In current times, law and order are essential parts that keep modern politics intact. Google describes laws as rules that bind all the people of a specific community together. International laws are published so that all nations under them live in peace. The current approach towards law and order is to maintain world peace and avoid war and chaos.
But was it always the same? How was control maintained in ancient times?
Let’s talk about the code established by an emperor to maintain justice. The code that is still used as an example by many when they talk about justice – Hammurabi’s code!
While many think that Hammurabi’s code is the oldest mode of maintaining law and order, that is not true. Many codes existed even before Hammurabi’s code, and their sole purpose was to maintain order. One of these codes of laws was the Code of Ur – Nammu, which existed before Hammurabi’s time.
So, why exactly was Hammurabi’s code so special? What difference did it make in society?
The answer to this belongs in the geographical and cultural differences present in the kingdoms. Before Hammurabi’s rule, the emperors ruled an empire of multiple cultural differences. Every land and every community had their own Gods and regulations to follow. So what was allowed according to a particular community was not necessarily acceptable to another, leading to many blood feuds inside the kingdom.
Most rulers before Hammurabi solved this by putting a land or monetary penalty. But, this was not much effective as maintaining the order of the kingdom was practically under the control of various communities rather than the emperor.
When Hammurabi became the emperor and expanded his kingdom even further, it became even more challenging to maintain justice based on these community laws. This was when he released a set of 282 laws which later came to be known as Hammurabi’s code. It was a way to avoid communal vendettas by simply stating the crime and the punishment that would be applied in each case. The code ruled out the idea of communal understanding of Gods by doing this. The same rules applied to the entire kingdom independent of their cultural beliefs.
But, coming up with a new law is one thing, and people following it is another. Throughout history, we have seen many situations of protests when the regulations developed by the authorities were not acceptable to the subjects. In this instance, every community had their own beliefs and Gods, and a new law was basically challenging this belief.
What Hammurabi did to make people follow the code was simple; he replaced the internal beliefs of communities with a universal sentiment. He associated this code with Shamash, the God of Justice. This instilled a belief in people about its divine origin and unified them under law.
Through a code of 282 laws, Hammurabi maintained control over the diverse population of his kingdom. These 282 laws included prices, tariffs, trade, commerce, marriage, divorce, assault, theft, slavery and debt. It was this code that was famous for its Lex Talions or the law of retributive justice. To explain this, here is a phrase from the code:
“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a bone for a bone.”
The code maintained a standard and dealt strictly based on evidence. Along with this, all professional laws and their payments were also mentioned in the code. There were specific amounts that would be paid to doctors, builders, merchants, etc., maintaining social justice. There were also laws that ensured that malpractice could not be conducted in any profession.
For example, if a doctor performs surgery and the patient dies at his hand due to his mistake, his hands would be cut down. A similar code was applicable for builders too. If a house he built collapsed and killed the owner, the builder would be put to death.
So, it was putting justice in literal terms. But were the people actually equal in front of this code?
According to the code, different laws applied to men and women. They also differed among the class of people. There were different laws for the Nobel men, the general subjects and the slaves. Women residing in Babylon had only a few essential rights.
Like many ancient times, even in Hammurabi’s time, many things were ruled by ordeals when evidence was absent. The trial generally involved the accused being thrown into the river. If he survived, he was innocent, and if he didn’t, he was guilty. It didn’t matter if the person had committed the crime or not, if he knew swimming or not, the water currents in the river during that time, etc.
The same thing was applicable when a woman was accused of an affair. Even if she was not caught in the act, if someone accused her loyalty, she would be asked to jump in the river, just for the sake of her husband. So, the life of a woman was always dependant on the honour of her husband. Is that how small human life can be considered?
All people were definitely not considered equal under the law. Talking about classes, there was a difference in the punishment faced by the people, even if they committed the same crime but if they belonged to different classes.
For example, if a Nobel destroyed the eye of another Nobel, then his eye would be taken out; but if he committed the same crime towards a commoner, he would just have to pay one mina of silver, which is equal to 60 shekels and in turn if he did the same to a slave, it would cost him only half the price of the slave.
Another example of how small human life was considered. So, even though we talk about Hammurabi’s code as an instance of justice, but it wasn’t.
But when we talk about laws, are they really meant to maintain justice? No, they are just made to create deception of justice. The fact is that we would be no greater than stone-age men if these laws did not exist. We would be in a constant fight for survival leading to chaos. What these laws do is that they maintain order and peace.
In the instance of Hammurabi’s code, it did not matter if the code was just or not. What mattered was that people did not revolt during the entire reign of Hammurabi. There were no blood feuds. The people believed in the code and the emperor, making it easier to control them.