The Mesopotamian justice system relied primarily on customary law that was upheld by the assembly of elders or town official or courts. Judges could be chosen from the local community or be appointed by the king. Affected parties represented their own case and brought witnesses as appropriate. Proceedings, or least the verdicts, were written down, and numerous tablets have been preserved from most historical periods. In the absence of witnesses, the accused could be referred to an ordeal, such as being thrown into a river or canal. The person’s innocence was proved when the “river refused” the culprit. Defendants and plaintiffs were made to swear an oath on the divine emblems, such as the sun disk, which represented the god of justice, Shamash.
   As kings were seen as the upholders of law and order, they often issued legal reforms, debt releases, and decrees that were recorded in writing and are often referred to as law codes, although there is no evidence that courts ever referred to such edicts. The earliest known royal edict is by the Sumerian ruler Uruinimgina of Lagash (c. 2351–2342), who abolished a number of malpractices such as officials overcharging for funeral services. Then follows the Code of Ur-Nammu (c. 2100), of Lipit-Ishtar, of Eshnunna, and of Hammurabi, all from the early Old Babylonian period. They are all introduced by the clause “if and happens,” followed by the verdict.
   The Code of Hammurabi is the longest extant collection of laws. It was published toward the end of his reign and represents the first known effort to produce a coherent set of abstract legal precepts for the whole country, incorporating diverse local practices and traditional law. There are several main sections (family law, including subsections on adultery, incest, divorce, and inheritance; property law and restitution; loan and hire agreements; and setting standards on charges and wages). It differentiates fines and punishments according to a person’s legal status: free, slave, and a category in between called mushkenum (see SOCIETY). In contrast to earlier legal practices, Hammurabi’s code favors the so-called talionic principle (“an eye for an eye”) rather than monetary fines, which may express a preference for tribal customary practice.
   The Middle Assyrian laws from the 12th century B.C., regulate, among other matters, the behavior of women and palace staff. There is only a fragmentary code from the Neo-Babylonian period.

Historical Dictionary of Mesopotamia. . 2012.

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