Perhaps the most remarkable and influential creation of its time, Hammurabi’s code is the oldest set of laws known to exist. Hammurabi, king and chief priest of Babylonia from 1792-1750 B.C., expanded his empire greatly before focusing his energies toward wealth and justice for his people. He created a code protecting all classes of Babylonian society, including women and slaves. He sought protection of the weak from the powerful and the poor from the rich. The carving on the stone on which the code is written depicts Hammurabi receiving the divine laws from the sun god, the god most often associated with justice. This stone was unearthed by French archaeologists at S_sa, Iraq (ancient Elam), in 1901-02. The black diorite rock is 2.4 m high and had been broken into three pieces.
Hammurabi’s Code is 44 columns of text, 28 paragraphs of which contain the actual code. There are 282 laws (possibly more have been rubbed off) that probably amend common Babylonian law rather than define it. It describes regulations for legal procedure, fixes rates on services performed in most branches of commerce and describes property rights, personal injury, and penalties for false testimony and accusations. It has no laws regarding religion.
The Code of Hammurabi is significant because its creation allowed men, women, slaves, and all others to read and understand the laws that governed their lives in Babylon. It is unique in that laws of other civilizations were not written down, and thus could be manipulated to suite the rulers that dictated them. The Code is particularly just for its time. Although it follows the practice of “an eye for an eye”, it does not allow for vigilante justice, but rather demands a trial by judges. It also glorifies acts of peace and justice done during Hammurabi’s rule. It symbolizes not only the emergence of justice in the minds of men, but also man’s rise above ignorance and barbarism toward the peaceful and just societies still pursued today. In the words of Hammurabi as carved on the stone, “Let any oppressed man who has a cause come into the presence of my statue as king of justice, and have the inscription on my stele read out, and hear my precious words, that my stele may make the case clear to him; may he understand his cause, and may his heart be set at ease!”