Friday, November 05, 2004

Guest blogger: Mesopotamia Redeemed, part 2 

This is second part of a guest post by Daniel Foty, who argues that democracy and the rule of law are nothing new in Iraq - the Coalition is merely trying to reintroduce the lost legacy of ancient Mesopotamia. Far part one, click here.

Mesopotamia Redeemed Part II

As described in Part I, perhaps the most important innovation of the Sumerians was their invention of legal codes. Several of these codes have been recovered, at least in part, and the reader is struck by their modernity.

The oldest recovered code is attributed to Urukagina of Lagash in the 24th century B.C. A striking fact about this code is that it is clearly reactive – an oppressive ruling dynasty had been overthrown, and Urukagina had been selected as the new ruler of Lagash.

The code begins by listing the grievances of the citizens of Lagash against the preceding rulers – excessive bureaucracy, oppressive taxation, and the expropriation of private property. This list of grievances is actually very similar to the list of grievances against King George III which is contained in the American Declaration of Independence.

The prologue to the code also states that Urukagina’s code was intended to re-establish the "divine laws" in Lagash. There are two inferences to be drawn from that statement. First, "re-establishment" implies that the "normal" situation in Lagash had historically been one of personal and economic freedom – and that the overthrown rulers had trampled on these rights in a manner that was alien to the citizens of Lagash. Second, the reference to the "divine laws" is directly referenced to Ningursu, the patron deity of Lagash; the stated implication is that the historical rights and freedoms of the citizens of Lagash had been granted by a higher authority than that of men. This sentiment is also directly contained in the American Declaration of Independence, in the famous passage that all men are "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights."

Urukagina’s code was intended to do more than merely undo the prior abuses. It was clearly intended to establish the "rule of law" rather than the "rule of men." It established the basis for a written set of independent laws, along with specific statutes. These statute items list particular offenses, along with the particular punishment to be meted out in each case. Unfortunately, very little of this part of the code has been recovered, but a large part of what is available states that private property was to be strongly protected by the code. As a specific criminal case example, the penalty for convicted thieves was death by stoning.

Thus, the Urukagina code clearly indicates that the concept of the "rule of law" and the use of a clear and publicly-promulgated legal code are not recent innovations – but date back to the dawn of civilization. Urukagina’s code also makes it abundantly clear that the right to private property (and the legal protection of private property) is one of the oldest legal concepts known to man.

The second recovered Sumerian legal code is attributed to Ur-Nammu of Ur in the 21st century B.C. Like Urukagina’s code, Ur-Nammu’s code is also clearly reactive to ill circumstances which had befallen Ur. Sadly, little more than the prologue has been recovered, so we are left with the general intentions of the code but precious little information on the core of the code itself. However, there are other historical records which shed some added light on the occurrences which brought Ur-Nammu to power and caused him to produce a legal code.

Ur-Nammu founded a new dynasty in Ur at a time when Ur’s fortunes had been waning; for some time, Ur had been losing territory to its arch-rival of Lagash (which had been the city-state of Urukagina some three centuries earlier). When Ur-Nammu came to power, he first undertook the task of defeating Lagash and restoring Ur’s original territorial boundaries. With that accomplished, he then turned his energy to internal reforms in Ur.

Although only fragments of Ur-Nammu’s code have been recovered, those fragments make it clear that Ur-Nammu’s reason for formulating and promulgating his code were much the same as that of Urukagina – to reform an abusive system. Ur-Nammu sought to eliminate corruption, graft, and the expropriation of private property; particular mention is made of the expropriation of livestock under the prior regime.

Like Urukagina, Ur-Nammu invokes divine favor for his code, contending that the rule of law should be based on authority higher than that of men. In this case, Ur-Nammu refers specifically to Nanna, the patron deity of Ur – as well as the other leading deities of the Sumerian pantheon.

In addition to a code consisting of basic "offense-and-punishment" statutes, Ur-Nammu’s code introduced some other innovations. One was the first introduction of monetary fines as statutory punishments – which is a rather refined method of implementing justice. Another innovation was Ur-Nammu’s introduction of standardized weights and measures, with a clear eye toward promoting honesty and integrity in commerce; this clearly informs us of the importance of trade and commerce in Sumerian civilization.

Overall, Ur-Nammu’s code had the same goals as Urukagina’s code – and it is even possible that it was created with full knowledge of the existence and usage of the older Lagash code. It endeavored to end abuse and establish the "rule of law" via a publicly-promulgated compilation of a set of laws.

The third recovered law code has been attributed to Lipit-Ishtar of the city-state of Isin in the 19th century B.C. This code likely had very far-reaching implications, so it will be considered separately in Part III.


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