Teaching World History: Hammurabi's Code of Laws—Activities and Resources

This blog and the accompanying resource are part of a Shaped monthly series providing teachers for Grades 6–12 with downloadable world history classroom resources and discussion topics.

"An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth."

These words are a commonly noted paraphrase deriving from the Code of Hammurabi, who was the Babylonian king from 1792 to 1750 BC. According to the History Channel, Hammurabi's Code of Laws became "one of the earliest and most complete written legal codes." His collection of 282 rules, carved onto a finger-shaped black stone pillar, listed punishments and fines for crimes—for the wealthy, commoners, and slaves in the Babylonian Empire.

Punishments in the Babylonian Empire were largely based on social status. The now famous "eye for an eye" phrase refers to the concept that if one person injures another of the same social class, the assailant should receive a punishment of a similar nature. The implications would be less severe if a wealthy individual attacked a commoner or slave, for instance, and more severe in the reverse scenario.

But the importance of Hammurabi's Code extends beyond just that one phrase—it also helped shape, to varying degrees, future legal systems and precedents worldwide. To teach students the context surrounding the creation of the code of laws, have them look at the timeline below (with a supplemental enrichment activity available for download as a PDF) on the rise of the Babylonian Empire in Mesopotamia. Then, distribute the accompanying resources: a passage from Hammurabi's Code (primary source enrichment activity) and a related writing enrichment activity.

We hope you find the resources above useful in teaching students the story of Hammurabi’s Code of Laws and why it matters. The code offers insight into the history of law and social justice and is a topic that remains relevant in the social studies classroom to this day.

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Learn more about HMH Social Studies, which presents the rich, endlessly inventive story of our world, challenging students to dig deep into the past.

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