Sunday, March 08, 2009

Hammurabi's code

The Code of Hammurabi was discovered in 1901 by a French archaeological expedition excavating the great mound known as the acropolis of Susa, in Persia. The black diorite pillar had been inscribed in cuneiform characters a code of law promulgated by Hammurabi. It was eight feet high and two feet in diameter, with forty four columns of inscription.

The code is addressed to suitors who seek justice. The epilogue of his code is as follows:

The oppressed who has a law suit shall come before my image as king of justice. He shall read the writing on my pillar, he shall perceive my precious words. The word of my pillar shall explain to him his cause, and he shall find his right.

The most interesting thing about the code is that the provisions are couched in the form of a series of conditional imperatives introduced by the word 'if'. Examples:

If a man shall steal the minor son of a freeman, he shall be put to death.

If a man find a fugitive slave, male or female, in the open country, and bring the same to the owner, the owner of the slave shall pay that man two shekels of silver.

If a man let his field to another for a fixed rent, and has received the rent for the field, but storms come and destroy the crops, the loss falls upon the renter.

Hammurabi is mostly remembered for his covenant code embodied later in the Bible (Exodus 21:2 to 22:19) too:

life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

The code recognized three classes: patricians, plebeians and slaves. Status depended on birth and slaves were usually foreign prisoners of war. As always, the written words were contemptuously disregarded by the mighty when they could get away with it. However, there is no doubt it regulated daily affairs of the working classes. Code relating to commercial transactions are given in meticulous detail. Interest rate was fixed at 20% for silver credit, and 33% for corn credit. It had extensive price-fixing: charges of tavern-keepers, physicians, veterinarians, builders, boatmen artisans were all given.

His greatest contribution is believed to be his legislative technique: the written word inscribed on his pillar displaced unwritten custom to a large extent.

Source: Men of Law - From Hammurabi to Holmes by William Seagle.