Hammurabi and his Rules

When did people start caring for others? What about governments? We expect our government to at least pretend to care for us and give us justice if wronged. You might think that the search for equality is a rather modern idea, but it goes back almost four thousand years. For today’s exploration, I wanna stay in the Mesopotamian region. In fact, we will stay in Mesopotamia and Asia Minor for a while as we work our way through the earliest recorded thought as well as the questions the people had to deal with.


I want to emphasize the last point on our earliest thoughts. 1700 BC (almost four-thousand years ago) is an early point of written history, but much of the stories told in early scripts were from earlier oral traditions. In fact, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that some stories went back many thousands of years before they were written. It would be like me writing about Plato…or Hammurabi and someone a thousand years in the future reading this blog. Due to the exclusivity of writing, and the relative newness of the advancements in language, many, many stories from earlier peoples were told and written down first in religious and historical traditions, hence the 28,000-year reign of the first Assyrian kings we heard about last time. Over time, embellishments and adjustments twisted reality and made the real-life kings turn into semi-mythical whisps of memory, then into mystical gods and god-kings who were all but immortal. It’s not unlike the American veneration of the founding fathers. The progress is actually quite intriguing.

The process is also not too far removed from our knack of honoring celebrities far beyond their deserved place in life. As they turn old and die, their music, movies, books, or personalities grow in death until they are well known more through death than they ever were in life. Herman Melville and Edgar Allen Poe were both relatively unknown except in their close circles of friends, but in death and separated by a few generations, their story grows, and now there is scarcely a college student who has not read Moby Dick–or skipped the almost 300 pages of whale anatomy and bragged about their ‘completing the book’.

That brings us to King Hammurabi (born ~1810 BC and died ~1750 BC). He was a Babylonian king (the sixth king of Babylon actually) who wrote down a code of ethics and–more tellingly–a list of punishments for breaking the rules. This will not really be a history lesson, and instead, a springboard for thought on rules.


Fun Fact: almost all his punishments ended in either death or dismemberment. I guess if you want someone to do what you want, threaten to take their hand in exchange for thievery and you deter some of the would-be thieves.

The world in 1700 BC was a small place for most people. Many never left their hometowns, most never left their country, and really only the nomads, enslaved, or soldiers traveled much. Travel for fun was not really a thing unless you were royal or connected to royalty and even then, was quite rare. There was little excess in life, even for kings. They may have been bathed in gold, but food and water were still luxuries since mankind had only recently settled and began creating cities instead of hunting and gathering. When gold is everywhere and trees, water, and meat are rare, those items become the luxuries where gold is as unremarkable a thing as water is for us here in Oregon.

Hammurabi, the king, undoubtedly realized that in his kingdom lacked an all-encompassing written code of rules that governed all, even the governors. I have no doubt that the rules of the world were written on everyone’s mind, but there is a certain power in writing them down where everyone can see them, if not read them. I think we can think of that power in terms of the classroom. If the teacher has rules that he can point to when you are disobeying them, everyone can nod and realize a mistake was made, where the unwritten rules are subject to interpretation and are easily forgotten.

In 1901, archeologists discovered the stele (pronounced st-ee-lee) of rules, and having an understanding of the Babylonian language, translated it giving us one of the first sets of rules (the King of Ur, Ur-Nammu actually wrote a set code of laws 200 years prior to 2000 BC, but the code of Hammurabi remains more complete and fairly brutal in comparison).  BTW, a stele is a large block of stone, in this case, basalt. The stone was engraved and set in a common area where all can see. Stele were often made to commemorate military victories or a new king who wanted to cement his power and fame.

What is interesting in the Code of Hammurabi is that the intended goal was equality rather than domination. In a world where women, had, largely, no rights and were bought and sold as brides to the highest bidder and slaves were not considered people, equality in our context comes up short in expectation. We have to put our pre-conceived notions of equality and fairness to the side and travel back to where a society did not have any means of shaming those who were bigoted or racist…or care to do so. Those were the rule rather than the exception, which makes a situation where a king tries for some sort of equality a rather huge step forward in human growth. Below are examples of a few laws I picked off the Wikipedia page:


Ex. Law #22: “If anyone is committing a robbery and is caught, then he shall be put to death.”

One of the best-known laws from Hammurabi’s code was:

Ex. Law #196: “If a man destroys the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If one breaks a man’s bone, they shall break his bone. If one destroy the eye of a freeman or break the bone of a freeman he shall pay one gold. If one destroy the eye of a man’s slave or break a bone of a man’s slave he shall pay one-half his price.

Fun Fact: The concept of paying restitution or a payment in gold for the breaking of someone’s bone, or killing someone is a rule that only recently was stopped. Now, obviously, you would face prison time for killing, but up until at least 1000 AD, the killing of someone could be taken care of by paying the family of the killed in gold. This was called in Old English, Wergild.

This above one represents the “eye for an eye” rule we all know so well.


Ex. Law #127: “If anyone “point the finger” at a sister of a god or the wife of anyone, and cannot prove it, this man shall be taken before the judges and his brow shall be marked (by cutting the skin, or perhaps hair).

If the cost of gossip these days was cutting lines into your forehead, or shaving your hair off, we may actually have less drama. But, I guess then, Dayton wouldn’t be the Dayton we all know and love.

So, what do these rules and Hammurabi actually have to do with us and philosophy? First, there was a question someone must have asked regarding the subjective situations present where the rules must have been questioned to be made. It literally took someone sitting there saying to his king “what should happen to the man who steals grain, or a pot, or a slave, or a donkey?” This impetus, this need to question those in power, and one’s self in order to find a reasonable solution that meets the needs of both the perpetrator, and the victim, and is just, and most importantly, is a rule that could be relied upon to work from the day it was instituted to the day the kingdom ended, is what philosophy requires. Namely, the act of questioning the status-quo and puzzling through the possibilities is philosophy in a nutshell.

So, it is clear we do not still have the rules where “you steal and you die,” but time has tempered the rules in order for us to be able to use them. Have you ever heard of the Golden Rule? Do as to others as you would have them do to you? We can think of this rule as a way to remember the punishments of doing something wrong to others and avoid a potentially painful consequence.

We will talk much more about ethics, and what ethicists do as we progress into The Renaissance much farther down the line, but for our purposes, early on in this examination of the world, I want us to all consider a few questions until the next lesson is delivered:

1) Why can’t we all just be good to one another? Is that goal possible? Why/Why not? What keeps us from the goal?

2) What rules do you set for yourself? How hard is it to follow those rules?

3) What is the power of writing these rules down? Are we more likely to follow written rules or unwritten ones?


Next, the search for a basic substance for all life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: