Ur-Nammu Establishes a Code of Law

Ur-Nammu, first king of the Third Dynasty of the Mesopotamian city of Ur, collected and edited the traditional laws of his culture into a formal legal system.

Summary of Event

The history of Western jurisprudence begins in Mesopotamia, in the Sumerian city of Ur. The oldest law code for which a surviving written text has been found is that of Ur-Nammu. This text is written on clay tablets in cuneiform, a system of writing using wedge-shaped marks formed with a reed stylus pressed into the moist clay. Because of the fragility of the medium, only fragments of the text of the Ur-Nammu law code survive, and archaeologists have deciphered a mere five of the items in the damaged tablets. However, this has been enough to determine that Ur-Nammu’s law code is part of a continuing tradition of Mesopotamian legal thought. Other texts contain references to even older law codes, particularly that of Uruk-Agina compiled three centuries earlier, but no surviving copies of these law codes have been found. Ur-Nammu

Ur-Nammu was the first king of the Third Dynasty of Ur. He began his career as a governor appointed by Utukhegal of Uruk after the defeat of the nomadic Guti tribes. He subsequently rebelled and established himself as an independent king, creating a sizeable empire among the Sumerian city-states. During his era, Ur was a large and sophisticated city with a high population density and the social pressures that accompany urban development.

Along with an extensive building program intended to secure his position in history, Ur-Nammu set his scribes to collecting and systematically editing the traditional laws of Sumerian society, as well as creating new ones to bridge the gaps revealed by this process. Many scholars believe that the law code may have actually been written by Ur-Nammu’s son Shulgi and subsequently credited to the father as a way of honoring his memory. In any case, this law code formed a part of an active judicial tradition, since archaeologists have also discovered court records from the period, dealing with a range of cases from murders to commercial fraud.

The law code of Ur-Nammu reveals a sophisticated grasp of legal concepts. For instance, it established graduated schedules of fines and punishments as a way of making punishments fit the crimes. It established fines as penalties for injuries dealt to others, as opposed to the lex talionis, a system by which the culprit was given the same injury as the injured party—“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” as it was put in the later code of Hammurabi. Ur-Nammu’s law code also punished wealthy and clever criminals more harshly than the poor or simple malefactor, perhaps on the rationale that educated and rich people had less excuse for such actions than those who may have been desperate or did not know better.

The compiled code proclaimed Ur-Nammu as the protector of the poor and included a provision for cancelling debts that poor families could not possibly pay. There were also provisions for the dismissal of corrupt officials who oppressed the common people.

However, other aspects of Sumerian law would seem harsh, even barbaric to modern minds. The Sumerians made no distinction between accidents and premeditated crime. Only the act and its consequences mattered, and it was punished accordingly. This may have been an outgrowth of the Sumerian religious idea that human beings were but playthings of the gods and human choice meant little in the face of fate.


The development of a written code of laws was a critical turning point in Western history, and its effects have permutated through the centuries to modern times. The idea that laws could be formalized in written form was critical in developing the concept of the rule of law, as was the idea that laws could be subject to deliberate review and reform.

The Sumerian law codes also had important effects upon the development of Western religion. The traditional date for the patriarch Abraham’s departure from Ur is several decades after the era of Ur-Nammu, so it is possible that some of these legal principles underlie the Hebrew legal and moral tradition. However, most scholars have dated Mesopotamian influence upon the developing Jewish religious law to the later Babylonian captivity. Whatever the precise route of transmission, important Mesopotamian legal principles such as the protection of the poor and the use of punishments commensurate with the offense have become important moral foundations of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all of which look to Abraham as an important founding figure.

Further Reading

  • Bottero, Jean. Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. An overview of the culture of the various Mesopotamian civilizations, the Sumerians and their successors.
  • Kramer, Samuel Noah. History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine “Firsts” in Recorded History. 3d ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989. Quotations from original Sumerian cunieform texts demonstrate the first instances of many important elements of civilization, including law codes and legal precedents.
  • Oppenheim, A. Leo. Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977. A comprehensive set of essays on various aspects of ancient Mesopotamian culture, including laws and justice.
  • Rothman, Michell S. Uruk Mesopotamia and Its Neighbors: Cross-Cultural Interactions in the Age of State Formation. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: School of American Research Press, 2001. In-depth study of the development of the apparatus of state in ancient Mesopotamia, including the codification of the legal system.
  • Roux, Georges. Ancient Iraq. New York: Penguin, 1993. An overview of the civilizations of Mesopotamia, from Sumerian beginnings to the modern era, tracing continuity in cultural changes.