An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. This was said by Gandhi many years after the fall of the Babylonian empire. Judging by the laws of the Babylonian people, there was no insightful Mahatma Gandhi to spread his thoughts on equality and forgiveness. Though they were an advanced and organized society, the Babylonians were also extremely strict, almost cruel, when it came to law making. Revenge, faith in the gods’ sense of justice, and inequality all made up a portion of the eight foot tall stone tablet that we now know as Hammurabi’s Code of Law (Horne).
Hammurabi’s reign lasted from 1795 until 1750 BC (Horne). Up until Hammurabi took control, there had been no ruler to publicly establish an entire set of laws. Written in order to regulate the organization of the Babylonian society, this code, consisting of two hundred laws, begins and ends by addressing the gods. Revenge played a large role in the laws, as it was seen as the only way to truly be compensated. Almost all of the laws lack a true explanation; they were simply accepted as fair justice by the people.
However, one law in particular does have a reason behind it. “If an accused man claims to be innocent, he will be thrown into the river. If the man drowns, he is proven to be guilty. However, if he makes it to the opposite bank safely, the accused man is indeed innocent (Hammurabi).” This law gives us an important insight into the lives of ancient Babylonian society. Obviously, the people had a strong sense of faith in their gods. By tossing the man into the raging river, the people are putting the accused man’s life into the hands of the gods. If the man was guilty and lying, the gods would see that tribute was paid to them, as well as to the village, in the form of death. However, if the accused was indeed innocent, the Babylonians would allow the man to safely leave the river, hence living. Not so unlike our court systems (with which you must swear on a bible before testifying), the Babylonian people had strong religious convictions that were reflected in their code of laws.
Another aspect reflected in Hammurabi’s Code of Laws was the belief in revenge. To the ancient Babylonians, revenge wasn’t seen as revenge: it was seen as fair and just compensation for a committed crime. To Hammurabi’s people, “an eye for an eye” was not just a say: it was a way of life. “If he break another man’s bone, his bone shall be broken (Hammurabi).” The same was true for putting out another man’s eye, knocking out someone’s teeth, and many other bodily injuries between two man (or woman) or the same class. Though these laws seem cruel and inhuman, they were meant to keep crime and violence at a minimum. Getting your arm hacked off was probably much more intimidating than a prison sentence to the people of Babylonia, hence the laws successfully fulfilled their duties the majority of the time.
Though the laws were more often than not effective, they were by no means fair. Women were dignified and treated as equals, but all social classes were not. Ancient Babylonia had a hierarchy consisting of three main social classes: the amelu, high ranking, rich court officials, patricians, and kings, the muskinu, landless and poor, though free, and the ardu, who were the lowest class (Johns). The ardu could marry and hold property, but nonetheless they were low-ranking slaves. The laws clearly reflected these social classes.
Punishments were not the same for different social classes, even if the same crime was committed. For example, if a free-born man strike the body of another free-born man or equal rank, he shall pay one gold mina. However, if a slave were to strike the body of a freed man, his ear shall be cut off. Even though the exact same crime was committed, the slave would get a harsher punishment than the free, higher-ranking man. Even in ancient Babylonia, power and money seem to have the same value as they do in the present day.
Not every aspect of the Babylonian culture was perfect. The social classes were strictly divided and people were treated as fairly as their birth allowed them to be. Vengefulness was accepted and expected, as was the belief in owning slaves. However, the Babylonians, under Hammurabi’s reign, were also a very admirable culture. Women were treated as equals: they were dignified, respected, and allowed to own land and property. The most important, positive aspect of the Babylonians was certainly Hammurabi’s Code of Law. As an unchangeable, fairly indestructible written code, it not only influenced other cultures (such as the Syro-Roman and Mahommedan) later in history, but it also gave us a first hand account of what life was like in a culture that was lost so many centuries ago.
“The Code of Hammurabi” by Richard Hineshttp://www.wsu.edu/~dee/MESO/CODE.HTMBryant, Tamera (2005). The Life & Times of Hammurabi. Bear: Mitchell Lane Publishers.
Mieroop, Marc (2004). King Hammurabi of Babylon: a Biography. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers.