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Witnesses and Judges




Fields and Production


Wine Selling






Hired Property

Rural Crimes





The Babylonian King Hammurabi (1792-1750 BCE) succeeded in conquering neighboring states in Mesopotamia and establishing a stable empire. In part he achieved this stability by means of a set of laws that he drew up. He stated specifically that he wished by these laws that the strong should not oppress the weak and that the widow and orphan should get justice. There were other sets of laws before this, specific to the various city states that began to emerge after the rise of Summer in 4,000 BCE. The Code of Hammurabi is special because it is the largest collection of laws that has survived from second millennium BCEóengraved on a monument of black diorite nearly eight feet high. The code was important at the time because it was the basis for consolidating the rule of law throughout an empire. It is important here because it reveals the way human rights were beginning to emerge in Babylonia as Hammurabi sought to protect all classes of Babylonian society. It also shows that many of todayís problems also existed in Babylon.

There are three classes referred to in the code: (1) men or persons, who are property owners and the wealthy and upper classes; (2) freemen, who are poor men, serfs, or retainers, but able to own property and slaves; and (3) slaves. There was also a class of public servant that received subsidies from the government; these are referred to as officer, constable, or tax gatherer.

When a large number of laws are specified in writing, the variability of human judgment (exercising both good and bad effects) is replaced by a more rigid code that fails to recognize exceptions or special circumstances. The problem this causes of reconciling humane judgment and prescriptions of law remains. Note that the Code starts by imposing the severest penalty for claiming something is true when there is no evidence to justify that claim.

The Hammurabbi Code has been constructed for a state that has various levels of society, an administrative system, a system of irrigated farming, an empire and military that includes mercenaries, extensive financial and trade networks, and medical and construction activities in which damages from injuries are to be compensated. These and other features suggest a sophisticated society. Extracts from the code are given here.      

Witnesses and Judges

1      If a man bring an accusation against a man, and charge him with a capital crime, but cannot prove it, he, the accuser, shall be put to death. 1

2      If a man charge a man with sorcery, and cannot prove it, he who is charged with sorcery shall go to the river; into the river he shall throw himself and if the river overcome him, his accuser shall take to himself his house and goods. If the river show that man to be innocent and he come forth unharmed, he who charged him with sorcery shall be put to death. He who threw himself into the river shall take to himself the house of his accuser. 2

3      If a man, in a case pending judgment, bear false witness, or do not establish the testimony that he has given, if that case be a case involving life, that man shall be put to death. 3

4      If a man in a case bear witness for grain or money (as a bribe), he shall himself bear the penalty imposed in that case. 4

5      If a judge pronounce a judgment, render a decision, deliver a verdict duly signed and sealed and afterward alter his judgment, they shall call that judge to account for the alteration of the judgment which he had pronounced, and he shall pay twelve-fold the penalty which was in said judgment; and, in the assembly, they shall expel him from his seat of judgment, and he shall not return, and with the judges in a case he shall not take his seat. 5


6      If a man purchase silver or gold, manservant or maidservant, ox, sheep, or ass, or anything else from a manís son, or from a manís servant without witnesses or contracts, or if he receive the same in trust, that man shall be put to death as a thief. 7

7      If a man steal an ox or sheep, ass or pig, or goatóif it be from a temple or a palace, he shall restore thirtyfold; if it be from a freeman, he shall render tenfold. If the thief have nothing wherewith to pay he shall be put to death. 8

8    If a man steal a manís son, who is a minor, he shall be put to death. 14

9    If a man aid a male or female slave who has fled from the palace or from a freeman, to escape from the city gate, he shall be put to death 15

10    If a man make a breach in a house, they shall put him to death in front of that breach and they shall thrust him therein. 21

11    If a man practice brigandage and be captured, that man shall be put to death. 22

12    If the brigand be not captured, the man who has been robbed shall, in the presence of the god, make an itemized statement of his loss, and the city and the governor, in whose province and jurisdiction the robbery was committed, shall compensate him for whatever was lost. 23 

13    If a fire breaks out in a manís house and a man who goes to extinguish it cast his eye on the furniture of the owner of the house, and take the furniture of the owner of the house, that man shall be thrown into that fire.  25


14    If an officer or a constable, who is in a fortress of the king, be captured and his son be able to conduct the business, they shall give him the field and garden and he shall conduct the business of his father. 28

15    If his son be too young and be not able to conduct the business of his father, they shall give one third of the field and of the garden to his mother, and his mother shall rear him.  29


16    If a governor or a magistrate take the property of an officer, plunder an officer, let an officer for hire, present an officer in a judgment to a man of influence, take the gift which the king has given to an officer, that governor or magistrate shall be put to death. 34

17    If a man buy from an officer the cattle or sheep which the king has given to that officer, he shall forfeit his money.  35

Fields and Production

18    A woman, merchant or other property holder may sell a field, garden or house. The purchaser shall conduct the business of the field, garden or house which he has purchased.  40

19    If a man rent a field for cultivation and do not produce any grain in the field, they shall call him to account, because he has not performed the work required on the field, and he shall give the owner of the field grain on the basis of the yield of adjacent fields.  41

20    If a man owe a debt and the river inundate his field and carry away the produce, or, through lack of water, grain have not grown in the field, in that year he shall not make any return of grain to the creditor, he shall alter his contract-tablet and he shall not pay the interest for that year.  48

21    If a man neglect to strengthen his dike and do not strengthen it, and a break be made in his dike and the water carry away the farmland, the man in whose dike the break has been made shall restore the grain which he has damaged.  53

22    If he be not able to restore the grain, they shall sell him and his goods, and the farmers whose grain the water has carried away shall share (the results of the sale).  54

23    If a man cut down a tree in a manís orchard, without the consent of the owner of the orchard, he shall pay thirty shekels [one-half pound of silver].  59

24    If a man give his orchard to a gardener to manage, the gardener shall give to the owner of the orchard two-thirds of the produce of the orchard, as long as he is in possession of the orchard; he himself shall take one-third.  64

25    If the gardener do not properly manage the orchard and he diminish the produce, the gardener shall measure out the produce of the orchard on the basis of the adjacent orchards. 65


26  If a merchant give to an agent grain, wool, oil or goods of any kind with which to trade, the agent shall write down the value and return the money to the merchant. The agent shall take a sealed receipt for the money which he gives to the merchant.  104

27  If the agent be careless and do not take a receipt for the money which he has given to the merchant, the money not receipted for shall not be placed to his account. 105

Wine Selling

28  If a wine-seller do not receive grain as the price of drink, but if she receive money by the great stone, or make the measure for drink smaller than the measure for corn, they shall call that wine-seller into account, and they shall throw her into the water.  108

29  If outlaws collect in the house of a wine-seller, and she do not arrest these outlaws and bring them to the palace, that wine seller shall be put to death.  109

30  If a priestess serving a fertility cult who is not living in a sacred building open a wine shop or enter a wine shop for drink, they shall burn that woman.  110


31  If a man be on a journey and he give silver, gold, stones or portable property to a man with a commission for transportation, and if that man do not deliver that which was to be transported where it was to be transported, but take it to himself, the owner of the transported goods shall call that man to account for the goods to be transported which he did not deliver, and that  man shall deliver to the owner of the transported goods fivefold the amount given to him.  112

32  If a man hold a debt of  grain or money against a man, and he seize him for debt, and the one seized die in the house of him who seized him, that case has no penalty.  115

33  If a man be in debt and sell his wife, son, or daughter, or bind them over to service, for three years they shall work in the house of their purchaser or master; in the fourth year they shall be given their freedom.  117

34  If a  man give to another silver, gold or anything else on deposit in the presence of witnesses and the latter dispute with him (or deny the deposit), they shall call that man to account and he shall double whatever he has disputed and repay it.  124


35  If a man take a wife and do not arrange with her the proper contracts that woman is not a legal wife.  128

36  If the wife of a man be taken lying with another man, they shall bind them and throw them into the water. If the husband would save his wife, or the king would save his male servant, they may.  129

37  If a man force the wife betrothed to another who has not known a male and is living in her fatherís house, and he lie in her bosom and they take him, that man shall be put to death and that woman shall go free.  130

38  If the finger have been pointed at the wife of a man because of another man, and she have not been taken in lying with another man, for her husbandís sake she shall throw herself into the river.  132

39  If a man be captured and there be food in his house and his wife go out of her house, she shall protect her body and she shall not enter into another house.  133

40  If that woman do not protect her body and enter into another house, they shall call that woman to account and they shall throw her into the water.  133a

41  If a man be captured and there is no sustenance in his house and his wife enter another house, that woman has no blame.  134

42  If a man would divorce his wife who has not borne him children, he shall give her money to the amount of her marriage settlement and he shall make good to her the dowry which she brought from her father's house, and then may he divorce her.  138

43  If there were no marriage settlement, he shall give her sixty shekels [about one pound of silver] for a divorce.  139

44  If he be a freeman, he shall give her 20 shekels.  140

45  If a woman hate her husband and say, ďThou shall not have meĒ, they shall inquire into her antecedents for her defects; and if she have been a careful mistress and be without reproach and her husband have been going about and greatly belittling her, that woman has no blame. She shall receive her dowry and shall go to her fatherís house.  142

46  If she have not been a careful mistress, have gadded about, have neglected her house and have belittled her husband, that woman shall be thrown into the water.  143

47  If a man give to his wife field, garden, house or goods and he deliver to her a sealed deed, her children cannot make a claim against her after the death of her husband. The mother may will the goods to her child whom she loves, but to a brother she may not. 150

48   If a woman bring about the death of her husband for the sake of another man, they shall impale her. 153

49  If a man have known his daughter, they shall expel that man from the city.  154

50  If a man lie in the bosom of his mother, they shall burn both of them.  157

51  If a man take a wife and she bear him children and that woman die, her father may not lay claim to her dowry. Her dowry belongs to her children.  162

52  If a man present field, garden or house to his favorite son and write for him a sealed deed, when the brothers divide the property after their fatherís death, the favorite son shall take the present which his father gave him and the rest shall be divided equally among all the brothers.  165

53  If a man set his face to disinherit his son and say to the judges, ďI will disinherit my sonĒ, the judges shall inquire into his antecedents and if the son have not committed a crime sufficiently grave to cut him off from being recognized as a son, the father may not disinherit him.  168

54  If a manís wife bear him children and his maid servant bear him children, and the father during his lifetime say to the children which the maid servant bore him, ďMy childrenĒ, and reckon them with the children of his wife, after the father dies the children of the wife and the children of the maid servant shall divide the goods of the fatherís house equally. The child of the wife shall have the right of choice at the division.  170

55  If a father do not give a dowry to his daughteróa bride or priestessóafter her father dies she shall receive as her share in the goods of her fatherís house the portion of a son, and she shall enjoy it as long as she lives. After her death it belongs to her brothers.  180


56  If a son strike his father, they shall cut off his fingers.  195

57  If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye.  196

58  If a man breaks another manís bone, they shall break his bone.  197

59  If one destroy the eye of a freeman or break the bone of a freeman, he shall pay sixty shekels [about one pound of silver].  198

60  If one destroy the eye of a manís slave or break a bone of a manís slave he shall pay one half of his price.  199

61  If a man knock out a tooth of a man of his own rank, they shall knock out his tooth.  200

62   If one knock out the tooth of a freeman, he shall pay 20 shekels.  201

63  If a man strike the person of a man who is his superior, he shall receive sixty strokes with an ox-tail whip in public.  202

64  If a man strike another man of his own rank, he shall pay sixty shekels.  203

65  If a man strike a manís daughter and bring about a miscarriage, he shall pay ten shekels for her miscarriage. 209

66  If that woman die, they shall put his daughter to death.  210

67  If, through a blow, he being about a miscarriage to the daughter of a freeman, he shall pay five shekels.  211

68  If that woman die, he shall pay 30 shekels.  212


69  If a physician operate on a man for a severe wound with a bronze lancet and save the manís life; or if he open an abscess of a man with a bronze lancet and save that manís eye, he shall receive 10 shekels.  215

70  If it be a freeman, he shall receive five shekels.  216

71  If it be a manís slave, the owner of the slave shall give two shekels to the physician.  217

72  If a physician operate on a man for a severe wound with a bronze lancet and cause the manís death, or open an abscess of a man with a bronze lancet and destroy the manís eye, they shall cut off his fingers.  218

73  If a physician set a broken bone for a man or cure his diseased bowels, the patient shall give five shekels to the physician.  221


74  If a builder build a house for a man and do not make its construction firm, and the house which he has built collapse and cause the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death.  229

75  If it cause the death of a son of the owner of the house, they shall put to death a son of that builder.  230

76  If it destroy property, he shall restore whatever it destroyed, and because he did not make the house which he built firm and it collapsed, he shall rebuild the house which collapsed at his own expense.  232

Hired Property

77  If a man hire his boat to a boatman and the boatman be careless and he sink or wreck the boat, the boatman shall replace the boat for the owner of the boat.  236

78  If a man hire a boatman and a boat and load it with grain, wool, oil, dates, or any other kind of freight, and that boatman be careless and he sink the boat or wreck its cargo, the boatman shall replace the boat which he sank and whatever portion of the cargo he wrecked.  237

79  If a man hire an ox or an ass and a lion kill it in the field, it is the ownerís affair.  244

80  If a man hire an ox and cause its death through neglect or abuse, he shall restore an ox of equal value to the owner of the ox.  245

81  If a bull, when passing through a street, gore a man and bring about his death, this case has no penalty.  250

Rural Crimes

82  If a man steal a watering machine in a field, he shall pay five shekels to the owner.  259

83  If a man steal a watering bucket or a harrow, he shall pay three shekels.  260

84  If a shepherd, to whom oxen or sheep have been given to pasture, have been dishonest or have altered their price, or sold them, they shall call him to account, and he shall restore to their owner oxen and sheep tenfold what he has stolen.  265


85  If a male slave say to his master, ďYou are not my masterĒ, his master shall prove him to be his slave and shall cut of his ear.  282



  Adapted from The Code of Hammurabi, King of Babylon, About 2250 BCE translated by Robert Francis Harper, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1904. The numbers at the end of each paragraph are those in the original.

Selection and adaptation Copyright © Rex Pay 2000