Insurance and risk: some history


The Code of Hammurabi is a Babylonian law code dated from around 1750 BC. It consists of 282 laws dealing with all aspect of public life, citizen’s rights and obligations and the Babylonian kingdom’s justice system. The laws were inscribed on a stone stele (shown below) in honor of the king Hammurabi and on a number of clay tablets. The stele, discovered in 1901 in the south-east of Iran1, is today exposed at the Louvre museum in Paris. Written in cuneiform script and Akkadian language, it is one of the oldest deciphered writings of significant length in the world.

The Hammurabi Codex, as displayed in the Louvre museum

Several aspects of the code are remarkable, and quite modern2:

  • The law code is written to be accessible to the general population, instead of in an opaque manner that would restrict its understanding to a small elite group3.

  • The code explicitly recognizes the principle of equality of people before the law. It contains perhaps the first declaration of human rights in history: “To cause justice to prevail in the land […] that the strong may not oppress the weak […]”.

  • Several laws are explicitly designed to treat issues related to risk.

Risk management in the Hammurabi codex

Some laws in the Code of Hammurabi specify the professional responsibilities of builders / engineers:

  • If an engineer builds a house for someone, and does not construct it properly and the house falls in and kills its owner, then that engineer shall be put to death.

  • If the house ruins goods, he shall make compensation for them, and shall re-erect the house at his own expense.

Some laws cover the risks of extreme events affecting a financial loan:

  • A borrower is not required to repay a loan if some disaster impairs his ability to repay. Types of events covered include flooding, inability to work and death.

Some laws cover risks related to a form of maritime insurance:

  • If a merchant receives a loan to fund his shipment, he would pay the lender some money in compensation for the lender providing a guarantee that he would cancel the loan if the shipment sank or was stolen.

Maritime loans in ancient Rome

The Roman empire, and particularly its large cities such as Rome, depended heavily on maritime trade, the only form of transport that could supply a sufficient supply of food to support a large (for the time) city population. However, shipping was a hazardous activity, with many boats lost to bad weather, technical failures and pirates. The Romans developed a maritime law that included insurance-related concepts to allow shippers to share the risk of their activity with other investors.

For instance, a shipper could finance an expedition by setting up a loan backed by the ship hull (a class of loans called “bottomry”). If the ship were lost at sea, the lenders would lose their money; if the ship arrived at port, the owner would pay interest on the loan.

Medieval guilds

During the Middle Ages, tradespeople (workers specialized in a specific craft or trade, such as masons, carpenters, iron workers) were organized in organizations called guilds. The guild helped to develop the specialized technical knowledge associated with the profession, and young workers would be occupied as unpaid apprentices until they acquired sufficient skills. Each professional would pay a membership fee to the guild. If a guild member was affected by a fire or robbery, suffered a professional accident, or lived too old to work (not a very frequent “problem” in medieval times!), the guild would compensate the member or his family for the loss, a form of risk sharing that is similar to insurance.

Maritime insurance in the British Empire

The bottomry loans developed during the Roman times sometimes led to very high interest rates (up to 40%) to cover the risk of loss. The Catholic church decided in the 1200s that sea loans were usurious (unethical loans that unfairly enrich the lender), and banned their use. Merchants adapted by setting up other forms of risk transfer, such as joint ventures where business risks were pooled and a dedicated marine insurance policy was established.

In the late 1600s, the British were increasing the amount of shipping between England and the colonies. A London coffeehouse owned by Edward Lloyd became the main meeting place for merchants and investors to discuss insurance4. Merchants would present a copy of the ship’s cargo, and investors willing to cover risk of loss would sign at the bottom of the document5 stating that they were prepared to assume a percentage of the risk.


  1. The stele originally stood in Babylon (today in Iraq), but was most likely taken from there to Persia by the winner of some war.

  2. However, many aspects of the Hammurabi Codex seem rather harsh to a modern reader, in particular the punishments which are often quite gruesome, being “ancestors” of the “eye for an eye” principle of the Old Testament.

  3. Professions and groups of experts often tend to develop a specific vocabulary concerning their area of interest. The use of specialized language (for example, many technical areas use a large number of acronyms) can be useful, in allowing knowledgeable group members to express things more concisely and precisely than if they were using common language. However, it is also used as a cultural marker for group members to show that they have invested in learning relevant information, and as a barrier to the entry or a way of excluding newcomers.

  4. This coffeehouse later developed its insurance-related activity and gave its name to the large insurer Lloyd’s of London and to the Lloyd’s Register ship classification and risk assessment firm.

  5. This is the origin of the term “underwriting”, the act of writing under the name of the ship.