Front Page Titles (by Subject) XXVII: THE LAWS OF TRADE - Babylonian and Assyrian Laws, Contracts and Letters
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XXVII: THE LAWS OF TRADE - 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 LAWS OF TRADE
The fittingout of traders by capitalists a very early practiceThe oldest form of business in Asiatic life is commenda: the commendatist gives a fixed sum of money to the agent with which he does his business. The former takes a fixed share of the profit, say half, in addition to the original sum invested. The agent usually secures guarantees for the capital. This method of carrying on business is customary in the early times. The Code regulates the relations between principal and agent. The former is called tamkaru, usually rendered “merchant,” and the latter is šsamallû, often rendered “apprentice.” The merchant is, however, a trader in many ways, and in the Code he is usually named, where we expect lender or creditor. Hence there is little doubt that his name is derived from magâru, or makâru, with a meaning “to traffic” (?). He seems to have been a monied man, who was ready to make to cultivators advances on their crops—a practice always liable to great abuses, which the Code aims to check.
The agent repaid the value of the outfit with interestThe merchant principal also furnished goods, among which are mentioned corn, sesame, oil, wool, wine, and manufactured articles. The agent did the trading, and regularly rendered his accounts to his principal. He travelled from place to place to find a market for his goods, or to make purchases, which could be profitably sold at home. The principal paid no salary, but received again his capital, or the value of his goods, and an interest or share of the profit. It is clear that the merchant also moved from place to place, and there is evidence that many of them were foreigners. The travelling agents with their goods formed the caravan.
Legal memoranda essential as securityThis kind of trading was regulated by the Code.1 Unfortunately, the opening sections of the part dealing with the relations of principal and agent are lost; but from what is left we see that it insisted on exact accounts being taken, on both sides, of the amounts of money or value of goods thus invested. If the merchant intrusted money to his agent, he was to take a receipt for it. If the agent received goods, he was to enter their money value and obtain his principal’s acknowledgment of the amount of his debt. If he suffered loss of goods from his caravan by bandits, or in an enemy’s land, he could swear to his loss, and be exempt from repayment to his principal. But if he did not prosper in his business, or sold at a loss, he had to make good the capital, at least, to his principal. The Code leaves nothing to chance. If the agent is foolish enough not to obtain a sealed memorandum of the amounts received, or a receipt for what he pays to his principal, it is enacted that money not sealed for cannot be put in the accounts. Much was clearly left to the good faith of the agent. The principal was tolerably secure of receiving back his money and had hope of profit. Against that he had to set possible loss by robbery of the caravan. But he was not bound again to employ the same agent. An agent detected defrauding his principal had to pay threefold. But it speaks well for the Code as protector of the weak that it made the capitalist who defrauded the agent repay sixfold.
This business done mainly by caravansFrom the contemporary documents we learn that the name for the business was girru. That this was also the name for an “expedition,” warlike as well as peaceable, points to its connection with the caravan trade. The sign for girru, also used for arrânu, a “journey,” came in later times to be used for all kinds of business transactions. That the relations noted in the Code actually were carried out in practice, many tablets show. Thus we read:
One shekel of silver, price of one hundred and eighty še, and three shekels of silver which Zuzana lent Aplâ son of Edishu, for five years, to enter on his girru. He shall pay one hundred and eighty še and three shekels of silver to take back his sealed receipt.1
Here the capital intrusted was a quantity of corn worth a shekel, and three shekels in money. This was in order to enter on a business journey. The agent Aplâ had to return the capital in full, as the Code enacts, to take back his bond. There is no agreement as to profits, which might be wanting; that was left to be understood. As a rule, the time was shorter, generally “one year.” The agent appears to have often borne the name of muttalliku, “one who wanders about,” “a hawker.” The same may be denoted by a-me-zu-ab, a group of signs whose reading is not yet clear, but may be a variant of the ideogram for šamallû.
Speculation not unknownBusiness was also done, as the Code shows, as speculation in futures. Thus2 we read:
Sibbat-asê-iddina hired as “business” the produce of a field from three men. The produce of the business was to be three and seven-fifteenths gur of corn, according to the standard measure of Shamash paid in Kar-Sippar, and one shekel was to be profit.
This was what he had to pay, and evidently, if the crop yielded more, that was his profit; if less, he had to stand the loss. Similarly, other crops were let on the terms that at harvest, or at the end of the “business,” a specified amount should be paid.
Caravan tradeWe learn from many hints, that caravan trade was always active. The name of arran in Mesopotamia is supposed to be derived from the numerous caravan routes that crossed there. The Tell el Amarna tablets tell us of the complaints made by the kings of Babylonia of the robbery of caravans in districts nominally under the control of Egypt.
These dealings frequent in later timesIn the more private documents of the later Babylonian times, there is again plentiful evidence that this form of trade was common. The money was loaned out “to buy and sell.” It was given ana arrânu, “for hawking trade.” Then whatever profit was made upon the money, the agent “will give” to the principal. The agent binds himself to undertake no other agency. He gives a guarantee for the money. The principal had no further responsibility for the business, and would not meet any further call. It is obvious that in a sense the principal and agent were partners, and many transactions in later times are difficult to distinguish from cases of partnership in the ordinary sense.
Importance of the canals for commerceIt has long been recognized that the canals controlled the prosperity of the country, but it is only lately that their importance as waterways has been fully realized. In the early period we read of flour sent by ship to Nippur for certain officials.1
Navigation laws for shipping of great number and varietyThe Code has much to say about ships. Temples owned them, as well as private persons. It was a crime, punishable with death, to steal a ship.2 We read of fees for building or navigating various ships.3 The responsibilities and damages in collisions and wrecks are apportioned.4 A shipowner might hire a captain to navigate a ship for him, or might hire the captain and ship together. The usual freight included corn, wool, oil, and dates, but many other things were also carried. The wages of a captain was six gur of corn yearly. There are frequent references to ships in the contemporary letters.5 They were named according to their carrying capacity, which was five or more gur. A ship of seventy-five gur is named. They carried wood, for King ammurabi ordered seven thousand two hundred pieces of abba wood to be brought to Babylon, three hundred pieces in a ship. A number of boat captains or perhaps shipping agents were ordered to proceed from Larsa to Babylon and arrive with their ships in Adar. He gave orders for the furnishing of the crews. We further have a correspondence concerning the invasion of certain fishing rights by boats from another district. In the contemporary contracts we meet with several long lists of ships divided into little groups, of five, six, or seven, each with its captain named, each group under a head captain, all set down as at anchor at the port of Shamash, or the like.1 There is a case of the hire of a boat of six gur freight by two persons for two months.2
In Assyrian tabletsIn Assyria, canals served chiefly for water-supply. Except when the Assyrian kings went outside their own lands to Babylonia or Mesopotamia, we hardly read of ships. Sennacherib’s ships were built abroad and served abroad. There is no hint of their ever coming up to the walls of Nineveh. The contracts only once mention a ship3 in which booty was brought from somewhere.
Boat hire a regular stipulation in BabyloniaIn the later Babylonian times there are many references to the hire of boats and their crews. They appear to be a regular conveyance of goods:4
One shekel and a quarter of silver for the hire of a ship which brought three oxen and twenty-four sheep from the king’s son [Belshazzar], for Shamash and the gods of Sippara. Further, fifty a of dates for the rations of the two boatmen.
Thus the receiver paid carriage and expenses. The daily hire of a boat is now one shekel, and the wages of the crew amount to half as much.1 A boat might be bought for twenty shekels or half a mina.2 The wages of the boatmen included corn, dates, salt, and onions. The freight was exceedingly varied as before. One boat appears to have carried fresh meat.3
The maintenance of roadsThere are less obvious references to roads in the literature; but that they were in excellent condition has been conjectured from the many evidences of postal service and ready carriage even in early times. Convoys travelled from Agade to Lagash as early as the time of Sargon I.4 Innumerable labels are found on lumps of clay with the name and address of the consignee. These were attached to consignments of money and goods.
A regular tariff for land-transportationThe Code contemplates consignments being sent from a great distance, even from abroad.5 It regulates the charges for a wagon, with oxen and driver,6 or a wagon alone.7 There are several cases in the contracts of the hire of wagons, for varied prices per year, one-third of a shekel8 to twelve shekels;9 but it is not certain that these were for conveyance from place to place. They may have been for agricultural purposes only. The usual means of conveyance seems to have been by asses.
Roads in Assyria of prime importanceIn Assyrian times we find it part of the duty of a founder of a city to open up the roads leading to it.10 The land was intersected with roads in all directions, so that a field often had two roads as its boundaries. The whole plain outside Nineveh was cut up by roads, which here take the place of the canals of Babylonia. In this period we find horses and camels in use as beasts of burden as well as the asses.
[1 ] §§ 100-107.
[1 ] 549.
[2 ] 110.
[1 ] E. A. H., 27.
[2 ] § .
[3 ] § .
[4 ] §§ , .
[5 ] , passim.
[1 ] S. 160.
[2 ] S. 244.
[3 ] , No. 468.
[4 ] 401.
[1 ] 1019.
[2 ] 180.
[3 ] 343.
[4 ] , p. xxi.
[5 ] § .
[6 ] § .
[7 ] § .
[8 ] 564.
[9 ] S. 572.
[10 ] , vi., p. 106.