What is the Code of Hammurabi?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Code of Hammurabi is one of the few existing examples of an ancient legal code. Although it is not the oldest example of a set of laws, it is one of the better known documents from the Ancient World, and many of the principles spelled out in the document appear in modern legal codes. At one time, many copies existed, but only one has survived to the modern day. For people who would like to see the Code of Hammurabi in person, it is on display at the Louvre in Paris.

The Code of Hammurabi can be seen in the Louvre in Paris.
The Code of Hammurabi can be seen in the Louvre in Paris.

This document was created by King Hammurabi, a Babylonian king who has inevitably become famous because of his legal code. It was copied by his order around in the 17th century BCE onto a series of stelae, large slabs of rock into which the code was carved. The surviving copy also includes a decorative statue, and presumably this ornament was also included on other copies of the code, which would have been distributed to Babylonian temples to make them accessible to the populace.

The Babylonian King Hammurabi created the legal code that bears his name.
The Babylonian King Hammurabi created the legal code that bears his name.

The text of the Code of Hammurabi includes an introduction and an epilogue that bracket 282 laws. Some of the writing has been obscured with time, but many of the laws remain readable. Many modern readers would probably be shocked by the severity of some of the laws, such as the one which prescribes death for robbers, but the code also set a precedent for presuming innocence and for the presentation of evidence in legal trials.

It is highly likely that the Code of Hammurabi influenced other legal codes in the region, and since many of these codes in turn developed into legal systems that influenced European law, the widely-used common law system owes some credit to the code. The existing example was discovered, incidentally, in 1901, at an archaeological site that included an assortment of plundered items.

Hammurabi undoubtedly set his code in stone with the expectation that it would endure for centuries, and that it would be viewed as immutable. His descendants were unable to control the kingdom, legal code or not, and the region slipped into chaos, with numerous competing kingdoms vying for supremacy. The code lived on, however, and it was adopted by the people who conquered the region. Hammurabi himself is depicted in numerous courtrooms all over the world, thanks to his fame as a maker of laws.

The Code of Hammurabi came out of what is now modern Iraq.
The Code of Hammurabi came out of what is now modern Iraq.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Bottom line is that these codes pretty much confirm that old testament, Bible and Koran were all written by power hungry men who wanted to set up laws and a system to control the masses, but they added the whole "God" concept to make it sound more legit.

It's kind of funny how 1700BC tablets from this code are well preserved in some museums, but yet the so called "Ten Commandments" are nowhere to be found.

"130. If a man violate the wife (betrothed or child-wife) of another man, who has never known a man, and still lives in her father's house, and sleep with her and be surprised, this man shall be put to death, but the wife is blameless."

Compare the above quote with Deut 22:13-29


Hammurabi was so unfair. He just wanted people to die. He was probably scared that the people would go against him.


@ddljohn - I wonder if some of these laws weren’t meant to scare people into behaving more than being an actual method of discernment or punishment.

I mean, a person is going to think twice about stealing if he is going to get thrown in a river for it, and a person is going to think really hard before falsely accusing someone if he has a chance at getting killed over it.

I think of it sort of like when King Solomon in the Bible offered to cut a baby in half so that two women who claimed to be the child’s mother could have a piece of the baby. The real mother immediately stepped forward to give the child to the other woman, while the false mother was satisfied with King Solomon's harsh answer.

Of course, King Solomon had no intention of butchering the child. He was deciphering who the real mother was.

I don't know for a fact that this is the case with the hammurabis code, but I wonder if that isn't the case. Otherwise, I hope those folks knew how to swim!


It is truly an amazing learning experience to take a look back into the past and see how people used to live. Could you imagine going for literally your whole life more or less governing yourself, and then suddenly this King Hammurabi decides that you need to have a code to live by?

I can imagine that with some this went over very well – I mean they were at least a little bit protected. But I would also think that there were a whole host of folks who completely rebelled because they had been doing fine to begin with.


I'm doing an assignment for class and the assignment is finding out about life in Babylon from the Code of Hammurabi.

I read the code for this assignment and learned a lot about what Babylonians did for a living, some of their foods and even about their currency. I found out that there was a lot of theft and robbery there, many of the crimes mentioned in the Code are about these. There was also slavery and men had to join the army if there was a war.

The Babylonians mainly farmed for a living. They grew corn and sesame and usually paid their fees and debts with these grains. There were also many skilled workers, artisans and masons. The Code of Hammurabi has set wages for each of these professions. Workers and goods were paid with "ka" and "gerah," their currencies.

I also found out that Babylonians believed that the number 13 was unlucky as well! It's obvious because there is no 13th law in the Code.

I really liked this assignment, I didn't know that it was possible to learn so much about people from their laws! I learned a lot about the Babylonians from the Code of Hammurabi.


@ddljohn – I think that we are undoubtedly going to be considered just as backward to future generations as we think some antiquated cultures were. However, we are all inhibited with what we have been taught and that shades all of the laws and customs of our culture.

I’m a little suspicious that future generations will look back on us as frivolous and wasteful. We pay athletes and actors millions for their services, but we can’t manage the money which keeps our country afloat.

We are all working a gazillion hours so that we can have more than our parents did; but really, what was wrong with what many of our parents had?

The Hammurabi laws certainly does look severe to us, but it probably had to be. And, of course, I don’t agree with the way all of those decrees went down, but I certainly don’t agree with many outcomes in our judicial system today either. If anything, we are too lenient.


We can't expect the Code of Hammurabi to exactly match our present worldview, morals and laws. Of course there are going to be many differences.

I think more than the actual laws in the Code, the system of law which Hammurabi established is truly amazing and really the first until that time. The major legal concepts in the Code are also very similar to our legal system today. So I agree with the article that it is one of the basis for common law.

For example, Hammurabi's code establishes that legal cases be decided by a judge, who listens to the parties, their claims and views any evidence. There is a lot of responsibility placed on the judge. If the judge were to make a mistake in the ruling because he did not carry out his duties right, he would be fined and could not judge cases any more.

I think this is really impressive considering that this is an ancient code and was established in a different kind of society. I would have expected a more authoritarian type of legal system where the decision maker could not even be questioned for his decision. But the Code proved me wrong because even the judge is open to questioning and punishment, showing us that Hammurabi did not consider anyone to be above law. This is also very important for our modern legal system, so I'm really impressed with the Code of Hammurabi and how it was ahead of its time in many ways.


Reading the code of Hammurabi, not only do some of the punishments seem too severe, but some of the laws seem so illogical for today.

The funniest law, which I'm sure was not at all funny at that time, is a law which tests the innocence of a person by making him jump into the river. So if someone accuses someone else of a crime, the accused is required to jump in the river. If he sinks in the river, then he is considered guilty and the accuser is rewarded with the accused man's house. If he doesn't sink in the river, then he is considered not guilty and as a reward, he is given the accuser's house. And the man who accused him is punished with death!

I realize that they are trying to make a distinction between guilty and not guilty, but what a way to prove it! In Babylon, there must have been a belief about rivers and water judging innocence well. But reading the law with today's thinking, it basically means that those who can swim are considered innocent and those who can't swim, guilty!

I wonder if in the very far future, would people look back at our laws and find it awkward as well?

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