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. Crime and Punishment 2

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 arm—he shall weigh out half a mina silver. If he broke his leg—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 Crime and Punishment 3

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...
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