Law Codes or what Manu told the Hindus how to treat their Women


The Law Of TenFold Return   Reap What You Sow

Law codes can be defined as a collection of all laws. It follows from the definition that laws do not evolve all by themselves unless there are law-makers and law-enforcers. For such a development, the society following the codes need not be literate. However all the extant ancient law codes are from peoples who knew how to write. The first such existing code goes back to circa 2400 BCE and consists of tablets from the antique city of Ebla (modern Tell Mardikh) in Syria. Following this earliest example is another from ca 2050 BCE, and has been found among texts in the Museum of the Ancient Orient in Istanbul. It is from Ur Nammu, King of Sumer and Akkad belonging to the Third Dynasty of Ur. He proclaimed there that the god Nanna selected him to rule, and in addition to his royal duties he punished corrupt courtiers and introduced standard weights and measures. Next such code, written in Akkadian in two tablets dated circa 1920 BCE is from the ancient kingdom of Eshnunna and is in the Iraq Museum. It contains sixty regulations concerning properties laid down by the god Tispak, which the local king was asked to declare in writing. There are similar tablets, now in the University of Pennsylvania, written in Sumerian script giving directives on a  lot of matters said to be from the King Lipit-Ishtar in the closing years of the twentieth century BCE.  Then, there are the Mid-Assyrian group of  clay tablets citing the laws of ancient Ashur (modern Qalat Shergat) in the fifteenth century BCE, excavated by German archaeologists in the years preceding the first world war. The most comprehensive and detailed among all such codes is the code of Hammurabi written in Akkadian around 1728 – 1686 BCE, and found at Susa, east of Babylon in 1901. It is carved on a six feet high column of diorite and is now in the Louvre Museum, Paris.


Ancient Egypt — 3,000 BCE


About 5,000 years ago, there was an unwritten civil code in  Egypt  divided apparently in 12 sections. Based on the principle of  Ma’at, it emphasised tradition, rhetorical speech, social equality and impartiality in the judicial system. Regarded as the judgment of the dead, it was believed that the heart of the deceased would be weighed by the god Horus with ostrich feathers, head dress of the goddess Ma’at symbolizing justice. A heavy heart indicated that it was so due to evil deeds, and the body and the soul of the deceased would then be eaten by a special beast. If, however, the heart balanced itself against the feathers, then it was good, honest, and just. As a reward, the soul was allowed to live forever. It would be therefore apparent that the religious and secular aspects of the Egyptian society of the times were not separable. Perhaps, for this reason the judges used to wear a small figure of the goddess as a pendant round their necks, which also indicated that Ma’at stood for natural balance and order along with ethics and morality. Tradition was considered important because the Egyptians lived  undisturbed in the valley of the Nile without any threats from invaders. Geographical features kept them away allowing the Egyptians to hold recurring festivals and follow traditional rituals for centuries and millennia. Consequently, a sort of record of the judgments were maintained and the system of justice evolved over a long period of time. Oratorical skill or the ability to make or break a case was given importance in the Middle Kingdom(ca 2040 – 1674 BCE) and thereafter, while the centuries preceding established impartiality as essential (ca 2200 – 2040 BCE) in the justice system.  The belief that before  god all his creations  were equal gave rise to the concept of equality also in the Middle Kingdom.


Law  Codes  of   Lipit – Ishtar  —  20th  Century   BCE


He belonged to the first dynasty of Isin and was its fifth king from ca 1934 – 1924  BCE.  He is known for the poems written in his honour in Sumerian language as also a law code, the authenticity of which is doubtful. These were used by the scholars of the times for centuries after his death. Inscriptions and documents of  Lipit-Ishtar were found in Asia Minor and Mesopotamia, from which the following excerpts are obtained :


1 – If a man is caught stealing from someone else’s orchard, he has to pay a fine of ten shekels of silver.

2 – And, if he cuts down a tree there, the penalty shall be half a mina of silver.

3 – If a married man with children begets more from his slave, then the slave and her children (on being granted freedom by her master) shall not lay any claim on his property.

4 – If a married couple is issueless, and the man fathers children from a harlot, then the man shall provide clothing, grain and oil to that woman, and the children she has borne him shall become his heirs. The woman shall not live in the same house with the wife.

5 – The owners of adjacent houses / plots are required to get into an agreement that if one is harmed due to faults / defects in his neighbour’s property, then the aggrieved is to be compensated by the offender.

6 – If a man hired an ox and injured its eye, he has to pay half the price of the ox.

7 – For injuries in the part of the nose where the nose ring is fitted (under the cicumstances given in 6), the fine is one-third the price of the ox.

8 – For a broken horn (under conditions as in 6), the penalty is one -fourth.

9 – Compensation same as 8 for injuries in the tail.


Eshnunna  Code  on  Properties — 1920  BCE


The  Eshnunna Code gave directions on hiring, wages, punishments for theft, compensations for loss of limbs and such other aspects as would be seen in the excerpts following :


10 – A donkey can be hired for a day for 1 seah of barley and its driver is to be given the same quantity in addition.

11 – One shekel of silver is the monthly wage of a hired man and for food he is to get one pan of barley daily.

12 – A man stealing crops from the field of a palce/temple official during daytime is to pay a fine of 10 shekels of silver. If  caught at night, he has to die.

13 – Punishment as above for household thefts.

42 – A man biting off the nose of another man shall pay one mina of silver; for the loss of an eye, the fine is the same amount; for an ear, 1/2 mina; while the fine for a slap on the face is 10 shekels of silver.

44 – During an altercation, if a man floors another and breaks his hand, the offender shall pay

1/2 mina of silver as compensation.

48 – There will be a formal trial for all cases involving penalties ranging from two-thirds of a mina to one mina. The trial for a capital offence is submitted before the king …

53 – If an ox gores to death another ox, then both the owners are to divide among themselves the prices of the dead and the live ox.

54 – If an ox gores by habit, the authorities are to bring this to the notice of the owner as a warning. Despite this, if the owner does not dehorn the ox, and the ox gores another man to death, then the owner shall pay a penalty of two-thirds of a mina of silver.

57 – If a vicious dog bites a slave and the slave dies, then the owner of the dog shall pay a penalty of 15 shekels of silver.

58 – If a wall is about to collapse, then the authorities are to warn the owner and he is liable to take measures to prevent it. Despite this, if the wall falls and kills a free man, then it is a capital offence, under the jurisdiction of the king.


Codex  of   Hammurabi —  18th  Century  BCE


Modern archaeologists view the Law Codes or Codex of Hammurabi as a very important discovery of this nature so far. The Codex offers a fascinating glimpse of the mores and morals; the life and times; and the beliefs and values in ancient Babylonia. Babylonia in the past is the vast tract of land to the south of Mesopotamia in modern Iraq containing the territories of Akkad and Sumer.  The semitic tribe of Amorites coming from the west of the Euphrates river gained control over most of the area, but it was not entirely unified. The most powerful city state there was Isin of the Sumerians while the Amorites in course of time formed another in Babylon. The “Amorite” colonists were there mainly for the purpose of trade, and the Babylonians were in contact with other city states. Officials, peoples and troops went from Babylon to Canaan, Syria and other places. As the semitic tribes settled down in the area, their tribal customs were adopted as laws. There were constant struggles for supremacy between the cities with the victorious demanding tributes and troops from the subjugated ones. The customs and cults along with their city rights and usages were, however, left untouched. For instance, after the acquisition of Assur-bani-pal and Shamash-shum-ukin, the Babylonians urged that the city  allow free entry to twenty foreigners at one time; that foreign women married to Babylonians are not to be treated as slaves; and that not even a dog is to be killed without trial !   A widely irrigated and strategically located area for trade, Babylon was the meeting point of diverse groups of people. Its hanging gardens were considered as one of the seven wonders of ancient world by the Greek engineer and mathematician Philon along with the Greek poet and writer Antipater of Sidon circa 200 BCE.


Hammurabi (ca. 1810 BC – 1750 BCE) vanquished the dynasty of  Isin thus bringing to an end the centuries old domination of the  Sumerians over Mesopotamia, and held together the diverse peoples residing there by formulating the laws known as the Codex named after him.  His empire disintegrated after his death, but the laws he laid down survived even after Persian, Greek and Parthian invasions, disruptions with little effect on private life in Babylonia, and continued so as to leave its imprint on the subsequent  Syro – Roman  and the much later Islamic laws in Mesopotamia. It is believed by some experts that Moses ca 300 years after Hammurabi lifted quite a lot from the Codex  to frame his laws known as the Mosaic Law or the Laws of Moses. As evidence they point out, in addition to other similarities,  the famous (or infamous, depending on the point of view) “eye for an eye” principle of retribution. Other experts, notably Biblical archaeologists, say that the similarities are  more on the surface than in depth. In support of their contention, they point out that in Mosaic law the principle of retributive justice is applied universally without any distinction relating to the position of the offender. In the Codex, however, the law applies only between parties of the same status – such as, nobility, priestly, upper class, middle class, lower class and so on.


Though not exactly a line by line copy,  there are many correspondences between the Codex and the Torah of the Mosaic Bible or the first five Books of Moses.  The Codex provides a list of crimes and the various punishments for committing them would attract along with the procedures for settling common disputes. Guidelines for citizens’ behaviour and conduct are there, but there is no provision for excuses and explanations. However, it is implied that evidences for defence are admissible. Hammurabi is stated to have displayed the Codex in the market  so that nobody could say that he was not aware of the law. Scholars dispute this because very few people could read at that time. Literacy in that era was limited to the scribes and few others.  Punishments given in the Codex may appear to be exceedingly cruel and harsh to modern readers,  but that does not alter the fact that with these laws Hammurabi attempted to unify widely disparate groups of peoples into a whole – a crucial necessity for a civilisation. It  can not also be denied that the laws are essentially humanitarian in their aim and direction, and recognized the identity assigned to a group or the modern corporate personality.  Parts of it were recovered from Assur-bani-pal’s library at Nineveh and later copies of it made in Babylon show that it was studied closely, divided into chapters beginning with the words Ninu ilu sirum and recopied extensively for more than a millennium and a half.  A cornerstone of  the legal system is the concept that some laws are so basic that even the most powerful monarch on the earth can not change them.  By inscribing his laws in stone,  Hammurabi  made the concept  everlasting.


State Laws


Hammurabi’s laws  are the  laws of a state, first and foremost.  Features of tribal customs like self – help, blood – feud , marriage by capture and so on are not there. However, the traditions of family solidarity, district responsibility, ordeal and primitive retributive measures illustrated in lex murabi and talionis (an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth)  are retained.  A benevolent autocrat,  the  monarch possesses the strength and willingness to defend and protect the weak from the depredations of the most  powerful of  oppressors and  keeps the doors to his court always open for this purpose.  Royal intervention ceases only after the private complainant is appeased or the causes of public resentment are  removed. Feudalities subservient to the monarch cover the land;  masters of the levy collect the taxes; a regular police force maintains peace and order;  and a postal network receive and distribute mails. The society regards the women as its free and dignified members. It is said that the Babylonians felt so secured that they did not think twice to ride in their carriages to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea for work and relaxation. No doubt, such conditions were created and fostered in the past,  in centuries – old  law  abiding habits of the peoples and to  their  generally  litigious approach to settle disputes. The tendency to write down important things, the practice of maintaining records and to store such materials in the vast archives in the temples of the cities also helped matters. Interestingly,  the Babylonians always took recourse to written contracts, perhaps as  a guard against being cheated  by the peoples from other places with whom they did business.  Such business deals and  interactions helped in assimilation of the customs of different cities.


Hammurabi was of the view that he had been chosen by the gods to administer justice to his people and said so in the upper portion of the diorite column on which the Codex was inscribed. This section of the column now in the Louvre shows the monarch standing in front of the throne of the sun god Shamash and receiving a tablet from him. There it is engraved,  “Anu and  Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land”.  Incidentally, circa one and a half millennia later, Emperor  Ashoka of  India  installed stone edicts in various places where he called himself “Piyadassi or the favourite of the Gods”.  Ashoka, however, was propagating  Buddhism  through these edicts.


There are 282 numbers of laws in the Codex, of which the numbers 13 and 66 to 99 are missing in the Louvre stela. Perhaps, this happened when the Elamite king Shutruk – Nahhunte carried it as plunder to Susa in Elam (modern Khuzestan in Iran), where it was discovered in Decmber, 1901.  Written in Akkadian language, the stela containing the text is also stated to have been installed (perhaps, initially) in the temple of Marduk  during the closing years of the reign of Hammurabi. According to the Codex, anyone can enter into a contract with someone else provided they both agree to its terms. A notary public wrote the deed of agreement in a temple;  it was confirmed with an oath “by god and the king”, and publicly sealed before professional witnesses as also collaterally interested parties.  The manner in which the processes were carried out ensured that there was nothing irreligious or illegal in the contract.  If there was a dispute, the judges first examined the contract which they might or might not support. There was a provision for appeal against such judgment,  having regard to which some contracts initially stipulated that the parties would abide by “the decision of the king” in the event of  future disputes. For a large number of cases, the Codex stated what the decision would be, and in such instances the appeals to the king were returned to the judges to decide accordingly.  Though not exactly like a modern treatise,  the Codex is a careful and logical collection of chapters arranged in the order of their subject – matters.




The Codex divides the people under three categories :  amelu,  muskinu  and  ardu. The amelu is on the top of the heap. He belongs to a family, has inherited property and enjoys full civil rights. His birth, marriage and death is in records. The king, his courtiers, the professions and the craftsmen constituted this class with some status. They have the right to retributive justice for corporal injuries to them, and are liable to a heavier punishment for crimes and offences as also higher fees and fines.  There is no specific property requirement, nor is there any racial undertone.  The  muskinu is somewhat difficult to define, and in time to come in Aramic and Hebrew as also in some modern languages would mean a beggar. The Codex does not regard him necessarily as poor, nor is there any restraint on his rights as a free man.  Probably, he is a landless person;  residing  in a separate  section of the city,  and who has to accept monetary compensation for corporal injuries to him. He pays smaller fees and fines, and his offerings to the gods are equally modest.  He has apparently no connection with the court or temple and does not form the majority of the population.  Not much is written about him in contemporary records, making him even more difficult to define.


The ardu is a slave, a property of his master. He and his kind are many in numbers, and in all probability form the bulk of the population. His master feeds and clothes him, and takes away all the compensation paid for injuries caused to him. Normally, his master finds him a slave – girl to marry, and children born to the couple are also slaves, property of the master. Often, the master provides him a house with a busines or agricultural farm to run and takes an annual rent from him. He is allowed to have slaves of his own and employ them to get his work done. He is also allowed to marry a free woman, and the money she may bring is not for the master to acquire. The children born to the couple are free, but the master has a right to half of the slave’s property in the event of his death.  He could free himself by paying his price to the master or could be free if he is dedicated to a temple or adopted by a free man. Then he straightway becomes an amelu, bypassing the category of muskinu.  Slaves are obtained by purchases from abroad or they could be the captives from a war. They could even be free men earlier, downgraded due to criminal acts or unpaid debts.  Naturally, they looked for opportunities to run away, and if captured the captor is bound to return him to the owner. The reward for this action is two shekels about one – tenth of the price of the slave. To detain or hide a slave or to help him in getting out of the city brings the punishment of death to the perpetrator. Slaves have for identification names of their owners branded or tattooed on their arms, removable only by surgery.




Long before Hammurabi, it was the custom to regard god as the owner of all lands and citizens as his tenants, administered by the king, his vice regent. Total  private ownership of  land  is therefore acknowledged in the Codex, and  the tax for it is to be paid in money, produce or service. Apparently, priests, merchants and resident foreigners can hold lands,  and all deals in land are subject to the payment of certain fixed charges. The king has the option to waive these charges, which he does as a form of reward through charters.  These charters also indicate what are the obligations of the land holder to  the king. He has to provide men for the army as also free labour. Generally, for a defined area, the land holder  would be required to get the king  a bowman (archer) and a pikeman to cover both of them with shields, and supply them everything that they need  during the campaign. Sometimes (obviously, for a large area) a horseman is also required. A man enlisted thus has to serve six terms, after which the landholder has to find a replacement usually from among the slaves and serfs (not excluding the amelu or the muskinu). The state requisitioned free or forced labour less often. A number of orders from Hammurabi giving exemptions from such requirements to priests and persons tending flocks of sheeps have been found.


Land holders containing water bodies or riparian owners are expressly required to keep in good repair canals, quays, bridges, etc., in addition to the normal levy of a proportion of  cash and agricultural produce. Each city is allowed to charge its own octroi and customs duties; and                                                                               ferry , road and water taxes.  The king has estates and the money he receives from subjects; high officials get residences and endowments from him. Rules governing certain feudal classes are given in the Codex. They get a house, garden, field , stock and a salary, for which they are required to be on the king’s beck and call at all times, a privilege they can decline only on pain of death. If required to go abroad, they could depute a capable son to go there. If there is no such son, he is replaced by a locum tenens (a temporary deputy) while one-third of his earnings are given to his wife and children for expenses. Excepting this provision, the fief  is otherwise inalienable and can not be devised, diminished, exchanged, pledged, sold or sublet. All other land is leased from the state, while ancestral estates remain with the family for all time.  Even then, if a land is sold the family retains the right of redemption in perpetuity.


The temple enjoys a unique position in the society,  receiving tithes, customary shares from sacrifices and other offerings of the devotees, large amounts of produces from its estate in addition to money and other gifts,  and employing many  people if it happens to be large.  It seems each city is initially a cluster round the temple, with the heads of all families there having  the right to minister the temple  and to a share in the receipts. In time, the families of the founders come to  possess the right to manage the shrine or its gates for so many days in a year, which becomes a kind of property that can, be rented, pledged or shared within the family, but not alienated. Even after meeting those demands, the temple has a lot of assets and becomes a large granary and a store – house besides being the city archive. The temple has its share of responsibilities. Poor farmers go there to borrow seed,  grain, and other requirements for farming, advances they are to return without interest. If a citizen becomes a prisoner of war, and is unable to secure his release by paying the enemy, the temple of his city has to intervene and do so. The king has no proprietary control over the temple; he only administers it. Like any other citizen he can borrow from the temple, and like them has to pay back.  Persons devoted entirely and solely to the service of god are called hierodules or vestals in the Codex. They are required to remain chaste and are forbidden to go to a public house or tavern. They live in large nunneries and like other devotees enjoy lots of benefits.


Disposal of properties can be done in a number of ways according to the Codex such as barter, deposit, dedication, gift, loan or pledge – all matters of contract.  A  sale  means handing over of the thing sold to the buyer, which in land deals is symbolized by a key, a staff or a sale deed given for the money paid and receipt. If sold on credit, the purchaser has to give a bond promising payment. Claims without supporting documents or witnesses are not admissible. The buyer has to check the sellers title before purchase. If he buys from a minor or a slave without power – of – attorney,  the transaction will be regarded as theft (the punishment for which is death). Likewise, a receiver of stolen goods has to produce the seller and supporting documents or witnesses to the transaction, failing which he is to be executed as a thief.  If he produces supporting documents or witnesses to the sale, he is spared and has to return the the things to the actual owner. He is of course entitled to press charges against the seller. If the seller is already dead, then he receives a five – fold compensation.  The purchaser of a property belonging to a fiefdom or to a ward in chancery has to return it to the owner without any compensation. A sale becomes invalid with immediate effect, if there is an undisclosed liability or a defect in the sale deed.


Generally, land holders cultivate their lands themselves. They can also engage a farmer to till the land or give it on rent . The farmer so employed is liable to properly carry out his task, raise an average crop and keep the field in good order. The Codex prescibes a statutory  return in the event of a crop failure. The losses due to crop failure in leased or rented land are to be borne by the tenant. If let on a profit sharing basis,  the loss is to be shared in the same proportion as the profit envisaged. The land holder has no right to interfere when the tenant is keeping the land in good order,  nor can he prevent the tenant from subletting it.  For waste land, the tenant is bound to reclaim it, and remains rent – free for the first three years, and thereafter a statuttory rent given in the Codex is charged. If he neglects to reclaim the land, not only he has to pay the statutory rent but also to return the land to the owner in good order (in a reclaimed condition).The same conditions are applicable to gardens and orchards,  but for date groves the free  tenure is for four years. Temple lands are mainly cultivated under the metayer system which is a form of share – cropping with the owner providing most of the required agricultural inputs like seed, food for the workmen, fodder for the cattle, etc. The caretaker or the tenant usually has land of his own, and if he steals any of the inputs given to him, the Codex states that his fingers be cut off. He is heavily fined if he appropriates the implements or starves the cattle, and is to be gored  and trampled to death by the cattle in the field if he fails to pay the fine. As irrigation is a prime requirement for raising crops, it is mandatory for the tenant to keep the system in good repair. If due to a damaged dyke or an open sluice the neighbour’s field is flooded and his crops are ruined, the caretaker has to pay for it or be sold with his family to raise the money. Stealing of water – bucket or other farming  implements is fined heavily. Houses are generally given on rent for a year or longer than that, and the rent is to be paid in advance every six months. The house is required to be kept in good condition by the tenant. Woodwork like doors and door frames  is removable, and the tenant is permitted to fix his own and to remove them when he is vacating the house. If the owner repossesses the house before the term is over, he must repay a fair proportion of the rent. A land holder can give his land on lease for the construction of houses and other buildings. Such buildings remain rent – free for eight to ten years, after which they become the land holder’s property.


Even with a plethora of slaves, hired help is necessary, especially during the harvests. The man hiring may or may not make the completion of the work a binding contract, and if so can ask for a surety or collateral. Hired cattle are used for ploughing, drawing water, threshing,  etc. The Codex has fixed wages for seed planters, ox drivers, labourers, etc., hiring charges for oxes and donkeys. Flocks and herds of sheeps are given to shepherds against receipts for taking the animals to pastures.  The shepherds get a statutory wage and are responsible for the care of the flocks and herds. They are liable to restore ox for ox, sheep for sheep, and are required to breed them satisfactorily. If he is less than honest in using the flock, the loss is to be compensated tenfold. If he is just negligent, he is required to make good the losses. If his flock gets into a field of crops, he has to pay for the losses fourfold;  for standing crops (about to be harvested) the compensation is twelvefold.  Losses due to disease or wild animal attack are to be borne by the owner.


Commerce  &  Trade


Commercial contracts generally stipulate payments in cash, in the currency of the place concerned, such as Babylon, Assyria, Larsa, Carchemish and so on. Payment in kind, however,  is common according to a statutory scale given in the Codex. Anyway, loan is given to a person and its recovery has to be from him. No distraint on the debtor’s grain or animals is allowed. If  there is such a forcible seizure, the debtor has to return the things taken.  He is fined and loses his claim altogether. A man charged for non – payment of debt  is allowed to nominate as mancipium or hostage to work off the debt, his wife, a child, or slave. The hostage can be held for only three years, and if the mancipium dies during that time due to natural causes the creditor is not responsible. If, however, the death is due to the cruelty of the creditor, he has to replace a son for a son or pay for a slave. Property is often pledged for a debt. Such property is to be of an intrinsic value equal to the debt. Personal guarantees are also common in which the guarantor himself is liable if the debtor fails to pay.


Having regard to the extensive trade carried throughout  Babylonia and beyond, the Codex lays down comprehensive rules for its conduct. A merchant normally gives his goods to a travelling agent to find markets for his goods or finances him for journeys beyond the limits of the empire in camel trains or caravans. The agent has to give a receipt for the goods received in detail. Claims are to be made on that basis, and the agent is liable to return double of what he received even if there is no profit. He is, however, exempted for losses due to robbery or extortion during his travels. If the agent cheats, he has to pay three times the amount involved;  for the lending mercant the fine is six times. The normal practice is to share the profit as per the contract, usually on a 50 – 50 basis.  The caravans  take the goods to the agent upfront, for which they give a receipt. They are fully responsible for the goods and obtain receipts on delivery. Failure to do so means paying a fine five times the value of the goods transported. He is paid his charges in advance.  Warehousing, especially of grain, is one – sixtieth of the value of the material stored. The storekeeper is to take all risks and pays double for any shortage, but claims are not admitted unless backed by a properly witnessed receipt. The Euphrates River and the canals carry a lot of water – borne traffic,  and ships (their tonnage determined by te amount of grain they carry) are continuously hired. Shipbuilding charges and the hiring rates for its crew are given in the Codex, and one year’s seaworthiness of the vessel is mandatory. The safety of the ship and the freight on board is the responsibility of the captain; he has to replace all losses. Disorderly conduct or treasonable activity in a tavern is not tolerated where the price of the liquor is fixed. The tavern – keeper is to report such matters and take the offenders to the police on the pain of death.  It is common to pay through a banker, and written drafts against deposits are accepted. Bonds for payment are accepted. Interests for overdue loans are very high. There are instances of even temples charging 30 percent.




The earlier practice of regarding marriage as a form of purchase continues, but is essentially a contract to be man and wife. Relatives arrange the marriage, the groom’s father pays the bride – price and the suitor presents this to the bride’s father along with other gifts. These are returned to the groom upon marriage together with the dowry, which is the daughter’s share of her father’s property. The bride –  price is  more than that of a slave, but varies widely depending on the status of the parties. If the father refuses to give her daughter in marriage after receiving the presents, he is to return double of what he received. If the groom changes his mind, he loses all that he has given as presents. Lands and such may be given as dowry, but usually it consisted of personal effects and household furniture. It remains with her for life and passes on to her children thereafter. The marriage is necessarily to be conducted by a freeman and is a ceremonial  joining of hands and the utterance of some formula of acceptance on the part of the bridegroom, as “I am the son of nobles, silver and gold shall fill thy lap, thou shalt be my wife, I will be thy husband. Like the fruit of a garden I will give thee offspring.”  According to the Codex, the marriage is not valid unless there is a specific contract  stating  the consequences to which each party is liable for repudiating the other. But the contract may contain provisions not in the Codex, such as, that the wife is to act as a maidservant to her mother-in-law, or to a first wife. The man and wife form a unit as to external responsibility, especially for debt. The man is responsible for debts contracted by his wife, even before her marriage, as well as for his own; but he can use her as a mancipium.  For this reason, the marriage contract  has the provision that the wife is not to be seized for her husband’s pre – nuptial debts and vice versa.  A man may make his wife a settlement by deed of gift, which gives her a life interest in part of his property, and he may allow her the right to bequeath it to a favourite child; but she is never allowed to leave it to her family. Even after marriage, she  remains a member of her father’s house – she is rarely named wife of A; usually daughter of B, or mother of C.


The man has the option to divorce, when he is required to give everything he has received in the marriage and the custody of the children to the wife.  Thereafter, he has to assign her the income  of field, or garden, as well as goods, to maintain herself and children until they become adults. She shares equally with the children the allowance (as also probably  his estate in the event of his death) and is free to marry again.  If  there is no children,  the dowry  is returned and the wife gets back  the bride – price. If  no bride – price has been paid, he has to pay her  a mina  of silver, written in the contract as forfeit  for repudiating a wife.  A  bad wife (undefined) has no such privileges. The man is permitted to send her away keeping the dowry and the children with him. The worse thing is that he can downgrade her to a slave in his house with just food and clothing for maintenance.  She  can retaliate by charging him with cruelty and neglect,  and if she proves her point  gets a judicial separation along with her dowry. There is no other  compensation  for her. If she proves wrong,  she is drowned.  The marriage is dissolved  if  a man  wilfully deserts his wife or is exiled. If he returns, he has no claim on her property and most probably not even on his own.  A widow stays on in her husband’s  house,  bringing up the children. She can  remarry  only after obtaining  judicial consent. In that event,  the judge checks and makes a list of every item  in the deceased’s estate and gives it  to her and her new husband in trust for the children. They are not permitted to sell or give away anything mentioned in the list.If she does not remarry, she lives on in her husband’s house and gets a child’s share on the division of his estate, when the children comes of age. She still retains her dowry and any settlement deeded to her by her husband, which goes to her children as inheritance. If she has remarried, all her children get an equal share in her dowry, but the first husband’s gift fell to his children, or to her selection among them, if she is so empowered.




Normally, monogamy is the rule, the exception is when a childless wife allows her husband to live with a maid (who is no wife) to bear him children.  The children are regarded as her own, and she remains the mistress of her maid. She is permitted to degrade the maid to slavery again for insolent behaviour, but is not allowed to sell her. If the wife gets a maid to live with her husband,  the Codex  does not allow the husband to take a concubine;  if she does not, he is free to do so. The concubine is a co-wife, though not of the same rank as the first wife; the first wife has no power over her.  A concubine is a free woman, is often given dowry for marriage, and her children are legitimate. She can only be divorced on the same conditions as a wife. If  a wife becomes a chronic invalid, the husband is bound to maintain her in the home they have made together, unless she prefers to take her dowry and return to her father’s house.  A man with an invalid wife is free to remarry. In all these instances, the children are legitimate and lawful heirs.There is, of course, no restraint on a man having children by a slave girl. Such children are born free, and their mother is not for sale. She becomes  free upon her master’s death. Her children are legitimized by their father’s acknowledgment before witnesses, and are often adopted. Thus adopted, they rank equally in sharing their father’s estate; but if not adopted, the first wife’s children divide the estate and take the first choice. The  vestal virgins are not  supposed to have children, even though they are permitted to marry and often do so. The provision of a wife giving her husband a maid in the Codex is also for this reason. Free women are permitted to marry slaves and are eligible for dowry for the marriage. Their children are free, and after the slave’s death, the wife takes her dowry and half of what she and her husband have acquired in wedlock for self and children; the master taking the other half, as his slave’s heir. A father has control over his children until they are married. He has a right to what they earn by their labour, in return for their keep. He has the authority to  hire them out and receive their wages,  pledge them for debt, even sell them outright. Mothers have the same rights in the absence of the father; elder brothers, when both parents are dead. A father has no right to ask his married children for support, but they retain the right to inherit on his death. A daughter is under the absolute control of her father; he decides everything for her;  often when she is a child.  He has the power to give her in marriage, dedicate her to the service of some god as a vestal or a hierodule; or give her as a concubine. She has no choice in these matters. When she is of age,  she can opt to become a votary or nun (may be to escape from an uncongenial marriage), and the father seemingly has no power to stop her from being one.

In all such instances, the father may provide her with a dowry.  If he does not, on his death her brothers are required to do so, giving her a full child’s share if a wife, a concubine or a vestal, but one-third of a child’s share if she is a hierodule or a Marduk  priestess. As the god Marduk holds a pre – eminent position in the Babylonian pantheon,  the priestesses in his temple have the privilege of exemption from state dues, and absolute control over their properties. All other daughters have only a life interest in their dowry.  It  reverts  to their family, if they are without any  children, or is inherited by their children when they have some. A father may decide to  execute a deed giving the daughter the power to leave her property to a favourite brother or sister.  Generally,  brothers look after the  properties of their sisters. If  she is not happy with them, she can appoint an agent or a steward. A married woman’s estate is managed by her husband. Apparently, a son also gets some share of  his  father’s  estate on marriage; but instead of leaving he brings his wife to live there. Usually, this happens in child  marriages.



The cardinal principle in criminal justice is the lex talionis –  eye for eye, tooth for tooth, limb for limb is the penalty for attacking and injuring an amelu. In a symbolic way this is reflected when the hand raised against a father is cut off, the eye which pries into forbidden secrets is blinded, and the ear (the organ of hearing and symbol of obedience) of a slave is removed for hitting a freeman.  Likewise, a surgeon whose negligence resulted in a loss of life or limb and a brander removing a slave’s identification mark lose their hands. False accusation, consequent to which someone else may have died, is punishable by death. The perjurer bringing false witnesses to put someone else to death also gets a sentence of death. The death penalty is freely awarded for theft, and other crimes considered as similar to that, like entry into the palace or the temple treasury with the intent to steal; unlawful purchase from a minor or slave; selling stolen goods or receiving the same; and kidnapping. For claiming ownership of goods falsely; for helping and sheltering runaway slaves or detaining and appropriating them;  for committing highway robbery; for dishonestly selling drinks; for causing death of a householder by bad building;  and a host of other similar crimes the penalty is death.  How the sentence is to be carried out or the method of execution is not specified in the Codex.  Anyway, gibbeting or hanging from a post at the scene of the crime for burglary; burning a vestal for entering a tavern; and drowning a man for rape are the punishments mentioned. Interesting applications of the principle of lex talionis are the sentences of death given to a creditor’s son for his father having caused the death of a debtor’s son as mancipium; to a builder’s son for his father’s responsibility in causing the death of a house-owner’s son by building the house badly; and to a man’s daughter because her father caused the death of another man’s daughter. It is but natural for contracts not to include such criminal developments in the text as a rule.  The marriage contract is an exception where it is specifically stated that the wife repudiating her husband is to be killed by putting her to sword or strangling or drowning. It is not clear who is the executioner in such instances.


An amelu beating up badly another amelu (who is superior to him in status) gets as punishment sixty strokes of an ox – hide scourge or whip.  Saying slanderous things about a married woman or vestal leads to the branding of the speaker, which is as bad as degradation to a slave. A corrupt judge loses his office permanently; while spendthrift wives and unfilial children are awarded slavery. Imprisonment is not recognized by the Codex, but it happens to be quite common. Most common among all penalties is monetary compensation or fine. Fines are imposed for corporal injuries to a muskinu or to a slave (paid to his master); for damages done to property, or for breach of contract. Goods appropriated, illegally bought, or damaged by neglect, are not only returned to the owner, but also are usually accompanied by a fine, giving it the form of multiple restoration. This can be double, treble, fourfold, fivefold, sixfold, tenfold, twelvefold, even thirtyfold, depending on the enormity of the offence.


Intent is an important matter for consideration according to the Codex.  Someone  killing a man in a quarrel has to swear that he has not done so intentionally, and he is then required only to pay a fine  depending on the status of the deceased.  Although, the Codex does not say what would be the penalty of murder, but death is invariably the punishment given to a murderer. If an  assault  results in  injury only and is unintentional, then the assailant in a quarrel has to pay the expenses for recovery.  A brander, coaxed to remove a slave’s identification mark, has to say under oath that he is not to be blamed, and is set free. If a mancipium dies due to  natural causes while under the creditor’s control, the creditor is not punished. Generally, accidents are regarded as a matter of chance unless proved that proper care has not been taken before its occurrence. A deserted wife living with someone else due to poverty is not punished.


Carelessness and negligence, however, are not excused. The negligent surgeon loses his hands , and so does a careless brander. Unsafe houses collapsing on their occupants are not only rebuilt, but also compensated for the properties damaged thereby. If there is loss of life, the offence is further compounded and the principle lex talionis is applied.  If  during the warranty period of one year a new boat is found defective, the boat – builder has to make it good again.


Status is another important matter for consideration in Codex, the position of the alleged accused is taken into account – mere suspicion is not a valid cause for conviction. The criminal has to be apprehended while he is committing the crime.  A man is not charged with theft, unless the stolen things are found in his pssession.


In a lawsuit, the plaintiffs argue their own cases – it seems there are no lawyers. The appeal, however, is in writing; obviously, helped by a notary in its drafting.  The judge examines the plea, calls the  other parties before him, and sent for the witnesses. If they are not available, the case is adjourned and summons are issued for the witnesses to appear before the judge.


Important lawsuits, especially those involving life and death, are tried by a bench of judges. The judges are assisted by a group of elders who support the verdict, but whose exact function is not quite clear. Deliberations over agreements, declarations and non-contentious cases are usually carried out  by one judge and twelve elders. The disputing parties and their witnesses are put on oath. Dishonest witnesses get the same punishment as the person on trial.  When matters are beyond the knowledge of people, like the guilt or innocence of  someone believed to be indulging in magic  or a  wife under suspicion, the ordeal by water is carried out.  The suspect is forced to jump  into the sacred river, when the innocent is expected to swim to safety and the guilty is expected to  drown. When no witnesses are there to support the accused, such as highway robbery, the price of a slave obtained abroad, etc., he is given an opportunity to clear himself of the charge by an oath upon his innocence. However, a written evidence is deemed to be the ultimate proof, and its loss considerably reduces the force of the appeal. In such instances, great efforts are made to convince the judges of its existence  by the terms of the affidavit  of the witnesses to it. If satisfied, the judge  issues an order that whenever found it has to be brought before the authorities. There are instances when the court has gone to see the  property along with the sacred symbols needed for making the oaths. The verdict is embodied  in writing, sealed and witnessed by the judges, the elders, witnesses, and a scribe.  The parties are given copies of the verdict after swearing that they would abide by the conditions stated threin. The scribe takes one copy for storage  in the archives.  Appeals to the king are permitted, and there are plenty of such examples. The court in Babylon appears to be superrior to those in the provincial cities, and a defendant has the right   to answer the charge before the local court, and refuse to plead at Babylon.  Lastly, offences not included in the Codex are severely denounced, and the offenders are warned that they are likely to be punished by  “the hand of God” as opposed to “the hand of the king.”


Excerpts from the Codex, Translated by Leonard William King, 1910


1. If any one ensnare another, putting a ban upon him, but he can not prove it, then he that ensnared him shall be put to death.

5. If a judge try a case, reach a decision, and present his judgment in writing; if later error shall appear in his decision, and it be through his own fault, then he shall pay twelve times the fine set by him in the case, and he shall be publicly removed from the judge’s bench, and never again shall he sit there to render judgement.

8. If any one steal cattle or sheep, or an ass, or a pig or a goat, if it belong to a god or to the court, the thief shall pay thirtyfold therefor; if they belonged to a freed man of the king he shall pay tenfold; if the thief has nothing with which to pay he shall be put to death.

15. If any one take a male or female slave of the court, or a male or female slave of a freed man, outside the city gates, he shall be put to death.

21. If any one break a hole into a house (break in to steal), he shall be put to death before that hole and be buried.

36. The field, garden, and house of a chieftain, of a man, or of one subject to quit-rent, can not be sold.

56. If a man let in the water, and the water overflow the plantation of his neighbor, he shall pay ten gur of corn for every ten gan of land.

103. If, while on the journey, an enemy take away from him anything that he had, the broker shall swear by God and be free of obligation.

110. If a “sister of a god” open a tavern, or enter a tavern to drink, then shall this woman be burned to death

121. If any one store corn in another man’s house he shall pay him storage at the rate of one gur for every five ka of corn per year.

126. If any one who has not lost his goods state that they have been lost, and make false claims: if he claim his goods and amount of injury before God, even though he has not lost them, he shall be fully compensated for all his loss claimed. (I.e., the oath is all that is needed.)

134. If any one be captured in war and there is not sustenance in his house, if then his wife go to another house this woman shall be held blameless.

142. If a woman quarrel with her husband, and say: “You are not congenial to me,” the reasons for her prejudice must be presented. If she is guiltless, and there is no fault on her part, but he leaves and neglects her, then no guilt attaches to this woman, she shall take her dowry and go back to her father’s house.

143. If she is not innocent, but leaves her husband, and ruins her house, neglecting her husband, this woman shall be cast into the water.

153. If the wife of one man on account of another man has their mates (her husband and the other man’s wife) murdered, both of them shall be impaled.

160. If a man bring chattels into the house of his father-in-law, and pay the “purchase price” (for his wife): if then the father of the girl say: “I will not give you my daughter,” he shall give him back all that he brought with him.

175. If a State slave or the slave of a freed man marry the daughter of a free man, and children are born, the master of the slave shall have no right to enslave the children of the free.

176. If, however, a State slave or the slave of a freed man marry a man’s daughter, and after he marries her she bring a dowry from a father’s house, if then they both enjoy it and found a household, and accumulate means, if then the slave die, then she who was free born may take her dowry, and all that her husband and she had earned; she shall divide them into two parts, one-half the master for the slave shall take, and the other half shall the free-born woman take for her children. If the free-born woman had no gift she shall take all that her husband and she had earned and divide it into two parts; and the master of the slave shall take one-half and she shall take the other for her children.

195. If a son strike his father, his hands shall be hewn off.

200. If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out.

206. If during a quarrel one man strike another and wound him, then he shall swear, “I did not injure him wittingly,” and pay the physicians.

226. If a barber, without the knowledge of his master, cut the sign of a slave on a slave not to be sold, the hands of this barber shall be cut off.

229 If a builder build a house for some one, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built fall in and kill its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.

265. If a herdsman, to whose care cattle or sheep have been entrusted, be guilty of fraud and make false returns of the natural increase, or sell them for money, then shall he be convicted and pay the owner ten times the loss.

273. If any one hire a day laborer, he shall pay him from the New Year until the fifth month (April to August, when days are long and the work hard) six gerahs in money per day; from the sixth month to the end of the year he shall give him five gerahs per day.

282. If a slave say to his master: “You are not my master,” if they convict him his master shall cut off his ear.


Hittite  Laws — ca 1600 BCE


It is believed that the Hittites were the first to introduce constitutional monarchy in an era when kings were considered to be vice regents of god.  There was a group known as pankus, who kept a close watch on the king’s activities.  In addition, the king and his family had to often face a rebellious aristrocracy.  With a monarchy  composed of such elements, no wonder that the  Hittites  made tremendous  progress in  legislation  and law. A collection of about 200 laws written in the Hittite cuneiform script was found at Hattusa in western Asia Minor.  It is a single work in two tablets containing the laws  of different periods of the Empire and indicating a steady progress towards mild punishments compared to the generally harsh retributions of the neighbouring contemporary kingdoms. For instance, the punishment for stealing was to compel the offender to give back the things stolen as opposed to death elsewhere. Copies of the laws were subsequently found written in Old, Middle and Late Hittite, thereby showing that the laws were in use as long as the Empire was in existence (ca 16th to 11th century BCE). One of the earlier law awards drawing and quartering for an offence relating to agriculture. Slaves, however, were punished severely. Their owners had the right to kill them at will. Generally, however, an animal was given in return for the slave along with some compensation. An interesting clause is the importance given to the area lying within the bend in the river Halys, regarded as forming the core of the Empire. It states that the reward for the capture of a fleeing slave on the other side of the river is more than that given for capture on this side. Rape was considered to be a capital offence, and a slave disobeying the owner or practising magic was doomed to die. The Hittite laws are in the form of case laws, that is, a situation is given in the beginning and a ruling follows. They are structured as in, if xxx…., then yyyy…. They are not issued as commands, like, you shall not…. Some examples :-


If  a  man burns down the house of another man, then he has to build the house and give it to the owner. He is not responsible for the loss of life and property due to the fire.


If a slave burns down the house of a man, then his owner has to compensate for it, and the slave is given to the owner after severing his nose and ears. If the owner does not compensate, then he has to give up the slave.


If in a quarrel a man or a woman is killed, then the offender has to provide four men or women  in restitution.


If a copper box is made by a smith, then he is paid one hundred pecks of barley. If it is a copper dish weighing two pounds, then he gets one peck of emmer.


If in a quarrel a man kills a female or male slave, then he is to give the owner two female or male slaves.


If a slave gets a groom among free men for his daughter after giving the bride price, then the groom is not to be considered a slave.


If a man injures another, then he has to look after the injured until he recovers, pay the expenses, and provide some one to do the housework of the injured. After recovery , he has to pay three shekels of silver.


If a man disagrees with the king, then he and his family members are decimated; if he questions a lord, then his head is cut off. If a slave rebels against his owner, then he is buried alive.


Mosaic  Law or the Laws of Moses  —  ca 16th Century BCE


These are the laws stated to be revealed by god to Moses on Mount Sinai for the Hebrew People or the Israelites, while they were  wandering around the desert for 40 years after getting out of  Egypt due to Pharaoh’s persecutions. The Torah is the collection of those revealed 613 instructions or mitzvots, which form the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh and of the Old Testament of the Bible of the Christians. Actually, the divisions are not quite clear cut. Torah is also used in a general sense to include Judaism’s oral and written laws containing all the  authoritative religious teachings over the ages, and is called the Five Books of Moses. In addition it is called the Pentateuch, after the Greek word meaning five containers or scroll cases in which the five books (scrolls) were kept. These books are :  Genesis; Exodus; Leviticus; Numbers; and Deuteronomy (Discourses). The story of creation is narrated in the Genesis along with the tale of Noah’s Ark; Exodus is the narrative of the Hebrew people’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land under the leadership of Moses; and Leviticus is the priest’s manual for rules and sacrifices. The Numbers gives a census of the Jews reaching towards the end of their journey, while Deuteronomy is a near recapitulation of all that has been stated in the first four books. Incidentally, Moses could not reach the goal he set for his followers to attain because of his disobedience to god in the final stage of the journey even though he lived for 120 years. According to some archaeologists, Moses seems to be a fictional character because of the absence of any evidence like shards of pottery, tablets, etc. relating to him. On the basis of the stories of him in the Bible, he is criticised by many for his intolerance and the harshness of his laws proclaiming death for offences considered to be minor subsequently. It seems, the most well known among his critics is Thomas Paine, who wrote :


“Among the most detestable villains in history, you could not find one worse than Moses. Here is an order, attributed to ‘God’ to butcher the boys, to massacre the mothers and to debauch and rape the daughters.”


John Stewart Mill in his essay, On Liberty, called the Mosaic Law “a barbaric law for a barbaric people.” Anyway, it is the belief of Orthodox Judaism that the Mosaic Law is applicable to Jews even today.  Moses is venerated by Jews and Roman Catholics, and is regarded as a Prophet by the Muslims and Bah’ais.  The following excerpts from the Exodus begin with the rules for social conduct (including the famous Ten Commandments), though no orderly sequence of numbering has been followed, and end with the civil laws.


1 And God  spake all these words, saying,
2 I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:
5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
7 Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:
10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:
11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

12 Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
13 Thou shalt not kill.
14 Thou shalt not commit adultery.
15 Thou shalt not steal.
16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.


Civil Laws

12 He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.
13 And if a man lie not in wait, but God deliver him into his hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee.
14 But if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbour, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from mine altar, that he may die.
15 And he that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death.
16 And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.
17 And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death.
18 And if men strive together, and one smite another with a stone, or with his fist, and he die not, but keepeth his bed:
19 If he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit: only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed.
20 And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.
21 Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.

23 And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life,
24 Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
25 Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
26 And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye’s sake.
27 And if he smite out his manservant’s tooth, or his maidservant’s tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake.

7 If a man shall deliver unto his neighbour money or stuff to keep, and it be stolen out of the man?s house; if the thief be found, let him pay double.
8 If the thief be not found, then t

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