Mesopotamia’s characteristic sense of insecurity resulted in its producing not only great philosophical literature but also detailed legal codes. The so-called Code of Hammurabi is the most famous but certainly not the earliest of the many collections of law produced throughout the first three thousand years of Mesopotamian civilization. Discovered in 1901, this Babylonian text from the eighteenth century B.C.E. is inscribed on a stone pillar (technically known as a stele) that measures over seven feet in height and more than six feet in circumference. Apparently Hammurabi wanted it to last forever.
Whether Mesopotamia’s numerous compilations of law were Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, or Chaldean, a number of common elements united them. Chief among them was the expressed purpose, as the prologue to Hammurabi’s collection declares, “to promote the welfare of the people…to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil, that the strong might not oppress the weak.” There is good reason to believe that even conquerors such as Hammurabi (reigned ca. 1792-1750 B.C.E.), who briefly united Mesopotamia and transformed Babylon into the capital of an empire, sought to promote justice through law.
Hammurabi’s code is actually not a coherent and systematic code of laws but rather a compilation of decisions, that the king made in response to specific cases and perceived injustices. Nevertheless, this collection of judgments covers a wide variety of crimes and circumstances, thereby allowing extensive insight into the structure and values of eighteenth-century Babylonian society. Attached is a translation of Hammurabi Codes with reading questions.