The Laws of a Bygone Civilization

In 1904, Charles Scribner’s Sons published Babylonian and Assyrian Laws, Contracts and Letters (and now available at Liberty Fund’s Online Library of Liberty), edited by C.H.W. Johns, an English Orientalist with appointments at Cambridge University and the University of London. It was one of a series of books comprising The Library of Ancient Inscriptions, edited by C.F. Kent and Frank Knight Sanders, both of Yale University. Other volumes in the Library dealt with historical inscriptions, tales and proverbs, epics, and religious texts, all from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.

It is inherent in all such collections that they will be superseded by subsequent scholarship—in the current case, most notably by James B. Pritchard’s famous 1950 collection, published by Princeton University Press, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, which has itself been several times revised. The Johns volume brings together material collected mostly during the late nineteenth-century. Many of the texts were published in French and German journals along with vernacular translations. Because of the novelty of the discoveries and of the translations of the inscriptions, there remains a freshness and excitement in his commentary that is absent from the later, more sober analyses.

The Preface established the editor’s approach to the texts. It begins with a paraphrase of Terrence: “the social institutions, manners and customs of an ancient people must always be of deep interest for all those to whom nothing is indifferent that is human.” This approach and the attitude that sustained it, he said, was especially applicable to modern thinkers who are better able to deal with complexity when they are acquainted with the simpler issues and formulations of the past. He had in mind not Greek politics or Roman law but early Jewish thought, or rather what the Israelites “inherited in turn from the far more ancient Babylonian civilization.”

The Babylonians

The Babylonians in Johns’s opinion were highly educated, deeply religious, humane, and intelligent, “not unprofitable acquaintances” for modern men (and in this context Johns speaks only of men). They acquitted themselves well by contemporary standards: “rarely in the history of antiquity can we find so much of which we heartily approve, so little to condemn.” Modern urbanites, he said, would be more at home in ancient Babylon “than in medieval Europe.” The average Babylonian seemed to be “a just, good man, no wild savage, but a law-abiding citizen, a faithful husband, good father, kind son, firm friend, industrious trader, or careful man of business.” We know from other sources “he was no contemptible warrior, no mean architect” and an excellent artist and man-of-letters. Such men were not merely our notional equals, Johns said, but rightly owe our high regard to their having been the first to express in written language “views” that “have proved to be of the greatest and most permanent value.”

Having praised the Babylonians for being so similar to modern Anglo-Americans, Johns nevertheless had to admit that their legal texts “have a painful monotony of subject and a conventional grandeur of style” that often rendered their meaning obscure: “every phrase is technical and legal, to a degree that often defies translation.” As for Babylonian letters, they are so colloquial that they “swarm with words and phrases for which no parallel can be found” so that often the words and phrases they employ “may be quite unintelligible.”

Add to these difficulties the physical deterioration of some of the tablets, odd spellings, complicated and idiosyncratic tastes of individual scribes, and general problems of grammar and vocabulary, the consequence is that “the very nature of both contracts and letters implies special obscurities.” One wonders therefore how Johns could be so confident that the Babylonians were so greatly our familiars. His answer seems to be that whatever obscurities exist, they “excite curiosity and stimulate research” because of the “wholesome character of the subject-matter” and “the probable straightforward honesty of the purpose” of these texts.

The actual sources are from contemporary tablets, many of which were transported physically to European and American museums, and inscriptions, most of which were copied in situ. Johns shows in detail how these somewhat unpromising texts provide a great deal of information about Babylonian society and culture, specifically how an early agricultural society later became an empire based on farming and herding.

The Code of Hammurabi

Pride of place was given to the recently discovered Code of Hammurabi, published in October 1902 by members of the French expedition to Persepolis. European scholars were particularly impressed with parallels and comparisons of the Code with the Mosaic Code found in the Torah (particularly Leviticus and Deuteronomy). Johns provided a translation of the Code, which readers unfamiliar with the Akkadian dialect of Babylonian can compare with other versions to get a more complete sense of its provisions.

The text of the Code is preceded in this collection with a discussion of the earliest Babylonian laws, called “judgments” rather than laws. Many were incorporated into the Code. Several reproduced here dealt with repudiation within families. Here are two:

If a son has said to his father, ‘You are not my father,’ he [the father] may brand him, lay fetters upon him, and sell him.

If a wife hates her husband and has said ‘You are not my husband,’ one shall throw her into the river.

These asymmetrical severities were continued in the Code, which is well known for its apparent brutality as compared to modern standards, but not, in fact, at great variance with the Mosaic Code. The death penalty in the Code of Hammurabi, for example, is prescribed for bearing false witness in capital cases, theft, including animal rustling, kidnapping (even of slaves) and robbery, both highway robbery and breaking-and-entering.

The development of legal regulation of common and public life provides detailed evidence of a major change from previously universal foraging societies of the late Pleistocene.

The Code goes into great detail regarding the duties of governors, the obligations of landlords and tenants, rules regarding dikes and irrigation, livestock damage to crops, grain storage, slander, fraud (particularly connected with brewing and selling beer, some offenses being capital crimes) adultery and rape (some variations of which can also be capital offenses—rape of a betrothed virgin, for example), marriage and family law including the status and rights of votaries and concubines, incest (with varying penalties depending on the kind of incest involved), breach of promise, ingratitude of children, which can result in the removal of the child’s tongue or eyes, assault by children on parents, which can result in removing the child’s hands, and other assaults (“If a slave of anyone has smitten the privates of a freeborn man, his ear shall be cut off”), including assaults on pregnant women. The fees of surgeons and builders were regulated as were penalties for botched jobs. Ox-rental is covered along with penalties for renting out unruly oxen and for non-payment of ox-rental fees (“he shall be torn in pieces on that field by the oxen”). Likewise, wages for day-laborers and slaves hired out by their master were regulated.

A Bygone Civilization

The balance of Johns’s book was devoted to several related matters. First came a summary of later Babylonian law, which modified and clarified (but hardly mitigated) the strict elements of the Code. There followed a discussion of the social organization of Babylonia including: the position of judges and courts, of resident aliens, family organization, courtship and marriage, the rights of widows and children, the education of children, adoption, inheritance, slavery, the army, and temples. Johns also discussed the social implications of very complex laws regarding loans, leases, sales, donation and pledges, long-distance trade, and partnerships. He concluded: “from the most varied and often most unpromising sources are derived those important details which make possible to attain an exact and realistic conception of Babylonian and Assyrian history and life.”

The second and much shorter part of the collection brings together several Babylonian and Assyrian letters. The first group consists of official correspondence dealing with Hammurabi’s administration of the first Empire: war, public works, the enforcement of the Code, religious duties, calendrics, including the proper insertion of intercalary months, tax disputes, and so on. A second chapter contains the official correspondence of Samsu-Iluna, Hammurabi’s son, and Samsu’s successors. A collection of private letters, many of a later date, follows. The most interesting of these (in my opinion) dealt with omens and predictions, astrology, and the exorcism of demons. Johns concluded his remarks with the following observation:

The reader has now before him a few specimens of this extremely valuable but very obscure class of literature. As time and study avail to clear up the obscurities, much more will be learned of the life and customs of these ancient peoples. Enough may have been given to stimulate research, and interest a wide circle of readers. It is the writer’s hope that many may be led, even by these scattered and disjointed specimens, to undertake such studies as may render more perfect his slight contribution and rescue from oblivion the heroes of a bygone civilization.

What Can Learn from Them?

Specialists will find James’s edition chiefly of antiquarian interest. General readers, for whom this edition has chiefly been republished, will find the texts useful in two distinct ways. First, the development of legal regulation of common and public life provides detailed evidence of a major change from previously universal foraging societies of the late Pleistocene. With the end of the Ice Age, agriculture and domestic husbandry became possible and humans were able to settle down and live off large grained plants all year round. These new practices brought selective evolutionary pressures on what we now call domestic production of plants and animals. One of the consequences is that the drudgery, hierarchy, and bondage outlined in the Code became a necessity.

The second insight of importance to the general reader is that the Code provides early evidence that humans were beginning to differentiate justice and social order as existing in the context of, and thus at least partly distinct from, the divinely ordained order of the cosmos. That is, the Mesopotamian achievements made possible the further differentiations and insights of the Israelites and, in the slightly different context of Cretan, Achaean and Mycenean societies, the insights of the Greeks.