What Is the Code of Hammurabi?

The Code of Hammurabi is a set of 282 pre-Biblical laws that were compiled by King Hammurabi to regulate Babylonian society in 18th-century B.C. Hammurabi had the laws inscribed on a 7.5-foot stone pillar, known as a stele. The Code of Hammurabi is often summarized with the statement, “an eye for an eye,” because many of its laws prescribe harsh punishments that mirror the crimes.

The Code of Hammurabi covers a wide range of conflicts, including property, slavery, debt, agriculture and familial disputes. The laws frequently call for retaliatory justice. For example, “If a son strike his father, his hands shall be hewn off.” The code is also credited with establishing many progressive laws, such as establishing minimum wages and recognizing a defendant’s innocence until the plaintiff provided proof.

French archaeologists, led by Jacques de Morgan, discovered the stele in modern-day Iran in 1901, and scholars consider it to be one of the oldest recorded examples of an organized law code. Hammurabi commanded legal experts to scour the kingdom for relevant laws and cases so he could compile a comprehensive code of conduct. However, scholars are uncertain of whether the code contained official laws or merely served as a guideline for settling legal disputes.