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A Primer of Assyriology by A. H. Sayce

The landlord could dismiss the tenant


Some of the Babylonian contract-tablets go back to the time of Khammurabi and his dynasty, and are in Sumerian. But the larger number are of much later date, and extend from the reign of Kandalanu, the predecessor of Nabopolassar, to that of Xerxes. For many years we have a continuous series of documents dated month by month in each year. A contract-tablet was often enclosed in an envelope of clay, on which its principal contents were inscribed. They were kept in large jars which answered to our modern safes.

Married Life.--From the contracts relating to matrimony we learn that polygamy was very rare, and that the wife enjoyed a considerable amount of independence. The dowry she brought with her on marriage had to be restored to her in case of divorce. Moreover the woman could act apart from her husband, entering into partnership, trading with her money and conducting law-suits in her own name. In B.C. 555 we find a father transferring all his property to his daughter, and reserving only the use of it during the rest of his life. On the other hand wives, like concubines, could sometimes be purchased, though in this case if the husband married again he stipulated that he would send his first wife back to her home along with a certain sum of money. Children could be adopted, and there was the utmost freedom as regards the devolution of property, which could be 'tied up' by will.

Burial.--The dead were buried after complete or partial cremation. With the exception of the kings they were interred in cemeteries outside the towns, tombs and tombstones being erected over them, with rivulets, which symbolized 'the water of life,' flowing at their side.

Slavery.--Slavery was an ancient institution, but the slave was protected by law as far back as the Sumerian period. In later times he could even appear as party to a suit, and could recover his freedom by manumission, by purchase, by proving that he had been unlawfully enslaved, or by his adoption into the family of a citizen. Slaves could be impressed into the royal service, so that in selling a slave it was usual to stipulate that the seller should be responsible for any trouble arising from such a cause. Poor parents sometimes sold their children into slavery, and the Sumerian law ordered a son who denied his father to be shorn and sold as a slave.

Lowness of Wages.--Few persons were so poor as not to be able to keep one slave at least. But the existence of slavery caused wages to be low, and lowered the character and position of the free labourer. Thus we find that a skilled labourer, like a coppersmith, received only six _qas_ (about 8-1/2 quarts) of flour for overlaying a chariot with a lining of copper, and that only 1_s._ 6_d._ was paid for painting the stucco of a wall.

Property.--The tenure of a farm was of various kinds. Sometimes the property belonged half to the landlord, half to the tenant, the tenant doing all the work and handing the landlord's half of the produce to his agent. Sometimes while the tenant gave his work, the landlord provided him with carts, oxen, and other necessaries. At other times the tenant received only a third, a fourth, or even a tenth of the produce, besides paying a fixed rent of two-thirds of the dates gathered from the palms on the estate. The landlord could dismiss the tenant, who was also required to build the farm house if one did not already exist.

When house property or land was let or sold it was minutely described, and numerous witnesses to the deed of sale or lease were required. The length of the lease as well as the rent had to be stated, any transgression of the terms of the lease being punished with a severe fine. The tenant had to return the property in the state in which he found it. The rent of course depended on the size and value of the property, and could be paid half-yearly as well as three times a year. Houses, further, might be bought and sold through the intervention of an agent.


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