Assignment 2: Essay – Document Analysis of Codex Hammurabi


King Hammurabi of Babylon is best known as the author of one of the first law codex. He had the law codex (about 300 laws + epilogue and prologue) inscribed on a large black diorite stele (see image), which is the reason that it survived the course of time. The curious thing about the law code of Hammurai is that contemporary court documents from Babylonia make no reference to it. Writing and record keeping was already fully established in Mesopotamia including keeping records of trials.  This is particularly surprising, as laws and collection of laws (e.g. the constitution) are at the core of our justice systems and are designed to guide judges in their adjudication of cases. Lawyers also use laws and presidencies to argue their case either defending or prosecuting.

The Hammurabi Stele (Louvre, Paris)


Please read the epilogue by king Hammurabi in which he describes his motivation to write the law code. Please also read the sample of laws that I have provided carefully. Based on your reading of the ancient documents, envision yourself as a scholar of Babylonian law who is giving a lecture to an interested lay audience. In your essay discuss in 300-500 words (no less no more) the following question from the audience.

  1. A) What could be the reason for writing the law code, if it is not “used” in legal practice? For this question rely and make reference to the epilogue in which Hammurabi describes his motivation but also dare to offer your own suggestion. If you use quotes from the epilogue to support your argument, make sure to put it into quotation marks.
  2. B) From the information in the ancient documents that are provided, what do we learn about this ancient judicial system and what information are we missing to fully describe how the justice system of the time of Hammurabi worked. Ask yourself what information would I need to understand how this ancient judicial system worked. This exercise is designed for you to engage with the incomplete nature of our data based on which we reconstruct ancient history.

The Ancient Documents:

The Epilogue of the Codex of King Hammurabi

LAWS of justice which Hammurabi, the wise king, established. A righteous law and pious statute did he teach the land. Hammurabi, the protecting king am I. I have not withdrawn myself from the men, whom Bel [god] gave to me, the rule over whom Marduk [god] gave to me, I was not negligent, but I made them a peaceful abiding-place. I expounded all great difficulties, I made the light shine upon them. With the mighty weapons which Zamama [god] and Ishtar [goddess] entrusted to me, with the keen vision with which Ea [god] endowed me, with the wisdom that Marduk gave me, I have uprooted the enemy above and below (in north and south), subdued the earth, brought prosperity to the land, guaranteed security to the inhabitants in their homes; a disturber was not permitted. The great gods have called me, I am the salvation-bearing shepherd, whose staff is straight, the good shadow that is spread over my city; on my breast I cherish the inhabitants of the land of Sumer and Akkad; in my shelter I have let them repose in peace; in my deep wisdom have I enclosed them. That the strong might not injure the weak, in order to protect the widows and orphans, I have in Babylon the city where Anu [god] and Bel [god] raise high their head, in E-Sagil, the Temple, whose foundations stand firm as heaven and earth, in order to bespeak justice in the land, to settle all disputes, and heal all injuries, set up these my precious words, written upon my memorial stone, before the image of me, as king of righteousness.

The king who ruleth among the kings of the cities am I. My words are well considered; there is no wisdom like unto mine. By the command of Shamash [god], the great judge of heaven and earth, let righteousness go forth in the land. By the order of Marduk [god], my lord, let no destruction befall my monument. In E-Sagil [temple], which I love, let my name be ever repeated; let the oppressed, who has a case at law, come and stand before this my image as king of righteousness; let him read the inscription, and understand my precious words. The inscription will explain his case to him; he will find out what is just, and his heart will be glad, so that he will say:

“Hammurabi is a ruler who is as a father to his subjects, who holds the words of Marduk [god] in reverence, who has achieved conquest for Marduk [god] over the north and south, who rejoices the heart of Marduk [god], his lord, who has bestowed benefits for ever and ever on his subjects, and has established order in the land.”

When he reads the record, let him pray with full heart to Marduk[god] my lord, and Zarpanit [goddess], my lady, and then shall the protecting deities and the gods, who frequent E-Sagil [temple], graciously grant the desires daily presented before Marduk [god], my lord, and Zarpanit [goddess], my lady.

In future time, through all coming generations, let the king, who may be in the land, observe the words of righteousness which I have written on my monument; let him not alter the law of the land which I have given, the edicts which I have enacted; my monument let him not mar. If such a ruler have wisdom, and be able to keep his land in order, he shall observe the words which I have written in this inscription; the rule, statute, and law of the land which I have given; the decisions which I have made will this inscription show him; let him rule his subjects accordingly, speak justice to them, give right decisions, root out the miscreants and criminals from this land, and grant prosperity to his subjects.

Hammurabi, the king of righteousness, on whom Shamash [god] has conferred right (or law) am I. My words are well considered; my deeds are not equaled– to bring low those that were high, to humble the proud, to expel insolence. If a succeeding ruler considers my words, which I have written in this my inscription, if he do not annul my law, nor corrupt my words, nor change my monument, then may Shamash [god] lengthen that king’s reign, as he has that of me, the king of righteousness, that he may reign in righteousness over his subjects. If this ruler do not esteem my words, which I have written in my inscription, if he despise my curses and fear not the curse of God, if he destroy the law which I have given, corrupt my words, change my monument, efface my name, write his name there, or on account of the curses commission another so to do, that man, whether king or ruler, […], or commoner, no matter what he be, may the great God (Anu), the Father of the gods, who has ordered my rule, withdraw from him the glory of royalty, break his scepter, curse his destiny . . . May Nin-karak, the daughter of Anu [god], who adjudges grace to me, cause to come upon his members […] high fever, severe wounds, that can not be healed, whose nature the physician does not understand, which he can not treat with dressing, which, like the bite of death, can not be removed, until they have sapped away his life.

May he lament the loss of his life-power, and may the great gods of heaven and earth, the Anunaki [assembly of gods], altogether inflict a curse and evil upon the confines of the temple, the walls of this E-barra [Sun temple of Sippara], upon his dominion, his land, his warriors, his subjects, and his troops. May Bel [god] curse him with the potent curses of his mouth that can not be altered, and may they come upon him forthwith.

Sample of law codes:

  • 196 If a man put out the eye of another man his eye shall be put out. (An eye for an eye)
  • 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 therefore; 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.
  • 15. If any one receive into his house a runaway male or female slave of the court, or of a freedman, and does not bring it out at the public proclamation of the major domus, the master of the house shall be put to death.
  • 53. If any one be too lazy to keep his dam in proper condition, and does not so keep it; if then the dam break and all the fields be flooded, then shall he in whose dam the break occurred be sold for money, and the money shall replace the corn which he has caused to be ruined.
  • 108 If a tavern-keeper (feminine) does not accept corn according to gross weight in payment of drink, but takes money, and the price of the drink is less than that of the corn, she shall be convicted and thrown into the water.
  • 110 If a “sister of god” open a tavern, or enter a tavern to drink, then shall this woman be burned to death.
  • 137 If a man wish to separate from a woman who has borne him children, or from his wife who has borne him children: then he shall give that wife her dowry, and a part of the usufruct of field, garden, and property, so that she can rear her children. When she has brought up her children, a portion of all that is given to the children, equal as that of one son, shall be given to her. She may then marry the man of her heart.

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