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Hammurabi's Code: How He Justified His Actions

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In 1750 B.C. a new king of babylonia arose by the name of Hammurabi. He continued his reign up until 1792 B.C. but most importantly his reign did not go unforgotten. During his reign he was in charge of giving punishments to the wrongdoings of his citizens. As he conquered other cities and his empire grew he saw the need to unify groups he controlled, he was concerned about keeping order in his kingdom. In order to achieve this goal, he needed one universal set of laws for all the people he conquered thus he created the Hammurabi code. The code of Hammurabi is the most remarkable and complete code of ancient law that we have

The code can be found on a stele, a stone slab usually to commemorate military victories in the ancient world. His code, a collection of 282 laws and standards, stipulated rules for commercial interactions and set fines and punishments to meet the requirements of justice.

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Nearly 4,000 years ago, a man named Hammurabi became king of a small city-state called Babylon. Today Babylon exists only as an archaeological site in central Iraq. But in Hammurabi's time, it was the capital of the kingdom of Babylonia. We know little about Hammurabi's personal life. We don't know his birth date, how many wives and children he had, or how and when he died. We aren't even sure what he looked like. However, thanks to thousands of clay writing tablets that have been found by archaeologists, we know something about Hammurabi's military campaigns and his dealings with surrounding city-states. We also know quite about every day life in Babylonia. The tablets tell us that Hammurabi ruled for 42 years. For the first 30 of these years, Hammurabi's control was limited mostly to the city of Babylon. He was involved in what one historian calls, "lots of squabbles with other small kings in other small city-states," some of them no more than 50 miles away. This changed, however with victories over Larsa in the south and Mari in the north, Hammurabi became the ruler of much of Mesopotamia. Hammurabi was not starting with a blank slate. Beginning around 3500 BCE, the Sumerian people had developed Mesopotamia into the world's first civilization. By the time Hammurabi took power in 1792 BCE, cuneiform writing had already been around for 1,700 years. Hammurabi would eventually rule over an estimated population of 1,000,000. Most of his subjects were farmers

The people lived in citystates surrounded by fields and watered by irrigation canals that were fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. After his victories at Larsa and Mari, Hammurabi's thoughts of war gave way to thoughts of peace. These, in turn, gave way to thoughts of justice. In the 38th year of his rule, Hammurabi had 282 laws carved on a large, pillarlike stone called a stele. Together, these laws have been called Hammurabi's Code. Historians believe that several of these inscribed steles were placed around the kingdom, though only one has been found intact.

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It also serves as a deterrent to crime (Fagan, 2006). However, capital punishment has been a topic of a heated debate for centuries. Thus, an Italian noble man of the 18th century, Beccaria, questioned the societal norms and inquired whether laws, which are “the expression of the public will”, in order to “deter citizens from murder… should order a public murder” (Bessler, 2009, p. 197). At present, people living in different countries also struggle to ban the capital punishment. More and more countries are abolishing the death penalty. The American society is also divided into two camps as some citizens are strongly against it while others advocate this type of punishment. It is necessary to trace the history of the capital punishment as well as roots of the American legal system (in this respect) to understand why the debate is going on and which party will, eventually, win the lasting dispute in the USA. It is possible to note that capital punishment is one of the most ancient types of punitive measures as ancient civilizations introduced it. The American legal system is rooted in the European law, which, in its turn, is based on Hammurabi’s Code and Mosaic Law. These two legal systems are seen as some of the oldest in the history of humanity. The Hammurabi’s Code dates back to the 18th century BC. It was a Babylonian code of law and it was inscribed on numerous stone steles as well as clay tablets. According to this law code, the major goal of punishment was to make the criminal an example and deter others from committing serious crimes (Goel, 2008). In other words, people sought for a proportionate measure to punish any crime and capital punishment seemed an adequate measure for a murder. The Mosaic Law (or the Code of Moses) is very similar to the Babylonian code of laws. Since it dates back to approximately 2nd century BC, it is possible to assume that it is based or partially grounded on the Code of Hammurabi

At any rate, the Mosaic Law appears in the Old Testament and it also included severe punitive measures. As regards the capital punishment, the laws say “[T]hou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (as cited in Balmer, 2008, p. 784). Therefore, retributive justice has been the norm for people since ancient times. Hebrew civilization followed these norms and never questioned their morality. These principles reigned in the western society in the Middle Ages up to the twentieth century. Greek and Roman legal systems were based on the two codes and, in their turn, influenced development of legal system of all European countries as the Roman Empire had a huge territory and imposed their laws in its numerous colonies. It is necessary to add that Christianity is closely connected with Judaism as the two religions refer to the Old Testament as one of major sources of knowledge (Copan, 2008).

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After all, Hammurabi keenly understood that, to achieve this goal, he needed one universal set of laws for all of the diverse peoples he conquered

Therefore, he sent legal experts throughout his kingdom to gather existing laws. These laws were reviewed and some were changed or eliminated before compiling his final list of 282 laws. Despite what many people believe, this code of laws was not the first.

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Balmer, T.A. (2008). Some thoughts on proportionality. Oregon Law Review, 87(1), 783-818.

Bessler, J.D. (2009). Revisiting Beccaria’s vision: The Enlightenment, America’s death penalty, and the abolition movement, Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy, 4(2), 195-328.

Copan, P. (2008). Is Yahweh a moral monster? The new atheists and Old Testament ethics. Philosophia Christi, 10(1), 7-37.

Fagan, J. (2006). Death and deterrence redux: Science, law and causal reasoning on capital punishment. Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, 4(1), 255-320.

Goel, V. (2008). Capital punishment: A human right examination case study and jurisprudence. International NGO Journal, 3(9), 152-161.

Grimes, J. (2010). The symbolic capital of capital punishment: A scholarly reflection. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Criminology, 2(1), 178-199.

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