The code of Hammurabi containing 282 laws is one of the oldest written laws codes in the world. They were carved into massive, finger-shaped, black stone stele and dates back to 1754 BC. It was looted and later rediscovered by a team of French archaeologists in Susa, Iraq. It is now placed in Louvre, Paris.
The code followed the principle of lex talionis, the law of retributive justice where the criminal gets punishment equal to the one they inflicted on the victim i.e., “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. But the codes were not based on equality; there were stratification and differences in punishments based on class and gender.
The code was promulgated by King Hammurabi of Babylon, who ruled over much of Mesopotamia from 1792 to 1750 BC. As his empire expanded, he found it difficult to administer a large and diverse group of people. So with the help of his artisans, he codified the laws in the country intending to promote social cohesion and administration in the country and publicized it to show transparency in his governance. He revised and expanded older collections of Sumerian and Akkadian laws while formulating the code.
HAMMURABI’S CODE: JUST OR UNJUST
The code helped maintain social order and have an organized society. It was a fair system with strict, simple rules and helped keep crimes at bay because of the harsh punishments. It ensured that people obeyed the laws and that people got punishments according to their crimes. It was a means to get rid of crimes in the state and keep the nation safe, but it was a terrible way of enforcing the law. The punishments were harsh and unreasonable and included severe punishments like death penalties. The code had unequal punishments and treated certain groups of people and women unequally. The society was not egalitarian, and it never questioned slavery. It was unjustified because in certain cases children suffered for the acts of the parents. For example, if a man killed a free-born pregnant woman, his own daughter would be killed as retribution. There wasn’t much freedom, and the code gave a lot of power to the government.
SIGNIFICANCE OF HAMMURABI’S CODE
Law and order are necessary for a state or society, and Hammurabi’s code served this purpose. As his kingdom expanded, Hammurabi had to rule over a diverse group of people, so he planned the code. It was an early effort to ensure fairness in the legal system. Everyone realized the laws, and the system was based on practical justice rather than lofty principles. The laws were not left to be commanded or pronounced by the ruler according to his will in each situation, and writing made sure that the laws were aimed, no question of whether something is legal or illegal or whom the laws apply to. They were final and conclusive and did not allow for an alternate interpretation. It ensured that the laws remained fixed and everyone was aware of the laws. Also, a consistent law code contributes to the stability of society and is the foundation of civilizations. It allowed for cultural progress.
When it was discovered in 1901, it was the oldest collection of laws and it remains the longest surviving text from the old Babylonian period. It served as a model and influenced codes of law that came after it. It has a resemblance to the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Laws. Older texts which were discovered later on were not as thorough or complete as the Hammurabi’s code. The texts gave historians an initial understanding of the judicial system in ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of western civilization. The code also helped give an insight into the structure and organization of the society at that time. There were differences based on class and gender. The code was stratified because there were different laws for slaves, free men, and nobility. They were treated differently and what was permissible for one stratum was not permissible for the other.
THE RELEVANCE OF HAMMURABI’S CODE TODAY
The code was aimed to ensure good governance, maintain social order, and was based on morality and civil obedience. It provided a basic system to resolve disputes and a sense of fairness.
Hammurabi’s code was written in 1700 before Christ but they are very much applicable and similar to present-day laws. These codes are one of the earliest examples of the presumption of innocence and given adequate opportunities for both accused and accuser to provide evidence and prove their side. The accuser had to prove the defendant guilty and if he failed to do so, he was put to death. This was to prevent people from wrongly accusing another. The code implemented legal procedures and required written documents or witnesses to prove a case. Thus the code tried to have a fair and just trial and reasoned decision. The punishments were harsh but they were given according to and in proportion to the crime. Similar legal procedures are followed in courts these days and the code was an example of the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty” and dealt with malicious prosecution also.
The code is the earliest records showing evidence of capital punishment. Today capital punishment is given only to the rarest of rare cases and is reserved for very few crimes because now life, including the guilty person’s is valued.
People had the right to buy, sell, and own property. There were divorce laws also and like men, women were also allowed to get a divorce. So people had certain basic rights. Even the slaves enjoyed certain rights. They could marry anyone, start businesses, purchase their freedom, and were protected from mistreatment.
They had an independent judiciary and the Babylonians have long understood that good governance rested on the justice system being free from corruption and conflict of interest.
Hammurabi realized that people need to be aware of the laws to follow them. So he used to set up public readings of the law and displayed the laws for all to see. Today a law comes into force after it’s published in the gazette so that people know the law or treaty exists.
Finally, the code’s ultimate aim was to protect and ensure the safety of the people. Today’s state also has the same responsibility, protect the life, liberty, and rights of individuals, and provide them with a safe and secure state where they can grow and develop.
Though the code of Hammurabi is viewed as harsh and unjust, its influence and relevance on present-day laws are not to be ignored. The code was based on the idea that harsh punishment would ensure that the laws are followed and was necessary to establish law and order.
Author(s) Name: Anugra Anna Shaju (National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Ranchi)
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