The ancient Mesopotamian kingdom of Babylon flourished under the reign of Hammurabi, who reigned from 1792 to 1750 BC. located in what is now Iraq.
There are countless contracts, for example, which record the adoption of a child, the hiring of a laborer or the purchase of a field. There are letters – some the size of postage stamps – that offer intimate insight into family relationships and royal responsibilities.
And even the famous “code” of Hammurabi, the first recorded written law, offers a “wonderful window into everyday life,” says Amanda Podany, professor of history at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and author of Weavers, Scribes and Kings: A New History of the Ancient Near East.
“Surprisingly, the Laws of Hammurabi don’t tell us much about Babylonian law, because they weren’t enacted,” Podany adds. “What they represent are case precedents that have been taken to court, and many had to do with everyday things like farming, divorce, inheritance and the treatment of slaves.”
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Family, class and society in ancient Babylon
Historians do not have a good knowledge of the population of Babylon at the time of Hammurabi, but it may well have been more than 25,000. Centuries later it numbered more than 100,000 and was the largest city in Mesopotamia.
If you were walking down a street in Hammurabi’s Babylon, all you would see on both sides are high mudbrick walls with doors. Behind the gates, however, were open-air courtyards surrounded by rooms and living areas. Exterior windows were few, but the central courtyard offered plenty of light and air.
Family was of the utmost importance to the Babylonians, and extended families often lived next to each other. For this reason, the Babylonians rarely sold the family home, says Podany. It was transmitted from generation to generation and the family graves were often under the courtyard.
Ancient Babylonian society was patriarchal, says Podany, but Babylonian women actually had more rights than in later civilizations like ancient Greece. They could represent themselves in court, own property and pass it on to their children, and hold positions as priestesses and officials.
It was rare for a Babylonian man to take a second wife, and was generally only permitted in cases where the first wife was unable to bear a child.
Class was not rigid in Babylonian society. The king and his royal line were at the top, of course, followed by the chief priests and priestesses of the many temples dedicated to the Babylonian gods. But among the people there was a movement between the landowning class, known as the awilum or “gentlemen”, and the mushkenum or “commoners”, who were free, but probably did not own land.
The slaves belonged duty room to classify. Although some Babylonian slaves were purchased and others were born into slavery, in many cases slavery was a temporary state in Babylon. If a commoner fell deeply into debt, he could be enslaved to his creditors until the debt was repaid. Other Babylonian slaves were war captives whose families could not pay their ransom.
Agriculture, Craftsmen and Commerce
In Hammurabi’s time, the city’s wealth was measured in its production of barley and wool, the latter being woven into textiles for trade.
Much of Babylon’s agricultural land belonged either to the king or to a temple complex, but some individuals also owned and managed private land. The hard work of digging canals, plowing fields and raising sheep was done by hired and conscripted labour. Soldiers also received plots of land in exchange for military service. They did not own the land, but part of the harvest constituted their salary and the subsistence of their family.
In addition to barley, the staple crop for bread and beer – a mostly sweet beverage high in protein and calories – the Babylonians are said to have harvested dates from towering date palm orchards and vegetables from smaller ones. garden plots. Babylon’s agricultural abundance was made possible by an extensive system of hand-dug canals and dykes that provided fresh water from the nearby Euphrates.
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Tens of thousands of sheep, the source of Babylon’s textile industry, are said to have grazed in the parched foothills. The shearing, which took place in late December and early January, was a colossal undertaking. The Babylonians called it “picking,” Podany says, because instead of shearing the wool, workers combed it and plucked it from the sheep as they naturally shed their coat in the spring. The huge heaps of wool were stored in the royal “feather house”.
Babylonian women played an essential role as weavers, producing high-quality woolen textiles that were traded with neighboring kingdoms for metals, wood, semi-precious stones, and building stone.
READ MORE: How Hammurabi turned Babylon into a mighty city-state
Temples and religious life
The Babylonians were polytheists and worshiped a vast pantheon of gods and goddesses. Some of the gods were state deities, such as Marduk, Babylon’s chief patron god, who dwelt in a towering temple. Others were personal gods that families worshiped in humble household shrines.
Throughout the city, there were temples dedicated to major state deities like Ishtar, Enlil, Sin, and Shamash, in addition to Marduk. Inside each temple was an elaborate cult statue of the god or goddess, and only priests, priestesses, and temple workers were allowed to enter into the presence of the god.
“The statue was not a representation of the god; this has been the god,” says Podany. “The statue had to be fed three times a day, served wine and beer, and dressed in jewelry. On feast days, the great gods paraded through the streets.
law and justice
Hammurabi’s reputedly strict “code” of laws was never enforced as such – at least judging from the surviving court records – but Hammurabi’s code reflects the sophistication of Babylon’s legal system.
Each Babylonian court was overseen by seven judges, and decisions were determined by majority opinions. If someone brought a case to court, judges would sometimes call for an independent investigation and for witnesses to testify under oath.
“Witnessing was a big deal,” says Podany, because every contract and business deal required witnesses. “Witnesses would have to take an oath to the gods, and if brought before the court, their oath would be tantamount to saying, ‘If I don’t tell the truth, then let Shamash kill me.’ Lying wasn’t worth it.
The Babylonian legal system included provisions that prevented judges from accepting bribes or favoring the wealthy. Even the punishments, which might seem cruel to modern readers, often took into account the class of the victim.
For example, if a wealthy man blinded the eye of an equally wealthy man, then the perpetrator would have one of his eyes blinded as punishment. But if a rich man blinded a commoner’s eye, he would pay the victim 60 silver shekels, the equivalent of six years’ salary. For the commoner, says Podany, money was far more valuable than knowing that his attacker was also blind in one eye.
“It seems to have been a system that the Babylonians were proud of for its fairness,” says Podany.
war and conquest
During the time of Hammurabi, warfare was fought differently from later periods, where violent and prolonged battles resulted in countless deaths.
“The wars were very planned,” says Podany. If neighboring kingdoms had a border dispute, diplomats would decide on a date and time for a battle. “A single battle often decided who won.”
During his 30th year on the throne, Hammurabi discovered a passion for building empires, and over the next 13 years he conquered 17 neighboring kingdoms and regions. One of the hallmarks of warfare in the time of Hammurabi was that armies attempted to capture – not necessarily kill – as many enemy soldiers as possible. This is because POWs were held for ransom, a lucrative business.
Here, merchants played a key role. As the merchants traveled a lot and spoke several languages, they paid the ransom of a prisoner and took him back to his country of origin. In Babylon, if the family was poor and could not pay the ransom, the responsibility fell to the temple. And if the temple couldn’t pay, then the palace would cover the debt.