Welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge, the podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.
The Laws of Hammurabi are perhaps the most widely known product of ancient Babylon. They were equally famous in antiquity. Scribes were still copying them well over a thousand years after Hammurabi’s time. Their eye-for-an-eye style punishments give us a sense that Babylonia was a harsh place in which to live. Law collections like Hammurabi’s are not our only source for learning about law and order though. And the documents of daily life suggest that such so-called “codes” are to some extent manifestos, visions of ideal justice that don’t map neatly onto everyday reality.
One particularly rich source of information about law and order is the archives from the 6th to 4th century BC. Each individual text can be rather mundane and unspectacular. But put together, these isolated episodes become coherent stories. They can tell us a lot about social and family dynamics.
Our guest is an expert in Babylonia from 6th to 4th century, and has written extensively on law and order. She guides us through crime, justice, and punishment. What really happened when someone broke the law in Babylon?
So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.
Hello, Jon. Thank you for your invitation.
Could you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?
My name is Malgorzata Sandowicz. I’m an assyriologist. I work at the University of Warsaw in Poland. My scholarly interest lies in the first millennium BC Babylonia, especially in the period between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE, which we call the Neo Babylonian period, or the Neo Babylonian long century. I’m particularly interested in one aspect of Babylonian life, namely law and order. I work with cuneiform tablets that allow us to study crime in Babylonia.
What kind of material do you work with? How do we know about law and order during this long century?
This period has yielded a significant number of Akkadian tablets. Estimates vary, but perhaps as many as 100,000 texts from this relatively short period of time. While the majority of these texts are superficially boring administrative and legal documents, they do allow us to study most aspects of everyday life in Babylon. These texts tell us how, when, and by whom crimes were committed, how they were investigated, prosecuted, and how the Babylonians of the first millennium settled disputes both in and out of court. We can learn about this issues from a variety of documents types, including detailed court protocols or records of depositions and records of hearings, but also from lists of stolen items, receipts, and debt notes for penalties, letters or many, many others.
We are occasionally able to put together entire files of criminal proceedings that reveal the steps that authorities had to take in order to trace wrongdoers, investigate their offenses, gather evidence, and ultimately to bring offenders to justice. It’s actually quite exciting work, such a reconstruction of criminal proceedings frequently becomes a sort of criminal investigation itself. Well, at least I feel like a detective when I managed to put together a series of depositions concerning one case, then a court protocol, and yet later, a receipt for court imposed penalty delivered by a losing party and so on. And so forth.
Was Babylonia of the long century a dangerous place? Were there any bad neighbourhoods in Babylon and the other cities?
We don’t know of any bad neighbourhoods. That is no no-go zones. This is true not only of the long century, but also of earlier periods. Although brawls are known to have taken place at taverns. This the sounds quite familiar, doesn’t it? Also today it may become unpleasant round some pubs shortly after last call. We often read about burglaries, including burglaries committed at night. Apparently night was the time for crime already in ancient Iraq. This is on one hand unsurprising. As night in Babylonian cities was darker, it could serve as better cover than it is the case today. Also prison breaks took place under the cover of night.
But on the other hand, according to earlier law collections, nighttime was an aggravating circumstance. A burglar caught red-handed at night was to be killed on the spot, whereas a burglar caught red-handed during the day could get away with a fine. Many burglars didn’t operate alone. One text describes how the father and his daughter were spotted at night, when making a hole in a storeroom roof and stealing dates through it. From other documents, we learned about much bigger groups–gangs, in fact. One such gang, which operated in the southern city of Uruk, had as many as 40 mobsters among its members. And interestingly, a slave was the leader. The activity of this notorious gang went so far as to attract the attention of the king, who himself issued orders to have those men arrested. So yes, walking alone through Babylon or another Babylonian city, especially at nighttime could have been dangerous.
We know very little about particularly brutal crimes such as murder. This is not because such crimes were not committed against Babylonians. The reasons might lie elsewhere. Murder was subject to the death penalty, and it was considered to be a case for the king. So perhaps evidence regarding such heinous crimes lies somewhere in the Babylonian royal archives, which we do not have, regrettably. But not necessarily. Perhaps very simply, there were usually no good reasons for creating documents related to murder cases and death penalties, as they would have no practical application. Because texts were drafted in order to serve as proof of ownership or obligation. So unless the death penalty was converted into financial compensation, I can’t think of any strong reasons to someone describe when a person was sentenced to death.
Do we know anything about the background of criminals and why they committed crimes?
Not unexpectedly, some crimes were committed by people in distress, especially people suffering from hunger. A large number of recorded cases deal with the theft of eatables. We frequently read about stolen temple sheep or oxen, which the thieves would immediately slaughter and eat, or at least attempted to eat. Temple envoys and policemen would then find all the leftovers of animal body parts such as heads marked with temple brandings. One text tells a moving story of four oblates–oblates were temple dependents–who while working away from the temple found two ducks. They killed and buried the birds in mud by a river, presumably planning to come back later and eat them. But they were unfortunately caught and severely punished.
Scholars have pinpointed occasional correlations between periods of famine caused by locusts or poor harvests on the one hand, and a surge in the number of such cases of theft of foodstuff on the other hand. But obviously not all thieves could provide such compelling justification for the crimes. For example, the man who stole a money pouch in a tavern and then went shopping for clothes, including underwear, certainly couldn’t. Nor could the woman who promised to safe-keep the jewellery of another lady and subsequently claimed that she had never received it.
What about white collar crime?
As is often the case, large and complex institutions, such as Babylonian temples or palaces lost real money, not through pilfering as in the case of the two stolen ducks, but through large scale embezzlement of the resources by their clerks and associates. The best known example of such a white collar Neo-Babylonian thief is an oblate of the chief temple of the city of Uruk by the name of Gimillu. His social status was rather low. Yet Gimillu rose to a position of power and continued to embezzle temple funds and resources for nearly 20 years. What did he do? He seized temple animals from shepherds and kept them for himself. In exchange for money, he released run-away oblates and rented them out as workers–of course, keeping the salaries for himself. He allegedly even plotted to murder a royal representative in the Eanna temple. Temple authorities struggled for many years to bring him to justice. But even after they put him on trial, Gimillu resurfaced as a holder of another function in the temple administration. How is it possible you might ask? It’s believed that he had strong backing, perhaps as high as in the Royal Court.
Once you fell victim to a crime, or you had a claim against another person, what would you do? Was there a police force to call or authorities to report an incident to?
Well, policemen and law enforcement officials did exist in ancient Iraq, but their role was not to conduct crime investigation as we know it. Such officials were sent out by authorities to catch thieves, robbers and murderers, to look for missing goods. They also patrolled streets and collected fines. But in order to bring one’s adversary to justice, one would often have to resort to self help. In other words, one might have to take the law in one’s own hands.
Most disputes that we know of are not concerned with dramatic criminal cases. Rather they are property disputes over inheritance among family members and controversies among creditors, debtors, contractors. It was often the case that in order to obtain justice, one seized one’s opponent–for example, defaulting debtor–and locked him up in a private prison of a kind. There, the debtor was put to work in order to work his debt off. But the chief objective of such an arrangement was to put pressure on the debtor’s family, who in most cases make every effort to find the means to pay the debts.
Temples and presumably other institutions likewise had they own prisons and imprisonsed not only defaulting debtors, but also criminals, including murderers who awaited trials in these facilities. These prisons were not specially designed buildings, but rather store houses or other secure buildings, or even rooms under lock and key. Conditions in these prisons were harsh. Prisoners were chained, and probably ill fed. And texts mention people becoming ill or even dying in such institutions. So temple officials often agreed to release prisoners on bail, especially when prisoners became ill, and there was a risk that they would die in custody. Or even perhaps when prisoners were simply unable to work.
Apart from securing a release through bail, families and friends could help such poor detained men and women in another way, namely by helping them escape. One text records the testimony of a woman–a slave–who smuggled shears to a temple prison, and specifically to her owner’s son. The shears were later used to terrorize a prison warder during an attempted escape. So self help was one possibility. It was presumably open to Babylonians of high standing.
But even others before bringing a case before judges could consider yet another option, namely settling a dispute out of court. Disputes in Mesopotamia were settled in this way for centuries. But we can hardly assess the scope of such proceedings, as they were usually concluded orally and thus left few traces. Often only the last stage was recorded, for example, in the form of an official renunciation of claims–a quitclaim. But in the case of first millennium Babylonia, we may reconstruct such procedures in greater detail, as there was a tendency to record more documents during subsequent stages of such proceedings. This is especially the case with regard to arbitration, which we know quite well. Texts recount that parties began by choosing the arbiters. And litigants who were related often chose arbiters from among members of their extended families. So their cousins or uncles. Disputants, they usually swore an oath that they will accept the decision of arbiters, whatever it would be. Then the plaintiff would lodge his or her complaint, after which the defendant would present his or her counterclaim, and the trial itself would begin. And in the end, after arbiters had announced their verdict, the parties involved sometimes took yet another oath that they would abide by the decision. And in the end, a party or parties, perhaps both of them, would issue a quitclaim promising not to return to the dispute ever again. Interestingly, it was sometimes the case that after such proceedings, parties would still go before judges in order to officially confirm a settlement made out of court.
What happened when self help and arbitration didn’t solve your problem?
One could bring one’s adversary before judges, usually again relying initially on self help. On such occasions, a plaintiff usually didn’t have to seize defendant. It was enough that he approached the defendant with a formal complaint made in front of witnesses. In the first millennium Babylonia, such complaints were recorded. We read in them, for example, before these and these men, X said to Y “you have taken my sheep and you never gave it back”. And with such a formal record of complaint, one could go to court.
Alternatively, one could bring one’s claim directly before judges. And a very determined plaintiff from provincial Babylonia could approach judges in Babylon … in the capital … either personally, or by means of a letter. A plaintiff would probably go to such lengths after having exhausted all locally available means to secure a fair trial. Judges in Babylon would ask local authorities to send them defendants, evidence, and all necessary information. This approach seems more familiar than seizing one’s adversary and putting him in a prison. But this was not necessarily the more popular option.
As today, people in ancient Babylonia also tried to avoid going to court and standing before judges. Legal documents occasionally openly state the people against whom complaints were lodged, were literally scared of standing trials, and instead chose to offer compensations to claimants to have claims withdrawn. This reminds us of modern settlement agreements in which victims are offered, sometimes millions of dollars. Yet wrongdoers never admit that they have committed the crimes that they were accused of. And this is not all. We also read in court documents of defendants running away from courtrooms in the middle of trials. So the fear of courts, the fear of judges and verdicts was not at all elusive.
Who were the judges?
Well, first of all disputes in Babylonia were never settled by single judges, as was the case of, for example, Assyria. In Babylonia, judges always sat in groups. Such collegial bodies formed various courts, but two types prevail. One type was represented by local courts, which comprised respected members of local communities, such as city elders, priests, various local functionaries, sometimes high officials of provincial administrations, or even judges also joined. Those were people who were well acquainted with local traditions, procedures and legal norms, such as local customs governing penalties for given crimes. But they also knew the citizens of the cities and sometimes even remembered past events that were relevant to trials. For example, that X really sold the house by the canal to Y years ago. Or that Y didn’t have children and had adopted a son of Z. Or that many years ago, there was a rumour the Z was a thief, and it was he who broke in the house of X.
When a plaintiff or a defendant was not satisfied with this decision of the local court, they could address another kind of court, a high court, the seat of which was in Babylon. High courts comprised professional judges, who sat in panels of usually from six to nine men. There is no evidence that those men underwent specialized judicial training, but at least some of them were educated as scribes. And in the course of the scribal education, they learned legal formulae and copied legal documents, including trial documents and fragments of law collections. They knew therefore, at least some legal jargon, and had some knowledge of trial proceedings.
We do not know if they had more advanced judicial knowledge. So when I say “professional judges”, I only mean that they held a judicial function for a considerable period of time, often for many years. And they were part of a judicial hierarchy within which they advanced over the years. They were called royal judges. Hence they were royal appointees who used official seals and signed, one could say, official documents using their names and titles. We don’t really know why those particular men were selected to join judicial collegia. But it’s possible that several factors played a role. Among them perhaps the simple fact that these individuals enjoyed royal favour. Royal judges accepted claims from litigants coming from all over Babylonia, either in a courthouse in Babylon or during the circuits they rode over the country, which were similar to the circuits that British assize judges rode. Of course, it was a man’s work. Women never set as judges, neither in local courts nor in high courts in the capital.
There was yet another authority to whom a person with a grievance could turn. It was the king. The claim to fame of Mesopotamian monarchs was always maintaining law and order in the land. Letters and legal documents demonstrate that this claim was not only rhetorical in nature. Apart from delegating justice, kings occasionally sat to personally clear disputes and render verdicts. In first millennium BC Assyria, one could address the king directly by means of a procedure called amat sharri, the king’s word, which allowed subjects to seek an audience with the king. While this procedure was still known in Babylonia during the early long century, it seems to have become obsolete after the royal court in Babylon started to operate at full capacity.
Where did courts meet?
Judicial bodies usually sat in places where gatherings in Babylonia traditionally took place, namely at city and temple gates. One of the gates of the Eanna temple in Uruk was even called bab dini, the judgement gate”. Such locations were used to settle disputes not only in Mesopotamia, but also elsewhere in ancient Near East, for example, in ancient Israel and Anatolia. But in Babylon, there was in all likelihood yet a special building that served as a seat of the High Court. We know about it from a royal inscription describing how a king–either Nebuchadnezzar or Nabonidus–built anew a courthouse building called bit dini. At the entrance to the courthouse, the king had a stone copy of the head of a criminal fixed, with an inscription written on it that warned against the reopening of trials. The inscription said, “Once you have heard your verdict, once you have received a tablet, confirming it, you are not allowed to go back to trial. And if you do it, this is what will happen to you. Your head will be chopped off like this.”
How open was justice? Could anybody bring a case to court?
Well, first of all, it might come as a surprise, but the Babylonian judicial system was open to groups that were otherwise underprivileged, including women, slaves, and oblates–that means temple dependents. They appeared in court not only as witnesses, but also as defendants and even plaintiffs. Of course, it is possible that we are overlooking some nuances concerning the statutes that may be appearances in court possible. For example, in the case of women, being married may potentially have been prerequisite. The number of trial documents showing women as plaintiffs or defendants, it’s in fact quite high. Judging on this number, we could say that Babylonian women were quite litigious.
There were very few restrictions when it came to taking even one’s family members to court. We have trial records showing grandsons standing in court against their grandmothers, wives standing against their husbands, brothers in law against each other, and so on and so forth. On the one limitation seems to have existed. I don’t know any case of a son taking his father to court, or a daughter taking her father to court. In Mesopotamia, fathers traditionally had legal authority over their households. We have evidence from earlier periods that the father could sell his children. And under certain circumstances, he could disinherit his sons. He was not allowed to kill them, though. So suing one’s father, if possible at all, would not only be an infringement of a strict social norm, but would also represent a great economic risk. In fact, many conflicts must have been resolved within families, with fathers and grandfathers acting as judges. Such disputes usually went unrecorded. So a realistic picture of domestic jurisdiction eludes us to a large extent.
How did a Babylonian trial work? Was it something that we might recognise today?
When it came to taking cases to judges, judicial proceedings happened in a way very similar to that which we know today, especially when one thinks of continental court procedures. So judges not only heard what the parties had to say, but also actively investigated cases that were brought to their attention. They first received plaintiffs’ statements, then summoned defendants, either through clerks or, if defendants lived in another city or town, through the authorities of that city or town in question. Judges also summoned witnesses and before announcing the verdict they heard testimonies, examined evidence, and they even made visits to crime scenes.
There was one important difference: there were no attorneys, no counselors. So when going to court, you had to represent yourself. There’s a few differences and similarities that are quite interesting. The approach to handling evidence, for example, is quite interesting. Material evidence in Babylonia was secured and reviewed in a very scrupulous way. It was not enough that judges received a report concerning, for example, items stolen from a defendant’s house and found in the hands of a burglar who had been seized. Judges had to see the corpus delicti in court.
This is remarkable, because in doing so judges acted in accordance with one of the essential principles of criminal proceedings as we know it today. Namely that judges must base their decisions only on evidence they actually see. So when certain Urukean broke out of the prison, and when ambushed drew a knife on the guards who were pursuing him, this knife was confiscated and brought to an assembly meeting. That assembly who examined the knife not only filed a report on the examination, but also secured and sealed the knife, presumably in the temple treasury. Later, during a court sitting, judges would have had the knife brought over and examined just as nowadays instruments used in crimes packed in plastic bags and labeled are paraded before courts. This principle applied even in the case of crimes that were committed in provincial cities and yet tried in Babylon. In such cases, evidence could be brought from distant locations. We have letters in which judges of the High Court asked authorities of provincial cities to send such seized evidence to Babylon ahead of trials, even from as far away as Uruk in southern Babylonia.
It’s noteworthy that a similar procedure seems to have applied even in cases involving perishable corpora delicti. We read in our texts that assembly members packed and sealed chunks of meat left over from stolen and slaughtered temple animals. They seem to have done the same thing, even when the prospect of the trial was remote. On such occasions, meat could have been considerably preserved in salt. But what about for example, rotten dates seized from a priest who had been arrested after allegedly attempting to sell the dates as part of an offering? Well, there are still some unanswered questions here. So-called irrational evidentiary procedures were another peculiarity of Mesopotamian criminal investigations. When evidence was missing, or it was considered insufficient or unreliable, judges could impose oaths on defendants or witnesses. Also today, people in court swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. But in the ancient world, the weight of an oath was heavier, and the circumstances surrounding oath-taking were more complex and awe-inspiring.
We know that in second millennium Babylonia, oath takers were sent to temples to swear in the presence of divine statues. They also occasionally participated in a ceremony called “lifting of the gods”, which probably involved touching sacred objects in some way. In the first millennium, some oaths were sworn by astral deities under the night sky. If such oaths were administered at the time when celestial bodies were not visible, ceremonies would be postponed until the relevant stars and planets could be seen in the night sky. Oaths by the sun god, the god of justice, were taken at sunrise on rooftops, and oath takers stood in magic circles made of holy flour that separated that which was considered pure from which was considered impure.
I believe the psychological effects that such circumstances had on oath takers were no doubt tremendous. People believed that upon committing perjury, they would be actually physically punished by gods. And at the beginning of the long century, yet another irrational ancient Mesopotamian means of acquiring evidence was in use. It was the ordeal, a method that would require one or both litigants to dive into a river and swim a certain distance. Babylonian royal inscriptions recount a case in which one of two litigants undergoing an ordeal didn’t survive the procedure. Moreover, his body disappeared, and when soldiers dispatched by the king found him later by the riverside, his head was mutilated and bleeding and his body was covered with sores. Well, perhaps in this way, the river god punished this man for having lodged false claims, and undergone the ordeal despite having been in the wrong.
If you were a suspect, might you be tortured during interrogation?
Well, unfortunately, yes. People who were under investigation were in all likelihood subjected to torture, although it’s unclear whether this was a common means of compelling individuals to testify. Also the circumstances under which torture was inflicted, are obscure. One text mentioned that the temple authorities handed a suspect to an official called rab qanati, and ordered this official to extract from the suspect the names of his fellow thieves. We know from elsewhere that individuals bearing the title rab qanati handled prisoners, and apparently they also worked as torture masters. The title rab qanati likely means “cane bearer”, so holders of this title must have used canes, perhaps ropes or batons similar to lathis used today by Indian policemen, as their professional tools and symbols of power as well.
A chronicle from Hellenistic Babylonia recounts that certain individuals caught stealing temple gold were questioned using a “leather of interrogation”, which was presumably a torture instrument. According to some scholars, the torture method used in Babylonia could have been the bastinado, that is foot whipping with a stick. The use of bastinado was widespread in the Middle East, for example, in the Ottoman Empire, both as a form of torture and a penalty. It was apparently very painful and very effective.
Many people have heard of the laws of Hammurabi, from an earlier period of Babylonian history. They famously include all sorts of harsh punishments involving mutilation, dismemberment, and death. Are these the sorts of penalties that might be imposed during the long century?
Such brutal physical corporal punishments seem shocking to us and they seem shocking to modern audiences. But they were in fact common not only in Middle Eastern but also in early European legal systems. And not all far back. Still in the 18th and 19th centuries, criminals in England and America were branded on the cheeks and on their hands. And they were mutilated. For example, they had their ears cut off. And in the Middle East, even today, Sharia courts in parts of the Middle East and Africa, although not frequently, they do exact draconic corporal punishments. Thieves have their hands severed, unfaithful wives are stoned, and drinkers of alcohol are lashed. Such penalties served and continue to serve as stronge deterrents.
However, we know that in Babylonia some people who were to undergo such punishments could escape having to do so by paying ransom. Certain rich Babylonian priests and businessmen from the northern Babylonian city of Sippar, Marduk-remanni, was sentenced by a court to having his hand cut off, and yet he survived intact after his legal opponents agreed to accept as ransom no less than 26 minas of silver. 26 minas of silver was a shockingly large sum of money. You could buy with it at least 26 good quality slaves or several houses. Such conversion of harsh physical penalties into financial compensation was not always possible, however. And not only because very few people were able to pay similar amounts. Some crimes had to be punished severely. And the penalties that they carried, we’re not negotiable. According to a Hellenistic chronicle, thieves who committed a sacrilegious act of stealing golden temple utensils were burned alive. Even a thief who died in prison waiting for his sentence to be passed didn’t escape the penalty. His corpse was subsequently burned. In such cases, even rich and influential people couldn’t escape justice.
How can we follow your work?
You can find most of my articles on www.academia.edu.
You also have a recent book about this, don’t you?
That’s true. I have published recently a book in which I published over 50 documents … legal court documents from first millennium BC Babylonia. It’s called Neo-Babylonian Dispute Documents from the British Museum. And it has been published by the publishing house Zaphon.
Thank you very much.
Thank you very much for having me.
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