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Hammurabi’s Code, Annotated Bibliography Example

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Annotated Bibliography

Laws governing private, public and political life were written up in early times by Emperor Hammurabi who is the best known and celebrated king of Mesopotamia.  His reign of the Babylonian Empire provided order in his kingdom though at the time the Code was developed the kingdom was very small.  The discovery of the Code of Hammurabi in 1902 was very important because it provided an insight into early forms of justice.  Also, it gave researchers the possibility to compare the Code with the modern legal system.  Even though the punishments were very harsh as compared to modern ones and even though the laws made distinctions between different classes, the code was very advanced and represented the basis of future systems of law.

Hammurabi’s Code consisted of 282 total laws.  The “Code” deals with a class of persons devoted to the service of a god, as vestals or hierodules (Halsall).  Hammurabi’s Code covered topics such as property, loans, housing, slaves, herds and flocks, debt, trade, repayments, marriages, matters with children, criminal actions, and death to name a few.  The basic principles of the laws were retribution in kind and the sanctity of contracts.  Hammurabi’s Code illustrates retaliation as a common form of punishment. However, as C.H.W. Johns, shows, this is not a crude retaliation law, because “composition is allowed in many cases, and injuries are appraised on a regular sliding scale. Also, one does not have to forget that the laws of the “Code” cannot be compared to our own laws and principles, because our legal system is the result of a long process of development that started with the Code of Hammurabi (Kelly 557).

Besides the law of retaliation, the “Code” also establishes the death penalty for many crimes, such as stealing. Stealing was regulated according to the statute of the thief and of the victim, so not all robberies were punished the same. This Code establishes the punishment of death if anything is taken from a temple or the court.  It does not address property being stolen by a free or common man.  Code 8 “If any one steal cattle or sheep, or an ass, or a pig or a goat, if it belong to a god or to the court, the thief shall pay thirtyfold; if they belonged to a freed man of the king he shall pay tenfold; if the thief has nothing with which to pay he shall be put to death” (Halsall).  Again, a different punishment was given to stealing if anything was taken from a god or court verses a freed man and this was if the thief could pay anything at all.  It may seem unfair that people were punished differently depending on their statute, but Hammurabi’s empire was very stratified.  It may also seem too harsh to punish stealing with death, but this punishment was still practiced in America at the beginning of the 20th century, for horse stealing (Johns 259). This shows that the Hammurabi Code was not worse, in the humane character of the laws, than the legislation of countries which appeared thousands of years after it.

As in all societies at that time, and since then, women were inferior to men in the society.  A couple examples that deal with women and marriage are: Code 128: “If a man takes a woman to wife, but has no intercourse with her, this woman is no wife to him” (Halsall).  Code 143: “If she is not innocent, but leaves her husband, and ruins her house, neglecting her husband, this woman shall be cast into the water.”  (Halsall). Code 170: “If his wife bear sons to a man, or his maid servant have borne sons, and the father while still living says to the children whom his maid servant has borne: “My sons,” and he count them with the sons of his wife; if then the father die, then the sons of the wide and of the maid-servant shall divide the paternal property in common.  The son of the wife is to partition and choose” (Halsall).  In these examples it is appears the husband had more say of the home, what happened with his wife, and that it was acceptable he had a mistress.  However, the legislation did give  certain rights to women, and Joseph Kelly even argues that the concern for women in Hammurabi’s Code is higher than it was customary at the time (557). This is proved by codes such as 142:

“If a woman quarrel with her husband, and say: “You are not congenial to me,” the reasons for her prejudice must be presented. If she is guiltless, and there is no fault on her part, but he leaves and neglects her, then no guilt attaches to this woman, she shall take her dowry and go back to her father’s house”( Halsall)

The code above establishes the fact that women too have rights, especially, the right to divorce their husbands. For the justice it makes to women in a period when women’s rights were not a concern, the “Code” is a legal system before its time.  This is also proved by the laws concerning criminal activities.

The Code also provided several laws pertaining to criminal actions.  Some examples are in Code 195: “If a son strikes his father his hands shall be hewn off” (Halsall).  Code 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” (Halsall).  Code 205: “If a freed man strike the body of a freed man, his ear shall be cut off” (Halsall).  What is important is that inculpates were given the presumption of not-guilty, which is an amazing right. They were judged fairly, with witnesses, and if the judge made the wrong decision, he was fined and removed from the bench (Code 5, Halsall). Owen Jenkins (333) illustrates the practice of killing a murderer’s child in retaliation when a child was murdered. He explains that, only a modern man would think about the injustice of punishing an innocent for the deed of the father, whereas in those times, for the father of the victim it was air enough and also, the individual was not important, but the family itself, and the community were important.

In each of these examples again it shows the freed man is held to a different punishment level than of others and in some sense the eye for an eye foundation of Hammurabi’s Code.  Specifically in Code 199 referencing slaves; clearly a slave had little importance in this time period.  Not only in this law was the “slave” referred to as “it’s”; but you pay half the price of the slave for the injury caused.  Whereas in Code 205, striking the body of a freed man physical harm was done to the offender.

The Hammurabi Code is interesting to say the least.  A set of laws made in a time period where specifically status played a huge and direct part as to the punishment (if any) was received but also gender.  In this time, lawyers did not exist and the justice of the people was at the hand of the king and others viewed in power such as gods and courts.  The Hammurabi Code represented a crucial document through which the Emperor demonstrated his sense of justice, and which stands today as an example of equity and fairness.

Sources

Kelly, Joseph. “The Fascinating Code of Hammurabi: Wow! I Didn’t Know That!” The History Teacher 28.4, (1995):555-562. Web.

Jenkins, Owen. “Code of Hammurabi Compared with American Law”. American Law Review, 39, (1904):330.

Johns, C.H.W. “The Code of Hammurabi”. The Expository Times, 14.6, (1903):257-258.Web.

Halsall, Paul. “Ancient History Sourcebook”. Fordham University. The Jesuit University of New York. N.p., 03 1998. Web. 1/27/13. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/hamcode.asp

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