The law is generally divided into two categories: civil and criminal. The civil sector of the law focuses on resolving disputes and compensating victims. The criminal sector of the law deals with social conduct and addresses threats and harm to people or property.


Early civilizations did not distinguish between the two different kinds of laws. The first known laws were those designed in ancient Sumer. The oldest-known written legal code is the Code of Ur-Nammu. Ur-Nammu was a Sumerian king around 2100 BC. A written code from around 2380 BC is known to have existed, but it is no longer in existence. The Code of Hammurabi is probably the best known ancient code of laws. This code formed the basis for Babylonian Law. The early laws of Ancient Greece only exist in fragments, but the laws of Draco are well known. In fact, due to their notorious harshness, they spawned the word “draconian”.

Code of Ur-Nammu

It is unknown who actually wrote the cuneiform tablets in the Sumerian language, but the code itself credits authorship to King Ur-Nammu of Ur. It is unlikely he actually wrote them himself. Some scholars suggest that it was actually the king’s son Shulgi. Perhaps the greatest contribution of this code to future laws was the use of the casuistic form. This is the “if-then” construction that is used in most legal codes. A criminal lawyer in Perth in 2015 is still familiar with this Ancient Sumerian construction.

Criminal Law

The code is also notable because it is fairly more advanced than its successors. Monetary compensation is allowed for bodily damage instead of the “eye for an eye” from the later Babylonian law. The laws are particularly harsh in different ways though. Capital offenses included murder, rape, adultery, and robbery. The code also displays the structure of Sumerian society. At the top of the class system was the king. The rest of society was in one of two classes: free people and slaves.

Code of Hammurabi

Hammurabi ruled Babylon about three hundred years after Ur-Nammu ruled Sumer. He ruled for close to 42 years. The physical code consists of 28 paragraphs comprising 282 laws. The stone slab was most likely placed at Sippar since this was the city of the god of justice, Shamash. At the top of the code, Shamash is depicted as handing the law down to Hammurabi.

The code, like most law in the ancient world, did not distinguish between criminal and civil law either. It was significantly harsher than the Code of Ur-Nammu and modern laws. Despite its harsh punishments, the code was instrumental in introducing the presumption of innocence. In ancient Sumer, the accuser bore the burden of proving his or her accusations.

The law has changed very much since civilizations first sprang up. The earliest laws began with an emphasis on punishing crimes equally. They were typically very harsh, but this crudeness was somewhat due to the limitations of technology. Punishments had to be very harsh to discourage crime because it was much more difficult to investigate who had committed different crimes.