The ancient Mesopotamian kingdom of Babylon flourished under the reign of Hammurabi, who ruled from 1792 to 1750 B.C. What’s remarkable about this period of Babylonian history is that archeologists have recovered tens of thousands of cuneiform tablets that paint a detailed picture of life in the ancient kingdom located in what is now Iraq.
There are countless contracts, for example, that record the adoption of a child, the hiring of a workman or the purchase of a field. There are letters—some just the size of a postage stamp—that offer an intimate glimpse into family relationships and royal responsibilities.
And even Hammurabi’s famous “code,” the first written law on record, provides a “wonderful window into daily life,” says Amanda Podany, a history professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and author of Weavers, Scribes and Kings: A New History of the Ancient Near East.
“Surprisingly, Hammurabi’s laws don’t tell us a lot about Babylonian law, because they weren’t actually enacted,” adds Podany. “What they represent are precedents from cases that went to court, and a lot had to do with quotidian things like agriculture, divorce, inheritance and the treatment of slaves.”
Family, Class and Society in Ancient Babylon
Historians have no solid grasp of the population of Babylon in Hammurabi's time, but it might well have been more than 25,000. Centuries later, it swelled to more than 100,000 and was the largest city in Mesopotamia.
If you walked down a street in Hammurabi’s Babylon, all you would see on both sides were tall mud-brick walls with doors. Behind the doors, though, were open-air courtyards ringed with rooms and living spaces. Outside windows were uncommon, but the central courtyard provided plenty of light and air.
Family was of the highest importance to Babylonians and extended families often lived next to one another. For that reason, Babylonians rarely sold the family home, Podany says. It was passed down over the generations and family burial plots were often under the courtyard.
Ancient Babylonian society was patriarchal, says Podany, but Babylonian women actually had more rights than in later civilizations like ancient Greece. They could represent themselves in court, own property and pass it down to their children, and hold positions as priestesses and officials.
It was rare for a Babylonian man to take a second wife and was usually only permissible in cases where the first wife was unable to bear a child.
Class wasn’t rigid in Babylonian society. The king and his royal line were on top, of course, followed by the chief priests and priestesses of the many temples dedicated to Babylonian gods. But among the people, there was movement between the landowning class, known as awilum or “gentlemen,” and the mushkenum or “commoners,” who were free, but probably didn’t own land.
Slaves belonged to the wardum class. Although some Babylonian slaves were purchased and others were born into slavery, in many cases slavery was a temporary state in Babylon. If a commoner fell deeply into debt, he could be enslaved to his creditors until the debt was repaid. Other Babylonian slaves were captives from warfare whose families couldn’t pay their ransom.
Agriculture, Artisans and Trade
In Hammurabi’s day, the wealth of the city was measured by its production of barley and wool, the latter of which was woven into textiles for trade.
Much of Babylon’s agricultural land was owned by either the king or a temple complex, but some individuals also owned and managed private land. The difficult work of digging canals, plowing fields and raising sheep was done by hired and conscripted labor. Soldiers were also allotted parcels of land in return for military service. They didn’t own the land, but a portion of the harvest was their salary and their family’s sustenance.
In addition to barley, the staple crop for bread and beer—a mostly mild brew rich in protein and calories—Babylonians would have harvested dates from towering date palm orchards and vegetables from smaller garden plots. The agricultural abundance of Babylon was made possible by an extensive system of hand-dug canals and levees that supplied fresh water from the nearby Euphrates River.
Tens of thousands of sheep, the source of Babylon’s textile industry, would have grazed in the parched foothills. Shearing, which happened in late December and early January, was a colossal undertaking. The Babylonians called it “plucking,” says Podany, because instead of shearing the wool, the workers combed and plucked it from the sheep as they naturally shed their coats in the spring. The huge piles of wool were stored in the royal “plucking house.”
Babylonian women played an essential role as weavers, producing the high-quality woolen textiles that were traded with neighboring kingdoms for metals, timber, semi-precious stones and building stone.
Temples and Religious Life
Babylonians were polytheistic and worshiped a large pantheon of gods and goddesses. Some of the gods were state deities, like Marduk, the chief patron god of Babylon, who dwelled in a towering temple. Others were personal gods that families worshiped at humble home shrines.
Across the city, there were temples dedicated to major state deities like Ishtar, Enlil, Sin and Shamash, in addition to Marduk. Inside each temple was an elaborate cult statue of the god or goddess, and only the priests, priestesses and temple workers were allowed to enter the god’s presence.
“The statue wasn’t a representation of the god; it was the god,” says Podany. “The statue had to be fed three times a day, served wine and beer and clothed with jewelry. On festival days, the great gods would be paraded through the streets.”
Law and Justice
Hammurabi’s famously strict “code” of laws was never enforced as such—at least judging from surviving court records—but Hammurabi’s code reflects the sophistication of Babylon’s judicial system.
Each Babylonian court was overseen by seven judges, and rulings were determined by majority opinions. If someone brought a case before the court, the judges would sometimes call for an independent investigation and for witnesses to testify under oath.
“Being a witness was a big deal,” says Podany, since every contract and business deal required witnesses. “The witnesses would have to swear an oath to the gods, and if they were brought before the court, their oath would be equivalent of saying, ‘If I’m not telling the truth, then let Shamash kill me.’ To lie wasn’t worth it.”
The Babylonian legal system included provisions that prevented judges from taking bribes or favoring the rich. Even the punishments, which might strike modern readers as cruel, often took the victim’s class into account.
For example, if a wealthy man blinded the eye of an equally wealthy man, then the perpetrator would have one of his eyes blinded as his punishment. But if a rich man blinded the eye of a commoner, he would pay the victim 60 shekels of silver, the equivalent of six years’ salary. For the commoner, Podany says, the money was far more valuable than knowing his attacker was also blind in one eye.
“It seems to have been a system that Babylonians prided themselves on for its fairness,” says Podany.
War and Conquest
In Hammurabi’s time, warfare was waged differently than in later periods, where violent, protracted battles claimed countless lives.
“Wars were very much planned,” says Podany. If neighboring kingdoms had a border dispute, diplomats would decide on a date and time for a battle. “A single battle would often decide who won.”
In his 30th year on the throne, Hammurabi found a passion for empire building, and over the next 13 years he conquered 17 neighboring kingdoms and regions. One feature of warfare in Hammurabi’s day was that armies tried to capture—not necessarily kill—as many enemy soldiers as possible. That’s because prisoners of war were held for ransom, a lucrative trade.
Here, merchants played a key role. Since merchants traveled widely and spoke several languages, they would pay a prisoner’s ransom and bring him back to his home country. In Babylon, if the family was poor and couldn’t pay the ransom, the responsibility fell on the temple. And if the temple couldn’t pay it, then the palace would cover the debt.