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Centers of Progress, Pt. 5: Ur (Law)

Blog Post | Rights & Freedoms

Centers of Progress, Pt. 5: Ur (Law)

The legal code developed in Ur represented a significant breakthrough in the history of human civilization.

Today marks the fifth installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org called Centers of Progress. Where does progress happen? The story of civilization is in many ways the story of the city. It is the city that has helped to create and define the modern world. This bi-weekly column will give a short overview of urban centers that were the sites of pivotal advances in culture, economics, politics, technology, etc.

Our fifth Center of Progress is the Mesopotamian city of Ur during the so-called Sumerian Renaissance, in the 21st century BC. Ur then served as the capital city of a king named Ur-Nammu. Under his direction, the city issued the oldest surviving legal code in the world, the Code of Ur-Nammu, which predates the better-known Code of Hammurabi by three centuries. Ur-Nammu’s code of laws, which were carved onto terra cotta tablets and distributed throughout his kingdom, represented a significant breakthrough in the history of human civilization.

The Code of Ur-Nammu helped to establish the idea of a set punishment for a particular crime that applied equally to all free persons regardless of their wealth or status. In other words, the code replaced arbitrary standards of justice, which shifted with each new instance of a crime, with a uniform and transparent set of rules. Many of those rules were horrific by modern standards, but the code nonetheless represented a notable development toward what we now consider to be the rule of law.

References in ancient Sumerian poetry suggest the existence of an even older legal code than the Code of Ur-Nammu, called the Code of Urukagina, written in the 24th century BC. Unfortunately, the text of that earlier code has not survived. The Code of Ur-Nammu, as the oldest surviving legal code, is thus the best window that we have into the origins of lawmaking.

Today, the city of Ur lies in ruins in the desert of southern Iraq. Ur’s Great Ziggurat, erected to honor the Sumerian god of the moon, still stands. The Ur archeological site is also home to what may be the oldest still-standing arch in the world. Many of the artifacts found at Ur have been relocated and can now be seen in the British Museum in London and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology in Philadelphia. Ur is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site that also includes our 2nd Center of Progress, Uruk, which is less than 60 miles away.

During its golden age, Ur was the capital of a state holding together all of Babylonia and several territories to its east. It was also a key port of trade between Babylonia and regions to the south and east.

Picture the city, surrounded by palm trees and skillfully irrigated land, made fertile by tributary streams flowing to the river Euphrates that lay to the west. As you approached, you would have seen farmers tending barley fields, fishermen casting their nets into the streams, and herdsmen leading their sheep to graze.

As you entered the bustling urban center itself, you would have observed its many people. Ur’s population eventually swelled to 65,000. That may not seem like a lot—it is roughly the same as the modern-day population of Youngstown, Ohio or Schenectady, New York—but it was around 0.1 percent of the entire global population at the time. Ur would become the most populous city in the world and remain so until around 1980 BC.

The people of Ur wore skirts or wraps of kaunakes, a woolen fabric with a tufted pattern like overlapping leaves or petals. The rich wore belts of gold or silver, and wealthy women wore hair ornaments and jewelry of the same materials. Everyone, even royalty, went barefoot. Sandals would not appear in the region until centuries later. The city natives mainly had dark hair—the people of Sumer referred to themselves as the “black-headed ones.” The people of Ur likely shared the city streets with oxen pulling along wagons heaped with supplies, and the stench of manure may have been inescapable. The very wealthy traveled in chariots pulled by donkeys, or perhaps onager hybrids.

The city’s architecture featured columns, arches, vaults, and domes. You would perhaps have seen people carrying baskets filled with offerings on their heads walking toward one of the city’s temples to its numerous gods. The city’s temples were richly decorated with statues (often with blue lapis eyes), mosaics, and metal reliefs. The temple columns were sheathed with colorful mosaics or polished copper. Inscribed tablets lay at the temples’ foundations.

You would have seen the space where work had begun on a three-storied ziggurat of mud brick faced with burnt bricks set in bitumen. Upon that platform, a temple would soon be constructed. The temple would tower over the city and be visible from the far distance in the flat surrounding Mesopotamian countryside and honor the moon god Nanna, the patron deity of Ur. The partially reconstructed ziggurat stands today as the most prominent structure of Ur.

At the edge of the sacred precinct was the Royal Cemetery, out of use by that time for fifty-some years. There 2,000 people lay buried—royalty laid to rest wearing elaborate gold ornaments, alongside their attendants, victims of human sacrifice. But the city had abandoned that practice by the era that concerns us.

In the marketplace you would have seen artisans selling their wares such as woolen textiles, clothes and tapestries; jars, fluted bowls, and goblets, some made of precious metals; elaborate carved stone vessels of chlorite, bearing cuneiform inscriptions; ornaments and jewelry of semiprecious stones such as carnelian and precious metals; various tools and weapons. Passing through the food stalls you likely would have seen wheat, barley, lentils, beans, garlic, onions, and goat milk. You would have seen stone vessels of precious oils, and wine.

You might have paused at a stall selling carved musical instruments, stopping to admire a lyre featuring lapis lazuli—a stone all the way from the upper reaches of the Kokcha River in what is now Afghanistan, over a thousand miles away. Its presence a reminder of the city’s far-reaching trade.

Moving along, you might have observed two men hunched over a strategy board-game. The Game of Ur was then popular throughout Mesopotamia among people in every social strata. Perhaps you would have heard the players arguing about the rules, and then watched them turn to a clay tablet serving as a rulebook to resolve their dispute. (Such tablets, describing the game’s rules, have survived).

The people of Ur had a guide to help them navigate disputes concerning far larger matters as well. If you were to visit in the year that the locals called the Year Ur-Nammu made justice in the land,” believed to be around 2045 BC, then you could have witnessed a history-altering moment. You would have perhaps had the good fortune to watch as Ur’s messengers disembarked from the city to deliver tablets bearing the new legal code throughout the kingdom.

The Code of Ur-Nammu, as the oldest surviving legal code, helped to redefine how people conceptualized justice. The Code of Ur-Nammu listed laws in a cause-and-effect format (i.e. if this, then that”) that specifically outlined different crimes and their respective punishments. A total of thirty-two laws survive. (They can be read here).

The Code of Ur Nammu also introduced the concept of fines as a form of punishment—a notion we still rely on today. Fines ranged from minas and shekels of silver to kurs of barley. (The Sumerian measurement system is not fully understood, but a kur or gur was likely a unit based on the estimated weight that a donkey could carry).

Compared to the later Code of Hammurabi, the Code of Ur-Nammu was relatively progressive, often imposing fines rather than physical punishment on the transgressor. In other words, it often favored compensation for the crime’s victim over the enactment of retributive justice against the crime’s perpetrator. The Code of Hammurabi famously dictated that If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.” That “an eye for an eye” rule is also cited in the Old Testament books of Exodus and Leviticus. In contrast, the older Code of Ur-Nammu states, If a man knocks out the eye of another man, he shall [pay] half a mina of silver.”

In the prologue to the code, King Ur-Nammu boasted about his various accomplishments and claimed to have established equity in the land.” By equity, he did not mean the modern concept of equality—after all, he ruled over a society with widespread slavery. But by establishing uniform punishments for crimes, he meant to ensure that both rich and poor free persons were treated equally before the law. In the prologue he noted,I did not deliver the orphan to the rich. I did not deliver the widow to the mighty. I did not deliver the man with but one shekel to the man with one mina (i.e., 60 shekels). … I did not impose orders. I eliminated enmity, violence, and cries for justice. I established justice in the land.”

The king clearly saw his legal code as an important part of his legacy, and wanted to be remembered as a just ruler. The code certainly represented a step forward, when compared to a purely arbitrary system of punishment. It was arguably more humane than some legal codes that followed, such as the aforementioned Code of Hammurabi. That said, the Code of Ur-Nammu is not one that a modern person would want to live under. Some of the laws were ridiculous (If a man is accused of sorcery he must undergo ordeal by water”), sexist (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”) or plain barbaric (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”).

Some of the laws were also confusingly specific, such as: If someone severed the nose of another man with a copper knife, he must pay two-thirds of a mina [1.25 pounds] of silver.” Was there a different punishment if the knife used was not made of copper? (Today, if you’re curious, cutting off someone’s nose will land you in prison for one to twenty years—at least in Rhode Island, the only state I could find with a law that specifically mentions nose mutilation).

Today the city of Ur is perhaps best-known for being thought to be the birthplace of the Biblical patriarch Abraham. Abraham is an important figure in the religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which are thus known as the Abrahamic religions” for that commonality.

The advent of laws transformed how communities enact justice by ensuring a uniform and transparent set of rules. While many laws throughout history have proven to be mistakes, and unjust laws continue to pose serious problems in many countries, a system of laws is nonetheless better than a system where punishments are doled out without any consistency and at the whim of a ruler or a mob. By enacting the oldest surviving legal code, Sumerian Renaissance-era Ur has earned its place as our fifth Center of Progress.

Blog Post | Human Freedom

Heroes of Progress, Pt. 38: Cesare Beccaria

Introducing the Enlightenment thinker known as the father of modern criminal justice, Cesare Beccaria.

Today marks the 38th installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org titled Heroes of Progress. This bi-weekly column provides a short introduction to heroes who have made an extraordinary contribution to the well-being of humanity. You can find the 37th part of this series here.

This week, our hero is the 18th century Italian criminologist Cesare Beccaria. Beccaria was the first modern writer to advocate for the abolition of capital punishment and the end of cruel torturous punishments. Beccaria believed that penalties for crimes should be proportional to the severity of the offense and that criminals should not be punished until proven guilty in a court of law. Many consider Beccaria to be the father of criminal justice. Thanks to his work, many nations were inspired to enact extensive legislative reforms to ensure due process, and the end of torture and capital punishment.

Cesare Beccaria was born March 15, 1738 in Milan, Italy. His father was an aristocrat on a moderate income. At the age of eight, Beccaria was sent to a Jesuit boarding school in Parma. Beccaria excelled in mathematics, although his early student days gave little indication of his intellectual brilliance. As a child, Beccaria was prone to a volatile temperament, which caused periods of immense enthusiasm, followed by periods of depression and inactivity – a trait that would be with him for the rest of his life.

In 1754, Beccaria enrolled in Pavia University and by 1758, he received his law degree. In his mid-twenties, Beccaria became friends with Pietro and Alessandro Verri – two brothers and writers from the Milanese aristocracy. Together, the young men formed a literary society named “The Academy of Fists.” The playfully-named group dedicated itself to the promotion of economic, political and administrative reforms. The society read many of the French and British Enlightenment thinkers and together they set up their own magazine named Il Caffè. The magazine was modeled on the English Spectator and sought to introduce Italians to Enlightenment ideas.

In 1763, inspired by his involvement in The Academy of Fists, Beccaria turned his attention to the study of criminal law. Although he had no prior experience working on criminal justice, in 1764 Beccaria published his most influential essay, titled On Crimes and Punishments.

The short essay heavily critiqued the use of torture, the arbitrary discretionary power of judges, the lack of consistency and equality of sentencing, and the use capital punishment. Beccaria argued that sentences should be scaled to the severity of an offense, and should only be severe enough to ensure security and order. He wrote that anything beyond that would be tyranny. The goal of Beccaria’s essay was to critique the existing legal system that he felt was unclear and imprecise, and largely based on a mixture of Roman law and local customs, rather than rationality. Beccaria believed that the opacity of the laws was a deliberate way for the government to control the populace.

Beccaria’s essay argued that the effectiveness of criminal justice depends mostly on the certainty of punishment, rather than its severity. Unlike many works before it, Beccaria’s publication also advocated the principle that no one should be sentenced until proven guilty in a court of law.

Beccaria’s essay became a success and it was quickly translated into French, English, Dutch, German and Spanish. Initially, out of fear of government backlash, Beccaria chose to publish the essay anonymously. But, after its rapid success, Beccaria soon republished it and credited himself as the author. Soon after its publication, Catherine the Great of Russia publicly endorsed Beccaria’s ideas, and Thomas Jefferson and John Adams noted their importance in guiding the Founding Fathers, and influencing the Bill of Rights and the American Constitution. Legislative reforms in Sweden, Russia and the Habsburg Empire were heavily influenced by Beccaria’s treatise, and the essay exerted enormous influence on criminal law reforms across other parts of the European continent.

In the late 1760s, Beccaria turned his attention to the study of economics, though none of his later works achieved the same success as On Crimes and Punishments. In 1768, he accepted the chair in public economy and commerce at the Palatine School in Milan. Two years later, Beccaria was appointed to the Supreme Economic Council of Milan. While in office, Beccaria largely focused on the issues of public education and labor policy. One of Beccaria’s later reports also played an important role in influencing France’s subsequent adoption of the metric system.

Beccaria’s later life was tarnished by family difficulties and health problems. Property disputes between his siblings resulted in litigation, which distracted him for many years. He cut short his visit to Paris in 1766 due to homesickness and never ventured abroad again.  Over many years, a myth grew that Beccaria’s literary silence was due to his expulsion from the Milanese government. In actuality, his silence was caused by periodic bouts of depression. Although Beccaria was initially enthusiastic about the French Revolution, he spent his last few months saddened by the violence of the “Reign of Terror.” He died on November 28, 1794 in his birthplace of Milan, Italy.

Beccaria’s work fundamentally changed the criminal justice systems in many countries for the better. As the first modern writer to have advocated for the abolition of capital punishment, he can be regarded as the founder of the anti-capital punishment movement that still exist in many countries today. Thanks to Beccaria, cruel and unusual punishments are no longer the norm in much of the world. As a result of his advocacy, a fathomless amount of human suffering and injustice has been avoided. For these reasons, Cesare Beccaria is our 38th Hero of Progress.

Blog Post | Violence

Despite Federal Return Capital Punishment Is Dying Out

The move to reinstate capital punishment federally in the United States represents a reversal after more than a decade-long hiatus in the federal use of capital punishment.

The U.S. federal government recently ordered the death penalty to be reinstated for the first time in sixteen years and has scheduled the execution of five death row inmates. This policy change goes against the widespread trend toward fewer executions.

Twenty-one U.S. states, plus the District of Columbia, have totally abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Seven of those states abolished the practice in my lifetime. New Hampshire just officially abolished it in 2019.

In many U.S. states where executions are still legal, none have been carried out for years and the law is mainly symbolic. Kansas, for example, has not executed any prisoners in over forty years. The U.S. federal government, similarly, never officially abolished the death penalty but has had a moratorium on the practice since 2004 – a moratorium ended by the new policy ordered by Attorney General William Barr.

Harvard University’s Steven Pinker has chronicled the decline of capital punishment in his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. He estimated that the execution rate in the United States has been falling for four centuries, from nearly 3.5 executions per 100,000 people in the 17th century. His graph is pictured below.

Trends against capital punishment can also be observed abroad as well. Consider Europe. Prior to the Enlightenment, European nations once used the death penalty for a vast number of crimes. England, for example, had 222 capital offenses in its legal system well into the 18th century. Until the early 19th century, it deemed many minor crimes, such as stealing anything worth more than four dollars in today’s currency, to be worthy of execution. As the values of the Enlightenment spread, that number of capital offenses shrunk to four by the middle of the 19th century. Today, in Europe, capital punishment remains legal only in Belarus and Russia.

This year, Malaysia abolished mandatory capital punishment. Last year, Burkina Faso abolished the death penalty in its new penal code. Moreover, Gambia and Malaysia declared an official moratorium on executions. Last year, Amnesty International noted, at least 690 executions took place in 20 countries. That number was 31 percent lower than in 2017. The vast majority of recorded executions happen in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Iraq.

Then there are China and North Korea. The two communist countries execute more people than other countries and may well execute more people individually than the rest of the world combined. Unfortunately, there are no reliable statistics for those secretive societies.

The move to reinstate capital punishment federally in the United States represents a reversal after more than a decade-long hiatus in the federal use of capital punishment. But opponents of the practice can take heart in the successful abolition of the death penalty in an increasing number of U.S. states and countries around the world.

This post also appeared in Cato At Liberty.

Blog Post | Overall Mortality

Capital Punishment Has Declined Dramatically

The death penalty used to be the norm for most countries around the world, today just a handful of authoritarian countries account for almost all state executions.

An image of a person being prepared to be executed by the guillotine.

According to press reports, Saudi Arabian prosecutors will be seeking the death penalty for five of the 11 suspects who stand accused of killing The Washington Post contributing journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October of last year. Amnesty International notes that Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most prolific executioners. Of the 993 reported executions that took place in 2017, the Gulf state was responsible for 146 of them – just under 15 per cent of the global total for the year.

The grisly murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi notwithstanding, the use of the death penalty has been falling since the second half of the 19th century and relatively few countries partake in the practice today. Let’s have a brief look at the history of the death penalty and the reasons for its declining use.

Since time immemorial, people have suffered capital punishment for a plethora of crimes – real and imagined. The Bible, for example, commands the death penalty for murder, kidnapping, attacking or cursing one’s parents, sacrificing one’s child to Moloch, willful negligence, sorcery, being a medium or spiritist, breaking the Sabbath, sacrificing to idol gods, blaspheming against God, false prophecy, giving false testimony in a capital case, adultery, incest, rape of a betrothed or married woman, homosexuality, bestiality, prostitution, pretending to be a virgin, and so on and so on.

As late as the 18th century, the British legal system included no fewer than 222 capital crimes. The Black Act of 1723 alone created 50 capital offences for such crimes as shoplifting and stealing of sheep, cattle and horses. According to Professor John H. Langbein from Yale University, before the death penalty for theft was abolished in 1832, “English law was notorious for prescribing the death penalty for a vast range of offenses as slight as the theft of goods valued at twelve pence.” (the equivalent of about $4 today).

Types of executions included beheading, burning, crushing, boiling to death, impalement, hanging, being broken on the wheel, sawing and crucifixion. Drawing and quartering was usually reserved for regicides such as François Ravaillac, who assassinated the French King Henry IV in 1610. As the British historian Alistair Horne noted, before being disemboweled and torn apart by four horses, Ravaillac “was scalded with burning Sulphur, molten lead and boiling oil and resin, his flesh then being torn by pincers.”

It’s no coincidence that the guillotine was introduced during the French Revolution to make death relatively quick and painless. The thinkers whose writings inspired the revolt favoured a more proportionate, rational and humane justice system. Voltaire, for instance, opposed punishment for violations of religious dogma. Montesquieu wanted punishment to fit the crime and opposed the use of torture. Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham opposed capital punishment outright, reasoning that life behind bars was a greater deterrent to heinous crimes than summary execution.

As the ideas of the Enlightenment spread, punishment became less gruesome and the number of capital offences dwindled. In the United Kingdom alone, the number of capital offences fell from 222 to four in the first half of the 19th century. Society did not suddenly become more chaotic as a result. On the contrary, as Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker showed in his 2012 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, violence decreased. As such, reform-minded governments felt emboldened to go further and abolish the death penalty altogether.

Venezuela led the way with the abolition of capital punishment in 1863. Other states followed, though it took another century, before the abolitionist movement really took off in the 1960s. In 2017, Amnesty International noted that “106 countries (a majority of the world’s states) had abolished the death penalty in law for all crimes and 142 countries (more than two-thirds) had abolished the death penalty in law or practice.”

That year, only 23 countries are known to have carried out the death penalty. Of the reported 993 executions, 84 per cent took place in just four countries – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan. However, the above number does not include China, which is likely to have executed more people than all the other countries put together. According to Amnesty International, “the true extent of the use of the death penalty in China is unknown as this data is classified as a state secret; the global figure … excludes the thousands of executions believed to have been carried out in China.”

Looking on the bright side, the death penalty is now a relative rarity, concentrated for the most part in a handful of authoritarian countries. On the other hand, a decline in total state executions is unlikely to happen until we see fundamental political reform in some of the world’s most illiberal countries.

This first appeared in CapX.