Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Guest blogger: Mesopotamia redeemed, part 8 

The saga continues. Dan Foty's series about the forgotten legacy of ancient Iraq is approaching conclusion. For the previous part click here.

Mesopotamia Redeemed - Part VIII

As detailed in Part VII, Hammurabi's code is clearly one of the earliest and most important achievements of human civilization. When it was first recovered and translated, it was the oldest-known set of laws in human history; as such, it was regarded as a beginning for the concepts embodied in "the rule of law" as a central principle of social organization.

Later discoveries demonstrated that Hammurabi's code had predecessors in the older Sumerian civilization, and that Hammurabi's code was a direct descendant of those Sumerian codes - particularly Lipit-Ishtar's code. This does not denigrate the status of Hammurabi's code; Hammurabi and the Babylonians were obviously practical people who quite sensibly made good use of the obviously-successful law codes (and attendant records, contracts, and precedent-setting legal decisions) which had been developed by the Sumerians over nearly a millennium.

While Hammurabi's code was not a beginning, in the context of the older Sumerian codes and of history itself, it seems that Hammurabi's code was rather an end - the last, bright flickering of the concept of the rule of law in Mesopotamia and the ancient Near East. Hammurabi's code continued to be used widely throughout Mesopotamia and further afield, and this use continued for a number of centuries.

However, the trend of history in Mesopotamia moved generally in the opposite direction. With each successive empire which controlled Mesopotamia - the Assyrians, the Chaldeans (the "New Babylonian" empire), and finally the Persians - the concept of the rule of law waned, to be replaced by the absolute power of warrior-kings who embodied both law and divine intent in their own persons. For example, large estates worked by serfs were virtually unknown to the Sumerians and the "Old" Babylonians; however, they became commonplace under the Assyrians and were a cornerstone of the economic and agricultural structures of the Assyrian, Chaldean, and Persian empires. The rule of law was replaced by the rule of men, and the Persian king took the title of "Great King" or "King of Kings." When the collision came between the Persian Empire and the Greek city-states in the late 6th and early 5th century B.C., the society of the Near East had been transformed beyond recognition, and was no longer known for what it had been; instead, as the relatively-free Greeks encountered the "Asiatics," they were astounded at the degree of absolute despotism which was embodied in the Persian Empire and its subjects. It is from these encounters that the concept of "oriental despotism" entered western cultures.

This seems like a sad ending to a remarkable story. As described throughout this multi-part discourse, the laws and legal systems of Mesopotamia represent the first manifestation of the concept of "the rule of law," and provided one of the most important cornerstones in the development of civilization. Many of the concepts and statutes are recognizable even today, and they seem remarkably "modern" in both their content and in their context - in several cases, nearly right down to the words themselves. However, most of this material had been completely lost and forgotten until the late 19th and early 20th centuries; prior to these discoveries, there had been some knowledge of the Assyrians and some vague information about the Babylonians, while the Sumerians had been totally forgotten.

And yet, had all of this really been "forgotten" completely? The connections between many of today's ideas and concepts in society and law seem too strong to be merely coincidental. And that is the final question to be considered. Was there direct cultural transmission? Was there indirect cultural transmission? Or are all of these similarities indeed merely coincidental? These questions will be considered in Part IX.


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