The Ancient Law Code of Hammurabi

Updated July 15, 2011

“When Marduk sent me to rule over men, to give the protection of right to the land, I did right and righteousness in . . . , and brought about the well-being of the oppressed.” Hammurabi was the first king of the Babylonian Empire, extending Babylon's control over Mesopotamia by winning a series of wars against neighboring kingdoms. Hammurabi is most remembered for his law code, including 282 laws regulating people’s relationships in Mesopotamia.

Crime Under the Law Code of Hammurabi

The punishment for crime under the Hammurabi Law Code was severe, yet varied according to the social standing of the individual. In fact, a crime against an upper class person was much more severe than the lower classes. Punishment was meant to fit the crime, so the principle of “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” was fundamental in this system. Government officials were not free from the system, therefore if they failed to catch a burglar after lands were taken, they were expected to compensate for the loss. Hammurabi Law Code 25 states “If a fire broke out in a house, and someone who comes to put it out cast his eye upon the property of the owner of the house, and take the property of the master of the house, he shall be thrown into that fire”. The same can be said for murderers if they were not apprehended. Officials paid fines to the families of the murdered person if the guilty wasn’t found. On occasion, a soldier might hire a substitute to fight for them, however they were swiftly put to death, and the substitute was given their holdings.

Work Under the Hammurabi Law Code

The performance of work was highly regulated, especially in the case of builders. If a house was constructed and collapsed, causing death of the owner, the builder was held accountable and put to death. If the son or daughter of the owner was killed in the collapse, the son or daughter of the builder was put to death and all goods lost were replaced at the builder’s expense. Therefore, the use of consumer protection laws was a fundamental part of the system.

Commercial and Land Law According to Hammurabi


There are several codes pertaining to land use and irrigation in the Hammurabi Law Code, indicating the importance and danger of declining crops if not utilized. If irrigation systems were not kept in good condition and if they caused the loss of grain to another land owner, they were made to pay for the grain that was destroyed. If they couldn’t pay, they were sold into slavery and their goods sold. Commercial loans were watched very closely, and in the event that a lender raised the interest rate, he would lose the entire amount of the loan. Wages under the Hammurabi Code were also specified for bricklayers, laborers, and artisans.

Marriage and Family Under the Hammurabi Law Code

Marriage were arranged by the parents for their children. All parties involved signed a contract because without it the couple was not considered legally married. The husbands provided payment to the parents of the bride, in return receiving a dowry from the bride’s family. Women had very little rights in the marriage and failure to uphold their responsibilities were grounds for divorce. If the wife was not able to bear children or left home to engage in business, her husband could divorce her and did not have to return the dowry. In the case of divorce, if the man divorced the wife for no good reason, the wife could get the dowry back with just cause. Consequently, if the husband died the wife inherited his lands and would decide which son would receive the inheritance.

Sexual Relations Under the Law Code of Hammurabi

Husbands were permitted to partake in sexual relations outside of marriage, but not wives. A wife that committed adultery, with her lover, was thrown into the river. If one party was pardoned, the other half had to be as well. Incestuous relations between a daughter and her father would result in banishment. Incest between a mother and her son resulted in both being burned.

Similar to many ancient societies, the father ruled the family and his wife with strict authority. No offense was off limits or unpunishable, as the father would embrace the “eye for an eye” aspect of the fundamental system of the Hammurabi Law Code.

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Picture Source Stele

The prologue of the Code of Hammurabi on a clay tablet in the Louvre.