The Hammurabi Code: Amelu vs. Muskenu

Hammurabi Limestone Relief | Courtesy of the trustees of the British Museum; photograph, J.R. Freeman & Co. Ltd.

Within the years 1792 and 1750 BCE, one of the most influential rulers known in ancient history emerged in the Babylonian Empire. Hammurabi took the throne as the sixth king of the first Babylonian Empire. He was known as a great warrior, an honored statesman, and an emperor who took a great interest in restoring the empire’s religious temples and values.1 He referred to himself as the “king of the four quarters of the world,” claiming that he was chosen by the gods to “destroy the wicked in the land and evil [so] that the strong might not oppress the weak.” Not only is Hammurabi known as a warrior, statesman, and religious man, but he is also remembered for his famous Code of Laws, the Hammurabi Code: a set of laws that is described as the “most extensive and most complete law code” of the Mesopotamian time.2

Inscribed stone stele | Courtesy of The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide
Code of Hammurabi inscribed on stone stele | Courtesy of The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

The laws were written on clay tablets to bring forth a legal system for those in authority to enforce. The Code acted as the legal foundation to a sophisticated society that the Babylonians had become. The laws were meant to bring a form of equality among the people. However, consequences and punishments given to a guilty party did not always reflect the kind of equality that we today would expect. These sets of laws not only brought a legal system, but also put on display the legal basis for a differentiated treatment of individuals based on wealth and gender. Within the Babylonian empire the population was divided into three classes.3 The classes were given the names Amelu, Muskenu, and Ardu. Each social class had specific rights and characteristics to them, as well as determined what quarter of the empire they were to live in.4

The code relies on the concept of lex talionis, or law of retaliation. It is commonly known as an “eye for an eye” justice. According to what the guilty party did, their punishment should thus reflect it.5 However, in some instances, this was not the case. The differences in punishments relied a great deal on which social class the victim or perpetrator belonged to. Many times, the Amelu, the elite class on the social spectrum, would be given lesser sentences than the poor by Hammurabi’s Code. For example, if the Amelu were to harm someone from the Muskenu  class, the Amelu would merely be subject to a restitution in the form of silver. Committing the same crime against the Amelu, the Muskenu would be subjected to a much more severe punishment, in accordance with the Code. Furthermore, if the violator of the code could not pay or replace what had been harmed, the violator would be sent to immediate death.6 More often than not, it was the members of the lower class who were being accused of crimes and were unable to pay the restitutions.

The legal foundations of aristocratic privileges are evident in ancient Mesopotamian history. This was due to the economic importance and responsibilities held by the Amelu. During this time in history, one’s wealth, what official position one held, and which family one was born into, determined how one would be treated under the law. Differences in cases and punishment were arranged to benefit the “value” and “dignity” that the Amelu held within the society. The top of the social pyramid was seen as more important; therefore, committing any devaluing crime against them in any way was dealt with very firmly in comparison to how crimes committed on the Muskenu were handled.7 Although many judges of this civilization carried out the law according to Hammurabi’s standards, in which the higher class held a greater value in the society in comparison to the poor, some judges struggled to ensure that the Muskenu was not being oppressed by the Amelu.8

The code that Hammurabi introduced to the Babylonian people had a great impact as it brought social order and a structured legal system. Overall, the code created a commonality in standards for those in authority when deciding punishments and consequences to a violator of the law. Hammurabi’s Code is believed to be the first set of written laws in human history.

  1. George S. Duncan, “The Code of Moses and the Code of Hammurabi,” The Biblical World 23, no. 3 (1904): 188.
  2. Jerry Bentley and Herbert Ziegler, Traditions & Encounters, Volume 1 From the Beginning to 1500, 5 edition (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2010), 29-30.
  3. Salem Press Encyclopedia, August 2016, s.v. “Promulgation of Hammurabi’s Code,” by Mary Jegen.
  4.  Ancient History Sourcebook, 1915, “The Code of Hammurabi: Introduction,” by Charles Horne.
  5. Jerry Bentley and Herbert Ziegler, Traditions & Encounters, Volume 1 From the Beginning to 1500, 5 edition, 30.
  6. William F. Edgerton, “Amêlu and Muškênu in the Code of Hammurabi,” The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 41, no. 1 (1924): 58–63.
  7. Edgerton, “Amêlu and Muškênu in the Code of Hammurabi,” 63.
  8. Jerry Bentley and Herbert Ziegler, Traditions & Encounters, Volume 1 From the Beginning to 1500, 5 edition, 30.

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35 Responses

  1. The fact that these codes were brought forth to create a legal system in this society is very interesting. The complex set of rules called for justice… but not for all. The poor class was treated as if they were nothing, nor owned nothing when their life was as precious as to those who were rich. The unequal laws and the eye for an eye system I believe doesn’t work and it breaks a lot of moral codes.

  2. Hammurabi’s Code will undoubtedly go down as the basis/original set of laws in this world. It was interesting how literal they took the meaning of “an eye for an eye” as if you were convicted of a wrong act, the punishments that were ensued were insane. These laws were important as they brought upon the basis of laws that were eventually modified to go with our way of life.

  3. I’ve only ever heard what Hammurabi’s Code was rather than the history behind it and the impact it had on todays society with the creation of many of our modern rules and laws that we follow unless we want to be punished for it. I think it’s important that all of us realize how truly important this set of laws was, and that we maybe even push to teach people about it more as it is an important pillar of foundation for our society.

  4. The Hammurabi code is an extensive law list that was probably much more intricate due to different social classes receiving different punishments. It is interesting to see how old the saying “an eye for an eye” is, and it is more surprising how I had its meaning completely warped. Nevertheless, it was just a tad unfair that the poor were being executed for not being able to pay for their crimes.

  5. It is important to note the importance of the Code of Hammurabi in history as the foundation of law codes in societies. This article gives great insight into how the values of social class were handled by the Babylonians and I believe that some of those qualities can be seen in present day society sometimes. It’s easy to read about of the Code of Hammurabi and be astonished by the fact that the wealthy Amelu were given punishments that were lower in severity than the less wealthy Muskenu, but it’s also important to note that our world can often times mirror this.

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