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Laying down the law: to Hammurabi, "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" meant justice.

** Objective

Students should be able to:

* make the connection between the ancient written laws of Hammurabi and law in society today, especially as exemplified by the U.S. Constitution.

** Words to Know

* conviction: a declaration of guilt made in a court of law.

* oppressed: crushed by abuses of power or authority.

** Background

Since the discovery of Hammurabi's Code in 1901, archaeologists have found evidence of codes of law older than Hammurabi's. The oldest is from Ur in Sumer (birthplace of Abraham, patriarch of the Jews), and dates from the mid-21st century B.C. None of the codes uncovered have been nearly as complete as Hammurabi's. But they do show that the concept of law was accepted in other ancient societies.

** Critical Thinking

RECALLING DETAILS/COMPREHENSION: What is a trial by ordeal? (determining guilt or innocence by subjecting the accused to dangerous tests in order to determine "guilt" or "innocence")

FORMING SUPPORTED OPINIONS: The Eighth Amendment forbids "cruel and unusual punishments." Do you consider Hammurabi's Code "cruel and unusual"? Explain. (Answers will vary.)

** Activity

PUT IT IN WRITING: Write a sentence or short paragraph explaining why having written laws available to everyone is an improvement over unwritten laws.



** Power, authority, and governance: Hammurabi's Code is the most complete known ancient standard of people's rights and responsibilities.



** Bryant, Tamera, The Life and Times of Hammurabi (Mitchell Lane Publishers, 2005). Grades 5-8.

** Chaves, Eva Bargallo I., Mesopotamia (Chelsea House, 2006). Grades 6-9.


** Ancient Mesopotamia: Law and Government /TRC/MESO/law.html

** The Code of Hammurabi /medieval/hamframe.htm

Imagine that you are far from home in a strange land. Two men lead you into a dreary courtroom, where a stern judge sits behind a mammoth bench.

"The accused is guilty under Section 21 of the Official Secrets Act," the judge thunders, pounding his gavel. "Off to prison with you!"

You have no idea what you did wrong. You have never even heard of the law you are accused of violating.

Does this sound far-fetched? Such forbidding scenes still play out in countries around the world. America's criminal justice system, too, can sometimes fail its citizens.

In ancient societies, people didn't even have a courtroom in which to plead their cases. Kings ruled according to their whims and desires, and ordinary people enjoyed few rights.

Hammurabi wanted to change this. The powerful king, who ruled ancient Babylon from 1792 to 1750 B.C., had a keen sense of right and wrong. He was one of the first rulers to display the laws of the land for all to see. First, he had the laws inscribed (carved) on a huge slab of stone.

This stone, called a stela, was then put in a place where townspeople could see and discuss it. Hammurabi clearly thought a lot of himself. "Let the oppressed, who have a case at law, come and stand before this my image as King of righteousness," he wrote. "Let him read the inscription, and understand my precious words."

Look to me, Hammurabi seemed to say, for a model of justice. He also promised relief for the husband feuding with his brother-in-law, the son with his father. "The inscription will explain his case to him," Hammurabi continued. "He will find out what is just, and his heart will be glad."

At last, people had a clear explanation--however imperfect--of right and wrong. Known as the Code of Hammurabi, this system of laws set the standard for all future societies. Legal scholars call it the first great legal document of civilization. It even predates the Bible!

Discovering the Code

We know little about Hammurabi aside from his Code. It is a fluke that his set of rules even survived.

In 1901, French archaeologists were working at the site of Susa, an ancient Persian city. There, they made an astonishing discovery: the stela of Hammurabi's Code. Written in cuneiform, the Code was a list of 282 legal judgments that formed the basis of Babylonian law.

With its fancy palaces and temples, Babylon was one of the greatest cities of Mesopotamia. That historical region, home to some of the earliest human societies, is often called the "cradle of civilization." Under Hammurabi, Babylon became the dominant military and cultural power in the region.

Rulers had written down laws before. Hammurabi's were partly based on Mesopotamian traditions that were old even then. But as far as we know, never before had a system of laws been so complete, and so available to the people who lived under them.

Hammurabi's Code touched every aspect of daily life--including bad weather and the fees for renting oxen.

"An Eye for an Eye"

What trouble could a Babylonian get into? Here is one example from Hammurabi's Code: "If any one is committing a robbery and is caught, then he shall be put to death."

That was that. Punishments were swift, to the point, and much harsher than they are today. Many of them may seem unfair to us. Some are downright inexplicable. For instance, Babylon, like many other ancient societies, practiced trial by ordeal. "If any one bring an accusation against a man," Hammurabi wrote, "let the accused go to the river and leap in. If he sink in the river, his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if [the accused] escape unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death."

If you survived, you must have been innocent! As one historian quips: "The gods were on the side of the best swimmers."

Two of the laws in Hammurabi's Code will sound familiar. Said Law 196: "If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out." Law 200 said: "If he knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out."

An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. Centuries later, this tradition re-emerged in the laws of the Jews under Moses, and became a well-known part of the Bible.

No Joke!

Indeed, violating Hammurabi's laws was no joke. Under the Code, a man who struck his father would have his hands cut off. So would a doctor whose patient died on the operating table.

Yet, for its time, the Code was progressive (leading to social change). Law 48 protected farmers who borrowed money to plant their crops: "If any one owe a debt for a loan, and a storm [destroys] the grain, or the harvest fail ... in that year he need not give his creditor [money lender] any grain ... and pay no rent for this year." Farmers today would love that law.

Some laws protected consumers. For instance, a builder would lose his life if his careless work led to the death of a house's occupants. Another law allowed women, who had few rights in the ancient world, to divorce their husbands under certain circumstances. Still another demanded child support from men who deserted their families. Even slaves enjoyed some rights.

The Desire for Justice

Hammurabi's laws did not contain many safeguards that we take for granted today. An individual could not appeal a conviction. As far as we know, judges could not give a less severe sentence than the Code allowed.

But Hammurabi's Code strove to be fair in ways that we can understand. He wanted, he wrote, "to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers, so that the strong should not harm the weak."

More than 3,500 years later, the Constitution of the United States promised to "establish justice" and "security the blessings of liberty" for the citizens of a young country. The language of our rules may have changed, but the desire to seek justice endures.

Words to Know

* code: a system of laws.

* cuneiform (kyoo-NEE-uh-form): an early alphabet written in wedge shapes.

* Mesopotamia: an area of early civilization located in present-day Iraq.

* stela (STEE-luh): a carved stone slab.

* trial by ordeal: a way of determining a person's guilt or Innocence by performing dangerous or painful tests believed to be under divine control.
Word Match

1. code A. type of alphabet

2. creditor B. system of laws

3. cuneiform C. leading to change

4. Mesopotamia D. money lender

5. progressive E. "cradle of


1. B; 2. D; 3. A; 4. E; 5. C

Think About It

1. In your own words, why do you think Hemmurabi established a written code of behavior?

2. What is the difference between trial by ordeal and trial by jury? Which would you prefer? Why?

Hammurabi's Empire

How would you find the location of an ancient city? Would you consult (a) the latest political map, (b) a travel guide, or (c) a historical atlas?

If you answered (c), stand up, and take a bow!

When reading a map, first consider the title and key (or legend). The key explains the symbols that represent rivers and other geographical features.

This map comes from a historical atlas. It shows Hammurabi's empire in 1750 B.C. The empire was then at its largest. After Hammurabi's death that year, many of the places he had captured regained their independence.

Study the map, then answer the questions below. If you don't answer them correctly, Hammurabi might punish you!


1. Which river did the city of Ninevah border?--

2. Leaving the city of Babylon, in which compass direction would you travel to reach Susa, where Hammurabi's Code was found?--

3. What was the approximate distance between Babylon and Susa?--

4. Into which body of water did the Tigris and Euphrates empty?--

5. Mesopotamia included most of which present-day country?--

6. Ancient Babylon was a part of which region?--

7. Which present-day country is located northwest of Babylon?--

8. The present-day capital of that country is shown on the map. What is that city's name?--

9. Which peninsula is located between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf?--

10. Susa was located in which present-day country?--


1. Tigris

2. east

3. 280 miles

4. Persian Gulf

5. Iraq

6. Mesopotamia (or Hammurabi's empire)

7. Syria

8. Damascus

9. Arabian Peninsula

10. Iran


* Use a word or phrase from this list to correctly complete each sentence.

after the Bible, after the U.S. Constitution, before the Bible, British historians, cuneiform, French archaeologists, Indiana Jones, Iraq, Mesopotamia, Palestine, stela, tough sentencing, trial by fire, trial by ordeal

16. Hammurabi's empire was in an area of the Middle East once known as--.

17. The Code of Hammurabi was a set of laws written--.

18. The original Hammurabi's Code was inscribed on a--.

19. Determining guilt or innocence by performing painful or dangerous tests is known as--.

20. We know about Hammurabi's Code today because it was found in 1901 by--.


16. Mesopotamia

17. before the Bible

18. stela (carved stone slab)

19. trial by ordeal

20. French archaeologists
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Title Annotation:World History
Author:Brown, Bryan
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 18, 2006
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