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....

Agreements could be made, however, between parties in the presence of witnesses without the intermediary of a mashkim, and it is a reasonable conjecture that in time these formal attests became restricted to cases where a dispute had arisen obliging the parties interested to appear before the court in order to have the terms officially recorded, or a decision rendered and deposited in the archives of the temple. The legal formula? for all kinds of transactions and contracts became fixed as early at least as 3000 B.C. A few specimens taken from the time of the Ur dynasty (c. 2450-2330 B.C.) will suffice to illustrate the general method followed.

In the case of simple receipts for a loan made or for produce delivered, names of witnesses are commonly not added, but it is safe to assume also that the court would not ordinarily recognize such receipts as testimony unless they bore the seal of the party who had received the loan or produce. The case was, of course, different when it came to documents dealing with temple affairs, as most of the business tablets are, which have come down to us from the earliest period. Here the mere deposit of a receipt in the official archives would be a sufficient attest to the transaction. The formula for receipts reads as follows: [1]

"One-half mina of silver at an interest of one shekel for five shekels [2] from Ur-Dun-pa-e, Gir-ni-ni-shag has received. Month Gan-gan-e [3] in the year when the lord of the goddess of Uruk was appointed. [4]

A receipt for produce from the same Ur-Dun-pa-c reads : [5]

"Three Gur of kharshu grain [6] at an interest of 90 Ka [7] for each Gur, from Ur-Dun-pa-e, Ishme-ilu has received. Month Engardu-a [8], 19th day, in the year when Simuru was destroyed." [9]

In the same way a receipt for dates reads: [10]

"Two Gur of dates at the (usual) interest for each Gur, [11] from Lugal-iskim-zi, Kalam-de( ?)-e has received. Month She-kin-kud [12], first day." [13]

Purchases are recorded in the presence of witnesses, the object being named first, followed by the price, the purchaser and seller, thirdly the witnesses and lastly the date. Thus the sale of a slave is recorded as follows: [14]

"One male slave . . . -lum by name, for 11 shekels of silver, to Ur-E-Lugal-ani, Ur-Nusku, the commission broker [15] has bought.

In the presence of Gudea, the MU of the archive [16], Shu (t)-dug-ga-zi-da, the kalu priest. [17]

as witnesses. Month Azag-Shim [18], 9th day [19], in the year when Bur-Sin destroyed Urbillum." [20]

An agreement to refund a sum advanced in connection with some business transaction reads as follows: [21]

"One mana and ten shekels of silver, which as the balance of a transaction Lu-Babbar has received from Ur-Lukh. He swears an oath in the name of the king to pay back on the seventh day of the month of Shu-Kul. [22] In case he does not pay back (sc. at the time agreed upon), the amount will be doubled. Sworn to in the name of the king before Lugal-azag-su, Lugal-itu-da, A-Khush-a, Ur-Mami, in the month of Sig, [23] the document (?) was drawn up, in the year when Gimil-Sin, king of Ur, built the great ship of Enlil andNinlil." [24]

We also have at this early period formal agreements to become surety for repayment of loans. A document of this nature is worded as follows : [25]

"In case the obligation of Ur-Enlil for 10 Gur of grain is not redeemed, that amount of grain Ur-Damu will bring in. In the name of the king he swore, Ur-shu-makh, Adda-kalla, Kalamma-ne-mu, Ut-shag-ga being witnesses. The year when Simuru was destroyed." [26]

These specimens of legal forms perfected at an early period, will suffice to illustrate the general character of such documents. Supplementing them by the many hundreds of business documents dating from the Ur dynasty, and which for the larger part are accounts of transactions and not formal contracts or agreements, we obtain a remarkable picture of the extent of business activity in the third millennium before this era in the Euphrates Valley, both such as was carried on in the temples, and such as represent private business affairs. [27]

The usual rate of interest at this period was twenty per cent, for loans of money, and thirty per cent, in the case of produce. Slaves varied in price from two to twelve shekels, and no doubt in some cases the price went beyond the latter amount. Laborers were commonly paid in produce, though occasionally in currency. Wages were calculated at so many Ka [28] of grain per month of thirty days, varying from forty to ninety Ka. In addition we find the laborers receiving wool, dates, oil and drink in part compensation^ and we also find commission agents of all kinds who engaged workmen, or who had them at their command to be hired out for any purpose.

From the period immediately following that of the Ur dynasty, we have specimens of business documents which supplement the picture and furnish further illustrations of the manner in which purchases were made and agreements drawn up. Thus a document recording the purchase of a house shows the manner in which the property was described, beginning with the size of the lot and passing on to the terms of the transaction. It reads as follows: [29]

"TYz Gin improved property, adjoining the house of Ali-Akhati, with the long side facing the street, the house of Adadrabi son of Ur-Innanna, from Adad-rabi, son of Ur-Innanna, Apil-Sin, son of Bulalum, has bought. As its price in full 2 1/2 shekels and 15 She of silver he weighed out. For all times, Adadrabi shall not make any claim on the house.

In the name of the king he has sworn an oath, before Sin-gamil, son of Gubbani-dug, Elali, son of Nabi-ilishu, Ur-Ningishzida, son of Nurum (and) Azag-Nannar (as) the scribe. Month of Gan-Gan-e, [30] in the year when King Sin-ikisham made a statue of gold and silver." [31]

The names of purchaser and seller as well as some of the names of the witnesses are Semitic an indication that we are approaching the period of growing Semitic influence as a reaction against the Sumerian predominance in the Ur dynasty.

A contract for the rent of a house, the ordinary period being one year, has the following form: [32]

"The house of Damu-ribam, from Damu-ribam, Sin-idinnam, the commercial agent, [33] has rented as a dwelling and possession [34] at a yearly rental of 1/3 of a shekel of silver. In the presence of Sin-magir, son of Zibu'a, (and) Ina-ekur-rabi, [35] the scribe. First day of the month Shu-Kul, [36] in the year when King Samsu-iluna, in accordance with the oracle of Enlil, etc." [37]

Despite the fact that this deed is dated in the reign of Hammurapi's successor, and that the parties involved as the witnesses and the scribe bear Semitic names, it is nevertheless written in Sumerian, showing that in old Sumerian centres like Nippur (whence this tablet comes), Sumerian continued in use as the official language of the court, just as Sumerian remained for a long time after the complete Semitic control of the country the language of the cult, though both in court proceedings and in the cult, Akkadian in time supplanted the non-Semitic tongue, with a retention, however, of Sumerian legal phrases that had become too incrustated to be entirely removed.

Purchases and leases of fields for cultivation were drawn up in much the same manner. A document dated in the reign of a ruler of the Larsa dynasty reads: [38]

"1 Gan and 10 Sar [39] of a clover field, being part of a new ( ?) field adjoining (that of) Nannar-me-dn, son of Uru-ma-kal, being the field of Sin-eribam, son of Gir-ni-ni-shag, from Sin-eribam, the son of Gir-ni-ni-shag, Warad-Sin, the son of Khundurum has bought. As its full price of 2 1/3 shekels of silver he has weighed out. For all future time, neither Sin-eribam nor any heirs of Girni-ni-shag, as many as there may be, shall have any claim against the field.

In the name of the king they [40] have sworn in the presence of Lugal-melam, son of Alia, Ur-pa-bil-sag-ga, son of Khambia, Erib-Sin, son of Lugal ibila, Azag-Innina, son of Lul-Nin-shubur, Nur-Shamash, son of Sin-ishmeanni, Aba-Enlil-dim, the scribe, month of Bil-Bil-Gar, [41] in the year when Warad-Sin, the king, built the great wall of Ur." [42]

Attached to the document is a reproduction of the seal of Sin-eribam, son of Gir-ni-ni-shag, rolled over the edge of the tablet twice as the attest of the seller.

More complicated in their nature are business documents dealing with such subjects as divisions of property. A case of this kind between two brothers leads to a formal agreement [43] in which first the share given to the one brother is set forth, then in detail what the other one receives, both swearing to the decision in the name of the king to annul any further claims on the part of either.

To equalize the division the younger brother also receives a certain amount of currency, from which one may conclude that a detailed inventory of the estate was made as the basis for the division.

Priests, it would also appear, retained their private property despite their being attached to the service of a specific temple; they inherited their share of the paternal estate, and we have plenty of evidence to show that they conducted business affairs as individuals as well as in their official capacity. The priestly office held by the father was also transferred to his heirs and formed part of the estate. In view of this, it is not surprising to find that priestly offices could be leased at a valuation, calculated according to the income through fees and gifts. [44]

Of special interest is a document of the time of the Isin (or Nisin) dynasty which illustrates the privileges enjoyed by a class of slaves who were attached to the palace service; they could own property in their own names and pass it on to their heirs. The document in question, drawn up in the days of Bur-Sin II (c. 2220 B.C.), is a deed of gift of a mother's property to the daughter, in return for which the daughter agrees to provide a specified amount of food for the mother every month. It reads as follows: [45]

"2/3 Sar improved property (and) Tuda-Ishtar, a female slave of Nin-me-dugga, the improved property and all its belongings, the property of Nin-me-dugga, her mother, which Nin-me-dugga to Nin-dingir-azag-mu, her daughter, has given. For all times, none of the children of Nin-me-dugga, as many as there may be, will have any claim.

Nin-me-dugga has sworn in the name of the king. Fifteen (?) Ka of provision Nin-dingir-azag-mu to Nin-me-dugga, her mother, monthly shall give."

Nin-me-dugga has rolled her seal over the document once, and no less than five times again over the envelope [46] in which the document was enclosed and which contains in addition, as a kind of docket, the indication of the contents of the document together with the date. The seal designates Nin-me-dugga as "a palace slave", that is, belonging to the harem of the ruler but who, as we have seen, could herself own a slave as well as other property.

The business documents of the earliest period of Babylonian history thus complement the data derived from votive inscriptions and historical records proper by showing us the people in their daily life, how they lived, what their occupations were, the dealings they had with one another, the changing fortunes of life, the classes of the population, the position of the priests and the methods of the administration of justice.

Footnotes and references:


Myhrman, Sumerian Administrative Documents dated in the reigns of the kings of the second dynasty of Ur (Phila., 1910), No. 22.


I.e., at the rate of twenty per cent, per year.


Ninth month.


Perhaps "high priest." The date has not been identified.


Myhrman, No. 23.


We find a large number of such specifications of grains mentioned in these business documents the exact nature of which still escapes us ; they seem to designate qualities or special varieties.


A Gur equals 360 Ka, i.e., therefore, at a rate of 25 per cent, interest.


Eighth month.


35th year of Dungi, corresponding to c. 2397 B.C.


Myhrman, No. 31.


That is, 25 per cent.


First month.


Year broken off.


Myhrman, No. 15.


Damkar a general term for a commission merchant, and also for trader without specification.


Literally "house of tablets," i.e., the official archives. The MU is some official connected with the archives.


The names of the other witnesses are broken off.


Unidentified month, perhaps the 7th month.


Indicated by 10 - 1 = 9, like the Roman IX.


Second year of Bur-Sin, corresponding to c. 2372 B.C.


Myhrman, No. 13.


Fourth month.


Third month.


Eighth year of Gimil-Sin, corresponding to c. 2357 B.C.


Myhrman, No. 7. A detailed study of surety in Babylonia and Assyria with numerous illustrations from legal documents of all periods will be found in Koschaker, Babylonisch-Assyrisches Buergschaftsrecht (Leipzig, 1911).


35th year of Dungi, corresponding to c. 2397 B.C.


Legrain, Les Temps des Rois d'Ur (Paris, 1912). Legrain gives (pp. 49-92) a survey of 389 texts of the Ur period published by him, and which may serve as an index of the scope covered by business documents of this character.


A Ka is about 4/10 of a litre.


Chiera, Legal and Administrative Documents from Nippur, Chiefly from the Dynasties of Isin and Larsa, (Philadelphia, 1914), No. 22.


Ninth month. 180 She are one shekel.


Sin-ikisham ruled for six months only, c. 2195 B.C.


Chiera, No. 90.


Or merhcant (damkar). See above p. 324, note 60.


That is, to do with it what he pleases, including therefore subletting for any purpose.


Semitic name signifying "Reared in Ekur," the temple of Enlil in Nippur.


Fourth month.


Abbreviated dating for the 28th year of Samsu-iluna, corresponding to c. 2052 B.C.


Chiera, No. 27.


A Gan is about 25 acres and 10 Sar about 350 square metres.


I.e., Sin-eribam and the heirs of his father from whom the field descended to Siu-eribam.


I.e., fifth month.


C. 2140 B. c.


Chiera, No. 12.


E.g., Chiera, No. 15.


Chiera, No. 1.


In most cases where a document was placed in an envelope of clay, the outer case contained a duplicate of the text. The envelope served as a protection to the legal document. This fashion of having a duplicate of the document inclosed appears to have varied from time to time; it does not appear to have been obligatory at any time.

Let's grow together!

I humbly request your help to keep doing what I do best: provide the world with unbiased sources, definitions and images. Your donation direclty influences the quality and quantity of knowledge, wisdom and spiritual insight the world is exposed to.

Let's make the world a better place together!

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: