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Mesopotamia: The Code of Hammurabi
A Reading Comprehension Passage by Common Core Texts

In 1901, a large stone was found by archaeologists in the Middle East. It was covered in cuneiform. Cuneiform was an ancient writing system. When the archaeologists translated the writing, they learned that it was a set of laws. The archaeologists had found Hammurabi’s Code. Their discovery was one of the most important finds in human history.

Hammurabi was an ancient king in Mesopotamia. His kingdom was called Babylon. He was a bloody warlord and invaded his neighbors one by one. But Hammurabi was a peaceful ruler. He wanted his lands to be ruled by laws. So he wrote a code that clearly explained the law to his people. It listed what was against the law. It also explained punishments for breaking the law.

There were 282 laws in total. But unlike laws today, these laws were not the same for everyone. Hammurabi’s kingdom was divided into social classes. There were rich and powerful people called nobles. There were slaves who had no money or power. There were also many people who were in between. They were called commoners. Under Hammurabi’s Code, the social class of the criminal mattered. So did the social class of the victim.

For example, if a commoner hurt a noble, the commoner would be killed. But if a noble hurt a commoner, his punishment was much less harsh. What if the victim and the criminal were in the same class? Then the law was “an eye for an eye.” In other words, the punishment matched the crime. For example, if a slave broke another slave’s arm, his arm would be broken too!

The longest part of Hammurabi’s Code was about family and marriage. This section shows that Babylon was a patriarchy. Women had very few rights. Hammurabi’s Code said that a man could divorce his wife if she did not have children. Children were not treated much better than their mothers. For example, Hammurabi’s Code said that “If a son has struck his father, his hands shall be cut off.”

As you can see, Hammurabi’s Code could be very violent. But was it better than no written law at all? With a written code, the people knew what the law was. They also knew what punishment to expect if they broke the law. But as you have read, not everyone was equal under Hammurabi’s Code. Men were treated better than women. The rich and powerful were treated better than the poor and weak. But despite all of this, Hammurabi’s Code was one step toward a better, fairer civilization.

Cuneiform: an ancient writing system made up of wedge-shaped marks
Code: a set of laws
Warlord: a military leader
Patriarchy: : a society in which men hold the power and women do not. The opposite society is called a matriarchy.
Commoner: an ordinary person with no special wealth or power

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