Codifying Who We Are: The Law Code of Hammurabi
Illustrated by Cassandre Sevigny-Lapointe
Artifacts are powerful tools for us to glimpse into a society none of us have ever known. They can tell us about the behaviour of the people who lived at that time and the values they held as important. Artifacts, in general, can also show us how much we have evolved or changed since a certain time, or perhaps, as the expression goes, how “not much has changed.” They show us that we are always influenced by our past and that the past will continue to impact our present as well as our future. By just looking and analyzing an object from the past, we have the power to see into what we can consider an unknown world.
One famous and ancient example of such an object is the Law Code of Hammurabi. What makes the Law Code of Hammurabi such an important artifact? And what can we glimpse through the Law Code of Hammurabi about the culture that produced it?
The beginning of this story starts roughly around 4000 years ago with King Hammurabi of Babylon (Laville 43). My journey, however, began in a secondary 1 classroom, where I was first introduced to the Babylonians. A few minutes into the reading we were assigned, I realized that the Babylonians were one of the first societies and communities to exist. And with that discovery, I felt as if I had joined a community created 4000 years ago.
King Hammurabi created a Law Code that was permanently engraved on a stele (a standing slab of stone). In the law code were 282 articles, which applied to the Babylonian society and its people (Claire). It is one of the first writings we have in Cuneiform and the Akkadian language (Claire). The language made it accessible and relatable to the population of Babylon, which only increased their sense of community. Before this revelation, I had assumed that anyone before the ancient Greeks had been completely barbaric, but here were the Babylonians, with a system in place to maintain order, a way of living and co-operating with one another. This had to be the moment I got hooked on this ancient culture.
The actual law code discusses many aspects of life, but an important one is family, which is known as “the basis of Babylonian society” (Claire). It is amazing to me that a value such as family, still central in our lives today, was held by people 4000 years ago. The value of family is a torch that has been passed down through time and never been abandoned, and the Babylonians were one of the first to codify it.
The stele Law Code can also provide us with another peek inside Babylonian society. A popular ideal came from this law code, which was how the men had much more authoritative power than women (Vincent 746). The enshrinement of this ideal shows us that Babylonian society might have had a patriarchal view of life, possibly contributing to the power men have held over women, sometimes legally protected power, in much of the world until the recent years.
The law code first starts with what is a false accusation and how to deal with it. It moves on to sorcery and then to the rules about witnesses and judges (Vincent 740). This tells us that sorcery was considered a grave offense even 4000 years ago, long, long before the witch trials throughout Europe. The idea of crime and punishment was also heavily considered in the making of the Law Code. It suggests that there was perhaps a need for punishments, because crime was part of their society, just like it is still part of our society. A small fun fact: the principle of “an eye for an eye” derives from this Law Code (Claire). A potential conclusion that can be drawn is that maybe even then, the need for punishment was necessary, as it would continue to be needed for centuries. The idea of order triumphging over chaos is something that apparently has been passed down for 4000 years.
The Law Code of Hammurabi shows us an early example of a society codifying punishment as well as the values of family, community and welfare of those who were vulnerable, values we still believe strongly today across the world. The Law Code of Hammurabi inspired generations of leaders across the globe, and it also inspired me to discover a place or time that I had no physical way of getting to. Is that not the ultimate goal of history? We look back, take the benefitial aspects of those places or time periods and adapt them into our day and age, while also learning from the mistakes of the past. That’s history: learning, searching, understanding and adapting. In the process, you can connect with people you can never meet. You realize that whatever you’re passionate about, someone thousands of years ago was passionate about as well. And that is how you create a community. All in all, the Law Code of Hammurabi has had a long-lasting influence on society, then and now, and will continue to leave a legacy for centuries to come.