Laws are a prominent feature of modern societies—and as we will learn, of ancient societies as well. They make sure individuals adhere to certain principles of conduct in a community. Without laws, we would have anarchy, where anyone could do anything without consequences. Some believe anarchy is better than oppressive laws, but in most cases, it seems that laws are generally balanced in modern societies. However, in ancient societies, laws could be perceived as strange to our contemporary perspectives. In any case, it is important to understand where the first codes were conceived and how they shaped history.
By most accounts, the history of law follows the timeline of civilization. According to most historians, the first recorded laws were in ancient Egypt. The ideals of truth, order, harmony, law, morality, balance, and justice were combined in the Maat—concepts and at the same time a goddess. Based on this goddess and the principles attached to her, the ancient Egyptians created twelve books that had civil code in it. This tome dates back as far as 3000 BC (Bard, Kathryn A., and Steven Blake Shubert). In it, there were mentionings of social equality and impartiality, and information about various traditions.
Fast forward to 2200 BC, and the Sumerian ruler Ur-Nammu has created the first—strictly speaking—code of law. Unlike ancient Egyptian books on various subjects that contained some notes on civil code, the Code of Ur-Nammu had statements like, “If you do this, then this will happen” (Civil, Miguel)—a clear representation of repercussions for ill deeds.
Further on, around 1760 BC, Babylonian law was developing leaps and bounds. The infamous King Hammurabi inscribed his laws for her subjects on stone. He made several copies of these laws on stone and placed them around his kingdom for public viewing. Over time, this document was named Codex Hammurabi, and it has been fully translated in various modern languages (Civil, Miguel). The codes were extensive, and form a type of constitution. In fact, various codes were written before in the same area, and it appears that the Codex Hammurabi is a sort of culmination of these ideals. It touched upon such subjects as divorce, slander, trade, slavery, the duties of workers, theft, liability, and other topics that reflect modern civilization. The most famous passage of the Codex is, “If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If one break a man’s bone, they shall break his bone. If one destroy the eye of a freeman or break the bone of a freeman he shall pay one gold mina. If one destroy the eye of a man’s slave or break a bone of a man’s slave he shall pay one-half his price” (“The Code of Hammurabi: Hammurabi’s Code of Laws: Paragraphs 100-199”). Though the punishments seemed fair at the time, they might seem unethical by contemporary western society’s standards.
Another pivotal document with recordings of laws is the Old Testament. It came into being around 1280 BC, but mapping out the development of this text is no small matter. There is a reason there are many Old Testaments today. This tome began through the five books of the Torah being written and edited. When these volumes started to be translated into Greek, they were called the Septuagint, and are the basis for the Old Testament in the Eastern Orthodox. Church. As the translations were being processed, variations were being made in the text and even direct additions (“The Text of the Old Testament”). This is the start of the journey of the Old Testament, and the story goes on much longer—however, there is not enough space in this essay to disclose all the details.
As it has been seen, recorded laws came into being first in ancient Egypt, later in Sumeria, then Babylonia, and finally through the Old Testament. Though there are many other early forms of civil code in various cultures, these are the most well-known, seminal, and pivotal throughout history. These cultures pushed the way to modern democracy, and other forms of government that involve constitutions and civil code.
Bard, Kathryn A., and Steven Blake Shubert. Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt. Routledge, 2014.
Civil, Miguel. “The Law Collection of Ur-Namma.” Cuneiform Royal Inscriptions and Related Texts in the Schøyen Collection, 221-286, edited by A.R. George, 2011, ISBN 9781934309339.
“The Code of Hammurabi: Hammurabi’s Code of Laws: Paragraphs 100-199.” Laotzu’s Tao and Wu Wei: Title Page, www.sacred-texts.com/ane/ham/ham06.htm.
“The Text of the Old Testament.” Google Books, Google, books.google.com.ua/books?id=FSNKSBObCYwC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Würthwein The Text of the Old Testament&redir_esc=y&hl=en#v=onepage&q&f=false.