A system of law is one of the cornerstones of a stable and prosperous society. Throughout mankind’s history, countless laws have been created in the hopes of bringing balance and justice to the land. But in the span of our existence, recorded laws are still relatively new; we’ve been a species for roughly 200,000 years, but have only been a law-abiding one for roughly 4500 of them.
By studying some of our earliest attempts at law and order, we can gather insight both into the development of different cultures and the progression of man as a civilized species. So below are ten of the oldest known codes of laws from different regions and cultures.
10. The Code of Ur-Nammu (Mesopotamia, ca. 2,380-2,360 BC)
To begin with, let’s examine the oldest surviving recorded law system known to mankind: the Code of Ur-Nammu. Ur-Nammu was the king of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur between 2111-2094 BC. His code was a series of laws that pioneered several vital legal concepts such as requiring monetary compensation for physical injuries caused upon others. In addition, murder, robbery, adultery, and rape are defined as capital crimes punishable by execution, while mutilation was punishable by a fine (10 skekels for cutting off a man’s foot). This system, though obviously not 100% like what we have today, was imperative to the development of law and order in ancient Mesopotamia, as well as all civilization succeeding it.
9. The Code of Hammurabi (Babylonia, ca. 1786 BC)
Perhaps the most infamous set of laws from antiquity, the Code of Hammurabi was established by the Babylonian ruler of the same name. The first ruler of the Babylonian empire, Hammurabi’s Code helped spread law and order throughout Mesopotamia as he conquered city-state after city-state. The Code comprehensively controlled and regulated every aspect of life in his kingdom, including civil law, ethics, business, trade, and family. Carved on an 8-foot-high black stone monument, the Code was displayed so that all of Hammurabi’s subjects would know what was expected of them.
Though the Code was notoriously severe, it did introduce two of the most important tenants of modern justice: the presumption of innocence and the opportunity for both sides of a conflict to present evidence. Additionally, unlike many modern justice systems, the Code of Hammurabi punished the upper classes much more severely than the lower classes.
8. The Code of the Nesilim (Hittie Empire, ca. 1650-1500 BC)
Established by the ancient Hittites of what is now modern-day Turkey, the Code of the Nesilim (the Hittite people’s word for themselves) regulated several aspects of their rapidly-expanding empire. One of its most significant topics concerned the treatment of slaves. When compared to how other societies treated slaves, the Code of Nesilim was surprisingly fair, allowing them to marry whomever they wanted, to buy property, to open businesses, and to purchase their freedom. But most significantly, under the Code of Nesilim, slaves were not treated as human chattel, or property that could be used and abused by their masters however they saw fit. They had a limited number of rights that guaranteed them a level of dignity and protection.
7. 42 Negative Confessions (Egypt, ca. 1250 BC)
One of the oldest recorded systems of human morality was the ancient Egyptian concept of ma’at. Evoking concepts of “straightness, evenness, levelness, correctness … rightness … truth, justice, righteousness, [and] order,” ma’at was central to the development of ancient Egyptian religion and ethics. Ma’at extended to virtually every aspect of ancient Egyptian life … and death. According to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a freshly departed soul would have to recite 42 Negative Confessions as part of their trial in the underworld. Some examples include “I have not slain man or woman” and “I have no uttered evil words.” If the soul had not fulfilled all 42 Negative Confessions, then their heart would be eaten by Ammit, the “devourer,” and their soul would be re-incarnated on Earth for another life/death cycle.
The 42 Confessions were memorized by every Egyptian citizen, and therefore can be seen as a kind of institutionalized system of ma’at. As such, they can be interpreted as the first recorded laws in Egyptian history. Some scholars even claim that Moses, after years of being exposed to Egyptian culture, compressed the 42 Negative Confessions into the Ten Commandments.
6. Kang Gao (China, ca. 11th Century BC)
As one of the oldest civilizations on earth, it only stands to reason that China would have one of the longest recorded legal traditions. But despite the fact that the earliest surviving Chinese historical records date from the Xia dynasty (c. 2100-1600 BC), the earliest surviving legal document is from the Zhou dynasty. Known as the Kang Gao, it was basically a long letter from King Wu of Zhou to young Prince Kangshu, who was set to rule a new fief. The Gao laid out the best rules and punishments for keeping Kangsu’s subjects in line. The Kang Gao has survived to this day, and has become a vital influence on generations of lawmakers.
5. The Draconian Constitution (Greece, ca. 7th Century BC)
Draco was an Athenian statesman who is believed to have formed the first written set of ancient Greek laws. Known for the cruelty of his laws, Draco’s very name has become associated with unforgiving brutality (Draconian.) Plutarch described Draco’s laws as such: “For nearly all crimes there was the same penalty of death. The man who was convicted of idleness, or who stole a cabbage or an apple, was liable to death no less than the robber of temples or the murderer.” Though the Draconian Constitution was a crucial part of the development of ancient Greek law, it was all (with the exception of the homicide law) repealed in the early 6th century BC by another Athenian statesman named Solon.
4. Torah (Judaism, ca. 600-400 BC)
The word “torah” has several different meanings but, in this case, it refers to the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This Torah has been one of the cornerstones of Jewish culture, faith, and identity for millennia. Jewish tradition states that the Torah existed before the creation of the world, and was only written down after it was revealed to Moses by God. But trying to historically nail down the date when the Torah was first compiled and physically written down is very tricky. The Torah underwent many series of redactions over the centuries. However, many scholars think that the last major set of redactions occurred after 539 BC, when the Jews were freed from the Babylonian captivity by Cyrus the Great.
3. Dharmasutras (India, ca. 600-100 BC)
The earliest extant legal codes in ancient India, the Dharmasutras are a series of writings that address rites, ritual obligations, proper conduct, and the correct way to live one’s life. The Dharmasutras would be one of the main sources for the Law Code of Manu, a composition that would come to be known as one of the authoritative legal treatises of ancient India towards the middle of the first millennium. The four most important Dharmasutra texts are the Apastamba, Gautama, Baudhayana, and Vasisthasutras. Though they would be overshadowed by more modern legal treatises, the Dharmasutras are indispensable parts of Indian legal tradition and history.
2. Twelve Tables of Roman Law (Rome, 451 BC)
The Twelve Tables of Roman Law are both the oldest surviving piece of Roman literature, and their first attempt at composing a code of law. The Twelve Tables of Roman Law demonstrated a notable Hellenic influence, but nevertheless remained almost purely Roman in character. They avoided specific details concerning cases, instead focusing on principles which should be emulated. However there are exceptions, such as “the rules for the observance of funeral ceremonies, the laws and obligations existing between neighbors and the treatment to which the debtor might be subjected.” The original Twelve Tables were set up for display at the forum, but were destroyed when the Gauls sacked Rome in 390 BC.
1. The Omi Code/Asuka Kiyomihara Code (Japan, 668 AD/689 AD)
During the 7th century, Japan tried its hardest to mimic Chinese methods of thought, religion, and governance. Part of this manifested itself in the country’s adoption of Buddhism and Chinese writing characters. But Japan also tried to replicate Chinese-style laws through the creation of the ritsuryo system. Records show that there may have been three different collections of ritsuryo laws from this era. The first is the Omi Code from 668. A surviving copy of this 22-volume compilation of administrative code has yet to be found. We only know of its existence from references in other documents. The Omi Code was later updated in 689 to the Asuka Kiyomihara Code, also 22 volumes in length. Sadly, much like the Omi Code, the Asuka Kiyomihara Code has not survived outside of references found in other texts. But we do know that these two codes were compiled and written. Hopefully, one day these texts will be rediscovered for a new generation of scholars and historians.