Hammarabi’s Law Code Many people may not know it, but they have heard part of Hammurabi’s Law Code before. It is where the fabled “eye-for-an-eye” statement came from. However, this brutal way of enforcing laws was not always the case in ancient Mesopotamia, where Hammurabi ruled. The Laws of Ur-Nammu are much milder and project a greater sense of tolerance in an earlier time. The changing Mesopotamian society dictated this change to a harsher, more defined law that Hammurabi ruled from.
It was the urge to solidify his power in Mesopotamia that led Hammurabi to create his Law Code. It must first be noted that the Laws of Ur-Nammu were written some time around 2100 B.C., around three hundred years before Hammurabi’s Code. Because of this, The Laws of Ur-Nammu are much less defined in translation as well as more incomplete in their discovery. However, it is apparent from the text that these laws were concerned with establishing Mesopotamia as a fair society where equality is inherent. In the prologue before the laws, it is stated that “the orphan was not delivered up to the rich man; the widow was not delivered up to the mighty man; the man of one shekel was not delivered up to the man of one mina.” This set forth that no citizen answered to another, or even that each citizen answered to each other, no matter their wealth, strength, or perceived power.
This distinction of an equal society was important to the growing territory that was Mesopotamia. It allowed each person to feel important to their community because they were not lorded over by a superior class. Also, the sheer amount of different bands of people that made up the initial Mesopotamian society dictated that no distinction between origin or race could be made without destroying the careful balance that was set up. The Laws of Ur-Nammu were also distinct in that most penalties were fines or payments. One law stated that “if someone severed the nose of another man with a copper knife, he must pay two-thirds of a mina of silver.” Another contains that “if a man proceeded by force, and deflowered the virgin slave-woman of another man, that man must pay five shekels of silver.” According to these laws, the crimes of assault and rape were reduced to payment for injury.
Hammurabi’s Code was not nearly as forgiving. While The Laws of Ur-Nammu doled out fines as penalties, Hammurabi’s Code delivered death for many crimes. Hammurabi also has a much different view concerning the treatment of rape: “If a man violate the wife of another man..and sleep with her and be surprised, this man shall be put to death, but the wife is blameless.” Also, assault was no longer punishable by just a fine: “If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.” Death was a sentence for false accusations, theft and robbery, bad construction, kidnapping, as well as many other offenses. By the time of Hammurabi’s rule, Mesopotamia had formed its own identity. While it remained a land where most any person could be accepted, the time for regulating the territory had come.
These laws were just one part of an effort to create an organized nation-state by Hammurabi. After conquering various city-states to secure his rule, he created a new power center in Babylon to keep the supporters of previous power centers at bay. Along with a new capital came a new lead divinity in Marduk, the sky god. He also fortified the cities, making an attack on his rule a much more dangerous task. Additionally, Mesopotamian science subscribed to the theory that listing things as explicitly as possible allowed for control.
Hence, Hammurabi’s Code is very complete, giving exact punishments for exact crimes. It also created exact payments for services rendered. No doubt the severe nature of the Code was to keep the general public in fear of getting out of line, but it also did more. It created social classes that had not been previously recognized. The highest class was the free men, while the lowest were slaves.
An undefined middle class filled in between the two. Violations of a free man were much more severely punished than that of a slave. A law of Hammurabi’s creation best exemplifies this categorization of people: “If anyone strike the body of a man higher in rank than he, he shall receive sixty blows with an ox-whip in public.” No longer was it inherent that each citizen was equal; instead it was fundamental that class distinctions would be made, and that the law would punish accordingly. However, not all laws had changed between the two periods. Both documents subscribed to the notion that the truth would be revealed in the “river-ordeal”, which is best described in Hammurabi’s Code: “If anyone bring an accusation against a man, and the accused go to the river and leap into the river, if he sink in the river his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if the river prove that the accused is not guilty, and he escaped 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 of his accuser.” While such a method of revealing the truth may seem ridiculously harsh today, similar tests occurred only three hundred years ago in the Salem witch hunts in America.
Additionally, both documents agreed that if a woman were to commit adultery, it was punishable by death, while the man escaped without punishment. Even though it had taken three hundred years for class distinctions to arise, distinction between the sexes was apparent long before. Hammurabi needed to create a new law code to help solidify his power in Mesopotamia. Under the old laws, society was too unorganized and too difficult to control for Hammurabi. The ancient Mesopotamian science of listing and creating order was now tested on society.
In the end, Hammurabi considered his law code a great success, proclaiming that “I expounded all great difficulties, I made the light shine upon them.” While there is no doubt Hammurabi exaggerated his claim, he did structure a type of society that lasted much longer than his rule. History.