Code of Hammurabi | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction / Criminal Law

The Code of Hammurabi was a set of laws developed by Babylonian King Hammurabi that date back to the 18th century BC; the earliest written legal code known.

The Code of Hammurabi is one of the earliest known legal codes, developed by Babylonian King Hammurabi around 1754 BC. The code consists of 282 laws that cover a range of topics, including family law, property law, and criminal law. The code is inscribed on a diorite stele and is considered one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the ancient Near East.

The Code of Hammurabi was created in response to the need for a uniform legal system to govern the various territories of the Babylonian Empire. It established a set of laws that applied equally to all citizens, regardless of their social status. The code was written in cuneiform script, which was a form of writing used by the Babylonians, and was displayed in public places throughout the empire so that all citizens could become familiar with the laws.

One of the most notable features of the Code of Hammurabi is its emphasis on the principle of lex talionis, or “an eye for an eye.” The code specifies punishments for various crimes, ranging from fines to mutilation and death. The punishments were designed to fit the crime and were often based on the principle of retribution. For example, a thief who stole food would receive a lesser punishment than a thief who stole a horse.

The Code of Hammurabi also addressed issues related to family law and property law. It established rules for marriage, divorce, and inheritance and provided guidelines for the ownership and transfer of property. The code also established regulations for trade and commerce and provided protections for slaves and other vulnerable groups.

Despite its historical significance, the Code of Hammurabi has been criticized for its harsh punishments and its treatment of women and slaves. Some scholars argue that the code was primarily intended to maintain the power and authority of the Babylonian monarchy rather than to protect the rights of citizens.

The Code of Hammurabi is an important artifact of ancient Near Eastern history and represents one of the earliest known attempts to create a comprehensive legal system. While it has been praised for its emphasis on fairness and equality, it has also been criticized for its harsh punishments and its treatment of vulnerable groups. Nonetheless, the code remains an important example of the development of legal systems and the evolution of human societies.

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Last Modified: 04/10/2023

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