Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
Laws are everywhere in modern society. Most primary students learn the basics of the U.S. Constitution before they learn about the rest of U.S. history, and many citizens even put up signs on private property (e.g., 'No trespassing!') which U.S. courts recognize as law. Experts in the practice of law - lawyers - are so ubiquitous on billboards and television that many Americans have an easier time naming a local lawyer than they can their congressman. It might come as a surprise then, that a uniform law system is something relatively recent in the roughly two million years of human history.
Dating back just four millennia, the Code of Ur-Nammu is the oldest law code in human history which survives to this day. Written during Ur-Nammu's reign of Ur from 2,112 B.C. to 2,095 B.C., the Code codified the laws of Ur-Nammu's kingdom on a clay tablet. It is important to point out that although it is the oldest code which survives to present day, it is not the oldest human law code; historians and archaeologists have discovered references in clay tablets to prior codes.
Discovery and Translation
The Code of Ur-Nammu was first discovered in 1952 at Nippur and translated by Samuel Kramer. Unfortunately, the tablets were badly damaged and only five of the laws could be deciphered. Better-preserved tablets were discovered in 1965, and historians were able to recreate 40 of the 57 laws contained in the original code.
Sumerian Society as Dictated by Code of Ur-Nammu
Apart from setting out the laws of the land, the Code divided all of Sumerian society beneath the king into two class groups: slaves and free men. The two groups were relatively rigid; the sons of free men could never become slaves, although they did not enjoy the full rights of a free man until they were married.
Although the underclass were considered 'slaves,' they had far more freedoms than how we think of 'slaves' in modern times. For example, slaves were free to marry whomever they chose, and they could often move freely about the cities and countryside. Although hard labor was often the slaves' occupation, they could also be simple craftsmen and could even give evidence in local courts. Despite these freedoms, the slave class was still considered the property of the class of free men.
Comparisons with Hammurabi's Code
Hammurabi's Code is a far more well-known code, and the pillar on which it is written still stands in The Louvre today. Regardless, the Code of Ur-Nammu is not only three centuries older than Hammurabi's Code, but also considered by modern scholars to be far more progressive. For example, whereas Hammurabi's Code often insists on reciprocal punishment (i.e., 'an eye for an eye'), the Code of Ur-Nammu laid out monetary fines as punishment for lesser offenses.
When you have completed this video lesson, you could:
- Describe the Code of Ur-Nammu and understand why it is important
- Summarize the content of the Code
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