Uruk IV (3350-3200 BC or 5350-5200 BP) Cylinder Seal in Louvre. Source credit. (CDLI Seals 001410) This is similar to Patros’s cylinder seal in the Raising Up Pharaoh novel Ausgrenor. The seal on the left would be used to produce the owner’s sign by rolling it on wet clay (producing the image on right) which would serve as does the modern personal signature. In those preliterate years, that signature was the owner’s mark that he testified to a sale (see p.377 ff for preliterate and literate land sale contracts), other form of contract (ibid), or the agreed contents of a thing which could be sealed, such as a vault, jar, etc.
It’s easy to underestimate the importance of the development of laws in Mesopotamia, thinking that they were just composed to keep the “sheeple” acting in accordance with the wishes of the “one percent.” Yes, there will always be tyrannical laws like that—but only for a season. What emerged in Mesopotamia five millennia ago was the idea that “the gods” care about the people, have firm ideas of what is right and wrong in human behavior from their celestial perspective, appoint rulers to look after their “sheep” as shepherds beholden to the gods themselves, reward leaders to assure they implement the gods’ rules, and remove and replace those who disobey them. Establishing that the gods are on the side of the people (whether the lawgivers meant it or not) radically undercut the prerogatives of bullies such as Gilgamesh in their capturing the control of cities and then doing as they liked.
The beginning of the struggle for the rights of men was first recorded in Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium BC, once the invention of literacy had begun to mature and bear its fruit. However, it is safe to presume that many of the legal precepts predated literacy — they didn’t all come out of a hat at one time. As we shall see, they grew more extensive with each successive announcement for which archaeology has produced a fragment.
The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, written in 1776, starts with radical thoughts about basic principles of government. The signers thought that their principles dated back mostly to English Common Law growing out of the Magna Carta, fully developed Roman Law (not the more primitive Twelve Tables of 450 BC), the judicial principles of Athens and their perceived predecessor laws of Crete, and they were mostly correct. But they didn’t know about Mesopotamian governments and laws, as you and I do. Let’s look at the Declaration as the still highest statement of representative government, and the beacon of hope for immigrants from all over the world. There is something very attractive in these words, but let’s try to recognize the emphasis on: (1) equality of men; (2) that men have received inalienable rights from their Creator, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of their individual happiness; (3) that government is formed by the people, and they reserve the right to alter or abolish it; (4) it is man’s duty to throw off tyrannical government and appoint “new guards for their future security;” and (5) appeals to the “Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions.”
“IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
“The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. –Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”
The Declaration then lists the usurpations by the king against whom they serve this notice, and then concludes with:
“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor…”
They signed it, thus beginning the revolutionary war leading to separation from England. Even they did not realize that the roots of these thoughts went back five millennia, rather than just two millennia to Rome and Athens. But we shall investigate these first known links in the chain of events producing the rule of law, the invention and promulgation of written laws in Mesopotamia, from this fresh perspective. A useful summary of milestones in law development is found at The Rule of Law: History. We shall now look at specific Mesopotamian baby steps in the emergence of the idea that a nation should be ruled by law, and not men.
2350 BC. Urukagina, King of Lagash, instituted reforms after overthrowing a corrupt regime: (1) widows and orphans don’t pay taxes; (2) the city pays burial expenses; (3) the rich could not compel the poor to sell what they didn’t want to sell, and had to pay the poor in silver. These might sound small but were big given the preceding legacy of dictatorial kings and their cronies. You might recall Ur’s evil 1st dynasty kings hundreds of years earlier in posts 12 and 13.
2060 BC. Ur-Nammu, 3rd dynasty King of Ur, instituted pioneering reforms such as: (1) introduced monetary compensation for injuries, instead of Lex Talionis which calls for “an eye for an eye;” (2) introduced a two-class society of free and slave, with laws that vary depending upon which is the plaintiff and which is the defendant.
1934 BC. Lipit-Ishtar of Isin established laws regarding: (1) domestic laws for marriage, inheritances of sons of wives, slaves, and harlots; (2) commercial laws for agriculture including rents and compensation for damages; (3) commercial laws regarding maritime; (4) contract laws; (5) slavery laws, including redemption and marriages; (6) paternity laws of child support; (7) real estate law, including damages.
1930 BC. Laws of the city of Eshnunna concerned: (1) theft and related offenses; (2) false distraint; (3) sexual offenses; (4) bodily injuries; and (5) damages for various accidents (including ox goring). Most penalties specified fines or damage payments.
1758 BC. Code of Hammurabi dealt with, among other things, slander, trade, slavery, the duties of workers, theft, and food. Hammurabi codified the previously mentioned Lex Talionis–which actually is merciful insofar as it limits the “payback” to no more than “eye for eye” whereas many avengers would revenge the eye by killing the offender. However, Ur-Nammu introduced monetary compensation a few hundred years earlier, which practice continues to our day. A translation of the entire code is at this link, which I have read in its entirety, as it gives a clear idea of what they took serious five millennia ago.
Lest we get lost in the details, these laws codified death for murder, adultery, and many other offenses which are treated differently today. Very differently.
These laws were not written during the period of the Raising Up Pharaoh epic, 3203 BC (5203 BP), because writing had not yet been invented. However, I presume that many of these laws had been in force in the oral society of that time, and were only codified (not first conceived) after the dawn of literacy. In writing the novels, I assumed most of them were already in effect under oral common law. Ausgrenor, the first novel in the Raising Up Pharaoh series, among many other plot threads, illustrates the legal setting before the Rule of Law, what life was like under the then-usual tyrants who managed “their” cities as personal property. The second novel, Maritor, among its many plot threads, illustrates the thought processes among the brighter refugees who seek to improve their future by codifying behavior and establishing limits on their future kings and overseers. By the sixth novel, they are living under such a consensus.