WorldWhat was daily life like in ancient Babylon? The...

What was daily life like in ancient Babylon? The Code of Hammurabi and other interesting aspects


The ancient Mesopotamian kingdom of Babylon experienced its heyday under Hammurabi, who ruled from 1792 to 1750 BC. The remarkable thing about this period of Babylonian history is that archeologists have found tens of thousands of cuneiform tablets that paint a detailed picture of life in the ancient kingdom in what is now Iraq.

There are countless “contracts” recording the adoption of a child, the hiring of a worker, or the purchase of land. There are letters, some the size of a postage stamp, that give an intimate picture of family relationships and royal duties.

And even Hammurabi’s famous “Code,” the first written law, offers a “wonderful glimpse into everyday life,” says Amanda Podany, professor of history at California Polytechnic State College, Pomona, and author of “Weavers, Scribes and Kings: A New History of the Ancient Near East,” shows History.

“Surprisingly, Hammurabi’s laws do not say much about Babylonian law because they were not actually enacted,” Podany adds. “What they do represent are cases that came before the courts, and many had to do with mundane matters such as agriculture, divorce, inheritance and the treatment of slaves.”

Family, social classes and society in ancient Babylon

Historians do not know exactly how many inhabitants Babylon had at the time of Hammurabi, but it may well have been more than 25,000. Centuries later, the city grew to over 100,000 inhabitants, making it the largest city in Mesopotamia.

Walking down a street in Hammurabi’s Babylon, one saw only high mud-brick walls on either side. Behind the doors, however, were open courtyards surrounded by rooms and living quarters. The exterior windows were unusual, but the central courtyard provided plenty of light and air.

Family was one of the most important aspects to the Babylonians, and extended families often lived side by side. For this reason, Babylonians rarely sold their family home, Podany says. It was passed down from generation to generation, and family tombs were often located under the courtyard.

Social classes in Babylon were not so rigid

Ancient Babylonian society was patriarchal, Podany says, but Babylonian women actually had more rights than in later civilizations such as ancient Greece. They could represent themselves in court, own property and bequeath it to their children, or hold offices as priestesses and scribes. It was rare for a Babylonian man to take a second wife, and usually this was allowed only if the first wife could not bear children.

The king and the royal family held sway, followed by the high priests and priestesses of the many temples dedicated to the Babylonian gods. Among the people, however, there were movements between the landowning class, known as the “awilum” or “princes,” and the “mushkenum” or “commoners,” who were free but probably did not own land.

Slaves belonged to the “wardum” class. Although some Babylonian slaves were purchased and others were born into slavery, in many cases slavery was a temporary condition in Babylon. If a citizen was heavily in debt, he could be enslaved by his creditors until the debt was repaid. Other Babylonian slaves were prisoners of war whose families could not pay the ransom.

Agriculture, crafts and trade

In Hammurabi’s time, the city’s wealth was measured by the 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 farmed private land.

The hard work of building canals, plowing fields, and raising sheep was done through indentured labor and recruitment. Soldiers were also assigned land in return for their military service. The land did not belong to them, but part of the harvest corresponded to their wages and what was needed to support the family.

Tens of thousands of sheep, the source of Babylon’s textile industry, grazed on the dry foothills. Sheep shearing, which took place in late December and early January, was a large-scale activity. The Babylonians called it “plucking,” Podany says, because instead of shearing the wool, workers combed it and pulled it off the sheep, just as they naturally shed their clothing in the spring. Huge piles of wool were stored in the royal “plucking house.”

Babylonian women played an important role as weavers, producing high-quality wool textiles that were traded in neighboring kingdoms for other metals, wood, semi-precious stones, and building blocks.

Temples and religious life

The Babylonians were polytheists and worshipped a large pantheon of gods and goddesses. Some of the gods were state gods, such as Marduk, the chief patron god of Babylon, who lived in a massive temple. Others were personal gods worshipped by families in domestic temples.

Everywhere there were temples dedicated to the great state gods such as 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 the presence of the god.

“The statue was not a representation of the god, it was the god,” Podany says. “The statue had to be fed three times a day, given wine and beer, and dressed in jewels. On feast days, the great gods were paraded through the streets.”

Law and justice

Hammurabi’s famous “code of laws” was never enforced as such, at least judging from the surviving court records, but Hammurabi’s code reflects the sophistication of the Babylonian legal system. Each Babylonian court was supervised by seven judges, and decisions were made by majority rule. When someone brought a case to court, the judges sometimes required an independent investigation and witnesses to testify under oath.

“Being a witness was a big deal,” Podany says, because witnesses were required for every contract and deal. “Witnesses had to swear an oath to the gods, and when they were put on trial, their oath was tantamount to saying, ‘ If I do not tell the truth, let Shamash kill me.’ Lying is worth it.” The Babylonian legal system contained provisions prohibiting judges from accepting bribes or favoring the wealthy. Even punishments that may seem cruel to modern readers often took into account the class of the victim.

For example, if a rich man blinded the eye of an equally rich man, the offender’s eye was put out as punishment. But if a rich man blinded a common man, he had to pay the victim 60 shekels of silver, which was equivalent to six years’ wages.

To the common man, Podany says, the money was much more valuable than the knowledge that his attacker was also blind in one eye. “It seems to have been a system that the Babylonians prided themselves on because of its fairness,” Podany says.

War and conquests

In Hammurabi’s time, warfare was handled differently than in later eras, when violent and protracted battles claimed many lives. “Wars were very well planned,” Podany says. If neighboring kingdoms had a border dispute, diplomats would set the date and time for a battle. “Often a single battle decided who won.

In his 30th year on the throne, Hammurabi discovered his passion for empire building, and over the next 13 years he conquered 17 kingdoms and neighboring regions. A feature of warfare in Hammurabi’s time was that armies sought to capture, not necessarily kill, as many enemy soldiers as possible. This was because prisoners of war were held for ransom, a lucrative trade.

In this context, merchants played a key role. Since merchants traveled widely and spoke many languages, they paid the ransom for a captive and returned him to his homeland. In Babylon, if the family was poor and could not pay the ransom, the temple was responsible. And if the temple could not pay, the palace took the blame.


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