Front Page Titles (by Subject) XVII: SLAVERY - Babylonian and Assyrian Laws, Contracts and Letters
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XVII: SLAVERY - 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 slave a chattelIn modern thought slavery concerns personal rights. But it was not thus regarded by the Babylonians, for the slave was an inferior domestic, and, like the son in his father’s house, minor capitis. That he was actually a chattel is clear from his being sold, pledged, or deposited. He was property and as such a money equivalent. He might be made use of to discharge a debt, according to his value. Hence, while some account of slavery belongs with the discussion of the family, it is also a part of the section dealing with property, since the slave was a piece of property.
Rights of a slaveBut the slave had a great amount of freedom, and was in no respect worse off than a child or even a wife. He could acquire property, marry a free woman, engage in trade, and act as principal in contract with a free man. Only, his property, at his death, fell to his master. He was bound to do service without pay, though he had the right to food and drink. He could not leave his master’s service at his own will, but he might acquire enough property to buy his freedom. He was tied to one spot, not being allowed to leave the city, but might be sent anywhere at command.
Complexity of the evidence regarding slaveryHis status was, however, a complex of seeming inconsistencies. Yet it was so well understood that we rarely get any hints as to the exact details. It is only by collecting a vast mass of statements as to what actually occurred that we can deduce some idea of the actual facts. Professor Oppert in his tract, La Condition des Esclaves à Babylone, Comptes Rendues, 1888, pp. 11 ff.; and Dr. B. Meissner, in his dissertation, De Servitute Babylonico-Assyriaca, have gathered together the chief facts to be gleaned from the scattered hints in the contracts. Professor Kohler and Dr. Peiser discussed the question thoroughly in their Aus Babylonische Rechtsleben. Many articles discussing the contracts, and most of the histories touch upon the subject. We shall come back to it later under the head of Sales of Slaves. It is very difficult to disentangle facts from the mass of scattered hints, often consisting of no more than a word or two in a long document.
Its very early existenceThe institution of slavery dates back to the earliest times. We cannot in any way attempt to date its rise.
Already in the stele of Manistusu we find a slave-girl used as part of the price of land and worth thirteen shekels;1 while nine other slaves, male and female, are reckoned for one-third of a mina apiece. This remained a fair average price for a slave in Babylonia down to the time of the Persian conquest. For the variations, see later under Sales of Slaves.2 The Code shows that the slave was not free to contract except by power of attorney,3 and that it was penal to seduce him from his master’s service,4 or to harbor him when fugitive.5 It fixes a reward for his recapture,6 makes it penal to retain a recaptured slave,7 and deals with his re-escape.8 It shows that he was subject to the “levy.”9 It also determines the position of a slave-woman who bears children to her master,10 or of a slave who marries a free woman.11 In each case the children are free. It fixes the fees to be paid by the slave’s master for his cure,12 deals with injuries done to a slave,1 damages being paid to his master;2 enacts that if captured and sold abroad he must be freed, if re-patriated,3 and a native of Babylonia, otherwise he returned to his master.
Sale of slavesBy far the greatest number of references to the slave condition occur in documents relating to the sale of slaves. These may be summarized here. One peculiarity always marked the sale of a slave, it was not so irrevocable as that of a house or field. For a slave might not be all he seemed. He might be diseased, or subject to fits, he might have vices of disposition, especially a tendency to run away. A female slave might be defective in what constituted her chief attraction. Hence there was usually a stipulation that if the buyer had a legitimate cause of complaint he could return his purchase and have his money back. In fact, an undisclosed defect would invalidate the sale. These defects might be physical, inherent, contingent, or legal.
Diseases regarded as just cause for a repudiation of the contract to buy a slaveThere seems to have been a dreaded disease called the bennu. Professor Jensen4 has shown how largely it bulks in the literature, and what dire effects are ascribed to it. But it was not the only severe disease from which men suffered then. It is associated with several others as bad. Hence in legal documents we may take it as a typical example of a serious disease, which would so detract from the value of a slave that the purchaser would not keep him. It is evident that it was something that the purchaser could not detect at sight. Perhaps it was a disease which took some time to show itself. It is mentioned in the Code and in the sales of slaves of the First Dynasty of Babylon. It also occurs in Assyrian deeds of sale, down to the end of the seventh century bc The Code and the contemporary contracts allow one month within which a plea could be raised that the slave had the bennu. The purchaser could then return him and have his money back. In the Assyrian deeds one hundred days is allowed.
In the Assyrian deeds ṣibtu is also allowed a hundred days. This is often associated with bennu in the mythological texts as equally dreaded. It affected the hands or the mouth. We may render it “seizure,” and think of some form of “paralysis.”
Legal defectsThe objections which come under the head of legal defects are summed up in the Code as a bagru, or “complaint.” In the contracts and Code this could be pleaded at any time. So in Assyrian times a sartu, “a vice,” could be the ground for repudiation at any time. This might arise from the disposition of the slave. The sale might also be invalidated by a claim on him for service to the state; by a lien held by a creditor; by a claim to free citizenship. But we are not yet in a position to state definitely what was the exact nature of these claims. Doubtless the recovery of further codes will fix them finally.
In later Babylonian times Law specially provides for the return of the slave at any time, if a claim be made on him.
Assyrian usages regarding slavesIn Assyrian times sales of slaves are very frequent, and we learn much more about the status of the slave. The slave was certainly a social inferior, but probably had more freedom than any other who ever bore the name. He certainly had his own property and could contract like a free man. A young slave lived in his master’s house up to a certain age, when his master found a wife for him. This was usually a slave-girl. The female slaves remained in the house as domestic servants to old age, unless they were married to a slave. Married slaves lived in their own houses for the most part. Many such men seem to have taken up out-door work, gardening, agricultural labor, or the like, on their master’s estates. Others engaged in business on their own account. But from all the master had a certain income. This was, within a little, the average interest on the money-value of a slave. And that interest was usually twenty-five per cent. per annum in Assyria.
Right of a slave to the enjoyment of his property and familyTheoretically a master owned his slave’s property. What this ownership amounted to is hard to say. But the slave was rarely separated from it. His family at any rate was sacred. When sold, he was sold with his family. This, of course, does not exclude the sale of a young man at a time when he would naturally leave his father’s home. Young women were taken into domestic service, and after a time sold. But there was none of that tearing of children from parents, which so shocked people in the modern examples. It is probable that a slave could not marry without his master’s consent. He certainly could not live where he liked. But he was free to acquire fair wealth, and his property was so far his own that he could buy his own freedom with it.
The serfsIn Assyria there was a large body of serfs, glebae adscripti. They could be sold with the land. But they were free to work as they chose. Usually they cultivated a plot of their master’s, but often had lands and stock of their own. They were not free to move, and probably paid a rent, one or two thirds of their produce. But they were mostly on the metayer system, and could claim seed, implements, stock, and other necessary supplies from their master. This class evidently possessed privileges highly esteemed, for their ranks were recruited from all classes of artisans in the towns, cooks, brewers, gardeners, washermen, and even scribes. Some of these were probably free men, others certainly had been slaves.
Advantages of slaveryThe three classes, domestic slaves, married slaves, and serfs, were continually exchanging their condition. Not a few free men, whether from debt, judicial sentence, or choice, were added to these classes. For these men, if dependent, were cared for and provided with the necessaries of life. They were, if domestic, clothed, housed, and fed; if they married and lived out, they were given a house, and either were provided with land that brought them a living, or engaged in business.
Liability for forced laborThe army and corvée, or levy for forced labor, were chiefly obtained from the slaves, and above all from the serfs. A head of a family, or mother, was not liable. But young men and women had to serve a certain number of terms of service, seemingly six.1 Hence it was of importance to the buyer of a slave to receive a guarantee that this claim had been satisfied.
Opportunfty to acquire skill as artisansWe have many examples of slaves who were skilled artisans. They had been taught a handicraft. Later we shall come across cases of apprenticeship of slaves to learn a craft. But all the artisans were not slaves. Indeed, some of the craftsmen, as goldsmiths, silversmiths, carpenters, were wealthy persons.
The slave an independent assetAs a rule, though the slave is named, his father is not. But, just as in mediæval times, a serf’s father is named. The serf’s holding seems to have been hereditary. But we have too few examples to be sure of our ground here. The slave’s father was not concerned in the sale, and that may be the sole reason why he is not named. Fathers sometimes sold their children to be slaves, then they are named. Such sales are not so unnatural as they appear. It was a sure provision for life for a child to sell him as slave to a family in good position.
The later disappearance of the serfIn the later Babylonian times, the almost total disappearance of the serf has been noted as very remarkable. But this may be entirely due to the nature of our documents. The temples owned a great deal of land and their slaves were in the condition of serfs.
Slave salesIn later Babylonian times we have a very large number of examples of slave sales. So far as the formula of a deed of sale is concerned, there is nothing to distinguish from a sale of the ordinary type, thus marking the slave as a chattel.
Guarantees exacted in such deeds:But there are several clauses, which directly illustrate the possession of slaves, their position and liabilities. One clause, frequent when slaves were either pledged or sold, was a guarantee on the part of the owner against a number of contingencies. These are not easy to understand.
Against rebellions (?)First we have the amêlu siû. Siu means rebellion or civil war. Sennacherib was slain in such an uprising.1 It may be that then the slave would be impressed for defence of law and order. Or it may be that amêlu siû is the rebel, or mob, who might carry off the slave. Or the contingency contemplated may be that the slave should turn rebel and refuse to do his master’s bidding. The fact that a ship was also guaranteed against amêlu siû,2 renders this less likely. A ship could not turn rebel. It is not unlikely that slaves often joined in the rebellions.
Against flightThat a slave would escape by flight was always a danger. The slave had great freedom and many opportunities of getting away. The only security was that wherever he went he was likely to be recognized as a slave and anyone might recapture him. However, the captor had a right to a reward and so the owner would have to pay to get him back, besides losing his services for a time. Hence a slave who had a fancy for running away was likely to be troublesome and costly. That might lead to his being sold. But the purchaser protected himself by a guarantee on the seller’s part that the slave would not run away. Then if the slave fled and was brought back, the captor gave a receipt for the sum paid him, and the owner reclaimed it from the seller. The captor might retain the slave until he was paid.1 In other cases the seller had to recover the slave for the buyer.Against untimely death In Assyrian times the seller guaranteed also against death. Here it has been argued that the guarantee meant only that the slave had not fled or was not dead at the time of sale. This is not likely in the case of death. Surely no man could buy a slave who was dead. He would not pay, if the slave was not delivered. But he might bargain for recompense, if the slave died within a short time after purchase, as the seller might have had reason to know that he was ill.
Against unexpected claimsA guarantee was also given against the pakirânu. This is literally “the claimant.” What claim he had is not stated. When the slave was pledged, this might be a creditor to whom he had previously been pledged. But it covers all claims on the slave.2
Against over-exaction in the public serviceAnother indemnity is the arad šarrûtu, or in the case of female slaves, the amat šarrûtu. This was the status of an arad šarri, or amat šarri, king’s man or maid. The king, or state, had a right to the services of certain slaves. How long this was for, how it was discharged, and how a private person could give a guarantee against it, we do not exactly know. It may have been limited to slaves taken in war; it probably consisted in forced service; it may have been for a limited period, so that the guarantee amounted to an assurance that it was over. But it is possible that it would be compounded for, or a substitute provided. At any rate the seller held the buyer indemnified against this claim.3
Against redemption as men of familyThere was also a guarantee against mârbanûtu, the status of a mâr banû, or “son of an ancestor.” The difficulty which this raised was that, if a man was a scion of a noble family, he might be redeemed by it. The same result would follow from his being adopted. Hence some consider mâr banû to mean “adopted son.” But it does not always mean that. We have no good example of a slave being redeemed on this ground. But we know that they sometimes laid claim to be free men. This would of course involve a loss and at any rate a trouble to the owner. But we have not yet very full information on the point.
Against illegal enslavementFinally there is mentioned a claim called šušanûtu. This occurs in Persian times only1 and may be the status of a šušanu, i.e., a Susian, or one of the conquering race. Such it may have been illegal to buy or hold in slavery. But in Assyrian times an official in the service of the royal house is called šušanu. We do not yet know what his duties were, but it may be that this official was one who could be called up for service at any time and therefore was undesirable as a slave.
The branding or tattooing of slavesThe abuttu which the Code2 contemplates a mistress putting on an insolent maid and so reducing her to slavery, or which the phrase-books contemplate a master laying upon a slave, or which an adoptive parent may set on a rebellious adopted son before selling him into servitude,3 has usually been taken to be a fetter. But in the case of a man, who being sold as a slave, had escaped and was claimed by the levy-master, we find the latter saying, ellita abuttaka gullubat, “thy abuttu is clearly branded,” or tattooed. Hence it may only be a mark.
The other ways of indicating servitudeThere is frequent mention in early times of a mark upon slaves. The Code4 talks of marking a slave, but in a way that is difficult to understand. The verb usually rendered “brand” has been shown by Professor P. Jensen5 to include incised marks. Hence the penalty which was once rendered “shear his front hair” is thought to mean “brand his forehead.” The Code fixes a severe penalty for the putting of an indelible mark on a slave without his owner’s consent. This could hardly be enforced for merely giving the slave a bald forehead, like the Hebrew peôt, or like a “tonsure.” The mark borne on the forehead by Cain, or by the “sealed” in the Apocalypse, is far more to the point as a parallel. The slaves also wore little clay tablets with the name of their owner inscribed upon them. There are a number of these preserved in the Louvre. On one now in the British Museum we have this inscription: “Of the woman ipâ, who is in the hands of Sin-êresh. Sebat, eleventh year of Merodach-baladan, King of Babylon.”1 How these were attached to the slave is not very clear. But they must have been anything but an indelible mark. In the later Babylonian times we have2 a slave marked by a sign on his ears and a white mark in his eye. Both may denote natural marks.3 A more definite example is a slave “whose right hand has written upon it the name of Ina-Esagil-lilbur”;4 and another “on whose left hand was written the name of Meskitu.”5 These were the names of the owners, not of the slaves themselves. This renders it probable that the branding and the like was always an incised mark, a species of tattoo, which of course was indelible. That the same person who tattooed men should brand animals, or even shear them, is not an insuperable objection. But there is no reason to suppose that the brander ever was a sheep-shearer.
Significance of slavenamesIn respect to the names of slaves we may regard them with some interest as helping to determine the sources from which slaves were recruited. Some bear good Babylonian names, and perhaps when the father’s name is also Babylonian we may conclude that they had been born free, but were either sold into slavery by the head of the family, or, having once been adopted, had been repudiated and reduced to slavery again, or had been sold for debt. We have examples of all such cases. A father and mother sold their son;1 a mother who had adopted two girls repudiated them again;2 a brother gave a younger brother as a pledge.3
Foreignborn slavesWhen the slave’s name is not Babylonian or Assyrian, a foreign nationality is nearly certain. These names are very valuable when they can be assigned to their nationalities, as confirming the historical claims of the kings to conquest. Sometimes they are actual gentile names, as Miṣirai, “Egyptian,” Tubalai, “man from Tubal.” But many may have been directly purchased abroad and sold to Babylonians. A great many foreign slaves doubtless received native names. Thus an Egyptian woman was called Nanâittîa.4 Some of the names of slaves are true Babylonian, but of a rare and odd form, which has caused some to imagine them to be foreign. But this is not necessary. Servants are often renamed after the families to which they belong, and finally become known by names which were never theirs. Masters seem sometimes to have given their own names to slaves. Their names are often contracted,5 and some even appear to have had two.6
Various methods of making slavesThe slaves were not only captives taken in war, but were bought abroad, and not a few were reduced to that condition from being freeborn citizens. Slavery awaited the rebellious child or the contentious wife. But it was not allowed by the Code for a man to sell his maid outright, who had borne him children. And if he sold his wife or child to pay a debt, the buyer could not keep them beyond a certain time. But in all periods parents sold their children, and there does not seem to be any clause demanding any future release.
A slave’s right to hold and use propertyThe slave had private property which was secured to him. He paid a sort of rent for it. This was an annual fixed sum called his mandattu, the same word as for the tribute of a prince to his overlord. In the case of a female slave this was twelve shekels per annum. Further, he paid a percentage on his profits.1 The slave might hold another slave as pledge, lend money, and enter into business relations with another slave even of the same house. He might borrow money of another slave. Hence he was very free to do business. But when he entered into business relations with another master’s slave, or a free man, he sometimes met with a difficulty. He seemingly could not enforce his own rights against a free man. At any rate, we find that in such cases his master assumed the liability and pleaded for him. In fact, the master had to acknowledge his undertakings, though he did not guarantee them. Subject to this protection from his master, the slave was free to engage in commerce. He lent to free men, entered into partnership, and owned a scribe.
A slave’s evidence not good against a free manHere is an example illustrating one of the above points.2 had taken a loan of L. His master, A, became aware of it and guaranteed its repayment. He then put into L’s hands as his pledge to pay it off. Now, A died, and his son, , sells to C, as part of his own property. But L still holds possession of S. C demands from L. L says “Not until my money is paid off. If C will do this he may have S. But until he can prove that it has been done he cannot have S.” The proof probably lay in B’s hands, if he had preserved it from his father A’s records. Delay is granted for C to produce the proof that has worked off the debt. It is clear that the evidence of was not admitted on this point.
A slave’s value proportioned to his producing powerThat in the case of some slaves their value to their master consisted in their mandattu is clear from the fact when a master sold a slave and did not at once hand him over, the seller had to pay a proportional amount of this fee to the buyer.1 Of course, in transferring a slave to another owner, the seller could not separate him from his property. That was his own. A slave who had acquired a fair amount of wealth, or was earning well in trade, would produce a higher income to his master and sell for more. What was sold then, was an interest, the master’s, in his slave’s work. Hence prices varied very much. We are not always able to see what was the reason of the high price, but it was evident then to those who made the bargain. An average price in the later Babylonian era seems to have been twenty shekels, the interest on which at the usual twenty per cent. would be four shekels. This, then, was the annual value of a slave above his keep. If the keep amounted to about eight shekels per annum, that gives the value of a slave’s work as twelve shekels yearly. This is what an unskilled slave was worth to his master. If, then, a man married a slave-girl, he ought to pay her master about twelve shekels a year for his loss of her services. Of course, the master retained his right over her, but it seems to have been a tacit understanding that he could not sell her away from her husband. So really what he sold was, after all, only a right to income from her husband of twelve shekels a year. The children were also his born slaves, if the father was his slave. We do not know how matters would be arranged if the man was slave to one master, the wife to another. Probably this was provided against by the master giving his slave a wife from his own maids, or buying a slave-girl as wife for him.
The history of the slave Bariki-iluIt occasionally happens that we can trace the history of a particular slave for some time. Thus, Bariki-ilu was pledged for twenty-eight shekels to Ainûri, in the thirty-fifth year of Nebuchadrezzar.2 In the next year we find him in the possession of Piru, his wife Gagâ, and a cousin Zirîa. What they gave for him does not appear. But they now sold him for twenty-three shekels to Nabû-zêr-ukîn. He must have fled from his new master, for four years later, the same three people pledged him.1 But he seems to have been unsatisfactory as a pledge. For next, we find that Gagâ’s daughter (Piru having probably died), being about to be married to Iddin-aplu, this slave was set down as part of her marriage-portion. She gave him over to her husband and his son. In their possession he remained awhile, but on the death of his mistress, was handed over to the great banker, Itti-Marduk-balâṭu. These events, extending from the thirty-fifth year of Nebuchadrezzar to the seventh year of Nabonidus, were all put in evidence when Bariki-ilu tried later to prove that he was a free man. He pretended to be the adopted son of Bêl-rimâni. He had to confess that he had twice run away from his master and had been many days in hiding. Then he was afraid and pretended to have been an adopted son. This, if proved, would have freed him. But he confessed that it was a pretence, and had to return to his servitude. The case was decided in the tenth year of Nabonidus.
A runaway slave not always returnableIt seems clear that when a slave ran away to his old owners, they did not always deliver him up again to the man who bought him of them. They probably had to return the purchase-money. The buyer probably would not accept him again.
Apprenticing slaves to a tradeOne feature which the later Babylonian contracts show us for the first time, but which probably was always in force, is the apprenticing of slaves to a trade. Instances of this are fairly numerous. The person to whom the slave was apprenticed was usually a slave himself. The teacher was bound to teach the trade thoroughly. The owner of the slave gave him up to the teacher for a fixed term of years, differing for different trades. He had to furnish a daily allowance of food and a regular supply of clothing. At the end of the term, the slave might remain with his teacher on payment of a fixed mandattu or income to the owner. Penalties were fixed for neglecting to teach him properly. The trades named are weaving, five years’ term;1 baking, a year and a quarter;2 stone-cutting, four years;3 fulling, six years;4 besides others not yet recognized.
Fee paid by serviceThe teacher had no fee, but only the apprentice’s work for his trouble. The owner was therefore bound to allow the apprentice to remain a fair time.
Relative proportion of slaves to free menA question of considerable interest which needs to be worked out is the relative number of slaves in the population. In early times the impression one gets is that they were few. Even in the time of the First Dynasty of Babylon, the evidence at the disposal of Dr. Meissner in 1892 did not allow him to exceed four as the number in the possession of one man at a time. But since then further evidence is available. Thus we read of twelve slaves at once, seven males and five females, given by a father to his daughter, at Sippara.5 In Assyrian times the number in an average household rarely exceeds one or two, but we have as many as thirty mentioned at one time.6 So in later times there are generally only one or two in a household, but the number is occasionally much more.
Price of a slaveAs to the value of a slave, we have in very early times an average set down as twenty shekels, with examples as low as thirteen shekels. In the time of the Second Dynasty prices varied from as low as four and a half shekels for a maid, or ten shekels for a man, up to eighty-four shekels.7 The Code estimates the average value of a slave as twenty shekels.1 In Assyrian times the price of a single male slave varies from twenty to one hundred and thirty shekels, but the usual price is thirty shekels. A female slave could be had for as little as two and a half shekels, but might cost as much as ninety shekels. A common price was thirty shekels. In later Babylonian times also, prices vary widely, but the commonest price and usual pledge-value was twenty shekels.
[1 ] , ii., p. 25.
[2 ] Chapter XXII.
[3 ] § .
[4 ] § .
[5 ] § .
[6 ] § .
[7 ] § .
[8 ] § .
[9 ] § .
[10 ] § .
[11 ] § .
[12 ] §§ , .
[1 ] § 99.
[2 ] Cf. § .
[3 ] § .
[4 ] , vi., p. 389.
[1 ] See Assyrian Doomsday Book, p. 24.
[1 ] , ii., p. 282.
[2 ] 310, 201.
[1 ] , iii., p. 86.
[2 ] 146.
[3 ] 146; 15.
[1 ] 212.
[2 ] § 103.
[3 ] M. A. P., 95.
[4 ] § .
[5 ] , vi., p. 377.
[1 ] K. 3787 , iv., p. 166 f.
[2 ] 291.
[3 ]De serv., p. 20.
[4 ] 83, p. 104.
[5 ] 84, p. 102.
[1 ] 70.
[2 ] 625.
[3 ] 311.
[4 ] 334.
[5 ] 697.
[6 ] , iii., 135.
[1 ] , i., pp. 1 ff.
[2 ] Nbn., 738.
[1 ] Nbn. 573.
[2 ] , iii., p. 87.
[1 ] 408.
[1 ] 64.
[2 ] 248.
[3 ] 325.
[4 ] 313.
[5 ] S. 10.
[6 ] , No. 424.
[7 ] M. A. P., p. 7.
[1 ] § .