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6-08-2015, 00:07

The Lawgivers

The oldest known Sumerian documents, which can be traced back to approximately 3300 BCE, tell the story of a regional culture that had already existed for more than 2,000 years.1 Their authors were living in what they understood to be an ancient world with ancient problems, ancient prejudices, and an ancient tradition. Historians’ best guess is that those responsible for leading this society were its high priests and high priestesses, the most famous and influential celebrities of their era.

Living in the giparu in the middle of the city, the high priest or high priestess was seen as a spouse of the local god or goddess. This symbolic marriage represented a union between the earthly business of daily life and the unseen spiritual realms. In cities that were ruled by a high priest or priestess, this person—typically called an ensi— often received instructions from a council of elders. However, he or she was regarded as the ultimate local authority on both religious and secular matters. In many cases these city-states were family-oriented religious farming communities and, given their initially low population, would have most likely had a fairly informal legal system.

Historians know that at some point near 2900 BCE this changed. What historians do not know is why. Sumerian mythology tells of a great flood that forced the cities to reunite under one ruler, Etana of Kish, who was described not merely as an ensi but also a lugal, “king.”2 This began what historians refer to as the Sumerian Dynastic Age, in which the Sumerian city-states united as a federation under individual rulers. Later documents claimed Sumer had always had kings, dating back to the beginning of time. These were more obviously mythological figures said to have reigned for thousands of years at a time and possessed supernatural powers. The stories of their

reigns might have made the transition from high priestesses to kings seem more natural and in keeping with ancient cultural traditions.

But the age of the ensi was not over. High priests and priestesses still enjoyed enormous power within their respective city-states, and a wise monarch would know to stay on their good side, at least to avoid offending the local gods.


As significant as a transition from local, religious authority to regional, secular authority may have been, it likely had little irect relevance in the lives of most Sumerians. Local authorities continued ruling over daily business in Sumerian city-states, and it is likely most decisions were made on a case-by-case basis based on local considerations rather than broad regional public policy.

In Sumerian society the most important issue was identity, and identity was determined by caste. Ancient Sumer’s caste system consisted of three tiers. The first was the amelu, the people who were eligible to rule. The second was the wardu, “slaves,” who were considered property. The third was the mushkinu, “humble,” which included laborers, farmers, and everyone else who did not belong to the first two tiers.3 The majority of Sumerians were likely mushkinu, but most of the surviving literature deals with the amelu.

The difference between these castes was access to money and resources. It is possible that an enormously wealthy wardu or mushkinu could have bought their way into the amelu caste. In fact, it is implied that Ur-Zababa of Kish, a Sumerian brewer who became ruler, did something very similar to this. The social connections that came with being an amelu guaranteed some measure of material success. The social limitations that came with being a wardu stalled the social mobility that would have allowed someone to become anything else. With time, and particularly after the Babylonian Empire came to power, amelu became a more general term used to describe free persons.


Ancient Babylonian civilization was a highly legalistic culture in which the Code of Hammurabi, which features the standard of justice known as “an eye for an eye,” reigned supreme. Recorded in 1772 BCE and discovered by archaeologists in 1901 CE, Hammurabi’s code is the part of ancient Mesopotamian culture with which most people are most familiar today.

The Code of Ur-Nammu

he Code of Ur-Nammu, who reigned between approximately 2112 and 2095 BCE, predates the Code of Hammurabi by more than 300 years, but it is not nearly as widely known. The most important reason for this is that historians have no complete text of the Code of Ur-Nammu; they have only fragments.

The text is notable primarily because it may document a changing role of women in the culture

at the end of the Sumerian period. Earlier Sumerian texts suggest women were once powerful merchants, undisputed rulers of cities, and in one case even ruled the entire region, but in the code they are relegated to second-class citizenship. For example, a man who rapes his neighbor’s wife pays a small fine, but a woman who has consensual sex with a married man is sentenced to death. The man receives no punishment.

Although the Code of Hammurabi is not the oldest ancient Mesopotamian legal code, its presentation as a series of engravings on a seven-foot (2.1 m) black stela is ominous enough to hint at its content. Among the laws is:

If a builder build a house for a man and do not make its construction firm, and the house which he has built collapse and cause the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death. If it cause the death of a son of the owner of the house, they shall put to death a son of that builder.4

Although ancient Mesopotamian legal codes relied on the death penalty, mutilation, and fines, scholars suspect the Mesopotamian legal system was not very far-reaching. The legal code may have functioned more as a deterrent than as an actual description of how crimes were regularly punished.

Babylonian courts did not concern themselves exclusively with criminal law. A significant portion of the surviving literature of ancient Mesopotamia consists of contracts and deeds of sale. Contracts were written for loans, marriages, divorces, and many other purposes. Scribes of the ancient period served a function comparable with the one attorneys serve today.

The Trial by Ordeal

Ancient legal codes typically had an option to try a defendant by subjecting him or her to a life-threatening ordeal. The principle behind this method was that if the person is innocent, the gods will save him or her from death. This kind of trial is associated primarily with medieval European prosecutions of alleged witches, but the Code of Hammurabi also includes such a statute:

If a man charge a man with sorcery, and cannot prove it, he who is charged with sorcery shall go to the river, into the river he shall throw himself and if the river overcome him, his accuser shall take to himself his house. If the river show that man to be innocent and he come forth unharmed, he who charged him with sorcery shall be put to death. He who threw himself into the river shall take to himself the house of his accuser.5

this is partly because scribes were the most literate members of society, their authorization of ancient Mesopotamian contracts, bills of sales, and other legal documents suggest no contractual transaction could proceed without them.

The "Praise Poem of Urukagina"

That ancient Mesopotamia gave the world its first legal codes is common knowledge, but few know that it also gave the world its first human rights document.

The “Praise Poem of Urukagina,” written in approximately 2350 BCE, describes the city of Lagash’s program of local reforms. It also defends the rights of the poor and speaks out against government corruption. Among a long list of past abuses and future promises, the surviving fragment includes this line: “Urukagina promises [his god] Ningirsu that he would never subjugate the waif and the widow to the powerful.”6 Although other documents of the time indicate Urukagina did not keep some of his promises, it is significant that he made these promises at all.