Hammurabi’s code on social relations in ancient Mesopotamia

Ancient Mesopotamian legal codes had broad purposes.  For example, the Code of Hammurabi, written in the city of Babylon about 1760 BGC (about 3768 years ago), declares as its purposes:

to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak; … [to] enlighten the land, to further the well-being of mankind. … Hammurabi, the protecting king am I. … [I] brought prosperity to the land, guaranteed security to the inhabitants in their homes; a disturber was not permitted. … That the strong might not injure the weak, in order to protect the widows and orphans, .. in order to bespeak justice in the land, to settle all disputes, and heal all injuries, set up these my precious words

The Code of Ur-Nammu, written in the city of Ur about three hundred years before the Code of Hammurabi, specifies in its preface:

Ur-Nammu … in accordance with his principles of equity and truth … [did] establish equity in the land; he banished malediction, violence and strife … the orphan was not delivered up to the rich man; the widow was not delivered up to the mighty man; the man of one shekel was not delivered up to the man of one mina [sixty shekels].

The Code of Hammurabi, like other ancient Mesopotamian laws, represents the ruler as a father to his subjects.  Consistent with this idea, it and other ancient Mesopotamian laws recognize the vulnerability of widows and orphans, who are persons without male benefactors/protectors.[*]  Yet, in contrast to the position of the male ruler, whose power and riches the laws glorify,  the Code of Ur-Nammu specifically condemns a high-status [“one mina”] man exploiting a low-status [“one shekel”] man.  This concern for low-status men is less conceptually consistent,  more unusual, and less appreciated than the father-ruler’s concern for widows and orphans.

An all-powerful king’s concern for low-status men probably responds to the social obviousness of some men’s extreme exploitation of other men in ancient Mesopotamia.  Ancient Mesopotamian social structure (and the law codes themselves) clearly distinguished classes of persons, including a numerous class of chattel slaves.  A free man could be made a slave as punishment for crime or debt.  One man making another man into a slave is an extreme form of exploitation. Because exploitation of men was so extreme and so obvious, the all-powerful king declared implicitly that only he had authority to exploit other men.

Hammurabi issuing Code of Hammurabi

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[*] The epilogue to the Code of Hammurabi imagines and represents a subject figuring Hammurabi as a father: “Hammurabi is a ruler, who is as a father to his subjects, … who has bestowed benefits for ever and ever on his subjects, and has established order in the land.”

[image] Hammurabi, King of Babylon, issuing the Code of Hammurabi. Bas-relief on the Stele of Hammurabi. Made between 1793 and 1751 BGC. Preserved in Louvre Museum as accession # Sb 8. Image thanks to Mbzt and Wikimedia Commons.

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