Previous page  
List of subjects |  Sources |  Feedback 

Share |

Discover in a free
daily email today's famous
history and birthdays

Enjoy the Famous Daily

The stele of Hammurabi: c.1750 BC

The laws of Hammurabi, inscribed on a famous stele discovered in 1901, cover all aspects of Babylonian life. There are three social classes, the third of which are the slaves. But even slaves in Babylon are allowed to own property; and a male slave can marry a free woman (their children are born free).

Houses and land may be either owned (and passed on to heirs) or rented, but a large proportion of the available land is owned by the king. On it he settles officials and soldiers to do his business.

Contracts of all kinds are closely regulated. They include contracts between travelling salesmen, working the region with caravans of pack asses, and the merchants in the cities from whom they receive their goods; contracts between the many groups involved in water transport on the rivers and canals of Mesopotamia; contracts of marriage (which must be written to be legal) and arrangements for other family matters.

A father is the owner of his children. He can hire them out to work, even sell them, and he has the right to arrange their marriages.

A bride's dowry remains her own property, but her husband can divorce her at any time as long as he provides the necessities of life for her and the children. A barren wife may be expected to provide her husband with a concubine for the purpose's of getting children for the family (but adoption is also a familiar aspect of life). The penalty for adultery is death by drowning; a husband, however, can pardon his wife, and if he does so the king may pardon her lover.

The code has much to say on medical matters, listing in particular the Rewards and penalties for a doctor undertaking surgery with his bronze operating knife.

A slip of the knife can lead to alarming penalties - though much reduced if the patient is a slave.

The criminal law depends largely on the ancient tradition of appropriate retaliation. If a son uses his right hand to strike his father, the son's offending hand will be cut off. The punishment seems even less appropriate when the principle is carried further. If a builder negligently causes the death of a householder's son, it is the builder's son who will be killed in retaliation.

Capital punishment is common for a wide range of crimes, and it takes many forms - death on a gibbet, on a stake, by drowning, by fire. Even so, the Code of Hammurabi is more lenient than has been the custom with earlier lawgivers in Mesopotamia.

Previous page