Thursday, December 02, 2004

Guest Blogger: Mesopotamia Redeemed, Part 4 

In today's fourth part of guest blogger Daniel Foty's series of the forgotten legacy of ancient Mesopotamia, a look at the Sumerian legal system - more advanced than you think. As Daniel argues, the ultimate irony of the efforts to plant democracy and the rule of law in post-Saddam's Iraq is that many of these concepts and practices are hardly new to the area. In the end, it's not about introducing new ideas to Iraq, it's about rediscovering ancient Mesopotamia's lost legacy to the Western civilisation.

You can find part one here, part two here, and part three here.

Mesopotamia Redeemed, Part 4

In and of themselves, the Sumerian law codes were very fine things; however, they would not have been particularly useful if they were not part of a larger system which could make proper use of them. The law codes and a system for their implementation and usage would be required for mutual support – in fact, it is clear that each was necessary for the existence of the other.

Once again, the written records of the Sumerians provide us with information about the system which grew up along with the law codes. These records tell us that the Sumerians had a surprisingly well-developed legal system to go along with the written law codes. In fact, many (if not most) of the features which we associate with a "modern" legal system were developed and used by the Sumerians all those many centuries ago.

Thousands of the cuneiform tablets which have been recovered are actually legal documents and records of various court proceedings. Among the documents, many are records of contracts and agreements of various sorts, which were put down in writing and acknowledged as binding by "filing" them through the legal system. There are also numerous recordings of cases heard in court, described in great detail, along with a record of the decision reached in the case.

From these records, it is possible to reconstruct many details of the Sumerian court system; like the legal system itself, the court system was particularly well-developed and possessed most of the features we associate with contemporary court proceedings. In their content, the legal proceedings appear to be entirely secular, with one exception - the Sumerian system imposed oaths on participants, which were usually sworn not at the court but at a temple. Court proceedings were supervised by judges; the records indicate that judges were not full-time judges by profession, but were drawn on an "as-needed" basis from the ranking men of the city. There are also separate references, however, to "royal judges" as being involved in certain cases; it is possible that the "royal judges" were the equivalent of an appeals court, which examined the procedural details of cases which had already been decided in the normal courts. In addition to oaths, judges, and appeals courts, the Sumerian courts also involved features which we would recognize as parts of the modern legal system – witness testimony, bailiffs, written documents, expert testimony, verdicts, and written judgments which were kept on file for future reference (which embodies the concept of legal precedent).

The surviving written records for particular cases also follow a simple formula. For a given case, the written record describes the particulars of the case, followed by a description of the court’s decision. This documented record is then "signed" (the names are appended to the record) by the bailiff and judges, dated, and filed. For example, a record from Lagash describes the settlement of a civil case involving the resolution of who was the proper owner of a garden:
Akalla, the son of Luninshubur, and Urshuanna were witnesses to the fact that Kaku, the son of Ninshubur, had bought the twelve large date-palm saplings from Lunanna, the father of Urabu, for three shekels of silver as its full price. Urabu, however, repudiated the witnesses. Thus, Kaku took an oath that he had actually bought the saplings from Lunanna, the father of Urabu. Therefore, the garden was confirmed as belonging to Kaku.

Tiemahta – the bailiff.

Lu-Shara and Ur-Sataran – the judges.

This simple record, involving the enforcement of a contract, is very similar to the functions of a modern civil legal proceeding.

The surviving written records also describe criminal cases and prosecutions. Since its records have survived almost intact, one of the most famous Sumerian criminal cases is a case which has become known to modern scholars as the case of the "silent wife." This case occurred sometime around 1850 B.C. in Isin; given the time and place, it can be assumed that Isin and Sumer were operating their legal systems under the Lipit-Ishtar code. The crime in question was brought to the attention of King Ur-Ninurta in Isin, who dispositioned it to the assembly of the city of Nippur for trial. This disposition is interesting in and of itself, since it may represent the concept of a "change of venue" for the trial of a criminal case, which is done when a case is so well-publicized in the place where the crime occurred that any legal proceeding there will be questionable.

The case itself involves a seemingly abstract but very important aspect of criminal law. A temple official was murdered by three men; for some reason, the three men informed the victim’s wife of the murder and ordered her to keep silent about it. In due time, the murders were identified and charged with the crime. The resolution of the matter of the culpability of the victim’s wife was slightly more complicated, however. She had been informed of the crime, but had remained silent. Did this make her part of the conspiracy to murder her husband? And should she thus be punished in the same way as the actual murderers, as an accessory to the crime? The case was argued in Nippur, and the conclusion reached was that because the woman had not been involved in the planning and carrying-out of the murder, and had remained silent not as part of the plot (likely out of fear for her own safety), she could not be charged with the crime. The three murderers were convicted of the crime and were sentenced to death.

This case is quite remarkable, as it shows how the Sumerian legal system found itself dealing with many very abstract and complicated aspects of criminal law – in this case, how one defines someone as being an "accessory" to a crime, and determining his or her level of culpability. In addition, the decision which the Nippur court reached is very "modern" in its content. Contemporary legal scholars are of the opinion that if the same case arose in a contemporary setting, the modern legal system would reach the exact same conclusion.

Thus, we can see (perhaps with some degree of surprise) how well-developed and modern the Sumerian legal system was. However, as theirs was a civilization which had accumulated practical experience over numerous centuries, perhaps it is not so surprising that the Sumerians found themselves wrestling with these very complicated organizational problems. Since the Sumerians had to deal with these problems without the benefit of reference to earlier civilizations, it is indeed remarkable to see what they managed to achieve.

However, by about this time Sumerian civilization, although highly developed, was near the end of its long run as an independent entity – one with identifiable social, organization, and linguistic characteristics. Sumerian civilization was soon to be eclipsed by (and absorbed into) the rising powers further up the Tigris/Euphrates valley – in particular, by the rising power of the ethnically and linguistically Semitic state centered on Babylon. This will be discussed in Part V.


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