Front Page Titles (by Subject) IX: THE FAMILY ORGANIZATION - Babylonian and Assyrian Laws, Contracts and Letters
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IX: THE FAMILY ORGANIZATION - 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 FAMILY ORGANIZATION
The sources of informationMarriage is the bond which unites the different members of the family. The married pair, their children, slaves, and adjuncts, one side or the other, constitute the family unit. The Sumerian laws presuppose marriage; but, so far as known, merely attached penalties to repudiation of the wedded ties. The Code is very full and explicit and forms the basis of all our knowledge. The contemporary documents extend it in some particulars. In Assyrian times we know little or nothing about the laws concerning marriage. In later Babylonian times very little is known until the Persian period, when we have many illustrations. But what we know, or can gather from scattered hints, makes it clear that the state of things represented in the Code remained practically unchanged for the whole period.
The marriage-contract and its obligationsThe Code is explicit that a woman was not a wife without “bonds.”1 This was a marriage-contract; of which the essentials were that the names of the parties and their lineage were given, the proper consents obtained and the declaration of the man that he has taken so-and-so to wife inserted. As a rule, stringent penalties are set down for a repudiation of the marriage-tie. In these bonds a man might be required to insert the clause that his wife was not to be held responsible for any debts he might have incurred before marriage. The Code enacts that such a clause shall be held to act both ways; if it is inserted, then the man shall not be liable for his wife’s debts before marriage.1 But, if no such bond existed, the wedded pair were one body as far as liability for debt was concerned, by whichever it had been contracted and, in spite of such a bond, both were liable together for all debts contracted after marriage.
Family relationsThe family relationship was of primary importance. Whatever may be said about traces of matriarchy in Babylonia, we have no legal documents which recognize the institution. The father is the head of the family and possesses full power over his wife and family. But the woman is not in that degraded condition in which marriage by capture, or purchase, left her. She was a man’s inferior in some respects, but his helper and an honorable wife.
Ancient gentesNot only was the family, which consisted of the wedded pair and their dependants, a unit, but there was also a connection with ancestors and posterity which enlarged the family to a clan or gens. In this sense it often appears. The family thus constituted had definite rights over its members. It was very important to a man to be sure of his family connection. We may note the importance attached at all epochs to a man’s genealogy as distinguishing his individuality. His family identified him. There was a very large number of well-marked and distinguished families, which took their names from a remote ancestor. So far as our evidence goes, these ancestors were by no means mythical, but actually lived in the time of the first dynasty of Babylon. To all appearances they date back “to the Conquest.” Unfortunately no attempt has yet been made to work out the family histories. But men of such families were the mâr bânê, or “sons of ancestors,” and had special privileges, which continually emerge into notice. We may compare the hundred families of China and the patricians of many nations. There were other families of scarcely less antiquity and consideration. They do not name their ancestor, but refer to him as a tradesman. They were sons of “the baker,” of “the measurer,” et cetera, with which we may compare our proper names Baker and Lemesurier. There was a court of ancestry, bît mâr bânûti, which investigated questions arising from claims to belong to such families and which doubtless preserved in its archives the genealogical lists of these exclusive families. They must have registered the birth of all fresh members and all adoptions; for men were adopted freely into such families.
Guilds of workingmenIt is not clear whether all members of a family which traced descent, real or putative, from a trade-father, actually carried on that trade. If so, we should have examples of a workmen’s guild. Certainly many men who carried on a trade were “sons” of the trade-father, but apparently not all. The Code notes the adoption of a child by an artisan who teaches him his trade. In certain cities the trades had their quarters. We read of the “city of the goldsmiths” in Nineveh.
Their rivalsIt may well be that these guilds were close corporations at first and continued so to be in the less crowded trades, but rivals outside the guild also came to be tolerated. The slaves were artisans in great numbers and their increase may have led to the decay of the old artisan guilds of free workers.
Public registration of family eventsThe importance of descent was not a sentimental matter only. The laws of inheritance involved a careful distinction between proper heirs and a variety of claimants. Hence it seems likely that there was a registration of births, deaths, and marriages, at least covering the patrician families. We have such examples as a man claiming to be of same father as another, claiming brotherhood. The other repudiates the claim.1 The tablet is too fragmentary for us to follow the arguments. The slave Bariki-ilu claimed to be a mâr bânû and his claim was heard before the court of the mâr bânê.1
Entailed family propertyFurther, as the wife’s marriage-portion, if she died childless, went back to the “house of her father,” and as a man who died without issue had to leave his property to his “father’s house,” and as many had only a life-interest in their property, while the family usually had a right of pre-emption in the case of proposed sales, we see that the family always had a strong hold over property. Not only was it for the man’s interest to be registered as of a certain family, but it was also for the family’s interest to register all its members.
Responsibilities of family to its individual membersThere are suggestions that the family assumed certain responsibilities over the man; for in Assyria it appears that the family might come forward and liberate a man from his debt. A free man, who had been sold as a slave to Ashnunnak, and who escaped to Babylon, after five years, being claimed as a slave by the levy-masters there, chose to serve his father’s house. His brothers swore by Marduk and Ammiditana the king, making an irrevocable declaration that as long as he lived he should take up the duties of his father’s house with his brothers.2 In the later Babylonian times, the head of the family, though only a distant relation, was called upon to act as judge in a dispute concerning the disposition of property.
[1 ] § .
[1 ] § .
[1 ] Nbn. 69.
[1 ] , iii., p. 87 f.
[2 ] 419.