English · International Law

Babylonian Law: To what extent do you know about it? (Chapter 1)

From muscle Vin Diesel in blow scenes of Babylon A.D. to well-known music band Boney M. in Rivers of Babylon, from the book The Richest Man in Babylon to the planning Earth’s tallest skyscraper “The Tower” in Dubai, the popularity of the word “Babylon” is broad to such an extent that it is the inspiration for many things in our life. You often relate Babylon to the only thing-The Hanging Garden. But there is one more thing you may not know – the Hammurabi Code – the Law of Babylon, one of the greatest law in ancient world.

This Code did not pass down through family lore like some other popular ones but lay deeply under the ground as it was waiting for someone to discover it. The legal practice of the ancient Babylonians was first introduced in 1854, when Mr. W. K. Loftus disinterred a number of clay tablets from the mound of Tell Sirf (a few kilometers east of Larsa, 25 kilometers south east of Uruk, Iraq). Then, in 1901, the modern archeologists discovered a huge index finger which was full of Akkadian language. The scientists found out that it was a nearly completely version of the Code.


In order to understand the Code, it is essential to know how it was applied and how ancient people used it. And there is no way easier and more appropriate than finding out through the legal system of the Babylonians.

In ancient Babylonia, the business of the law was almost exclusively in the hands of priesthood. The hall of justice was usually at the gates of the temples, and there, the judges, the scribes and the elders assembled. With the “elders”, they appeared as a permanent body of officials. When the scientists saw the same names appear again and again upon tablets of about the same date, they recognise a gradual rise, or promotion of individuals to higher ranks. They played a role as a chiefly official witness to the transactions which took place before them. About the judges, they were appointed by the sovereign, the king or the one who supervises directly and inflexibly. Their duties were extremely varied, ranging from the highest criminal trials to the registration of business documents. And finally, the scribe – the most important man in this ancient world. A scribe is a person who writes books or documents by hand in ancient hieratic. They were trained, educated in the schools of scribes who had their leader for writing and editing purposes. 

When two parties want to make a transaction, they come to see the scribe. The nature of the transaction is briefly and clearly recited in which, it is stated that the parties understand the conditions of the deed (a legal document that is an official record of an agreement), and have taken oath by certain gods. Then follow the names of the elders (or the so-call “witnesses” in Assyriologist’s way). Finally, it is completed by adding the addition of the date. But the date is not as simple as we do today. In later times, the year of the king gave the day. But in the periods to which Hammurabi belongs, they dated the contracts by the most noteworthy incident of the year such as the building of a temple, a heavy flood or a battle. 

Once the parties have written contracts, they can use it as a legal record in any court as evidence of the transaction. And, if they have dispute, how did they solve it at the court, and how did they apply the law?

We may disclose the answer in the next chapter. 

(Some contents of this article is basically based on the information of  “The Hammurabi Code and The Sinaitic Legislation” of Chilperic Edwards.)


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