2050 BC – The Earliest Known Written Legal Code

It’s the first day of the new year providing the ideal segue into another first – the earliest known written legal code.

If you guessed the Code of Hammurabi, you would hear the buzzer. The earliest list of laws yet discovered is the Code of Ur-Nammu. Although it is called Ur-Nammu’s code, many historians believe it to be written by his son Shulgli.

Ur_Nammu_code_IstanbulA renowned expert in Sumerian history and the world’s leading Assyriologist at the time, Samuel Kramer provided the first translation of the two stone fragments containing the code in 1952. From these two stones, Kramer was able to decipher a prologue and five laws. Subsequently, other tablets were found in Ur and Sippar which provided text for roughly 30 more of 57 total laws. The tablets are housed in the Istanbul Archaelology Museums.

“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.”

Unlike previous codes, the Code of Ur-Nammu was not by a religious figure but by the government. It is considered extremely advanced because it instituted fines of monetary compensation rather than the “lex talionis”/”eye for an eye” principle as found in Hammurabi’s code. Additionally, it identified murder and rape as capital offenses.

Each law in Ur-Nammu’s Code was written in a “cause-and-effect” format. Archaeological evidence shows that it was supported by a legal system which included specialized judges, the giving of testimony under oath, the proper form of judicial decisions and the ability of judges to order damages be paid to victims by guilty parties. It also afforded insight into the societal structure of the time, a dichotomy of slave and free.

What follows is the translation of the prologue and several of the laws.


ur_nammu_law_tablet“…After An and Enlil had turned over the Kingship of Ur to Nanna, at that time did Ur-Nammu, son born of Ninsun, for his beloved mother who bore him, in accordance with his principles of equity and truth…Then did Ur-Nammu the mighty warrior, king of Ur, king of Sumer and Akkad, by the might of Nanna, lord of the city, and in accordance with the true word of Utu, establish equity in the land; he banished malediction, violence and strife, and set the monthly Temple expenses at 90 gur of barley, 30 sheep, and 30 sila of butter. He fashioned the bronze sila-measure, standardized the one-mina weight, and standardized the stone weight of a shekel of silver in relation to one mina…The orphan was not delivered up to the rich man; the widow was not delivered up to the mighty man; the man of one shekel was not delivered up to the man of one mina.”

1. If a man commits a murder, that man must be killed.
2. If a man commits a robbery, he will be killed.
3. If a man commits a kidnapping, he is to be imprisoned and pay 15 shekels of silver.
4. If a slave marries a slave, and that slave is set free, he does not leave the household.
5. If a slave marries a native (i.e. free) person, he/she is to hand the firstborn son over to his owner.
6. If a man divorces his first-time wife, he shall pay her one mina of silver.
7. If it is a (former) widow whom he divorces, he shall pay her half a mina of silver.
8. If the man had slept with the widow without there having been any marriage contract, he need not pay any silver.
9. If a man is accused of sorcery he must undergo ordeal by water; if he is proven innocent, his accuser must pay 3 shekels.
10. If a slave escapes from the city limits, and someone returns him, the owner shall pay two shekels to the one who returned him.
11. If a man knocks out the eye of another man, he shall weigh out ½ a mina of silver.
12. If a man has cut off another man’s foot, he is to pay ten shekels.
13. 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.
14. If someone severed the nose of another man with a copper knife, he must pay two-thirds of a mina of silver.
15. If a man knocks out a tooth of another man, he shall pay two shekels of silver.
16. If a man appeared as a witness, and was shown to be a perjurer, he must pay fifteen shekels of silver.
17. If a man appears as a witness, but withdraws his oath, he must make payment, to the extent of the value in litigation of the case.
18. If a man stealthily cultivates the field of another man and he raises a complaint, this is however to be rejected, and this man will lose his expenses.
19. If a man flooded the field of a man with water, he shall measure out three kur of barley per iku of field.
20. If a man had let an arable field to a(nother) man for cultivation, but he did not cultivate it, turning it into wasteland, he shall measure out three kur of barley per iku of field.

Here’s our shout out to the intersection of anthropology and law!


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