Code of Ur-Nammu: the oldest known law code surviving today

The Sumerian King Ur-Nammu (seated), the creator of the Code of Ur-Nammu, bestows governorship on Ḫašḫamer, ensi of Iškun-Sin (cylinder seal impression, ca. 2100 BCE).

The Code of Ur-Nammu is the most ancient law code surviving today. It is from Ancient Mesopotamia and is scripted on tablets, in the Sumerian language, between 2100 BCE–2050 BCE.


The introduction credits the laws to king Ur-Nammu of Ur (2112 BCE–2095 BCE). The writer who had the laws written onto cuneiform inscriptions is still under dispute. Some scholars have linked it to Ur-Nammu’s son Shulgi.

However, it is known that earlier law codes existed, such as the Code of Urukagina; this represents the most ancient surviving legal text. It is three centuries older than the infamous Code of Hammurabi. The laws are arranged in the casuistic form of IF (crime) THEN (punishment)—a model followed in nearly all later codes. It establishes fines of monetary compensation for bodily damage instead of the latter lex talionis (‘eye for an eye’) policy of Babylonian law. However, robbery, murder, rape, and adultery were capital offenses.


The prologue, characteristic of Mesopotamian law codes, invokes the gods for Ur-Nammu’s kingship, Utu and Nanna, and orders “equity in the land.”

Surviving laws

Among the surviving laws are these

  • 1. If a man murders, that man must die.
  • 2. If a man is a thief, we will kill him.
  • 3. If a man kidnaps anyone, he will be jailed and pay 15 shekels of silver.
  • 4. If a slave marries a slave, and that slave is set free, he does not leave the household.
  • 5. If a slave marries a native (i.e., free) person, he/she is to hand the firstborn son over to his owner.
  • 6. If a man violates the right of another and deflowers the virgin wife of a young man, they shall kill that male.
  • 7. If the wife of a man followed after another man and he slept with her, they shall slay that woman, but that male shall be set free. 
  • 8. If a man proceeded by force and deflowered the virgin female slave of another man, that man must pay five shekels of silver. 
  • 9. If a man divorces his first-time wife, he shall pay (her) one mina of silver. 
  • 10. If it is a (former) widow whom he divorces, he shall pay (her) half a mina of silver. 
  • 11. If the man had slept with the widow without any marriage contract, he need not pay any silver. 
  • 13. If a man is accused of [Translation of word disputed. Some interpret it as Sorcery…]; he must undergo ordeal by water; if he is proven innocent, his accuser must pay 3 shekels. 
  • 14. If a man accused the wife of a man of adultery, and the river ordeal proved her innocent, then the man who had accused her must pay one-third of a mina of silver. 
  • 15. If a prospective son-in-law enters the house of his future father-in-law, but his father-in-law later gives his daughter to another man, the father-in-law shall return to the rejected son-in-law twofold the number of bridal presents he had brought. 
  • 16. If [text destroyed…], he shall weigh and deliver to him 2 shekels of silver.
  • 17. If a slave escapes from the city limits and someone returns him, the owner shall pay two shekels to the one who returned him. 
  • 18. If a man knocks out the eye of another man, he shall weigh out ½ a mina of silver. 
  • 19. If a man has cut off another man’s foot, he is to pay ten shekels. 
  • 20. If a man, in the course of a scuffle, smashed the limb of another man with a club, he shall pay one mina of silver. 
  • 21. If someone severed the nose of another man with a copper knife, he must pay two-thirds of a mina of silver. 
  • 22. If a man knocks out another man’s tooth, he shall pay two shekels of silver. 
  • 24. [text destroyed…] If he does not have a slave, he is to pay 10 shekels of silver. If he does not have silver, he is to give another thing that belongs to him.
  • 25. If a man’s slave-woman, comparing herself to her mistress, speaks insolently to her, her mouth shall be scoured with 1 quart of salt. 
  • 26. If a slave woman strikes someone acting with the authority of her mistress, [text destroyed…]
  • 28. If a man appeared as a witness and was shown to be a perjurer, he must pay fifteen shekels of silver. 
  • 29. If a man appears as a witness but withdraws his oath, he must make payment to the extent of the value in litigation of the case.
  • 30. If a man stealthily cultivates another man’s field and raises a complaint, this is to be rejected, and this man will lose his expenses. 
  • 31. If a man flooded the field of a man with water, he shall measure out three kur of barley per iku of field. 
  • 32. If a man had let an arable field to another man for cultivation, but he did not cultivate it, turning it into a wasteland, he shall measure out three kur of barley per iku of field. 

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