Episode 14: War and Society in Hammurabi’s Time
Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization
Dr Amanda H Podany
The First Babylonian Dynasty followed the destruction of the Third Dynasty of Ur (which fell following a combined attack of the Amorites to the West and the Elamites to the East) and a brief Isin-Larsa period. The Babylonian Empire devolved from the conquest of Sumer and Akkad (united by Lipid-Ishtar in 1930 BC), as well as the cities of Larsa, Eshunna and Mri in 1763 BC. Most documents dating from the First Babylonian Dynasty consist of contracts recorded on clay tablets.
Hammurabi, an Amorite, was was the king of the First Babylonian Dynasty. Ruling from 1792 to 1750 BC, he prided himself on bringing justice to Babylonia. Most importantly he released his subjects from debt. Typically owing debts to the temples for grain they borrowed, farmers could pay as much as 30% interest (in the form of grain as there was no money) per year.
For the first 30 years of his reign, Hammurabi relied on diplomacy to maintain good relations with neighboring kingdoms.
His military survived a an attack by Elam and its allies (which had a much stronger army), and the victory inspired him to attack Larsa to the south of Babylon. Eventually his empire extended from the Persian Gulf to Mari in northern Mesopotamia.
Towards the end of his life, he established the famous Law Code of Hammurabi.* Under the Law Code, fathers couldn’t disinherit their sons without court permission and women retained title to their property after marriage and bequeath their land to their children. It was typical for women to receive their inheritance early as a dowry.
There were three social classes during Hammurabi’s reign: the Awilium (landowners), Muskenum (renters and farmworkers) and Warden (slaves). Physicians typically charged Muskenum lower fees for medical care and they paid smaller court fines. Slaves were typically prisoners of war, and unlike later Roman slaves, they weren’t put to work on large agricultural estates.
Owing to infectious disease, Babylonians had low life expectancy and high child mortality. After marriage, couples lived with the husband’s parents along with any unmarried sisters.
Although the society was extremely patriarchal, women had a number of freedoms they lost in later Near Eastern societies. Despite not wearing veils, they maintained active public active. They were allowed to own businesses, to work for temples and palaces and to receive payment (grain, oil or wool) in their own name. Typical trades practiced by Babylonian women included beer making, wool spinning, cooking, weaving and animal husbandry. However in most cases trandeswomen were either unmarried or rich enough to hire servants to look after their children. Women were allowed to divorce and have their dowry returned, and widows could choose their second husband themselves (their parents chose the first).
Priestesses and queens were extremely powerful and administered extensive temple and palace estates and workshops. The Naditu, women who lived in cloisters in temple complexes, never married (although they were allowed to adopt children and inherit land). Many became expert business women and accumulated considerable wealth.
*I first learned about the Law Code of Hammurabi in medical school, as it forms the basis for modern malpractice law and the insanity defense.
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