Mesopotamia, the “land between the rivers,” is known as the cradle of civilization. It is the home of major civilizations like Sumer (3500-2006 B.C.), Babylonia (1792-539 B.C.), and Assyria (115-612 B.C.), which first developed the basics of technology and culture. The first communities settled in the north, but because of unpredictable rainfall, they moved south by 5000 B.C. and populated the fertile alluvial plain. Due to fertile soils, there appeared a possibility to settle down and lead agricultural life. As a result, more villages appeared, and this led to the emergence of first cities around 3500 B.C.
Mesopotamia had no strong central government since natural boundaries were not protected, which led to a “cultural diffusion” and permanent migrations of Indo-Europeans from the territory between the Caspian and Black seas. The “city-states,” i.e. independent political units, which were bound by economic dependence, were the major political entities. Mesopotamians were polytheistic and believed that the world looked like a flat disk, which was surrounded by space. The universe was created and controlled by four gods: the god of heaven, air, water, and the goddess of earth. Every city had a separate god or goddess, who was worshipped in temples or ziggurats (stepped temple towers, which linked the earth and heaven).
Political power belonged to kings and queens who were believed to have descended from the city gods. Kings usually called themselves “the king of the universe,” “the great/wise king,” “the king of righteousness”. The primary task of a king was to take care of his people. The Babylonian king Hammurabi established laws of justice – the Code of Hammurabi, which is the best-preserved collection of Mesopotamian law codes. The Code distinguished between the three social classes: nobles (warriors, priests, and officials), freemen (rich farmers, merchants, artisans, and professionals), and slaves. The principle of requital was crucial; it came into force when the upper class committed crimes against their equals. If, however, lower classes were offended, a monetary fine was applied.
Robbery was rather widespread in the Mesopotamian society. Thieves were either put to death or had to pay a tenfold fine. A person who was caught committing the robbery was put to death. “If the robber is not caught, then shall he who was robbed claim under oath the amount of his loss; then shall the community, and…on whose ground and territory and in whose domain it was compensate him for the goods stolen”. An offender who broke a hole into a house to steal something had to “be put to death before that hole and buried” (King, n.d); if someone tried to rob the burning house, he would “be thrown into that self-same fire” (King, n.d). In case of people’s kidnapping, “the community would pay one mina of silver to their relatives”.
Another distinctive feature of the Mesopotamian society was slavery. Slaves were either criminals or captives. One could be condemned to slavery if he struck an older brother or kicked a mother; if a person went into debt, he/she could become a slave. To pay his debts, a man could “temporary” sell his wife and children into slavery. Slaves’ work was used in public buildings, temples, and private households. Predominantly, temple slaves were women, whose duty was doing domestic chores. Royal slaves would construct fortifications and buildings. Private citizens’ slaves also had to perform domestic chores. The slaves who disobeyed their masters risked losing some part of their body. “If a slave says to his master: “You are not my master,” if they convict him, his master shall cut off his ear”. Nevertheless, slaves did have some privileges: they could own property, have business affairs, marry free women/men, and purchase their freedom.
As agriculture and trade was of immense importance to the Mesopotamian society, there is no wonder that many laws were dedicated to this sphere of human activity. Many laws dwelled on the issue of landholding and conditions for renting land in particular. Mesopotamian agriculture was based on tenant farming. An annual rent was paid by ten farmers not in money but crops. Since irrigation was vital to land using, the laws concerning these activities were very strict. “If a man lets in the water, and the water overflows the plantation of his neighbor, he shall pay ten gur of corn for every ten gan of land”.
Next, if a person did not “keep his dam in proper condition,” as a result of which the dam broke and made all the fields flooded, “then shall he in whose dam the break occurred be sold for money, and the money shall replace the corn which he has caused to be ruined”. Otherwise, “he and his possessions had to be divided among the farmers whose corn he has flooded” (King, n.d). Likewise, the lender was not allowed to raise his rate of interest after a loan was arranged; otherwise, he lost the entire loan.
The major part of laws in Hammurabi’s code was concentrated on family and marriage. Marriages were arranged by parents, and a marriage contract was signed after a marriage, which was the indication of a legal union. The husband had to provide a payment for his bride; the bride’s parents, in turn, had to present the husband with dowry. Living in a patriarchal society, Mesopotamian men had more rights in marriage than women. A woman’s main duty was doing domestic chores. If she failed to fulfill her duties as a wife, this was a sufficient reason for divorce.
Other reasons for divorce included women’s inability to bear children (in this case, the dowry had to be repaid) or women’s desire to engage into any business and her leaving the home (under these conditions, dowry was not repaid). A wife who was lazy, neglected her house, and humiliated her husband would be drowned. However, women had some rights, too. In some cases of divorce, they could get the dowry back. If woman’s husband could not prove that she had done something wrong, she could file for a divorce and receive her dowry back. The mother would also choose a son to pass an inheritance to.
Sexual relations were rigidly defined as well. Husbands were permitted to have paramours, but wives would be drowned for adultery. “If a man’s wife is surprised (in flagrante delicto) with another man, both shall be tied and thrown into the water, but the husband may pardon his wife and the king his slaves”. Incest was a severe crime. “If a man is guilty of incest with his daughter, he shall be exiled”; “if anyone is guilty of incest with his mother after his father, both shall be burned” (King, n.d). If it happened that a wife could not bear children, her maid-servant would usually perform the role of bearing children; “then his maid assume equality with the wife: because she has borne children her master shall not sell her for money, but he may keep her as a slave, reckoning her among the maid-servants”.
All things considered, it can be reasonably argued that the Code of Hammurabi regulated almost all spheres of Mesopotamians’ everyday life. This document is of great importance since it presents Mesopotamian civilization with its values and customs.
Apart from this, Mesopotamians should be praised for their numerous achievements, which include the invention of irrigation ditches and the plow, the cuneiform writing, i.e. a pictographic form of language, and the usage of spoked wheels on chariots.