A cylinder seal impression, ca. 2100 BC, sometimes interpreted as Ur-Nammu (seated) bestowing governorship on Ḫašḫamer, ensi of Iškun-Sin.

The Code of Ur-Nammu: When Ancient Sumerians Laid Down the Law, Everyone Obeyed

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The Code of Ur-Nammu is the oldest surviving law code. This text was written on clay tablets in the Sumerian language and is reckoned to have been produced towards the end of the 3rd millennium BC. The Code of Ur-Nammu may be divided into two parts, the first is the prologue and the second is the laws themselves. Apart from being the oldest surviving law code, the Code of Ur-Nammu is also important as it gives us a glimpse of the way justice was conceived in ancient Sumerian society.       

A Law Code Divided in Pieces

Earlier law codes, such as the Code of Urukagina, are known to exist. Nevertheless, the Code of Ur-Nammu is different in the sense that the text itself has survived to a large extent. The actual contents of the Code of Urukagina, by comparison, is now lost, and is only known through references made by other texts that have been discovered.

The first known version of the code in its current location, Istanbul.

The first known version of the code in its current location, Istanbul. ( Public Domain )

As for the Code of Ur-Nammu, the first copy of this legal text was discovered in two fragments at Nippur, an ancient Sumerian city situated in modern day Iraq. Unfortunately, due to the poor state of preservation, only the prologue and five of the laws were discernible. They were translated into English in 1952 by the renowned Assyriologist, Samuel Kramer. Subsequently, other fragments of the code were unearthed. The ones found in Ur, for example, were translated in 1965, and resulted in the reconstruction of about 40 laws. Fragments were also discovered in another Sumerian city, Sippar, though with some slight variants.

Ruins of a temple platform in Nippur—the brick structure on top was constructed by American archaeologists around 1900.

Ruins of a temple platform in Nippur—the brick structure on top was constructed by American archaeologists around 1900. (Public Domain ) Fragments of the Code of Ur-Nammu were found at this site.

Creator of the Code of Ur-Nammu

The Code of Ur-Nammu has been attributed to Ur-Nammu, as the laws are credited directly to him in the prologue. Others, however, have argued that the law code was written by Shulgi, the son and successor of Ur-Nammu. In any case, Ur-Nammu was a king of the Sumerian city state of Ur. Scholars are not entirely in agreement as to when this king reigned, though it may have been during the last century of the 3rd millennium BC. Nevertheless, the reign of Ur-Nammu is generally regarded to have been a peaceful and prosperous one, with some considering it to be part of the ‘Sumerian Renaissance’.

An "Ur-Nammu Hymn", one of a group of texts that are composed in the voice of king Ur Nammu, probably intended to be sung as a hymn.

An "Ur-Nammu Hymn", one of a group of texts that are composed in the voice of king Ur Nammu, probably intended to be sung as a hymn. (Rama/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

The Code of Ur-Nammu begins with a prologue, which is a standard feature of Mesopotamian law codes. Here, the deities for Ur-Nammu’s kingship, Nanna and Utu, are invoked, after which the king is said to have established equity in the land. This included the banishment of malediction, violence, and strife, as well as the protection of society’s weakest individuals. After the prologue, the text deals with the laws themselves.

From the royal tombs of Ur, the Standard of Ur mosaic, made of lapis lazuli and shell, shows peacetime.

From the royal tombs of Ur, the Standard of Ur mosaic, made of lapis lazuli and shell, shows peacetime. ( Public Domain )

“If (Insert Crime), Then (Insert Punishment)”

The laws in the Code of Ur-Nammu follow a set pattern, i.e. If (insert crime), then (insert punishment). This formula would be followed by almost all law codes that came after the Code of Ur-Nammu. In the law code, different categories of crime, as well as their resulting punishments, may be distinguished. For example, there are a number of capital offences, such as murder, robbery, and rape. The punishment for such crimes was death. For example, “If a man commits murder, that man must be killed.”, and “If a man violates the right of another and deflowers the virgin wife of a young man, they shall kill that male.”

Statue of a Sumerian man, Ebih-Il - intendant, Early Dynastic.

Statue of a Sumerian man, Ebih-Il - intendant, Early Dynastic. ( Public Domain )

Those who committed offences that were less serious in nature, on the other hand, would have been punished by imprisonment and / or fines. For instance, “If a man commits a kidnapping, he is to be imprisoned and pay 15 shekels of silver.”, and “If a man knocks out a tooth of another man, he shall pay two shekels of silver”.

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