Hammurabi's Code: The Advent of Law, Prerequisites and Implications

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  • 0:06 The Need for Laws
  • 0:58 The Importance of Judges
  • 2:34 The Use of Hierarchies in Law
  • 3:55 Ancient Legal Systems…
  • 5:58 The Evolution of Laws
  • 6:59 The End Result and…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lecture discusses the need for law and the benefits of a judicial system. Next, it reviews the history of early law codes, like those of Ur-Nammu and Hammurabi. Finally, we look at the implications of law for kings.

The Need for Laws

This is Jim. This is Jim's neighbor, Tom. Jim has a cow. Tom steals Jim's cow. Jim retrieves his cow, and steals Tom's pig to boot. That'll teach Tom to steal from Jim! Unfortunately, all Tom learns from this exchange is that Jim must die. Tom kills Jim and takes back his pig and the cow. Enraged, Jim's family descends on Tom's farm, steals all the livestock, and burns Tom's barn to the ground, with Tom inside. Tom's family retaliates in kind, and we've got ourselves a good old-fashioned feud, one to last for generations. Over the years, dozens of people will die, all over a stupid cow. Left to their own devices, these two families will tear each other apart, to no one's benefit.

The Importance of Judges

Enter the judge. A judge can be anyone: a priest, an elected official, a jury of peers, a king or royal appointee, a little old man on a hill. The only real requirement for a judge is that his decisions must be respected. That is, a judge must be obeyed; otherwise he's just a spectator with an opinion. How judges enforce their will varies.

The priest uses fear of the gods to sway people. The jury of peers depends on its impartiality to bind people to its verdicts. The king can use soldiers to enforce his will. Yet whatever the system, it allows Tom and Jim to resolve their conflict over the cow without bloodshed. Tom steals Jim's cow; Jim goes to the judge. The judge threatens Tom with eternal damnation until he relents, or olds a trial to decide whom the cow belongs to, or simply sends soldiers to return Jim's cow to him. However it goes, at the end of the day, Jim has his cow back without creating a longstanding vendetta with his neighbor. Thus you can see the important role of judges in society.

The code of Ur-Nammu is the earliest surviving law code
Code of Ur Nammu

There is reason to believe that the role of judge may very well be the first position of authority, and that this authority evolved into chiefdoms, priesthoods, monarchies, and all the other forms of government. At the heart of all authority is the power to make decisions for the people beneath you. Should we invade? Where shall we build? And yes, even, 'whose cow is this? '

The Use of Hierarchies in Law

Yet judging things is time consuming. Kings have better things to do than decide which farmer gets a cow, and emperors really can't be bothered with that sort of thing. To ease this burden, leaders can and do take advantage of hierarchies. They delegate their authority to subordinates, and leave it to them to determine guilt.

Yet it is telling that in so many cultures throughout time, sentencing has been reserved for people at the top of the hierarchy, especially in matters of capital punishment. Command over life and death has always been the prerogative of kings, and they are loath to give such an incredible power to anyone else.

The Creation of Laws

But how is a king with thousands of subjects, let alone an emperor with millions, supposed to make his will known in every case? Must he pass sentence on every trial?

Enter laws. Laws allow a king to pass sentence without being there. Instead of, 'you stole a cow, you lose a hand... or your life, depending on how I'm feeling today.' Now it's, 'anyone who steals a cow loses a hand.' In this way, laws also make the justice system more just, since everyone faces the same consequences for the same actions.

The Code of Ur-Nammu

The earliest surviving code of law is the code of Ur-Nammu, written by the king of Ur near the end of the Sumerian empire, around 2100 BCE. It contained 57 laws, of which 26 remain. These range from the reasonable: 'if a man commits a kidnapping, he is to be imprisoned and pay 15 shekels of silver.' To the draconic: 'if a man commits a robbery, he will be killed.' To the downright silly: 'if a man's slave-woman, comparing herself to her mistress, speaks insolently to her, her mouth shall be scoured with 1 quart of salt.'

Hammurabi was a Babylonian king
Hammurabi Image

The Code of Hammurabi

300 years later, around 1790 BCE, a Babylonian king named Hammurabi would compose a much more famous, and much more nuanced, code of laws. Inscribed on a stone stele, the code of Hammurabi contains 282 laws. And we see here much more than mere consequences for actions.

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