How the world’s first civilisation made laws so powerful, they’re still in use today
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. So goes the ancient adage about retaliatory justice – also known by the Latin term lex talionis – that governed the cradle of civilisation, formed the foundation of constitutions, and occasionally peppers angry conversations today.
It is in Mesopotamia that standardised law was conceived, and most likely out of necessity for governing disputes between people who, for the first time in history, were organised into closely quartered cities and ruled by a sovereign king. The legislation of the time is widely regarded as decidedly advanced: Many kings, such as ancient Sumerian king Lipit-Ishtar, had legal codes to determine the rights of ordinary citizens, including concepts like minimum wage and presumption of innocence, dating all the way back to 2100 BCE.
Ruling monarchs often cited a benevolent motive necessitating the creation of a legal system: to protect the weak from oppression. This attitude toward their power in lawmaking is perhaps best summarised by the declaration preceding the world’s earliest code of laws by Sumerian king Ur-Nammu: “I did not deliver the orphan to the rich. I did not deliver the widow to the mighty. I did not deliver the man with but one shekel to the man with one mina. I did not deliver the man with but one sheep to the man with one ox.”
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When disputes did arise, parties often pleaded their case before the king himself or his appointed judges, and rulings created a body of precedents from which the general severity of punishments could be inferred. Legal agreements were ratified through the swearing of oaths before pagan gods, and contracts, carved into clay tablets, were placed in temple archives for safekeeping. In order to ensure all citizens knew the law, it was often inscribed on stone and displayed in public.
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Lex talionis was born of one of these stone documents: the famous Code of Hammurabi, which dates back to around 1780 BCE. Inscribed in Akkadian on a black stone pillar over two metres high, the text comprised 282 decrees by King Hammurabi, the first king of Babylon. These ancient statutes outlined punishments for different crimes, and contain the famous adage under rule 196: “If a man puts out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.” This code is topped with a carving of the king receiving the laws from the Babylonian sun god, Shamash.
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For more stories and photographs from this issue, see Asian Geographic Issue 130, 2018