The civilization of Babylonia and Assyria

Its remains, language, history, religion, commerce, law, art, and literature

by Morris Jastrow | 1915 | 168,585 words

This work attempts to present a study of the unprecedented civilizations that flourished in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley many thousands of years ago. Spreading northward into present-day Turkey and Iran, the land known by the Greeks as Mesopotamia flourished until just before the Christian era....

Taking up by way of illustration some legal confirmations of transactions, found among the documents of the oldest period, we will be in a position to see for ourselves both the authority exercised by the courts, and the methods of procedure followed in the regulation of the commercial affairs of the population.

In the days of the Sumerian Ur. dynasty (c. 2450-2330 B.C.), the official before whom parties went to obtain a legal confirmation of transactions was known as the mashkim who corresponds in a measure to our notary public, though he also exercised to some extent the functions of a magistrate. The purchase of a cow is confirmed by the mashkim in the following terms: [1]

"A cow at the price of 6 1/2 shekels [2] of silver from Lugalerin to Lu-absa, son of Shipra, is confirmed. Ur-Ish-Bau, son of Ur-duu (and) Kalainma, the nipush, [3] have sworn. Ur-nigin-gar, mashkim."

Simple as the procedure is, we may here see the elements needed for the most formal kind of an agreement, the two parties involved, the specification of the facts, the witnesses to the transaction and the official record. The date alone which does not appear to have been a necessity at this time is lacking, though it was usually added. So in another document of the same general tenor: [4]

"Judicial settlement: 7 l / 2 shekels of bright (!) metal ... the price of which before Ud-sar-gi-makh (sold by) Bashumu, the merchant to Ur-Ish-Bau, the pashishu priest, [5] is confirmed, Lushimashu being the mashkim. Ur-lamma patesi, year when Bur-Sin became king."

The attest is dated in the accession year of King Bur-Sin of the Ur dynasty corresponding to c. 2374 B.C. Such formal attests by which transactions between individuals were made binding were deposited in the temple archives, which thus in very early days must have had a division corresponding to the office of the recorder of deeds in our days.

The official character of these attests, embodying also decisions in disputed cases, follows also from the circumstance that two entirely different transactions were combined on one tablet. An instance of this kind dealing with purchases of slaves by different parties reads as follows: [6]

"Judicial settlement: G 1 /2 shekels of silver, the price of (the woman), Nin-mu-nanga-mu, Lugal-azag-zu has received from Daga. Daga has confirmed this on oath in the presence of Ur-Bau and Dadaga as witnesses, Albamu, the sukkallu, [7] being the mashkim."

"Two shekels of silver, the price of -Shab-gu-bi, the slave of Lu-kaui, which Lu-kani has received from Ama-shim, Dadaga claims from Ama-shim. Ba-ni-nibi, Lu-ab-sa and Ganab-ka ( ?) are witnesses to this, Lugal-Dungi being the mashkim."

The only point of contact between the two transactions is the probable identity of the witness Dadaga in the first attest with the claimant in the second case, but it is not likely that this circumstance has anything to do with the combination of the two transactions. The second case introduces as a new feature of judicial procedure the method of placing an injunction on a commercial transaction.

Ama-shim owes Dadaga some money which apparently is due. To secure this, or at least a part of the debt, Dadaga lays claim to the sum which Ama-shim, who is evidently in hard straits, has received through the sale of a slave. Dadaga goes to the mashkim with his witnesses who testify to the debt, and obtains an order from the court for the money.

We have among documents of this order an interesting one from which it appears that at a very early date slaves with a family could not be transferred without their consent from one master to another. A judicial decision in such a case reads: [8]

"Judicial settlement (in the case of) Tili, a slave, Nitidam, his wife, with son and daughter were sold for y 2 mina of silver by Ana-khane ... to Aba-bil-gimshu.

"The declaration of Nitidam, the wife of the slave, to be restored is confirmed (sc. through witnesses). The male and female slave with son and daughter are confirmed for Ana-khane, Ur-Lamma, son of Kalla, being the mashkim and Lu. . . . and Lu-Urash-gal, Lu-Dingirra and Ur-Ka-silim being the judges."

Marriage agreements were likewise confirmed before the notary in the presence of judges whose decree thus takes the place of a modern license. A document of this order reads: [9]

"Judicial settlement: Ninmar, son of Lu-Nannar, appeared and said, 'In the name of the king, [10] Lu-Dingirra, son of Guzani, is to marry Damgula, my daughter. ' Arad, son of Ur-lamma, and Ur-shid, son of Lu-Nannar, take an oath to this. [11] Lu-dingirra has been married to Damgula." [12]

"Ninmar for a second time appeared and said: 'Nin-azag-zu, daughter of Guzani, is to marry my son, Sib-kini.' It is attested that the name of the goddess Ninmar and the name of the king were invoked in an oath. [13] Sib-kini, the shepherd, has been married to Nin-azag-zu, Til-e-makh-ta being the mashkim, Lu . . . and Urka-silim judges. In the year following the destruction of Simanu." [14]

Here again a single document records two distinct transactions which presumably were settled in short succession of one another. Similarly, settlements of divorce were made before the notary. [15]

"Judicial settlement; Lu-Babbar, son of Nig-Bau, rejects Gin-Enlil (his wife). Gin-Enlil appeared and said: 'In the name of the king give me 10 shekels of silver in lieu of a judicial settlement. ' He has paid her 10 shekels of silver. Duggi-ul and Uku-il, farmer, have sworn to this, Ur . . . being the mashkim. In the patesiate of Ur-Lamma. [16] The year of the destruction of Kharshi and Khumurti." [17]

According to the older Sumerian law, a man on divorcing his wife must pay her one-half of a mina, which would be thirty shekels. [18] Apparently, Gin-Enlil has agreed under oath to be satisfied with less than that amount, and this being confirmed, the notary formally records that the amount has been paid, and the record deposited in the archives of Lagash, where the settlement took place.

Footnotes and references:


F. Pelagaud, "Textes Juridiques de la 2de Dynastie d'Our", Nr. IV (Babyloniaca III, p. 102 and PI. II).


A shekel was equivalent to about fifty cents, but in equivalents of ancient coin it must always be borne in mind that money had a much larger value in ancient times. See above note 9.


A profession of some kind.


Thureau-Dangin, Becuett des Tablettes Chaldeennes (Paris, 1903). No. 292.


A class of the priesthood, whose function, to judge from the name, was to act as ' ' anointer, ' ' perhaps they were also the ones to prepare the oinments. See above p. 272.


Thureau-Dangin, Recueil, etc., No. 294.


Designation of some high functionary, acting as the representative of the ruler, somewhat like a viceroy. A god associated with a superior deity is often spoken of as the sukkallu of the higher one.


Thureau-Dangin, Recueil, etc., No. 290.


Scheil, in Kecueil des Travaux relatifs a la Philologie et 1'Areheologie Egyptienne et Assyrienne, xxii, p. 153-154.


I.e., an oath invoking the king's name.


Confirmed the declaration of the father. One of the witnesses, be it noted, is the brother of the bride.


Such is the court 's confirmation.


i.e., witnesses confirmed the declaration of Ninmar by swearing to it.


I.e., the fourth year of Gimil-Sin of the Ur dynasty, corresponding to c. 2361 B.C.


Thureau-Dangin, Becueil, etc., No. 289.


Patesi of Lagash.


58th year of Dungi, the second member of the Ur dynasty, corresponding to c. 2374 B.C.


Eawlinson, V., PI. 25, Col. IV, 8-12. In the days of Hammurapi, the divorce settlement had advanced to one mana in ordinary cases, and one-third mana if the husband was of the plebeian class (Code 139-140). See above, p. 302.

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