About 1790 B.C., Hammurabi (hah muh RAH bee), king of Babylon, brought much of Mesopotamia under the control of his empire. He took steps to unite the large Babylonian empire, which included a variety of peoples with their own traditions. Perhaps his most lasting achievement was in the area of law. To ensure unity, he published a remarkable set of laws, known as the Code of Hammurabi.
Hammurabi was not the author of the code that bears his name. Most of the laws had been around since Sumerian times. Hammurabi, however, wanted people to know the legal principles his government would follow. So he had artisans carve some 282 laws on a stone pillar for all to see. Hammurabi's Code was the first important attempt by a ruler to codify, or arrange and set down in writing, all the laws that would govern a state.
Hammurabi's Code was the first major collection of laws in history and was set out for all to see, even though few people could read. The code listed both criminal laws, dealing with murder, assault, and theft, and civil laws, dealing with private rights and matters, such as business contracts, property inheritance, taxes, marriage, and divorce. Most important, Hammurabi's Code embodied the idea that a ruler had a responsibility to ensure justice and order.
The purpose of Hammurabi's Code was to create common bonds among the diverse people of the society. Why was it important that Hammurabi's Code was a written legal code?
Hammurabi's Code was designed to ensure peace and project his power across his vast empire. Atop the pillar with his code, Hammurabi is shown receiving the laws directly from the Babylonian god Marduk. Over time, Hammurabi's Code influenced ideas about the responsibility of government to set up a uniform system of law for all people and to enforce the law. Although modern law codes are much changed from Hammurabi's time, they have their roots in this code.
Many laws in the civil code were designed to protect the powerless, including women and slaves. Some laws allowed a woman to own property and pass it on to her children. One spelled out the rights of a married woman. If a woman was blameless for problems in her marriage, she could leave her husband and return to her father's home. If she were found to be at fault, however, she could be thrown into the river.
In general, Babylonian civil law strictly regulated the behavior of women. It expected a woman to remain in her husband's home and be dependent on him. A husband, however, had a legal duty to support her. The code also gave a father nearly unlimited authority over his children. The Babylonians believed that an orderly household, headed by a strong male authority, was necessary for a stable empire.