Ancient Laws

Around 1780 BC, King Hammurabi (1810-1750 BC) the sixth king of Babylon who reigned from 1792 to 1750 and the first king of the Babylonian Empire, extended Babylon’s control over Mesopotamia by winning a series of wars against neighboring kingdoms.  Hammurabi is known for the set of laws called Hammurabi’s Code, one of the first written codes of law and most complete surviving guide in recorded history.  The Hammurabi code of laws, a collection of 282 rules, established standards for commercial interactions and set fines and punishments to meet the requirements of justice.  Hammurabi’s Code was written in the Akkadian language and carved onto a massive, finger-shaped black stone stele (pillar) which was a single, four-ton slab of diorite, a durable but incredibly difficult stone for carving.  The stele was placed outside the temple of Marduk, the national god of Babylonia.

Many of these laws were indirectly related to water such as, “If a [woman wine-seller] does not accept grain according to gross weight in payment of drink, but takes money, and the price of the drink is less than that of the grain, she shall be convicted and thrown into the water.  If a man’s wife be surprised [having intercourse] with another man, both shall be tied and thrown into the water, but the husband may pardon his wife and the king his slaves.  If the ‘finger is pointed’ at a man’s wife about another man, but she is not caught sleeping with the other man, she shall jump into the river for [the sake of her] husband.  If she is not innocent, but leaves her husband, and ruins her house, neglecting her husband, this woman shall be cast into the water.”

This practice was known as trial by ordeal which has been commonplace in many cultures.  It was believed that the Euphrates River would act as judge of people accused of various crimes.  If, when thrown into the river, the accused floated, she was considered innocent, however if she sank, the river had found her guilty.  If anyone brings an accusation against a man, and the accused goes to the river and leaps into the river, if he sinks in the river his accuser shall take possession of his house.  But if the river proves that the accused is not guilty, and he escapes unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death, while he who leaped into the river shall take possession of the house that had belonged to his accuser.

Hammurabi’s Code provides some of the earliest examples of the doctrine of “lex talionis”, or the laws of retribution, sometimes better known as “an eye for an eye”, which decided that punishment for someone committing an injury should be dealt with in the same manner as that injury.  Some things in the Code of Hammurabi were very cruel and deceiving, while other things were fair and righteous.  If a man was in debt and was unable to pay his creditors, he was to sell his wife, son, or daughter, or bind them over to service.  Many harsh punishments, sometimes demanded the removal of the guilty party’s tongue, hands, breasts, eye or ear for doing certain crimes, but this code is also gave us one of the earliest examples of an accused person being considered innocent until they were proven guilty.  The code contains about 300 laws that discuss a wide range of subjects, including homicide, assault, divorce, debt, adoption, tradesman’s fees, agricultural practices, and even disputes regarding the brewing of beer.  Hammurabi is remembered as a pioneering lawgiver who worked in the words of his monument “to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak and to see that justice is done to widows and orphans.”

2 thoughts on “Ancient Laws

  1. A good post. But one thing is certain it’s not fair to call contemporary laws of yesteryears moral or immoral as they were enacted based on contemporary understanding of society which to say the least was different then the modern one.


  2. Would it be appropriate to say that they were moral or immoral according to the time period for which they were written? Why would you want ‘to say the least’ about laws that were enacted based on contemporary understanding of society because of course that would be different from how we view things today? Thanks for dropping by and leaving your thoughts about this subject which nobody else seems to care about.


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