Chapter 5: The Bronze Age Near East


[Burroughs 240 Mesopotamia. description of harsh climate conditions,]


As noted in previous chapter sustained agricultural settlement arose globally around 5000 BC in broad flat river valleys where large scale irrigation projects were possible. Farmers settling in river valleys had the advantage of obtaining control over their water supply by trapping and storing floodwaters for sustained use in crop production. The inhabitants of Mesopotamia, for example, learned to conserve flood waters by opening networks of canals between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The vestiges of these vast canal networks are today visible in aerial and satellite photography.


Flooding in Mesopotamia tended to come in two phases, the first was generated by winter rains in the distant mountains of Anatolia, the second phase came with the Spring snow melt in the same highlands. Given the fact that the origins of these flooding events lay far beyond the horizon of Mesopotamian settlements, the flooding appeared to the inhabitants to arrive violently and unpredictably. Otherwise the climate had little to recommend. The land between the rivers presented itself as a hot, dry, flat, seemingly barren stretch of desert. Natural resources such as stone, timber, or metals, were nonexistent and needed to be imported from afar. Mesopotamia's chief natural resource, the deep layers of soil deposited by the rivers at the end of the Ice Age, served multiple purposes. Through irrigation the earth furnished abundant food supplies. Through the adaptation of frame-formed, dried mud bricks it furnished an essential construction material. And through its flat, hard desert surface it offered mobility - essentially an open highway - to assorted peoples who migrated into the region. The inhabitants of Mesopotamia produced abundant surpluses of food, principally grain, but a host of garden crops as well, to sustain an estimated population of 1-2 million people by Roman times. Additional surpluses were exchanged for resources unavailable locally. With temperatures attaining 140 degrees F. during the summer months, the climate can best be described as daunting. Shade furnished by date palm trees, lush canal-fed gardens and domestic quarters, not to mention abundant food and water, made it bearable.


Archaeological investigation indicates that the process of urbanization in Mesopotamia began as early as 5800 BC, with several large centers of population arising in southern Mesopotamia by 4300 BC. Village sized Ubaid culture (5800-4000 BC) first took hold where the lower arms of the Tigris and EuphratesRivers reached the Persian Gulf. Geological evidence indicates that the sea level ceased to rise around 5000 BC, causing the mouths of the rivers to silt in. This impeded natural drainage and formed a large area of inland lagoons and marshes. As the climate became drier communities adapted to small scale irrigated farming in areas where water tables were already high. Crop yields soon rose dramatically. Mesopotamian texts dated to 2100 BC record yield to seed ratios of 30:1 and even 50:1. With the advent of bronze tools around 3500 BC, the labor intensive aspects of irrigation work became manageable, stimulating the rise of large urban settlements. By 3200 BC the city of Uruk sustained an estimated population of 50000 living behind massive city walls.



Sumerian society emerged as a cluster of small urban settlements each of which was independent and autonomous from the others. The tendency to refer to this form of polity as a city state, arises from the Classical Greek expression for this entity, namely, the polis. Our words politics and political likewise arise from this Greek expression. Each city state maintained and controlled a surrounding hinterland to generate food resources necessary to sustain its population. At the center of each Mesopotamian city state typically was a temple complex, directed by priests or ens and dedicated to the cult of the city's patron deity. The patron deity of Nippur, for example, was the Sumerian sky god, Enlil. This relationship between city-state  and patron  deity was viewed as so significant that whoever dominatedNippur controlled all of Sumeria.




The accompanying table presents an historical outline of Bronze Age Near East chronology.



·       Sumeria 3300-2300 BC (Death Pit at Ur, 2600 BC)

·       Akkadia 2300-2150 (Sargon the Great, 2371-2316 BC, Naram-Sin 2291-2255, 4  corners of the earth)

·       Third Dynasty of Ur 2100-2000

·       Amorite Invasions c. 2000 (Egypt, Hyksos Invasions c. 1900)

·       Hammurabi's Babylonia c. 1700

·       More Invasions, Hurrii, Kassites, Mitanni (Indo-Europeans) 1600-1400

·       Late Bronze Age - 1500-1200 BC

·       Petty Kingdoms, Mitanni, Assyria and Babylonia are secondary powers influenced by the dominant empires of the Hittites and New Kingdom Egypt


The broader historical narrative of Mesopotamian civilizations can be summarized as follows. By 3300 BC a cluster of urban communities in southern Mesopotamia emerged to form a civilization known as Sumeria. By 2700 BC textual sources indicate that neighboring city states in Sumeria became increasingly embroiled in conflict. At this time King Emmerbaragesi of the city of Kish overwhelmed his neighbors to create a regional empire. His example set a pattern followed by later warlords, including King Gilgamesh of Uruk, King Mesannepadda of Ur (ca. 2600), King Eannatum of Lagash (2450-2360), and King Lugalzagesi of Umma (2360-2350). Empire came to be an expected political formation in the Ancient Near East. Sumerian dominance was, nonetheless, suddenly overturned around 2250 BC by a usurper named Sargon of Akkad (Agade). Sargon represented the political emergence of Semitic population elements that had migrated into Mesopotamia over time and assimilated Sumerian urban culture. Accordingly to legend, Sargon defeated and captured Lugalzagesi of Umma in battle. He dragged him by the neck to the holy city of Nippur where he placed him in a cage by the city gate to be reviled by passers-by. Sargon of Akkad extended his authority throughout the region of Mesopotamian and beyond, claiming ultimately to have conquered states as far removed as Ebla in the northwestern Syria and Elam in the southwestern Iran. His grandson Naram Sin (2190-2154) boasted that his rule extended to the "four corners of the earth.”  The Akkadian dynasty thus created a model for Near Eastern empire building that would be imitated in centuries to come.


The Akkadian empire collapsed around 2100 BC due in part to an influx of marauders from the neighboring Zagros Mts. (the Gutians). By 2050 BC regional stability was restored by King Ur-Nammu, the powerful leader of the third dynasty at Ur (2050-1940). This brief interlude was overturned by another influx of migrating Semitic peoples known as the Amorites (Amurru). For more than two centuries (1940-1740) confusion prevailed as rival powers in Sumeria, Amorite Babylonia, and Elam (a long-standing rival of Sumeria), vied for regional domination. This confusion was put to rest around 1700 BC by King Hammurabi of Babylon (1728-1686), arguably the greatest ruler of the entire era. Hammurabi successfully reasserted control over the territorial extent of Mesopotamia. The peace and stability that he enforced was reflected in his law code, to be considered below. Like Sargon's Akkad, however, Hammurabi’s empire collapsed within a two generations. By 1600 BC the region was again overrun by migrating peoples, this time arriving largely from mountainous regions to the North. Infiltrators included such poorly understood peoples as the Kassites and the Hurrians, as well as Indo-European invaders who later merged with these others to forge a northern Mesopotamian hegemony known as the Mitanni.


During the Late Bronze Age (1500 - 1100 BC) Mesopotamian suzerainty was divided among rival local powers, including the Mitanni, the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Elamites. None of these, however, was as strong militarily as the empires to the West -- the New Kingdom Empire of Egypt, the Hittite empire of Anatolia, or the Mycenaean principalities of the Aegean. Closest to the sea, the Mitanni were defeated and dominated first by King Tuthmose III of Egypt, and then by the Hittites in ca. 1530 BC. In ca. 1530 BC the Hittite king Mursilis I campaigned deep into Mesopotamia, sacking the city of Babylon itself. Reduced to political 'back waters," Mesopotamian states receded into the background during this crucial era. In the end the distance of these societies from the Mediterranean coast proved to have a silver lining, for it enabled them to withstand the dramatic collapse of Mediterranean urban societies at the close of the Bronze Age (1220-1086 BC). The Assyrian empire would quickly emerge to dominate the entire Near East in the following era.


Despite the brevity of this historical outline, two points seem immediately evident. The general tendency toward consolidation of power into imperial dynasties in Mesopotamia was repeatedly offset by countervailing forces of sudden political collapse and invasions by migrating peoples. The ebb and flow of these phenomena prohibited the rise of a sustained era of stability comparable to that of Old Kingdom Egypt. In time newly arrived elements assimilated the prevailing  Sumero-Akkadian culture even as they furnished it with fresh ideas and technologies. With each resurgence of empire -- Sargon of Akkad, the Third Dynasty of Ur, Hammurabi of Babylon -- the number of cities that dotted the plain of Mesopotamia increased. The prevailing mood of Mesopotamian chroniclers remained pessimistic, nonetheless




The historical outline presented above raises a number of issues that require sorting out. First, we need to identify as best we can the cultural distinctions that separated the Sumerians from neighboring peoples such as the Elamites, the Semitic Akkadians and Amorites, and the Indo-European influenced Mitanni. To do this, one must inevitably address the matter of language families as they are used to identify cultural heritage. Invariably when investigating early historical societies investigators rely heavily on linguistic tools.


Ancient Near Eastern Language Families

Although the precise origins of the Sumerians remains uncertain, they were the first to organize themselves into an urban civilization complete with written language. The Sumerians devised a system of writing known as cuneiform, based on wedge-like characters impressed on clay tablets with a reed stylus. Hence, the Latin, cuneiform, "wedge-like characters". The earliest preserved Sumerian records were little more than temple inventories detailing the assets, labor force, and stored resources at the disposal of priestly establishments. Temple priests attempted to catalogue these resources using pictographic representations of items such as sheep or measures of grain. Eventually they were able to create 'shorthand' symbols representing the same. From these pictographic characters early chroniclers came to the realization that the symbol for something such as the human foot could also represent the action of "walking', and hence, that written characters could assume more flexible, abstract functions as ideograms. Eventually hundreds of such characters were devised rendering Sumerian cuneiform a difficult, highly complex language requiring years of training to master. As a result writing, and with it literacy in Mesopotamia, remained an exclusive technology of a limited elite, such as the priestly authorities mentioned above, political and military leaders, and the scribal elements that supported these authorities. As Semitic speaking peoples settled into the region they gradually adapted Sumerian cuneiform script to a Semitic spoken language, namely Akkadian. Numerous clay-tablet "dictionaries" have been recovered demonstrating the laborious efforts required of students to master the written translation of one spoken language to another. Due to the imperial success of the Akkadians, this new, hybrid Sumero-Akkadian written language gradually became the international language of the region. In fact, Akkadian script remained the primary written language, or lingua franca, of the Ancient Near East for centuries, and was used until the collapse of the Persian Empire (330 BC). Making things more complicated still, Indo-European elements in the region such as the Mitanni, the Luwians, and the Hittites likewise adapted Akkadian cuneiform to their spoken languages, adding yet another layer of complexity and diversity to the resulting script. Despite its modern status as a "dead language", in other words, cuneiform enjoyed long and widespread use for nearly 3000 years in the Ancient Near East.




We owe our understanding of the cuneiform script to Sir Henry Rawlinson, a British diplomat and classicist who carefully recorded three inscribed texts of the royal inscription of king Darius I of Persia at Behistun in 1838. The accomplishments or Res Gestae of the Persian emperor, Darius i were inscribed  in three languages; in Babylonian (Akkadian), old Persian, and Elamite, below a relief portraying the king paying homage to the Iranian deity Ahura Mazda. The relief and inscriptions were recorded on a cliff face of a large mountain at the gate to one of the passes leading from Mesopotamia into Iran. At considerable risk to his own person Sir Henry Rawlinson allegedly scaled the face of the cliff using ropesand planks  to carefully transcribe the inscribed texts. Rawlinson and others were able to use the knowledge of Persian Sanskrit to decipher the cuneiform version of the text.


From surviving texts linguists have determined that Sumerian was an agglutinative language of a class more commonly encountered in northern Asia, namely, among the sub families of the Altaic language family, such as Turkish and Mongolian. As such Sumerian language would not appear to have been "native" to the region of Mesopotamia. Sumerian texts seem to confirm as much by insisting that the Sumerians arrived in Mesopotamia from across the sea. This in turn raises the questions which languages were 'native' to the Ancient Near East and how do they inform us about cultural origins of Ancient Near Eastern peoples?


Theories based on historical linguistics are highly speculative, to be sure, and the information they bring to the history of the Ancient Near East must be utilized with reservation. Today more than 5000 languages are spoken worldwide. Linguists who tend to 'lump' languages together argue that all spoken languages arose from common root languages which lend themselves to reconstruction. According to this line of reasoning all existing languages descend from some nineteen original language families. Moreover, at the foundation of each language family existed an original proto-language that was spoken by a small isolated population living in a specific place during prehistoric antiquity. Changes in languages and movement of languages over time are believed to have been governed by three basic mechanisms: colonization, divergence, and replacement.* Adding to the complexity of this question is the fact that several languages once written in the Ancient Near East and elsewhere are now "dead languages," including Akkadian and Hittite, mentioned earlier. Those civilizations that preserved written records of themselves furnish us with insight to their cultural attributes, undeniably in far greater detail than that which can be obtained solely from their material remains. This is why investigators place so much emphasis on the language properties of  early historical peoples


[*Colonization, humans entering a new area introduce their language. Divergence, language spoken by different groups changes over time, replacement, a group of people adopts a new language introduced or imposed by another group.]


Apart from Sumerian the two principal language families of the Ancient Near East were Semitic languages and Indo-European languages. A third language family, Elamite, appears also to have been native to the region. Each will be considered in turn.


Semitic languages represent the largest sub family of the Afro-Asiatic family of languages spoken throughout the Middle East and northern Africa. Ancient Semitic languages included Akkadian, Babylonian, Ugaritic, Canaanite, Phoenician, Hebrew, Moabite, Aramaic, Nabataean, from which arose modern Arabic, Hebrew, Ethiopic, and Amharic. As one scholar has observed, Semitic language speakers have furnished us with the Old Testament (Hebrew), the New Testament (Aramaic) and Koran (Arabic). Afro-Asiatic languages are believed to have descended from a single language originally spoken in a narrowly conscribed region. The question remains where. One theory holds that Semitic languages descend from the language spoken by the Natufians in Israel and that they spread out across the region in conjunction with the diffusion of Natufian agricultural technology. Others point to the Red Sea shore, where highland rainfall along the dry Red Sea coast presented humans with an extremely fragile habitat. Excess population arising from the limited carrying capacity of this region may explain the recurring pattern of migration among Semitic peoples, not only toward Mesopotamia, as we have seen, but also into the Nile delta of Egypt (the Hyksos, on which see below). Historical linguists who have examined the root words of Semitic languages suggest that the Proto Afro Asiatic language was older than neighboring Proto Indo European. They have observed, for example, that ancient Semitic languages contain fewer words for domesticated plants and animals and accordingly appear to predate agriculture itself. Other cultural attributes ascribed to "Semitic" peoples include prohibitions against eating pork and the tendency to revere individual warrior deities who protect the migrations of specific pastoral tribal elements. The problem with assigning cultural attributes such as these to ancient peoples based solely on language affinities seems evident, however. Usually by the time a given population attained literacy, it had assimilated a broad range belief systems from neighboring peoples. For example, by the time we possess written testimony nearly all known Ancient Near Eastern peoples worshiped pantheons of gods and tended to designate one such deity as a patron. The patron deities of Sumerian city states readily present themselves, particularly the heightened importance placed by all Sumerian inhabitants on the cult of the storm god, Enlil, at Nippur. Another problem lies in the tendency to confuse language heritage with ethnicity. As with all cultural attributes Semitic languages, particularly Akkadian, were borrowed and/or assimilated by people bearing non "Semitic" ethnic backgrounds, such as the Elamites, the Hurrians, the Luwians, and the Hittites. To suggest that people who spoke the same language necessarily shared the same culture remains inherently flawed. Accordingly, it becomes dangerous to read into language heritage anything beyond what the languages themselves have to offer. in the final analysis one must remain conscious of the fact that the evidence under consideration furnishes insight into linguistic heritage rather than ethnicity or race.


Elamite offers some alternative insights to the cultural origins in the Ancient Near East. Linguists have suggested that Elamitic is most closely related to Dravidian languages that are more generally spoken in southern India. Based on the location of ancient Elam along the southern flank of the Zagros Mts. in southwestern Iran, none too far from the Persian Gulf, some have suggested that Elamitic-Dravidian languages were once widespread along coastal lowlands from the Persian Gulf to India. According to this scenario Elamitic-Dravidian languages were spoken by inhabitants of the maritime lowlands of this region prior to the rise in sea level around 8000-5000 BC. This last event conceivably isolated these populations from one another. Another possibility is that the Elamitic-Dravidian language family expanded as population elements migrating eastward from an origin near Mesopotamia. Around 2000-1800 BC Elamite-Dravidian language speakers were then driven farther eastward and southward by northern invaders speaking Indo-European languages.


Where Indo European languages are concerned, scholars have known for centuries that most of the languages spoken across western Eurasia (from Britain to India) are derived from a common ancestral language referred to as proto-Indo European. Today Indo European languages are spoken by more people on the planet than any comparable family of languages. Indo European languages include Indic languages such as Hindi and Urdu, Iranian languages such as Farsi and Kurdish, Slavic languages such as Russian, Polish, and Serbo-Croatian, ancient and modern Greek, Latin and its derivative 'romance" languages (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian), Germanic languages such as German, Norwegian and English, and Celtic languages such as Irish. Linguistic historians believe that these languages were all descended from a single language originally spoken by a small group of people, probably a few thousand, living somewhere in the vicinity of the Black Sea. According to one theory around 4000 BC the proto-Indo Europeans lived along the northern shores of the Black and Caspian Seas. According to another they originated from Anatolia proper, near Chatal Huyuk, for example. Either way, around 2200-2000 BC these people began to radiate outward in various directions -- southward to the Balkans, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Iran and the Indus, northward to the Baltic and Scandinavia, westward to Europe and Britain. Based on the reconstructed proto-Indo European language, placing particular emphasis on the survival of commonly shared words and multiple words for the same things, investigators argue that Indo Europeans raised cattle, grew crops, kept dogs as pets, used bows and arrows in battle and worshiped a male god associated with the sky. Similarly, Indo Europeans were presumed to have been the first to domesticate horses. Indo European languages bear several related words for wool, for example, and an equally rich vocabulary for trees, indicating the likely importance of herding and wooded environments to their origins. Naturally, the reservations expressed earlier about Semitic language heritage apply equally as well to Indo European. Notwithstanding the need for caution, from the Sumerians, the Elamites, the Semitic Akkadians and Babylonians, the Indo European Hurians and Mitanni, and still other peoples of unresolved origins, we obtain a fairly good idea not only of the points of origin of peoples who migrated into Mesopotamia, but also their remarkable diversity.




The structure of Mesopotamian urban societies, and regional empires, needs also to be addressed in this section. By the time of the earliest Mesopotamian empire (2700 BC), the character of political institutions was essentially formed. The earliest Sumerian communities emerged under the aegis of religious authorities who most probably furnished sanctuary to people fleeing various dangers. Priestly authorities claimed the ability to mediate with divine entities, thereby obtaining religious sanction for human endeavors such as farming and related matters such as the need for favorable weather and the avoidance of floods and earthquakes. Priests also claimed to possess the power to channel harmful supernatural energy toward their adversaries, as we shall see. In short, the earliest Mesopotamian societies appear to have been ruled by priests called ens.  As noted earlier each Sumerian community, and nearly every ancient community for that matter, perceived itself as obtaining supernatural protection from a particular patron deity. To a large degree the relationship between patron deity and chief priest or priestess was viewed in sexual terms, with male priests presiding over cities protected by female deities and vice versa.


No sooner had stratified societies emerged in Mesopotamia, however, than political power began to shift elsewhere, particularly as inhabitants came to acquire independent assets. Vague authorities referred to asenlils began to emerge, and more significantly, military warlords named lugals. Perhaps recruited originally by priestly authorities to address the threat of border wars with neighboring communities,lugals quickly exploited their military power to seize control of their respective communities. Establishing themselves as formally sanctioned monarchs, lugals drew on popular support within their cities to supplant rival religious authorities with more pliant representatives. Both the Gilgamesh epic, which clearly existed in written form by 2600 BC and Hammurabi's law code, written nearly a millennium later, offer the same tripartite organization of political organization in Mesopotamian cities. The Mesopotamian political flowchart typically resembled the following.

















At the top stood the king with absolute authority. Directly beneath him stood 3 entities: the nobility, the city councils, and the priestly authorities. Beneath each of these in turn were dependent elements. Beneath the nobles, for example, stood the kings' professional soldiers; beneath the city council stood financiers, merchants, and artisans; beneath the priests stood an array of religious staff -- servants, hierodules, scribes, "nuns", temple prostitutes, and slaves. Beneath all of these elements in hierarchical order stood farmers who labored in the fields. Farmers furnished the backbone to Babylonian society representing perhaps 85% of the overall population. These laborers quietly produced the food resources that supported everybody else. All of this information is obtainable from the Law Code of Hammurabi. Before exploring what the law code informs us about social status in Mesopotamian cities, though, we need to put the text itself into historical perspective.


Hammurabi's Law Code (lex talionis)


Ancient law codes serve as useful barometers of the political health of societies undergoing transition from rural to urban lifestyles. The same pattern can be demonstrated for law codes recorded in Mesopotamia, Hittite Anatolia, and Iron Age Israel, and archaic Greece and Rome.  On the surface ancient law codes demonstrate the existence of a rigid social hierarchy, usually entailing brutal disregard for human rights. The codes typically reflect the dominance of a hierarchy based on autocratic or at best aristocratic rule. Falling back on the Latin expression, lex talionis, the law code of Hammurabi, for example, imposed punishments based entirely on one's status in the Babylonian society. If a noble destroyed the eye, broke the bone, or knocked out the tooth of another noble, according to the code, state authorities would destroy the eye, break the bone, or knock out the tooth of that noble (196). In other words, justice was meted out according to the biblical dictum, "an eye for an eye." However, the law code goes on to assert that if a noble were to commit these same offenses against a "commoner', he would pay 1 mina of silver for the damaged eye or broken bone, and 1/3 mina of silver for the damaged tooth. Moreover, were a noble to destroy the eye or break the bone of a slave belonging to another noble, that noble would pay 1/3 the monetary value of the slave. (No mention is made of damage to a slave's tooth, probably because this offense was deemed insignificant.)


To comprehend fully the significance of this logic, one must know that a mina represented a "standard" weight of precious metal such as gold or silver used as a medium of exchange. In essence, 60 mina equaled a talent (approximately 30 kg of silver), which was the largest weight standard used in transactions. In addition, a mina equaled 60 shekels, with a shekel (ca. 8 grams of silver) representing what was essentially a day's wage for everyday unskilled labor. A mina thus equaled approximately a third of a year's income and was no trifling amount. Notwithstanding the value of the imposed penalty, the fact remains that the punishment meted out for personal injury, as well as for other similar offenses, was calibrated according to one's rank in Babylonian society. Aristocrats enjoyed higher status than ordinary citizens, whose status in turn ranked above that of slaves. Modern notions of equal rights before the law simply did not exist; moreover, ancient notions of status were based on arcane criteria such as aristocratic in-breeding. The importance of law codes as a progressive influence on society seemingly becomes lost in all this, and yet it remains a salient truth. To return to our main point, by their very promulgation, that is by the very fact that political authorities went to the effort to "publish" law codes, harsh though they may seem, these codes advanced the cause of everyday people.


This becomes clear as we consider the more immediate context of Hammurabi's law code. Several copies of the code have survived, indicating that its publication was widely disseminated for public consumption throughout the empire. The most famous copy is that recorded on a stearate stone unearthed in 1901 during the French excavations of the Elamite capital of Susa. This polished black stone stele bears the cuneiform text of the code as well as a relief at the top of King Hammurabi receiving the code from Shamash, the Babylonian god of justice. The prologue and several of the initial "edicts" in the code indicate that the king felt compelled to publish his law code to appease popular discontent, particularly among his soldiers. Several of the initial rulings refer to punishments meted out to corrupt aristocratic judges and to equally corrupt aristocratic military officers. The implication was that both of these elements were guilty of expropriating land, wealth, and privileges from the troops. Apparently abuses by aristocratic authorities, especially abuses perpetrated in the name of the king against his own soldiers, had brought matters to such a state that the king felt compelled to intervene.


The likely origin of the problem lay with the monarchical tendency to delegate judicial and military authority to aristocratic retainers. Primitive societies tended to rely on aristocratic justice in part because the latter claimed a close connection to the gods, in their minds a blood connection. Aristocratic judges also tended to be patriarchs of extended property-holding families or clans and could impose their authority by means of superior force or "self-help." We will discuss these aspects of aristocratic status in further detail below. During judicial proceedings judges typically rendered judgments according to the logic of unwritten law or custom. The inherent danger of customary law lay with its impermanence. Aristocratic ”law givers” could orally modify customary law to accommodate changing circumstances, invariably to their own advantage. This sort of abuse had apparently reached a boiling point in Hammurabi's Babylon, and the king intervened by publishing his own rulings in plain view for everyone's benefit. This eliminated the possibility of "legal modification," or to put it another way, the very real likelihood that aristocratic judges were making up the law as they went along. By publishing a written law code, in other words, the king rendered his law public and permanent, thereby, protecting and preserving everybody's rights such as they were. Despite the apparent harshness of the king's rulings and the starkness of the disparities in status hierarchy that they reveal, therefore, the promulgation of Hammurabi's law codes marked a decided innovation in the development of civil rights.




Before considering in greater detail what the law code reveals about status hierarchy in Babylonian society we also need to assess the code as a legal document. In structure Hammurabi's law code presents itself as a list of seemingly unrelated rulings of the kind that in some respects resemble US Supreme Court decisions. Presumably disputed legal decisions had been appealed to the king and he in turn handed down his decisions to serve as precedent for all time. There is no actual 'code" in other words, but rather a list of punishments to be imposed for various types of infractions. Legal historians argue that in each instance the king was reacting to actual crimes that had occurred with sufficient regularity to warrant his intervention. By rendering his judgment the king thereby established precedent to be enforced throughout the realm. Inductive reasoning warrants, in other words, the assumption that such offenses were sufficiently problematic to require the king’s intervention. In other respects the manner of presentation in Hammurabi's law code leads many to believe that the law code lacks any underlying legal principles. Close inspection of the code does seem to indicate, however, that the king's rulings are arranged according to “types" of offenses. It begins with a section addressing abuses by aristocratic legal authorities and progresses through abuses by aristocratic military authorities, fraudulent aristocratic business dealings (again indicating that aristocratic abuses formed a large part of the problem), fraudulent contracts, issues of marriage disputes, divorce, widow and child support, crimes of passion, inheritance disputes, and it ends finally with a list of punishments for acts of physical abuse and negligence such as the examples of lex talionis noted above. The organization of the code appears to contain "bracketed" rubrics of legal precedents that in many respects sound similar to classic Roman notions of the 'Laws' of person, property, obligation, and actions. In the western world at least the act of legal formulation and compilation has been an on going endeavor since earliest times: fragments of Sumerian law codes predating that of Hammurabi survive and most probably offered models for his code.




The law code essentially demonstrates that the king enjoyed extremely close ties with his nobility and his army. Nobles enjoyed privileges of appointed positions of authority as noted above. They descended from wealthy landholding families typically related by blood to the royal family itself. Aristocrats enjoyed feudalistic relationships with the king, pledging him loyalty and service in exchange for offices, commissions, and gifts of land and wealth. As generations passed these resources became hereditary within specific aristocratic families, however, inevitably weakening the king's hold on his nobility. The less the king was able to control his retainers the more likely the tendency for the abuse of power indicated above. Aristocrats remained privileged elements in all ancient societies. Nearly every urban society was dominated by a local land holding aristocracy. Aristocrats based their status on seemingly intangible qualities such as noble birth, in most instances traced through descent to some mythological hero who in turn was descended from the gods. Aristocrats also controlled extensive tracts of land that formed the basis of their wealth. It is impossible to determine within any ancient society which came first: aristocratic land holdings or aristocratic birth. As noted in Chapter Two, aristocracy not only dominated the hierarchies of most ancient societies but their mindset also set the tone of the records that have survived.


Beneath the aristocracy but standing in similarly close relation to the king was the army. Individual soldiers tended to be free born citizens who pledged unquestioned loyalty and service to the king in exchange for allotments of land, granted by the king personally. These land grants sustained the soldier and his family and enabled him to maintain his abilities as a professional soldier. In addition to the land the king might award the solder farmers, slaves, and livestock to work the land. With respect to the land allotments the law code indicates that the king maintained firm control over land and its assets including fields, orchards, domestic structures, and livestock, prohibiting their sale or lease under rigorous penalties. What would happen to the royal land grant when a soldier passed away remains obscure; most likely the estate remained hereditary so long as the soldier's family furnished recruits for the king's army. In one article the law code stipulates that the widow of a soldier be allowed to keep one third the estate for the purposes of raising the soldier's son, for example. Soldiers formed the backbone of the king's power and authority, and the law code details at considerable length the kinds of abuses they typically endured: taken prisoner in battle and ransomed, missing in action for years on end, and forced to sell their property and livestock to corrupt officers to make ends meet. In every instance the king took measures to protect the soldier's interest and the king's own land allotments by demonstrating firmness. In one article the king declared that a noble who purchased a soldier's livestock would forfeit his money and the animals; in another he decreed that the temple treasury of a captured solder's home town would be used to defray the cost of his ransom, 'since the soldier's own field, orchard, and house may not be ceded for his ransom.' This demonstrates that the king not only viewed the soldier's land allotment as royal property, but also that he regarded the soldier's service as a civic burden that all institutions, including temple complexes, must bear.


With respect to 'city councils' the law code demonstrates that the king delegated considerable authority and responsibility to this hierarchy insofar as governing the urban population was concerned. In the law code city councils were repeatedly commissioned with resolving judicial disputes, particularly for administering "trials by ordeal" to be mentioned below. Contractual disputes, marriage and divorce disputes, and various offenses concerning women were assigned by the king to the adjudication of city councils. Even disputes involving nobles were sometimes adjudicated by the councils. The role of city councils was obviously pivotal to the maintenance of public order in various Mesopotamian cities within Hammurabi's empire. Nonetheless, the law code furnishes little concrete information about the council's composition. Since nobles themselves were subject to its authority, it stands to reason that the councils consisted of patriarchs representing the wealthiest noble families of each respective city. Membership in the councils was probably determined by election or cooption to municipal offices, such as judge, festival manager, or tax collector, after the tenure of which the ex magistrate would enter the council for life. Whether or not the councils co-opted wealthy non aristocrats such as financiers and merchants remains an open question, but it stands to reason that the latter professionals enjoyed extensive dealings with the councils merely to engage in their professional activities. One needs to distinguish, in any event, between the nobility that staffed the city councils of individual cities subservient to the king and the aristocrats who served as courtiers for Hammurabi's wider empire. Imperial authorities enjoyed much greater status as will become apparent below.


Since the councils were charged with maintaining the public peace in their respective cities, they appear to have exercised extraordinary authority over the activities of the urban population. Two things that become evident from the law code in this regard are the rich array of professionals who worked in the city, and the heavy reliance placed on contracts in the conduct of their business. At the top of the heap of urban professionals the law code records the activities of merchants and traders, the distinction between which becomes less apparent when rendered into English. Merchants are better translated as moneylenders or “venture capitalists." Typically they were self made businessmen who began their careers as traders and toiled successfully to accumulate abundant assets which they lent  at high rates of interest to traders, soldiers, and in particular to nobles. Rates as high as 20% are specifically mentioned by the law code (88). Much of the material loaned and returned represented trade in kind -- measures of grain, etc. The fact remains that merchants successfully transformed excess capital into precious metal bullion in order both to store it and to make use of it in future transactions.


Traders were more typically small scale businessmen who borrowed extensively from merchants to purchase commodities with which to traffic abroad through caravan trade. These were the professionals largely responsible for conveying resources such as metals, stone, and timber to the cities. In addition to these two recurring professionals, the law code mentions a plethora of artisans, including boatmen, ferrymen, builders, contractors, carpenters, hired cultivators, livestock branders, cattle herders, shepherds,wagoners, laborers, brick makers, weavers, seal cutters, jewel makers, smiths, leather and basket makers. Cities were places where the activities of 'skilled professionals' were typically found. According to the law code all dealings between these professionals required the completion of formally witnessed contracts.



In one instance a noble deposited bullion with another noble for safekeeping. The law code asserts, “if he gave it for safekeeping without witnesses and contracts and they have denied (its receipt) to him at the place where he made the deposit, that case is not subject to claim" (123).




Typically skilled professionals, including merchants and traders, began their careers as slaves, or were otherwise of slave origin. They likewise purchased additional slaves to work as laborers. The matter of fact acceptance of slavery remains one of the most unfamiliar characteristics of ancient societies to modern students. Slavery reflected the cold, harsh reality that even humans were considered potential commodities in antiquity and were exploited for manifold purposes -- from use as skilled and unskilled labor to abuse as sexual objects. Investment in slaves reaped greater benefit the more unique skill the laborer exhibited. The most highly prized slaves were those who could earn greater profits for their masters, such as accountants, financiers, traders, jewelers, gem cutters, not to mention, teachers, artists, performers philosophers, gourmet cooks, prostitutes and undertakers. To hone these skills through apprenticeship represented an investment that was more safely rewarded through ownership of the apprentice's labor than by contracting out for the same. Skills led to profits and from early antiquity slave owners came to understand that they could reap more profit from their slave laborers by allowing them to keep some small portion of their earnings. Over the course of a career a skilled slave could expect to save a sufficient amount of profits eventually to purchase his or her freedom. Manumission was a common component to slavery in all ancient societies, some more than others as we shall see.


Where did slaves come from? Largely from conquest in warfare. Whole populations were enslaved by victorious kings and their armies. Rural farming populations were probably the most vulnerable group since they could be easily rounded up during razzias. During sieges of cities on the other hand looting armies tended to eliminate the male populations while enslaving females and children. Warfare, whether large scale like this or small scale conflict between neighboring urban populations who took prisoners and sold them to outside slave traders, was the main source of slave labor in all eras. Other sources included debt-bondage and foundlings abandoned by families who could not afford to raise them. Either way, through warfare, financial exigency or impoverishment, slavery necessarily began under tragic circumstances.


Seemingly at the bottom of Babylonian society stood a vast silent population of farmers. Given the fact that they represented perhaps 85% of the overall population it is disconcerting that we know so little about them. Presumably uneducated and illiterate they tend to represent elements of "indigenous' populations that sustained the cosmopolitan elites of the cities. Later Hellenistic Greek sources would refer to the broad farming populations of the rural landscape rather generically as the “laoi,” a nameless, faceless population (typically autochthonous as opposed to the immigrant Greek city dwellers) that tilled the land. Largely it would appear that they worked incessantly in the fields not only to sustain their own immediate families but also to provide surpluses to social elements who stood above them -- soldiers, priests, nobles, and kings. Some significant portion of their yield was seized by the hierarchy in the form of rent, taxes, tribute, and interest. Unlike skilled slaves, we hear nothing about farmers growing rich and rising socially into higher status orders. Their role in society tended to be fixed and their places "locked in," that is, tied to the land. To make matters worse, they were usually the element most threatened by the consequences of warfare, facing destruction and plundering of their stored food supplies, cattle, and farms, not to mention the very real threat of capture and enslavement. With little other recourse but to labor and to pay taxes one may legitimately wonder why the rural population so readily accepted its plight. Therein lies one of the odd discontinuities that separate the attitudes of the ancient world from the present one. Ancient farmers possessed what could best be described as a 'peasant' mentality. They saw the land and its proceeds as their means to survival. Kings could come and go, cities could rise and fall, but so long as the farmer maintained control over his land and its crops he could survive. In essence, farmers were tied to the land but they were not slaves. Barring warfare, they could not be bought and sold nor could their land be taken away from them and given to someone else. Although we might say that they were tied to the land they would have argued that they and only they had the right to farm their particular allotments of land. This gave them a certain degree of hold on their societies not to mention their own immediate futures. Hierarchies depended on the back-breaking efforts of these rural populations to sustain their urban societies. It was counter productive actually to disturb them in any way apart from efforts at making sure the maximum surplus possible had been attained from them. In the Ancient Near East in particular farmers enjoyed the unique position of staying put, securely harnessing the land, enjoying the benefits of family and community while watching the recorded elements of society pass by. As societies grew increasingly complex and empires came to control large swaths of distant rural terrain, the dislocation between the laoi of local farming communities and the ruling classes in distant urban centers became extreme.


Status of Women in the Law Code


The stereotype, women were handed from the protection of their fathers to that of their husbands, through exchange of dowry and a purchase price. All those not existing under the protection of the family lived potentially in "ill repute", for example, the case of woman wineseller and hierodule or "nun" who entered a wine shop. Nevertheless, there is evidence in the law code of female adultery, divorce initiated by women, insanity protection for women, child support, and inheritance protection. Hammurabi displayed a keen interest in protecting the rights and resources of women, and displayed numerous examples of awareness for the extenuating circumstances entailed by crimes of passion. Note punishments for incest.


Despite harsh character of social hierarchy, Hammurabi’s law code displayed a conceptual understanding of equity.



SIDEBAR: Babylonia in the Age of Hammurabi

Hammurabi's Babylon - (based on description of 6th century BC Babylon)


The city represented a vast square straddling the Euphrates River, surrounded by a broad deep moat of water. There were 100 brazen gates, 25 per side, and numerous right angle street intersections. The city was divided by the Euphrates; river banks were supported by brick sustaining walls and equipped with quays. There was one bridge. Herodotus describes the circuit wall as 400 stadia or 56 miles in circumference. The outer wall was 50 cubits thick & 200 tall. Total area represented 500 acres, surrounded by double walls of burnt brick so thick that chariots could pass along its top. The Royal Procession way was 63 ft wide, paved in red and white stone. The Ziggurat stood 300 ft. at its base, and was 7 stories tall. The Palace contained 5 courtyards with offices and a reception room. The River facade was terraced; by means of subterranean waterworks a vast park was created on the rooftops overlooking the Euphrates (i.e, hanging gardens). The estimated Population stood in excess of 100,000.