Written by Archibald Henry Sayce and originally published in 1894
The Contract-tablets. We have learnt a great deal about the social life of Babylonia and Assyria from the contract-tablets which have been found in enormous numbers in Babylonia. A few have also come from the library of Nineveh, relating for the most part to the sale and lease of house property. Some of them have Aramaic dockets attached to them, giving the names of the persons mentioned in the contract and the nature of its contents. These dockets serve to verify the method of cuneiform decipherment, and are an indication that in the time of Tiglath-pileser III and his successors Aramaic was the common language of trade.
Some of the Babylonian contract-tablets go back to the time of Khammurabi and his dynasty, and are in Sumerian. But the larger number are of much later date, and extend from the reign of Kandalanu, the predecessor of Nabopolassar, to that of Xerxes. For many years we have a continuous series of documents dated month by month in each year. A contract-tablet was often enclosed in an envelope of clay, on which its principal contents were inscribed. They were kept in large jars which answered to our modern safes.
Married Life. From the contracts relating to matrimony we learn that polygamy was very rare, and that the wife enjoyed a considerable amount of independence. The dowry she brought with her on marriage had to be restored to her in case of divorce. Moreover the woman could act apart from her husband, entering into partnership, trading with her money and conducting law-suits in her own name. In B.C. 555 we find a father transferring all his property to his daughter, and reserving only the use of it during the rest of his life. On the other hand wives, like concubines, could sometimes be purchased, though in this case if the husband married again he stipulated that he would send his first wife back to her home along with a certain sum of money. Children could be adopted, and there was the utmost freedom as regards the devolution of property, which could be ‘tied up’ by will.
Burial. The dead were buried after complete or partial cremation. With the exception of the kings they were interred in cemeteries outside the towns, tombs and tombstones being erected over them, with rivulets, which symbolized ‘the water of life,’ flowing at their side.
Slavery. Slavery was an ancient institution, but the slave was protected by law as far back as the Sumerian period. In later times he could even appear as party to a suit, and could recover his freedom by manumission, by purchase, by proving that he had been unlawfully enslaved, or by his adoption into the family of a citizen. Slaves could be impressed into the royal service, so that in selling a slave it was usual to stipulate that the seller should be responsible for any trouble arising from such a cause. Poor parents sometimes sold their children into slavery, and the Sumerian law ordered a son who denied his father to be shorn and sold as a slave.
Lowness of Wages. Few persons were so poor as not to be able to keep one slave at least. But the existence of slavery caused wages to be low, and lowered the character and position of the free labourer. Thus we find that a skilled labourer, like a coppersmith, received only six qas (about 8 ½ quarts) of flour for overlaying a chariot with a lining of copper, and that only 1s. 6d. was paid for painting the stucco of a wall.
Property. The tenure of a farm was of various kinds. Sometimes the property belonged half to the landlord, half to the tenant, the tenant doing all the work and handing the landlord’s half of the produce to his agent. Sometimes while the tenant gave his work, the landlord provided him with carts, oxen, and other necessaries. At other times the tenant received only a third, a fourth, or even a tenth of the produce, besides paying a fixed rent of two-thirds of the dates gathered from the palms on the estate. The landlord could dismiss the tenant, who was also required to build the farm house if one did not already exist.
When house property or land was let or sold it was minutely described, and numerous witnesses to the deed of sale or lease were required. The length of the lease as well as the rent had to be stated, any transgression of the terms of the lease being punished with a severe fine. The tenant had to return the property in the state in which he found it. The rent of course depended on the size and value of the property, and could be paid half-yearly as well as three times a year. Houses, further, might be bought and sold through the intervention of an agent.
Taxes. Taxation was probably heavy. In the time of Sennacherib, Nineveh had to pay the treasury 30 talents a year, while Carchemish was assessed at 100 talents. Taxes were also levied in kind, and there was an octroi duty upon goods entering the town. The metal—gold, silver, and bronze—was measured out by weight, a coinage not making its appearance until late in Babylonian history, though, as in Egypt, rings of gold or silver, which took the place of coins, were used at an early time.
Usury. Deeds of partnership are common; so also are deeds relating to money-lending. The usurer, in fact, was a prominent person in the trading community of Babylonia. Under Nebuchadrezzar and his successors the usual rate of interest was 20 per cent., the interest being paid each month, though we also hear of 13-1/3 per cent. In concluding a bargain, it was usually stipulated that if the money were not paid by a specified date, interest should be paid upon it until it was paid in full.
The Army. By the side of the commercial class stood a numerous body of military and civil officials. At the head of the Assyrian army was the Tartan (turtannu) or Commander-in-chief, and under him came a large staff of officers. The army itself was highly organized. In addition to the infantry and cavalry there were numerous chariots, in one of which the king rode when he commanded in person. In the time of Tiglath-pileser III, saddles, leathern drawers, and high boots were introduced for the cavalry, and a corps of slingers and pioneers was created by Sennacherib. The infantry were divided into heavy-armed and light-armed, many of the heavy-armed wearing coats of mail formed of metal scales sewn to a leather shirt. Helmets were largely used, as well as shields. The army carried with it on the march various engines for attacking the walls of a town—battering-rams, ladders, crow-bars, and the like—as well as tents. The royal tent was accompanied by a cooking and a dining-tent, and was elaborately furnished. We learn from the contract-tablets, that in the reign of Nabonidos, rather more than 2 ½ bushels of wheat were furnished to each of the bowmen, while 54 qas (75 quarts) of beer were provided on a particular day, ‘for the troops which had marched from Babylon.’
Navy. A fleet was kept in Babylonia, and the king had a State-barge on the Euphrates. The Assyrians, however, were not a naval people, and the biremes, employed by Sennacherib when he attacked the Chaldaean colony in the Persian Gulf, were built and manned by Phoenicians.
The Bureaucracy. The prefects or satraps of the Assyrian provinces and subject cities were appointed by the king, like the military officers, and were responsible to him. A certain number of them were eligible for the post of limmu, or eponym, after whom the year was named—an honour which they shared with the monarch. The office does not appear to have existed in Babylonia.
Among the tablets which have come from the library of Nineveh are some which contain long lists of Assyrian officials. They were a very numerous body, but we need mention only the Rab-shakeh (Rab-saki), ‘chief of the princes,’ or Vizier, the Rab-saris (Rab-sa-resi) or ‘chief of the nobles,’ and the Rab-mag (Rab-mugi) or ‘chief physician.’ The identification of the two last is due to Mr. Pinches.
The priests and judges have already been alluded to, as also the clerks or scribes, many of whom, at least in Babylonia, were also priests. Poets and musicians were attached to the court, and we hear of a grant of land being made to a court-poet, in Babylonia, for some verses in which he had doubtless flattered the king. Society, in short, was highly organized, and the principle of a subdivision of labour was fully understood.
In one important respect, however, the basis upon which society rested in Babylonia and in Assyria was different. The government of Babylonia was theocratic, that of Assyria was military. While Assyria with its bureaucratic centralization is an anticipation of imperial Rome, Babylonia with its theocratic constitution is an anticipation of papal Rome. The king was the adopted son of Bel, and his right to rule was based on the fact that Bel, the true lord and ruler of the State, had delegated to him his power.