World Cultures General Glossary
Lex talionis

General Glossary
Law
   While all cultures have some system of social regulation and conflict resolution, law is a distinct phenomenon in that it is written and adminstered retribution and conflict resolution. The earliest human legal systems were almost universally forms of lex talionis, or "the law (lex) of retaliation." The lex talionis is a law of equal and direct retribution: in the words of the Hebrew scriptures, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, an arm for an arm, a life for a life."


Mesopotamia
The Amorites

Mesopotamian Reader
The Code of Hammurabi
   The earliest written code of laws was the Code of Hammurabi, the most famous of the Old Babylonian, or Amorite, kings of Mesopotamia. Hammurabi's code of laws is almost entirely based on the principle of equal and direct retribution; it betrays the origin of law in retributive violence. Since the lex talionis is often the earliest form that law takes, from it we can conclude that the basic function of law is revenge and retribution. Unlike direct retribution, however, the law is administered by the state or by individuals that cannot be victims of revenge in return. While revenge and retribution threatens to break down society as people take reciprocal revenge one another, revenge as it is embodied in law and administered by the state prevents mutual and reciprocal revenge from tearing the fabric of society apart.

Richard Hooker



World Cultures

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-3-97