Mesopotamia and Egypt are two of the earliest documented civilizations. Future generations have benefited from their innovations in technology, agriculture and law. The Mesopotamians went to great lengths to spell out their laws, and the consequences for breaking them, in great detail. While less explicit proof of Egyptian law exists today, evidence remains that paints a picture of a structured and progressive legal society.

Hammurabi's Code

Hammurabi's Code distinguished the ruler of the Mesopotamians as a king of a very structured society.
Hammurabi's Code distinguished the ruler of the Mesopotamians as a king of a very structured society.

The legal system of Mesopotamia is primarily derived from the laws put in place by King Hammurabi, who ruled from 1792 to 1750 B.C.E. It was the common belief of the populace that Hammurabi was placed in power by the gods to protect his people, including the weak. His codified laws are the first known examples of a ruler explicitly outlining rules and consequences of a society. The code was carved into stone on an eight-foot monument and displayed publicly so it could be read by those expected to follow it.

Examples of the Code

Many of the consequences of Hammurabi's Code remain hot topics of conversation today in regard to their fairness. A builder who poorly constructs a house, for example, could be subject to death himself if the owner is killed. Even judges who handled cases badly were removed from their positions forever. Interestingly enough, any accused person was allowed to cast himself into the Euphrates River. If he drowned, he was declared guilty, and if he survived, it was understood that the gods had deemed him innocent.

Ancient Egyptian Legal System

While it is thought that ancient Egyptian legal codes were written down, no known copies of these texts still exist today. Nevertheless, existing court and funerary documents indicate that the Egyptian legal system was based on the codes of Ma'at, the goddess of truth. These codes required that all individuals, except for slaves, be treated as equals without regard to positions of power or personal wealth. At this time, it was the king, considered to be a living god, who made the laws, though documents suggest that anyone with a substantial amount of authority could make legal decisions. Criminal punishments ranged from simple corporal punishment, such as lashings, to capital punishments, such as burning alive or decapitation.

Distinguishing Features

Ancient Egypt was relatively unique in its egalitarian treatment of women when compared to other ancient civilizations. Regardless of marital status, women had nearly the same rights as Egyptian men. They could own property, enter into legal contracts, and serve on juries and be witnesses in court. The law even encouraged men not to take their wives to court because of their inherent rights.