I have earlier written a post on the ancient town of Shaduppum. This post is to highlight on the oldest written laws, the Laws of Eshnunna, and this post is mainly copied from my earlier post, which had a small section on this.

Not much is known outside the Old Babylonian times, though clearly the location was occupied from at least the Akkadian period through the Old Babylonian period. Although it was established as early as the late third millenium BCE, during the days of Sargon of Akkad, Shaduppum didn’t rise to prominence until the second millennium BCE, where it seems to have been a heavily fortified  administrative station for the kingdom of Eshnunna, and its name means “the treasury.” After the collapse of Ur, Eshnunna became independent but was later conquered by Hammurabi, king of Babylonia. During the next century the city fell into decline and may have been abandoned.

The site was excavated by Iraqi archaeologist Taha Baqir of the Department of Antiquities and Heritage from 1945 to 1963, discovering about 2000 tablets. Stories about Creation, the flood, The epic of Gilgamesh, and other were inscribed on some of the tablets. Among the tablets from Tell Harmal, near Baghdad, are two with parts of the Laws of Eshnunna as well as some important mathematical tablets, which are not only interesting, but surprising too.

The Laws of Eshnunna are inscribed on two broken tablets found in Tall Abū Harmal. The two tablets are not duplicates but separate copies of an older source. The laws are believed to be about two generations older than the Code of Hammurabi.

The 18th century BCE clay tablet representing the Laws of Eshnunna at the National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad.

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.

Unlike Hammurabi, whose punishments usually featured maiming, if not death (punishment according to the “eye-for-an-eye and tooth-for-a-tooth” principle), King Bilalama of Eshnunna implemented a monetary, fine-based penal system. However, the more serious offences, including sexual ones, were punishable by death.

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 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

The laws were composed in a mode that facilitated memorising. The Laws clearly show signs of social stratification, mainly focussing on two different classes: the muskenum and awilum. The muskenum were persons employed by the palace who could be given land in usufruct without receiving it as property. Awilum were the citizens who owned land in their own right and depended neither on the palace nor on the temple.

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.

The majority of these offences were penalised with pecuniary fines (an amount of silver), but some serious offences such as burglary, murder, and sexual offences were penalised with death. 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”.

The differences between the Code of Hammurabi and the Laws of Eshnunna significantly contributed to illuminating the development of ancient and cuneiform law.

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