laws and justice

   Fortunately for interested modern observers, a number of legal codes, individual laws, and trial records have survived from ancient Mesopotamia. These laws did not cover every aspect of life by any means, but they were often surprisingly comprehensive, touching on matters of property rights, wage and price controls, inheritance, and crimes against people.
   The earliest-known laws were issued by a Sumerian king, Uruinimgina of La-gash (reigned ca. 2351-2342 b.c.). These dealt with taxation, burial fees, treatment of women and orphans, and more. Another Sumerian ruler, Ur-Nammu (ca. 21132096, b.c.), founder of the Third Dynasty of Ur, also issued a set of laws, saying that he wanted "to free the land from thieves, robbers, and rebels." Ur-Nammu's legal system was noteworthy for making no distinctions regarding the wealth or status of the accused; all people were to be judged and punished equally. The justice system was also unusually liberal for the ancient world, or even for many countries in the modern world, as most offenses, including rape and assault, were punished by monetary fines. Still another Sumerian king, Lipit-Ishtar of Isin (ca. 1934-1923 b.c.) issued a law code that contained rules guiding work and workers and the institution of debt enslavement (becoming someone's slave to pay him back for a debt).
   The most famous and comprehensive law code issued in ancient Mesopotamia was that of the Babylonian king Hammurabi (ca. 1792-1750 b.c.). Much of the 8-foot (2.4m), black stone stele on which his scribes carved the code has survived. Hammurabi gave a rationale for creating his laws as follows:
   In order that the strong might not oppress the weak, that justice be given to the orphan and the widow ... for the pronouncement of judgments in the land . . . and to give justice to the oppressed, my weighty words I have written upon my monument. . . . Let a man who has been wronged and has a cause, go before my stele . . . and let him have my words inscribed on the monument read out. . . . And may my monument enlighten him as to his cause and may he understand his case!
   Of the 282 laws listed on the stele, some deal with property rights, money, and the regulation of wages and trade. Others cover family and marriage issues, adoption, medical malpractice, and personal injury. Among the latter are these:
   If a son strikes his father, they shall cut off his hand. If a man destroys the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If he break another man's bone, they shall break his bone. If he destroy the eye of a client or break the bone of a client, he shall pay one mina of silver. If he destroy the eye of a man's slave or break the bone of a man's slave, he shall pay one-half his price [i.e., half the amount the owner paid for the slave]. If a man strike another man in a quarrel and wound him, he shall swear, "I struck him without intent," and he shall pay for the physician. If he die as a result of the blow, he shall swear (as above), and if the man was a free man, he shall pay one-half mina of silver.
   As these samples show, most of Hammurabi's laws carried heavy penalties. Indeed, the death penalty was imposed for a conviction for kidnapping, receiving stolen goods, breaking and entering, and even for poor performance of a government job. Also, Hammurabi's laws, unlike those of Ur-Nammu, made distinctions for the wealth and status of the accused. Three general classes were treated differently - nobles and big landowners (amelu); everyday people (muskinu); and slaves (ardu, either captured in war or sold into slavery to satisfy a debt). Interestingly, the amelu paid stiffer penalties than members of the lower classes, perhaps because a higher degree of honesty and dignity was expected of upper-class persons.
   The manner in which the laws were enforced and justice was handed out varied somewhat from place to place. Specific empires came and went, but Mesopotamia was at its heart a conglomeration of local towns and villages that endured for millennia, and in general most matters of justice were handled on the local level. Typically town officials or elders either served as judges or chose judges from among their ranks. (In the towns ruled by Ur-Nammu there were four judges in each court case, chosen from the professional ranks, such as scribes, respected merchants, city elders, and so forth. The judges were assisted by a court clerk, or mashkim,who kept careful records of the proceedings.) There were no juries or lawyers. Instead, the litigants (the person bringing the case and the person he charged with wrongdoing) pleaded their own cases and presented their own witnesses. Both litigants and witnesses first swore an oath to the gods that they would tell the truth. To further impress on all involved the importance of honesty, most trials were held on the grounds of temples, which must have made many people think twice about lying under oath. After the judges had handed down the verdict, it was recorded in writing. A number of such verdicts have survived on cuneiform tablets.
   Some people seeking justice went further and appealed to a higher authority, sometimes the king himself. Such a plea, actually a follow-up to some earlier ones, was recorded in a letter written by an Assyrian man to King Ashurbanipal (ca. 668-627 b.c.):
   How does it happen that I, who have made several appeals to Your Majesty, have never been questioned by anybody? ... I have not committed a crime against Your Majesty. ... I merely conveyed an order of the king to [a man]. Although I said, "I am on business for the palace," he [took] my property away. He even arrested me and put me in fetters [chains], and that in front of all the people. . . . Ever since last year, nobody has given me anything to eat. . . . Your majesty should know that the same two men who took the gold jewelry from around my neck still go on planning to destroy me and to ruin me.

Ancient Mesopotamia dictioary. . 2015.

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