Link Between The Ancient Hammurabi’s Code And Modern Legal System

Hammurabi’s codes of law have molded and shaped our modern legal system. This paper will attempt to explain the link between the ancient Hammurabi’s code of law and how it has evolved and impacted today’s laws and rituals as well as other legal punishments that we have established in today’s society. It will also touch base on how the public’s view has changed throughout history in regards to an “eye for an eye” punishment and how we establish those principles in today’s society, all over the world.

Throughout history, many civilizations have experienced a system of social, political, religious, and economic laws and rituals. Most of these laws and rituals were set up as guides or measures for moral behavior, family life, education, government, and business. These values were set forth by an early civilization known as the Babylonians. These so called law codes were seen as an aspect for prayer and guidance through hardship but also as an aid in social structure. However, to understand the way Mesopotamia functioned in the 17th Century BC, we need to delve into and analyze the punishments rather than the laws themselves.

A lot of information about Babylonian society that can be gained through reading the Code of Hammurabi. The way the document was structured and how it was produced says a lot about how advanced this civilization was at the time. Because every aspect of this civilization was centered on godly nature, some punishments were left to the gods to resolve. When the codes were interpreted, the beginning and all the way to the end addressed God as the sole overseer. Because the Mesopotamian climate didn't have rain for almost eight months of the year and the flood stage was so late in the season, it was essential to prepare dikes and levees to keep the fields protected. For example, Hammurabi's law number 53 states 'If anyone be too lazy to keep his dam in proper condition, and does not so keep it; if then the dam break and all the fields be flooded, then shall he in whose dam the break occurred be sold for money, and the money shall replace the corn which he has caused to be ruined'. A law which we now see in our modern legal society. Because of this, can say that there were issues in Mesopotamian society that included abandoned or poorly maintained irrigation ducts.

Laws as we see them today, play a very important role in keeping a society from exploding into chaos and it did so during Hammurabi’s reign. “Justice is the upholding of those laws from an impartial standpoint” (Miller, 2017). King Hammurabi guided one of the best set of laws and wove it into ancient Babylonian society successfully in such that there was structure and organization where all crimes and injustices were handled in a fair manner. The Code of Hammurabi was physically recorded on clay tablets of eight feet high and written in cuneiform. The laws consisted of 282 provisions organized under a variety of societal subjects ranging from family and personal property to trade and business. The laws established by Hammurabi had consequences with the philosophy that the punishment should fit the crime (i.e. eye for an eye).

One problem that came of Hammurabi’s code of Law was that most of the civilians in this era were illiterate, many did not understand their rights and/or punishments. Hammurabi’s set of laws established several social classes, and each of those had different consequences and rights associated with the crimes committed. Those who were victims were compensated monetarily for the crimes committed against them. Hammurabi created this law code so that he could better control his empire. These codes were used for all aspects of Babylonian society. The code of clay tablets provided details on every function, including how to clean the irrigation canals.

King Hammurabi’s contribution to the legal system during this era allowed for him to have a government that was managed in national defense, justice policies, agricultural production, and collection of taxes which in terms created a very strong and structured successful government. Such contributions have molded our legal systems today. Hammurabi’s code of laws ranged from straightforward to unjustifiable as any king would have done so during this era. Like modern day laws, these laws were applied to whoever neglected or ignored the laws. Examples of such are the judge who makes a mistake in a law case and is to be expelled from his task as a judge forever, and/or heavily fined (like modern day judges). Witnesses who would testify falsely were to be murdered. Obviously, all the heavier crimes were made punishable by death. We see this today when we convict someone of a capital offense and the legal system puts them on death row. However, during Hammurabi’s reign, punishment was regarded more seriously. For example, if a civilian had built a faulty house and it fell and killed an owner, then that civilian would be punished by death. This is not the case in today’s society since there are policies put in place to protect both the owners and the builders from this happening. Because the legal system has evolved greatly, the worst we could see today from this type of “crime” would be a lawsuit. Another example of punishment while Hammurabi’s reign would be, if the owner's son was killed by the faulty house then the builder's son was to be put to death. These are true examples of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” punishments in the Babylonian era. These severe disciplinary punishments take no consideration of excuses or any type of explanations as we do in today’s society. There was no place for a lawyer in this era. One exception to an “eye for an eye” punishment would be that whoever was accused of the crime would be punished either by “eye for an eye” ideal or they could throw themselves into the Euphrates River. Then, if the river’s current brought the accused to the shore alive he was declared innocent; if he drowned he was guilty of the crime. This was based mostly on faith in the justice of the gods and what they decided was fair or not. While we still see some religious aspects in the legal system today, the system solely relies on credible proof not governed by a higher “unseeable” entity and rather a process needed for conviction, such as a trial.

Hammurabi spent a lot of his time organizing and establishing rules that were necessary but not out of line with his religion. These laws were a very significant form of protection to the citizens as well as the governing authority, so maintaining structure and order of these laws was essential for a successful reign. The code of law provided consistent justice and covered many aspects of a civilian’s daily life. King Hammurabi’s reign is often referred to as “The Golden Age of Babylon” because of his many accomplishments and reforms.

In today’s society we see many of these same codes of law being adopted all over the world. While not all countries agree with capital punishment which in terms would be Hammurabi’s influence of establishing an “eye for an eye” punishment, it is still a contribution to the way we convict the worst of the worst. Countries that have now abolished capital punishment are faced with criminals who they have decided not to execute due to the corruption of human rights. That is to say, those who oppose capital punishment state that only God dictates who lives and dies and a governing body is not the deciding factor of this issue. However, we still see punishments around the world that are fitting of the crime that was committed just like Hammurabi established during the Babylonian era. For example, back in 2017, “Iran’s supreme court established that they would punish a woman who had blinded another in an acid attack by receiving a literal eye for an eye punishment”. “The sentence to blindness in one eye, payment of blood money (compensation), and seven years imprisonment have been confirmed by the highest court”. This type of punishment is governed under the implementation of Sharia Law which was originally influenced by Hammurabi’s Code of Law and Israelite Laws encoded in the Bible. While Sharia Law is very rare in parts of the world, it still exists today and is implemented in a court of law. In cases where the defendant avoids corporal or capital punishment, the defendant can choose partial retribution, which in this particular case, only one eye loses vision for the crime committed.

While our legal system today does not specifically follow Hammurabi’s codes of law, legal systems around the world are still influenced greatly by Hammurabi’s contribution to justice. We have now implemented policies and processes that make it even more crucial for a person to provide proof of the crime committed. Human rights are taken more seriously as our society has evolved and equal and fair trials are a must before convicting a person. While most of the crimes committed today involve theft and white collar crimes, we are still very much influenced by the idea that a punishment should fit the crime committed.  

16 December 2021
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