Laws in Antiquity

Law and Legal Systems from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Rome and Byzantium
The laws and legal systems governing our lives today have deep historical roots. As early as the third millennium BC, people in Mesopotamia were compiling laws and employing various legal mechanisms. Surviving legal manuals and other sources tell us how the ancient Egyptians regulated sales, loans, donations, marriage and divorce, inheritances and leases.
Course levelAdvanced Bachelor/Master/PhD
Recommended course combinationBlock 2: The Heart of Capitalism, Amsterdam from 1600-present, Crime in Numbers: From Correlation to Causation
Block 3: Heritage at War: Cultural Objects in Times of Conflict, Crime and Location: Spatial Analysis and Mapping
Block 1
8 to 22 July 2017
Co-ordinating lecturerProf. Jan Hallebeek, Dr. Ilan Peled 
Other lecturersDr. Hylkje de Jong, Dr. Koen Donker van Heel
Form(s) of tuitionInteractive seminar, reading workshops, excursions
Form(s) of assessmentPresentation
ECTS3 credits
Contact hours46
Total tuition fee€1000

Humanities, Social Sciences, Law and History students. Students from other study fields are welcome to apply as well; no previous knowledge or specific disciplinary association is required. If you have doubts about your eligibility for the course, please let us know. Our courses are multi-disciplinary and therefore are open to students with a wide variety of backgrounds.

The laws and legal systems governing our lives today have deep historical roots. As early as the third millennium BC, people in Mesopotamia were compiling laws and employing various legal mechanisms. Surviving legal manuals and other sources tell us how the ancient Egyptians regulated sales, loans, donations, marriage and divorce, inheritances and leases.

And it was in Roman times that the foundations were laid for the so-called civilian tradition, which still reverberates in the private law of continental Europe, South America and parts of the Far East (Japan, China). On this course, leading experts on ancient law guide you through the theoretical and historical aspects of these systems and their unique characteristics, focusing on such themes as contracts, delict, property and family law.

We begin with general presentations of the different systems, before moving on to the study and analysis of exemplary texts (in English translation) in a workshop setting. By the end of the course you will have gained a sense of legal life in the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Rome and Byzantium.

  • You will develop a basic sense of the cultural and historical roots of present-day legal reality in Europe and other parts of the world.
  • You will be familiar with the main features of several different legal systems in the ancient world and their cultural background.
  • You will be familiar with cross-cultural research.
  • You will understand the basics of interdisciplinary methodology and thought, in this case combining history and law.
  • You will be familiar with the notion of history, its importance and its relevance to our lives in the present.
Visits to several museums and collections of antiquities are included in the course: the Van der Meer-Cools collection of cuneiform tablets and ancient Near Eastern objects at VU Amsterdam, the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam, the Leiden University Papyrological Institute and the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden (excursion destinations may be subject to change).

Ancient Near Eastern Law
Greengus, Samuel (1995), “Legal and Social Institutions of Ancient Mesopotamia”. In: Sasson, Jack M. (ed.), Civilizations of the Ancient Near East (vol. 1), pp. 469-484. New York: Scribner.
Lafont, Sophie (1994), “Ancient Near Eastern Laws: Continuity and Pluralism”. In Levinson, Bernard M. (ed.), Theory and Method in Biblical and Cuneiform Law: Revision, Interpretation and Development, pp. 91-118. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.
Roth, Martha T. (1997), “Introduction”. In: Roth, Martha T. (ed.), Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor (second edition), Writings from the Ancient World 6, pp. 1-10. Atlanta: Scholars Press.
Westbrook, Raymond (2003), “Introduction: The Character of Ancient Near Eastern Law”. In: Westbrook, Raymond (ed.), A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law, Handbuch der Orientalistik 72, pp. 1-90. Leiden: Brill.

Ancient Egyptian Law
Selected chapters in: Westbrook, Raymond (ed.) (2003), A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law. Leiden: Brill.

In Vol. I:
Jasnow, Richard , “Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period”, pp. 93 et seq. (optional);
Jasnow, Richard , “Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period”, pp. 255 et seq. (optional);
Jasnow, Richard , “New Kingdom”, pp. 289 et seq. (mandatory).

In Vol. II:
Jasnow, Richard, “Third Intermediate Period”, pp. 777 et seq. (mandatory);
Manning, Joseph Gilbert, “Demotic Law”, pp. 819 et seq. (mandatory).

Materials on Roman and Byzantine law to be announced at a later date.

Priya"We got to actually hold objects from the ancient near east civilization, from almost 400 BCE, which was incredible. The excursions really help make the class come to life and add to the educational experience." -Priya Mathew
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