: What Ancient Laws Can Teach Us About Holding Autocrats to Account Today #WorldNEWS The rule of law, democracy and human rights: these are the achievements of the modern nation state, or so we generally
What Ancient Laws Can Teach Us About Holding Autocrats to Account Today #WorldNEWS
The rule of law, democracy and human rights: these are the achievements of the modern nation state, or so we generally believe. Previous generations laid the ground with the Magna Carta, the U. S. Constitution, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—documents that we are taught set standards that even kings and powerful rulers ought to observe. But were these events quite as foundational as we think? And were the ideas they ushered in quite so revolutionary?
The notion that rulers should be held to account according to objective laws, that there should be rule of law, rather than rule by men, is ancient. It can be traced back to almost 2000 B. C. E. (before the common era), when a Mesopotamian warlord chipped a long list of laws onto a stone slab. Hammurabi was not the first ruler to make laws. But his laws, like his military conquests, were monumental. At the top of his granite stone (now in the Louvre in Paris) masons carved a portrait of the king receiving authority from the god of the sun. And the laws, Hammurabi declared, would ensure justice for all Babylonians for generations to come. He added a dramatic invocation to the gods to rain down pestilence, misfortune and curses on any later ruler who dared to contravene them.
Hammurabi’s regime, built on conquest and plunder, hardly provides a model for peace, democracy or human rights. But his colorful curses express the essence of the rule of law: that any ruler should be held accountable according to objective legal standards. We do not know how, if at all, his laws were applied by Babylonian judges, but even after Hammurabi’s successors lost power and Assyrian forces overran the region, Mesopotamians continued to refer to his laws. Scribes copied them centuries later as they learned their craft. The laws also inspired the tribesmen of Israel and Jordan, far to the west, whose priests copied some of their ideas when they crafted the laws of the Old Testament.
In around 600 B. C. E , the Mesopotamian tradition also inspired the citizens of Athens. They had just staged a revolt against tyranny and, in a quest to put their society onto a better footing, they commissioned a set of laws. Almost certainly copying Near Eastern precedents, the writers tried to spell out rights for ordinary people in laws that would give them protection against oppression. About a century later, the citizens of Rome, then still a minor city, also demanded laws. They had just mounted a revolt against their own oligarchs and formed an assembly to demand a new political order. The result was the Twelve Tables, a set of rules that adopted a similar form to the Mesopotamian laws.
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