Early Babylonian Life And Customs

In tracing the ancient history of Mesopotamia and the surrounding

countries it is possible to construct a narrative which has the

appearance of being comparatively full and complete. With regard to

Babylonia it may be shown how dynasty succeeded dynasty, and for long

periods together the names of the kings have been recovered and the

order of their succession fixed with certainty. But the number and

importance of the o
iginal documents on which this connected narration

is based vary enormously for different periods. Gaps occur in our

knowledge of the sequence of events, which with some ingenuity may be

bridged over by means of the native lists of kings and the genealogies

furnished by the historical inscriptions. On the other hand, as if to

make up for such parsimony, the excavations have yielded a wealth of

material for illustrating the conditions of early Babylonian life which

prevailed in such periods. The most fortunate of these periods, so far

as the recovery of its records is concerned, is undoubtedly the period

of the Semitic kings of the First Dynasty of Babylon, and in particular

the reign of its greatest ruler, Hammurabi. When M. Maspero wrote his

history, thousands of clay tablets, inscribed with legal and commercial

documents and dated in the reigns of these early kings, had already been

recovered, and the information they furnished was duly summarized by

him.* But since that time two other sources of information have been

made available which have largely increased our knowledge of

the constitution of the early Babylonian state, its system of

administration, and the conditions of life of the various classes of the


* Most of these tablets are preserved in the British Museum.

The principal?works in which they have been published are

Cuneiform Texts in the British Museum (1896, etc.),

Strassmaier's Altbabylonischen Vertrage aus Warka, and

Meissner's Beitrage zum altbabylonischen Privatrecht. A

number of similar tablets of this period, preserved in the

Pennsylvania Museum, will shortly be published by Dr. Ranke.

One of these new sources of information consists of a remarkable series

of royal letters, written by kings of the First Dynasty, which has been

recovered and is now preserved in the British Museum. The letters were

addressed to the governors and high officials of various great cities in

Babylonia, and they contain the king's orders with regard to details of

the administration of the country which had been brought to his notice.

The range of subjects with which they deal is enormous, and there is

scarcely one of them which does not add to our knowledge of the period.*

The other new source of information is the great code of laws, drawn up

by Hammurabi for the guidance of his people and defining the duties and

privileges of all classes of his subjects, the discovery of which at

Susa has been described in a previous chapter. The laws are engraved on

a great stele of diorite in no less than forty-nine columns of writing,

of which forty-four are preserved,* and at the head of the stele is

sculptured a representation of the king receiving them from Shamash, the


* See King, Letters and Inscriptions of Hammurabi, 3 vols.


This code shows to what an extent the administration of law and justice

had been developed in Babylonia in the time of the First Dynasty. From

the contracts and letters of the period we already knew that regular

judges and duly appointed courts of law were in existence, and the code

itself was evidently intended by the king to give the royal sanction to

a great body of legal decisions and enactments which already possessed

the authority conferred by custom and tradition. The means by which such

a code could have come into existence are illustrated by the system of

procedure adopted in the courts at this period. After a case had been

heard and judgment had been given, a summary of the case and of the

evidence, together with the judgment, was drawn up and written out on

tablets in due legal form and phraseology. A list of the witnesses was

appended, and, after the tablet had been dated and sealed, it was stored

away among the legal archives of the court, where it was ready for

production in the event of any future appeal or case in which the

recorded decision was involved. This procedure represents an advanced

stage in the system of judicial administration, but the care which

was taken for the preservation of the judgments given was evidently

traditional, and would naturally give rise in course of time to the

existence of a recognized code of laws.

Moreover, when once a judgment had been given and had been duly recorded

it was irrevocable, and if any judge attempted to alter such a decision

he was severely punished. For not only was he expelled from his

judgment-seat, and debarred from exercising judicial functions in the

future, but, if his judgment had involved the infliction of a penalty,

he was obliged to pay twelve times the amount to the man he had

condemned. Such an enactment must have occasionally given rise to

hardship or injustice, but at least it must have had the effect

of imbuing the judges with a sense of their responsibility and of

instilling a respect for their decisions in the minds of the people. A

further check upon injustice was provided by the custom of the elders of

the city, who sat with the judge and assisted him in the carrying out

of his duties; and it was always open to a man, if he believed that he

could not get justice enforced, to make an appeal to the king. It is not

our present purpose to give a technical discussion of the legal contents

of the code, but rather to examine it with the object of ascertaining

what light it throws upon ancient Babylonian life and customs, and the

conditions under which the people lived.

The code gives a good deal of information with regard to the family life

of the Babylonians, and, above all, proves the sanctity with which the

marriage-tie was invested. The claims that were involved by marriage

were not lightly undertaken. Any marriage, to be legally binding, had to

be accompanied by a duly executed and attested marriage-contract. If a

man had taken a woman to wife without having carried out this necessary

preliminary, the woman was not regarded as his wife in the legal sense.

On the other hand, when once such a marriage-contract had been drawn up,

its inviolability was stringently secured. A case of proved adultery

on the part of a man's wife was punished by the drowning of the guilty

parties, though the husband of the woman, if he wished to save his wife,

could do so by an appeal to the king. Similarly, death was the penalty

for a man who ravished another man's betrothed wife while she was still

living in her father's house, but in this case the girl's innocence

and inexperience were taken into account, and no penalty was enforced

against her and she was allowed to go free. Where the adultery of a wife

was not proved, and only depended on the accusation of the husband, the

woman could clear herself by swearing her own innocence; if, however,

the accusation was not brought by the husband himself, but by others,

the woman could clear herself by submitting to the ordeal by water; that

is to say, she would plunge into the Euphrates; if the river carried her

away and she were drowned, it was regarded as proof that the accusation

was well founded; if, on the contrary, she survived and got safely

to the bank, she was considered innocent and was forthwith allowed to

return to her household completely vindicated.

It will have been seen that the duty of chastity on the part of a

married woman was strictly enforced, but the husband's responsibility to

properly maintain his wife was also recognized, and in the event of

his desertion she could under certain circumstances become the wife of

another man. Thus, if he left his city and fled from it of his own free

will and deserted his wife, he could not reclaim her on his return,

since he had not been forced to leave the city, but had done so because

he hated it. This rule did not apply to the case of a man who was taken

captive in battle. In such circumstances the wife's action was to be

guided by the condition of her husband's affairs. If the captive husband

possessed sufficient property on which his wife could be maintained

during his captivity in a strange land, she had no reason nor excuse

for seeking another marriage. If under these circumstances she became

another man's wife, she was to be prosecuted at law, and, her action

being the equivalent of adultery, she was to be drowned. But the case

was regarded as altered if the captive husband had not sufficient means

for the maintenance of his wife during his absence. The woman would then

be thrown on her own resources, and if she became the wife of another

man she incurred no blame. On the return of the captive he could reclaim

his wife, but the children of the second marriage would remain with

their own father. These regulations for the conduct of a woman, whose

husband was captured in battle, give an intimate picture of the manner

in which the constant wars of this early period affected the lives of

those who took part in them.

Under the Babylonians at the period of the First Dynasty divorce was

strictly regulated, though it was far easier for the man to obtain one

than for the woman. If we may regard the copies of Sumerian laws, which

have come down to us from the late Assyrian period, as parts of the code

in use under the early Sumerians, we must conclude that at this earlier

period the law was still more in favour of the husband, who could

divorce his wife whenever he so desired, merely paying her half a mana

as compensation. Under the Sumerians the wife could not obtain a

divorce at all, and the penalty for denying her husband was death. These

regulations were modified in favour of the woman in Hammurabi's code;

for under its provisions, if a man divorced his wife or his concubine,

he was obliged to make proper provision for her maintenance. Whether

she were barren or had borne him children, he was obliged to return

her marriage portion; and in the latter case she had the custody of the

children, for whose maintenance and education he was obliged to furnish

the necessary supplies. Moreover, at the man's death she and her

children would inherit a share of his property. When there had been no

marriage portion, a sum was fixed which the husband was obliged to pay

to his divorced wife, according to his status. In cases where the wife

was proved to have wasted her household and to have entirely failed in

her duty, her husband could divorce her without paying any compensation,

or could make her a slave in his house, and the extreme penalty for

this offence was death. On the other hand, a woman could not be divorced

because she had contracted a permanent disease; and, if she desired to

divorce her husband and could prove that her past life had been seemly,

she could do so, returning to her father's house and taking her marriage

portion with her.

It is not necessary here to go very minutely into the regulations given

by the code with regard to marriage portions, the rights of widows,

the laws of inheritance, and the laws regulating the adoption and

maintenance of children. The customs that already have been described

with regard to marriage and divorce may serve to indicate the spirit

in which the code is drawn up and the recognized status occupied by the

wife in the Babylonian household. The extremely independent position

enjoyed by women in the early Babylonian days is illustrated by the

existence of a special class of women, to which constant reference is

made in the contracts and letters of the period. When the existence of

this class of women was first recognized from the references to them in

the contract-tablets inscribed at the time of the First Dynasty, they

were regarded as priestesses, but the regulations concerning them which

occur in the code of Hammurabi prove that their duties were not strictly

sacerdotal, but that they occupied the position of votaries. The

majority of those referred to in the inscriptions of this period

were vowed to the service of E-bab-bara, the temple of the Sun-god at

Sippara, and of E-sagila, the great temple of Marduk at Babylon, but

it is probable that all the great temples in the country had classes of

female votaries attached to them. From the evidence at present

available it may be concluded that the functions of these women bore no

resemblance to that of the sacred prostitutes devoted to the service of

the goddess Ishtar in the city of Erech. They seem to have occupied a

position of great influence and independence in the community, and

their duties and privileges were defined and safeguarded by special


Generally they lived together in a special building, or convent,

attached to the temple, but they had considerable freedom and could

leave the convent and also contract marriage. Their vows, however,

while securing them special privileges, entailed corresponding

responsibilities. Even when married a votary was still obliged to remain

a virgin, and, should her husband desire to have children, she could not

bear them herself, but must provide him with a maid or concubine. Also

she had to maintain a high standard of moral conduct, for any breach

of which severe penalties were enforced. Thus, if a votary who was not

living in the convent opened a beer-shop, or should enter one for drink,

she ran the risk of being put to death. But the privileges she enjoyed

were also considerable, for even when unmarried she enjoyed the status

of a married woman, and if any man slandered her he incurred the penalty

of branding on the forehead. Moreover, a married votary, though she

could not bear her husband children, was secured in her position as the

permanent head of his household. The concubine she might give to her

husband was always the wife's inferior, even after bearing him children,

and should the former attempt to put herself on a level of equality with

the votary, the latter might brand her as a slave and put her with the

female slaves. If the concubine proved barren she could be sold. The

votary could also possess property, and on taking her vows was provided

with a portion by her father exactly as though she were being given

in marriage. Her portion was vested in herself and did not become the

property of the order of votaries, nor of the temple to which she

was attached. The proceeds of her property were devoted to her own

maintenance, and on her father's death her brothers looked after

her interests, or she might farm the property out. Under certain

circumstances she could inherit property and was not obliged to pay

taxes on it, and such property she could bequeath at her own death; but

upon her death her portion returned to her own family unless her father

had assigned her the privilege of bequeathing it. That the social

position enjoyed by a votary was considerable is proved by the fact that

many women of good family, and even members of the royal house, took

vows. The existence of the order and its high repute indicate a

very advanced conception of the position of women among the early


From the code of Hammurabi we also gather considerable information with

regard to the various classes of which the community was composed and

to their relative social positions. For the purposes of legislation

the community was divided into three main classes or sections, which

corresponded to well-defined strata in the social system. The lowest

of these classes consisted of the slaves, who must have formed a

considerable portion of the population. The class next above them

comprised the large body of free men, who were possessed of a certain

amount of property but were poor and humble, as their name, muslikenu,

implied. These we may refer to as the middle class. The highest, or

upper class, in the Babylonian community embraced all the officers and

ministers attached to the court, the higher officials and servants

of the state, and the owners of considerable lands and estates. The

differences which divided and marked off from one another the two great

classes of free men in the population of Babylonia is well illustrated

by the scale of payments as compensation for injury which they were

obliged to make or were entitled to receive. Thus, if a member of the

upper class were guilty of stealing an ox, or a sheep, or an ass, or

a pig, or a boat, from a temple or a private house, he had to pay the

owner thirty times its value as compensation, whereas if the thief were

a member of the middle class he only had to pay ten times its price, but

if he had no property and so could not pay compensation he was put to

death. The penalty for manslaughter was less if the assailant was a man

of the middle class, and such a man could also divorce his wife more

cheaply, and was privileged to pay his doctor or surgeon a smaller fee

for a successful operation.

But the privileges enjoyed by a man of the middle class were

counterbalanced by a corresponding diminution of the value at which

his life and limbs were assessed. Thus, if a doctor by carrying out an

operation unskilfully caused the death of a member of the upper class,

or inflicted a serious injury upon him, such as the loss of an eye, the

punishment was the amputation of both hands, but no such penalty seems

to have been exacted if the patient were a member of the middle class.

If, however, the patient were a slave of a member of the middle class,

in the event of death under the operation, the doctor had to give the

owner another slave, and in the event of the slave losing his eye, he

had to pay the owner half the slave's value. Penalties for assault were

also regulated in accordance with the social position and standing

of the parties to the quarrel. Thus, if one member of the upper class

knocked out the eye or the tooth of one of his equals, his own eye or

his own tooth was knocked out as a punishment, and if he broke the limb

of one of the members of his own class, he had his corresponding limb

broken; but if he knocked out the eye of a member of the middle class,

or broke his limb, he suffered no punishment in his own person, but was

fined one mana of silver, and for knocking out the tooth of such a man

he was fined one-third of a mana. If two members of the same class were

engaged in a quarrel, and one of them made a peculiarly improper assault

upon the other, the assailant was only fined, the fine being larger

if the quarrel was between members of the upper class. But if such an

assault was made by one man upon another who was of higher rank than

himself, the assailant was punished by being publicly beaten in the

presence of the assembly, when he received sixty stripes from a scourge

of ox-hide. These regulations show the privileges and responsibilities

which pertained to the two classes of free men in the Babylonian

community, and they indicate the relative social positions which they


Both classes of free men could own slaves, though it is obvious that

they were more numerous in the households and on the estates of members

of the upper class. The slave was the absolute property of his master

and could be bought and sold and employed as a deposit for a debt,

but, though slaves as a class had few rights of their own, in certain

circumstances they could acquire them. Thus, if the owner of a female

slave had begotten children by her he could not use her as the payment

for a debt, and in the event of his having done so he was obliged to

ransom her by paying the original amount of the debt in money. It was

also possible for a male slave, whether owned by a member of the upper

or of the middle class, to marry a free woman, and if he did so, his

children were free and did not become the property of his master. Also,

if the free woman whom the slave married brought with her a marriage

portion from her father's house, this remained her own property on the

slave's death, and supposing the couple had acquired other property

during the time they lived together as man and wife, the owner of the

slave could only claim half of such property, the other half being

retained by the free woman for her own use and for that of her children.

Generally speaking, the lot of the slave was not a particularly hard

one, for he was a recognized member of his owner's household, and, as a

valuable piece of property, it was obviously to his owner's interest to

keep him healthy and in good condition. In fact, the value of the slave

is attested by the severity of the penalty imposed for abducting a male

or female slave from the owner's house and removing him or her from

the city; for a man guilty of this offence was put to death. The same

penalty was imposed for harbouring and taking possession of a runaway

slave, whereas a fixed reward was paid by the owner to any one by whom

a runaway slave was captured and brought back. Special legislation was

also devised with the object of rendering the theft of slaves difficult

and their detection easy. Thus, if a brander put a mark upon a slave

without the owner's consent, he was liable to have his hands cut off,

and if he could prove that he did so through being deceived by another

man, that man was put to death. For bad offences slaves were liable to

severe punishments, such as cutting off the ear, which was the penalty

for denying his master, and also for making an aggravated assault on a

member of the upper class of free men. But it is clear that on the whole

the slave was well looked after. He was also not condemned to remain

perpetually a slave, for while still in his master's service it was

possible for him, under certain conditions, to acquire property of his

own, and if he did so he was able with his master's consent to purchase

his freedom. If a slave were captured by the enemy and taken to a

foreign land and sold, and were then brought back by his new owner to

his own country, he could claim his liberty without having to pay any

purchase-money to either of his masters.

The code of Hammurabi also contains detailed regulations concerning the

duties of debtors and creditors, and it throws an interesting light

on the commercial life of the Babylonians at this early period. For

instance, it reveals the method by which a wealthy man, or a merchant,

extended his business and obtained large profits by trading with other

towns. This he did by employing agents who were under certain fixed

obligations to him, but acted independently so far as their trading was

concerned. From the merchant these agents would receive money or grain

or wool or oil or any sort of goods wherewith to trade, and in return

they paid a fixed share of their profits, retaining the remainder as

the recompense for their own services. They were thus the earliest of

commercial travellers. In order to prevent fraud between the merchant

and the agent special regulations were framed for the dealings they had

with one another. Thus, when the agent received from the merchant the

money or goods to trade with, it was enacted that he should at the time

of the transaction give a properly executed receipt for the amount he

had received. Similarly, if the agent gave the merchant money in return

for the goods he had received and in token of his good faith, the

merchant had to give a receipt to the agent, and in reckoning their

accounts after the agent's return from his journey, only such amounts as

were specified in the receipts were to be regarded as legal obligations.

If the agent forgot to obtain his proper receipt he did so at his own


Dating from the period of the First Dynasty of Babylon.

Travelling at this period was attended with some risk, as it is in the

East at the present day, and the caravan with which an agent travelled

was liable to attack from brigands, or it might be captured by enemies

of the country from which it set out. It was right that loss from this

cause should not be borne by the agent, who by trading with the goods

was risking his own life, but should fall upon the merchant who had

merely advanced the goods and was safe in his own city. It is plain,

however, that disputes frequently arose in consequence of the loss of

goods through a caravan being attacked and robbed, for the code states

clearly the responsibility of the merchant in the matter. If in the

course of his journey an enemy had forced the agent to give up some of

the goods he was carrying, on his return the agent had to specify the

amount on oath, and he was then acquitted of all responsibility in the

matter. If he attempted to cheat his employer by misappropriating the

money or goods advanced to him, on being convicted of the offence before

the elders of the city, he was obliged to repay the merchant three times

the amount he had taken. On the other hand, if the merchant attempted

to defraud his agent by denying that the due amount had been returned to

him, he was obliged on conviction to pay the agent six times the amount

as compensation. It will thus be seen that the law sought to protect the

agent from the risk of being robbed by his more powerful employer.

The merchant sometimes furnished the agent with goods which he was to

dispose of in the best markets he could find in the cities and towns

along his route, and sometimes he would give the agent money with which

to purchase goods in foreign cities for sale on his return. If the

venture proved successful the merchant and his agent shared the profits

between them, but if the agent made bad bargains he had to refund to the

merchant the value of the goods he had received; if the merchant had not

agreed to risk losing any profit, the amount to be refunded to him was

fixed at double the value of the goods advanced.

This last enactment gives an indication of the immense profits which

were obtained by both the merchant and the agent from this system of

foreign trade, for it is clear that what was regarded fair profit for

the merchant was double the value of the goods disposed of. The profits

of a successful journey would also include a fair return to the agent

for the trouble and time involved in his undertaking. Many of the

contract tablets of this early period relate to such commercial

journeys, which show that various bargains were made between the

different parties interested, and sometimes such contracts, or

partnerships, were entered into, not for a single journey only, but for

long periods. We may therefore conclude that at the time of the First

Dynasty of Babylon, and probably for long centuries before that period,

the great trade-routes of the East were crowded with traffic. With the

exception that donkeys and asses were employed for beasts of burden and

were not supplemented by horses and camels until a much later period, a

camping-ground in the desert on one of the great trade-routes must have

presented a scene similar to that of a caravan camping in the desert at

the present day.


The rough tracks beaten by the feet of men and beasts are the same

to-day as they were in that remote period. We can imagine a body of

these early travellers approaching a walled city at dusk and hastening

their pace to get there before the gates were shut. Such a picture as

that of the approach to the city of Samarra, with its mediaeval walls,

may be taken as having had its counterpart in many a city of the early

Babylonians. The caravan route leads through the desert to the city

gate, and if we substitute two massive temple towers for the domes of

the mosques that rise above the wall, little else in the picture need be



A small caravan is here seen approaching the city at sunset

before the gates are shut. Samarra was only founded in A. D.

834, by the Khalif el-Motasim, the son of Harun er-Rashid,

but customs in the East do not change, and the photograph

may be used to illustrate the approach of an early

Babylonian caravan to a walled city of the period.

The houses, too, at this period must have resembled the structures of

unburnt brick of the present day, with their flat mud tops, on which

the inmates sleep at night during the hot season, supported on poles

and brushwood. The code furnishes evidence that at that time, also, the

houses were not particularly well built and were liable to fall, and,

in the event of their doing so, it very justly fixes the responsibility

upon the builder. It is clear from the penalties for bad workmanship

enforced upon the builder that considerable abuses had existed in the

trade before the time of Hammurabi, and it is not improbable that the

enforcement of the penalties succeeded in stamping them out. Thus, if

a builder built a house for a man, and his work was not sound and the

house fell and crushed the owner so that he died, it was enacted that

the builder himself should be put to death. If the fall of the house

killed the owner's son, the builder's own son was to be put to death.

If one or more of the owner's slaves were killed, the builder had to

restore him slave for slave. Any damage which the owner's goods might

have suffered from the fall of the house was to be made good by the

builder. In addition to these penalties the builder was obliged to

rebuild the house, or any portion of it that had fallen through

not being properly secured, at his own cost. On the other hand, due

provisions were made for the payment of the builder for sound work; and

as the houses of the period rarely, if ever, consisted of more than one

story, the scale of payment was fixed by the area of ground covered by

the building.

Situated on the right bank of the Tigris opposite the mounds

which mark the site of the ancient city of Nineveh. The

flat-roof ednouses which may be distinguished in the

photograph are very similar in form and construction to

those employed by the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians.

From the code of Hammurabi we also gain considerable information with

regard to agricultural pursuits in ancient Babylonia, for elaborate

regulations are given concerning the landowner's duties and

responsibilities, and his relations to his tenants. The usual practice

in hiring land for cultivation was for the tenant to pay his rent in

kind, by assigning a certain proportion of the crop, generally a third

or a half, to the owner. If a tenant hired certain land for cultivation

he was bound to till it and raise a crop, and should he neglect to do

so he had to pay the owner what was reckoned as the average rent of the

land, and he had also to break up the land and plough it before handing

it back. As the rent of a field was usually reckoned at harvest, and its

amount depended on the size of the crop, it was only fair that damage to

the crop from flood or storm should not be made up by the tenant; thus

it was enacted by the code that any loss from such a cause should be

shared equally by the owner of the field and the farmer, though if the

latter had already paid his rent at the time the damage occurred he

could not make a claim for repayment.

Built on one of the mounds marking the site of the Assyrian

city of Nineveh. The mosque in the photograph is built over

the traditional site of the prophet Jonah's tomb. The flat-

roofed houses of the modern dwellers on the mound can be

well seen in the picture.

It is clear from the enactments of the code that disputes were frequent,

not only between farmers and landowners, but also between farmers and

shepherds. It is certain that the latter, in the attempt to find pasture

for the flocks, often allowed their sheep to feed off the farmers' fields

in the spring. This practice the code set itself to prevent by fixing a

scale of compensation to be paid by any shepherd who caused his sheep to

graze on cultivated land without the owner's consent. If the offence was

committed in the early spring, when the crop was still small, the farmer

was to harvest the crop and receive a considerable price in kind as

compensation for the shepherd. But if it occurred later on in the

spring, when the sheep had been brought in from the meadows and turned

into the great common field at the city gate, the offence would less

probably be due to accident and the damage to the crop would be greater.

In these circumstances the shepherd had to take over the crop and pay

the farmer very heavily for his loss.

From a stone slab in the British Museum.

The planting of gardens and orchards was encouraged, and a man was

allowed to use a field for this purpose without paying a yearly rent. He

might plant it and tend it for four years, and in the fifth year of

his tenancy the original owner of the field took half of the garden

in payment, while the other half the planter of the garden kept for

himself. If a bare patch had been left in the garden it was to be

reckoned in the planter's half. Regulations were framed to ensure the

proper carrying out of the planting, for if the tenant neglected to do

this during the first four years, he was still liable to plant the plot

he had taken without receiving his half, and he had to pay the owner

compensation in addition, which varied in amount according to the

original condition of the land. If a man hired a garden, the rent he

paid to the owner was fixed at two-thirds of its produce. Detailed

regulations are also given in the code concerning the hire of cattle

and asses, and the compensation to be paid to the owner for the loss or

ill-treatment of his beasts. These are framed on the just principle that

the hirer was responsible only for damage or loss which he could have

reasonably prevented. Thus, if a lion killed a hired ox or ass in the

open country, or if an ox was killed by lightning, the loss fell upon

the owner and not on the man who hired the beast. But if the hirer

killed the ox through carelessness or by beating it unmercifully, or if

the beast broke its leg while in his charge, he had to restore another

ox to the owner in place of the one he had hired. For lesser damages to

the beast the hirer had to pay compensation on a fixed scale. Thus, if

the ox had its eye knocked out during the period of its hire, the man

who hired it had to pay to the owner half its value; while for a broken

horn, the loss of the tail, or a torn muzzle, he paid a quarter of the

value of the beast.

Fines were also levied for carelessness in looking after cattle, though

in cases of damage or injury, where carelessness could not be proved,

the owner of a beast was not held responsible. A bull might go wild at

any time and gore a man, however careful and conscientious the owner

might be, and in these circumstances the injured man could not bring an

action against the owner. But if a bull had already gored a man, and,

although it was known to be vicious, the owner had not blunted its horns

or shut it up, in the event of its goring and killing a free man, he had

to pay half a mana of silver. One-third of a mana was the price paid for

a slave who was killed. A landed proprietor who might hire farmers to

cultivate his fields inflicted severe fines for acts of dishonesty with

regard to the cattle, provender, or seed-corn committed to their charge.

If a man stole the provender for the cattle he had to make it good, and

he was also liable to the punishment of having his hands cut off. In

the event of his being convicted of letting out the oxen for hire, or

stealing the seed-corn so that he did not produce a crop, he had to pay

very heavy compensation, and, if he could not pay, he was liable to be

torn to pieces by the oxen in the field he should have cultivated.

In a dry land like Babylonia, where little rain falls and that in only

one season of the year, the irrigation of his fields forms one of the

most important duties of the agriculturist. The farmer leads the water

to his fields along small irrigation-canals or channels above the level

of the soil, their sides being formed of banks of earth. It is clear

that similar methods were employed by the early Babylonians. One such

channel might supply the fields of several farmers, and it was the duty

of each man through whose land the channel flowed to keep its banks on

his land in repair. If he omitted to strengthen his bank or dyke, and

the water forced a breach and flooded his neighbour's field, he had to

pay compensation in kind for any crop that was ruined; while if he could

not pay, he and his goods were sold, and his neighbours, whose fields

had been damaged through his carelessness, shared the money.

The land of Babylonian farmers was prepared for irrigation before it was

sown by being divided into a number of small square or oblong tracts,

each separated from the others by a low bank of earth, the seed being

afterwards sown within the small squares or patches. Some of the banks

running lengthwise through the field were made into small channels, the

ends of which were carried up to the bank of the nearest main irrigation

canal. No system of gates or sluices was employed, and when the farmer

wished to water one of his fields he simply broke away the bank opposite

one of his small channels and let the water flow into it. He would let

the water run along this small channel until it reached the part of

his land he wished to water. He then blocked the channel with a little

earth, at the same time breaking down its bank so that the water flowed

over one of the small squares and thoroughly soaked it. When this square

was finished he filled up the bank and repeated the process for the

next square, and so on until he had watered the necessary portion of

the field. When this was finished he returned to the main channel and

stopped the flow of the water by blocking up the hole he had made in the

dyke. The whole process was, and to-day still is, extremely simple,

but it needs care and vigilance, especially in the case of extensive

irrigation when water is being carried into several parts of an estate

at once. It will be obvious that any carelessness on the part of the

irrigator in not shutting off the water in time may lead to extensive

damage, not only to his own fields, but to those of his neighbours. In

the early Babylonian period, if a farmer left the water running in his

channel, and it flooded his neighbour's field and hurt his crop, he had

to pay compensation according to the amount of damage done.

It was stated above that the irrigation-canals and little channels were

made above the level of the soil so that the water could at any point

be tapped and allowed to flow over the surrounding land; and in a flat

country like Babylonia it will be obvious that some means had to be

employed for raising the water from its natural level to the higher

level of the land. As we should expect, reference is made in the

Babylonian inscriptions to irrigation-machines, and, although their

exact form and construction are not described, they must have been very

similar to those employed at the present day. The modern inhabitants of

Mesopotamia employ four sorts of contrivances for raising the water into

their irrigation-channels; three of these are quite primitive, and are

those most commonly employed. The method which gives the least trouble

and which is used wherever the conditions allow is a primitive form of

water-wheel. This can be used only in a river with a good current.

The wheel is formed of rough boughs and branches nailed together, with

spokes joining the outer rims to a roughly hewn axle. A row of rough

earthenware cups or bottles are tied round the outer rim for picking

up the water, and a few rough paddles are fixed so that they stick out

beyond the rim. The wheel is then fixed in place near the bank of the

river, its axle resting in pillars of rough masonry.


As the current turns the wheel, the bottles on the rim dip below the

surface and are raised up full. At the top of the wheel is fixed a

trough made by hollowing half the trunk of a date-palm, and into this

the bottles pour their water, which is conducted from the trough by

means of a small aqueduct into the irrigation-channel on the bank.

The convenience of the water-wheel will be obvious, for the water is

raised without the labour of man or beast, and a constant supply is

secured day and night so long as the current is strong enough to turn

the wheel. The water can be cut off by blocking the wheel or tying it

up. These wheels are most common on the Euphrates, and are usually set

up where there is a slight drop in the river bed and the water runs

swiftly over shallows. As the banks are very high, the wheels are

necessarily huge contrivances in order to reach the level of the fields,

and their very rough construction causes them to creak and groan as they

turn with the current. In a convenient place in the river several of

these are sometimes set up side by side, and the noise of their combined

creakings can be heard from a great distance. Some idea of what one of

these machines looks like can be obtained from the illustration. At Hit

on the Euphrates a line of gigantic water-wheels is built across the

river, and the noise they make is extraordinary.

Where there is no current to turn one of these wheels, or where the bank

is too high, the water must be raised by the labour of man or beast. The

commonest method, which is the one employed generally on the Tigris, is

to raise it in skins, which are drawn up by horses, donkeys, or cattle.

A recess with perpendicular sides is cut into the bank, and a wooden

spindle on wooden struts is supported horizontally over the recess. A

rope running over the spindle is fastened to the skin, while the funnel

end of the skin is held up by a second rope, running over a lower

spindle, until its mouth is opposite the trough into which the water

is to be poured. The beasts which are employed for raising the skin

are fastened to the ends of the ropes, and they get a good purchase for

their pull by being driven down a short cutting or inclined plane in the

bank. To get a constant flow of water, two skins are usually employed,

and as one is drawn up full the other is let down empty.

The third primitive method of raising water, which is commoner in Egypt

than in Mesopotamia at the present day, is the shadduf, and is worked

by hand. It consists of a beam supported in the centre, at one end of

which is tied a rope with a bucket or vessel for raising the water, and

at the other end is fixed a counterweight.* On an Assyrian bas-relief

found at Kuyunjik are representations of the shadduf in operation,

two of them being used, the one above the other, to raise the water to

successive levels. These were probably the contrivances usually employed

by the early Babylonians for raising the water to the level of their

fields, and the fact that they were light and easily removed must have

made them tempting objects to the dishonest farmer. Hammurabi therefore

fixed a scale of compensation to be paid to the owner by a detected

thief, which varied according to the class and value of the machine

he stole. The rivers and larger canals of Babylonia were used by the

ancient inhabitants not only for the irrigation of their fields, but

also as waterways for the transport of heavy materials. The recently

published letters of Hammurabi and Abeshu' contain directions for the

transportation of corn, dates, sesame seed, and wood, which were ordered

to be brought in ships to Babylon, and the code of Hammurabi refers to

the transportation by water of wool and oil. It is therefore clear that

at this period considerable use was made of vessels of different size

for conveying supplies in bulk by water. The method by which the size of

such ships and barges was reckoned was based on the amount of grain

they were capable of carrying, and this was measured by the gur, the

largest measure of capacity. Thus mention is made in the inscriptions of

vessels of five, ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, and

seventy-five gur capacity. A boat-builder's fee for building a vessel of

sixty gur was fixed at two shekels of silver, and it was proportionately

less for boats of smaller capacity. To ensure that the boat-builder

should not scamp his work, regulations were drawn up to fix on him the

responsibility for unsound work. Thus if a boat-builder were employed to

build a vessel, and he put faulty work into its construction so that it

developed defects within a year of its being launched, he was obliged to

strengthen and rebuild it at his own expense.

* The fourth class of machine for raising water employed in

Mesopotamia at the present day consists of an endless chain

of iron buckets running over a wheel. This is geared by

means of rough wooden cogs to a horizontal wheel, the

spindle of which has long poles fixed to it, to which horses

or cattle are harnessed. The beasts go round in a circle and

so turn the machine. The contrivance is not so primitive as

the three described above, and the iron buckets are of

European importation.

The hire of a boatman was fixed at six gur of corn to be paid him

yearly, but it is clear that some of the larger vessels carried crews

commanded by a chief boatman, or captain, whose pay was probably on

a larger scale. If a man let his boat to a boatman, the latter was

responsible for losing or sinking it, and he had to replace it. A

boatman was also responsible for the safety of his vessel and of any

goods, such as corn, wool, oil, or dates, which he had been hired to

transport, and if they were sunk through his carelessness he had to make

good the loss. If he succeeded in refloating the boat after it had been

sunk, he was only under obligation to pay the owner half its value in

compensation for the damage it had sustained. In the case of a collision

between two vessels, if one was at anchor at the time, the owner of the

other vessel had to pay compensation for the boat that was sunk and its

cargo, the owner of the latter estimating on oath the value of what

had been sunk. Boats were also employed as ferries, and they must have

resembled the primitive form of ferry-boat in use at the present day,

which is heavily built of huge timbers, and employed for transporting

beasts as well as men across a river.


Employed for ferrying caravans across the river.

There is evidence that under the Assyrians rafts floated on inflated

skins were employed for the transport of heavy goods, and these have

survived in the keleks of the present day. They are specially adapted

for the transportation of heavy materials, for they are carried down by

the current, and are kept in the course by means of huge sweeps or oars.

Being formed only of logs of wood and skins, they are not costly, for

wood is plentiful in the upper reaches of the rivers. At the end of

their journey, after the goods are landed, they are broken up. The wood

is sold at a profit, and the skins, after being deflated, are packed on

to donkeys to return by caravan.


It is not improbable that such rafts were employed on the Tigris and the

Euphrates from the earliest periods of Chaldaean history, though boats

would have been used on the canals and more sluggish waterways.

In the preceding pages we have given a sketch of the more striking

aspects of early Babylonian life, on which light has been thrown by

recently discovered documents belonging to the period of the First

Dynasty of Babylon. We have seen that, in the code of laws drawn up

by Hammurabi, regulations were framed for settling disputes and fixing

responsibilities under almost every condition and circumstance which

might arise among the inhabitants of the country at that time; and the

question naturally arises as to how far the code of laws was in actual



It is conceivable that the king may have held admirable convictions, but

have been possessed of little power to carry them out and to see

that his regulations were enforced. Luckily, we have not to depend on

conjecture for settling the question, for Hammurabi's own letters which

are now preserved in the British Museum afford abundant evidence of the

active control which the king exercised over every department of his

administration and in every province of his empire. In the earlier

periods of history, when each city lived independently of its neighbours

and had its own system of government, the need for close and frequent

communication between them was not pressing, but this became apparent

as soon as they were welded together and formed parts of an extended

empire. Thus in the time of Sargon of Agade, about 3800 B.C., an

extensive system of royal convoys was established between the principal

cities. At Telloh the late M. de Sarzec came across numbers of lumps of

clay bearing the seal impressions of Sargon and of his son Naram-Sin,

which had been used as seals and labels upon packages sent from Agade

to Shirpurla. In the time of Dungi, King of Ur, there was a constant

interchange of officials between the various cities of Babylonia and

Elam, and during the more recent diggings at Telloh there have been

found vouchers for the supply of food for their sustenance when stopping

at Shirpurla in the course of their journeys. In the case of Hammurabi

we have recovered some of the actual letters sent by the king himself to

Sin-idinnam, his local governor in the city of Larsam, and from them we

gain considerable insight into the principles which guided him in the

administration of his empire.

The letters themselves, in their general characteristics, resembled the

contract tablets of the period which have been already described. They

were written on small clay tablets oblong in shape, and as they were

only three or four inches long they could easily be carried about the

person of the messenger into whose charge they were delivered. After the

tablet was written it was enclosed in a thin envelope of clay, having

been first powdered with dry clay to prevent its sticking to the

envelope. The name of the person for whom the letter was intended was

written on the outside of the envelope, and both it and the tablet were

baked hard to ensure that they should not be broken on their travels.

The recipient of the letter, on its being delivered to him, broke the

outer envelope by tapping it sharply, and it then fell away in pieces,

leaving the letter and its message exposed. The envelopes were very

similar to those in which the contract tablets of the period were

enclosed, of which illustrations have already been given, their only

difference being that the text of the tablet was not repeated on the

envelope, as was the case with the former class of documents.

The royal letters that have been recovered throw little light on

military affairs and the prosecution of campaigns, for, being addressed

to governors of cities and civil officials, most of them deal with

matters affecting the internal administration of the empire. One letter

indeed contains directions concerning the movements of two hundred

and forty soldiers of "the King's Company" who had been stationed in

Assyria, and another letter mentions certain troops who were quartered

in the city of Ur. A third deals with the supply of clothing and oil

for a section of the Babylonian army, and troops are also mentioned

as having formed the escort for certain goddesses captured from the

Elamites; while directions are sent to others engaged in a campaign upon

the Elamite frontier. The letter which contains directions for the

safe escort of the captured Elamite goddesses, and the one ordering the

return of these same goddesses to their own shrines, show that

foreign deities, even when captured from an enemy, were treated by the

Babylonians with the same respect and reverence that was shown by them

to their own gods and goddesses. Hammurabi gave directions in the first

letter for the conveyance of the goddesses to Babylon with all due pomp

and ceremony, sheep being supplied for sacrifice upon the journey,

and their usual rites being performed by their own temple-women and

priestesses. The king's voluntary restoration of the goddesses to their

own country may have been due to the fact that, after their transference

to Babylon, the army of the Babylonians suffered defeat in Elam. This

misfortune would naturally have been ascribed by the king and the

priests to the anger of the Elamite goddesses at being detained in a

foreign land, and Hammurabi probably arrived at his decision that they

should be escorted back in the hope of once more securing victory for

the Babylonian arms.

The care which the king exercised for the due worship of his own gods

and the proper supply of their temples is well illustrated from the

letters that have been recovered, for he superintended the collection

of the temple revenues, and the herdsmen and shepherds attached to the

service of the gods sent their reports directly to him. He also took

care that the observances of religious rites and ceremonies were duly

carried out, and on one occasion he postponed the hearing of a lawsuit

concerning the title to certain property which was in dispute, as it

would have interfered with the proper observance of a festival in

the city of Ur. The plaintiff in the suit was the chief of the temple

bakers, and it was his duty to superintend the preparation of certain

offerings for the occasion. In order that he should not have to leave

his duties, the king put off the hearing of the case until after the

festival had been duly celebrated. The king also exercised a strict

control over the priests themselves, and received reports from the chief

priests concerning their own subordinates, and it is probable that the

royal sanction was obtained for all the principal appointments. The

guild of soothsayers was an important religious class at this time,

and they also were under the king's direct control. A letter written by

Ammiditana, one of the later kings of the First Dynasty, to three high

officials of the city of Sippar, contains directions with regard to

certain duties to be carried out by the soothsayers attached to the

service of the city, and indicates the nature of their functions.

Ammiditana wrote to the officials in question, stating that there was a

scarcity of corn in the city of Shagga, and he therefore ordered them

to send a supply thither. But before the corn was brought into the city

they were told to consult the soothsayers, who were to divine the future

and ascertain whether the omens were favourable. If they proved to be

so, the corn was to be brought in. We may conjecture that the king took

this precaution, as he feared the scarcity of corn in Shagga was due

to the anger of some local deity or spirit, and that, if this were the

case, the bringing in of the corn would only lead to fresh troubles.

This danger it was the duty of the soothsayers to prevent.

Another class of the priesthood, which we may infer was under the king's

direct control, was the astrologers, whose duty it probably was to make

reports to the king of the conjunctions of the heavenly bodies, with a

view to ascertaining whether they portended good or evil to the

state. No astrological reports written in this early period have

been recovered, but at a later period under the Assyrian empire the

astrologers reported regularly to the king on such matters, and it is

probable that the practice was one long established. One of Hammurabi's

letters proves that the king regulated the calendar, and it is

legitimate to suppose that he sought the advice of his astrologers as

to the times when intercalary months were to be inserted. The letter

dealing with the calendar was written to inform Sin-idinnam, the

governor of Larsam, that an intercalary month was to be inserted. "Since

the year (i.e. the calendar) hath a deficiency," he writes, "let the

month which is now beginning be registered as a second Elul," and the

king adds that this insertion of an extra month will not justify any

postponement in the payment of the regular tribute due from the city of

Larsam, which had to be paid a month earlier than usual to make up for

the month that was inserted. The intercalation of additional months

was due to the fact that the Babylonian months were lunar, so that the

calendar had to be corrected at intervals to make it correspond to the

solar year.

From the description already given of the code of laws drawn up by

Hammurabi it will have been seen that the king attempted to incorporate

and arrange a set of regulations which should settle any dispute likely

to arise with regard to the duties and privileges of all classes of

his subjects. That this code was not a dead letter, but was actively

administered, is abundantly proved by many of the letters of Hammurabi

which have been recovered. From these we learn that the king took a very

active part in the administration of justice in the country, and that he

exercised a strict supervision, not only over the cases decided in the

capital, but also over those which were tried in the other great cities

and towns of Babylonia. Any private citizen was entitled to make a

direct appeal to the king for justice, if he thought he could not obtain

it in his local court, and it is clear from Hammurabi's letters that he

always listened to such an appeal and gave it adequate consideration.

The king was anxious to stamp out all corruption on the part of those

who were invested with authority, and he had no mercy on any of his

officers who were convicted of taking bribes. On one occasion when he

had been informed of a case of bribery in the city of Dur-gurgurri, he

at once ordered the governor of the district in which Dur-gurgurri lay

to investigate the charge and send to Babylon those who were proved to

be guilty, that they might be punished. He also ordered that the bribe

should be confiscated and despatched to Babylon under seal, a wise

provision which must have tended to discourage those who were inclined

to tamper with the course of justice, while at the same time it enriched

the state. It is probable that the king tried all cases of appeal in

person when it was possible to do so. But if the litigants lived at

a considerable distance from Babylon, he gave directions to his local

officials on the spot to try the case. When he was convinced of

the justice of any claim, he would decide the case himself and send

instructions to the local authorities to see that his decision was duly

carried out. It is certain that many disputes arose at this period in

consequence of the extortions of money-lenders. These men frequently

laid claim in a fraudulent manner to fields and estates which they had

received in pledge as security for seed-corn advanced by them. In

cases where fraud was proved Hammurabi had no mercy, and summoned the

money-lender to Babylon to receive punishment, however wealthy and

powerful he might be.

A subject frequently referred to in Hammurabi's letters is the

collection of revenues, and it is clear that an elaborate system was in

force throughout the country for the levying and payment of tribute

to the state by the principal cities of Babylonia, as well as for the

collection of rent and revenue from the royal estates and from the lands

which were set apart for the supply of the great temples. Collectors of

both secular and religious tribute sent reports directly to the king,

and if there was any deficit in the supply which was expected from a

collector he had to make it up himself; but the king was always ready

to listen to and investigate a complaint and to enforce the payment of

tribute or taxes so that the loss should not fall upon the collector.

Thus, in one of his letters Hammurabi informs the governor of

Larsam that a collector named Sheb-Sin had reported to him, saying

"Enubi-Marduk hath laid hands upon the money for the temple of

Bit-il-kittim (i.e. the great temple of the Sun-god at Larsam) which is

due from the city of Dur-gurgurri and from the (region round about the)

Tigris, and he hath not rendered the full sum; and Gimil-Marduk hath

laid hands upon the money for the temple of Bit-il-kittim which is due

from the city.of Rakhabu and from the region round about that city, and

he hath not (paid) the full amount. But the palace hath exacted the full

sum from me." It is probable that both Enubi-Marduk and Gimil-Marduk

were money-lenders, for we know from another letter that the former had

laid claim to certain property on which he had held a mortgage, although

the mortgage had been redeemed. In the present case they had probably

lent money or seed-corn to certain cultivators of land near Dur-gurgurri

and Rakhabu and along the Tigris, and in settlement of their claims they

had seized the crops and had, moreover, refused to pay to the king's

officer the proportion of the crops that was due to the state as

taxes upon the land. The governor of Larsam, the principal city in the

district, had rightly, as the representative of the palace (i.e.

the king), caused the tax-collector to make up the deficiency, but

Hammurabi, on receiving the subordinate officer's complaint, referred

the matter back to the governor. The end of the letter is wanting, but

we may infer that Hammurabi condemned the defaulting money-lenders to

pay the taxes due, and fined them in addition, or ordered them to be

sent to the capital for punishment.

On another occasion Sheb-Sin himself and a second tax-collector named

Sin-mushtal appear to have been in fault and to have evaded coming to

Babylon when summoned thither by the king. It had been their duty to

collect large quantities of sesame seed as well as taxes paid in money.

When first summoned, they had made the excuse that it was the time of

harvest and they would come after the harvest was over. But as they

did not then make their appearance, Hammurabi wrote an urgent letter

insisting that they should be despatched with the full amount of the

taxes due, in the company of a trustworthy officer who would see that

they duly arrived at the capital.

Tribute on flocks and herds was also levied by the king, and collectors

or assessors of the revenue were stationed in each district, whose duty

it was to report any deficit in the revenue accounts. The owners of

flocks and herds were bound to bring the young cattle and lambs that

were due as tribute to the central city of the district in which they

dwelt, and they were then collected into large bodies and added to the

royal flocks and herds; but, if the owners attempted to hold back any

that were due as tribute, they were afterwards forced to incur the extra

expense and trouble of driving the beasts to Babylon. The flocks and

herds owned by the king and the great temples were probably enormous,

and yielded a considerable revenue in themselves apart from the tribute

and taxes due from private owners. Shepherds and herdsmen were placed in

charge of them, and they were divided into groups under chief shepherds,

who arranged the districts in which the herds and flocks were to be

grazed, distributing them when possible along the banks and in the

neighbourhood of rivers and canals which would afford good pasturage and

a plentiful supply of water. The king received reports from the chief

shepherds and herdsmen, and it was the duty of the governors of the

chief cities and districts of Babylonia to make tours of inspection

and see that due care was taken of the royal flocks and sheep. The

sheep-shearing for all the flocks that were pastured near the capital

took place in Babylon, and the king used to send out summonses to his

chief shepherds to inform them of the day when the shearing would take

place; and it is probable that the governors of the other great cities

sent out similar orders to the shepherds of flocks under their charge.

Royal and priestly flocks were often under the same chief officer, a

fact which shows the very strict control the king exercised over the

temple revenues.

The interests of the agricultural population were strictly looked

after by the king, who secured a proper supply of water for purposes of

irrigation by seeing that the canals and waterways were kept in a proper

state of repair and cleaned out at regular intervals. There is also

evidence that nearly every king of the First Dynasty of Babylon cut new

canals, and extended the system of irrigation and