LABOR AND SLAVERY IN MESOPOTAMIA

LABOR IN MESOPOTAMIA


As agriculture became more advanced, surpluses were generated, freeing farmers to perform other jobs. Over time former farmers could earn enough to specialize in certain tasks and become what would qualify as craftsmen. Workers were often paid with barley. Under the Cod of Hammurabi, maximum prices and minimum wages were fixed by decree and the terms for apprenticeships were defined.

Tablets listed scores of professions. Trades during Mesopotamian times included tradesmen, butchers, stonemasons, water carriers, fishermen, estate workers, farmers, tanners, weavers, boatbuilders, furniture makers, bakers, silversmiths, metal workers, pottery makers, beer brewers, bread makers, leatherworkers, spinners, weavers, clothes makers, tool and weapons makers, jewelers, woodworkers and people in charge of preparing sacrifices and maintaining buildings.

There were also many civil servants. One of the highest positions was the scribe, who worked closely with the king and the bureaucracy, recording events and tallying up commodities. Ancient Mesopotamia writing - and also reading - was a professional rather than a general skill. Being a scribe was an honorable profession. Professional scribes prepared a wide range of documents, oversaw administrative matters and performed other essential duties.

Claude Hermann and Walter Johns wrote in the Encyclopedia Britannica: “Despite the multitude of slaves, hired labour was often needed, especially at harvest. This was matter of contract, and the hirer, who usually paid in advance, might demand a guarantee to fulfil the engagement. Cattle were hired for ploughing, working the watering-machines, carting, threshing, etc. The Code fixed a statutory wage for sowers, ox-drivers, field-labourers, and hire for oxen, asses, etc.[Source: Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian Law — The Code of Hammurabi. Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-1911 <^>]

Websites and Resources on Mesopotamia: Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu.com/Mesopotamia ; Mesopotamia University of Chicago site mesopotamia.lib.uchicago.edu; British Museum mesopotamia.co.uk ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Louvre louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_periode.jsp ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/toah ; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology penn.museum/sites/iraq ; Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago uchicago.edu/museum/highlights/meso ; Iraq Museum Database oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/dbfiles/Iraqdatabasehome ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; ABZU etana.org/abzubib; Oriental Institute Virtual Museum oi.uchicago.edu/virtualtour ; Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur oi.uchicago.edu/museum-exhibits ; Ancient Near Eastern Art Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org

Archaeology News and Resources: Anthropology.net anthropology.net : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology; archaeologica.org archaeologica.org is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe archeurope.com features educational resources, original material on many archaeological subjects and has information on archaeological events, study tours, field trips and archaeological courses, links to web sites and articles; Archaeology magazine archaeology.org has archaeology news and articles and is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; Archaeology News Network archaeologynewsnetwork is a non-profit, online open access, pro- community news website on archaeology; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine is an excellent source published by the Council for British Archaeology; Current Archaeology magazine archaeology.co.uk is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine; HeritageDaily heritagedaily.com is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries; Livescience livescience.com/ : general science website with plenty of archaeological content and news. Past Horizons : online magazine site covering archaeology and heritage news as well as news on other science fields; The Archaeology Channel archaeologychannel.org explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media; Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history; Best of History Websites besthistorysites.net is a good source for links to other sites; Essential Humanities essential-humanities.net: provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory

Hammurabi's Code of Laws: 253-260: Farm Labor


Daily salary from Sumer

253. If any one agree with another to tend his field, give him seed, entrust a yoke of oxen to him, and bind him to cultivate the field, if he steal the corn or plants, and take them for himself, his hands shall be hewn off. [Source: Translated by L. W. King]

254. If he take the seed-corn for himself, and do not use the yoke of oxen, he shall compensate him for the amount of the seed-corn.

255. If he sublet the man's yoke of oxen or steal the seed-corn, planting nothing in the field, he shall be convicted, and for each one hundred gan he shall pay sixty gur of corn.

256. If his community will not pay for him, then he shall be placed in that field with the cattle (at work).

257. If any one hire a field laborer, he shall pay him eight gur of corn per year.

258. If any one hire an ox-driver, he shall pay him six gur of corn per year.

259. If any one steal a water-wheel from the field, he shall pay five shekels in money to its owner.

260. If any one steal a shadduf (used to draw water from the river or canal) or a plow, he shall pay three shekels in money.

Labor Contracts from Mesopotamia in 2200 B.C.

20120208-Employement_contract ur.jpg
Employment contract from Ur
Contract for Hire of Laborer, Reign of Shamshu-Iluna, c. 2200 B.C.: This is a contract from the reign of Shamshu-iluna of the Akkadian dynasty, c. 2200 B.C. It is of many of like character. “Mar-Sippar has hired for one year Marduk-nasir, son of Alabbana, from Munapirtu, his mother. He will pay as wages for one year two and a half shekels of silver. She has received one half shekel of silver, one se [1/180th of a shekel], out of a year's wages.” [Source: George Aaron Barton, "Contracts," in Assyrian and Babylonian Literature: Selected Transactions, With a Critical Introduction by Robert Francis Harper (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1904), pp. 256-276, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia]

Contract for Production of a Coat of Mail, Thirty-Fourth year of Darius, 488 B.C.: This tablet is dated in the thirty-fourth year Darius I (488 B. C.), and was regarded as an imporant transaction, since it is signed by four witnesses and a scribe. “One coat of mail, insignum of power which will protect, is to be made by the woman Mupagalgagitum, daughter of Qarikhiya, for Shamash-iddin, son of Rimut. She will deliver in the month Shebat one coat of mail, which is to be made and which will protect.”

Contract of Warranty for Setting of a Gold Ring, Thirty-fifth year of Artaxerxes, 429 B.C.: The transaction needs no comment. The wealthy representative of the house of Murashu obtained from the firm of jewellers which sold him the ring a guarantee that the setting would last for twenty years; if it does not, they are to forfeit ten manas. “Bel-akha-iddin and Bel-shunu, sons of Bel-_______ and Khatin, son of Bazuzu, spoke unto Bel-shum-iddin, son of Murashu, saying: "As to the ring in which an emerald has been set in gold, we guarantee that for twenty years the emerald will not fall from the gold ring. If the emerald falls from the gold ring before the expiration of twenty years, Bel-akha-iddin, Bel-shunu (and) Khatin will pay to Bel-shum-iddin ten manas of silver. (The names of seven witnesses and a scribe are appended. The date is) Nippur, Elul eighth, the thirty-fifth year of Artaxerxes.”

Slaves in Mesopotamia

The Sumerians, Babylonian and Assyrians all had slaves. Early slaves were perhaps captives of war. The most famous slaves were the Jews captured under King Nebuchadnezzar. Slaves were bought and sold in the market and branded. They worked in irrigation projects, temples and palaces. In the Babylonian period, enslavement for debt was illegal.


slave sale contract

One passage of “Advice of an Akkadian Father to His Son,” c. 2200 B.C., goes: “Do not honor a slave girl in your house; she should not rule your bedroom like a wife, do not give yourself over to slave girls....Let this be said among your people: "The household which a slave girl rules, she disrupts." [Source: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia, scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton, Paul Halsall, Forham University, July 1998]

Claude Hermann and Walter Johns wrote in the Encyclopedia Britannica: “The ardu was a slave, his master's chattel, and formed a very numerous class. He could acquire property and even hold other slaves. His master clothed and fed him, paid his doctor's fees, but took all compensation paid for injury done to him. His master usually found him a slave-girl as wife (the children were then born slaves), often set him up in a house (with farm or business) and simply took an annual rent of him. Otherwise he might marry a freewoman (the children were then free), who might bring him a dower which his master could not touch, and at his death one-half of his property passed to his master as his heir. He could acquire his freedom by purchase from his master, or might be freed and dedicated to a temple, or even adopted, when he became an amelu and not a muskinu. Slaves were recruited by purchase abroad, from captives taken in war and by freemen degraded for debt or crime. [Source: Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian Law — The Code of Hammurabi. Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-1911 <^>]

“A slave often ran away; if caught, the captor was bound to restore him to his master, and the Code fixes a reward of two shekels which the owner must pay the captor. It was about one-tenth of the average value. To detain, harbour, etc., a slave was punished by death. So was an attempt to get him to leave the city. A slave bore an identification mark, which could only be removed by a surgical operation and which later consisted of his owner's name tattooed or branded on the arm. On the great estates in Assyria and its subject provinces were many serfs, mostly of subject race, settled captives, or quondam slaves, tied to the soil they cultivated and sold with the estate but capable of possessing land and property of their own. There is little trace of serfs in Babylonia, unless the muskinu be really a serf.” <^>

Hammurabi's Code of Laws on Slaves

The Babylonian king Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.) is credited with producing the Code of Hammurabi, the oldest surviving set of laws. Recognized for putting eye for an eye justice into writing and remarkable for its depth and judiciousness, it consists of 282 case laws with legal procedures and penalties. Many of the laws had been around before the code was etched in the eight-foot-highin black diorite stone that bears them. Hammurabi codified them into a fixed and standardized set of laws. [Source: Translated by L. W. King]


agreement regarding the disposition of a slave

159. If any one, who has brought chattels into his father-in-law's house, and has paid the purchase-money, looks for another wife, and says to his father-in-law: "I do not want your daughter," the girl's father may keep all that he had brought.

160. If a man bring chattels into the house of his father-in-law, and pay the "purchase price" (for his wife): if then the father of the girl say: "I will not give you my daughter," he shall give him back all that he brought with him.

161. If a man bring chattels into his father-in-law's house and pay the "purchase price," if then his friend slander him, and his father-in-law say to the young husband: "You shall not marry my daughter," the he shall give back to him undiminished all that he had brought with him; but his wife shall not be married to the friend.

278. If any one buy a male or female slave, and before a month has elapsed the benu-disease be developed, he shall return the slave to the seller, and receive the money which he had paid.

279. If any one by a male or female slave, and a third party claim it, the seller is liable for the claim.

280. If while in a foreign country a man buy a male or female slave belonging to another of his own country; if when he return home the owner of the male or female slave recognize it: if the male or female slave be a native of the country, he shall give them back without any money.

281. If they are from another country, the buyer shall declare the amount of money paid therefor to the merchant, and keep the male or female slave.

282. If a slave say to his master: "You are not my master," if they convict him his master shall cut off his ear.

Code of the Nesilim (c. 1650-1500 B.C.) on Slaves


contract for the proxy purchase of a slave

According to the Hittite Code of the Nesilim (c.1650-1500 B.C.): 2. If anyone slay a male or female slave in a quarrel, he shall bring this one and give two persons, either men or women, he shall let them go to his home. [Source: Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., The Library of Original Sources (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1901), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 9-11]

4. If anyone smite a male or female slave, he shall bring this one also and give one person, he shall let him or her go to his home.

8. If anyone blind a male or female slave or knock out their teeth, he shall give ten half-shekels of silver, he shall let it go to his home.

18. If anyone cause a female slave to miscarry, if it be the tenth month, he shall give five half-shekels of silver.

20. If any man of Hatti steal a Nesian slave and lead him here to the land of Hatti, and his master discover him, he shall give him twelve half-shekels of silver, he shall let it go to his home.

21. If anyone steal a slave of a Luwian from the land of Luwia, and lead him here to the land of Hatti, and his master discover him, he shall take his slave only.

24. If a male or female slave run away, he at whose hearth his master finds him or her, shall give fifty half-shekels of silver a year.

31. If a free man and a female slave be fond of each other and come together and he take her for his wife and they set up house and get children, and afterward they either become hostile or come to close quarters, and they divide the house between them, the man shall take the children, only one child shall the woman take.

32. If a slave take a woman as his wife, their case is the same. The majority of the children to the wife and one child to the slave.

33. If a slave take a female slave their case is the same. The majority of children to the female slave and one child to the slave.

34. If a slave convey the bride price to a free son and take him as husband for his daughter, nobody dare surrender him to slavery.

36. If a slave convey the bride price to a free son and take him as husband for his daughter, nobody dare surrender him to slavery.

99. If a slave set a house ablaze, his master shall compensate for him. The nose of the slave and his ears they shall cut off, and give him back to his master. But if he do not compensate, then he shall give up this one.


"Babylon Marriage Market" by Edwin Long


170. If a free man kill a serpent and speak the name of another, he shall give one pound of silver; if a slave, this one shall die.

Sales Contracts for Slaves in Mesopotamia

Contract for the Sale of a Slave, Reign of Rim-Sin, c. 2300 B.C.: In this transaction the sellers simply guarantee to make no further claim upon the slave. It dates from about 2300 B.C., and is interesting as an index of the legal development of that far-off time: “Sini-Ishtar has bought a slave, Ea-tappi by name, from Ilu-elatti, and Akhia, his son, and has paid ten shekels of Silver, the price agreed. Ilu-elatti, and Akhia, his son, will not set up a future claim on the slave. In the presence of Ilu-iqisha, son of Likua; in the presence of Ilu-iqisha, son of Immeru; in the presence of Likulubishtum, son of Appa, the scribe, who sealed it with the seal of the witnesses. The tenth of Kisilimu, the year when Rim-Sin, the king, overcame the hostile enemies.”[Source: George Aaron Barton, "Contracts," in Assyrian and Babylonian Literature: Selected Transactions, With a Critical Introduction by Robert Francis Harper (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1904), pp. 256-276, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia]

Contract for the Sale of a Slave, Eighth year of Nebuchadnezzar II, 597 B.C.: This tablet affords a good example of the sale of a slave. In this case the persons who sell guarantee that the slave will neither become insubordinate, nor prove to be subject to any governmental claims, nor prove to have been emancipated by adoption. The word rendered "emancipation" means literally "adoption," but adoption by a freeman was an early form of emancipation. This sale is from the reign of the Nebuchadnezzar of Biblical fame, dating from 597 B.C.

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p> ShamashUuballit and Ubartum, children of Zakir, the son of Pashi-ummani, of their free-will have delivered Nanakirat and her unsveaned son, their slave, for nineteen shekels of money, for the price agreed, unto Kaçir and Nadin-Marduk, sons of Iqisha-aplu, son of Nur-Sin. Shamash-uballit and Ubartum guarantee against insubordination, the claim of the royal service, and emancipation. Witnesses: Na'id-Marduk, son of Nabu-nacir, son of Dabibi; Bel-shum-ishkun, son of Marduk-zir-epish, son of Irani; Nabu-ushallim, son of Bel-akhi-iddin, son of Bel-apal-uçur. In the dwelling of Damqa, their mother. And the scribe, Nur-Ea, son of Ina-Isaggil-ziri, son of Nur-Sin. Babylon, twenty-first of Kisilimu, eighth year of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon.


record of clothing items issued to workmen


Marriage Contract of a Former Slave Girl

Marriage contract of a former slave girl who is subject to paramoné, 420 B.C., from “Aramaic Manumission & Marriage Papyri from Elephantine” reads: “On (the first day of) the month of Tishri, that is Epiphi, the year 4 of King Darius, in the fortress Elephantine, said Ananiah son of Haggai, an Aramean of the fortress Elephantine, [of] the detachment of [Iddin]-Nabu, to Zakkur son of Me[shullam, an Arame]an of Syene, of the same detachment, as follows: (3) I have come to your [hous]e and asked you for your sister the woman Yehoyishma' (as she is called) in marriage, and you have given her to me. She is my wife and I am [her] husband from this day to eternity. I have paid to you as the bride price of your sister[6] Yehoyishma' (5) I karsh of silver; you have received it [and have been satisfied therewi]th. [Source: Kraeling, op. cit., Papyrus 7, pp. 201 ff., Pls. VIIa, VIIb; Ginsberg, op. cit., 58-59]

“Your sister Yehoyishma' has brought into my house a cash sum of two karsh, (two) 2 shekels, and 5 hallurs of silver, . . . (Lines 6b-13a, defective, a list of probably articles of wool and linen with their respective values; 13b-15a, 5 articles of copper with their respective values; [Garments and articles of co]pper with the cash and the bride price: seven karsh, eight shekels, and 5 hallurs of silver by the king's weights, silver of 2 R to the ten. (17b-21aa, containers of palm leaves, reeds, wood, and stone and quantities of various sorts of oil—no values specified.)

“If at some future date Ananiah should arise in an/the assembly and declare, "I divorce my wife Yehoyishma'; she shall not be a wife to me," he shall become liable for divorce money. He shall forfeit her bride price he must surrender to her all that she brought into his house. Her dowry of cash (23) and clothing, worth karsh seven, sh[ekels eight, and hallurs 5] of silver, and the rest of the goods listed (above) he must hand over to her on one day and in a single act, and she may [leave him for where]ver [she will]....

“If, on the other hand, Yehoyishma' should di- vorce her husband Ananiah and say to him, "I divorce you, I will not be wife to you," she shall become liable for divorce money. She shall sit by the scales and weigh out to her husband Ananiah 7 shekels and 2 R and shall leave him with the balance of her (27) cash, goods, and pos[sessions, worth karsh 7; shekels 5+] 3, and hallurs 5; and the rest of her goods, (28) which are listed (above), he shall hand over to her on one day and in a single act, and she shall depart for her father's house.

“If Ananiah should die having no male or female child from his wife [Yehoyi]shma', Yehoyishma' shall be [mistress] of his [pr]operty: of his house, his goods, to) his possession, [and all that he owns. Anyone who] attempts to banish Yehoyishma' from his house, [goods, possessions], and all that [he] owns, [shall p]ay to [her a fi]ne of silver, twenty karsh by [the king's] weights, silver of 2 R to the and shall accord [her] her due under this deed without lawsuit. However, Yeh[oyishma'] is not permitted [to] acquire a husband other [than] Anani. Should she do so, that shall constitute a divorce, and [the provisions for divorcement] shall be applied to [her]. (So, too,) if [Yehoyishma'] should die having no [male] or female child by [her] hus[band] Anani, [Anani] shall inherit from her her [cash], goods, possessions, and all that she own[s]. And [Anani] likewise [may] no[t ta]ke any woman [other than his wife Yehoyishma'] in marriage. Should he do [so, that shall constitute a divorce, and the provisions for di]vorcement shall be applied to him].



“Further, Ananiah may not omit to accord to his wife Yehoyishma' the right of any of the wives of his fellows. Should he fail to do so, that shall constitute a divorce, and he shall implement for her the provisions for divorcement. Neither may Yehoyishma' omit to accord to her husband Ananiah the right of any (husband). Should she fail to accord it to him, that shall constitute a divorce. Further, Zakkur may not say with reference to [his] sister], "I gave those [goo]ds to Yehoyishma' gratis; now I wish to take them back." If he speaks [thus], no attention shall be paid to him; he is in the wrong.

“This deed was written by Ma'uziah son of Nathan at the dictation of Ananiah son of Haggai [and] Zakkur son of Meshullam, and the witnesses thereto are: (There followed the names of six witnesses and those of their fathers, making twelve names in all, of which nine are preserved, all of them Jewish, and all of them in the handwriting of the scribe.

Freeing of a Female Slave and Her Daughter

Manumission of a female slave and her daughter, June 12, 427 B.C.,from “Aramaic Manumission & Marriage Papyri from Elephantine” reads: On the 20th of Siwan, that is the 7th day of Phamenoth, the year 38 of King Artaxerxes--at that time, Meshullam son of Zakkur, a Jew of the fortress Elephantine, of the detachment of Arpakhu said to the woman Tapmut (as she is called), his slave, who has on her right hand the marking "Of Meshullam," as follows: I have taken kindly thought of you in my lifetime. [Source: Translator: H. L. Ginsberg, Emil G. Kraeling, The Brooklyn Museum Aramaic Papyri: New Documents of the Jewish Colony at Elephantine (New Haven, 1953), Papyrus 5, pp. 178 ff. Pls. V and XIX. H. L. Ginsberg, JAOS, LXXIV (1954), 158]

“I hereby declare you released at my death and likewise declare released the daughter Yehoyishma' (as she is called) whom you have borne to me. No son or daughter, close or distant relative, kinsman, or clansman of mine has any right to you or to the daughter Yehoyishma' whom you have borne to me; none has any right to mark you or to deliver you as a payment of money. Whoever attempts such action against you or the daughter Yehoyishma' whom you have borne to me must pay you a fine of 50 karsh of silver by the king's weights. You are released, with your daughter Yehoyishma', from the shade for the sun, and no other man is master of you or your daughter Yehoyishma'. You are released for God.

“(II) And Tapmut and her daughter Yehoyishma' de- clared: We shall serve you [a]s a son or daughter supports his or her father as long as you live; and when you die, we shall support your son Zakkur like a son who supports his father, just as we shall have been doing for you while you were alive. (....) If we ever say, "We will not support you as a son supports his father, and your son Zakkur after your death," we shall be liable to you and your son Zakkur for a fine in the amount of 50 karsh of refined silver by the king's weights without suit or process. Written by Haggai the scribe, at Elephantine, at the dictation of Meshullam son of Zakkur, the witnesses herein being: Atarparan son of Nisai the Mede; witness Micaiah son of Ahio; witness Berechiah son of Miptah; witness Dalah son of Gaddul. (Endorsement) Quit-claim written by Meshullam son of Zakkur to Tapmut and Yehoyishma['].”


prisoners in Assyrian Nineveh, maybe on their way to become slaves


Notes: 1) Though she was acquired in marriage 22 years earlier by a contract (Brooklyn, 2) between her master and her husband, and though her daughter has issued from that marriage, she has remained in law the slave of her master, and her daughter has been born into that status. 2) Similar arrangements, by which the manumitted slave is bound to render certain services to his master for the duration of the latter's life, were common in the Hellenistic world, in which they were known as paramoné. 3) The witnesses' names are not signed by them but simply recorded by the scribe; cf. Jer. 32:12 "the witnesses who were recorded in the deed." On other fifth century Aramaic deeds from Elephantine, the witnesses, or some of them sign in their own hands. The transition to the latter practice was in progress.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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