from his estate.

A man who bought a slave abroad might find that he had previously been stolen or captured from Babylonia, and he then had to restore him to his former owner without recompense. If he bought property belonging to a feudal holding, or to a ward in chancery, he had to return it and forfeit what he gave for it as well. He could repudiate the purchase of a slave attacked by the bennu sickness within the month (later, a hundred days), and held a newly-purchased female slave three days "on approval." A defect of title, or an undisclosed liability, would invalidate a sale at any time.


Landowners frequently cultivated their land themselves, but might employ a husbandman, or rent it. The husbandman was bound to carry out the proper cultivation, raise an average crop, and leave the field in good tilth. In case the crop failed, the Code fixed a statutory return. Land might be leased at a fixed rent, when the Code enacted that accidental loss fell on the tenant. If let on share-profit, the landlord and tenant shared the loss proportionately to their stipulated share of profit. If the tenant paid his rent and left the land in good tilth, the landlord could not interfere nor forbid subletting.

Waste land was let to reclaim, the tenant being rent-free for three years and paying a stipulated rent in the fourth year. If the tenant neglected to reclaim the land, the Code enacted that he must hand it over in good tilth and fixed a statutory rent. Gardens or plantations were leased in the same ways and under the same conditions; but for date groves, four years' free tenure was allowed.

The metayer system was in vogue, especially on temple lands. The landlord found land, labor, oxen for plowing and working the watering machines, carting, threshing or other implements, grain seed, rations for the workmen and fodder for the cattle. The tenant, or steward, usually had other land of his own. If he stole the seed, rations or fodder, the Code enacted that his fingers be cut off. If he appropriated or sold the implements, impoverished or sublet the cattle, he was heavily fined, and in default of payment might be condemned to be torn to pieces by the cattle on the field. Rent was as contracted.

Irrigation was indispensable. If the irrigator neglected to repair his dyke, or left his runnel open and caused a flood, he had to make good the damage done to his neighbors' crops, or be sold with his family to pay the cost. The theft of a watering machine, water-bucket or other agricultural implement was heavily fined.

Houses were usually leased for the year, but also for longer terms, rent being paid in advance, half-yearly. The contract generally specified that the house be in good repair, and the tenant was bound to keep it so. The woodwork, including doors and door frames, was removable, and the tenant might bring and take away his own. The Code enacted that if the landlord would re-enter before the term was up, he must remit a fair proportion of the rent. Land was leased for houses or other buildings to be built upon it, the tenant being rent-free for eight or ten years; after which the building came into the landlord's possession.

Hired labor

Despite the multitude of slaves, hired labor was often needed, especially at harvest. This was a matter of contract, and the employer, who usually paid in advance, might demand a collateral against fulfillment of the work. Cattle were hired for plowing, working the watering-machines, carting, threshing, etc. The Code fixed a statutory wage for sowers, ox-drivers, field-laborers, and hire for oxen, asses, and so forth

There were many herds and flocks. The flocks were committed to a shepherd, who gave receipt for them and took them out to pasture. The Code fixed his wage. He was responsible for all care, must restore ox for ox, sheep for sheep, must breed them satisfactorily. Any dishonest use of the flock had to be repaid ten-fold, but loss due to disease or wild beasts fell upon the owner. The shepherd made good all loss due to his own neglect. If he let the flock feed on a field of crops, he had to pay damages four-fold; if he turned them into standing crops when they ought to have been folded, he paid twelve-fold.


In commercial matters, payment in kind was still common, though the contracts usually stipulate for cash, naming the standard expected—that of Babylon, Larsa, Assyria, Carchemish, and so on. The Code enacted, however, that a debtor must be allowed to pay in produce according to a statutory scale. If a debtor had neither money nor crops, the creditor must not refuse goods.

Debt was secured on the person of the debtor. Distraint on a debtor's grain was forbidden by the Code; not only must the creditor return it, but his illegal action forfeited his claim altogether. An unwarranted seizure for debt was fined, as was the distraint of a working ox.

The debtor being seized for debt could nominate as mancipium, or hostage to work off the debt, his wife, a child, or slave. The creditor could only hold a wife or child three years as mancipium. If the mancipium died a natural death while in the creditor's possession, no claim could lie against the latter; but if he was the cause of death by cruelty, he had to give son for son, or pay for a slave. He could sell a slave-hostage, apart from a slave-girl who had borne her master children; she had to be redeemed by her owner.

The debtor could also pledge his property, and in contracts often pledged a field, house or crop. The Code enacted, however, that the debtor should always take the crop himself and pay the creditor from it. If the crop failed, payment was deferred, and no interest could be charged for that year. If the debtor did not cultivate the field himself, he had to pay for the cultivation, but if the cultivation was already finished, he must harvest it himself and pay his debt from the crop. If the cultivator did not get a crop, this would not cancel his contract.

Pledges were often made where the intrinsic value of the article was equivalent to the amount of the debt; but antichretic pledge was more common, where the profit of the pledge was a set-off against the interest of the debt. The whole property of the debtor might be pledged as collateral for the payment of the debt, without any of it coming into the enjoyment of the creditor. Personal guarantees were often given in Babylon that the debtor would repay, or the guarantor become liable himself.


Trade was very extensive. A common procedure was for a merchant to entrust his goods or money to a traveling agent, who sought a market for his goods. The caravans traveled far beyond the limits of the empire.

The Code insisted that the agent should inventory and give a receipt for all that he received. No claim could be made for anything not so entered. Even if the agent made no profit, he was bound to return double what he had received; if he made poor profit, he had to make up the deficiency; but he was not responsible for loss by robbery or extortion on his travels. On his return, the lending merchant must give him a receipt for what was handed over to him. Any false entry or claim on the agent's part was penalized three-fold; on the lending merchant's part, six-fold. In normal cases, profits were divided according to contract, usually equally.

A considerable amount of forwarding (advancing wares to the agent up front) was done by the caravans. The carrier gave a receipt for the consignment, took all responsibility, and exacted a receipt upon delivery. If he defaulted, he paid five-fold. He was usually paid in advance. Deposit, especially warehousing of grain, was charged for at one-sixtieth. The warehouse man took all risks, paid double for all shortage, but no claim could be made unless he had given a properly witnessed receipt.

Water traffic on the Euphrates and canal system was early on, quite considerable. Ships, whose tonnage was estimated by the amount of grain they could carry, were continually hired for the transport of all kinds of goods. The Code fixes the price for shipbuilding, and insists on the builder's giving a year's guarantee of seaworthiness. It also fixes the rate of hire for ship and crew. The captain was responsible for the freight and the ship; he had to replace all loss. Even if he refloated the ship, he had to pay a fine of half its value for sinking it. In the case of collision, the boat under way was responsible for damages to the boat at anchor.

Family law


Marriage retained the form of purchase, but was essentially a contract to be man and wife together. The marriage of young people was usually arranged between the relatives — the groom's father providing the bride-price, which with other presents, the suitor ceremonially presented to the bride's father. This bride-price was usually handed over by her father to the bride upon her marriage, and so returned into the bridegroom's possession, along with her dowry, which was her portion as a daughter.

The bride-price varied greatly, according to the status of the parties, but surpassed the price of a slave. The Code enacted that if the father does not, after accepting a man's presents, give him his daughter, he must return the presents doubled. This was done even if his decision was brought about by libel on the part of the suitor's friend, and the Code enacted that the faithless friend should not marry the girl. If a suitor changed his mind, he forfeited the presents.

The dowry might include real estate, but generally consisted of personal effects and household furniture. It remained the wife's for life, descending to her children, if any; otherwise returning to her family, when the husband could deduct the bride-price if it had not been given to her, or return it, if it had.


Divorce was optional with the man, but he had to restore the dowry, and if the wife had borne him children, she had the custody of them. He had then to assign her the income of field, or garden, as well as goods, to maintain herself and children until they grew up. She then shared equally with them in the allowance (and apparently in his estate at his death) and was free to marry again. If she had no children, he returned her the dowry, and paid her a sum equivalent to the bride-price — or a mina of silver, if there had been none. The latter is the forfeit usually named in the contract for his repudiation of her.


A widow took her husband's place in the family — living on in his house and bringing up the children. She could only remarry with judicial consent, when the judge was bound to inventory the deceased's estate and hand it over to her and her new husband in trust for the children. They could not alienate a single utensil.

If she did not remarry, she lived on in her husband's house and took a child's share on the division of his estate, when the children had grown up. She still retained her dowry and any settlement deeded to her by her husband. This property came to her children. If she had remarried, all her children shared equally in her dowry, but the first husband's gift fell to his children, or to her selection among them, if so empowered.


Monogamy was the rule, and a childless wife might give her husband a maid (who was no wife) to bear him children, who were then reckoned hers. She remained mistress of her maid, and might degrade her to slavery again for insolence, but could not sell her if she had borne her husband children. If the wife did this, the Code did not allow the husband to take a concubine; but if she would not, he could do so. The concubine was a co-wife, though not of the same rank; the first wife had no power over her.

A concubine was a free woman, was often dowered for marriage, and her children were legitimate. She could only be divorced on the same conditions as a wife. If a wife became a chronic invalid, the husband was bound to maintain her in the home they had made together, unless she preferred to take her dowry and return to her father's house; but he was free to remarry. In all these cases, the children were legitimate and lawful heirs.

There was, of course, no hindrance to a man having children by a slave girl. These children were free in any case, and their mother then could not be sold, though she might be pledged, and she became free upon her master's death. Her children could be legitimized by their father's acknowledgment before witnesses, and were often adopted. They then ranked equally in sharing their father's estate; but if not adopted, the wife's children divided and took first choice.


Adoption was very common, especially where the father (or mother) was childless, or had seen all his children grow up and marry away. The child was then adopted to care for the parents' old age. This was done by contract, that usually specified what the parent had to leave and what maintenance was expected. The real children, if any, were usually consenting parties to an arrangement that cut off their expectations. They even, in some cases, found the estate for the adopted child who was to relieve them of care. If the adopted child failed to carry out the filial duty, the contract was annulled in the law courts. Slaves were often adopted, and if they proved unfilial, were reduced to slavery again.

A craftsman often adopted a son to learn the craft. He profited by the son's labor. If he failed to teach his son the craft, that son could prosecute him and get the contract annulled. This was a form of apprenticeship, and it is not clear that the apprentice had any filial relation.

A man who adopted a son, and afterwards married and had a family of his own, could dissolve the contract, and must give the adopted child one-third of a child's share in goods, but no real estate. That could only descend in his former family. Vestals frequently adopted daughters, usually other vestals, to care for their old age.

Adoption had to be with consent of the real parents, who usually executed a deed making over the child, who thus ceased to have any claim upon them. But vestals, hierodules, certain palace officials, and slaves had no rights over their children and could raise no obstacle. Orphans and illegitimate children had no parents to object. If the adopted child discovered his true parents and wanted to return to them, his eye or tongue was torn out. An adopted child was a full heir; the contract might even assign him the position of eldest son. Usually he was residuary legatee.


All legitimate children shared equally in the father's estate at his death, reservation being made of a bride-price for an unmarried son, dower for a daughter, or property deeded to favorite children by the father. There was no birthright attaching to the position of eldest son, but he usually acted as executor, and after considering what each had already received, equalized the shares. He even made grants in excess to the others from his own share. When there were two widows with legitimate issue, both families shared equally in the father's estate, until later times, when the first family took two-thirds. Daughters, in the absence of sons, had sons' rights. Children also shared their own mother's property, but had no share in that of a stepmother.

A father could disinherit a son in early times without restriction, but the Code insisted upon judicial consent, and that only for repeated unfilial conduct. In early times, the son who denied his father had his front hair shorn, a slave-mark put on him, and could be sold as a slave; while if he denied his mother he had his front hair shorn, was driven round the city as an example and expelled from his home, but not degraded to slavery.


Adultery was punished with the death of both parties by drowning; but if the husband was willing to pardon his wife, the king might intervene to pardon the paramour. For incest with his own mother, both were burned to death; with a stepmother, the man was disinherited; with a daughter, the man was exiled; with a daughter-in-law, he was drowned; with a son's fiancee, he was fined. A wife who for her lover's sake procured her husband's death was gibbeted. A betrothed girl, seduced by her prospective father-in-law, took her dowry and returned to her family, and was free to marry as she chose.


In the criminal code, the ruling principle was the lex talionis. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, limb for limb was the penalty for assault upon an amelu. A sort of symbolic retaliation was the punishment of the offending member, seen in the cutting off the hand that struck a father or stole a trust; in cutting off the breast of a wet-nurse who substituted a changeling for the child entrusted to her; in the loss of the tongue that denied father or mother (in the Elamite contracts, the same penalty was inflicted for perjury); in the loss of the eye that pried into forbidden secrets. The loss of the surgeon's hand that caused loss of life or limb; or the brander's hand that obliterated a slave's identification mark, are very similar. The slave who struck a freeman or denied his master, lost an ear, the organ of hearing and symbol of obedience. To bring another into danger of death by false accusation was punished by death. To cause loss of liberty or property by false witness was punished by the same penalty the perjurer sought to bring upon another.

The death penalty was freely awarded for theft, and other crimes regarded as coming under that section: for theft involving entrance of palace or temple treasury, for illegal purchase from minor or slave, for selling stolen goods or receiving the same, for common theft in the open (in default of multiple restoration) or receiving the same, for false claim to goods, for kidnapping, for assisting or harboring fugitive slaves, for detaining or appropriating same, for brigandage, for fraudulent sale of drink, for disorderly conduct of tavern, for delegation of personal service, for misappropriating the levy, for oppression of feudal holders, for causing death of a householder by bad building. The manner of death is not specified in these cases.

This death penalty was also fixed for such conduct as placed another in danger of death. A specified form of death penalty occurs in the following cases: gibbeting (on the spot where crime was committed) for burglary, later also for encroaching on the king's highway, for getting a slave-brand obliterated, for procuring a husband's death; burning for incest with own mother, for a vestal entering or opening a tavern, for theft at fire (on the spot); drowning for adultery, rape of a betrothed maiden, bigamy, bad conduct as wife, seduction of a daughter-in-law.

Exile was inflicted for incest with a daughter; disinheritance for incest with a stepmother, or for repeated unfilial conduct. Sixty strokes of an ox-hide scourge were awarded for a brutal assault on a superior, both being amelu. Branding (perhaps the equivalent of degradation to slavery) was the penalty for slander of a married woman or vestal. Permanent deprivation of office fell upon the corrupt judge. Enslavement befell the extravagant wife and unfilial children. Imprisonment was common, but is not recognized by the Code.

The commonest of all penalties was a fine. This is awarded by the Code for corporal injuries to a muskinu or to a slave (paid to his master); for damages done to property, or for breach of contract. The restoration of goods appropriated, illegally bought, or damaged by neglect, was usually accompanied by a fine, giving it the form of multiple restoration. This might be double, treble, fourfold, fivefold, sixfold, tenfold, twelvefold, even thirtyfold, according to the enormity of the offence.

The Code recognized the importance of intent. A man who killed another in a quarrel must swear he did not do so intentionally, and was then only fined according to the rank of the deceased. The Code does not say what would be the penalty of murder, but death is so often awarded where death is caused, that we can hardly doubt that the murderer was put to death. If the assault only led to injury and was unintentional, the assailant in a quarrel had to pay the doctor's fees. A brander, induced to remove a slave's identification mark, could swear to his ignorance and was free. The owner of an ox that gored a man on the street was only responsible for damages if the ox was known by him to be vicious — even if it caused death. If the mancipium died a natural death under the creditor's hand, the creditor was scot-free. In ordinary cases, responsibility was not demanded for accident or for more than proper care. Poverty excused bigamy on the part of a deserted wife.

On the other hand, carelessness and neglect were severely punished, as in the case of the unskillful physician, if it led to loss of life or limb, his hands were cut off; a slave had to be replaced, the loss of his eye paid for to half his value; a veterinary surgeon who caused the death of an ox or donkey paid quarter value; a builder, whose careless workmanship caused death, lost his life or paid for it by the death of his child, replaced slave or goods, and in any case had to rebuild the house, or make good any damages due to defective building and repair the defect as well. The boat-builder had to make good on any defect of construction or damage due to it for a year's warranty.

Throughout the Code, respect is paid to status. Suspicion was not enough. The criminal must be taken in the act. A man could not be convicted of theft unless the goods were found in his possession.

The more important cases, especially those involving life and death, were tried by a bench of judges. With the judges were associated a body of elders who shared in the decision, but whose exact function is not yet clear. Agreements, declarations and non-contentious cases were usually witnessed by one judge and twelve elders.

The decision given was embodied in writing, sealed and witnessed by the judges, the elders, witnesses, and a scribe. Women might act in all these capacities. The parties swore an oath, embodied in the document, to observe its stipulations. Each took a copy, and one was held by the scribe to be stored in the archives.

Appeal to the king was allowed and is well attested. The judges at Babylon seem to have formed a superior court to those of provincial towns, but a defendant might elect to answer the charge before the local court, and refuse to plead at Babylon.

Finally, it may be noted that many immoral acts, such as the use of false weights, lying, etc., that could not be brought into court, are severely denounced in the Omen Tablets as likely to bring the offender into "the hand of God" as opposed to "the hand of the king."


  • Hammurabi. The Code of Hammurabi. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2008. ISBN 978-1440481550
  • Landau, Elaine. The Babylonians. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1997. ISBN 0761302166
  • Mack, Rosamund E.; al-Ammah lil-Athar wa-al-Turah, Muassah. The Code of Hammurabi. Baghdad: Ministry of Culture and Information, State Organization of Antiquities and Heritage, 1979. OCLC 60497675
  • Stewart, Zeph. The Ancient World: Justice, Heroism, and Responsibility. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966. ASIN B000OK2FEA
  • Viel, H-Dieter. Code of Hammurabi. Lincom Studies in Asian Linguistics, 2003. ISBN 3895868604
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

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