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Near Eastern Antiquities : Mesopotamia

Law Code of Hammurabi, king of Babylon
1792-1750 BC
© R.M.N./H. Lewandowski
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Law Code of Hammurabi, king of Babylon
1792-1750 BC
Susa, Iran
H. 2.25 m; W. 0.65 m
Excavations led by Jacques de Morgan, 1901-2
Sb 8
Near Eastern Antiquities
Interactive floor plans
Claire Iselin (d'ap. Béatrice André-Salvini)
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Law Code of Hammurabi, king of Babylon

The Law Code of Hammurabi is the emblem of the Mesopotamian civilization. This high basalt stele erected by the king of Babylon in the 18th century BC is a work of art, history and literature, and the most complete legal compendium of Antiquity, dating back to earlier than the Biblical laws. Carried there by a prince from the neighboring country of Elam in Iran in the 12th century BC, the monument was exhibited on the Susa acropolis among other prestigious Mesopotamian masterpieces.

A legal tradition

This basalt stele was erected by King Hammurabi of Babylon (1792-1750 BC) probably at Sippar, city of the sun god Shamash, god of justice. Other monuments of this type belonging to a similar tradition were placed in the towns of his kingdom. Two Sumerian legal documents drawn up by Ur-Namma, king of Ur (c. 2100 BC) and Lipit-Ishtar of Isin (c.1930 BC), precede the Law Code of Hammurabi. The Hammurabi Code - the most important legal compendium of the ancient Near East, drafted earlier than the Biblical laws - found its sources in these essays. The text, which occupies most of the stele, constitutes the raison d'être of the monument. The principal scene depicted shows the king receiving his investiture from Shamash. Remarkable for its legal content, this work is also an exceptional source of information about the society, religion, economy, and history of this period.

The content of the Code

The text is written in cuneiform script and the Akkadian language. It is divided into three parts:
- a historical prologue relating the investiture of King Hammurabi in his role as "protector of the weak and oppressed," and the formation of his empire and achievements;
- a lyrical epilogue summing up his legal work and preparing its perpetuation in the future;
- these two literary passages frame a text describing almost three hundred laws and legal decisions governing daily life in the kingdom of Babylon. The legal part of the text uses everyday language and is here simplified, for the king wanted it to be understood by all. However, the legal decisions are all constructed in the same manner: a phrase in the conditional sets out a problem of law or social order; it is followed by a response in the future tense, in the form of the sanction for the guilty party or the settlement of a situation: "Should an individual do such and such a thing, such and such a thing will happen to him or her."
Grouped together in chapters, the issues addressed cover criminal and civil laws. The principal subjects are family law, slavery, and professional, commercial, agricultural and administrative law. Economic measures set prices and salaries. The longest chapter concerns the family, which formed the basis of Babylonian society. It deals with engagement, marriage and divorce, adultery and incest, children, adoption and inheritance, and the duties of children's nannies. Every aspect of each case is addressed, enabling the greatest number of observations to be made.

The significance of the monument

The Law Code of Hammurabi is valuable first and foremost as a model, being a treatise on the exercise of judiciary power in the context of Mesopotamian science, in which the particular never governs the general.
The observation of several similar cases does not establish a general and universal principle, or law. It is not a code of laws in the sense that we understand it today, but rather a compendium of legal precedents. Contradictions and illogicalities (two similar cases causing different results) can be found in the Code, because it deals with particular judgements, from which the most personal elements (the names of the protagonists, for example) have been removed. Because justice was a royal prerogative in Mesopotamia, Hammurabi here sets out a selection of the wisest legal decisions that he had to take or ratify.
This stele was, however, more than an educational tool. It was a code of the rules and prescriptions established by a sovereign authority, and therefore a code of laws. Not only does it contain a list of judicial rulings, but also a catalogue of the towns and territories annexed to the kingdom of Babylon. The stele of the Babylonian king Hammurabi constitutes a summary of one of the most prestigious reigns of ancient Mesopotamia. Executed in the last years of the sovereign's life, it was a political testament aimed at future princes, for whom it offered a model of wisdom and equity. The Code also served as a literary model for the schools of scribes, who were to copy it for over one thousand years.

André-Salvini Béatrice, Le Code de Hammurabi, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, coll. "Solo", 2003.
Bergmann E. S. J., "Codex Hammurabi", in Textus Primigenius, Édition Tertia, Rome, 1953 (autographie).
Drivers G. R., Miles J. C., The Babylonians Laws, Oxford, Clarendon Press, vol. 2, 1952 et 1955.
Finet André, Le Code de Hammurabi, Éditions du Cerf, coll. "Littératures anciennes du Proche-Orient", n 6, Paris, 2002.
Morgan Jacques de, Jéquier Gustave, "Premier royaume susien", in Mémoires de la Délégation en Perse, vol. VII, "Recherches archéologiques", 2e série, Paris, 1905, pp. 28-29, pl. 5.
Roth Martha, Law collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, Scholars Press, Atlanta, 1995.
Scheil Vincent, "Code des lois de Hammurabi (Droit Privé), roi de Babylone, vers l'an 2000 av. J.-C.", in Mémoires de la Délégation en Perse, vol. IV, "Textes élamites et sémitiques", 2e série, Paris, 1902, pp. 111- 162.
Szlechter Émile, Codex Hammurabi, Rome, 1977 (transcription, traduction).
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The appearance of the first towns in Mesopotamia inaugurates the age of city-states. Writing and monumental architecture contributed to the growth of royal power, which fostered the growth of Sumerian art.
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