Home >> Encyclopedia-britannica-volume-2-annu-baltic >> Siege Of Antwerp to Thomas Augustine Arne >> The Assyrian Laws

The Assyrian Laws


THE ASSYRIAN LAWS Three tablets have recently been discovered in the ruins of the ancient city of Ashur which are inscribed with about go articles from a collection of laws promulgated in about the 13th century B.c. In form the enactments refer to particular sets of circumstances rather than to universal principles. This gives them the appearance of being a collection of actual decisions of judges which have passed into law; so marked is this character, that the suggestion has even been made that these texts are rather a legal commentary than actual laws. It is more likely, however, that they reveal a written law in the making, which has not yet attained the maturity of Hammurabi's Code, though several centuries later in date. It must be recollected that the Assyrians were not of the same origin as the Babylonians, and had other traditions which would certainly make themselves felt in legal custom.

The matters covered by the surviving laws are marriage, prop erty, security, and offences, but a good deal may be gathered from them concerning the nature and the procedure of the courts. Space does not permit any comparison of their provisions with those of the Code.

A betrothal ceremony was the preliminary of marriage; in this the man anointed the woman, offered her various gifts, and in particular paid a bride-price to the woman, not her father, as was the Babylonian custom. In case of divorce the wife kept this money, and therefore the husband was not likely to divorce her inconsiderately. Assyrian custom recognized two forms of marriage, according as the wife went to her husband's house, or stayed in her father's house and received her husband there. If she came to her husband, she brought a dowry and certain gifts from both families. This property was entailed to her sons, and could not be shared by the husband's brothers. If she re mained at home she received a sum of money from the husband; this he resumed at her death or divorce. A widow, on remarriage, came into absolute possession of her husband's gifts if she con tinued to live at her home, while he had a similar right to hers if she came to live with him. Before leaving home on service the husband had to make suitable provision for his wife. If not, she might put any children there were out to work but might not remarry for five years. Should the husband return after that time and find her the wife of another he could do nothing, except in special circumstances. In case of special hardship the wife's period of waiting was reduced to two years, during which time she was to be assisted at the public expense, but if the husband returned he was obliged to reimburse such expenses. A wife's son by a former marriage had no part or lot in the second hus band's estate. Wives owed absolute fidelity to their partners, and were severely punished even for indiscreet conduct, for con tinual gadding to the houses of gossips, for compromising business expeditions, or for appearing unveiled in the streets. For adultery the penalty was death, but the husband might be satisfied with mutilation or even forgiveness ; in either case, the paramour shared her fate, though he could not be punished if he could prove ignorance of her being married. A bawd procuring a married woman was liable to the same penalty as befell the guilty pair ; a married woman entrapped in a bawdy-house might escape punishment by immediate denunciation of the conspirators. The Mosaic law of levirate marriage is not directly affirmed, but cer tain particular cases are considered which obviously imply this custom. The wife who remained at home is (like the other kind) bound to marry the deceased husband's brother. A betrothed maiden must marry a brother of the man who was engaged to her if he died or disappeared; if there was no marriageable brother, the father must take her.

The surviving laws of property relate chiefly to real estate. Several articles are devoted to ensuring respect for landmarks and the equitable division of water for irrigation. A man might become the owner of an orchard by planting it, with the consent of the former owner, but had to find for him another plot of equal area. Clandestine use of land by a stranger was punished and the produce confiscated. When a father died his property might be divided among his sons, but sometimes this was not done ; the land remained a whole and was cultivated in common by the brothers. In that case the eldest had the right to two shares of the harvest. Out of the common estate, however, each brother might lawfully extract the valuables which it was the custom to bestow upon his affianced wife. Within a family of brothers thus holding an undivided property there is, however, not an undivided responsibility for offences. When a sale of real property was contemplated it was important that the purchaser should not afterwards be confronted with genuine or bogus claims from third parties, and it was therefore required that he should make public announcement of his proposed acquisition by the town-crier, three times within the previous month. No claims lodged after this time were admitted.

As security for debt the creditor could attach the person of the debtor or one of his children. In either case the pledge must work for him until the value of the debt was paid off, but the creditor was strictly forbidden to sell the pledge into slavery. Any person who bought such a pledge was liable to lose his money. The only right of disposal that the creditor had was that of giving in marriage a girl whom he had received as a pledge; he might receive an agreed price for her from a suitor. The consent of her father was necessary, but in conditions of necessity could hardly be denied. If the father was dead, the girl's brothers could refuse consent to the marriage, but only if they were pre pared to pay off the debt within a month. This disposal of girls in marriage sometimes led to complicated situations when it was found that other claims, besides those of the disposing creditor, lay against the father. A creditor who had ill-treated his pledge before selling her to a husband was held to have forfeited by such conduct any rights in her when once she had passed out of his control.

Theft is particularly regarded in the instances where the thief was a married woman. She who stole anything from the house when the husband was dead or sick was guilty of death, and so was the receiver. Thefts to the value of more than five minas of lead from the house of a stranger made a woman liable to be detained by the householder pending redress. Other thefts might be atoned for by the thief submitting himself to private retribution. Gross slander of immoral or unnatural conduct against man or woman was savagely punished by cudgelling, forced labour, a fine, and castration. Adultery and rape were alike capital offences, and the penalty could be inflicted privately by the aggrieved family, which had the option, however, of con tenting itself with a milder satisfaction, or even of forgiveness. Indecent assault was avenged by the mutilation of the hands or face, by fines and beating, and assault leading to abortion by beating, forced labour, and a fine.

The source of justice was the king or his officers, sometimes assisted by the chief men of the locality. But a prominent feature of the Assyrian law is the wide allowance it gives to private retribution. Within the family the father is usually free to take such disciplinary measures, even of great severity, as seem good to him. Public sentences were carried out by an executioner who was ordered not to exceed the written instructions given to him. In general, the savagery of the corporal punishments pre scribed or allowed is a disagreeable feature of the Assyrian law ; although the Code of Hammurabi is not sparing in denunciations of death it has none of the cruel and arbitrary woundings so freely awarded by Assyrian justice.

Two other matters involved by these laws are of interest ; first, that in this period the ordinary medium of exchange is lead, not silver, financial penalties being always reckoned in this metal. Second is the use of the ordeal by water, which was also prac tised in Babylonia. In a criminal charge, if witnesses or other mode of proof were not available, the accused was thrown into the river, and was declared innocent if he floated. In a dispute, when both parties had taken oaths in a contradictory sense, the ordeal was used to decide between them.

husband, marriage, father, woman and wife