Front Page Titles (by Subject) I: THE EARLIEST BABYLONIAN LAWS - Babylonian and Assyrian Laws, Contracts and Letters
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I: THE EARLIEST BABYLONIAN LAWS - Rev. Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian and Assyrian Laws, Contracts and Letters 
Babylonian and Assyrian Laws, Contracts and Letters (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1904).
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THE EARLIEST BABYLONIAN LAWS
Nature of the oldest Babylonian lawsWe are still completely in the dark as to the rise of law in Babylonia. As far back as we can trace the history or its written monuments, there is no time of which we can say, “As yet there was no law.” Our chief object to-day is to discover what the law was. For the most part, and until lately, we were compelled almost entirely to infer this from such contracts as were drawn up between parties and sworn to, witnessed, and sealed. Among them were a large number of legal decisions which recorded the ruling of some judicial functionary on points of law submitted to him. These and the hints given by the legal phrase-books had allowed us to attain considerable knowledge of what was legal and right in ancient Babylonia or Assyria.
Data hitherto uncertainBut the question remained, Was it “right” or “law”? Were there enactments by authority, making clear what was right, and in some cases creating right, where there was none before? There was much to suggest the existence of enacted law, even of a code of laws, and the word “law” had been freely applied. But there was no known ascription of any law to a definite legislator. There was no word for “law,” only the terms “judgments,” “right,” and “wrong.” It was significant that the parties to a suit always seemed to have agreed on what was right between man and man, and then to have sworn by their gods to observe the “right.”
Evidence that there were very anclent codesWe definitely know of one great code of laws, that of ammurabi, and we are greatly strengthened in the view that there were laws, and even codes, centuries before him. The way in which contracts quote the phrases of his code is exactly parallel to the way in which far earlier contracts quote phrases which are evidently extracts, in the phrase-books, from some connected work. Hence we are warranted in thinking that these extracts come from a Sumerian code of laws. We do not yet know to whom we should ascribe its compilation.
Codes antecedent to that of ammurabiFor the Code of ammurabi is also a compilation. He did not invent his laws. Phrases found in them appear in contracts before his time. Doubtless he did enact some fresh laws. But he built for the most part on other men’s foundations. The decisions already passed by the judges had made men ready to accept as “right” what was now made “law.” But the question is only carried back a stage further. Did not those judges decide according to law? In some cases we know they did, for we have the law before them. When we try to penetrate further into the background of history we can only surmise. Documents fail us to prove whether judges first made or administered the law. But we have now a very high antiquity for laws recognized and obeyed as right.
Sumerian laws found in the phrase-booksThat laws were already enacted in the pre-Semitic or Sumerian days we may regard as certain. The legal phrase-books drawn up by later scribes, especially those known as forming the series called ana ittišu, give as specimens certain laws. These were evidently given by the scribes as examples of connected prose in Sumerian, accompanied by a rendering into Semitic. Their object was primarily grammatical, or at any rate educational; but they are most valuable because they contain specimens of the Sumerian legislation. Owing to their limited scope they were at first regarded as family laws. But there can be little doubt that they really are extracts from something like a code of laws. We are as yet quite ignorant of the date of their first promulgation, place of origin, and legislator. The seventh tablet of the series ana ittišu, Col. III. l. 22 to Col. IV. l. 22, gives the seven following laws:
Repudiation of father by sonI. If a son has said to his father, “You are not my father,” he may brand him, lay fetters upon him, and sell him.
It may be doubted whether this applies to any but adopted sons. “You shall not be my father” is a possible rendering. But the phrase may only refer to rebellious conduct. The word rendered “brand” has often been taken to mean “shave.” The cutting short of the hair was a mark of degradation. The Semitic Babylonians wore their hair long, while slaves, and perhaps also Sumerians as a race, are represented as hairless. However that may be, the same word is used of “branding” cattle and it implies cutting or incision. It may mean a tattooed mark. The word rendered “fetter” seems also to be used of a branded body-mark. The whole law means that the rebellious son is to be degraded to the status of a slave and treated as such.
Repudiation of mother by sonII. If a son has said to his mother, “You are not my mother,” one shall brand his forehead, drive him out of the city, and make him go out of the house.
Here the same ambiguity about branding is found. Some take the word rendered “forehead” to mean the hair of the head. His head would then be shaved. “To go out from the house” means “to be cut off from kith and kin.” But here the son retains his freedom, only he is an exile and homeless. In this case it is not the mother who exacts the penalty. The verb is plural and may be taken impersonally. The family or the city magistrates are probably the ones to execute the law.
Disinheritance of son by fatherIII. If a father has said to his son, “You are not my son,” he shall leave house and yard.
Here the father has power to repudiate a son, who must go. The word for “leave” is literally “take himself up,” “go up out of.” The word “yard” is simply “inclosure” and may mean the city walls, as a symbol of shelter.
Disinheritance of son by motherIV. If a mother has said to her son, “You are not my son,” he shall leave house and property.
Here we expect, by analogy with Laws I. and II., that this penalty is rather less than that in III. The “property” means “house furniture.” The son must leave home and can take no house furniture with him. He has no claim to inherit anything. But he need not leave the city. Hence it seems likely that III. denied him the right of city shelter.
Repudiation of husband by wifeV. If a wife hates her husband and has said, “You are not my husband,” one shall throw her into the river.
Repudiation of wife by husbandVI. If a husband has said to his wife, “You are not my wife,” he shall pay half a mina of silver.
The contrast in the penalties is startling. Note the impersonal form of V. The executioners here are the family, or city, not the husband. Publicity is therefore implied. It is not a private quarrel, but a refusal of conjugal rights. In the second case the man divorces, or puts away, his wife, but pays a heavy fine.
Responsibility of employerVII. If a man has hired a slave and he dies, is lost, has fled, has been incapacitated, or has fallen sick, he shall measure out 10 a of corn per diem as his wages.
Here the Sumerian text differs from the Semitic. In the former the employer is said to “cause” the slave to suffer these detriments, in the latter he is said to come by them. The verb rendered “lost” is used in that sense in the later Code of ammurabi. What is the exact sense of the verb rendered “has been incapacitated” is not clear. Professor Hommel1 renders durchbrennen, Delitzsch2 renders weichen, entweichen, oder zu arbeit aufhören. But it is clear that the employer is to pay a daily fine for injury done to the slave, or for loss to his owner, caused or connived at by him. The slave’s refusal to work could not be made the ground for fining him. If anyone paid for that it would be the owner. The employer pays for his work, but is bound to keep him safe and treat him reasonably well and return him in good condition to his owner. In later times the owner often took the risk of death and flight, but then he probably charged more hire. At any rate it is clear that the owner is not named in this law.
It is not profitable to discuss these mere fragments of a code. The most interesting thing is their existence. We may one day recover the Code in full. These are not retranslations into Sumerian, by learned scribes, of late laws. For exactly these words and phrases occur in the contracts of the First Dynasty of Babylon, before and after the Code of ammurabi, which deals with the same cases, but in different words. In fact, this Sumerian Code is quoted, as the later Code was quoted, in documents which embody the sworn agreement of the parties to observe the section of the Code applying to their case. This is indeed the characteristic of the early contracts: after indicating the particulars of the case, an oath is added to the effect that the parties will abide by the law concerning it. Even where no reference is made to a law, it is because either no law had been promulgated on the point, or because the law was understood too well to need mention. Later this law-abiding spirit was less in evidence and the contract became a private undertaking to carry out mutual engagements. But even then it was assumed that a law existed which would hold the parties to the terms of an engagement voluntarily contracted.
[1 ]Sumerische Lesestücke, p. 112.
[2 ] , p. 542.