3 Most Important Law Codes of Ancient Mesopotamia

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A great civilization and culture always formed by a great law. It is the law and order that decides the future of civilization. If the law gives more freedom then people started misuse of freedom and if the law is very tightened then people lose their freedom of speech. So a balanced law is the first necessity for a successful society.

In ancient Mesopotamia (current Iraq) they formed a very balanced law code by the kings that gave them the freedom to the people and at the same time gave the realization of duties and responsibilities as well.

Law is order, and good law is a good order


They had the system in place log their customer complaint in case they are not happy with the vendor service or complaining directly to the king if serious matter.

How to rent an Ox or what to do when taking someone land for farming and what should be the punishment for crime? All things are clearly described in the Mesopotamian law codes.

Three very important law codes of Mesopotamia created by Un-Nammu, Lipit Ishtar, and Hammurabi on the clay tablets that established the law and order during their reign and later became the foundation of the future law codes.

Clay Tablets

Mesopotamia was the culture who has the credit to inventing the writing system. However, it was the outcome of the need as they were involved more in farming then storing and exchanging goods became difficult.

The first thing which was invented was small clay tokens to show the count. To keep the authenticity Bulla was invented and finally, there was a need for Clay tablets.

Clay tokens
Clay Tokens. Small lines indicates the count or quantity
Bulla, a hollow sphere. Once exchange is done, kept clay tokens in the Bulla and close it with the seal of both the parties.

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Laws of Ur-Nammu (2100 B.C.E) – Ur

Ur Nammu Seal
Ur-Nammu on a cylinder seal. Inscription of the upper segment:
“Ur-Nammu, the Great man, King of Ur”. The name of King Ur-Nammu (𒌨𒀭𒇉) appears vertically in the upper right corner
Creative Commons


Ur-Nammu of Ur one of the oldest archaeological sites ruled from 2112 BC – 2095 and achieved the independence of the city of Ur from the overlord Utu-hegal of Uruk. During his eighteen-year reign, Ur-Nammu founded the Third Dynasty of Ur.

Ur-Nammu’s centralized bureaucracies and administration of resources allowed him to undertake the building of the magnificent ziggurats (stepped temple-towers) and other labor-intensive projects, including local temple restorations and maintenance and expansions of the canal systems.

Ur-Nammu was also responsible for ordering the construction of a number of ziggurats, including the Great Ziggurat of Ur.

He was killed in a battle against the Gutians after he had been abandoned by his army. He was deified and succeeded by his son Shulgi. 

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Law Codes

Ur-Nammu law codes are the oldest surviving artifacts of law code followed in society. Clay tablets consisting of these law code collections belong either to King Ur-Nammu of Ur (2112-2095 B.C.E.) or to his son and the successor on the throne, Shulgi (r. 2094-2047) that is a topic under discussion.

The prologue of Ur Nammu’s law code found in very poor conditions. So through the prologue, the writer of law code could not be determined.

The three sources used in the reconstruction of the Law codes of Ur-Nammu came from three-or perhaps two-different sites.

  • The Nippur tablet an ancient Sumerian city, a place of the oldest library ever created by humans situated in modern-day Iraq and famous of Nippur library preserves the beginning of the prologue and laws 4-20.
  • The Ur tablets preserve 7-37 law codes.
  • The “Sippar” tablet, which might also come from Nippur, completes the prologue, and provides the first ten laws.

Structure of Codes

The structure which was defined by Ur-Nammu in this law codes became standard for the future law codes.

It started with “If (crime performed) then (judgment/punishment given).

Overall 37 laws were extracted from the clay tablets but very few are complete and gives the appropriate definition.

These consist of multiple categories of crime that resulted in capital punishment, imprisonment, or fine. For example:

Capital PunishmentLaw-1. If a man commits a murder, that man must be killed.
Law-2. If a man commits a robbery, he will be killed.
Imprisonment Law-3. If a man commits a kidnapping, he is to be imprisoned and pay 15 shekels of silver.
Fine If a man proceeded by force and deflowered the virgin female slave of another man, that man must pay five shekels of silver.
If a man has cut off another man’s foot, he is to pay ten shekels

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Laws of Lipit-Ishtar 1930 B.C.E

Lipit Ishtar
Clay Tablet of Lipit Ishtar Law Codes
Public Domain

Lipit Ishtar

Lipit-Ishtar  1870 BC – c. 1860 BC was the 5th king of the First Dynasty of Isin, according to the Sumerian King List (SKL). Lipit-Ištar is mostly known due to the Sumerian language hymns that were written in his honor, as well as a legal code written in his name (preceding the famed Code of Hammurabi by about 100 years) which were used for school instruction for hundreds of years after Lipit-Ištar’s death.

Law Codes

The Laws of Lipit-Ishtar’s four fragments all originally part of one tablet upon which the Lipit-Ishtar code was inscribed were recovered from the ancient city of Nippur during the expedition of the University of Pennsylvania to that site from 1889–1900.

The extant text explains that Lipit-Ishtar, having received the law from Utu through the mediation of Enlil. After a break of about twenty lines, there is a customary pattern of blessings or curses directed upon that man who will either respect or desecrate the code stele. The list of gods whose power is invoked in curses is largely destroyed.

A total of 38 law codes are defined in the Lipit Ishtar law code. Very few or none related to capital punishment. Most of the codes related to exchange and fine which might have helped Lipit Ishtar to maintain law and order.


The first laws securely identifiable with this collection deal with boats and are followed by-laws dealing with agriculture, fugitive slaves, false testimony, foster care and apprenticeship, marriage, and associated property right and rented oxen. A few law of Lipit Ishtar’s clay tablet:

Capital PunishmentLaw-c. *Not fully clear* If she dies, that male shall be killed.
Codes of Rent or LeaseLaw-a. If a man rents an ox for the rear
of the team, he shall measure and
deliver 2400 Silas of grain for two
years as its hire; if it is an ox for the
front or middle, he shall measure
and deliver 1800 Silas of grain (for
two years) as its hire.
FineLaw-9. If a man entered the orchard of another man and was seized there for stealing, he shall pay ten shekels of silver.
Exchangelaw-12. If a slave-girl or slave of a man has fled into the heart of the city and it has been confirmed that he (or she) dwelt in the house of another) man for one month, he shall give slave for slave.

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Code of Hammurabi


Hammurabi (c. 1810 – c. 1750 BC) was the sixth king of the First Babylonian dynasty of the Amorite tribe, reigning from c. 1792 BC to c. 1750 BC.

Hammurabi commanded the great political development of the empire and established a complex and sophisticated government and military bureaucracy to administer it.

He defeated powerful rival kingdoms and spread his political and diplomatic power throughout the ancient Near East.

He is famous for the law coded which he compiled towards the end of his forty-two years of reign. Hammurabi established justice in the land,” is a testimony to Hammurabi’s concern for justice.

Law Codes

The Laws codes of Hammurabi is the best-organized collections of the law codes from Mesopotamia. It formed on the earlier version of Mesopotamian law codes.

For example, the homicide code from Ur-Nammu is a simplified version of the Law code which Hammurabi compiled.

  • Law Code from Ur Nammu – If a man commits a homicide, they shall kill that man.
  • Law Code in Hammurabi – If a man accuses another man and charges him with homicide but then cannot bring proof against him, his accuser shall be
    killed. ‘

Apart from making allegations, the victim is also given the duty to present the evidence against the accused, so that false allegations can be avoided.

Hammurabi codes probably the first one which had a foundation presumption of innocence. That means the accuser is not guilty until proven. But once proven then laws talks about

“If a man destroys the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If one breaks a man’s bone, they shall break his bone. If one destroys the eye of a freeman or breaks the bone of a freeman he shall pay one gold mina. If one destroys the eye of a man’s slave or breaks a bone of a man’s slave he shall pay one-half his price.

Law #196

The Hammurabi code consists of between 275 and 300 law provisions. Each law is written in two parts: A specific situation or case is outlined, then a corresponding decision is given. It is the same as the Ur-Nammu structure but more detailed.

The Hammurabi codes are known from numerous artifacts that copied and recopied over the centuries in the scribal centers of Mesopotamia. The most complete and famous exemplar is the black stone stela, now housed in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, excavated in 1901-1902 by archaeological teams working in the ancient Elamite capital Susa. The stela, one of several that were erected in Babylonian cities.

The Louvre stela, which forms the basis of every edition of the Laws, is a pillar of diorite almost seven and a half feet tall. On the top, covering almost one-third of the stela is an imposing scene of the sun-god Shamash, the god of justice, seated on his throne, and standing before him the king Hammurabi.


The cases dealt with in the Laws of Hammurabi include judicial procedure; theft and robbery; slave sales and matters affecting slaves; agricultural and irrigation work and offenses; pledges, debits, deposits, and loans; real estate sales and rentals; marriage, matrimonial property, and sexual offenses; inheritance, adoption and foster care; assault and bodily injuries; rates of hire for equipment, laborers, and craftsmen; failure to complete contracted tasks renter s’ and shepherds’ liabilities and renting oxen.

Capital PunishmentLaw-1. If a man accuses another man
and charges him with homicide but
cannot bring proof against him, his
accuser shall be killed.
Law-3. If a man comes forward to give
false testimony in a case but cannot
bring evidence for his accusation,
if that case involves a capital
offense, that man shall be killed.
PenaltyLaw-265. “If a herdsman, to whose care cattle or sheep have been entrusted, be guilty of fraud and make false returns of the natural increase, or sell them for money, then shall he be convicted and pay the owner ten times the loss
ExchangeIf a merchant gives grain or
silver as an interest-bearing loan,
he shaH take 100 silas of grain per
kur as interest (= 33%); if he gives
silver as an interest-bearing loan,
he shall take 36 barleycorns per
shekel of silver as interest (= 20%).
(91 L, 91 70+d, 91 5.9)

Ancient Artifact You May Like


Ur-NammuLipit IshtarHammurabi
Year of Creation2112-2095 B.C1870 – 1860 B.C1792–1750 B.C
ReconstructionReconstruct through three different clay tabletsFour Fragments of same clay tabletClay Tablet and Stele
Law Codes3738275
Methodology-Institutes fines of monetary compensation for bodily damage
-No (‘eye for an eye’) type codes
-Capital punishment for murder, robbery, adultery and rape.
-Very few or only one law for capital punishment
-No (‘eye for an eye’) type codes
-So many laws for Capital Punishment.
-Eye for an eye type laws.
-Laws formed in details and person can be killed on false testimony

Sumerian Measurements

Weight measures (used for silver, gold, tin, wool, etc.)

  • 1 biltu (gún) ‘talent” (ca. 30 kilograms) = 60 minas
  • 1 mana (ma-na) “mina” (ca. 500 grams) – 60’shekels” [Hittite ‘mina = 40
  • “shekels”]
  • 1 šiglu (gin) ‘shekel” (ca. 8.33 grams) = 180 “barleycorns”
  • 1 uttetu (še) “barleycorn” (ca. 0.046 grams)

Capacity measures (used for grain, etc.)

  • 1 kurtu (gur) “kur” (ca. 300 liters) = 5 bariga
  • 1 pānu (bariga) “bariga” (ca. 60 liters) = 6 seahs
  • 1 sūtu (ban) “seah” (ca. 10 liters) – 10 silas” (Neo-Babylonian ‘seah” = 6
  • “silas”]
  • 1 qů (sila) “sila” (ca. 1 liter) – 60’shekels

Surface measures (used for fields, houses, etc.)

  • 1 buru (bur) ‘bur (ca. 64,800 sq. meters or ca. 6.5 hectares) = 18 “ikus”
  • 1 iků (iku) “iku” (ca. 3600 sq. meters or ca. 0.36 hectares) = 100 sars”
  • 1 mušaru (sar) sar” (ca. 36 sq. meters or ca. 0.0036 hectares)

Length measures (used for walls, textiles, etc.)

  • 1 nindānu (ninda) “ninda” (ca. 6 meters) = 12 cubits” [Neo-Babylonian
  • “ninda” – 14 “cubits”)
  • 1 qanů (gi) “reed” (ca. 3 meters) = 6 cubits [Neo-Babylonian reed=7
  • “cubits”)
  • 1 ammatu (kuš) “cubit” (ca. 50 centimeters) = 30 “fingers” [Neo-Babylon-
  • ian “cubit = 24 “fingers”)
  • 1 ubanu (šu-si) “finger” (ca. 1.66 centimeters) = 6 “barleycorns
  • 1 uttetu (še) “barleycorn” (ca. 0.28 centimeters)






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