C. 2100 B.C.E., Ur-Nammu, the King of Ur in modern day southern Iraq published a code of laws to help regulate the lives of his subjects.
Ur-Nammu was the founder of the third Dynasty of Ur and of the empire of the third dynasty that dominated most of modern day Iraq and western Iran. Sumeria, (Southern Iraq) had been controlled for almost a century by the Gutians, a nomadic tribe, that was able to invade Sumeria and Akkad, (central Iraq) after the collapse of the Akkadian dynasty.1
A king of Uruk by the name of Utu-hegal defeated and drove out the Gutians c. 2120 B.C. One of the men who aided him was Ur-Nammu, governor of Ur. It is unclear if Ur-Nammu overthrew Utu-hegal or seized power in the chaos that followed Utu-hegal accidentally drowning while inspecting an irrigation project.2
It appears that the law code of Ur-Nammu is the first surviving actual law code.
The laws that we have survive in several copies in only a very fragmentary state and as such are very incomplete. The surviving versions consist of a prologue and the laws proper. The ending, which if a comparison with later law codes, is anything to go by, had after the laws an epilogue is lost.4
In the prologue Ur-Nammu boasts of his achievements:
At that time, by the might of Nanna, [The moon god] my lord, I liberated Akshak, Marad, Girkal, Kazallu, and their settlements, and Usarum, whatever (territories) were under the subjugation of Anshan.5
In the prologue Ur-Nammu talks about how he established order, regulated / encouraged trade and agriculture, standardized measures and so forth. At the end of the prologue Ur-Nammu states:
I did not deliver the orphan to the rich. I did not deliver the widow to the mighty. I did not deliver the man with but one shekel to the man with one mina (i.e., 60 shekels). I did not deliver the man with but one sheep to the man with one ox.
I settled (in independent settlements?) my generals, my mothers, my brothers, and their families; I did not accept their instructions (?), I did not impose orders. I eliminated enmity, violence, and cries for justice. I established justice in the land.
At that time:6
There are some obscurities in the above text but it appears that the phrase regarding the settlement of his Generals etc., refers to the fact that he did not impose his followers of his subjects to exploit them but settled them in their own independent settlements. Also further to that he did not let himself be swayed by nepotism and favouritism while carrying out his duties has King and along with this Ur-Nammu claims to have established order with little coercion.
The laws themselves are not complete since we are missing the end of the document. The surviving laws are 34 in number.7 Even among the laws listed some are incomplete and others are just mystifying in terms of what they mean.
Examples of incompleteness are laws 27 and 33:
33 If a man …another man…8
An example of obscurity is law 2:
2 If a man acts lawlessly (?). They shall kill him.9
Exactly what this refers to is any one's guess. It is possible that this is a general rule that officials who acted outside the law and where oppressive and brutal where liable to be put to death.
The surviving laws deal with interpersonal violence, family relations, certain legal matters and commerce among other things.
Concerning violence some of the laws are as follows:
1 If a man commits a homicide they shall kill him.
6 If a man violates the rights of another and deflowers the virgin wife of a young man, they shall kill that male.10
Those are similar to other latter law codes of Mesopotamia like the Code of Hammurabi. However unlike later codes, like Hammurabi’s or the middle Assyrian Law codes which have a long and gruesome list of mutilations and death as punishments for various violent offences in many instances Ur-Nammu’s code has instead fines. For example:
18 If [a man] cuts off the foot of [another man with…], he shall weigh and deliver 10 shekels of silver.
19 If a man shatters the …bone of another man with a club, he shall weigh and deliver 60 shekels of silver.
22. If [a man knocks out another man’s] tooth with […], he shall weigh and deliver 2 shekels of silver.11
Regarding what can be called family relations the following laws are of interest:
9 If a man divorces his first-ranking wife, he shall weigh and deliver 60 shekels of silver.
10 If he divorces a widow, he shall weigh and deliver 30 shekels of silver.
15 If a son-in-law [enters] the household of his father-in-law but subsequently the father-in-law [gives his wife to his (the son-in-law’s) comrade], he (the father-in-law) shall [weigh and deliver to him (the jilted son-in-law)] twofold (the value of) the prestations[which he (the son-in-law) brought (when he entered the house)]12
The third of the above laws seem to be concerning the case of a man who is betrothed to someone’s daughter and in preparation for the formalization of the marriage moves into the home of the father of the bride, bringing gifts and other items. The case seems to involve what happens if subsequent to such events the bride marries someone else. This law then covers the compensation the would-be groom gets.
Some of the laws relating to commerce are as follows:
31 If a man floods(?) another man’s field, he shall measure and deliver 900 silas of grain per 100 sars of field.
32 If a man gives a field to another man to cultivate but he does not cultivate it and allows it to become wasteland, he shall measure out 900 silas of grain per 100 sars.13
The above laws seem to be related to encouraging the cultivation of farmland and discouraging actions that might decrease agricultural productivity and therefore commerce and not incidentally decrease tax revenue.
There are also laws related to the administration of justice.
28 If a man presents himself as a witness but is demonstrated to be a perjurer, he shall weigh and deliver 15 shekels of silver.
29 If a man presents himself as a witness but refuses to take the oath, he shall make compensation of whatever was the object of the case.14
Law 28 is of interest especially when compared with later Mesopotamian codes of law, like Hammurabi’s which prescribed savage penalties, involving death and mutilation for perjury.
Law 29 seems to refer to cases in which someone is suing or being sued and refuses to take the oath as a witness. The law says that such a person as forfeited his case automatically.
In a society like that of ancient Mesopotamia where slavery was very common, there were many laws related to slavery.
4 If a male slave marries a female slave, his beloved, and the male slave (later) is given his freedom, she/he will not leave (or: be evicted from?) the house.
5 If a male slave marries a native [free] woman, she/he shall place one male child in the service of his master; the child who is placed in the service of his master, his paternal estate,…the wall, the house, […]; a child of the native woman will not be owned by the master, he will be pressed into slavery.
17 If [a slave or(?)] a slave woman […] ventures beyond the borders of (his or) her city and a man returns (him or) her, the slave’s master shall weigh and deliver [x] shekels of silver to the man who returned (the slave).
25 If a slave woman curses someone acting with the a mistress, they shall scour her mouth with one sila of salt.15
Compared to the savage penalties enacted against slaves in later codes of law these are comparatively benign. It is of interest that the law sought to with law 4 to protect the marriages of slaves at least to the extent of forbidding the breaking up of the marriages, by forced separation, of newly freed slaves with those who were still slaves. It is also of interest that freeborn woman could legally marry male slaves, which is quite unlike the rules in the vast majority of later slave owning societies, without it affecting at all their status as free persons. The text is confusing regarding the status of the one male child placed in the service of the master. It appears that the child was not actually a slave and had some rights to inherit from the master. It appears that all the other children where completely free, which is again very unlike the great majority of slave societies where all the children of a male slave were slaves regardless of who the mother was.16
Finally malicious gossip is dealt with although not in manner we today would approve of:
14 If a man accuses the wife of a young man of promiscuity but the river Ordeal clears her, the man who accused her shall weigh and deliver 20 shekels of silver.17
Exactly what the “River Ordeal” was is not known although in comparison with later penalties for slander, mutilation etc., a fine is certainly far more humane.
Over all the this early Mesopotamian law code is far more humane than the later law codes which substituted the fines with a rather mourn full list of beatings, mutilations and torture along with fines. Further it appears that the relatively “liberal” laws relating to slavery and the status of women were also made more severe, unfair and brutal. Exactly why this occurred is not clearly understood.
In c. 2095 B.C.E., Ur-Nammu died on the battlefield; his death described as follows: “abandoned on the battlefield like a crushed vessel”18 Ur-Nammu was succeeded by his son Shulgi, who reigned 47 years, and became one of the greatest of Mesopotamian rulers. The glory did not long survive Shulgi’s death a little more than 40 years after Shulgi’s death (2047 B.C.E.), Ur was sacked by the Elamites, (2004 B.C.E.) and the third dynasty of Ur and its empire came to an end.19
Despite this indication that power and glory are ephemeral it appears, from these laws, that the human desire for justice is an ever present reality.
1. Roux Georges, Ancient Iraq, Penguin Books, London, 1992, p. 158-162. Ur-Nammu reigned c. 2112-1995 B.C.E., see Roux p. 162.
2. IBID. pp. 161-162, which quotes an inscription which says “His body was carried off by the river”, Bertman, Stephen, Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, University of Oxford Press, Oxford, 2003, p. 110, Kuhrt, Amelie, The Ancient Near East c. 3000-330 B.C., vol. 1, Routledge, New York, 1995, pp. 58-59.
3. Bertman, pp. 68, 110, Roux, p. 138.
4. Pritchard, James, Editor, The Ancient Near East: Supplementary Texts and Pictures Relating to the Old Testament, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ., 1969, p. 87, Roth, Martha T., Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, 2nd Edition, Scholars Press, Athens GA., 1997, pp. 13-14. The Code of Hammurabi can be found at Holy Ebooks, Here. Excerpts from the code of Assyria, (or Assura) can be found at The Ancient History Source Book, Here.
5. Roth, p. 16. Other copies of the Laws of Ur-Nammu can be found at Pritchard, 1969, pp. 87-89, and Pritchard, James B., The Ancient Near East, vol. 2, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ., 1975, pp. 31-34.
6. IBID, Roth, pp. 16-17.
7. IBID, pp. 17-21. Although the laws listed are numbered 1-37, laws 34-36 are wholly missing.
8. IBID. pp. 20-21.
9. IBID. p. 17.
10. IBID, p. 17.
11. IBID, p. 19.
12. IBID, p. 18-19.
13. IBID, pp. 20-21.
14. IBID, p. 20.
15. IBID, pp. 17, 19-20.
16. IBID, p. 21, See also Patterson, Orlando, Slavery and Social Death, Harvard University Press, London, 1982, pp. 132-147.
17. Roth, p. 18.
18. Roux, p. 168.
19. Roux, pp. 168-178, Bertman, pp. 56-57,104-105.