The Stele of Hammurabi

Babylonia at the time of Hammurabi by User “MapMaster”, GDFL, Wikipedia

Babylonia, – the ancient state based in central-southern Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) – it is believed, became a major power during and immediately after the reign of Hammurabi (c. 1810 BC – 1750 BC), the sixth king of the First Babylonian Dynasty. The ruler is most famous for enacting the Code of Hammurabi – one of the oldest surviving legal records in history.

The code consists of 282 laws inscribed on a tall black-basalt steele that was discovered by the Swiss Egyptologist Gustave Jéquier (1868-1946) in 1901 at the ancient site of Susa in modern-day Iran and first translated by Jean-Vincent Scheil (1858-1940), a French Dominican priest and Assyriologist in 1902. The steele is currently displayed in the Louvre in Paris with replicas in America and elsewhere in Europe.

The Stele of Hammurabi from top to bottom in the Louvre, Paris by User “Mbzt”, CC BY 3.0, Wikipedia

At the top of the steele stands Hammurabi before a seated Shamash (Mesopotamian solar deity), raising his hand in deference. The god extends to him a rod and a ring – symbols of authority. The Code of Hammurabi, write the American scholars William J. Duiker and Jackson J. Spielvogel:

reveals a society with a system of strict justice. Penalties for criminal offences were severe and varied according to the social class of the victim. A crime against a member of the upper class (a noble) by a member of the lower class (a commoner) was punished more severely than the same offense against a member of the lower class. Moreover, the principle of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” was fundamental to this system of justice. This meant that punishments should fit the crime…


The largest category of laws in the Code of Hammurabi focused on marriage and family. Parents arranged marriages for their children. After marriage, the parties involved signed a marriage contract; without it, no one considered legally married. While the husband provided a bridal payment to the bride’s parents, the woman’s parents were responsible for a dowry to the new husband.


As in many patriarchal societies, women possessed far fewer privileges and rights in the married relationship than men. A woman’s place was in the home, and failure to fulfil her expected duties was grounds for divorce.

World History, Volume I (2012)


Close-up of the stele showing the cuneiform script of the Akkadian language by User “Gabriele Barni”, CC BY 2.0, Flickr


Here is a short video from Smarthistory on the stele.


The first five laws:

1. If any one ensnare another, putting a ban upon him, but he can not prove it, then he that ensnared him shall be put to death.

2. If any one 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, he shall, if it be a capital offense charged, be put to death.

4. If he satisfy the elders to impose a fine of grain or money, he shall receive the fine that the action produces.

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 judgement.

The last five laws:

278. If any one buy a male or female slave, and before a month has elapsed the benu-disease be developed, he shall return the slave to the seller, and receive the money which he had paid.

279. If any one buy a male or female slave, and a third party claim it, the seller is liable for the claim.

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.

281. If they are from another country, the buyer shall declare the amount of money paid therefor to the merchant, and keep the male or female slave.

282. If a slave say to his master: “You are not my master,” if they convict him his master shall cut off his ear.

You can read the entire code in English on this webpage hosted by the Yale Law School.

Here is another resource from Yale University (if you have the time and are interested) – a lecture (part of a series) in which Professor Christine Hayes discusses the relationship between the Code of Hammurabi and Old Testament law in the Bible. The video was recorded in Fall 2006.


Further Reading:

A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000-323 BC by Marc Van De Mieroop

The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law by Michael H. Roffer


Image Credits:

Featured: The Stele of Hammurabi (cropped) by User “Mbzt”, CC BY 3.0, Wikipedia


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3 thoughts on “The Stele of Hammurabi

    1. You’re welcome! I find the Ancient Near East intriguing but very, very confusing. Thanks to this stele, Hammurabi always stays in mind. Another Mesopotamian work of art that I absolutely love is the Epic of Gilgamesh –
      Unparalleled! I read somewhere that the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke was almost intoxicated by it!


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