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Ancient Mesopotamian Law Codes

Ancient Mesopotamian Law Codes

Author: David Jensen

The objective of this lesson is to introduce students to the first forms of law codes used to govern ancient society in Mesopotamia. Students will analyze and discuss the nature of rule of law in early societies and use this as a tool to create an understanding of legal systems and their ramifications for societies in future periods of history.

Students will read the legal codes of Hammurabi and create a series of questions to check for understanding. They will then answer a series of questions designed to created a seminar over the meanings and ramifications of the legal codes. Following the seminar students will be asked to create an essay to evaluate their understanding of the seminar.

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Seminar Questions

                                           Hammurabi Discussion Questions

Around 1700 BC King Hammurabi of Babylon conquered many of the city-states of Mesopotamia. The city-states had divergent unwritten laws subject to the whim of the judge. Hammurabi decided that all his subjects needed a uniform, written code of laws that could apply to the whole empire. When he was finished there were 282 laws.


1 .Prior to Hammurabi’s Code, what specific type of problems could result from laws that were not written down?

2. Which of Hammurabi’s laws would be impossible to enforce in the modern world? Why?

3. Are there any of his laws you feel are superior to our modern equivalent laws? Why?

4. Are there any of his laws you think we could use if we modified them? Which ones? How should they be modified? Why?

5. To what extent did Hammurabi’s judges have more authority than modern judges? Why?

6. Do you find any of Hammurabi’s laws brutal or unfair? Why?

7. To what extent did discrimination by social classes or sex exist under Hammurabi’s laws? Explain

8. How do Hammurabi’s laws compare to laws in modern Middle Eastern nations such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or Iran?

9. What effect would enactment of all Hammurabi’s laws have on modern bureaucracy? Why?

Hammurabi's Law Codes

Instructions: As you read through the law codes, you are required to compile ten questions over items in the laws that you do not understand. The questions will lead the discussion over the law codes before we begin the seminar over the attached questions.


The Code of Laws

1. If anyone ensnare another, putting a ban upon him, but he cannot prove it, then he that ensnared him shall be put to death.

2. If anyone bring an accusation against a man, and the accused go to the river and leap into the river, if he sink in the river his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if the river prove that the accused is not guilty, and he escape unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death, while he who leaped into the river shall take possession of the house that had belonged to his accuser.

3. If any one bring an accusation of any crime before the elders, and does not prove what he has charged

5. If a judge try a case, reach a decision, and present his judgment in writing; if later error shall appear in his decision, and it be through his own fault, then he shall pay twelve times the fine set by him in the case, and he shall be publicly removed from the judge's bench, and never again shall he sit there to render judgment. He shall, if it be a capital offense charged, be put to death.

7. If anyone buy from the son or the slave of another man, without witnesses or a contract, silver or gold, a male or female slave, an ox or a sheep, an *** or anything, or if he take it in charge, he is considered a thief and shall be put to death.

15. If anyone takes a male or female slave of the court, or a male or female slave of a freed man, outside the city gates, he shall be put to death.

16. If anyone receive into his house a runaway male or female slave of the court, or of a freedman, and does not bring it out at the public proclamation of the major domus, the master of the house shall be put to death.

17. If anyone find runaway male or female slaves in the open country and bring them to their masters, the master of the slaves shall pay him two shekels of silver.

16. If any one receive into his house a runaway male or female slave of the court, or of a freedman, and does not bring it out at the public proclamation of the major domus, the master of the house shall be put to death.

17. If anyone find runaway male or female slaves in the open country and bring them to their masters, the master of the slaves shall pay him two shekels of silver.

23. If the robber is not caught, then shall he who was robbed claim under oath the amount of his loss; then shall the community, and ... on whose ground and territory and in whose domain it was compensate him for the goods stolen.

25. If fire break out in a house, and someone who comes to put it out cast his eye upon the property of the owner of the house, and take the property of the master of the house, he shall be thrown into that self-same fire.

26. If a chieftain or a man (common soldier), who has been ordered to go upon the king's highway for war does not go, but hires a mercenary, if he withholds the compensation, then shall this officer or man be put to death, and he who represented him shall take possession of his house.

28. If a chieftain or a man be caught in the misfortune of a king, if his son is able to enter into possession, then the field and garden shall be given to him, he shall take over the fee of his father.

29. If his son is still young, and cannot take possession, a third of the field and garden shall be given to his mother, and she shall bring him up.

53. 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.

55. If anyone open his ditches to water his crop, but is careless and the water floods the field of his neighbor, then he shall pay his neighbor corn for his loss.

57. If a shepherd, without the permission of the owner of the field, and without the knowledge of the owner of the sheep, lets the sheep into a field to graze, then the owner of the field shall harvest his crop, and the shepherd, who had pastured his flock there without permission of the owner of the field, shall pay to the owner twenty gur of corn for every ten gan.

108. If a tavern-keeper (feminine) does not accept corn according to gross weight in payment of drink, but takes money, and the price of the drink is less than that of the corn, she shall be convicted and thrown into the water.

117. If anyone fail to meet a claim for debt, and sell himself, his wife, his son, and daughter for money or give them away to forced labor: they shall work for three years in the house of the man who bought them, or the proprietor, and in the fourth year they shall be set free.

119. If anyone fail to meet a claim for debt, and he sell the maid servant who has borne him children, for money, the money which the merchant has paid shall be repaid to him by the owner of the slave and she shall be freed.

132. If the "finger is pointed" at a man's wife about another man, but she is not caught sleeping with the other man, she shall jump into the river for her husband.

133. If a man is taken prisoner in war, and there is sustenance in his house, but his wife leave house and court, and go to another house: because this wife did not keep her court, and went to another house, she shall be judicially condemned and thrown into the water.

137. If a man wishes to separate from a woman who has borne him children, or from his wife who has borne him children: then he shall give that wife her dowry, and a part of the usufruct of field, garden, and property, so that she can rear her children. When she has brought up her children, a portion of all that is given to the children, equal as that of one son, shall be given to her.

141. If a man's wife, who lives in his house, wishes to leave it, plunges into debt, tries to ruin her house, neglects her husband, and is judicially convicted: if her husband offers her release, she may go on her way, and he gives her nothing as a gift of release. If her husband does not wish to release her, and if he takes another wife, she shall remain as servant in her husband's house or she may then marry the man of her heart.

146. If a man take a wife and she give this man a maid-servant as wife and she bear him children, and then this maid assume equality with the wife: because she has borne him children her master shall not sell her for money, but he may keep her as a slave, reckoning her among the maid-servants.

175. If a State slave or the slave of a freed man marry the daughter of a free man, and children are born, the master of the slave shall have no right to enslave the children of the free.

195. If a son strikes his father, his hands shall be hewn off.

196. If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.

202. If any one strikes the body of a man higher in rank than he, he shall receive sixty blows with an ox-whip in public.

203. If a free-born man strikes the body of another free-born man or equal rank, he shall pay one gold mina.

204. If a freed man strikes the body of another freed man, he shall pay ten shekels in money.

205. If the slave of a freed man strike the body of a freed man, his ear shall be cut off.

209. If a man strikes a free-born woman so that she lose her unborn child, he shall pay ten shekels for her loss.

211. If a woman of the free class loses her child by a blow, he shall pay five shekels in money.

219. If a physician make a large incision in the slave of a freed man, and kill him, he shall replace the slave with another slave.

280. If while in a foreign country a man buy a male or female slave belonging to another of his own country; if when he return home the owner of the male or female slave recognize it: if the male or female slave be a native of the country, he shall give them back without any money.


Writing Activity

Using the Code of Hammurabi and the Old Testament selections you were given in class today, you will need to complete the following:


Write a short essay (175 words or less) explaining which code of laws you would choose to live under and why. Use specific laws in your examples as you will be graded on both content and composition.

Pretend you are a modern day Hammurabi. You have just conquered the United States and have the right to revise its laws, but you are busy and decide you have time to change only ten laws. Rewrite any ten laws of the United States the way you believe they should be. (You may revise any laws – criminal, civil, local, or national).