The accounts of slavery in Mesopotamia are a woeful series of events. From mutilations to murders and rapes, the masters were lawfully entitled to the highest forms of barbarism toward their slaves, commonly known as Moorey.

Read on about the unfortunate records of slavery and the laws regulating it in the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia.

Slavery in Ancient Mesopotamia

There are countless reports of slavery in early civilizations. In ancient Mesopotamia, slavery was as common as leaves being green. Like we have farmer’s markets for produce and meat, the ancient people of Mesopotamia used to have markets for selling and buying men, women, and children. Every man had slaves and was called their master.

We might think that okay, the master kept slaves, he gave them a place to stay, food to eat, and clothes to wear. In return, they will work for the master and help him in his business. Unfortunately, this was not the case.

Each empire that rose in Mesopotamia maintained the culture of slavery. Ancient Mesopotamia slavery was of three types:

  • Debt slavery
  • Slavery as a punishment for a crime
  • Enslavement of prisoners of war

These were the generic reasons for enslavements but, apart from these, a man of high standings in the society could make anyone his slave. Men, women, children, no one was free from the web of slavery.

The Origin of Slavery

The inhumane practice of slavery was so deeply rooted in the Mesopotamian culture that its exact origin is still unknown. Slavery has been an integral part of each and every empire, nation, or kingdom that ever existed on this planet. Historians have linked the advent of slavery to the advent of agriculture in Mesopotamia.

The first written account of slavery, however, has been found from the Sumerian empire. This account narrates the rights given to slaves in Mesopotamia. Let’s see what the life of men, women and children in slavery looked like, and then we will explain how the Code of Hammurabi regulated the issue of slavery.

Ancient Mesopotamian Slaves: Men

The Mesopotamian labor systems consisted mostly of men. These men were debtors, defaulters, prisoners of war, outcasts, or just unable to fight for their right to live. The empires of Sumeria, Assyria, and Babylon were agriculture-centric. Agriculture required a high number of men for day-to-day tasks and anyone with land to sow needed slaves.

Other trades that required slaves during Mesopotamian times included:

  • Butchers
  • Stonemasons
  • Fishermen
  • Estate workers
  • Tanners, weavers
  • Boatbuilders
  • Silversmiths
  • Metal workers
  • Pottery makers
  • Beer brewers
  • Bread makers
  • Leatherworkers
  • Spinners
  • Weavers
  • Tools and weapons makers
  • Jewelers
  • Woodworkers

Slave markets had every type of man for sale. The men with any form of skill were sold for the highest amount of money. For example, a man who by any chance knows how to write and read would be of much more value than an illiterate man. To find skillful men for slavery, Kings used to send bands of men to nearby villages to acquire new slaves.

As we go deeper in history, we find that male slaves played a very important role in building society. Almost every labor work was done by men. Architecture, agriculture, metal-work, and so on were all the works of slaves. Slaves, therefore, played an important role in creating a society they couldn’t partake in.

Ancient Mesopotamian Slaves: Women

As male slaves were kept mostly for labor and tough work, women were kept mostly for household chores. Each household had female workers as slaves who tended to their everyday routines. Cooking, cleaning, and sewing were some of the most common tasks for them.

Another important task that was given to female slaves was the act of bringing up the children of their masters. Slave women worked as nannies most commonly.

Women came into the act of slavery either by birth or by unfortunate life events that left them no choice but to turn into slaves. It is important here to notice that literate women slaves were treated much better than illiterate women. Beautiful women were sold for a much higher price. Many accounts of harassment against female slaves can be found in history.

Ancient Mesopotamian Slaves: Children

Like diabetes runs in the families, slavery ran likewise. The most unfortunate form of slaves were the children, who were sent down this doomed path from birth. These were the children of previous slave generations who could not break free from the cycle of slavery.

Another important way that the children came into slavery was because of a financial crisis. The families of ancient times believed in keeping larger families. When they were faced with a financial crisis and could not feed the children, they sold them for money or food.

Child slaves were not subjected to harsh labor. However, they worked from an early age and were dependent on the household of their master.

The Mesopotamian Practice of Marking Slaves

The population of Mesopotamia contained a fair amount of slaves. This huge number of slaves was hard to manage and keep a record of. The administrative authorities came up with a gruesome act of marking slaves. This practice labeled the slaves with the act of slavery for life.

The slaves were marked with heated iron rods or descriptive words were carved on their bodies. These words explained which category the slave belonged to, and whether they were war prisoners or people paying their price for a crime or for simple poverty.

This particular practice of marking slaves was pure evil. Even if a person had unfortunate circumstances and was brought into slavery, this mark affected his will and chance to be free again.

Mesopotamian Agriculture and Slaves

The Mesopotamians worked largely in the agriculture sector. Irrigating, producing, and selling crops is how the ancient people of Mesopotamia made a livelihood. This was a big task and is not a one-man’s job. Historians believe that, due to the advent of agriculture, there was a rise in slave-keeping culture and a shift in Mesopotamia labor systems.

Ordinary households began keeping slaves for their services and help in the fields. The slaves would help plough the fields, water the crops, sow the seeds, and finally help in the harvesting. The harvesting season is the most important season in agriculture. Some masters would give a very small amount of their harvest to their slaves if they had a family.

The Code of Hammurabi

The ill-treatment towards slaves and other social atrocities reached its peak in ancient Mesopotamia. From 1792 to 1750 BC – the “middle chronology” — the sixth king of Babylon, Hammurabi, gave a comprehensive handbook of law and justice.

It covers the legal areas of offenses against the administrative law, property offenses, commerce, marriage, family, assault, business, agriculture, and slavery. The code of Hammurabi is said to be the oldest surviving set of laws. Even the formation of a book of law and justice, however inaccurate, was a big achievement at that time.

If the code is closely examined, it has some very harsh rules for slaves. At one instance it is stated that the master has the right to cut the ear of the slave if the slave does not obey his master.

The code also dictates the terms and conditions of slave marriages, slaves owning properties, and businesses. One of the most important laws stated in the Code of Hammurabi is that a slave can marry a free woman. This law proved to be quite controversial back then.

The Way Out of Slavery

A person cannot endure pain and injustice for their whole life. One day they would break free and claim their rights. The most widely seen way a slave escaped slavery was by running away. Occasionally, a slave would be set free after being bought as a sign of goodwill from the buyer.

Even though the slavery practice in Mesopotamia is a series of sad events, many underprivileged people got a roof above their heads, a bed to sleep in, and food to eat. These men, women, and children would have been otherwise on the streets as beggars and soon to be dead.

Conclusion

Here we conclude the main points of practice of slavery in the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia:

  • Slaves could be debt slaves, prisoners of wars, or lose their freedom because of some punishment
  • There were proper slave markets where people bought and sold slaves for money
  • Slaves were given the least rights
  • Slavery ran through generations
  • Some masters formed slavery contracts that restricted slaves to ever get married
  • Slaves were marked with burning iron rods

Now that you know all these facts about slavery, what idea did you form about this ancient practice?

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