Front Page Titles (by Subject) II: THE LETTERS OF AMMURABI - Babylonian and Assyrian Laws, Contracts and Letters
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II: THE LETTERS OF AMMURABI - 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 LETTERS OF AMMURABI
Great historical value of this collectionThe letters of ammurabi are by far the most important collection of letters hitherto published for the period of the First Dynasty of Babylon. They had a certain adventitious value at one time, because one of them was thought to contain the name of Chedorlaomer, and this association with ammurabi, as Amraphel, was exploited in the interests of a defence of the historical value of Genesis xiv. Mr. L. W. King’s edition of the letters, however, showed that such a use was unwarranted. But it served a much more useful end, giving us a very full picture of the times of the founder of the First Babylonian Empire. The excellent account given by Mr. King of the contents of these letters is fairly exhaustive. The importance of such sources for history cannot be overestimated. They are contemporary. They are not written to impress posterity, but with absolute fidelity to fact. We may disbelieve some of the excuses made for misconduct, but in the references to current events or general customs we have a sure witness, if only we can understand them. This is often difficult because a letter presupposes relations between the correspondents which we must conjecture.
The letters to Sin-iddinamSince Mr. King’s introduction to his first volume gives a full account of the few letters previously published, this need not be reproduced here. Of ammurabi’s letters fifty-three are addressed to one and the same man, Sin-iddinam. It is doubtful whether he was the King of Larsa who bore this name, or the official who in the next reign seems to be Governor of Sippara. There are many persons who bore this name known at this period. However, several mentions of the temple of Shamash at Larsa occur in these letters and there is a certain presumption that Sin-iddinam of Larsa was the person intended.
ammurabi as an administratorammurabi’s ability as an administrator, which these letters reveal, and his care even for small details of his rule, may well be the reason why his empire proved so stable. He established a tradition which was long followed by his successors. He organized his land, appointed governors, and held them responsible to himself. He had a direct interest in their doings and sent minute written instructions, demanding reports, summoning defaulters to his presence, or directing their punishment where they were. The dates for his reign, as for others of the dynasty, show, not only raids and conquests, but chiefly public works of utility. The construction or repair of canals, public buildings, temples, the ordering of justice, are works that repaid his care.
His care for the revenues of the templesammurabi was a man of many business enterprises. The collection of the temple revenues was an object of his attention. There is no evidence that these were available for his use, but he had a personal interest in all that was right and just. To him the herdsmen and shepherds of the temple flocks and herds had to report. He often appears as restoring, rebuilding, or adorning shrines, and he was careful of his religious duties. Thus he postponed a case because of a festival at Ur, which he seems to have found demanded the presence of one of the parties.
The ordering of the calendarHe had to settle important questions concerning the calendar; whether or not reports of astronomical observations were then received is not clear, but at any rate the king decided when the intercalary months should be inserted. Thus he told Sin-iddinam there was to be a second Elul.
His supervision of justiceThe administration of justice was also no small part of his work. Not only did he promulgate a code, but he also superintended its execution. There was a right of appeal to his judgment. He actively supervised his judges in the provinces. Thus a case of bribery was reported from Dûrgurgurri and he instructed Sin-iddinam to investigate the case and send the guilty parties to Babylon for punishment. He upheld a merchant’s claim against a city governor, for the recovery of a loan. He protected the landowners against money-lenders. He examined claims to land and sent instructions to Sin-iddinam to carry out his decision. Thefts of corn, loans withheld, rents, were adjudicated by him. He summoned not only the parties, but the witnesses, to Babylon. Prisoners were sent under escort, and arrests ordered.
His private propertyThe king’s own herds and flocks were a personal care to him. They were stationed in various parts of the country. He received reports about them, or sent inspectors to report upon them. On one occasion he summoned forty-seven shepherds to come and report to him in Babylon. He ordered additional shearers to assist those already at work. He regulated supplies of wood, dates, seed, and corn. These were often sent by ship, and there is evidence of a large number of ships being employed, of varied capacities.
His building enterprisesPublic buildings demanded large gangs of workmen. They were drawn from the slave and serf population. A great many letters are concerned with the supply and movements of these laborers. Whether forced labor was inflicted as a punishment may be doubted. But the corvée was in full operation. The hire of laborers is referred to, and it is probable that the forced laborers were fed and clothed at the expense of the state. Thus we see that ammurabi was a busy man and worked hard to build up his empire. His successors, though we have fewer of their letters, seem to have been fully as active.
The return of the goddesses of Emutbal to their homesIt is not easy to select specimens for this period. Each letter has an interest of its own, and it is tempting to include most of them. But we may take the two letters referring to the goddesses of Emutbal, because one of them by a series of misreadings and misunderstandings was made to contain the famous reference to Chedorlaomer. The first1 may be rendered.
To Sin-iddinam say, thus saith ammurabi: Now I am sending Zikir-ilishu, the ab-ab-ul, and ammurabi-banî, the du-gab, to bring the goddesses of Emutbal. Do thou forthwith embark the goddesses in a procession-boat (state barge) and let them come to Babylon. Let the hierodules come with them. For the sustenance of the goddesses embark food, drink, sheep, ship’s furniture, and travelling expenses for the hierodules, until they reach Babylon. Appoint men to draw the ropes, and biru men, that the goddesses may come safely to Babylon. Let them not delay but come quickly to Babylon.
The date of their captureThese goddesses were very likely captured during an expedition to Emutbal which was a border province of Elam. It is natural to associate this with the thirty-first year of ammurabi, for which the full date is:
“The year of ammurabi, the king, in which by the help of Anu and Bêl he established his good fortune, and his hand cast to the earth the land of Iamutbal and Rim-Sin, the king.”2
The transport of the goddesses was made possible by the system of canals. Intercommunication was in an excellent state, for ammurabi ordered a man to be sent to Babylon from Larsa, and allowed him two days, travelling day and night. The hierodules are the female attendants of the goddesses. The officers whom ammurabi sent bear titles not yet clearly recognized. The name ammurabi-banî points to a deification of the king. Whether the goddesses reached Babylon and there brought misfortune on the country and so were sent back again, or whether their restoration to their shrines in Emutbal was part of the king’s policy for a pacification of the conquered country, does not appear. But we read in another letter:1
“To Sin-iddinam say, thus saith ammurabi: The goddesses of Emutbal, which are in thy command, the troops of Inusamar shall bring safely to thee. When they shall reach thee, combine the troops with those in thy hands and restore the goddesses to their shrines.”
The construction of the passage seems to imply that the goddesses had protected Inu-samar. The latter was in command of troops that were within Sin-iddinam’s jurisdiction; for when Sin-mâgir complained to ammurabi that Inusamar had impressed some of his servants for military service contrary to a bond given him by the king, ammurabi referred the matter to Sin-iddinam, ordering the servant to be given up.2 It was this name Inu-samar that Scheil misread as Kudur-nû-gamar.
The care of the canalsA number of letters concern the canals of the country. Thus we read:3
“To Sin-iddinam say, thus saith ammurabi: Summon the people who hold fields on the side of the Damanu canal, that they may scour the Damanu canal. Within this present month let them finish scouring the Damanu canal.”
Here we are introduced to the duty which lay upon riparians to keep the canals running alongside their land in order. This was part of the ilku, or customary obligation. It lay with the governor to enforce it. In another letter4 the king complains that a canal which had been partly cleared had not been cleared as far as Erech, and so the boats could not enter that city. Here Sin-iddinam was ordered to do the work with the men at his disposal and complete it in three days. After that he was to go on with the work he had already been ordered to do. In another fragmentary letter the king orders the clearing away of the water-plants which had obstructed the course of the Euphrates between Ur and Larsa. One is reminded of the sudd on the Nile.1
A case of briberyThe case of bribery is referred to in a way that leaves it rather doubtful whether a theft may not be meant. The meaning of the word rendered “bribe” by King is unknown, and his identification of tâtu with da’tu is not certain. But at any rate the wrong was brought under the cognizance of ammurabi, and he writes:2
To Sin-iddinam say, thus saith ammurabi: Shumma-ilu-lâ-ilu saith thus, so saith he, “In Dûr-gurgurri bribery has taken place. The people who took the bribe and the witnesses who know the affair are here.” Thus he saith. Now I will send this same Shumma-ilu-lâilu, a du-gab and a . . . to thee. When this letter is seen inquire into the matter. If there is bribery, take the money, or what was given as a bribe, seal it up and send to my presence. The people that received the bribe, and the witnesses who know the case, whom Shumma-ilu-lâ-ilu will disclose, send to me.
A case of oppression redressedA case of oppression by a governor is complained of, and redressed by the king. He writes:3
To Sin-iddinam say, thus saith ammurabi: Lalu, the kadurru, hath informed me thus, saith he, “Ani-ellati, the governor rabiânu, has laid claim to [alienated] the field which I have held since . . . and [taken] the corn of the field.” Thus he hath informed me. The tablet can be seen in the palace. Lalu holds two gan of land. Why has Ani-ellati, the governor, laid claim to Lalu’s field? Inquire into the matter. If Ani-ellati has lent on mortgage to Lalu, the kadurru, grant him his debt and lay the blame on Ani-ellati, who lent on pledge.
It is clear that Lalu was one of those privileged officials who held lands by royal charter, and who could not be dispossessed of their land. The Code directs1 that a governor shall not lend on mortgage to a reeve or runner or tributary, under pain of death. Although a kadurru is not there named, this letter makes it probable he was similarly protected. It is interesting to notice where the record was to be found. The palace, or “great house,” was the residence of the governor. The tablet probably recorded the appointment of Lalu to his benefice; it therefore was his title-deed.The depository for deeds An interesting question may be raised here. Did ammurabi mean in his own palace? It may be so, for he writes in another letter:2
To Sin-iddinam say, thus saith ammurabi: One gan of water-meadow, a field in the district of Dûr-gurgurri is an old possession of Ea-lubanî. In a tablet it is inscribed as his. Give the field to Ea-lubanî.
Now how could ammurabi know this unless the tablet had been shown to him? Perhaps the claimant brought his tablet with him when he came to lay his plea before the king. That is quite possible, but it may well be that the king insisted that all title-deeds be deposited in the capital.
Restitutions orderedAn order for the restoration of stolen corn appears in another letter:3
To Sin-iddinam say, thus saith ammurabi: Ṭummumu of Nippur hath informed me thus, saith he, “I deposited seventy gur of corn in a granary in Unabu and Amêl-ili has opened the granary and taken the corn.” Thus he hath informed me. Now I will send Ṭummumu himself to thee. Send and let them bring Amêlili to thee. See what they have to say. The corn belonging to Ṭummumu which Amêl-ili took let him return to Ṭummumu.
Another letter reads thus:1
To Sin-iddinam say, thus saith ammurabi: Ilushu-iḳîsh, the merchant, over five, has informed me thus, saith he, “Thirty gur of corn I gave to Sin-mâgir, the Šakkanak, and I took his receipt. I have asked for it for three years and he has not given back the corn.” Thus hath he informed me. I have seen his receipt. Cause Sin-mâgir to give up the corn and its interest and give it to Ilu-shu-iḳîsh.
The title “over five” seems to be meant literally. He was a superior merchant. Like many another hint, this speaks for the strict organization of each class of the community. The Šakkanak was usually the superior official, “governor,” of a city, or of a ward of a city. We are not told what was Sin-mâgir’s district. But it was under Sin-iddinam’s rule. In other letters we read of a Sin-mâgir being sent to Babylon.2 Perhaps he refused to give up the corn.
Another letter illustrates the incidence of taxes and the relations of landlord and tenant:3
About taxesTo Sin-iddinam say, thus saith ammurabi: As to what I sent to thee about the corn that is the tax on the field of Ibni-Martu, which is in the hands of Etil-bi-Marduk, to be given to Ibni-Martu; thou didst say, “Etil-bi-Marduk hath said thus, saith he, ‘I have cultivated another field together with the field of Ibni-Martu, and the corn is all garnered in one place, let them declare on oath before God how much corn was from the field of Ibni-Martu and let them take the tax.’ Thus he said. But Ibni-Martu did not agree. Saith he, ‘Without Ibni-Martu one can do nothing.’ Thus he said, and went away.” As to what thou didst send, “the corn, as much as was in his field, should be declared before God and the tax given him.” As thou didst send, let them declare before God how much corn was in the field of Ibni-Martu, and pay Ibni-Martu the corn that is the tax on his field.
The case is not quite clear, but Ibni-Martu owed a tax on his field. He had either mortgaged or let his field to another. This tenant had not given him the corn to pay the tax and excused himself on the ground that the produce of the field was now mixed up with that of another field. Hence he could not say how much the tax should be; clearly it was proportionate to the yield. The method of solving the difficulty was that a sworn estimate had to be taken from competent witnesses and the tax levied on that basis. This course was recommended by Sin-iddinam in a previous report on the situation. The amount was to be given to the landlord, who then had to pay the tax. He clearly had no rent in corn from the land; but he could not sell or mortgage his crop except subject to the tax. The mortgagee was liable for the tax and the owner was bound to pay. The mortgagee must furnish him the means to do so; he had no right to claim the part of the crop due as tax, whatever bargain he had made with the owner of the land.
Commerce under strict control by the StateWhile agriculture was in the hands of free men who only paid on produce, there are indications that commerce was very strictly controlled by the State. The merchant was the only money-lender as a rule. He also seems to have acted as contractor, or farmer of taxes. The merchant, or factor, was under the king’s protection and also directly responsible to him. Hence some have regarded him as a royal official. But this is hardly correct. He was to ammurabi what the Jew of the Middle Ages was to the king then, or the Stock Exchange or Bourse is now. Probably we should not be far wrong in applying to him the term “publican,” in the New Testament sense. He owed a certain amount to the treasury, which he recouped from the taxes due from the district for which he contracted.The collection of taxes If he did not secure enough, he had to make up the deficit. The following letter1 deals with what was probably common, namely, an evident reluctance on the part of such officials to settle accounts:
To Sin-iddinam say, thus ammurabi: Concerning the chief collector, Shêp-Sin, I wrote to thee, saying, “send him with one thousand eight hundred gur of sesame and nineteen minas of silver, due from him, as well as Sin-mushtal, the chief collector, with eighteen hundred gur of sesame and seven minas of silver, due from him, send them to Babylon, and send with them the market rates (?) . . . ” But thou didst say that these chief collectors had said, “Just now is harvest-time, after harvest we will go.” Thus they said, and thou didst tell me. Now the harvest is over. On receipt of this tablet, when I have sent to thee, send Shêp-Sin, the chief collector, with one thousand eight hundred gur of sesame and nineteen minas of silver, his due, and Sin-mushtal, the chief collector, with one thousand eight hundred gur of sesame and seven minas of silver, his due, to Babylon; and with them thy trustworthy guard, and with all their property let them come and appear before me.
The title which I have rendered “chief collector” may be read “scribe of the merchants.” The sign pa, read aklu, does in some of its connections mean “scribe,” as tamkaru does mean “merchant.” But the sign often denotes merely an overseer. Hence we may take it that this was the derived meaning. The reason may well be that over a group of shepherds or merchants, one was always set who could keep accounts. Hence the term aklu, properly a “scribe,” came to be an “overseer.” Such a high official as the paMartu would be the Superintendent of Martu. The person referred to in this letter, Shêp-Sin, occurs also in two other letters of ammurabi.1 In one, Sin-iddinam is told to send him to Babylon with money; in the other, he complains of not being able to collect money due to a temple, and having to make up the deficit himself.
Illegal impressment for public serviceThe officials who were under obligation to furnish men for public work and the army, doubtless often found a difficulty in making up their quota, and impressed men who were not strictly liable for duty. Such men as those called kadur, kapar, mu, patesi, are named on the letters as exempt from the service. But even this is not conclusive. They are not exempted because they are of these ranks, but because they have been wrongly assigned to the service. Their masters may have been exempt from the liability to furnish a man; or already engaged in royal service. Slaves and poor men were subject, as we know from the Code. Here is one of the letters on the question:1
To Sin-iddinam say, thus saith ammurabi: Naram-Sin, the shepherd, hath said thus, saith he, “The herdsmen in my hands have been put in the corvée.” Thus he said. The herdsmen which are the property of Apil-Shamash and Naram-Sin shall not be put in the corvée. Now summon Etil-bi-Marduk and the officials and order them to return the herdsmen of Apil-Shamash and Naram-Sin, whom they have taken.
Here the kabar, or herdsmen, are the employees of the shepherd, his “sheep-boys.” Their absence would be a danger to the flocks. The delinquent Etil-bi-Marduk was often in fault. Several other complaints against him appear in the letters, in his capacity of money-lender.2 On two occasions he was sent for by the king, evidently with a view to punishment. Further, a patêsi in his service appealed to be transferred to another master.3
[1 ] , No. 34.
[2 ] , iii., p. 237.
[1 ] , No. 45.
[2 ] , No. 26.
[3 ] , No. 71.
[4 ] , No. 5.
[1 ] , No. 4.
[2 ] , No. 11.
[3 ] , No. 6.
[1 ] § .
[2 ] , No. 76.
[3 ] , No. 12.
[1 ] , No. 24.
[2 ] , Nos. 13, 41.
[3 ] , No. 28.
[1 ] , No. 33.
[1 ] , Nos. 16, 30.
[1 ] , No. 3.
[2 ] , Nos. 18, 30, 73.
[3 ] , No. 38.