Front Page Titles (by Subject) IV: PRIVATE LETTERS OF THE FIRST DYNASTY OF BABYLON - Babylonian and Assyrian Laws, Contracts and Letters
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IV: PRIVATE LETTERS OF THE FIRST DYNASTY OF BABYLON - 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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PRIVATE LETTERS OF THE FIRST DYNASTY OF BABYLON
Many details uncertainIn these cases, as a rule, we know neither the sender nor receiver, beyond their names, and what we can gather from the letter itself. Hence a great deal must always remain uncertain. Here is a letter which comes from a prisoner, who says he is nearly starved and does not know why he was imprisoned:1
A prisoner’s plea to his master for deliveranceTo my lord say, thus saith Bêlshunu, thy servant: From the time that I was shut up in the house of the abarakku, thou, my lord, hast kept me alive. What is the reason that my lord has neglected me for five months? The house where I am imprisoned is a starvation-house. Now have I made the jailer carry a letter to my lord. When thou, my lord, shalt make an end of my misery, send, and the imprisonment, since it has been ended by thee, I will cause to conduce to thy blessing (I will even thank thee for). I am ill . . . ten a of su-da, thirty-one a zag-i-li . . . two a sar-sar el-sar send me that I die not; and clothing send me that I may cover my nakedness. A ubidu has come upon me on account of thee, my lord. Either half a shekel of silver, or two minas of wool, send to me, for my service, let him bring it. Let not the jailer be sent away empty-handed. If he comes empty-handed, the dogs may eat me. As thou, my lord, and the people of Sippara and Babylon, all of them know, I am imprisoned, not for robbery, nor was I caught at burglary. Thou, my lord, didst send me with oil across the river, but the Sutû fell upon me and I was imprisoned. Speak a friendly word to the servants of the king’s abarakku. Send, that I die not in the house of misery. Send a a of oil and five a of salt. That which thou didst lately send no one gave me. Whatsoever thou sendest, send it fastened up (?).
There are many obscurities about this letter. Some are caused by the difficulty of reading the defaced characters. Some by the fact that the signs, printed here in capitals, are ideograms whose meaning is not yet clear. The prisoner, if his plea is true, was sent on an errand for his master, apparently to trade for him. He was either robbed by the nomad Sutû, or compelled to give up his oil to them. Why this led to imprisonment is not clear, unless it was regarded as furnishing supplies to the enemy. But though his master did not get him out of prison, it seems that he had sent him supplies from time to time. The word rendered “jailer” is perhaps a name, Mâr-abulli, “son of the gate.” But it may be a title used as a name, “Mr. Jailer.” The prisoner thinks that it is in the power of his master to put an end to his imprisonment and promises to be grateful. But he does not seem sure whether his master can do this. He asks, however, for further supplies, if he is to live. Let us hope he was released or at least fed. We may perhaps conclude that imprisonment was the punishment due for robbery and burglary.
A father reminded of a broken promiseHere is a letter reminding a father of a broken promise:1
To my father say, thus saith Elmeshu: Shamash and Marduk fill with well-being the days of my father perpetually. My father, be thou well, flourish; the God that preserves my father direct my father’s source of grace. I have sent to greet my father. May my father’s peace endure before Shamash and Marduk. From the time that Sin Amurrû named my father’s name, and I answered for my fault, thou, my father, didst say, “When I shall go to Dûr-Ammi-zadûga, which is on the River Sharḳu, I will forward a sheep and five minas of silver, in a little while, to thee.” This thou saidest, my father, and my expectation was from my father. But thou hast not sent; and now, my father, thou hast returned to the presence of Taribu, the Queen. I have sent a note to my father’s presence. My father, thou shalt not ask the purport of my note, until Lashêr has brought me my father’s note. My father has not sent one to bring even a single shekel, in accordance with thy promise. Like Marduk and Sin Amurrû, who hearken to my father, my ears are attentive. Let my father send and let not my heart be vexed. Before Shamash and Marduk, may I pray for my father.
The letter suggests that the father was king, by the phrase so common in the historical inscriptions, “named his name,” usually equivalent to “nominated” to rule. The word rendered “fault” is sardu, which may be for sartu. There is nothing to show whether Elmeshu is a man or woman. There was an Elmeshu (the name means “Diamond”) who was daughter of Ammi-ditana.1 But the mention of Dûr-Ammi-zadûga seems to demand a date at least as late as that in which this wall or city was built. But Ammi-zadûga succeeded Ammi-ditana. Unless the latter built Dûr-Ammi-zadûga and called it after his son, we can hardly identify this Elmeshu with the daughter of Ammi-ditana. The mention of Sin Amurrû is not quite clear. We may suppose two gods, Sin and Amurrû, or take the latter name as an epithet, “Sin of the Amorites.” To have “the ears attentive,” is to be in a state of expectation. In the last sentence, Elmeshu seems to hint that, if she does not have a favorable answer, she will not be able to pray for her father. This may be regarded as an un-Christian attitude, but people then thought more of the efficacy of prayer; and it was a threat, if so meant, likely to have great weight with the father. But it may mean that Elmeshu being vowed to a religious life, yet needed material means to maintain her alive, and she merely hopes, by her father’s continued sustenance of her, to be long spared to pray for him.
Request from a tenant for the grant of a good cowAnother letter is apparently from a tenant, or serf, to his landlord:1
To my lord say, thus saith Ibgatum thy servant: As, my lord, thou hast heard, the enemy has carried off my oxen. Never before have I sent to thee, my lord. Now I have caused a letter to be brought to thee, my lord. Do thou, my lord, send me one young cow. I will weigh out and send five shekels of silver to thee, my lord. My lord, what thou sayest, under the command of Marduk, thy protector, what pleases thee, no one can hinder thee, my lord. My lord, do thou make her worth the five shekels of silver that I have weighed out and sent to thee. Do thou, my lord, treat seriously this request, do not trifle with my wish. Let my lord not wonder at this request, which I send my lord. I am thy servant. I will do thy will, my lord. As to the young cow, which thou, my lord, dost send, let her be on credit, and either to Baṣu, or wherever is convenient to my lord, do thou send. With Ili-iḳîsham, my brother, let the young cow come. And I, in order that my lord should quickly consent and send the young cow, will forthwith weigh out and send fifteen shekels of silver to thee, my lord.
Evidently, the wise man sent only five shekels on deposit with his brother, holding back the rest of the price, till he had seen what sort of a cow he was to get for his money. It was from this letter that Winckler2 deduced a meaning for ṣamâdu something like “weigh out,” “pay,” whence a better meaning for ṣimittu than “yoke” was readily obtained. As Dr. Peiser pointed out, the word is also used in the Cappadocian tablets in a way that leaves small doubt of its meaning. It may have come to mean simply “pay,” but must have ordinarily meant “measure,” or “weigh,” according as it was applied to grain, or money.
Authorization to compel a creditor to pay his debtsHere is a very interesting example showing how the merchants of those days transacted business at a distance:3
To Erib-Sin say, thus saith Ibni-Nabû, I am here (?): As to the case of Ardi-ilishu, son of Ibni-Dibbara, I gave him two-thirds of a mina of silver, and it was acknowledged in writing, in the presence of my witnesses. He went to Assyria. He did not give the money to Shamaiatu. I and Shamaiatu met in Daganna and disputed over the affair. Said I, “I sent thee money by Ardi-ilishu.” He said, “If Ardi-ilishu has paid the money, let him [here come some uncertain signs].” And concerning what thou didst send about Shamash-bêl-ilâni’s fourteen shekels, I did not give him the money. There is two-thirds of a mina due from Ardi-ilishu; take Ardiilishu and cause him to weigh out the money, and its interest, more or less, and from that take the fourteen shekels and send the surplus.
The two, Erib-Sin and Ibni-Nabû, are either partners, or agents. The former had asked the latter to pay over fourteen shekels to a certain Shamash-bêl-ilâni, either because the latter had money of his, or had promised to honor his order. But this particular order was not honored. Ibni-Nabû had intrusted a sum of forty shekels to one Ardi-ilishu, with which to pay Shamaiatu. But Ardi-ilishu had gone off to Assyria without discharging the obligation. So Shamaiatu had demanded payment and perhaps the doubtful signs express the fact that Ibni-Nabû had to pay a second time. Fortunately, he could prove that Ardi-ilishu had had the money, having taken a receipt. He seems to think that Erib-Sin can find Ardi-ilishu. Was the former resident in Assyria? If so, this must be a copy of the letter sent him. But perhaps Erib-Sin was to arrest the defaulter on his return to Sippara. At any rate, this was a warrant for so doing. That, perhaps, is why the letter was kept. If Erib-Sin could get forty shekels and the interest, he had a fair margin from which to pay the fourteen shekels, due to him from Ibni-Nabû. But he had to take risks. If Shamash-bêl-ilâni had given Erib-Sin consideration for his order on Ibni-Nabû for fourteen shekels, he was badly served.
A warning connected with the filing of a suitHere is a letter, warning a man of a suit brought against him in his absence:
To my lord, say, thus saith Sin-taiar: May Shamash and Marduk give thee health. As to the case of the field about which thou didst send, belonging to the sons of Sin-rêmêni, which is in Bitûtu, which my lord sold me for five minas of silver; Sin-aam-iddinam, Marduk-taiar, and Nabû-malik, have gone about to the king, and have turned over this title to Nûr-parim. Hasten, come, save thy title from Nûr-parim.
The word of most difficulty is nistu, rendered “title.” It may mean something different, but the “title” seems the most likely thing to be disputed.
A request for fish and other foodA letter to a father from an absent son1 is interesting for its personal character:
To my father say, thus saith Zimri-era, may Shamash and Marduk give thee health forever. Be thou well. I have sent for thy health. Tell me how thou art. I am located at Dûr-Sin on the canal Kashtim-sikirim. There is no meat fit to eat. Now I have made them bring two-thirds of a shekel of silver to thee. For this money send some nice fish and something to eat.
A love-letterThe following is what may be fairly described as a love-letter, though the real relation between the correspondents is not certain:2
To Bibêa say, thus saith Gimil-Marduk: May Shamash and Marduk for my sake preserve thy health forever. I have sent for thy health. Tell me how thou art. I went to Babylon and did not see thee. I was greatly disappointed. Send me the reason of thy leaving, and let me be cheered. In Marchesvan do thou come. For my sake keep well always.
It is certain that Bibêa was a lady, perhaps the writer’s wife.
Assyrian copies of old Babylonian lettersThe interest which these ancient letters inspire in us was felt in the seventh century bc, for there are two Assyrian copies of early Babylonian letters, preserved in the remains of Ashurbânipal’s library. One was a letter from the Babylonian King Adadi-shum-uṣur to Ashur-nirari and Nabûdaian, kings of Assyria, about bc 1250.1 It is too fragmentary to translate. Another2 is a letter from a King of Assyria to his father, who is King of Babylon. The names are lost, and its contents cannot now be made out. It was a copy made for Ashurbânipal, and has his “library mark.”3
[1 ] B. 290 ff.
[1 ] 212.
[1 ] 193.
[1 ] 2185.
[2 ] , ii., p. 90.
[3 ] 315.
[1 ] S. 273.
[2 ] S. 274.
[1 ] III. R. 4, No. 5.
[2 ] K. 2, 41.
[3 ] , i., p. xxiii., note 2.