MESOPOTAMIAN JUSTICE SYSTEM

MESOPOTAMIAN JUSTICE SYSTEM


Babylonian judge in the 1916 film Intolerence

The world's oldest surviving judicial code is the code of King Ur-Nammu from the third dynasty of Ur in 2250 B.C. The first texts dealing with ideal justice were found on the clay tablets of Shulgi of Ur, who ruled from about 2079 to 2032 B.C.

In Mesopotamia there were legal codes but no lawyers. Parties involved in disputes had to plead their cases directly to government authorities, often people close to the king or the king himself. All legal decisions and agreements were ratified by an oath taken before the gods and subject to their wrath or punishment if the agreement was broken.

In the cuneiform libraries there are records of divorces and petty theft trials. In a murder case involving a woman one person who spoke in her defense said: "granted that she killed her husband---what can a [mere] woman do that she should be killed?" But in the end though the court decided "her guilt exceeds that of the ones who were killed..."

Morris Jastrow said: “The judge stands in the place of deity according to the general view prevailing in antiquity. If he fail in the proper discharge of his duties, he lowers the dignity of his office; and the deity, by permitting him to go astray, shows that he no longer desires the judge to speak in his name. Confidence in the probity and ability of the judge is the conditio sine qud non of the execution of justice. Defective as this uncompromising attitude toward a judicial error may be from a modern standpoint in not recognising an appeal from a lower to a higher court, the ethical basis is both sound and of a high order. With such a provision, which speaks volumes for the standards obtaining in the days of Hammurabi, the integrity of the courts was firmly secured for all time. Equally noteworthy and more modern in its spirit is the provision that a false witness, whose testimony jeopardises the life of another, shall be put to death. One is reminded of the Venetian law quoted by Portia that the life of him who places a citizen in jeopardy “lies in the mercy of the Duke only, ’gainst all other voice.” If the false testimony involves property, the false witness must pay the amount involved in the suit.” [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911]

See Separate Articles: MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE IN MESOPOTAMIA, FAMILY LIFE AND CHILDREN IN MESOPOTAMIA, WOMEN IN MESOPOTAMIA

The Babylonians had police. In Mesopotamian times, brigands roamed the countryside. Occasionally soldiers on horseback were sent on missions to shoot them or arrest them.

Websites and Resources on Mesopotamia: Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu.com/Mesopotamia ; Mesopotamia University of Chicago site mesopotamia.lib.uchicago.edu; British Museum mesopotamia.co.uk ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Louvre louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_periode.jsp ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/toah ; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology penn.museum/sites/iraq ; Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago uchicago.edu/museum/highlights/meso ; Iraq Museum Database oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/dbfiles/Iraqdatabasehome ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; ABZU etana.org/abzubib; Oriental Institute Virtual Museum oi.uchicago.edu/virtualtour ; Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur oi.uchicago.edu/museum-exhibits ; Ancient Near Eastern Art Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org

Archaeology News and Resources: Anthropology.net anthropology.net : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology; archaeologica.org archaeologica.org is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe archeurope.com features educational resources, original material on many archaeological subjects and has information on archaeological events, study tours, field trips and archaeological courses, links to web sites and articles; Archaeology magazine archaeology.org has archaeology news and articles and is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; Archaeology News Network archaeologynewsnetwork is a non-profit, online open access, pro- community news website on archaeology; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine is an excellent source published by the Council for British Archaeology; Current Archaeology magazine archaeology.co.uk is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine; HeritageDaily heritagedaily.com is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries; Livescience livescience.com/ : general science website with plenty of archaeological content and news. Past Horizons : online magazine site covering archaeology and heritage news as well as news on other science fields; The Archaeology Channel archaeologychannel.org explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media; Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history; Best of History Websites besthistorysites.net is a good source for links to other sites; Essential Humanities essential-humanities.net: provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory

Crimes in Mesopotamia

According to one tablet from 1900 B.C., three men---Ku-Enlilia, the son of a barber, Enlilennam, son of an orchard keeper, and one Nanna-rig---murdered a priest at the behest of the priest's wife, who had been having an affair with one of the men. The king ordered a trial that was judged by an assembly of nine elders whose professions included birdcatcher and potter. The verdict and sentence: "Those three males and that woman should be killed."

No long after shekels appeared as a means of exchange, kings began levying fines in shekels as a punishment. Around 2000 B.C., in the city of Eshnunna, a man who bit another man's nose was fined 60 shekels. A man who slapped another man in the face had to pay up 20 shekels.

The Babylonian described a sinner as "one who has eaten what is taboo to his god or goddess, who has 'no' for 'yes' or has said 'yes' for 'no,' who has pointed his finger (falsely accusing) a fellow man...caused evil to be spoken, has judged incorrectly, oppressed the weak, estranged a son from his father or a friend from a friend, who has nor freed the captive..." Sins could be absolved by a penitential psalm, prayer or lament or an expiatory sacrifice in which a "lamb is substitute for man." Demons were exorcized by a priest who transferred the demon to a wax or wooden figure that was thrown in a fire. [ World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

Legal Code of Hammurabi

The Babylonian king Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.) produced the Code of Hammurabi, the oldest surviving set of laws. Credited with originating the eye for an eye justice, it consisted of 282 case laws with legal procedures and penalties. Many of the laws had been around for a while. Hammurabi codified them into a fixed and standardized set of laws. He also instituted a highly developed administration that included courts and a system for the enforcement of laws.


Hammurabi bas-relief at the
U.S. House of Representatives
The legal code of Hammurabi is listed on an 8-foot-high black diorite stele from the 18th century B.C. On the top of the stele Hammurabi is shown standing before Shamash, the god of justice, receiving the laws. The stele is believed to be one of many that were set up throughout the Babylonian domain to inform people of the law of the land. The Code of Hammurabi slab that exists today was moved to Susa in Iran in 1200 B.C. and discovered in 1901. It is currently at the Louvre.

Claude Hermann and Walter Johns wrote in the Encyclopedia Britannica: “ The Hammurabi Code “regulates the feudal position of certain classes. They held an estate from the king consisting of house, garden, field, stock and a salary, on condition of personal service on the king's errand. They could not delegate the service on pain of death. When ordered abroad they could nominate a son, if capable, to hold the benefice and carry on the duty. If there was no son capable, the state put in a locum tenens, but granted one-third to the wife to maintain herself and children. The benefice was inalienable, could not be sold, pledged, exchanged, sublet, devised or diminished. Other land was held of the state for rent. Ancestral estate was strictly tied to the family. If a holder would sell, the family had the right of redemption and there seems to have been no time-limit to its exercise.” [Source: Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian Law — The Code of Hammurabi. Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-1911 <^>]

The legal code of Hammurabi dealt with theft, marriage, debt, slavery, commerce. One of the central tenets of the laws was to protect the weak against the strong. The "an for an eye" saying reads: "If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye...If a son strike his father, they shall cut of his fingers...if one break's a man's bone, they shall break his bone." It came from list of penalties for surgeons. If a surgeon caused someone to lose an eye through negligence the surgeon could lose his eyes.

There are records of divorce trials in Babylonian and Assyrian cuneiform libraries. Under the Code of Hammurabi a woman could get a divorce and keep her dowry, property and children and get child support if she could prove her husband "degraded" her.

Ethics in Mesopotamia

Morris Jastrow said: “Ethical idealism, by which is here meant a high sense of duty and a noble view of life, is possible only—so it would seem—under two conditions, either through a strong conviction that there is a compensation elsewhere for the wrongs, the injustice, and the suffering in this world, or through an equally strong conviction that the unknown goal toward which mankind is striving can be reached only by the moral growth and ultimate perfection of the human race— whatever the future may have in store. The ethics of the Babylonians and Assyrians did not look beyond this world, and their standards were adapted to present needs and not to future possibilities. The thought of the gloomy Aralu in store for all coloured their view of life,—not indeed in leading them to take a pessimistic attitude towards life, or in regarding this world as a vale of tears, but in limiting their ethical ideals to what was essential to their material well-being and mundane happiness. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“It would be an error, however, to infer that such a view of life is incompatible with relatively high standards of conduct. That is far from being the case—at least in Babylonia and Assyria. Even though the highest purpose in life was to secure as much joy and happiness as possible, the conviction was deeply ingrained, particularly in the minds of the Babylonians, that the gods demanded adherence to moral standards. We have had illustrations of these standards in the incantation texts, where by the side of ritualistic errors we find the priests suggesting the possibility that misfortune has been sent in consequence of moral transgressions—such as lying, stealing, defrauding, maliciousness, adultery, coveting the possessions of others, unworthy ambitions, injurious teachings, and other misdemeanours. The gods were prone to punish misdoings quite as severely as neglect of their worship, or indifference to the niceties of ritualistic observances. <>

“The consciousness of sinful inclinations and of guilt, though only brought home to men when misfortunes came or were impending, was strong enough to create rules of conduct in public and private affairs that rested on sound principles. The rights of individuals were safeguarded by laws that strove to prevent the strong from taking undue advantage of the weak. Business was carried on under the protection of laws and regulations that impress one as remarkably equitable. Underhand practices were severely punished, and contracts had to be faithfully executed. All this, it may be suggested, was dictated by the necessities of the growth of a complicated social organisation.”<>



Tribal Custom Versus State Laws in Babylon

Claude Hermann and Walter Johns wrote in the Encyclopedia Britannica: “When the Semitic tribes settled in the cities of Babylonia, their tribal custom passed over into city law. The early history of the country is the story of a struggle for supremacy between the cities. A metropolis demanded tribute and military support from its subject cities but left their local cults and customs unaffected. The city rights and usages were respected by kings and conquerors alike. [Source: Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian Law — The Code of Hammurabi. Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-1911 <^>]

“As late as the accession of Assur-bani-pal and Samas-sum-yukin we find the Babylonians appealing to their city laws that groups of aliens to the number of twenty at a time were free to enter the city, that foreign women once married to Babylonian husbands could not be enslaved and that not even a dog that entered the city could be put to death untried. <^>

“The population of Babylonia was of many races from early times and intercommunication between the cities was incessant. Every city had a large number of resident aliens. This freedom of intercourse must have tended to assimilate custom. It was, however, reserved for the genius of Hammurabi to make Babylon his metropolis and weld together his vast empire by a uniform system of law. <^>

“Almost all trace of tribal custom has already disappeared from the law of the Code Hammurabi. It is state-law; - alike self-help, blood-feud, marriage by capture, are absent; though family solidarity, district responsibility, ordeal, the lex talionis, are primitive features that remain. The king is a benevolent autocrat, easily accessible to all his subjects, both able and willing to protect the weak against the highest-placed oppressor. The royal power, however, can only pardon when private resentment is appeased. The judges are strictly supervised and appeal is allowed. The whole land is covered with feudal holdings, masters of the levy, police, etc. There is a regular postal system. The pax Babylonica is so assured that private individuals do not hesitate to ride in their carriage from Babylon to the coast of the Mediterranean. The position of women is free and dignified. The Code did not merely embody contemporary custom or conserve ancient law. It is true that centuries of law-abiding and litigious habitude had accumulated in the temple archives of each city vast stores of precedent in ancient deeds and the records of judicial decisions, and that intercourse had assimilated city custom.” <^>

Contracts in Mesopotamia

Claude Hermann and Walter Johns wrote in the Encyclopedia Britannica: “The material for the study of Babylonian law is singularly extensive without being exhaustive. The so-called "contracts," including a great variety of deeds, conveyances, bonds, receipts, accounts and, most important of all, the actual legal decisions given by the judges in the law courts, exist in thousands. Historical inscriptions, royal charters and rescripts, despatches, private letters and the general literature afford welcome supplementary information. Even grammatical and lexicographical works, intended solely to facilitate the study of ancient literature, contain many extracts or short sentences bearing on law and custom.[Source: Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian Law — The Code of Hammurabi. Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-1911 <^>]

“The universal habit of writing and perpetual recourse to written contract even more modified primitive custom and ancient precedent. Provided the parties could agree, the Code left them free to contract as a rule. Their deed of agreement was drawn up in the temple by a notary public, and confirmed by an oath "by god and the king." It was publicly sealed and witnessed by professional witnesses, as well as by collaterally interested parties. The manner in which it was thus executed may have been sufficient security that its stipulations were not impious or illegal. Custom or public opinion doubtless secured that the parties would not agree to wrong. <^>


Sumerian employment contract

“In case of dispute the judges dealt first with the contract. They might not sustain it, but if the parties did not dispute it, they were free to observe it. The judges' decision might, however, be appealed against. Many contracts contain the proviso that in case of future dispute the parties would abide by "the decision of the king." The Code made known, in a vast number of cases, what that decision would be, and many cases of appeal to the king were sent back to the judges with orders to decide in accordance with it. The Code itself was carefully and logically arranged and the order of its sections was conditioned by their subject-matter. Nevertheless the order is not that of modern scientific treatises, and a somewhat different order from both is most convenient for our purpose.” <^>

Morris Jastrow said: “What is noticeable in the thousands of business documents now at our behoof and covering almost all periods from the earliest to the latest, is the spirit of justice and equity that pervades the endeavour to regulate the social relations in Babylonia and Assyria. This is particularly apparent in the legal decisions handed down by the judges, of which we have many specimens. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“As a protection to both parties engaging in business transactions, a formal contract wherein the details were noted was drawn up, and sealed in the presence of witnesses. This method was extended from loans and sales to marriage agreements, to testaments, to contracts for work, to rents, and even to such incidents as engaging teachers, and to apprenticeship. The general principle, already implied in the Hammurabi Code, and apparently in force at all periods, was that no agreement of any kind was valid without a duly attested written record. The religious element enters into these business transactions in the oath taken in the name of the gods, with the frequent addition of the name of the reigning king by both parties as a guarantee of good faith. In some cases the oath is, in fact, prescribed by law. If a dispute arose in regard to the terms of a contract, and no agreement could be reached by the contracting parties, the case was brought before the court.”<>

How the Justice System Worked in Mesopotamia

In Mesopotamia there were legal codes but no lawyers. Parties involved in disputes had to plead their cases directly to government authorities, often people close to the king or the king himself. All legal decisions and agreements were ratified by an oath taken before the gods and subject to their wrath or punishment if the agreement was broken.

Morris Jastrow said: Courts appear “to have been ordinarily composed of three judges, as among the Jews (whose method of legal procedure was largely modelled upon Babylonian prototypes). All the documents in the case had to be brought into court, and each party was obliged to bring witnesses to support any claims lying outside the record. The impression that one receives from a study of these decisions is that they were rendered after a careful and impartial consideration of the documents, and of the statements of the parties and of previous decisions. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911]

Claude Hermann and Walter Johns wrote in the Encyclopedia Britannica: “In case of dispute the judges dealt first with the contract. They might not sustain it, but if the parties did not dispute it, they were free to observe it. The judges' decision might, however, be appealed against. Many contracts contain the proviso that in case of future dispute the parties would abide by "the decision of the king." The Hammurabi Code made known, in a vast number of cases, what that decision would be, and many cases of appeal to the king were sent back to the judges with orders to decide in accordance with it. The Code itself was carefully and logically arranged and the order of its sections was conditioned by their subject-matter. Nevertheless the order is not that of modern scientific treatises, and a somewhat different order from both is most convenient for our purpose. [Source: Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian Law — The Code of Hammurabi. Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-1911]

Pleas, Witnesses, Oaths and Appeals in the Mesopotamia Legal System


Claude Hermann and Walter Johns wrote in the Encyclopedia Britannica: “Throughout the Code respect is paid to status. Suspicion was not enough. The criminal must be taken in the act, e.g. the adulterer, ravisher, etc. A man could not be convicted of theft unless the goods were found in his possession. [Source: Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian Law — The Code of Hammurabi. Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-1911 <^>]

“In the case of a lawsuit the plaintiff preferred his own plea. There is no trace of professional advocates, but the plea had to be in writing and the notary doubtless assisted in the drafting of it. The judge saw the plea, called the other parties before him and sent for the witnesses. If these were not at hand he might adjourn the case for their production, specifying a time up to six months. Guarantees might be entered into to produce the witnesses on a fixed day. The more important cases, especially those involving life and death, were tried by a bench of judges. With the judges were associated a body of elders, who shared in the decision, but whose exact function is not yet clear. Agreements, declarations and non-contentious cases are usually witnessed by one judge and twelve elders.

“Parties and witnesses were put on oath. The penalty for the false witness was usually that which would have been awarded the convicted criminal. In matters beyond the knowledge of men, as the guilt or innocence of an alleged wizard or a suspected wife, the ordeal by water was used. The accused jumped into the sacred river, and the innocent swam while the guilty drowned. The accused could clear himself by oath where his own knowledge was alone available. The plaintiff could swear to his loss by brigands, as to goods claimed, the price paid for a slave purchased abroad or the sum due to him. But great stress was laid on the production of written evidence. It was a serious thing to lose a document. The judges might be satisfied of its existence and terms by the evidence of the witnesses to it, and then issue an order that whenever found it should be given up. Contracts annulled were ordered to be broken. The court might go a journey to view the property and even take with them the sacred symbols on which oath was made. <^>

“The decision given was embodied in writing, sealed and witnessed by the judges, the elders, witnesses and a scribe. Women might act in all these capacities. The parties swore an oath, embodied in the document, to observe its stipulations. Each took a copy and one was held by the scribe to be stored in the archives. <^>

“Appeal to the king was allowed and is well attested. The judges at Babylon seem to have formed a superior court to those of provincial towns, but a defendant might elect to answer the charge before the local court and refuse to plead at Babylon. Finally, it may be noted that many immoral acts, such as the use of false weights, lying, etc., which could not be brought into court, are severely denounced in the Omen Tablets as likely to bring the offender into "the hand of God" as opposed to "the hand of the king."

Hammurabi's Code of Laws: 1-8: Basic Legal Stuff

The Babylonian king Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.) is credited with producing the Code of Hammurabi, the oldest surviving set of laws. Recognized for putting eye for an eye justice into writing and remarkable for its depth and judiciousness, it consists of 282 case laws with legal procedures and penalties. Many of the laws had been around before the code was etched in the eight-foot-highin black diorite stone that bears them. Hammurabi codified them into a fixed and standardized set of laws.

1. If any one ensnare another, putting a ban upon him, but he can not prove it, then he that ensnared him shall be put to death. [Source: Translated by L. W. King]


Prologue of Hammurabi's Code

2. If any one bring an accusation against a man, and the accused go to the river and leap into the river, if he sink in the river his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if the river prove that the accused is not guilty, and he escape unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death, while he who leaped into the river shall take possession of the house that had belonged to his accuser.

3. If any one bring an accusation of any crime before the elders, and does not prove what he has charged, he shall, if it be a capital offense charged, be put to death.

4. If he satisfy the elders to impose a fine of grain or money, he shall receive the fine that the action produces.

5. If a judge try a case, reach a decision, and present his judgment in writing; if later error shall appear in his decision, and it be through his own fault, then he shall pay twelve times the fine set by him in the case, and he shall be publicly removed from the judge's bench, and never again shall he sit there to render judgement.

6. If any one steal the property of a temple or of the court, he shall be put to death, and also the one who receives the stolen thing from him shall be put to death.

7. If any one buy from the son or the slave of another man, without witnesses or a contract, silver or gold, a male or female slave, an ox or a sheep, an ass or anything, or if he take it in charge, he is considered a thief and shall be put to death.

8. If any one steal cattle or sheep, or an ass, or a pig or a goat, if it belong to a god or to the court, the thief shall pay thirtyfold therefor; if they belonged to a freed man of the king he shall pay tenfold; if the thief has nothing with which to pay he shall be put to death.

Hammurabi's Code of Laws: 9-12: Witnesses

9. If any one lose an article, and find it in the possession of another: if the person in whose possession the thing is found say "A merchant sold it to me, I paid for it before witnesses," and if the owner of the thing say, "I will bring witnesses who know my property," then shall the purchaser bring the merchant who sold it to him, and the witnesses before whom he bought it, and the owner shall bring witnesses who can identify his property. The judge shall examine their testimony--both of the witnesses before whom the price was paid, and of the witnesses who identify the lost article on oath. The merchant is then proved to be a thief and shall be put to death. The owner of the lost article receives his property, and he who bought it receives the money he paid from the estate of the merchant. [Source: Translated by L. W. King]

10. If the purchaser does not bring the merchant and the witnesses before whom he bought the article, but its owner bring witnesses who identify it, then the buyer is the thief and shall be put to death, and the owner receives the lost article.

11. If the owner do not bring witnesses to identify the lost article, he is an evil-doer, he has traduced, and shall be put to death.

12. If the witnesses be not at hand, then shall the judge set a limit, at the expiration of six months. If his witnesses have not appeared within the six months, he is an evil-doer, and shall bear the fine of the pending case. [editor's note: there is no 13th law in the code, 13 being considered and unlucky and evil number]

Example of a Mesopotamian Court Case


scene from the Life of King Nebuchadnezzar

Morris Jastrow said: “An example taken from the neo-Babylonian period will illustrate the spirit by which the judges were actuated in deciding the complicated cases that were frequently brought before them. It is the case of a widow Bunanit, who brings suit to recover property, devised to her by her husband, which has been claimed by her brother-in-law.[Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

Her case is stated in detail: “Bunanit, the daughter of Kharisa, declared before the judges of Nabonnedos, king of Babylon, as follows: “Apil-addunadin, son of Nikbadu,” took me to wife, receiving three and a half manas of silver as my dowry, and one daughter I bore him. I and Apil-addunadin, my husband, carried on business with the money of my dowry, and bought eight GI of an estate in the Akhula-galla quarter of Borsippa, for nine and two thirds manas of silver, besides two and a half manas of silver which was a loan from Iddin-Marduk, son of Ikischa-aplu, son of Nur-Sin, which we added to the price of said estate and bought it in common. <>

““In the fourth year of Nabonnedos, king of Babylon, I put in a claim for my dowry against my husband Apil-addunadin, and of his own accord he sealed over to me the eight GI of said estate in Borsippa and transferred it to me for all time, and declared on my tablet as follows:‘21/2manas of silver which Apil-addunadin and Bunanit borrowed from Iddin-Marduk and turned over to the price of said estate they held in common, That tablet he sealed and wrote the curse of the gods on it.’ <>

““In the fifth year of Nabonnedos, king of Babylon, I and my husband Apil-addunadin adopted Apil-adduamara as son, and made out the deed of adoption, stipulating two manas and ten shekels of silver and a house-outfit as the dowry of Nubta, my daughter. My husband died, and now A?abi-ilu, son of my father-in-law, has put in a claim for said estate and all that has been sealed and transferred to me, including Nebo-nur-ili whom we obtained from Nebo-akh-iddin. Before you I bring the matter. Render a decision.” <>

Reaching a Legal Decision in Mesopotamia

Morris Jastrow said: ““The case has been stated with great clearness. The legal point involved, because of which the brother-in-law puts in a claim on behalf of the deceased husband’s family, turns on the question whether the wife is entitled to the entire estate, seeing that her original dowry was only three and one half manas, or, in other words, whether the husband had a right to turn over to her the whole property on the ground that it was her dowry which, through business transactions conducted in common, had increased to nine and two thirds manas. Bunanit, in stating her case, lays great stress, it will be observed, on the circumstance that she and her husband did all things in common —bartered in common, bought in common, borrowed in common, adopted a son in common, and acquired a slave in common. The decision rendered by the judges is remarkably just, manifesting a due regard for the ethics of the situation, and based on an examination of the various documents or tablets in the case and which in such an instance had to be produced. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“The document continues as follows: “The judges heard their complaints, and read the tablets and contracts which Bunanit had laid before them. To A?abi-ilu they grant nothing of the estate in Borsippa, which in lieu of her dowry had been transferred to Bunanit, nor Nebo-nftr-ili, whom she and her husband had bought, nor any of the property of Apil-addunadin. They confirmed the documents of Bunanit and Apil-adduamara. The sum of two and one half manas of silver is to be returned forthwith to Iddin-Marduk who had advanced it for the sale of the house. Then Bunanit is to receive three and one half manas of silver—her dowry—and a share of the estate. Nebo-nur-ili is given to Nubta in accordance with the agreement of her father. The names of the six judges through whom the said decision was rendered are then given, followed by the names of two scribes and the date Babylon, 26th of Ulul (6th month), 9th year of Nabonnedos, king of Babylon.” <>

“The balance of the estate evidently passed over to the adopted son. Bunanit won her case against her brother-in-law, but it looks on the surface as though she had not won all that she had claimed. The judges practically ignored the transfer of the entire estate to her, for they granted her merely her dowry and the share of her husband’s property to which as widow she was entitled. Had there not been an adopted son, the claim of A?abi-ilu would probably have been upheld for the balance of the estate, exclusive of the slave. Bunanit is obliged to confess that her husband transferred the property “of his own accord,” which means that it was not upon an order of the court, and therefore not legally-established. It is safe to assume that the court would not have regarded such a transaction as legal, for despite the fact that the pair do not adopt a son until after the transfer, the judges allowed the widow her dowry only and her share of the estate. On the other hand, though it might appear that, as a partner, Bunanit would only have been responsible for one half of the amount borrowed from Iddin-Marduk, the judges, by ignoring the transfer, could order that Iddin-Marduk must be paid in full out of the property left by Apil-addunadin.” <>

Punishments in Mesopotamia: an Eye for an Eye, Fines and Exile


flogging rebels in Assyria

Hammurabi justice could be quite cruel. One law stated: “If a fire has broken out in a man’s house and a man who has gone to extinguish it has coveted an article of the owner of the house and takes the article of the house, that man shall be cast in that fire.” Hammurabi instituted the death penalty for illegal timber harvesting after wood became in such short supply that people took their doors with them when they moved. The shortages degraded agriculture land and cut production of chariots and naval ships.

Claude Hermann and Walter Johns wrote in the Encyclopedia Britannica:“In the criminal law the ruling principle was the lex talionis. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, limb for limb was the penalty for assault upon an amelu. A sort of symbolic retaliation was the punishment of the offending member, seen in the cutting off the hand that struck a father or stole a trust; in cutting off the breast of a wet-nurse who substituted a changeling for the child entrusted to her; in the loss of the tongue that denied father or mother (in the Elamite contracts the same penalty was inflicted for perjury); in the loss of the eye that pried into forbidden secrets. The loss of the surgeon's hand that caused loss of life or limb or the brander's hand that obliterated a slave's identification mark, are very similar. The slave, who struck a freeman or denied his master, lost an ear, the organ of hearing and symbol of obedience. To bring another into danger of death by false accusation was punished by death. To cause loss of liberty or property by false witness was punished by the penalty the perjurer sought to bring upon another. [Source: Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian Law — The Code of Hammurabi. Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-1911 <^>]

Not long after shekels appeared as a means of exchange, kings began levying fines in shekels as a punishment. Around 2000 B.C., in the city of Eshnunna, a man who bit another man's nose was fined 60 shekels. A man who slapped another man in the face had to pay up 20 shekels.

Hermann and Johns wrote: “The commonest of all penalties was a fine. This is awarded by the Code for corporal injuries to a muskinu or slave (paid to his master); for damages done to property, for breach of contract. The restoration of goods appropriated, illegally bought or damaged by neglect, was usually accompanied by a fine, giving it the form of multiple restoration. This might be double, treble, fourfold, fivefold, sixfold, tenfold, twelvefold, even thirtyfold, according to the enormity of the offence. <^>

“Exile was inflicted for incest with a daughter; disinheritance for incest with a stepmother or for repeated unfilial conduct. Sixty strokes of an ox-hide scourge were awarded for a brutal assault on a superior, both being amelu. Branding (perhaps the equivalent of degradation to slavery) was the penalty for slander of a married woman or vestal. Deprivation of office in perpetuity fell upon the corrupt judge. Enslavement befell the extravagant wife and unfilial children. Imprisonment was common, but is not recognized by the Code.” <^>

Death Penalty in the Hammurabi Code

Claude Hermann and Walter Johns wrote in the Encyclopedia Britannica:“The death penalty was freely awarded for theft and other crimes regarded as coming under that head, for theft involving entrance of palace or temple treasury, for illegal purchase from minor or slave, for selling stolen goods or receiving the same, for common theft in the open (in default of multiple restoration) or receiving the same, for false claim to goods, for kidnapping, for assisting or harbouring fugitive slaves, for detaining or appropriating same, for brigandage, for fraudulent sale of drink, for disorderly conduct of tavern, for delegation of personal service, for misappropriating the levy, for oppression of feudal holders, for causing death of a householder by bad building. [Source: Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian Law — The Code of Hammurabi. Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-1911 <^>]

“The manner of death is not specified in these cases. This death penalty was also fixed for such conduct as placed another in danger of death. A specified form of death penalty occurs in the following cases:-gibbeting (on the spot where crime was committed) for burglary, later also for encroaching on the king's highway, for getting a slave-brand obliterated, for procuring husband's death; burning for incest with own mother, for vestal entering or opening tavern, for theft at fire (on the spot); drowning for adultery, rape of betrothed maiden, bigamy, bad conduct as wife, seduction of daughter-in-law. <^>

“A curious extension of the talio is the death of creditor's son for his father's having caused the death of debtor's son as mancipium; of builder's son for his father's causing the death of house-owner's son by building the house badly; the death of a man's daughter because her father caused the death of another man's daughter. <^>

“The contracts naturally do not concern such criminal cases as the above, as a rule, but marriage contracts do specify death by strangling, drowning, precipitation from a tower or pinnacle of the temple or by the iron sword for a wife's repudiation of her husband. We are quite without evidence as to the executive in all these cases.” <^>

Hammurabi's Code of Laws: 195-214: Eye-for-an-Eye Justice and Fines

195. If a son strike his father, his hands shall be hewn off. [Source: Translated by L. W. King]

196. If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out. [ An eye for an eye ]

197. If he break another man's bone, his bone shall be broken.

198. If he put out the eye of a freed man, or break the bone of a freed man, he shall pay one gold mina.

199. If he put out the eye of a man's slave, or break the bone of a man's slave, he shall pay one-half of its value.

200. If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out. [ A tooth for a tooth ]

201. If he knock out the teeth of a freed man, he shall pay one-third of a gold mina.

202. If any one strike the body of a man higher in rank than he, he shall receive sixty blows with an ox-whip in public.

203. If a free-born man strike the body of another free-born man or equal rank, he shall pay one gold mina.


Assyrian prisoners in Nineveh


204. If a freed man strike the body of another freed man, he shall pay ten shekels in money.

205. If the slave of a freed man strike the body of a freed man, his ear shall be cut off.

206. If during a quarrel one man strike another and wound him, then he shall swear, "I did not injure him wittingly," and pay the physicians.

207. If the man die of his wound, he shall swear similarly, and if he (the deceased) was a free-born man, he shall pay half a mina in money.

208. If he was a freed man, he shall pay one-third of a mina.

209. If a man strike a free-born woman so that she lose her unborn child, he shall pay ten shekels for her loss.

210. If the woman die, his daughter shall be put to death.

211. If a woman of the free class lose her child by a blow, he shall pay five shekels in money.

212. If this woman die, he shall pay half a mina.

213. If he strike the maid-servant of a man, and she lose her child, he shall pay two shekels in money.

214. If this maid-servant die, he shall pay one-third of a mina.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018


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