Why are there so many laws about eye injuries in the Code of Hammurabi? (And so few laws about other body parts injuries.)

I want to concentrate on injuries mentioned as the crimes of physical violence, not as penalties. So, there are blows and strikes mentioned eight times (not mentioning specific injury) in laws: 116, 195, 202, 203, 204, 205, 206, 209, 211. There is one maltreatment (116) and dying of wound (207). There are breaking bones three times (197, 198, 199), knocking out teeth two times (200, 201) , and putting out eye five times (196, 198, 199, 220, 247). Putting out eye is very specific injury. In our days it doesn’t happen frequently. (Maybe it was different in good old Mesopotamia.) It’s also interesting that law 247 is about putting out the eye of an ox! (http://www.general-intelligence.com/library/hr.pdf)

Hypothesis: 1. There was evil eye belief widespread in Mesopotamia, but I have no good idea how to connect it with Hammurabi’s Code. Bad idea: they try to disable someone’s spell by putting the eye out. 2. Nefertiti visited Mesopotamia. (Just a joke, because widely known bust of her missing left eye.)

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    see also this question
    – justCal
    Jan 6, 2020 at 16:47
  • Sure that "eye" is to be taken literally? I don't know, honestly, but this would be my guess. As in losing a tooth or breaking a bone is not that serious, but losing an eye is definitively a serious wound. Rather than just kill everybody stepping over the line, that allows to distinguish a little bit on the severity.
    – Damon
    Jan 6, 2020 at 22:29
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    It's also worth noting that the Code of Hammurabi is hardly balanced and comprehensive in its subject matter in general. It's full of remarkably specific rulings concerning topics like marriage and inheritance and rental contracts and standardized wages and what to do if two boats collide and one of them sinks, but it doesn't e.g. explicitly specify any punishment for murder. (The very first laws, about false testimony, do strongly imply that convicted murderers are to be killed — but apparently that was considered so obvious that it wasn't worth actually writing down as such!) Jan 7, 2020 at 3:28
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    Putting out eye is very specific injury. In our days it doesn’t happen frequently. I am afraid it is back into fashion in France, where 24 persons have lost an eye in 2019 after being shot by the infamous anti-riot "flashball" gun.
    – Evargalo
    Jan 7, 2020 at 10:06
  • I'm no expert, but blinding was a very widespread punishment in ancient times. Eye gouging rendered the victim harmless and imposed a burden on its relatives. New kings would often blind the old king, a punishment thought to be more humane than execution. Don't know if we have evidence of that practice in Babylon, would love to know.
    – PatrickT
    Jan 7, 2020 at 22:37

2 Answers 2


Most probably, this starts with a an untrue premise:
There are not so many laws about eye injury.

How many "laws" are there in the Hammurabi Code? — 282.
How many "laws" are there concerning consequences of eye injury?


One law for harm done by everyday accidents, brawls, malicious intent,
one for professional medical health & safety.

The "why" and "how" are much less important than "who does what to whom?".
A seemingly slightly higher number is only arrived at if we also count sub-sections.

Let's count them.

Accidental Injury (L196-201)

(196) If a man has destroyed the sight of another similar person, they shall destroy his sight.
(197) If he has broken another man's bone, they shall break one of his bones.
(198) If he has destroyed the sight of a working man or broken a bone of a working man, he shall pay one mana of silver.
(199) If he has destroyed the sight of another man's slave or broken a bone of another man's slave, he shall pay half his value in silver.
(200) If a man has knocked out the tooth of a man who is his colleague, they shall knock out his tooth.
(201) If he has knocked out the tooth of a working man, he shall pay a third of a mana of silver.

On first sight, that isn't "many". That is also evident in how the question presents its own numbers:

Q and putting out eye five times (196, 198, 199, 220, 247)

That is an entirely different class of "laws":

Medical and Veterinary Help (L215-25)
(215) If a physician has made a deep incision with a surgeon's knife on a man and has saved the man's life, or has opened out a man's eye- socket and saved the man's sight, he shall receive ten shekels of silver.
(216) If it was a working man's son, he shall receive five shekels of silver.
(217) If it was a slave, the slave's owner shall give the physician two shekels of silver.
(218) If a physician has made a deep incision with a surgeon's knife on a man and has caused the man's death, or has opened out a man's eye-socket and destroyed the man's sight, they shall cut off his hand.
(219) If a physician has made a deep incision with a surgeon's knife on a working man's slave and has caused his death, he shall make recompense with slave for slave.
(220) If he has opened up his eye-socket and destroyed his sight, he shall pay half of his value in silver.

In casuistic law (to regulate talionis), you cannot list everything.
Thus, you need example cases, here presented in a hierarchy: kill (very bad), eye-loss (permanent), broken bone (will heal) [only then how to apply it to classes (free, slave, animal)?]. We need to treat the hierarchy with salt, of course, as eg the magic spells part breaks our understanding much more than financial equivalents?

The question asks for laws about "eye injury". We see 3 equal cases of everyday damage, to be judged just sorted by class of people involved. For the actual injury, this is just one type of injury, "loss of sight". Thus we have basically one law number and additional subsections.

Then quality insurance to prevent or compensate iatrogenic damages. One that starts with operating around the eye and saving it to be compensated! Differentiating for carelessness and a codified risk/benefit ratio.

In relation to the hierarchy, the order of these "laws" present, it seems quite strange to count "eye injury" as "often":

L1–5 Unsubstantiated allegations L6–25 Theft
L26–41 Agriculture
L42–56 Agricultural tenants
L57–58 Livestock L59–66 Orchards
L67–69 Houses (sorting issues of sources)
L70–107 The merchant (–"–)
L108–111 Selling alcohol
L112–126 Other people's property
L127–195 Women and Children
L196–252 Compensation and fees
L253–258 Casual labour
L259–260 Fines for stolen implements
L261–267 Herdsmen and shepherds
L268–273 Hire of animals and equipment
L274 Tradesman's rates
L275–277 Rates for boats
L278-82 Slaves unable to work

— M.E.J. Richardson: "Hammurabi's Laws. Text, Translation and Glossary", T&T Clark International: London, New York, 2004.

So in reality, and taking the code for an actual compilation of actual laws (that is actually disputed), we do not see a very specific treatment of just one very specific injury. But a case of symbolic justice, standing in pars pro toto for a lot of similar cases.

The law of symmetry, 'essentially the same' bads be punished with an 'essentially the same' kind of bad whether actual 'eye for eye' or monetary. And a qualification for 'essentially not the same' treateed 'essentially differently'.

Hopefully, this kind of literal reading is partly dispelled with the alternative translation of "eye" used here (meaning often just sight, in many instances throughout the code very 'poetically'/metaphorically (('pleased his eye'/'his eye apple'))

"The eye" may have been 'very significant' in Mesopotamian culture. But the code of Hammurabi itself does only lend to significant insights towards medical practices around the eye being widespread. Just not: that 'eyes' were of that much more importance as alluded to in the question's various hypothesis.

The first qualification: It doesn't matter whether you kill by decapitating or breaking a neck, strangling or poisoning (or magic spells). What matters is that there is a dead body and 'someone did it'. What matters for the punishment is further the class relation between killer and victim.

The second qualification is related to intent: whether a doctor does harm by gross negligence/malpractice is treated differently compared to 'acceptable losses'?

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    Man, their surgical post-injury review boards were a little more aggressive than modern ones.
    – ceejayoz
    Jan 7, 2020 at 14:55

Because the circumstances are all different. In regards "blows and strikes":

  • [116] addresses loss of life, not blows per se.

  • [202] through [206] are all varying classes of assault under different circumstances.

The rest of this answer should assist you in interpreting the Code. Let's look closely at the laws pertaining to loss of an eye, in context:

196. If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out. [An eye for an eye]

197. ...

198. If he put out the eye of a freed man, or break the bone of a freed man, he shall pay one gold mina.

199. If he put out the eye of a man’s slave, or break the bone of a man’s slave, he shall pay one-half of its value.

There are three different crimes here - but the use of "man" is a confusion. Let's read it with "citizen" substituted.

196. If a citizen put out the eye of another citizen, his eye shall be put out. [An eye for an eye]

197. ...

198. If he put out the eye of a freed man, or break the bone of a freed man, he shall pay one gold mina.

199. If he put out the eye of a citizen’s slave, or break the bone of a citizen’s slave, he shall pay one-half of its value.

There are three classes of people being adjudicated, with varying penalties for the same act depending on the class of perpetrator and victim:

  • citizen
    A privileged native of the city. A property owner. From context of the rest of the code, free-born man and not merely a freed-man. Loss of an eye is an insult to honour rather than to income-earning capability, so the commensurate injury to honour is inflicted by law on the perpetrator.

  • freed-man
    A person who is not property but not a citizen either, who presumably works for a living and may have family and children. The compensation in this case is paid to the victim, as compensation for the reduced income-earning capability. One gold mina is a serious fine:

    However, before it was used as currency, a mina was a unit of measurement, equal to 1.25 pounds (0.57 kg).

    One of the early services of both guilds and fraternal associations was acting as a type of mutual insurance for members. If one were to incur such a fine without intent or malice, while engaging in one's professional activity (as guild member) or otherwise (fraternal association) then such a fine would be paid, on behalf of the member, by the guild/fraternity. Guild-like associations, collegia, are known as far back as Roman times, but may have existed earlier.

  • slave
    A person who is property of a citizen. A serious damage to this property is judged to have significantly reduced its value, and the compensation (to the citizen) is half its market value. Note that the compensation is presumed to be paid to the owning citizen, though not explicitly stated in the Code.

Law 220 must be read in the context of 219 and is a specific instance of 199:

219. If a physician make a large incision in the slave of a freed man, and kill him, he shall replace the slave with another slave.

220. If he had opened a tumor with the operating knife, and put out his eye, he shall pay half his value

Here the injury is by the physician to "the slave of a freed man", and compensation is to that freed man.

Law 247 is similar, and demonstrates that an ox is treated exactly the same as a slave for the case of loss of an eye - penalty of one half its value to the owner.

247. If any one hire an ox, and put out its eye, he shall pay the owner one-half of its value.

Another answer by yours truly on specifically Laws 196-8 also touches on this.

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    I understand your point, but why lawmaker didn't write about other forms of severe injuring: spinal fracture, brain damage and generally about injuries whit permanent consequences. There is knocking out teeth, of course ... It could be because of their poor knowledge of medicine. Teeth and eyes, the loos of them is easy to notice, and many other forms of injuring are not so visible.
    – Igor
    Jan 6, 2020 at 15:45
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    My read on it is that putting out an eye is just given as an example. Basically, if one citizen causes some injury to another, that same injury will be given to them (penalties being reduced for people deemed of lesser value at the time). Jan 6, 2020 at 16:40
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    @DarrelHoffman: I agree in general. This Code strikes me as a compilation much like English Common Law following the conquest. However loss of an eye is a very specific injury due to the profound effects of blindness - thus dealt with separately in all the key circumstances. Jan 6, 2020 at 16:46
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    @ Pieter Geerkens: You are probably right. I should compare it to some other ancient and modern codes.
    – Igor
    Jan 6, 2020 at 17:14
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    Reading the laws in the answer, it doesn't seem odd to me at all and I hardly think its worth pursuing.
    – John Dee
    Jan 6, 2020 at 18:14

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