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Ancient Systems of Law

The oldest code of laws from anywhere in the world is that of Ur-Nammu, the Sumerian king who lived in the 21st century B.C. The next known is again in Sumerian; it was promulgated under Lipit-Ishtar (about 1850—1840 B.C.), the ruler of Isin. All of these codes date from before Hammurapi. As we have noted, he was not the first ruler of Mesopotamia to issue a collection of laws; but his code was so far ahead of anything previously attempted that we must regard it as the apex of legal codification prior to Roman Law. In fact, Hammurapi's Code is the best mirror of Mesopotamian society. Hammurapi ordered to cave this code into a great stone stele. This stele was set up in a temple to the Babylonian god Marduk and every citizen could read it. After the fall of Babylon in the 16th century B.C. the stele was lost for centuries and lay buried until French archaeologists unearthed it in 1901—1902. It is now in the Louvre museum in Paris. Hammurapi's Code is carefully arranged laws aiming at regulating society in clear language. It covered crime, divorce and marriage, slaveholding, theft and property ownership and even kidnapping.

Another ancient code is the code of Hebrew Law contained in the Book of Exodus in the Bible.

In Greece each city state had its own law, some laws were common to many states. In the seventh century B.C. the Greeks began to put their laws into writing. About 594 B.C. Solon, the famous Athenian lawgiver, provided a new code of law. He was not without some experience in matters of law and justice before he was chosen as lawgiver. The judicial reforms of Solon, which secured a minimum of popular participation in the administration of justice and laid the foundation of democracy, are among the most important in Athenian history. The Athenians did not consider it necessary to have legal experts for non-criminal cases. In a civil case the verdict was given by a jury, which might number anything from 201 to 2,500. The members of the jury listened to speeches made by persons who had brought the case before them, and by their friends. Barristers did not participate in court proceedings, but professional speech-writers sometimes prepared speeches.

Roman Law is one of the greatest systems that has ever existed. It was based upon custom, and by A.D. 528 the quantity of Roman Law had become so immense that the Emperor Justinian in Constantinople ordered to make a clear, systematic code of all the laws. Roman Law had a deep influence upon the law of the world. It had a strong influence on the law of most European countries and some influence on Anglo-Saxon law, which is the other great law system of the world. After many years Roman Law reappeared in the eleventh century, when there was a great revival of learning. Many European countries began to use Roman Law in their courts.


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