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Gudea, Urukagina, and the Mesopotamian Origin of the Concept of Liberty

The legal code was a common feature of the legal systems of the ancient Middle East. The Sumerian Code of Ur-Nammu (c. 2100-2050 BC), then the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (c. 1760 BC), are amongst the earliest and best preserved legal codes, originating in the Fertile Crescent.

Legal Code

Code of Ur-Nammu

Code of Hammurabi

Urukagina

File:Clay cone Urukagina Louvre AO4598ab.jpg

Fragment of an inscription of Urukagina

Urukagina (reigned ca. 24th century BC?, short chronology), the king of Lagash, established the first known legal code to protect citizens from the rich and powerful. Known as a great reformer, Urukagina established laws that forbade compelling the sale of property and required the charges against the accused to be stated before any man accused of a crime could be punished. This is the first known example of any form of due process in the history of humanity. However, his laws were otherwise typically brutal for Mesopotamia, including the stoning of women for having multiple husbands.

In this important code is found the first written reference to the concept of liberty (amagi or amargi, literally, “return to the mother”), used in reference to the process of reform. The exact nature of this term is not clear, but the idea that the reforms were to be a return to the original social order decreed by the gods fits well with the translation.

The symbol appeared twice during the Sumerian civilization. In one instance, it referred to people who were freed from debt slavery. The early Sumerian monarchs used indebtedness to taxes to enslave people in service to the king. The amagi literally translates to “return to mother” meaning that when someone was freed from slavery, he would return to his family and mother.

AMA-GI is the ancient Sumerian word believed to be the first written expression of the concept of freedom. The symbol is ancient Sumerian cuneiform writing called an amagi (also, ama-gi or amargi). Discovered in 1870 on a set of Sumerian stone tablets which dated back to 2350 BC, the symbol is considered to be the earliest written expression of liberty.

Urukagina

Gudea

Gudea

Gudea, Urukagina, and the Mesopotamian Origin of the Concept of Liberty

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