How the Code of Hammurabi Worked

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Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined as always by writer, Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there.

Candace Gibson: Hey, Jane. Have you ever been to the Louvre?

Jane McGrath: I have once, actually. I had to rush through it because I didn't have much time. But I did see the Mona Lisa.

Candace Gibson: Oh, well did you see the Code of Hammurabi?

Jane McGrath: I didn't. I didn't get around to that.

Candace Gibson: It's one of those things that isn't as aesthetically appealing as the Mona Lisa or the sundry other works of art hanging in the Louvre, but it's a pretty important piece of big black stone.

Jane McGrath: It's basically a big stela, which just means monument, basically.

Candace Gibson: Stella! No just kidding. It's more important than that.

Jane McGrath: It stands about a little over seven feet tall. The monument itself isn't as important as what actually is written on it. And it has about 300 laws on it, all written in sort of a conditional if this, then that format. And it's fascinating for archeologists and historians because it's one of the earliest and most intact codes of law that has ever been found.

Candace Gibson: And it was developed by Hammurabi. And he is synonymous with Babylon. And Babylon was one of the first bustling empires of the ancient world. And he was an intelligent ruler, and one of the things that he prided himself on was being fair and just. And he laid out his expectations for his subjects in black and white. And the cod of Hammurabi exemplifies this because he made them available for everyone to see and he displayed them in a very public place. So while Hammurabi was pretty strict and held his people accountable for their behavior in a very severe way, there really was no excuse for breaking the law because you would've seen it very clearly. So the monument, like we said, today is in the Louvre. And that's because in 1901 a French archeologist found it. And he didn't find it in Babylon. He actually found it in a mountainous remote region of Persia. And presumably, it's because one of the later conquerors who came in to overthrow Babylon would've taken the code back as part of the spoils.

Jane McGrath: It's really a trophy of a battle.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, it's symbolic of, "Look at this mighty empire and how it's fallen." But what Jane and I are interested in is the code itself and what it means, not just in the ancient Babylonian society, but today.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And anyone who's interested in the history of law in general love looking at the Code of Hammurabi because it's one of the oldest we know of. To give you an idea of how detailed these laws can get, you look at number 59. It says, "If any man without the knowledge of the owner of a garden fell at tree in a garden, he shall pay half a mina in money." This is an incredibly detailed specific law. And this is one of the reasons why historians don't actually think the code stood on its own, independent in and of itself. Because it has these very detailed laws, like the one I mentioned, but it doesn't have more obvious ones that you would expect, more overarching laws - this is what happens when you murder someone in general or something like that. But it's very detailed. So historians tend to think that it was an addition to laws that were already on the books so to speak, but that have been lost to history.

Candace Gibson: So it's supplemental. And like Jane is mentioning, they're so specific one has to wonder if these laws were written after some sort of event occurred that set a precedent for needing a certain rule. Like for instance, one that struck me as interesting is this law that reads, "If a man give his child to a nurse and the child die in her hands, but the nurse unbeknownst to the father and mother nurse another child, then they shall convict her of having nursed another child without the knowledge of the father and mother," - here's the clincher - "and her breasts shall be cut off." So heaven forbid you be a wet nurse in ancient Babylon. But a law like this just sort of smacks of - something must have happened for them to have written thi s law. It just doesn't strike me -

Jane McGrath: Yeah, that's true.

Candace Gibson: - as likely that Hammurabi would've written this as one of the codes without some sort of precedent.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. And I think historians actually look at this and they say that maybe there were laws on the books, but that specific cases would make an executive decision that wasn't addressed previously in the law. And these decisions that he made ended up being written because he was so proud of how just he is, obviously, that he wrote them on his stela. But another reason why historians think it didn't stand on its own is because there are some inconsistencies, interestingly, on the Code of Hammurabi. For instance, if we're I ancient Babylon - you and me - and I gave you a mule for safekeeping -

Candace Gibson: Thanks, Jane for my mule.

Jane McGrath: - while I was on vacation - sure, I trust you. So if I gave it to you but I didn't have any witnesses or a contract, in one law it says that I, the giver, don't have a claim on that mule anymore. But in another instance, in the exact same kind of situation, it says that you would be at fault. You would actually be a thief and you would be put to death.

Candace Gibson: That's what's so funny to me about the Code of Hammurabi - not the inconsistencies, but what you were mentioning before. If I didn't have any proof that you'd given me this mule, there's no room for hearsay in the code. Evidence is absolutely imperative. And so I guess that's the good news if you are an accused perpetrator, not yet an accused criminal. If they say that you've stolen something in ancient Babylon, well you'd better have the thing that you are thought to have stolen in you possession. If they say that you've committed adultery, well some peeping Tom better have seen you ravishing somebody else's wife. There has to be evidentiary support. And once you were accused as a criminal, there were two ways out. One of them was death, which we'll get to in just a minute. And the other was this sort of witchcraft trial you could undergo in the Euphrates River. And again, historians conjecture that people in ancient Babylon hadn't mastered the art of swimming. So you could wade into the river. And if you sank and drowned, then you were guilty and good riddance. You were dead, put to death. But if for some magical reason the water was able to convey you back to shore and you came out alive, then you were innocent and you were allowed to keep your life.

Jane McGrath: And it's interesting. They're very creative when it came to ways to die as well. I think it was about 28 different crimes warrant death in these laws. They range from things like robbery, adultery, witchcraft - similar to what you were talking about, and even harboring a runaway slave, which hearkens back to our podcast on the underground railroad. So in some other ways you could die besides this interesting witchcraft, whether you sink or swim, was burning, buried alive - which is my least favorite, and also impalement. So they were very creative when it came to ways to die.

Candace Gibson: You say that with such relish. I feel like now I have an ally in my interest -

Jane McGrath: No.

Candace Gibson: - in medieval forms of torture.

Jane McGrath: You do not.

Candace Gibson: Anyway, for all of you out there who think I'm a strange bird, the people in ancient Babylon had a very specific idea of justice and it was rooted in a code called the lex talionis, which is the law of retaliation or the law of retribution. And surely you've all heard the expression and eye for an eye. And that's exactly what lex talionis was. It was a form of justice based on the idea that whatever wrongdoing you pay to your neighbor, your neighbor can pay back to you. But an important difference under the Code of Hammurabi is that if you created some sort of a front to your neighbor, your neighbor couldn't be the one to turn around and pay you back for that misdeed. It would have to come directly from the state government. And that was to put an end to a cycle of wrongdoing back and forth, because it came from a higher power, this sort of retribution.

Jane McGrath: That's really interesting. Yeah. And another thing that really intrigues historians, especially as soon as they found the Code of Hammurabi, was that they'd known the idea of lex talionis before from Mosaic Law, from Moses. And they thought, "Well, this outdates Moses by a couple hundred years. So does that mean that Moses got these ideas from the Code of Hammurabi or from Babylonia in general?" And that idea has been pushed aside for the idea that they both have a common source among them. So it's interesting to see the differences and similarities between the two different ways of handling - if someone plucks out your eye, what do you do in response? One important difference though is that, under the Code of Hammurabi, class ac tually made a difference. So for instance, if I were among the upper class in ancient Babylonia - called the amelu - and Candace was a slave in the ardu class and I plucked out here eye, she couldn't necessarily have my eye plucked out as well. But if it was the other way around, if Candace plucked out my eye, it would be much harsher on her as a punishment.

Candace Gibson: So just to make sure I understand this, if I plucked out your eye, I might face certain death. But if you plucked my eye out, you might owe me a small monetary amount in compensation, right?

Jane McGrath: Exactly, but -

Candace Gibson: Enough to buy a new eye?

Jane McGrath: I don't know about that. Exactly. But if happened between people of the same class, you would have that eye for an eye business going on. Whereas, the Mosaic Law didn't have that distinction. So that's one big point that historians want to make that's very different.

Candace Gibson: So I have a couple of friends in law school and I meant to ask them about the Code of Hammurabi over the weekend, but I didn't get a chance because I was busy watching the Academy Awards. But I'm wondering if any of you out there are in law school, or any lawyers who might be fans of our podcast - I'm curious to know what you study about the Code of Hammurabi, if anything, in law school. I'm sure that there's a period of time in which you look over laws of the ancient world and how they still might be relevant today. And I wonder if this eye for an eye business is just a clever phrase that people throw around - and if that's all it's been reduced to, I would like to propose in its place another clever phrase, which is do unto others as you have done unto you. Because I think the Golden Rule, in this instance at least, is pretty similar and much nicer.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. The whole turn the other cheek thing.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, I would like to not have my eye plucked out, so I'm going to not pluck Jane's out. It's a good way to live.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. It still has a lot of relevance today. And just think, at the time it must've seemed very fair. If you look at it from just a cold point of view, that's fair, I guess, in a weird way of looking at it.

Candace Gibson: But I think the people of ancient Babylon were onto something. You can't just have your neighbors propagate this misdeed cycle to each other. There has to be a higher level of government in place to put an end to it -

Jane McGrath: That's true.

Candace Gibson: - to deal out the final say in retribution. Otherwise, you've got a society that devolves into complete chaos.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. And it's interesting that Hammurabi himself found himself so just. He expresses - there's a prologue and epilogue on the stela that contains the code. And he expressed, "Oh, I protect the oppressed from the oppressors." And it's interesting that he still had these laws that did distinguish between the classes, too.

Candace Gibson: He was a pretty complex guy. And if you want to learn more about Hammurabi and his code and the peoples of ancient Babylon, be sure to check out our website on

Jane McGrath: That's right. And also, be sure to check out a blog that is launching pretty soon. And one of the blogs is a Stuff You Missed in History Class blog written by yours truly and Candace.

Candace Gibson: So our blog is another place where you can contact us with your ideas. And you can comment on the entries that we post. And in the interim, be sure to keep sending us emails at

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