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Ur-Nammu (seated) bestows governorship on Ḫašḫamer, patesi (high
priest) of Iškun-Sin (cylinder seal impression, ca. 2100 BC).
The Code of Ur-Nammu is the oldest known tablet
containing a law code surviving today. It was written in
language ca. 2100-2050 BC. Although the preface directly
credits the laws to king Ur-Nammu of Ur (2112-2095 BC), some historians think they should
rather be ascribed to his son Shulgi.
The first copy of the code, in two fragments found at Nippur, was translated by Samuel Kramer in 1952; owing to its partial
preservation, only the prologue and 5 of the laws were
Further tablets were found in Ur and
translated in 1965, allowing some 40 of the 57 laws to be
reconstructed. Another copy found in Sippar contains slight variants.
Although it is known that earlier law-codes existed, such as the
Code of Urukagina, this
represents the earliest legal text that is extant. It predated the
Hammurabi by some three centuries.
The laws are arranged in casuistic form of if-(crime),
then-(punishment) — a pattern to be followed in nearly all
subsequent codes. For the oldest extant law-code known to history,
it is considered remarkably advanced, because it institutes fines
of monetary compensation for bodily damage, as opposed to the later
lex talionis (‘eye for an eye’)
principle of Babylonian law; however, murder, robbery, adultery and rape were capital offenses.
The code reveals a glimpse at societal structure during the "Sumerian Renaissance". Beneath the
lu-gal ("great man" or king), all members of society
belonged to one of two basic strata: The "lu" or free
person, and the slave (male, arad; female geme).
The son of a lu was called a dumu-nita until he
married, becoming a "young man" (gurus). A woman
(munus) went from being a daughter (dumu-mi), to
a wife (dam), then if she outlived her husband, a widow
(nu-ma-su) who could remarry.
The prologue, typical of Mesopotamian law codes, invokes the
deities for Ur-Nammu's kingship and decrees "equity in the
- "…After An
and Enlil had turned over the
Kingship of Ur to Nanna, at that
time did Ur-Nammu, son born of Ninsun, for his beloved mother who bore him, in
accordance with his principles of equity and truth... Then did
Ur-Nammu the mighty warrior, king of Ur, king of Sumer and Akkad,
by the might of Nanna, lord of the city, and in accordance with the
true word of Utu, establish equity
in the land; he banished malediction, violence and strife, and set
the monthly Temple expenses at 90 gur of barley, 30 sheep,
and 30 sila of butter. He fashioned the bronze sila-measure,
standardized the one-mina weight,
and standardized the stone weight of a shekel of silver in relation to one mina... The
orphan was not delivered up to the rich man; the widow was not
delivered up to the mighty man; the man of one shekel was not
delivered up to the man of one mina."
One mina ( 1/60 of a talent ) was made equal to 60 shekels ( 1 shekel = 11 grams ) . Among the surviving laws
are the following:
- 1. If a man commits a murder, that man must be killed.
- 2. If a man commits a robbery, he will be killed.
- 3. If a man commits a kidnapping, he is to be imprisoned and
pay 15 shekels of silver.
- 4. If a slave marries a slave, and that slave is set free, he
does not leave the household.
- 5. If a slave marries a native (i.e. free) person, he/she is to
hand the firstborn son over to his owner.
- 6. If a man violates the right of another and deflowers the
virgin wife of a young man, they shall kill that male.
- 7. If the wife of a man followed after another man and he slept
with her, they shall slay that woman, but that male shall be set
free. (§4 in some translations)
- 8. If a man proceeded by force, and deflowered the virgin
slavewoman of another man, that man must pay five shekels of
- 9. If a man divorces his first-time wife, he shall pay her one
mina of silver. (6)
- 10. If it is a (former) widow whom he divorces, he shall pay
her half a mina of silver. (7)
- 11. If the man had slept with the widow without there having
been any marriage contract, he need not pay any silver. (8)
- 13. If a man is accused of sorcery he must undergo ordeal by
water; if he is proven innocent, his accuser must pay 3
- 14. If a man accused the wife of a man of adultery, and the
river ordeal proved her innocent, then the man who had accused her
must pay one-third of a mina of silver. (11)
- 15. If a prospective son-in-law enters the house of his
prospective father-in-law, but his father-in-law later gives his
daughter to another man, the father-in-law shall return to the
rejected son-in-law twofold the amount of bridal presents he had
- 17. If a slave escapes from the city limits, and someone
returns him, the owner shall pay two shekels to the one who
returned him. (14)
- 18. If a man knocks out the eye of another man, he shall weigh
out ½ a mina of silver. (15)
- 19. If a man has cut off another man’s foot, he is to pay ten
- 20. If a man, in the course of a scuffle, smashed the limb of
another man with a club, he shall pay one mina of silver. (17)
- 21. If someone severed the nose of another man with a copper
knife, he must pay two-thirds of a mina of silver. (18)
- 22. If a man knocks out a tooth of another man, he shall pay
two shekels of silver. (19)
- 24. [...] If he does not have a slave, he is to pay 10 shekels
of silver. If he does not have silver, he is to give another thing
that belongs to him. (21)
- 25. If a man’s slave-woman, comparing herself to her mistress,
speaks insolently to her, her mouth shall be scoured with 1 quart
of salt. (22)
- 28. If a man appeared as a witness, and was shown to be a
perjurer, he must pay fifteen shekels of silver. (25)
- 29. If a man appears as a witness, but withdraws his oath, he
must make payment, to the extent of the value in litigation of the
- 30. If a man stealthily cultivates the field of another man and
he raises a complaint, this is however to be rejected, and this man
will lose his expenses. (27)
- 31. If a man flooded the field of a man with water, he shall
measure out three kur of barley per iku of field.
- 32. If a man had let an arable field to a(nother) man for
cultivation, but he did not cultivate it, turning it into
wasteland, he shall measure out three kur of barley per
iku of field. (29)
Kramer, History begins at Sumer, pp. 52-55.
- Claus Wilcke. "Der Kodex Urnamma (CU): Versuch einer
Rekonstruktion." Riches hidden in secret places: ancient Near
Eastern studies in memory of Thorkild Jacobson, edited by Zvi
Abusch, 2002, ISBN 1575060612
- Martha T. Roth. "Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia
Minor." Writings from the Ancient World, vol. 6. Society
of Biblical Literature, 1995, ISBN 0788501046