Ancient Babylon was a city that lay on the delta of two rivers of what is modern Iraq, in an area known as Mesopotamia (a Greek word for "between the rivers").

It was one the first flowers of that great experiment of humanity: civilization.

The growing pains were miraculous in the result as by living together, cooperating, and submitting all to the rule of one of them, man suddenly found that they could flourish (see Origin of Law).

The success of early communities begat others and soon, by 3,800 BC, a whole network of official "royal" trade networks ran between large cites that dotted the region, the people known as the Sumerians. They had developed agriculture and irrigation (including the water wheel), language, simple math including fractions and positional notation (although they managed without a concept for zero until 350 BC), and dabbled in law, mostly an unwritten mass of wisdom passed from generation to generation.

In 1810 BC, in just another royal birth for Babylon but a seminal event for mankind, Hammurabi was born to the then-king of Babylon Sin-muballit, who had, through war, consolidated under Babylon rule all cities within 50 miles, a virtual little kingdom but surrounded by others, some much larger [note: the Louvre gives Hammurabi's year of birth as 1792 BC].

Babylon was in a state of constant military alert as it fought with neighboring cities for control of fertile land. Even the famous biblical city of Ur, which lay 100 miles to the South, played this game.

Hammurabi Code top of monumentHammurabi (pictured) took the throne when his father died in about 1792 BC. and a legal system well on its way as the precursor of modern law. Pre-Hammurabi contracts between merchant and consumer or between merchants, inscribed in stone, are exhibited by many museums around the world.

His first major challenge occurred in 1766 when the powerful kingdom to the Southeast, Elam invaded the plains and crept towards Babylon. Hammurabi at first tried an alliance with Babylon’s southern neighbor (and buffer territory) Larsa but soon opted instead to simply take it over, which was completed by 1763 BC. Then, Babylon turned his invigorated armies North and soon ruled over the entire plain, including Ur.

Hammurabi gets most of the credit for law and much is well-deserved for the dabbling ended and codification began with him. He polished Babylonian justice, mostly inherited from tribal customs, perhaps the most important of which was the freedom to, and state enforcement of, contract.

In the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Claude Johns wrote

"(C)enturies of law-abiding and litigious habitude had accumulated in the temple archives of each city vast stores of precedent in ancient deeds and the records of judicial decisions, and that intercourse had assimilated city custom. The universal habit of writing and perpetual recourse to written contract even more modified primitive custom and ancient precedent.

"Provided the parties could agree, the Code left them free to contract as a rule. Their deed of agreement was drawn up in the temple by a notary public, and confirmed by an oath 'by god and the king'. It was publicly sealed and witnessed by professional witnesses, as well as by collaterally interested parties. The manner in which it was thus executed may have been sufficient security that its stipulations were not impious or illegal.

Hammurabi, once he had conquered a territory he sent detailed instructions to his governor concerning the administration of the new province, religion observances, the deployment of troops, taxation (aka ‘tribute’), public works such as a canal system, and any adjustments to the official calendar.

But far more importantly, Hammurabi saw the need to extend Babylon laws and customs to his new territories and for that, he commissioned the writing of a code of laws to guide the people and define their duties.

This Code was drawn up on a least one set which has mostly survived to this day; 44 of the 49 columns of the legislation are set out on a monument about the height of a person. The top of the monument is pictured.

In A History of Egypt, British authors King and Hall wrote:

"This code shows to what an extent the administration of law and justice had been developed in Babylonia in the time of (Hammurabi). From the contracts and letters of the period we already knew that regular judges and duly appointed courts of law were in existence, and the Code itself was evidently intended by the king to give the royal sanction to a great body of legal decisions and enactments which already possessed the authority conferred by custom and tradition....

"After a case had been heard and judgment had been given, a summary of the case and of the evidence, together with the judgment, was drawn up and written out on tablets in due legal form and phraseology. A list of the witnesses was appended, and, after the tablet had been dated and sealed, it was stored away among the legal archives of the court, where it was ready for production in the event of any future appeal or case in which the recorded decision was involved.

"Moreover, when once a judgment had been given and had been duly recorded it was irrevocable, and if any judge attempted to alter such a decision he was severely punished....

"A further check upon injustice was provided by the custom of the elders of the city, who sat with the judge and assisted him in the carrying out of his duties; and it was always open to a man, if he believed that he could not get justice enforced, to make an appeal to the king."

The Code was discovered by archaeologists in Susa, Iran in 1901. Now at the Louvre Museum in Paris, it was astonishingly avant garde because it guaranteed Babylonians a gamut of legal rights which would ebb and flow with future emulators - but not improved upon - for three thousand years.

Hammurabi’s integrity and hands-on justice, is evidenced from the many letters recovered from the period. From King and Hall op.cit.

"The king was anxious to stamp out all corruption on the part of those who were invested with authority, and he had no mercy on any of his officers who were convicted of taking bribes. When he was convinced of the justice of any claim, he would decide the case himself and send instructions to the local authorities to see that his decision was duly carried out.

"In cases where fraud was proved Hammurabi had no mercy, and summoned the money-lender to Babylon to receive punishment, however wealthy and powerful he might be."

No law can be effective without an enforcement apparatus behind it, government. Hammurabi entrenched and polished the system given to him by his ancestors and deployed an army of officials including judges.

Hammurabi died in 1750 BC, passing on the reigns of what historians refer to as the First Babylonian Dynasty to his son Samsu-Iluna.

The beauty of public laws was established and would be picked up with a vengeance by the Romans with their Twelve Tables.

REFERENCES, RESEARCH AND FURTHER READING