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Code of Hammurabi
Code of Hammurabi, collection of the laws and edicts of the Babylonian king Hammurabi, and the earliest legal code known in its entirety. A copy of the code was unearthed by a team of French archaeologists during the winter of 1901 to 1902 at Susa, in a part of Iran that was once ancient Elam. The code was engraved on a block of black basalt that is 2.25 m (7 ft 5 in) in height. The block, broken in three pieces, has been restored and is now in the Louvre in Paris.
The divine origin of the written law is emphasized by a bas-relief in which the king is depicted receiving the code from the sun god, Shamash. The quality most usually associated with this god is justice. The code is set down in horizontal columns of cuneiform writing: 16 columns of text on the main side and 28 on the back. The text begins with a prologue that explains the extensive restoration of the temples and religious cults of Babylonia and Assyria.
The code itself, composed of 28 paragraphs, seems to be a series of amendments to the common law of Babylonia, rather than a strict legal code. It begins with direction for legal procedure and the statement of penalties for unjust accusations, false testimony, and injustice done by judges; then follow laws concerning property rights, loans, deposits, debts, domestic property, and family rights. The sections covering personal injury indicate that penalties were imposed for injuries sustained through unsuccessful operations by physicians and for damages caused by neglect in various trades. Rates are fixed in the code for various forms of service in most branches of trade and commerce.
The Code of Hammurabi contains no laws having to do with religion. The basis of criminal law is that of equal retaliation, comparable to the Semitic law of “an eye for an eye.” The law offers protection to all classes of Babylonian society; it seeks to protect the weak and the poor, including women, children, and slaves, against injustice at the hands of the rich and powerful.
The code is particularly humane for the time in which it was declared; it attests to the law and justice of Hammurabi’s rule. It ends with an epilogue glorifying the mighty works of peace executed by Hammurabi and explicitly states that he had been called by the gods “to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil.” He describes the laws in his compilation as enabling “the land to enjoy stable government and good rule,” and he states that he had inscribed his words on a pillar in order “that the strong may not oppress the weak, that justice may be dealt the orphan and the widow.” Hammurabi counsels the downtrodden in these ringing words: “Let any oppressed man who has a cause come into the presence of my statue as king of justice, and have the inscription on my stele read out, and hear my precious words, that my stele may make the case clear to him; may he understand his cause, and may his heart be set at ease!”
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