Babylon is a town located along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Between 1792-1750 BC, it was ruled by King Hammurabi, the sixth ruler commonly named as a great lawgiver. During his reign, there was a considerable growth of the kingdom, which transformed from a city-state into an empire. Hammurabi was often described as a conqueror owing to his success in acquiring cities and states and governing them. The ruler magnified his father’s legacy by upgrading infrastructure and constructing temples, canals, and high walls. He was referred to as the builder of the land. As Brondou states, it is through his ambitions that Hammurabi managed to integrate the fertile lands of Mesopotamia into own empire. Moreover, using alliances and military force, he succeeded in gaining the cities, lands together with their constitutions that prompted the conception of universal Code that would be used to effectively rule the kingdom. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the significance of Hammurabi’s Code and the ways it impacted Babylonian society.
Hammurabi was famous not only for his military conquests but also for establishing the sets of judgment, a symbol of civilisation in Mesopotamia. Ever since the appearance, it was referred to as the Hammurabi’s Code. It was a comprehensive set of laws that provided a reflection of the Babylonian society as a whole. The Code is a sum of 282 written rules that give the guidelines for business interactions and prescribe fines and penalties in order for the justice of the common people and slaves to prevail. Nowadays, the Code is specifically praised for giving details about that time and the life of the Babylonians during the rule of Hammurabi.
The Code is the first written law in history, created in Akkadian, a language spoken in Babylonia. It was chosen for being well-known, recognisable, and relatively easy, which contributed to making people aware of what is required to be done by them as per law. The rules played a significant role in providing the information concerning the society, the history of the time, economy, and religion. It ensured the formation of a stable nation since the Code was written, easily accessible and understood, which guaranteed consistency in the application. In addition, Hammurabi’s Code is important for serving as a basis for the ways in which today’s laws are to be applied as well as the procedure for crime identification and punishment. Finally, the Code is unique since it addresses the issues relating to women who were often ignored by other ancient laws.
The Code was passed at the end of the King’s reign. It was inscribed as cuineiform writing on eight black foot stone stele and clay tablets. The knowledge about the Code was promulgated only after 3600 years upon its emergence because it had been stolen by Elamite invaders and later recovered by an archaeologist of French origin Jean-Vincent Scheil in Iran in 1901. The King of Elamites, Shutruk-Nahunte, managed to erase some parts from the inscription in order to include his own statutes. However, his heinous plans failed, and the Hammurabi’s Code preserved its authenticity despite being incomplete. It was first erected in an ancient Babylonian town, but today it is displayed publicly as a monument in Louvre Museum in Paris.
Hammurabi’s Code was significant because it helped restore justice, righteousness, and fairness to the Babylonians, who had been oppressed by their ancient pagan Kings for a long time. Contrary to the various laws that were variant with each king who ascended the throne, Hammurabi’s Code provided a trial by the means of justice retribution in court enabling a rise above barbaric acts, reduced ignorance in the application of justice, and the promotion of peace. It helped protect the weak from subjugation through shedding light on the Bible, the history of laws, cultural heritage, and the life of the Babylonians. Another feature contributing to the Code’s significance is its universality: it addresses the matters of social, political, and economic nature. Thus, as explained by DiLascio and Tracy, one part of the Hammurabi’s Code is devoted to contractual matters, such as property and commerce, interest, collateral, and debt. Moreover, it stipulates the amount of minimum wage to be paid to different people in the society such as doctors, slaves, and soldiers. Another part of the code gives provisions regarding the liability in agency contracts, which was common given the economic activities of the people. Therefore, it was paramount for the people to exercise due care in executing their daily duties.
The rules mostly concerned the economic life of the Babylonians. The Code governed the duties, rights, and responsibilities of farmers and slaves who were required to plough their plot of land and ensure that canals are appropriately cleaned and repaired. Jegen asserts that negligence on the part of tenants led to liability claims that required compensation for damaged crops. Such a wrongdoing resulted in the farmer being sold into slavery. Substandard work was also punished. For instance, a builder who had constructed house that collapsed and killed the owner’s son was to be killed as well. Due to the King’s conquests of lands aimed at enhancing the empire’s growth, there was a growing number of slaves that were taken as prisoners of war together with their families. Obviously, the state had to govern this aspect to ensure the appropriate treatment of slaves, who were also considered as the property of their masters. The Code was used to institutionalise humane attitude to them to prevent unfair dealings. Since owning them was a thriving business in the time, the loss of people was punishable according to the Code of Hammurabi. In addition, if a barber without prior knowledge of a slave’s master changed the slave sign for the person not to be sold, the hands of the barber were cut off.
A third of the code addressed matters connected with family relationships, ranging from marriage, having children, sexual behaviour to divorce, inheritance, incest, and paternity. Fathers were considered the head of the family. They had legal and customary rights over their children and, thus, could provide the debtors with child labour services or even sell the kids as slaves. Marriage was negotiated by a husband-to-be and a prospective wife’s father. Divorce procedure involved a fee and, consequently, was more attainable to a husband rather than a wife. Incest and adultery committed by the wife were punished by death. These measures helped regulate morality and maintain social order.
According to Jegen, of significant importance is the kind of punishment suggested by the Code with regard to criminal law. The laws instituted unorthodox forms of punishment and often referred to retaliatory justice in line with the principle “an eye for an eye.” A person was punished according to his/her social status in the community. If the representative of the elite class committed a crime against a person with a low social standing, the former was required to pay a certain fee to settle the claims. However, if the contrary happened, the harsher punishment was instituted. Under the system, about 28 crimes that implied death as a penalty are explicitly mentioned. They include adultery, witchcraft, and robbery among others. The punishment frequently did not commensurate with the magnitude of the crime. For instance, a minor crime such as hitting someone was punished by having the offender’s hand chopped. If hard evidence was not available to incriminate the accused, the Code had the means of establishing innocence through “trial by ordeal.” Other parts of the laws set provide the guide for the military and impose the responsibility on officials. Thus, a judge who reached an erroneous decision due to own negligence is bound to be permanently removed from the bench and fined accordingly.
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Hammurabi’s Code set legal precedents and applied procedures that are used in modern judicial rulings. According to the Code, a person is innocent until proven guilty, and the burden of proofing lies solely on the accuser. A failure to provide reasonable evidence against the accused is a capital offence punishable by death. Therefore, such a provision forestalled people from making malicious claims against their adversaries. Consequently, peace and harmonious co-existence prevailed contributing to the stability of the society.
The Code shaped the ways the communities functioned. First, it impacted people in terms of religion. The Code uses the latter to influence people and encourage the wide application of the written laws since they were founded on religious grounds. Such an approach affected many aspects of the society, especially politics. People started to accept Hammurabi’s right to rule and the laws because they believed he was chosen by God, who is a supreme being whose decisions should be revered. Therefore, such an image in eyes of the subordinated made people fear Hammurabi and assisted in enforcing the laws, increasing the territories, and justifying the Code. Today, political leaders follow King Hammurabi’s example when they formulate the policies and lobby for religious leaders’ support to gain wide acceptance and control over people.
Second, the retaliatory justice instituting harsh punishment, which were stipulated in the laws, provided a clear boundary of limits, a comprehensive moral structure, and understanding of the consequences, should the laws be violated. The morals of the society were enhanced by the severe punishments that deterred such intolerable acts as murder, incest, infidelity, and theft. This strict regulation emerged when lawlessness prevailed and there was no clear structure of handling offences. Thus, Hammurabi’s Code ensured understanding of punishment by demonstrating that after a theft, a person loses the arm, which he/she used to steal. Everyone became aware of what should or should not be done and why something was prohibited worldwide.
The Code negatively impacted the society because these harsh rules instigated fear and led to a further class distinction. Punishments for the elite and lower class were disproportionate: those for the elite were not heavy while the poor were unable to avoid a severe penalty. Moreover, if the case involved the conflict of elite versus elite, equal punishment was given. However, a low-class individual’s wrongdoing against the elite was heavily penalized. The difference in the magnitude of punishment between the social classes resulted in the uneven power balance. There existed the idea that some people had an express right and authority to overstep the laws by virtue of their social status, which is wrong. Everything worked in favour of the elite because they were literate, powerful, and, thus, privileged to manipulate circumstances, and interpret the laws at own advantage. Consequently, the poor are subjugated, which led to further widening of the gap between the rich and the poor.
This class distinction set an unreachable limit to move up the social ladder, and the poor remained poor. However, it is argued that the fee that the elite had to pay to the poor for the crime committed cushioned the disadvantaged economically. On the other hand, when the latter made a misdemeanor and had no money to pay, they served the elite to be exonerated from their wrongdoing. It was a way of offering protection to all classes in the society, specifically the poor and the marginalised such as widows and orphans, from exploitation. The Code defended everyone equally despite the severity of some punishments.
The impact of the Code on the lives of women is obvious. Patriarchal authority in the culture of the Babylonians in matters of marriage, family relationship, and settling debt was emphasised. Moreover, women were categorised as the property and given the same title as the one the slaves had. It is evident from the sale of children or wife in case a man failed to meet debt claims. Despite women being considered property, they were protected from abuse and restriction placed on dowry use. The females knew how to initiate divorce procedures and obtain legal protection from the authority of men. Women could not own property or a business but could inherit them after the husband dies. Hence, they were allowed to transact businesses after inheritance. In case a woman is accused of adultery and found innocent, she was required to leave her husband and take her dowry along with her.
The Code was an instrument to regulate morality and maintain social order. The government had jurisdiction to regulate immoral behaviour or enforce laws relating to such crimes as adultery and incest through intervening in private family matters. Punishment for these crimes was particularly harsh for women. They were excommunicated from the society and left with the dowry returned to them. It fostered faithfulness, which is the foundation any functional relationship. Besides, in such a way, fewer children were born out of wedlock. In addition, through punishing serious crimes by death, the king managed to make people attach great value to life. In most countries today, capital punishment has been abolished, and criminals’ lives are spared. The Code, however, prescribed death for death, which is not applicable today due to a great value given even to the life of an offender, meaning that “two wrongs do not make a right.” Therefore, death penalties do not constitute a part of today’s legal framework even though they positively influenced the society of Babylonians.
It is important to acknowledge the value of the structure such as the Hammurabi’s Code in societies in general. The Hammurabi’s Code is one of the legal sets used in ancient times to provide guidelines on crime identification with the punishment accorded to a certain crime. The penalties differed depending on the social status and gender disposition of a person. Thus, decision to steal, murder, damage property or insubordination had prohibitive consequences and were addressed accordingly. The governing bodies or individuals created the Code to regulate the communities, prevent anarchy, and ensure that there is room for just and fair dealings. It was done with an aim of guaranteeing equality within the specified jurisdiction and avoiding conflicts of interest between different factions of the society. Hammurabi’s Code perfectly fulfilled this purpose within the Babylonian society and beneficially influenced it.
In conclusion, Hammurabi’s Code played a significant role in stabilizing the society, encouraging good morals, protecting the weak and vulnerable such as women and orphans who had few rights from exploitation. This set of laws put an emphasis on the value of life and helped positively influence the understanding of the social, cultural, political, and economic aspects of the life. Fostering respect for human rights, the Code enabled the society to function efficiently and provided safeguards to a peaceful co-existence.