Hammurabi's Code


Hammurabi was the sixth king of Babylon, inheriting the crown from his father. After defeats in Akkad, Sumer, and other city-states to the south of Babylon, he became the first ruler of the Babylonian empire.

Scholarly estimates of when Hammurabi was born and ruled vary, but it’s estimated that he was born around 1810 BC and ruled from around 1792 BC until his death in 1750 BC. 

This was a period of continuous war and suffering, with kings conquering other city states and ruling with cruelty. Hammurabi is credited with bringing order and fairness to Mesopotamia by establishing laws and ruling with fairness. He also encouraged the study of mathematics, astronomy and literature and worked to improve Babylon’s irrigation system.

Of the many relics have survived from Hammurabi’s reign, the most noted his code of laws, “the Code of Hammurabi.” These 282 laws were written on a large stone of black diorite, nearly eight feet high, and displayed in a public temple where everyone could see them. The stone was discovered in 1901 in Persia, where it was brought after an invasion, and is now on display at the Louvre.

The code contains detailed laws and information, including rates and prices for services and trade. It covers crime and punishment, civil law, family and economic provisions. While much of the penalties were severe and involved punishment by death, most of the laws were humane and protected all citizens of the Babylonian empire, including slaves. They do not include laws about religion or family feuds. The laws are based on the “eye for an eye” principle, with equal retaliation for crimes. For example, the penalty for a builder who constructs a house poorly so that it results in death is to be executed. If a practice results in the death of a child, the builder’s son is to be slain. Removal of hands and other body parts as punishment for striking others is common.

Hammurabi believed that the laws were of divine origin, and stated that he was called upon by the gods to bring law to the people. Engraved on the stone is a picture of the sun god Shamash handing a ring and scepter to Hammurabi.

Hammurabi’s Code was not the first attempt to establish law and order but was one of the most effective. It’s speculated the code influenced later laws, including the Torah, the Law of Moses and other subsequent laws in the area.

For teachers and educators, Hammurabi’s Code is thought to be a useful resource for discussions of Mesopotamian society, laws and government. Many online sources provide guides for teachers, with summaries and key questions. They include:

Other valuable resources for learning more about Hammurabi’s Code and its history, including pictures of the stone and Biblical comparisons, are:

Hammurabi’s Code is a valuable tool for learning about the establishment and evolution of laws and ways in which people learn to govern themselves.

This traffic court directory is happy to host this article about Hammurabi's Code. The connection to Babylon is mildly interesting in that our site has a Babylon Court from the village of that name in Long Island.