Code of Hammurabi

The Code of Hammurabi is a well preserved Babylonian law code, dating to ca. 1780 BC (short chronology).

Babylonia was an ancient cultural region in central southern Mesopotamia (present day Iraq), with Babylon as its capital.
It is one of the oldest deciphered writings of significant length in the world.

The sixth Babylonian king, Hammurabi, enacted the code, and partial copies exist on a human-sized stone stele (slab having height more than its width) and various clay tablets.

The Code is inscribed in the Akkadian language (now extinct; name of the language is derived from the city of Akkad, a major center of Mesopotamian civilization), using cuneiform script carved into the stele.

(Cuneiform script is one of the earliest known forms of written expression. Cuneiform documents were written on clay tablets, by means of a blunt reed (a type of grass) for a stylus (writing utensil). The impressions left by the stylus were wedge shaped, thus giving rise to the name cuneiform [“wedge shaped”, from the Latin cuneus, meaning “wedge]).

(Photo on right: Hammurabi Code on clay tablet)

One nearly complete example of the Code survives today, on a diorite (a type of igneous rock- grey to dark grey in colour) stele in the shape of a huge index finger, 7.4 ft tall.

(Photo on left: Hammurabi Code on diorite stele: Artist: Georgezhao; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

The Code consists of 282 laws

Nearly one-half of the Code deals with matters of contract, establishing for example the wages to be paid to an ox driver or a surgeon.

Other provisions set the terms of a transaction, establishing the liability of a builder for a house that collapses, for example, or property that is damaged while left in the care of another.

A third of the code addresses issues concerning household and family relationships such as inheritance, divorce, paternity and sexual behavior.

Only one provision appears to impose obligations on an official; this provision establishes that a judge who reaches an incorrect decision is to be fined and removed from the bench permanently. A handful of provisions address issues related to military service.

Laws specifically relevant to civil engineers (builders) were:-

    • 228. If a builder has built a house for a man, and finished it, he shall pay him a fee of two shekels of silver, for each SAR built on.
    • 229. If a builder has built a house for a man, and has not made his work sound, and the house he built has fallen, and caused the death of its owner, that builder shall be put to death.
    • 230. If it is the owner’s son that is killed, the builder’s son shall be put to death.
    • 231. If it is the slave of the owner that is killed, the builder shall give slave for slave to the owner of the house.
    • 232. If he has caused the loss of goods, he shall render back whatever he has destroyed. Moreover, because he did not make sound the house he built, and it fell, at his own cost he shall rebuild the house that fell.
    • 233. If a builder has built a house for a man, and has not keyed his work, and the wall has fallen, that builder shall make that wall firm at his own expense.

The Hammurabi code was based on principle of lex talionis (a latin word meaning “The law of retaliation often called “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”).

At the root of this principle is that one of the purposes of the law is to provide equitable retribution for an offended party.


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