Many of our laws are based on ancient texts that have been passed down through the centuries. One example is the Code of Hammurabi, which provides a basis for our civil court system. Hammurabi was a Babylonian king who reigned between the years 1792 to 1750 B.C. During his reign; he created his code or a collection of 282 laws that identified crimes and set out the proper punishments for each offense.
Since paper had not yet been invented, Hammurabi carved his code into a towering pillar of black stone. The pillar was stolen by looters and was thought lost forever until rediscovered in 1901.
Jacques de Morgan unintentionally rediscovered the Code of Hammurabi during an archaeological dig in Persia. The excavation took place at the Elamite capital of Susa, which is more than 250 miles from the site of the location of the Babylonian king’s empire. Jacques de Morgan, who was in charge of the dig, identified the significant find, even though the stone pillar had been broken into three sections. It’s implied that Elamite king Shutruk-Nahhunte had confiscated the pillar and had taken it home to Susa as a prize.
Once recovered, the pieces were packed away and shipped to the Louvre museum in Paris, France, where the writing could be translated. Once the translation was completed, we discovered that the Code of Hammurabi was one of the earliest legal codes to have been recorded in writing. Additionally, it closely mimics the laws established in the Hebrew Old Testament of the Christian bible. The importance of this discovery is immortalized on the walls of the U.S. Supreme Court building, where the likeness of Hammurabi is carved into marble alongside other noteworthy lawmakers of the past.
The pillar upon which Hammurabi carved his code is made out of diorite, a stone that is notoriously hard to carve. The Babylonian king may have chosen this material because it’s also very durable and he likely wanted the laws preserved for generations. The top of the pillar features a carving of the god of justice, Shamash, handing the code to Hammurabi.
The laws are comprised of legal precedents collected throughout the reign of Hammurabi and carved into the pillar for posterity. The code establishes crimes and punishments in a way that offers retribution for victims. For instance, stealing an ox requires the thief to repay the owner of the ox three times the animal’s value.
Punishments were separated according to class. Depending on whether you owned property, were a freedman, or a slave, different disciplines applied. A property owner might have to pay 10 shekels, while a freedman might pay just 5 shekels, and a slave would only pay 2 shekels as penance.
While our laws have changed to provide imprisonment and financial restitution instead of corporal punishment, the Code of Hammurabi is still essential to our criminal justice system. It shows us how legal systems were born and provides basic principles that are still supported by the legal system today. Rediscovering the Code of Hammurabi has given us a look at our past and shows us how far we have advanced.