Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Code of Hammurabi

The Code of Hammurabi (1792 to 1750 B.C.)

The next book in our Ancient History rotation will be a study of the ancient laws of Hammurabi. For this study we will be using the Avalon Project at Yale University for our source. Charles F. Horne, Ph.D. writes this about King Hammurabi:

"Hammurabi was the ruler who chiefly established the greatness of Babylon, the world's first metropolis. Many relics of Hammurabi's reign [1795-1750 BC] have been preserved, and today we can study this remarkable King . . . as a wise law-giver in his celebrated code. Hammurabi is the first "example of a ruler proclaiming publicly to his people an entire body of laws, arranged in orderly groups, so that all men might read and know what was required of them."

A brief overview of Babylonian law is explained here by Rev. Claude Hermann Walter Johns, M.A. Litt.D: http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/medieval/hammpre.htm

Historical Context

"The Code of Hammurabi (also Hammurapi), the most complete and perfect extant collection of Babylonian laws, was developed during the reign of Hammurabi (r. 1792-1750 B.C.) of the first dynasty of Babylon. The code consists of Hammurabi’s legal decisions, which were collected toward the end of his reign and inscribed on a diorite stele set up in Babylon’s Temple of Marduk, a temple named for the national god of Babylon. The 282 case laws include economic provisions (prices, tariffs, trade, and commercial regulations), family law (marriage and divorce), as well as provisions dealing with criminal law (assault, theft) and civil law (slavery, debt). Penalties for breaking the laws varied according to the status of the offender and the circumstances of the offense. The code survives only in the Semitic Akkadian tongue, but it is clear that it was also meant to apply to the non-Semitic Sumerians, representing an integration of the traditions of both peoples. Hammurabi’s Code is the most complete record of ancient law in existence." (Source The LibertyFund.org http://oll.libertyfund.org/Home3/AuthorBioPage.php?recordID=0113)

Wikipedia has an excellent biography on King Hammurabi: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hammurabi Please read this short bio or use your encyclopedia and lookup background reference information on this ancient ruler.

Helpful Explanations and Other Versions

The Avalon Project's e-Text at Yale Universities School of Law has the L.W. King translation (1901) online with commentary by Charles F. Horne, (1915) and Claude Hermann Walter Johns, The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed, 1910. This is the version I will be posting to the list.


Fordham University has King's translation online as well. This version is a 'plain' copy which might prove useful for those who would like to print a section to read at a time.


The LibertyFund has a downloadable e-text of this codex, translated by Robert Francis Harper in 1904. For those of you who prefer reading a printed book, this might be a good translation to download and print out:


Richard Hooker's (Washington State University) Online Archive has King's 1901 version here,

Please feel free to choose an e-text version that works best for you.

Paperback Resources

For those who prefer a paperback edition, here are some popular choices. Your library may have copies, so check there first. Neither book was available in my public library so I am not sure of their exact availabilty worldwide.

The Code of Hammurabi (Paperback)by L. W. King, ISBN 1419157035 (in print through Amazon.com)
The Code of Hammurabi King of Babylon (Paperback) by Robert Francis Harper, ISBN 1410201023 (OOP available through used booksellers - pricey!)

Reading Schedule

The Code of Hammurabi is broken into three parts: introduction, the law, and epilogue. There are approximately 282 laws and while they cover a number of topics, they really do not break out into specific groupings to aid in our reading. My suggestion is that we simply read through them as follows:

1st post: Introduction
2nd post: Laws 1-50
3rd post: Laws 51-100
4th post: Laws 101-150
5th post: Laws 151-200
6th post: Laws 201-end
7th post: Epilogue

This will take us through November and into December. We will break for the holidays and then pick up Homer's The Odyssey in January.

Study and Discovery Questions

As you read each law, consider the following:

  • Who is involved?
  • What are they told to do or not to do?
  • What are the stated consequences of complying or not complying with the law?

For general discussion on this book:

  • What was “The Code of Hammurabi”?
  • Why was it important?
  • What do we learn from it about attitudes toward gender, class, and justice in Mesopotamian societies?

Other Good Links