Often dismissed by museum goers as simply another inscribed plinth, the Code of Hammurabi stands tall in the Louvre. Black stone engraved in cuneiform is the King’s law in all its glory. Hammurabi ruled Babylonia (present day Iraq) for 43 years in the 18th Century BC and on this celebrated tablet reads the legal code adhered to by his subjects. A total of 282 laws were etched onto the block including punishments for wrong doings and the establishment of a minimum wage in accordance to employment. A significant part of the Code pertains to penance bestowed upon an individual in the event of misfortune, for example, the damage done to one’s property whilst it is in the care of another. A third of Hammurabi’s laws relate to home life, family and relationships – in marriage, divorce, inheritance and paternity. In its retribution laws, the Kingdom exemplified ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. If the bones of a man were broken, the perpetrator would receive the same punishment in return.
Despite some horrifically barbaric forms of capital punishment, the Code is one of the first proofs that early Middle Eastern society subscribed to the ideal of innocence before guilt is proven, Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat. The burden of proof is on he who declares, not on he who denies, as it is inscribed, “If any one brings an accusation of any crime before the elders and does not prove what he has charged, he shall, if it be a capital offense charges, be put to death.”
The stele column at the Louvre is the most complete version found to date, but extracts on tablets have been found scattered throughout the empire. This is one of the longest lasting, but not earliest, texts from the Babylonian period and one the first examples of law regulating government. Two records preceding Hammurabi’s law were also discovered in the Middle East, one dating back to the 21st Century BC – created by the Sumerian ruler, Ur-Nammu.
Hammurabi’s stele is a summary of how the most powerful leader, 1700 years before Christ, ruled Mesopotamia and it provides us great insight into societal convention. Its exact influence on collective values is uncertain; however the King’s Code was concrete enough to have served as the model for future rulers over the next millennia.
For more information, visit the Louvre’s website