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Crime And Punishment: How Does Hammurabi's Code Translate Into Modern Society?

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Crime and Punishment: How does Hammurabi’s Code translate into modern society?

In order to understand crime, it’s factors, and it’s transcendence through time, we must first realize the source of aggression. At some point during human history, man turned on himself and began attacking others within his species, whether it was a result of a territorial, sexual, or other type of conflict. However, these acts of wrongdoing did not become crimes until they were violating an actual written law. Therefore the origin of crime must have occurred during the first civilization from which written language has been discovered: Mesopotamia. A few codes of law have been discovered from ancient Mesopotamia, the most famous one written by a king of Babylon, Hammurabi. Many of his dictums are supported by the same morals which apply to today’s laws in the United States. Drapkin (1989) asserts that “…Mesopotamian concepts penetrated the Western ethos and are responsible, in no small proportion, for our turbulent history of tensions between reason and faith, hope and despair, freedom and authoritarianism, progress and defeat.” (p. 31) Although the Mesopotamian code of conduct was very different than those of its contemporaries, it played an enormous role in the formation of western laws.

As humans shifted from being nomadic to settling for extended periods in a particular area, many settled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This area provided fertile land, irrigation, and protection against invasions. This also meant that they were among the first to encounter an “urban” society on many levels. They dealt with the same moral issues which have been plaguing philosophers for centuries since. Their rulers worried about the same power struggles and territorial conflicts. Instead of the previously communal property, civilians had personal ownership and fought over private properties.

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One of the first codes of law, put in place during the reign of Ur-Nammu, declared that “the entire population has the right to know the justification behind every conviction and punishment.” (Drapkin, 1989, p. 18) This concept corresponds to the current right of Habius Corpus. Around 1900-1800 B.C.E., the code of Lipit-Ishtar was documented, which gave a monetary punishment for most of the crimes it discussed.

The laws of Eshnunna were the last laws in place before the Babylonians invaded and Hammurabi’s laws became governing. These laws speak of two classes of free citizens, equal under the law, and one class of slaves, not considered by the law at all. Most of Eshnunna’s laws were punishable either by payment of a sanction or by death. The manner of death is never mentioned, neither is any other form of corporal punishment. Drapkin (1989) cites some sections of this code which have penal implications, for example, sections 44/45: “If a man threw a man to the floor in an altercation and broke his armвЂ"he shall weigh out half a mina silver. If he broke his legвЂ"he shall weigh out half a mina silver.” (p.24) All of the rulings within the laws of Eshnunna are based on the objective result of the crime. Subjective guilt or innocence is not considered whatsoever.

Hammurabi was the king of Babylon from approximately 1792-1750 B.C.E. He extended the reign of the city-state of Babylon to become an empire, spanning across much of Mesopotamia. His code of laws was “published” during the second year of his reign; it was inscribed on clay tablets which were placed in temple courtyards, so that civilians could read them, although most were illiterate. Hammurabi’s authority was supreme and his laws were absolute. In the prologue to his code, Hammurabi claims that

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he was elected by gods to “establish law and justice in the land and promote the welfare of the people.” Within his code, three classes are distinguished, and penalties are different depending on the class of the offender and the victim. Professionals in Babylon were expected to fulfill specific role obligations. For example, mandate 224 states that “If a veterinary physician operate on an ox or an ass for a severe wound and save its life, the owner of the ox or ass shall give to the physician, as his fee, one-sixth of a shekel of silver.” Most of the laws were strictly secular, however, there were many which involved specific cases out of the hands of mortals. Law 45 rules that “If a man rent his field to a tenant for crop-rent and receive the crop-rent of his field and later Adad(the Storm God) inundate the field and carry away the produce, the loss [falls on] the tenant. If an offender could not be punished for some reason, a member of his family could be punished in his stead. The code also deals with marriage and divorce. Polygamy was legal, but only one woman could maintain the legal title of the “spouse.” A man may take a new wife if she does not provide him with children, or if she becomes ill. The Babylonian concept of divorce was quite advanced as well. It called for a marriage settlement and even a form of child support. Adultery also came with a severe punishment. If the wife of a man was sleeping with another, both of them were to be bound and thrown in the river. If the man chooses to save his wife, he may. In general, people of the free classes were entitled to a fairly successful and wealthy life. There were laws to compensate widows as well as laws concerning inheritance.

The guiding rule for the laws created by Hammurabi is the concept of talio, which is interpreted today as “an eye for an eye.” A thief was penalized by the loss of his hand,

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and a man would lose his lower lip if he kissed a married woman. Castration was the punishment for rape, and a man’s tongue would be removed for slander. (Drapkin 1989 p.28) This is also called expressive or sympathetic punishment. This concept extends even further than the offender himself: section 230 says that “If a builder has built a house for a man and has not made it strong enough, and the house he has built collapses and causes the death of the son of the owner of the house, they shall put to death the builder’s son.” This talionic rule originated with Hammurabi’s use of it. And so, the question posed by Drapkin (1989) remains: “Why did the Babylonian civilization exchange a more humane form of sanction for one grounded

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