Law Before Words - The Code of Hammurabi, the Oldest Deciphered writing in the World - History Key

Law Before Words – The Code of Hammurabi, the Oldest Deciphered writing in the World

Laws lead our lives. Since our birth we are inserted in a law system, but how it was in the past, let’s say almost 2000 years BC? History Key unlocks for you the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian king, who ruled for 42 years, from 1792 to 1749 BC.


Bust of Hammurabi
Bust of Hammurabi © Image Source:

Archaeologists discovered the code in 1901 and its first translation was published in 1902 by Jean-Vincent Scheil. A collection of 282 laws is presented in the code, covering different problems: the practice called an “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, a scale for establish punishments considering the social differences between slaves and a free man. Interesting to note, how a considerable part of the code is dedicated to issues related to household and family, relationships, divorce, paternity and even sexual behaviors.


One half of the code is addressed to matters of contracts, like amounts to be paid to doctor, builder or worker. Only few laws are related to military service, and only one addresses to officials. This one law, provides a trial of a judge who reaches an incorrect decision. The code is written in Akkadian language, an extinct East Semitic language, spoken in ancient Mesopotamia. The writings are carved directly into a basalt stele using cuneiform script. The basalt stele becomes a reference also as particular object, considering that it’s shaped in the form of a huge index finger.


Object - Law code of Hammurabi King of Babylon
Object – Law code of Hammurabi King of Babylon © RMN/Franck Raux/Image Source: Twitter


The code is considered the oldest and longest surviving text from the Babylonian period. One aspect of its importance is related to the fact that it is the oldest deciphered writings having a considerable length in the world. There are other examples of earlier laws documents, arranged in collections. We remember for you the followings:

– The Code of Ur-Nammu, King of Ur (2050 BC)

– The Laws of Eshnunna (around 1930 BC)

– The Codex of Lipit-Ishtar of Isin (around 1870 BC)

Code of King Hammurabi
Code of King Hammurabi © Image Source:

It’s interesting how the specialists found that those codes have several passages which resemble each other, as stated by Prof. Barton, a scientist of Semitic languages at the University of Pennsylvania from 1922 to 1931. Some copies of the Code of Hammurabi were found in a different form, being carved on baked clay tablets. The tablets were containing portions of the code, and it is believed that they could be older that the famous basalt stele form.


Code of Hammurabi King of Babylon
Code of Hammurabi King of Babylon © Lessing Archive/Image Source: ThingLink

As introduction for the code, located at the beginning of the columns containing the 282 laws, there is a preface: “Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak; so that I should rule over the black-headed people like Shamash, and enlighten the land, to further the well-being of mankind.” (Translated by L.W.King “Mesopotamia: The Code of Hammurabi”)

Here is a resume of the subjects covered by the Code’s laws: slander, trade, slavery, duties of workers, theft, liability and divorce. A well known law from the Code, was the law nr.196: “If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If one breaks a man’s bone, they shall break his bone. If one destroy the eye of a freeman or break the bone of a freeman he shall pay one gold mina. If one destroy the eye of a man’s slave or break a bone of a man’s slave he shall pay one-half his price” (“The Code of Hammurabi” – Evinity Publishing INC 2011)

Most of the code was built around the social status of the ones involved in a legal issue. For example, if someone killed a rich man, he would have been killed or tortured. But if the dead was a slave or a poor man, only a financial resolution was the penalty to support. The Code is also known for being one of the first examples related of the idea of presumption of innocence, and the obligation to provide evidence in order to sustain the accusations.

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