Rulership and Justice: The Law Codes of Ancient Mesopotamia

From the Stele of Hammurabi / Wikimedia Commons

Rulers used law codes either to justify their rule or to demonstrate examples of justice and due process during a successful reign.

By Dr. Jennie Myers
Director of Foundation Relations
University of Illinois, Chicago

While most people know of Hammurabi as the author of his famous “law code,” few know that the tradition of the ruler as the guardian and administrator of justice began much earlier in Mesopotamian history. Already in the third millennium, a king called Uruinimgina (ca. 2350 BCE; also known as Urukagina) commissioned a set of reforms that can be viewed as a precursor to the laws of Hammurabi.

Scholars now hesitate to call these collections “law codes” because this term implies that the laws contained in a given collection were comprehensive, representing a complete “law of the land.” Rather, scholars believe there were various motivations for compiling lists of laws.

Some of the collections appear to be scribal exercises in which scribes not only practiced their writing skills, but participated in the Mesopotamian intellectual tradition of compiling lists of everything in existence, including gods, professions, stars, and omens. Some law collections, such as those of Ur-namma (ca. 2112-2095 BCE), Lipit-Ishtar (ca. 1943-1924 BCE), and Hammurabi (ca. 1792-1750 BCE), appear to have had political motivations, either to justify their rule or to demonstrate examples of justice and due process during a successful reign.

Stele of the Code of Hammurabi / Louvre Museum

Each begins with a prologue and ends with an epilogue, which provide justification for the ruler’s authority—bestowed upon him by the gods—to rule and administer justice on behalf of the gods. As mentioned above, Hammurabi, whose law collection is the largest example from Mesopotamia, not only portrayed himself as selected by the gods to be the provider of justice for his people, but cast himself in the image of the god of justice, the sun-god Shamash.

The message that these literary portions of the law collections convey is that the king’s authority has been divinely sanctioned and opposing him means acting against the gods’ wishes.  

While some scholars have viewed the law collections as representing existing legal practice and providing precedents for legal cases, most now view the collections as having had little or no influence on the daily practice of law. This is because, of the thousands of tablets recording proceedings of legal situations and cases, only a very few possibly make mention of a “stela” on which laws presumably were written.

Further Reading

  • Halsall, Paul. Ancient History Sourcebook: A Collection of Mesopotamian Laws, c. 2250 – 550 BCE. 1999. Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 7, 2010).
  • “Code of Hammurabi.” Wikipedia. Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 7, 2010).
  • “Urukagina.” Wikipedia. Link to resoure (accessed May 7, 2010).
  • Westbrook, Raymond. “Social Justice in the Ancient Near East.” Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 7, 2010).

Originally published by University of Chicago Libraries, free and open access, republished for educational, non-commercial purposes.



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