Code of Law

June 2, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Reading through the list of punishments in Dante's Inferno had a very visceral effect on me. I was thinking about the type of lifestyle that would lead one to create such insane punishments. After putting a little bit of thought into systems of punishment, I decided (squeamishness aside) to investigate other ancient texts that include codes of conduct. Today's blog discusses three of these ancient documents: first, Hammurabi's Code of Laws, then Assyrian pillars and writings, and finally I return to Dante's Inferno.

Hammurabi's Code of Laws is probably the most famous first set of laws. Though it may not have been the first in actuality, it is an example of an an early record of cohesive law. The necessity of these laws indicates two things to me: first, that populations are beginning to seek larger communities in which an unbiased law would, at the very least, be helpful; and second, that creating a universal law seemingly assists the public more than the ruler. Of course, living within a known set of rules is preferable to living with chaos and unknowns. A set law attempts to restrict the ruler from arbitrarily changing their minds, while also outlining neighborly conduct. This, in turn, benefits the ruler because structure would enable them to successfully integrate outsiders into his own kingdom.

From this code comes the famous quote “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. In other words, Hammurabi's code is known as a retaliatory code, one in which the punishment attempts to equal the crime. A few examples* of his crimes include:

2 - If any one bring an accusation against a man, and the accused go to the river and leap into the river, if he sink in the river his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if the river prove that the accused is not guilty, and he escape unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death, while he who leaped into the river shall take possession of the house that had belonged to his accuser.

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

127 - If any one "point the finger" (slander) at a sister of a god or the wife of any one, and can not prove it, this man shall be taken before the judges and his brow shall be marked. (by cutting the skin, or perhaps hair.)

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.

Many of Hammurabi's laws deal with property (land, goods, or slaves). At times strict, and at times generous, they define concrete rules for living among a wide variety of people. This would have been crucial to the success of a kingdom which incorporated many conquered peoples. In my mind, however, the punishments of the accuser or the accused would often end in death, so it seems most wise to avoid accusation altogether.

Fast forward a couple hundred years, to the height of the Assyrian empire which is known for its strength in war. Their vast military specialized in diversity such as: archers, foot soldiers and cavalry. The Assyrian society was known for military exploits and techniques that destroyed walled cities. They gained nearly all of their capital by sacking and looting other cities. Their art and writings coupled strong, gruesome language with brutal pictures in order to boast of their success and also to warn opponents away. Without a coherent law, however, they simply relied on fear and intimidation. Perhaps due to a lack of regulated legal codes, the Assyrian kings found themselves fighting more uprisings than new lands. The uprisings eventually put an end to this regime. Yet, their tablets describing torture and military practices remain.** It is noteworthy to add that the Romans may have incorporated some of the Assyrian warfare model.***

Fast forward a bunch and we arrive at Dante's Inferno. (Yes, I am skipping many many things all of which deserve mention. For another time, perhaps.) I do not claim that Dante knew of Hammurabi or of the Assyrian legacy, per se. However, Dante participates in this conversation by writing another code – although this time, in a narrative form, independent of historical fact. His writings include punishments which fit the crime, much like Hammurabi's “eye for an eye”, and some of which are brutal tortures reminiscent of Assyrian tablets. For example, in the sixth bolgia, Dante punishes hypocrites by having them wear a beautifully ornate cloak of lead. The exterior's weight makes movement unbearably painful. Or in the ninth bolgia, those who caused riotous discord are disemboweled and slit down the middle to echo the rifts they caused in life.

Dante's narrative is another way to chart an incredibly complicated political time in which the Church was divided among itself. In fact, Dante's political ties sent him into exile. In his circular narrative, therefore, Dante inserts members of all walks of life, including church leaders, politicians, merchants, family and friends. He then describes punishments for all of their supposed sins which effectively mapped Dante's view of virtue in the 14th century. It also established a very visual text of punishments for sin. Because strong images create strong memories, these texts demonstrate a way in which graphic punishments and threats have changed or shaped cultures and belief systems.


*All laws quoted from the Avalon Project:

and for more on Hammurabi's Code, visit:

** Find a few samples of their artwork here:

*** For more on warfare, read here:

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.