The Laws of Eshnunna: Oldest Written Laws

I have earlier written a post on the ancient town of Shaduppum, where I discussed about the Laws of Eshnunna. The Laws of Eshnunna are one of the oldest written legal codes in human history. They were issued by the rulers of the city-state of Eshnunna in Mesopotamia around the 18th century BCE, before the famous Code of Hammurabi. They were discovered on two cuneiform tablets in Tell Abū Harmal, Baghdad, Iraq, in 1945 and 1947 by the Iraqi Directorate of Antiquities. A third fragment was later found at Me-Turan.

The Laws of Eshnunna consist of 60 articles that cover various topics such as homicide, assault, theft, property, contracts, family, slavery, and personal injury. They also include regulations for the administration of justice, such as the appointment of judges, the role of witnesses, and the penalties for false accusations. The laws reflect a complex and hierarchical society that was divided into different classes and statuses, such as free citizens, dependents, slaves, and foreigners. The laws also show the influence of the Babylonian and Sumerian cultures on the legal system of Eshnunna.

The date of promulgation of the Laws of Eshnunna is uncertain, but it is at least agreed that they precede the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian legal text composed during 1755–1750 BCE, by a century.

The Laws of Eshnunna provide a fascinating glimpse into the social, economic, and religious aspects of life in ancient Mesopotamia. They cover topics such as homicide, assault, theft, property damage, inheritance, marriage, divorce, slavery, debt, and contracts. They also reveal the existence of social classes and different legal statuses for different groups of people. For example, there were free men and women (awilum), dependent men (muškenum), slaves (wardum and amtum), and other categories such as ubarum, apþarum, and mudum.

The Laws of Eshnunna are written in Akkadian and consist of two tablets that are marked with A and B. The text of the prologue is broken at the point where the name of the ruler who promulgated the laws was specified. Some scholars believe that it was Bilalama, while others suggest that it was Dadusha. The laws are composed in a conditional sentence form (“If A then B”), which makes them easy to memorize. There are about 60 sections preserved, each dealing with a specific type of offense or situation.

Much of its history is as yet uncertain. Here it will suffice to note that it finally fell victim to the expansionist policies pursued with success by Hammurabi of Babylon, during the fourth decade of his reign. The date of promulgation of the Laws of Eshnunna is uncertain, but it is at least agreed that they precede the Code of Hammurabi, though one cannot know by how much. It is then a fair guess that they were issued in the course of the 18th century BCE; thus, they constitute the earliest collection known at present, of legal rules in Akkadian.

Yaron, R. (1970). The Laws of Eshnunna. Israel Law Review, 5(3), 327-336. doi:10.1017/S0021223700002569

Reuven Yaron has divided the offences of the Laws of Eshnunna into five groups. The articles of the first group had to be collected from all over the Laws and the articles of the other four were roughly ordered one after the other:

1) Theft and related offences;
2) False distraint;
3) Sexual offences;
4) Bodily injuries; and
5) Damages caused by a goring ox and comparable cases.

One of the most interesting features of the Laws of Eshnunna is that they show significant differences from the Code of Hammurabi, which was issued about a century later by the king of Babylon who conquered Eshnunna. For instance, the Laws of Eshnunna have a more lenient approach to homicide and bodily injury, imposing monetary fines instead of death or mutilation for most cases. They also have a more flexible system of compensation for property damage, allowing for negotiation and arbitration between parties. Moreover, they have a more humane treatment of slaves, granting them some rights and protections from abuse. It seems that the capital punishment was avoidable (in contrast to the Code of Hammurabi), because of the standard formulation: “It is a case of life … he shall die”.

However, the Laws of Eshnunna also reveal some limitations and contradictions in the legal system of Eshnunna. For instance, while the laws recognized the rights and responsibilities of women in some areas such as marriage and divorce, they also imposed harsh restrictions and punishments on them in other areas such as adultery and inheritance. Moreover, while the laws aimed to protect the weak and vulnerable from oppression and exploitation by the powerful and wealthy, they also sanctioned some forms of violence and slavery as legitimate means of social control. Furthermore, while the laws tried to balance the interests of individuals and society, they also reflected some biases and prejudices against certain groups such as foreigners and debtors.

The Laws of Eshnunna are an invaluable source for understanding the development of ancient and cuneiform law. They show how legal codes evolved over time and across regions in response to changing social and political circumstances. They also reflect the values and beliefs of a complex and diverse civilization that shaped the history and culture of Mesopotamia.

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