Ancient Land Law: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel

Robert C. Ellickson, Yale Law School
Charles DiA. Thorland

Abstract

This Article provides an overview of the land regimes that the peoples of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Israel created by law and custom between 3000 B.C. and 500 B.C. One purpose of the endeavor is narrowly pedagogic. In the United States, students who enroll in courses on property law traditionally have found the history of land law treated in highly stylized fashion. The leading casebooks begin their historical accounts with the Norman Conquest of 1066, sketch the English land regime under high feudalism, and then chronicle the developments over the ensuing centuries, particularly the weakening of the crown and the rise of a landowner's powers of alienation. Because English legal history is more directly relevant to an Anglo-American lawyer than any other remote history, some emphasis on these events is entirely appropriate. The shortcoming of this pedagogic tradition, however, is that the English struggles are presented as if they are without parallel. This is highly misleading. This Article demonstrates that the peoples of the ancient Near East grappled with comparable issues some 3,000 years before the English Normans did.

A look at land regimes in the earliest periods of human history can illuminate debate over the extent to which human institutions can be expected to vary from time to time and place to place. On this crucial question there are four general schools of opinion: rational-actor optimists, rational-actor pessimists, stage theorists, and cultural pluralists.