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Middle East, North Africa & Turkey : legal resources: Sumerians, Babylonians and Akkadians.

Subjects: Law - Foreign Law

Surviving Law Codes and texts

Hammurabi was a king of Babylon's 1st dynasty (c. 1792-1750).  His law code, as depicted in a cuneiform inscription with nearly 300 statements, is arguably the most complete record of ancient law, and it is often cited as the starting point for all later law.  The code covers many subjects including family, criminal and civil law. 

Translations/commentaries are available online from a range of sources including The Avalon Project and the Online Library of Liberty (both free resources).

Despite its legacy Hammurabi's code is not the only, or even the earliest, example of clearly structured written laws in the ancient Near East.

  • The Laws or Ur-Nammu,a Sumerian law collection from c. 2100 BCE. The laws are not complete but include 40 legal provisions including homicide, sexual offences, assault, false accusations, marriage, and property.
  • The laws of Eshnunna (see Yaron's book at Ancient Babylon Y28a2) pre-dated Hammurabi's laws by around 200 years
  • Both Boecker (Ancient General 510 B669a) and Feldbrugge (General 510 F312a) have good sections dealing with pre-Hammurabi ancient Near Eastern law
  • Sassoon (Ancient General 510 S252a) gives a good discussion of later laws such as those of the Hittites in his chapter 'The Law Codes'.

Cuneiform law in the Ancient Near East

During the first four millenniums BC the region of Mesopotamia and the wider ancient Near East (modern-day Iraq, Syria, Turkey) was the setting for the earliest emergence of civilisation, and subsequently a wealth of complex societies from powerful city states to empires like those of the Babylonians or Hittites. 

These fluctuating civilisations were all interconnected.  Cuneiform texts (created by imprinting wet clay with a wedge-shaped implement) were used for administrative purposes throughout the area to support and enforce legal systems.