- slaves and slavery
- Slaves, known as wardum in the Babylonian dialect of Akkadian, existed in all of the societies of ancient Mesopotamia. However, slavery did not play the kind of major social and commercial role that it did later in classical (Greco-Roman) societies, particularly that of Rome, which was heavily dependent on slave labor at all levels. In Mesopotamia, by contrast, slaves were an important but not necessarily essential element of domestic life and public institutions.Slavery was well established in Mesopotamia at least by the early third millennium b.c. At first the vast majority of slaves were captives taken during raids into the mountains lying along the northern and northeastern rims of the plains. Hence, the earliest word or cuneiform sign for a slave translated literally as "man from the mountains." Many of these captured people were put to work on state building projects, such as palaces, temples, canals, defensive walls, and so forth. They often lived in barracks erected near the worksites, and their names, ages, and lands of origin were recorded by scribes on cuneiform tablets. Nevertheless, though some of these "public" slaves existed across the region for many centuries to come, in general they merely supplemented free workers. As was the case in ancient Egypt, in the third millennium B.C., and probably later, a majority of large-scale public labor in Mesopotamia was performed by free people, especially farmers, who worked on government projects on a part-time basis. As for the public slaves, over time many became workers of various kinds on the large estates run by the palaces and temples. They did jobs as diverse as ditch digging, cleaning, tending animals, planting and harvesting, and assisting craftsmen and scribes.Also over time, another group of Mes-opotamian slaves became domestic workers in private homes. The numbers of slaves in an average home remains unclear. But evidence suggests that poor people had no slaves at all because they lacked the resources to buy and maintain them; an average household in Babylonia or Assyria in the first millennium b.c. had perhaps two to four slaves; and a well-to-do household in the same period had maybe forty or more slaves. The typical work done by these domestic slaves included cleaning, cooking, taking care of the family children, and running errands. Some slaves worked in the owner's fields. However, evidence shows that in Babylonia in the second millennium b.c. it was cheaper for a farmer to hire a free farmhand for two or three years than to buy and feed a slave to do the same work during those years. Thus, a large proportion of the agricultural workforce remained free. On the other hand, some private owners employed their slaves, particularly those who showed intelligence, skill, and initiative, in workshops - making textiles, for example - or as clerks or secretaries. That means that some slaves were taught to read and write, even if on a rudimentary level. Slaves in such positions of responsibility must have had a somewhat higher status than those who performed only menial labor.Slavery in the Law Codes The status of slaves within society, along with rules and customs pertaining to slavery, was often addressed in the various law codes created in ancient Mesopotamia, including the most famous one - that of Babylonia's King Hammurabi (reigned ca. 1792-1750 b.c.). These legal codes make clear that not all slaves were war captives. Over time other avenues for enslavement developed. For instance, by the late third millennium and early second millennium b.c., it was common for some people to sell either themselves, their children, or even the whole family into slavery to repay a debt. Various laws stipulated the terms and periods of enslavement involved in debt slavery, such as this one from Hammurabi's code:If any one fail to meet a claim for debt, and sell himself, his wife, his son, and daughter for money or give them away to forced labor, they shall work for three years in the house of the man who bought them, or the proprietor, and in the fourth year they shall be set free.Thus, some people in Mesopotamia were slaves only on a temporary basis and reverted to free status once their debts were paid. Perhaps at times the practice of debt slavery got a bit out of hand and produced what society, or at least the authorities, viewed as too many ordinary people reduced to slavery. This is suggested by the fact that from time to time kings declared amnesties in which all debt slaves were freed. In Babylonia in the early second millennium b.c., such a royal decree of amnesty was called a mesharum, literally translated as "justice" or "righteousness."Another way that people became slaves was by being born into the slavery institution. As property, slaves could be passed along by their owners from one generation to another; and a child born of a slave mother and slave father was a slave, too. However, the legal status of the child was different if one of his or her parents was a free person. Another of Hammurabi's laws states, "If a state [i.e., public] slave or the slave of a free 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." Laws or customs such as this one probably had the effect of helping to keep the number of slaves in society more or less at a minimum.However a person may have become a slave, other laws and customs affected the slave's treatment and the master's rights and responsibilities. The law often protected the master, for example, even during the initial purchasing process. One of Hammurabi's laws says that if a person bought a slave, he had what was in effect a thirty-day warranty on the slave; in other words, if the slave contracted a disease during the thirty days following the purchase, the new master could return the slave and get his money back in full. The law also addressed both master and slave when an escape occurred. The frequency of slaves running away from their masters in ancient Mesopotamia is unknown, but modern scholars think it was a fairly rare occurrence. This may have been partly because the penalties for escape were severe; also, an escaped slave essentially hadnowheretogoandnoonetohelpor shelter him or her. In Mesopotamian society, as in all other ancient societies, slavery was viewed as a natural and inevitable condition, one sanctioned by the gods, so there was no sympathy for the escapee. In addition, a person who aided a runaway slave was himself severely punished, sometimes with the death penalty. For instance, a barber who shaved off the long lock of hair that often designated slave status in Mesopotamia could have his own hand cut off. However, when an escape did happen, it is probable that the runaway slave was rarely, if ever, killed. This is because the slave, despite his or her rebellious nature, was a valuable piece of property; it was cheaper for the owner to punish the slave in hopes of deterring future escape attempts than to slay the slave and buy a new one. A runaway was perhaps beaten or starved. He or she also had a symbol or word standing for "escaped slave" branded onto his or her forehead, a practice also used later by the Romans.The fact that slaves, even runaways, had financial value is also reflected in laws that protected masters for "damages" suffered by their slaves. According to another of Hammurabi's statutes, "If [a free person] puts out the eye of a man's slave, or breaks the bone of a man's slave, he shall pay [the owner] one-half of [the slave's] value." Similarly, the law protected the master against "malpractice" by doctors who might treat an injured slave. "If a physician makes a large incision in the slave of a free man, and kill him," Hammurabi decreed, "he shall replace the slave with another slave."Despite their lowly condition, however, slaves did have a few rights and privileges that masters and society in general were forced to recognize and uphold. First, as in ancient Greece and Rome, household slaves in Mesopotamia often developed close relationships with the master and his family members; sometimes, if the master had no children of his own, or if his children had died, he might legally adopt one or more of his more trusted slaves. By doing so, he could be assured that there would be someone around to care for him in his old age. On the other hand, if the master's wife was physically unable to bear children, a slave woman might be selected to bear the master's child. That child would, of course, be a free person. It is likely that in many such situations the child's biological mother was freed as a reward for the services she had rendered the family. In addition, slaves could take part in commerce, usually in a business owned by the master, and receive wages for such work. Some evidence suggests that at least a few slaves accumulated considerable "savings" this way. As for whether they could use this money to buy their freedom, modern scholars are divided; some think that Mesopotamian slaves (debt slaves aside) could buy their freedom, but others feel there is not yet enough evidence to support this contention.
Ancient Mesopotamia dictioary. Don Nardo Robert B. Kebric. 2015.
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