FAMILY LIFE AND CHILDREN IN MESOPOTAMIA

FAMILIES AND FAMILY LAW IN MESOPOTAMIA

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The Mesopotamians appear to have been relatively family-oriented. Sumerians had lullabies and wet nurses. In one tablet a father gives the following advise to his son: “Do no buy an ass which brays too much”; “Do not commit rape upon a man’s daughter” and “Do not answer back against your father, do not raise a heavy eye.’”

Morris Jastrow said: “The regulation of family affairs and of commerce may be regarded as a safe index of the standards set up for private and public ethics. No less than sixty-eight of the two hundred and seventy-two paragraphs or sections into which the Code may be divided, or just one fourth, deal on the one hand with the relation of husband and wife, and on the other of parents and children. This proportion is in itself a valuable indication of the importance in the social organisation attached to the family. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“The general aim of the laws may be summed up in the statement that they are to ensure the purity of family life. The law is severe against the faithless wife—mercilessly severe, condemning her and the adulterer to death by drowning, but it also protects her against false accusations. He who unjustly points the finger of suspicion against a woman— be she a wife, or a virgin who has taken a vow of chastity—is to be publicly humiliated by having his forehead branded. Even the husband must substantiate the charge against his wife, and the wife can free herself from suspicion by an oath, though, if the actual charge is brought by another than her husband, she must submit, at the husband’s instance, to the same ordeal of the river god as the one accused of witchcraft. But even if the charge be substantiated, the husband may exercise the right of possession and allow his wife to live; and the king also may grant mercy to the male offender.

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

Children Under Babylonian Law

Claude Hermann and Walter Johns wrote in the Encyclopedia Britannica:“A father had control over his children till their marriage. He had a right to their labour in return for their keep. He might hire them out and receive their wages, pledge them for debt, even sell them outright. Mothers had the same rights in the absence of the father; even elder brothers when both parents were dead. A father had no claim on his married children for support, but they retained a right to inherit on his death. [Source: Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian Law — The Code of Hammurabi. Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-1911 <^>]

“The daughter was not only in her father's power to be given in marriage, but he might dedicate her to the service of some god as a vestal or a hierodule; or give her as a concubine. She had no choice in these matters, which were often decided in her childhood. A grown-up daughter might wish to become a votary, perhaps in preference to an uncongenial marriage, and it seems that her father could not refuse her wish. In all these cases the father might dower her. If he did not, on his death the brothers were bound to do so, giving her a full child's share if a wife, a concubine or a vestal, but one-third of a child's share if she were a hierodule or a Marduk priestess. <^>

“The latter had the privilege of exemption from state dues and absolute disposal of her property. All other daughters had only a life interest in their dowry, which reverted to their family, if childless, or went to their children if they had any. A father might, however, execute a deed granting a daughter power to leave her property to a favourite brother or sister. A daughter's estate was usually managed for her by her brothers, but if they did not satisfy her, she could appoint a steward. If she married, her husband managed it. The son also appears to have received his share on marriage, but did not always then leave his father's house; he might bring his wife there. This was usual in child marriages.” <^>

Hammurabi's Code of Laws: Men, Children, Inheritance


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]

162. If a man marry a woman, and she bear sons to him; if then this woman die, then shall her father have no claim on her dowry; this belongs to her sons.

163. If a man marry a woman and she bear him no sons; if then this woman die, if the "purchase price" which he had paid into the house of his father-in-law is repaid to him, her husband shall have no claim upon the dowry of this woman; it belongs to her father's house.

164. If his father-in-law do not pay back to him the amount of the "purchase price" he may subtract the amount of the "Purchase price" from the dowry, and then pay the remainder to her father's house.

165. If a man give to one of his sons whom he prefers a field, garden, and house, and a deed therefor: if later the father die, and the brothers divide the estate, then they shall first give him the present of his father, and he shall accept it; and the rest of the paternal property shall they divide.

166. If a man take wives for his son, but take no wife for his minor son, and if then he die: if the sons divide the estate, they shall set aside besides his portion the money for the "purchase price" for the minor brother who had taken no wife as yet, and secure a wife for him.

167. If a man marry a wife and she bear him children: if this wife die and he then take another wife and she bear him children: if then the father die, the sons must not partition the estate according to the mothers, they shall divide the dowries of their mothers only in this way; the paternal estate they shall divide equally with one another.

168. If a man wish to put his son out of his house, and declare before the judge: "I want to put my son out," then the judge shall examine into his reasons. If the son be guilty of no great fault, for which he can be rightfully put out, the father shall not put him out.

169. If he be guilty of a grave fault, which should rightfully deprive him of the filial relationship, the father shall forgive him the first time; but if he be guilty of a grave fault a second time the father may deprive his son of all filial relation.

Hammurabi's Code of Laws: 170-184: Step-Children, Daughters and Dowries

170. If his wife bear sons to a man, or his maid-servant have borne sons, and the father while still living says to the children whom his maid-servant has borne: "My sons," and he count them with the sons of his wife; if then the father die, then the sons of the wife and of the maid-servant shall divide the paternal property in common. The son of the wife is to partition and choose. [Source: Translated by L. W. King]

171. If, however, the father while still living did not say to the sons of the maid-servant: "My sons," and then the father dies, then the sons of the maid-servant shall not share with the sons of the wife, but the freedom of the maid and her sons shall be granted. The sons of the wife shall have no right to enslave the sons of the maid; the wife shall take her dowry (from her father), and the gift that her husband gave her and deeded to her (separate from dowry, or the purchase-money paid her father), and live in the home of her husband: so long as she lives she shall use it, it shall not be sold for money. Whatever she leaves shall belong to her children.

172. If her husband made her no gift, she shall be compensated for her gift, and she shall receive a portion from the estate of her husband, equal to that of one child. If her sons oppress her, to force her out of the house, the judge shall examine into the matter, and if the sons are at fault the woman shall not leave her husband's house. If the woman desire to leave the house, she must leave to her sons the gift which her husband gave her, but she may take the dowry of her father's house. Then she may marry the man of her heart.

173. If this woman bear sons to her second husband, in the place to which she went, and then die, her earlier and later sons shall divide the dowry between them.

174. If she bear no sons to her second husband, the sons of her first husband shall have the dowry.

175. If a State slave or the slave of a freed man marry the daughter of a free man, and children are born, the master of the slave shall have no right to enslave the children of the free.

176. If, however, a State slave or the slave of a freed man marry a man's daughter, and after he marries her she bring a dowry from a father's house, if then they both enjoy it and found a household, and accumulate means, if then the slave die, then she who was free born may take her dowry, and all that her husband and she had earned; she shall divide them into two parts, one-half the master for the slave shall take, and the other half shall the free-born woman take for her children. If the free-born woman had no gift she shall take all that her husband and she had earned and divide it into two parts; and the master of the slave shall take one-half and she shall take the other for her children.

177. If a widow, whose children are not grown, wishes to enter another house (remarry), she shall not enter it without the knowledge of the judge. If she enter another house the judge shall examine the state of the house of her first husband. Then the house of her first husband shall be entrusted to the second husband and the woman herself as managers. And a record must be made thereof. She shall keep the house in order, bring up the children, and not sell the house-hold utensils. He who buys the utensils of the children of a widow shall lose his money, and the goods shall return to their owners.

178. If a "devoted woman" or a prostitute to whom her father has given a dowry and a deed therefor, but if in this deed it is not stated that she may bequeath it as she pleases, and has not explicitly stated that she has the right of disposal; if then her father die, then her brothers shall hold her field and garden, and give her corn, oil, and milk according to her portion, and satisfy her. If her brothers do not give her corn, oil, and milk according to her share, then her field and garden shall support her. She shall have the usufruct of field and garden and all that her father gave her so long as she lives, but she can not sell or assign it to others. Her position of inheritance belongs to her brothers.

179. If a "sister of a god," or a prostitute, receive a gift from her father, and a deed in which it has been explicitly stated that she may dispose of it as she pleases, and give her complete disposition thereof: if then her father die, then she may leave her property to whomsoever she pleases. Her brothers can raise no claim thereto.

180. If a father give a present to his daughter--either marriageable or a prostitute (unmarriageable)--and then die, then she is to receive a portion as a child from the paternal estate, and enjoy its usufruct so long as she lives. Her estate belongs to her brothers.

181. If a father devote a temple-maid or temple-virgin to God and give her no present: if then the father die, she shall receive the third of a child's portion from the inheritance of her father's house, and enjoy its usufruct so long as she lives. Her estate belongs to her brothers.

182. If a father devote his daughter as a wife of Mardi of Babylon (as in 181), and give her no present, nor a deed; if then her father die, then shall she receive one-third of her portion as a child of her father's house from her brothers, but Marduk may leave her estate to whomsoever she wishes.

183. If a man give his daughter by a concubine a dowry, and a husband, and a deed; if then her father die, she shall receive no portion from the paternal estate.

184. If a man do not give a dowry to his daughter by a concubine, and no husband; if then her father die, her brother shall give her a dowry according to her father's wealth and secure a husband for her.

Advice of an Akkadian Father to His Son, c. 2200 B.C.

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In one tablet a father gives the following advise to his son: “Do no buy an ass which brays too much”; “Do not commit rape upon a man’s daughter” and “Do not answer back against your father, do not raise a heavy eye.’”

Advice of an Akkadian Father to His Son, c. 2200 B.C., goes: “Do not set out to stand around in the assembly. Do not loiter where there is a dispute, for in the dispute they will have you as an observer. Then you will be made a witness for them, and they will involve you in a lawsuit to affirm something that does not concern you. In case of a dispute, get away from it, disregard it! If a dispute involving you should flare up, calm it down. A dispute is a covered pit, a wall which can cover over its foes; it brings to mind what one has forgotten and makes an accusation against a man. Do not return evil to your adversary; requite with kindness the one who does evil to you, maintain justice for your enemy, be friendly to your enemy. Give food to eat, beer to drink, grant what is requested, provide for and treat with honor. At this one's god takes pleasure. It is pleasing to Shamash, who will repay him with favor. Do good things, be kind all your days. [Source: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia, scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton, Paul Halsall, Forham University, July 1998]

“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." Do not marry a prostitute, whose husbands are legion, an Ishtar-woman who is dedicated to a god, a kulmashitu-woman. . . .When you have trouble, she will not support you, when you have a dispute she will be a mocker. There is no reverence or submissiveness in her. Even if she is powerful in the household, get rid of her, for she pricks up her ears for the footsteps of another.

“My son, if it be the wish of a ruler that you belong to him, if you are entrusted with his closely guarded seal, open his treasure house and enter it, for no one but you may do it. Uncounted wealth you will find inside, but do not covet any of that, nor set your mind on a secret crime, for afterwards the matter will be investigated and the secret crime which you committed will be exposed.

“Do not speak ill, speak only good. Do not say evil things, speak well of people. He who speaks ill and says evil---people will waylay him because of his debt to Shamash. Do not talk too freely, watch what you say. Do not express your innermost thoughts even when you are alone. What you say in haste you may regret later. Exert yourself to restrain your speech.

“Worship your god every day. Sacrifice and pious utterance are the proper accompaniment of incense. Have a freewill offering for your god, for this is proper toward a god. Prayer, supplication, and prostration offer him daily, then your prayer will be granted, and you will be in harmony with god.”

Advice To an Assyrian Prince

The following text is written on a tablet from the libraries of Assurbanipal, and no duplicate copy has yet been found:
1. If a king does not heed justice, his people will be thrown into chaos and his land will be devastated.
2. If he does not heed the justice of his land, Ea, king of destinies,
3. Will alter his destiny and he will not cease from hostilely pursuing him.
4. If he does not heed his nobles, his life will be cut short.
5. If he doe snot heed his adviser, his land will rebel against him.
6. If he heeds a rogue, the status quo in his land will change.
7. If he heeds a trick of Ea, the great gods.
8. In unison and in their just ways will not cease from prosecuting him.
9. If he improperly convicts a citizen of Sippar, but acquits a foreigner, Shamash, judge of heaven and earth,
10. Will set up a foreign justice in his land, where the princes and judges will not heed justice
11. If citizens of Nippur are brought to him for judgement, but he accepts a present and improperly convicts them
12. Enlil, lord of the lands, wil bring a foreign army against him
13. to slaughter his army,
14. whose prince and chief officers will roam his streets like fighting-cocks [Source: Lambert, W. G. Babylonian Wisdom Literature. From the Oxford University Press edition published in 1963, reprinted in 1996 by Eisenbrauns. piney.com] .

15. If he takes silver of the citizens of Babylon and adds it to his own coffers,
16. Of if he hears a lawsuit involving men of Babylon but treats it frivolously,
17. Marduk, lord of Heaven and earth, will set his foes upon him,
18. And will give his property and wealth to his enemy.
19. If he imposes a fine on the citizens of Nippur, Sippar or Babylon,
20. Of if he puts them in prison,
21. The city where the fine was imposed will be completely overturned,
22. And a foreign enemy will make his way into the prison in which they were put.
23. If he mobilized the whole of Sippar, Nippur and Babylon,
24. And imposed forced labour on the people,
25. Exacting from them a corvée at the herald´s proclamation,
26. Marduk, the sage of the gods, the prince, the counsellor,
27. Will turn his land over to his enemy
28. So that the troops of his land will do forced labour for his enemy,
29. For Anu, Enlil and Ea, the great gods,
30. Who dwell in heaven and earth, in their assembly affirmed the freedom of those people from such obligations.


cuneiform tablet on the Birth of Sargon

31, 32. If he gives the fodder of the citizens of Sippar, Nippur and Babylon to his own steeds,
33. The steeds who eat the fodder
34. Will be led away to the enemy´s yoke,
35. And those men will be mobilized with the king´s men when the national army is conscripted.
36. Mighty Erra, who goes before his army,
37. Will shatter his front line and go at this enemy´s side.
38. If he looses the yokes of their oxen,
39. And puts them into other fields
40. Or gives them to a foreigner, [...] will be devastated [...] of Addu.
41. If he seizes their ... stock of sheep,
42. Addu, canal supervisor of heaven and earth,
43. Will extirpate his pasturing animals by hinger
44. And will amass offerings for Shamash.
45. If the adviser or chief officer of the king´s presence
46. Denounces them (i.e. the citizens of Sippar, Nippur and Babylon) and so obtains bribes from them,
47. At the command of Ea, king of the Apzu,
48. The adviser chief officer will die by the sword,
49. Their place will be covered over as a run,
50. The wind will carry away their remains and their achievements will be given over to the storm wind.

51. If he declares their treaties void, or alters their inscribed treaty stele,
52. Sends them on a campaign or press-gangs them into hard labour,
53. Nabu, scribe of Esagila, who organizes the whole of heaven and eath, who directs everyting,
54. Who ordains kingship, will declare the treaties of his land void , and will decree hostility.
55. If either a shepherd or a temple overseer, or a chief officer of the king,
56. Who serves as a temple overseer of Sippar, Nippur or Babylon
57. Imposes forced labour on them (i.e. the citizens of Sippar, Nippur and Babylon) in connection with the temples of the great gods,
58. The great gods will quit their dwelling i their fury and
59. Will not enter their shrines.

Laws Related to Incest and Illegitimate Children

Morris Jastrow said: “That the laws against incest are most severe is perhaps not to be taken as an index of advanced moral standards, for we find such regulations even in primitive society where, while promiscuous intercourse with unmarried women is permitted, the severe taboo imposed upon a wife is extended to every kind of incestuous relations. The Hammurabi Code ordains that a father who has been intimate with his daughter is to be banished from the city, which means that he loses his position and rights of citizenship. If he enters into intimate relations with his daughter-in-law, he is to be strangled, and the woman is to be thrown into the water. If this take place after betrothal but before the actual marriage, the father is let off with a heavy fine and the woman may marry whom she pleases. When a son is intimate with his mother, both are burned. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

In the Middle East in Mesopotamia times it was a common custom for barren wives to encourage their husbands to procreate with slaves or concubines. According to a cuneiform tablet from Nuzi in 1400 B.C.: "If [the wife] does not bear [she] shall acquire a [slave girl] as a wife for [the husband]."

“It also betokens an advanced stage of society that a man can legitimatise the children born of his wife’s handmaid, and they then receive equal portions of the estate with the children of the legitimate wife; but even if he fail to legitimatise such children, they must be set free after his death. The legitimate children have no claim upon their half-brothers and half-sisters born out of wedlock. Not only the wife but also the widow is amply protected by the Code, through the stipulation that a share of her husband’s estate belongs to her in her own right and name. She is to remain in her husband’s house, and if the children maltreat her, the courts may impose punishment upon them.

Hammurabi's Code of Laws on Incest: 154. If a man be guilty of incest with his daughter, he shall be driven from the place (exiled). 155. If a man betroth a girl to his son, and his son have intercourse with her, but he (the father) afterward defile her, and be surprised, then he shall be bound and cast into the water (drowned). 156. If a man betroth a girl to his son, but his son has not known her, and if then he defile her, he shall pay her half a gold mina, and compensate her for all that she brought out of her father's house. She may marry the man of her heart. 157. If any one be guilty of incest with his mother after his father, both shall be burned. 158. If any one be surprised after his father with his chief wife, who has borne children, he shall be driven out of his father's house.

Adoption in Mesopotamia

Claude Hermann and Walter Johns wrote in the Encyclopedia Britannica:“Adoption was very common, especially where the father (or mother) was childless or had seen all his children grow up and marry away. The child was then adopted to care for the parents' old age. This was done by contract, which usually specified what the parent had to leave and what maintenance was expected. The real children, if any, were usually consenting parties to an arrangement which cut off their expectations. They even, in some cases, found the estate for the adopted child who was to relieve them of a care. If the adopted child failed to carry out the filial duty the contract was annulled in the law courts. Slaves were often adopted and if they proved unfilial were reduced to slavery again. [Source: Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian Law — The Code of Hammurabi. Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-1911 <^>]

“A craftsman often adopted a son to learn the craft. He profited by the son's labour. If he failed to teach his son the craft, that son could prosecute him and get the contract annulled. This was a form of apprenticeship, and it is not clear that the apprentice had any filial relation. <^>

“A man who adopted a son, and afterwards married and had a family of his own, could dissolve the contract but must give the adopted child one-third of a child's share in goods, but no real estate. That could only descend in the family to which he had ceased to belong. Vestals frequently adopted daughters, usually other vestals, to care for their old age. <^>

“Adoption had to be with consent of the real parents, who usually executed a deed making over the child, who thus ceased to have any claim upon them. But vestals, hierodules, certain palace officials and slaves had no rights over their children and could raise no obstacle. Foundlings and illegitimate children had no parents to object. If the adopted child discovered his true parents and wanted to return to them, his eye or tongue was torn out. An adopted child was a full heir, the contract might even assign him the position of eldest son. Usually he was residuary legatee.

Hammurabi's Code of Laws: 185-194: Adoption


adoption agreement

185. If a man adopt a child and to his name as son, and rear him, this grown son can not be demanded back again. [Source: Translated by L. W. King]

186. If a man adopt a son, and if after he has taken him he injure his foster father and mother, then this adopted son shall return to his father's house.

187. The son of a paramour in the palace service, or of a prostitute, can not be demanded back.

188. If an artizan has undertaken to rear a child and teaches him his craft, he can not be demanded back.

189. If he has not taught him his craft, this adopted son may return to his father's house.

190. If a man does not maintain a child that he has adopted as a son and reared with his other children, then his adopted son may return to his father's house.

191. If a man, who had adopted a son and reared him, founded a household, and had children, wish to put this adopted son out, then this son shall not simply go his way. His adoptive father shall give him of his wealth one-third of a child's portion, and then he may go. He shall not give him of the field, garden, and house.

192. If a son of a paramour or a prostitute say to his adoptive father or mother: "You are not my father, or my mother," his tongue shall be cut off.

193. If the son of a paramour or a prostitute desire his father's house, and desert his adoptive father and adoptive mother, and goes to his father's house, then shall his eye be put out.

194. If a man give his child to a nurse and the child die in her hands, but the nurse unbeknown to the father and mother nurse another child, then they shall convict her of having nursed another child without the knowledge of the father and mother and her breasts shall be cut off.

Adoption Contracts from Mesopotamia

Contract for Adoption, c. 2000 B.C. makes the form and conditions of adoption sufficiently clear: “Arad-Iskhara, son of Ibni-Shamash, has adopted Ibni-Shamash. On the day when Arad-Iskhara to Ibni-Shamash, his father, shall say, "You are not my father," he shall bind him with a chain and sell him for money. When Ibni-Shamash to Arad-Iskhara, his son, shall say, "You are not my son," he shall depart from house and household goods; but a son shall he remain and inherit with his sons. [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]

Contract for Adoption, Ninth year of Nabonidus, 544 B.C. illustrates not only the method of adoption, but the way in which that process might be made impossible by the will of an ancestor in cases involving property. “Bel-kagir, son of Nadinu, son of Sagillai, spoke thus to Nadinu, his father, son of Ziri-ya, son of Sagillai: To Bit-turni you did send me and I took Zunna as my wife and she has not borne me son or daughter. Bel-ukin, son of Zunna, my wife, whom she bore to her former husband, Niqudu, son of Nur-Sin, let me adopt and let him be my son; on a tablet record his sonship, and seal and bequeath to him our revenues and property, as much as there is, and let him be the son taken by our hands." Nadinu was not pleased with the word Bel-kagir, his son, spoke to him. adinu had written on a tablet, "For the future any other one is not to take their revenues and property," and had bound the hands of Bel-kagir, and had published in the midst, saying: "On the day when Nadinu goes to his fate, after him, if a son shall be born from the loins of Bel-kagir, his son shall inherit the revenues and properties of Nadinu, his father; if a son is not born from the loins of Bel-kagir, Bel-kagir shall adopt his brother and fellow heir and shall bequeath his revenues and the properties of Nadinu his father to him. Bel-kagir may not adopt another one, but shall take his brother and fellow-heir unto sonship on account of the revenues and properties which Nadinu has bequeathed." (From this point the tablet is too broken for translation until we reach the witnesses. It was dated) at Babylon in the ninth year of Nabonidus.” [Ibid]

Contract for Adoption, Thirteenth year of Nabonidus, 542 B.C. “Iqisha-apla, son of Kuduru, son of Nur-Sin, had sealed a tablet of adoption for his slave, Rimanni-Bel, whose name he called Rimut, in consideration of his living and clothing. After that the tablet of adoption was sealed. Rammalli-Bel, whose name is called Rimut, went away and did not give companionship, nourishment, and clothing. Esaggil-ramat, daughter of Ziri-ya, son of Nabai, wife of Iddin-Marduk, son of Iqisha-apla, son of Nur-Sin, has taken him, given him shelter and befriended him, and has given him friendship, nourishment, and clothing. Iqisha-apla, son of Kuduru, son of Nur-Sin, of his own free-will broke the tablet of adoption and sealed him and has delivered him to Esaggil-ramat, and Nubtai, his daughter, the daughter of Iddin-Marduk, son of Nur-Sin. He shall serve Esaggil-ramat and Nubtai, her daughter; after Esaggil-ramat, he is given unto Nubtai, her daughter. Whoever shall annul this word and present bond, which Iqisha-apla has bound and given to Esaggil-ramat and Nubtai, his daughter, may Marduk and Sarpanit command his destruction! (This instrument is dated) at Babylon, in the thirteenth year of Nabonidus.

Earlier we saw above that marriage was a means of emancipation; the tablet above shows that adoption was a still more common method of accomplishing it. In this case, a man who, judging from the generations of his descendants mentioned, must have been very old, emancipated or adopted his slave on condition that the slave should take care of him. The slave thus adopted ran away and fell into the hands of the granddaughter of his former master whereupon that master destroyed the tablet of adoption, and issued another tablet, which bound the fugitive in slavery to his granddaughter and great-granddaughter forever.

Inheritance in Mesopotamia

Claude Hermann and Walter Johns wrote in the Encyclopedia Britannica:“All legitimate children shared equally in the father's estate at his death, reservation being made of a bride-price for an unmarried son, dower for a daughter or property deeded to favourite children by the father. [Source: Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian Law — The Code of Hammurabi. Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-1911 <^>]

“There was no birthright attaching to the position of eldest son, but he usually acted as executor and after considering what each had already received equalized the shares. He even made grants in excess to the others from his own share. When there were two mothers, the two families shared equally in the father's estate until later times when the first family took two-thirds. Daughters, in the absence of sons, had sons' rights. Children also shared their own mother's property, but had no share in that of a stepmother. <^>

“A father could disinherit a son in early times without restriction, but the Code insisted upon judicial consent and that only for repeated unfilial conduct. In early times the son who denied his father had his front hair shorn, a slave-mark put on him, and could be sold as a slave; while if he denied his mother he had his front hair shorn, was driven round the city as an example and expelled his home, but not degraded to slavery.” <^>

Inheritance Contracts in Mesopotamia


document concerning succession and inheritance

Contract for Division of an Estate, Third year of Cyrus, 535 B.C., is a good example of a will that has already been given. It appears there that wills like that of Nadinu would stand in spite of the wishes of some of the heirs. We may here illustrate the division of estates among the heirs. This instrument was executed at Borsippa in the third year of Cyrus. [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

“Tablet concerning the division into gin of an estate the dowry of Banat-Esaggil, their mother, which Marduk-iddin-akhi, son of Nabu-bel-shinati, son of Nur-Papsukal, divided and of which he gave to Tukultum-Marduk, son of Nabu-bel-shinati, son of Nur-Papsukal, his brother, his portion. Thirty-three and two-thirds cubits, the upper long side on the north, twenty cubits bordering on the street of _____, the side of the house of Ina-qibi-Bel, son of Balatu, son of the Rab-Uru, and the side of the house of Nabu-uballit, son of Kabtiya, son of Nabu-shimi; thirty-three cubits and eight hands, the lower long side on the south, by the side of the house of Marduk-iddin-akhi, son of Nabu-bel-shinati, son of Nur-Papsukal; thirteen cubits eight-hands, the upper short side on the west, bordering on the street Katnu-agu, thirteen cubits eight hands, the lower short side on the east, eight cubits eight hands (being on) an alley which is eight fingers wide, on the side of the streets; Katnu-la-acu; the sum is eight and two thirds gin, the measurement of the estate, the portion of Tukultum-Marduk, together with two gin, the difference _____ which the chief justice, the shukkaltum and the judges have written upon the tablet and have granted to Tukultum-Marduk, son of Nabu-bel-shanati, son of Nur-Papsukal, from Marduk-iddin-akhi, son of Nabu-bel-shanati, his brother. Marduk-iddin-akhi has thus given it to Tukultum-Marduk. An exit, an inalienable privilege which belongs to the share of Tukultum-Marduk, Marduk-iddin-akhi, son of Nabu-bel-shanati, son of Nur-Papsukal, will not remove from Tukultum-Marduk, his brother. Their suit with one another concerning their estate is ended. They will not move against one another on the basis of the suit about the estate. In order that neither may undertake it they have issued duplicate (tablets).

Babylonian Contract of Inheritance, Second year of Nabonidus, 553 B.C. illustrates how some Babylonians disposed of property before death. Gugua was evidently a widow. She divided her estate among her sons, giving to the eldest the largest portion, on condition that during her lifetime he should feed and clothe her. In return she guarantees to alienate none of his inheritance, nor to run him into debt.

“Gugua, daughter of Zaqir, son of an Isinian, of her own free-will has sealed one mana of money, which with Nabu-akhi-iddin, son of Shula, son of Egibi, is deposited-one half mana five shekels of money which is loaned to Tabnia, son of Nabu-ushallim, son of Sin-shadanu, for which a house is mortgaged; one-third mana of money, which is loaned to Tashmitu-ramat, daughter of Arad-Bel, son of Egibi; a productive field, situated on the canal of the town Kish; (all) her dowry; and allotted it to Ea-zir-ibni, her eldest son. One and a half manas six shekels of money Gugua has apportioned, in the absence of Ea-zir-ibni, to her younger sons, Nabu-akhi-uballit, Nergal-ishi-etir, Itti-Shamash-balatu, and Zamama-pir-usur. Ea-zir-ibni shall not molest them in consequence of it. One mana of money, which is deposited with Nabu-akhi-iddin; one half mana, which is in the possession of Tabnia, one third mana, which is in the possession of Tashmitu-ramat, Gugua has allotted, together with the cultivated field, to Ea-zir-ibni, her eldest son. As long as Gugua lives, Ea-zir-ibni shall give, from the income of his money, food and a living to Gugua, his mother. Whatever it contains, Gugua shall not out of affection give away, nor make a division in the foregoing. Ea-zir-ibni need fear no creditor.”

Code of the Assyrians (c. 1075 B.C.) on Inheritance and Debt

I.26. If a woman be dwelling in the house of her father, and her husband have died, any gift which her husband settled upon her---if there be any sons of her husband's, they shall receive it. If there be no sons of her husband's she receives it. [Source: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook]

I.32. If a woman be dwelling in the house of father, but has been given to her husband, whether she has been taken to the house of her husband or not, all debts, misdemeanors, and crimes of her husband shall she bear as if she too committed them. Likewise if she be dwelling with her husband, all crimes of his shall she bear as well.

I.35. If a woman, who is a widow, enter into the house of a man, whatsoever she brings with her---all is her husband's. But if a man enter in to a woman, whatsoever he brings---all is the woman's.

I.37. If a man divorce his wife, if he wish, he may give her something; if he does not wish, he need not give her anything. Empty shall she go out.

I.46. If a woman whose husband is dead on the death of her husband do not go out from her house, if her husband did not leave her anything, she shall dwell in the house of one of her sons. The sons of her husband shall support her; her food and her drink, as for a fiancee whom they are courting, they shall agree to provide for her. If she be a second wife, and have no sons of her own, with one of her husband's sons she shall dwell and the group shall support her. If she have sons of her own, her own sons shall support her, and she shall do their work. But if there be one among the sons of her husband who marries her, the other sons need not support her.

II.2. If a man among brothers who have not yet divided the paternal estate commit a killing, to the avenger of blood they shall give him. If he choose, he may be spared. His portion in the paternal estate he may seize.

II.6. Before he takes field or house for silver, three times in a month of days the buyer shall make proclamation in the city of Ashur, and three times he shall have proclamation made in the city in which he would buy the field and house. Thus: "Field and house of so-and-so, son of so-and-so, situated in the cultivable area of this city I am buying. Such as are in possession or have no objection, or have any claims on the property, let them bring their tablets, let them lay before the magistrates, let them present their claims, let them prove their title, and let them take what is theirs. Those whl during this month of days cannot bring even one of their tablets to me, lay them before the magistrates, receive in full what belongs to him." If the buyer shall have made proclamation, they shall write their tablets, the magistrates shall give them to him, saying: "In this month of days, the buyer made proclamation three times, >He who in this month of days brought not his tablets to me, did not lay them before me, shall forfeit his claim to share in field and house.' To the one making the proclamation, who is a buyer, it shall be free."

II.8. If a man meddle with the field of his neighbor, they shall convict him. Threefold shall he restore. One of his fingers they shall cut off, a hundred blows they shall inflict upon him, one month of days he shall do the king's work.

III.2. If a man sell the son or daughter of a man, who on account of debt was dwelling in his house, they shall convict him, he shall lose his money; and he shall give his minor son to the owner of the property; one hundred lashes shall they inflict upon him, twenty days shall he do the king's work.

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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