Monday, March 26, 2007

Mesopotamian Law

Though capitals and dynasties rose and fell, the land between the rivers remained captive to the annual floods and to the consequent need for cooperation, su­perlative engineering, and frequent redistribution of land. The Mesopotamians’ highest intellectual achieve­ments were therefore practical rather than speculative. The development of writing is a prime example of their talents. The Mesopotamians were also the first great mathematicians. Using a numerical system based on sixty instead of the modern ten, they produced refer­ence tables for multiplication, division, square roots, cube roots, and other functions. Their greatest achieve­ment, however, was the place-value system of notation in which the value of each digit is determined by its po­sition after the base instead of by a separate name. This makes describing large numbers possible and is the ba­sis of all modern numeral systems.
The Babylonians also created one of the first com­prehensive legal codes. Named after Hammurabi, it is almost certainly a compendium of existing laws rather than new legislation and reflects a legal tradition that had been developing for centuries. Its basic principles were retribution in kind and the sanctity of contracts. In criminal cases this meant literally “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” if the social status of the par­ties was equal. If not, a defendant of higher status could usually escape by paying a fine. Blood feuds, private retribution, and other features of tribal law were, however, forbidden. This same sense of retribu­tive justice extended to the punishment of fraud and negligence. A builder whose house collapsed and killed its occupants could be executed; tavern keepers who watered their drinks were drowned. Craftsmen were required to replace poor workmanship at their own expense, and farmers who failed to keep their ditches and levees in good repair were sold into slav­ery if they could not compensate the victims of their carelessness. Contracts governed everything from marriage to interest rates and could not be broken without paying a heavy fine.

Hammurabi’s Code was driven by an almost op­pressive sense of social responsibility. The ecology of Mesopotamia was both fragile and highly artificial. Only elaborate regulation could prevent disaster, and the law is explicit on many aspects of trade, agriculture, and manufacturing. Courts and town councils took an interest in matters that other cultures have regarded as private. Furthermore, because there were no lawyers, the parties to a dispute were expected to plead their own cases. Marriage, as in most ancient cultures, was arranged by parents. The bride received a dowry, which she was entitled to keep in the event of widowhood or divorce. Husbands could demand a divorce at any time but had to pay maintenance and child support unless they could demonstrate that the wife had failed in her duties. These duties, like all other aspects of the marriage arrangement, were spelled out in a detailed contract that in effect made the couple a single person, responsi­ble before the law for their actions and their debts. The latter was an important point, for husbands had the right to sell wives and children into servitude, usually for no more than two or three years, to satisfy their creditors. The system was patriarchal, but wives could sue for divorce on grounds of cruelty or neglect, or if their hus­band falsely accused them of adultery. If adultery were proved, the guilty couple would be tied together and drowned; if the aggrieved husband forgave his wife, her lover would be pardoned as well. All of these family is­sues were heard before the city councils, which demon­strates the continuing importance of local government even after the establishment of an empire. Women, like men, were expected to plead their own cases—a right often denied them in more modern legal systems—but recourse to the law had its perils. To reduce litigation, Hammurabi’s Code decreed the death penalty for those who brought false accusations or frivolous suits. Sumerians Worshipping Abu, God of Vegetation. This group of marble votive statues (the largest is thirty inches high and probably represents the local king) was carved at Eshnunna in southern Mesopotamia between 2700 and 2500 B.C. The figures were placed around the altar and were expected to serve as perpetual stand-ins for their donors. The huge, staring eyes reflect the rapt attention expected by the god.
Hammurabi, like most lawgivers, claimed divine sanction for his code, but Mesopotamian religion was not legalistic. The Sumerians had worshipped more than three thousand deities, most of whom represented natural forces or the spirit of a particular locality. In time many of them acquired human form, and a rich mythology developed around their adventures. Babylon made its city god, Marduk, its chief, while the Assyrians accorded similar honors to Ashur. Both were thought of as creators who had brought the universe out of primal chaos. Other gods and goddesses were still worshipped, but in an apparent step toward monotheism, they were increasingly described as agents of Marduk or Ashur and eventually as manifesta­tions of a single god. The power of the gods was absolute. Humans were dependent on their whims and could hope only to pro­pitiate them through the ceremonies of the priests.

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