Front Page Titles (by Subject) XI: DIVORCE AND DESERTION - Babylonian and Assyrian Laws, Contracts and Letters
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XI: DIVORCE AND DESERTION - 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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DIVORCE AND DESERTION
Early regulations regarding divorceDivorce is regulated by the Code. The Sumerian laws seem to regard the marriage-tie as dissoluble on the part of the man by an act of simple repudiation, accompanied by a solatium, fixed at half a mina. The wife, however, was punished by death for repudiating her husband.1 The Code limits the facility of divorce for the man and renders it possible for the woman to obtain.
Rights of a divorced wifeDivorce of either a wife or concubine involved her being given a maintenance. The divorced wife had the custody of her children, if any. They were not disinherited by the divorce. The divorced woman retained the marriage-portion which she had brought to the home. She had a share with her children in the divorced husband’s property at his death. If he married again, the children of both marriages shared equally. She was also free to marry again, but apparently not until her children had come into their share of the late husband’s property, therefore not during his life.2
Grounds of divorceDivorce was permitted on the ground of childlessness. The husband gave back to his wife all her marriage-portion. Also he had to give the bride-price which he had paid to her parents during his courtship, and which they had returned to him, as a rule, on marriage.3 If this bride-price had not been given, then he paid her a fixed sum of money; one mina, if he was a patrician, a third, if he was only a plebeian.1 A slave does not seem to have had the liberty of divorce.
Protection of the wife’s rightsThe wife might take a dislike to her husband and set her face to leave him and deny him conjugal rights. This was probably equivalent to desertion. Then a judicial inquiry was required. If his ill treatment or neglect was made clear and she was blameless, a divorce was granted. She took her marriage-portion and went back to her family. But as this was of her own seeking, she received no alimony.2 It is assumed that it was an unhappy marriage from the first and that there were no children.
If it were proved that she was a bad wife, she was treated as an adulteress and drowned.3 On the other hand, even if she were a bad wife, the husband might repudiate her simply without paying any price for divorce. In this case there was no suspicion of her infidelity. Or the husband might degrade her to the position of a slave.4 There is no mention in these cases of a return to her father’s house.
Chronic illness on the part of a wife was not a ground for divorce. The husband had to maintain her. He might, however, take a second wife.5 If she did not care to remain in his house in such conditions, she could leave him, take her marriage-portion and return to her family.6
Illustrations from the contractsWe have already seen that the Code regulates the questions arising out of divorce.7 The examples at this period are but few. In one case a man put away his wife and she received her price of divorce. It is expressly stated that she may marry another man and her former husband will not complain.8 This document is, however, little more than an agreement to abide by the terms of the divorce. In another case a marriage-contract names the penalty a man shall pay for divorcing his wife.1 In all these cases the word for divorce, ezêbu, is literally “to put away.” But a man divorced his wife by the simple process of saying, “You are not my wife.” He then paid her a fine, returned her marriage-portion and so on, as laid down in the Code.2 It was far harder for a woman to secure a divorce from her husband. She could do so, however, but only as the result of a lawsuit.3 As a rule, the marriage-contracts mention death as her punishment, if she repudiates her husband. The death by drowning is usually named. This was in accordance with Law V. of the Sumerian Code.
We may regard repudiation of husband and wife, one by the other, and desertion as leading to divorce; and therefore these may be appropriately considered next.
Involuntary desertionDesertion of a wife by her husband might be involuntary. The Code deals with the case of a man captured by the enemy. If the wife were left at home well provided for, she was bound to be true to her absent husband. If she entered another man’s house, she was condemned to death as an adulteress.4 But if she was not provided for, she might enter another man’s house without blame.5 There she might bear children. But, if so, she yet had to go back to her original husband on his return. The children she had borne in his absence were to be counted to their real father.6 That the law provides for such cases points to the existence of frequent wars, in which fortune was not always on the side of Babylonia.
Voluntary desertionBut the husband might desert his wife voluntarily. Then, if she was left unprovided for, the wife might enter another man’s house. The errant husband, when he returned, could not reclaim his wife.7
We have a legal decision in a case1 where a man had deserted his wife for twenty years and “left her to her fate, did not love her.” During this time a daughter, whether real or adoptive we are not told, took care of her mother. To her the mother left property, among other things, a slave. The mother being dead, the truant husband returned and claimed the slave from the daughter. He was nonsuited.
Among the provocations which gave the wife cause for divorce was the “going out” of the husband, probably a euphemism for adultery on his part. Belittling his wife was another ground for her complaint. What this means is not quite clear, but we may regard it as persistent neglect.
[1 ] Law VI.
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[8 ] M. A. P., 91.
[1 ] M. A. P., 90.
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[1 ] 2474.