Code of Hammurabi, BCE
Where is the law, anyway? That’s a surprising question – more typically you might ask what the law is, or perhaps who says so, why it is how it is, how we might change it, but “where”?
Where is the law, anyway? That’s a surprising question – more typically you might ask what the law is, or perhaps who says so, why it is how it is, how we might change it, but “where”? I mean, Google it, or ask a lawyer, or go to a courthouse or library if necessary, but it’s got to be around here somewhere, right?
Even those of us with keen senses of direction can get turned around in complicated spaces, and they don’t come any more complicated than a major museum, to wit the Louvre. So when, after a brisk and toasty whirl through the major sights, our niece said she wanted to find one more thing – not included in our handy guidebook – off we went in search. And search. And search. Maps, guides, apps, other visitors, all were happy to help, though without much effect, so with regret we decided to abandon the hunt and make for the “nearest” exit, apparently some 10 km away. Naturally, when all hope was gone, voila: There it was. And so we ran smack into one of the seminal legal writings of all time, whose motivation and purpose are kinda murky and whose common name is probably misleading, and whose power and influence resonate more than 3 millennia later.
A document that changed the world: A basalt stela, engraved with what is today known as the Code of Hammurabi; now in the Louvre Museum in Paris, about 1754 BCE.
I’m Joe Janes of the University of Washington Information School, and I’m dedicating this episode to Annie Price, who inspired it. When she wanted to find this, naturally I was up for it, expecting – I dunno, tablets of some kind? – having never really given it much thought. I was not expecting a 7+ foot high stela, free standing, tall and narrow, resembling let’s say, a finger, carved from top to bottom, in vertical lines – and not that many people around, compared to the hordes surrounding the Mona Lisa or the Venus de Milo, who’ve had better press. It’s the longest known early Mesopotamian inscription, executed in cuneiform in the Akkadian language in a traditional, even archaic, format, likely calling back to times historic, though written in everyday language, perhaps so that it would be more readily understandable. It was displayed in its time in the city of Sippar, then captured in the 12th century BCE and moved to Susa, where it was rediscovered in 1901 by Gustave Jéquier, and moved to the Louvre, where it now resides in room 227.
I confess my prior knowledge of this was limited to hazy junior-high cradle-of-civilization, Tigris-and-Euphrates memories. Hammurabi’s reign lies smack in the middle of the 300-year First Dynasty of Babylon, and he was involved in the requisite kingly military campaigns, political offensives and conquests. There is much we don’t know about him, including how old he was when he ascended the throne in 1792 BCE, other than during his reign there was a move toward consolidation of city-states into larger political units. He ruled for over 40 years, and this artifact comes from near the end of that reign, at roughly the time of pottery use in Peru, the extinction of the woolly mammoths in Siberia, the end of pyramid building in Egypt, the development of chariots, the composite bow, and tables for solving quadratic equations.
The current common name is somewhat of a misnomer. We begin with a preface establishing the king’s authority and divine calling, “to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak…” Nice thought, still a ways to go there.
Then follows not so much a code of laws in the modern sense as a codification, or recording, of what are often referred to as “edicts,” mostly if/then statements, like No. 22: “If any one is committing a robbery and is caught, then he shall be put to death.” Straightforward enough, though No. 21 is more intriguing: ‘If any one break a hole into a house, he shall be put to death before that hole and be buried.” This feels more specific, a response to an individual event, and there are lots of examples like this, lists of particular circumstances, not abstracted into higher principles, more like case law leading to speculation that these represent individual kingly judicial decisions, including some internal contradictions. (And by the way, who wants an unsuccessful robber buried in your back yard?)
What we have is incomplete, missing Nos. 66-99 of 282 edicts, with erasures likely dating from about 500 years after its creation, perhaps for new inscriptions that were never made. About half deal with contracts, and another chunk with what we would call family law – inheritance, divorce, paternity. Others deal with theft, debt, medical malpractice, even the establishment of a minimum wage. It’s best known, though, as a very early example of what is known as “lex talionis,” the law of retaliation or retribution: No. 195. If a son strike his father, his hands shall be hewn off. No. 196. If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out. No. 197. If he break another man's bone, his bone shall be broken.
If that rings kind of Old Testament, you’re not wrong, though there’s no direct evidence of a link from here to there. It’s worth noting that there are older collections of “laws” going back at least 300 years earlier, all of which share certain characteristics. Some practices have fallen out of favor more recently; judges then who failed to reach a decision could refer the matter to the gods in a trial by ordeal in the river. Hammurabi’s code is among the earliest, however, to incorporate a sense of the presumption of innocence of the accused, and the use of evidence in supporting a case.
Those sound familiar – sadly, so does this: No. 198. If he put out the eye of a freed man, or break the bone of a freed man, he shall pay one gold mina. No. 199. If he put out the eye of a man's slave, or break the bone of a man's slave, he shall pay one-half of its value. Throughout the Code, punishments are explicitly differentiated by social status; the word “wardum” is often translated as “slave” though more likely connotes something between a debtor and an indentured servant – while we can’t precisely transpose their social classes to anything familiar, you get the idea. This class structure is overt and inescapable, as is differentiation by gender (men were permitted affairs with servants and slaves; unfaithful women were drowned in the Euphrates with their lovers). In general, crimes again the state are punished more harshly than those against individuals. I suppose there’s something to be said for this kind of bias to be explicit and overt. As with any society, insight into its legal systems and principles provides insight into broader social structures and norms, in ways later generations might find welcome or repellent.
Other records from the time also suggest a larger legal system of judges, processes, the use of written evidence and witnesses, and a substantial documentary infrastructure: The loser of a case had to give the winner a “tablet of non-complaining” confirming agreement with the decision, and that he won’t raise the issue again.
So – where is the law? It’s right here, in the middle of the town square carved into this giant stone thing, written down for everybody to see, because the king said so and the gods said he could say so. Any other questions?
Given the circumstances, likely not. We don’t, probably can’t, fully know what this was meant to do, or to represent; theories range from an early attempt to lay out something like a constitution to a naked PR move to reinforce royal authority, and it also served as a rhetorical example, copied by scribes, for about 1,000 years. It seems probable it was meant to make some version of “the law” public, written down, visible, literally carved in stone, rather than purely arbitrary or ambiguous, which can simultaneously extend and limit the power of a ruler who gets to make and publish the rules, but then once they’re out he has to abide by them, more or less. Those rules and laws then also reinforce and reify the structures and roles of the society, with a permanence that only basalt, notoriously difficult to edit, can provide.
“Finding the law” is both easier and harder now; search engines pull things up in an instant – though the systems of codifying and organizing legal writing, created to ensure thoroughness, completeness, and authenticity of statutes at multiple governmental levels, court opinions, legal treatises and more, can be complex, especially across jurisdictions and international boundaries. Other barriers can be raised, too; something like 20 US states copyright some part of their legal documentation; in a lawsuit against a public interest group that posted the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, the state referred to the group’s “strategy of terrorism.” Even today, finding “the law” can be difficult, as finding justice still too often remains elusive as well.
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