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The World's Earliest Legal Code: Code of Ur-Nammu

The Code of Ur-Nammu was the first known legal code created around 2100 BCE. Historians believe that this code was written in the Sumerian language “Cuneiform” by the Mesopotamian king Ur-Nammu or his son, Shulgi. The Sumerians were one of the earliest known civilizations in the world.



Photo credit: History.com


The Sumerian Civilization


Around 6,000 years ago, The Sumerians, the world’s earliest known civilization began settling down in the Southern Mesopotamian region situated between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (present-day Middle East). Initially, Sumer was composed of different states ruled by various kings. However, Sargon of Akkad (2400 BCE - 2201 BCE) conquered Sumer and created the world’s first empire, conjoining all Sumerian states. The Sumerians were responsible for the foundation of a “city” concept. Cities like Uruk and Ur were the earliest “organized cities” known to mankind. Therefore, the Sumerians like any other civilization needed to find a system to live and work together peacefully.


The Sumerian Renaissance


Historians divide Sumerian history into six eras. The last period in Sumerian history is known as the Sumerian Renaissance (2047-1750 BCE) established by King Ur-Nammu (2047 BCE - 2030 BCE) and his son Shulgi of Ur. This period is famously recognized for its various “firsts'' in human history. This is mainly due to the vision created by king Ur-Nammu to achieve advancements in culture, art, and technology. The Sumerians are attributed to the inventions of, to name a few, the first school, the first legal precedent, and even the first love song.


The Code of Ur-Nammu


Initially, Sumerian people living in smaller settlements avenged crimes themselves or with the help of their families. However, as civilization began to grow and cities were established, they needed to find ways to settle feuds and prevent future disputes. As empires throughout Sumerian history grew, kings issued laws to control their people. Regardless, there wasn’t an established form of conduct for people to follow as laws were mostly spread by mouth.


In 3300 BCE, the first form of writing was created: Cuneiform. This system of writing involves etching symbols into clay tablets. The code of Ur-Nammu, the earliest known legal code, was written in Cuneiform. Each law was firmly set in stone dictating a specific punishment for each crime. The laws are arranged to dictate the crime first (IF) and the punishment second (THEN).


“If a man commits murder, then that man must be killed”

The code of Ur-Nammu was different from later legal codes as it did not follow the “eye for an eye” concept for many of its laws. For Example, monetary compensation was dictated for bodily harm. Physical harm to different parts of the body was met with differing amounts of fines to be paid for. This idea of financial penalty or fines rather than a physical penalty is closer to modern ideas of punishments. However, murder, robbery, rape, and adultery were met with capital punishments. The code of Ur-Nammu set the model for the Code of Hammurabi which was a much more complex set of legal codes and an important achievement in law history.


400 years ago, the code of Ur-Nammu was set in stone, setting a precedent for modern laws and ideas. Concepts such as capital punishment and fines should be credited to such civilizations who helped us understand the complexity of social conduct and society as a whole. Such legal codes were and still are remarkable achievements for law as well as human history.


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