Code of Ur-Nammu: The Oldest Law in History

Jul 7, 2022 0 comments

Some of the earliest legal codes concerning crimes and offenses and their punishment were formulated in the ancient Middle East. The Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Elamites, Hurrians, Kassites, and Hittites, each had their own laws. Among them, the Code of Hammurabi is perhaps the best-known, but there have been many law codes that predates Hammurabi’s famous code.

The earliest law code from Mesopotamia was the Code of Urukagina, written in the 24th century BCE. No surviving cuneiform tablet of the codes have been discovered yet. We only know about its existence through references in other ancient works. The oldest surviving law code is the Code of Ur-Nammu that was written about 300 years before Hammurabi's law code. Although issued under the king Ur-Nammu of Ur (2112-2095 BCE), some historians think they were actually published by his son Shulgi, after Ur-Nammu's death.

The cuneiform tablet inscribed with the Code of Ur-Nammu at the Istanbul Archaeology Museums.

The first copy of the code was found in two fragments at Nippur, and was translated by Samuel Kramer in 1952. Owing to its partial preservation, only the prologue and 5 of the laws were discernible. Further tablets were found in Ur and translated in 1965, allowing some 30 of the 57 laws to be reconstructed. Another copy found in Sippar contains slight variants.

Samuel Kramer later recalled how luck had favored him in finding the tablets:

In all probability I would have missed the Ur-Nammu tablet altogether had it not been for an opportune letter from F. R. Kraus, now Professor of Cuneiform Studies at the University of Leiden in Holland ... His letter said that some years ago, in the course of his duties as curator in the Istanbul Museum, he had come upon two fragments of a tablet inscribed with Sumerian laws, had made a "join" of the two pieces, and had catalogued the resulting tablet as No. 3191 of the Nippur collection of the Museum ... Since Sumerian law tablets are extremely rare, I had No. 3191 brought to my working table at once. There it lay, a sun-baked tablet, light brown in color, 20 by 10 centimeters in size. More than half of the writing was destroyed, and what was preserved seemed at first hopelessly unintelligible. But after several days of concentrated study, its contents began to become clear and take shape, and I realized with no little excitement that what I held in my hand was a copy of the oldest law code as yet known to man.

The code begins with a prologue that details how the moon god Nanna selected Ur-Nammu as King of Ur, helped him defeat the city of Larsa, and provided him with laws under which all subjects were considered equal regardless of social status so that "the orphan did not fall a prey to the wealthy, the widow did not fall a prey to the powerful, the man of one shekel did not fall a prey to the man of sixty shekels". The laws were framed in the conditional if-this-then-that format—a pattern followed in nearly all later codes. For example,

If a man divorces his first-time wife, he shall pay (her) one mina of silver.

If a man, in the course of a scuffle, smashed the limb of another man with a club, he shall pay one mina of silver.

Nearly all crimes attract monetary compensation, including bodily damages as opposed to the ‘eye for an eye' principle of many of the later Babylonian laws.

If a man knocks out the eye of another man, he shall weigh out half a mina of silver.

If a man knocks out a tooth of another man, he shall pay two shekels of silver.

Under Hammurabi’s code, if one knocked out another man’s eye, he paid with one of his own and likewise with a tooth.

However, murder, robbery, adultery and rape were capital offenses and were punishable by death.

If a man commits a murder, that man must be killed.

If a man commits a robbery, he will be killed.

If the wife of a man followed after another man and he slept with her, they shall slay that woman, but that male shall be set free.

The code gives us a glimpse at the societal structure during Ur's Third Dynasty, as well as enables us to learn what issues were considered significant by the society at that time. Beneath the lugal or the king, all members of society belonged to one of two basic strata—the lu or free person, or the slave. The son of a lu was called a dumu-nita until he married, becoming a "young man" (gurus). A woman (munus) went from being a daughter (dumu-mi) to a wife (dam), then if she outlived her husband, a widow (nu-ma-su), who could remarry.

Who was Ur-Nammu?

Ur-Nammu was the founder of the Sumerian Third Dynasty of Ur, in southern Mesopotamia, after two hundred years of Akkadian and Gutian rule. The Akkadian Empire ruled Mesopotamia from 2334 BCE to 2083 BCE until they were toppled by the Gutians who descended from the Zagros Mountains. However, the Gutians proved to be poor rulers. An illiterate and nomadic people, their rule was not conducive to agriculture, nor record-keeping, and the region was crippled by severe famine and skyrocketing grain prices. The Gutians were eventually defeated by a coalition of rulers of Uruk and Ur, and Utu-hengal of Uruk declared himself as the first native kings of Sumer.

In the seventh year of the kingship Utu-hengal tragically died in an accident and was succeeded by his son-in-law, the governor of Ur, Ur-Nammu, who proceeded to found the Third Dynasty of Ur.

Ur-Nammu rose to prominence as a warrior-king when he crushed the ruler of Lagash in battle, killing the king himself. After this battle, Ur-Nammu earned the title 'king of Sumer and Akkad.'

Ur's dominance over the Neo-Sumerian Empire was consolidated with the famous Code of Ur-Nammu, probably the first such law-code for Mesopotamia since that of Urukagina of Lagash centuries earlier.

Ur-Nammu was also responsible for ordering the construction of a number of ziggurats, including the Great Ziggurat of Ur.


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