Ancient Mesopotamia's justice codes are the world's oldest. These laws were established and observed by the early cultures that flourished in the region that stretched from today’s Iran in the east to the shores of the eastern Mediterranean, and from Asia Minor on the north to the borders of Egypt at the south. Dating from the fourth millennium B.C., and recorded either on clay tablets or stone monuments, the laws were displayed publicly to demonstrate a king's just rule.

The Essence of Society

The legal systems of Mesopotamia are mankind's earliest known attempts at written, complex jurisprudence. Mesopotamian cultures established judiciaries to interpret their laws. They compiled legal clauses and phrases, created the concept of precedent and the authority of the written document that guaranteed the rights of the individual. Law was an essential and integral part of society, and had a profound impact not only on the lives of the people subject to it, but on neighboring cultures of ancient times and on the development of legal systems ever since.

Mesopotamian Principles of Jurisprudence

In the traditions of Mesopotamian cultures, the law formed part of a universal order. It was the gift of the forces that control the universe. Law was deemed universal and immortal and not originating with the gods, let alone humans. Kings on Earth, as representatives of the gods, were responsible to the deities for implementing the law. With the ruler ostensibly answerable to superior powers, the law accordingly would provide his subjects with inalienable rights and protect them from autocracy. In reality, the laws apparently also functioned to justify a ruler’s actions.

Code of Ur Nammu

The Code of Ur Nammu is the world's oldest known legal system. It is named after Ur Nammu, the founder and the first king of the third dynasty of Ur. The code's publication was authorized by Ur Nammu who reigned between 2112 and 2094 or 2095 B.C., and his son Shulgi whose reign lasted between 2094 or 2095 to 2047. Written in the Sumerian language, it established the principle that restitution should be paid to the victim of a crime rather than revenge being taken against the perpetrator.

Code of Lipit Ishtar

The Code of Lipit Ishtar is named after the fifth king of the ancient city of Isin in southern Mesopotamia. Lipit Ishtar reigned between 1868 and 1857 B.C. and the code may have been compiled around 1860 B.C. This code dealt with business matters such as property rights, the use of boats, agricultural processes including irrigation, and rented oxen. It also had sections on fugitive slaves, false testimony, apprenticeship and marriage.

Code of Eshunna

The city state of Eshnunna existed between 2000 and 1700 B.C. on the Diyala River, a tributary of the Tigris River, after which it was conquered by Babylon. The law was recorded on clay tablets in the Akkadian language. It dealt with silver and grain values, loans and deposits, renters’ liabilities, standards for wages, prices, services and equipment. There were further provisions about attacks by goring oxen and vicious dogs, and accidents from falling walls.

Code of Hammurabi

The longest and best organized of the Mesopotamian codes, the Code of Hammurabi was named after the sixth ruler of the first Babylonian dynasty. It was compiled towards the end of Hammurabi’s reign, which lasted between 1792 and 1750 B.C. Drawing on earlier codes, it placed emphasis on Hammurabi as the ruler and guardian of his people. The code stipulated that punishment should correspond in degree to the crime. The code defined social categories and how shame and honor varied with gender and social status. Hammurabi’s laws were written in the Akkadian language and inscribed on stelae -- pillars of black diorite.