World History 1 51 - 4.1.3 Daily Life and the Family in the Near East

The ability to purchase luxury trade items was the privilege of the elites, who were also treated differently under the law. Hammurabi’s Code, the list of judicial decisions issued by Hammurabi and inscribed on stone pillars erected throughout his kingdom, identified three social classes during the Old Babylonian period: nobles (awelum), commoners (mushkenum), and the enslaved (wardum). These classes were not fixed but were important for understanding how individuals were treated under the law. For example, if a commoner put out the eye or broke the bone of a noble, the noble was empowered to do the same to the offending commoner. However, a noble who injured a commoner could expect to merely pay a fine.

Social distinctions also applied in the treatment of women under the law. For example, if a husband divorced his wife because she had not given birth to sons, he was required to return her dowry and pay her a sum equal to the bride price paid upon marriage. If no bride price had been paid and the husband was a noble, he was required to pay his wife one mina of silver, the equivalent of about a year’s wage for an average worker. However, if he were a commoner, he was expected to pay only one-third of a mina of silver.

The homes of Babylonians in this period reflected these social distinctions. Commoners’ dwellings were typically windowless and made of mud with thick walls that protected the occupants from the oppressive summer heat. Some were of baked brick with a type of plaster along the walls to keep out moisture and preserve the brick. They were very simply furnished and usually contained a set of interior stairs leading to the roof, where occupants could dry vegetables or perform religious rituals. The homes of the wealthy, by contrast, were larger structures built around a central courtyard and included several rooms for different purposes, such as kitchens, bathrooms, reception rooms, and storage rooms. They contained various types of wooden furniture, and walls were decorated with paintings of animals or even insects. Enslaved people commonly lived within the home, especially women and girls who worked as servants.

All Babylonians were expected to serve the gods, who were regarded as an aristocracy of powerful lords ruling over all. These deities tended to take human forms and express human emotions and desires such as love, hate, and envy. By the time of Hammurabi, the large pantheon included gods of Sumerian origin as well as gods introduced by other groups that had influenced Mesopotamian religious practices, such as the Akkadians and the Amorites. During Hammurabi’s dynasty, the storm god Marduk was elevated to the highest tier of the pantheon and accepted as the patron god of Babylonia. Other powerful deities included Ea (Enki) (Figure 4.11), the god of fresh waters; Sin (Nanna), the god of the moon; and Shamash (Utu), the god of the sun and justice. Each city had its own patron god and corresponding temple. Individuals worshipped their city’s patron god but also believed they had their own personal deity who offered protection in exchange for daily worship and service.

A picture of a brown stone carving is shown. In the carving a man is shown facing left with his right foot up on a scalloped, square image with his left foot on the ground. He wears a pointed hat on his head with three projections sticking out on each side, he has a long beard, and wears long striped robes. He is holding his arm out and a large bird is shown sitting on his hand. He has two squiggly lines coming out of each of his shoulders heading toward the ground in an arc with fish shown inside the lines facing up. A horned animal sits below his right leg.
Figure 4.11 In this detail from the Adda Seal, an ancient cylinder seal dating to approximately 2300 BCE and housed at the British Museum, the Babylonian god Ea, also known as Enki, is depicted wearing a horned helmet and surrounded by a river of flowing water. (credit: “Enki (detail of the Adda seal)” by British Museum/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The temples dedicated to the gods supported complex administrations consisting of singers, scribes, diviners, snake charmers, stone carvers, guards, exorcists, and male and female priests. Temple rituals included the carefully choreographed serving of meals for the gods accompanied by music, during which the gods were believed to consume the essence of the food provided. (Afterward, the actual food was consumed by the temple staff and the king.) The temple staff also participated in elaborate religious festivals performed in the cities, such as the New Year Festival. During these events, the divine images of the gods were carried from the temples and throughout the town in a grand procession where everyone might catch a glimpse of the deity.

Since Assyria was also part of the larger Mesopotamian world, there were many social and cultural similarities between the Babylonians and the Assyrians. The Assyrian population was made up of four hierarchically organized classes: the nobility, the professional class, the peasantry, and the enslaved. The nobility occupied the highest position and controlled large estates. Members of this class could expect to receive a thorough education in preparation for serving in elite positions within the empire, such as military officers, governors, and high-ranking priests. Priests were important not only as interpreters of divine will but also as points of connection between the center of political power and the rest of the empire.

The large professional class included a host of skilled groups, from bankers and physicians to scribes and merchants. Each group maintained its own guild, which enforced high professional standards and saw to it that proper taxes were paid. The largest class, and the least well documented, was the peasantry. Most in this group were almost certainly poor farmers who worked the lands of the higher classes. At the very bottom of the social order were the enslaved, the majority of whom had been captured during war. They often worked the most dangerous jobs and had almost no rights. Those enslaved not by war but by unpaid debt had a somewhat higher status and could own property, conduct business, and even buy their way out of slavery in rare instances.

Above all these classes was the household of the Assyrian king. The kings of Assyria were considered viceroys of the gods, especially the chief deity Asshur. They were expected to emulate the gods through their own virtuous behavior and to act in accordance with divine omens interpreted by religious advisers. In acting on the omens, the ruler was fulfilling the dual role of defender of order against chaos and representative of humanity’s interests. When times were difficult and the gods displeased, the king might be expected to subject himself to penalties in order to calm the heavenly ire. For example, during the annual New Year Festival, the king underwent a form of ritual humiliation intended to satisfy the gods and protect his people from harm. In extreme situations, he might even need to symbolically die in order to appease the gods. In these instances, the king would step back and allow a substitute king to rule in his place for a period of weeks or months. Once that time was over, the substitute king was killed and the actual king returned to power.

The constant wars of conquest undertaken during the Neo-Assyrian Empire necessitated a highly skilled and well-organized standing army. This army included charioteers, cavalry, archers, and wielders of slings and spears (Figure 4.12). All Assyrian men were expected to serve some period of military service. The king was the official head of the army, and his chief officials were high-ranking military officers. The Neo-Assyrian Empire was effectively a military state, and it was demonstrably efficient at expanding its territory and keeping its vassals in line.

A picture of three rectangular beige stones is shown sitting on a platform with an orange wall in the background. Two figures are in the first stone and one figure is in each of the next two stones. The figures all have long beards, wear rounded, pointed helmets, have sashes across their chests, cloths around their waists, carry bows and arrows, and are facing to the right. Each of the figures hold a severed head with long hair and a long beard in their left hand and bows in their rights. Along the ground lay headless bodies.
Figure 4.12 These large stone reliefs from the late eighth century BCE were carved to decorate an Assyrian palace or public building. They depict victorious Assyrian soldiers returning from battle carrying the heads of their enemies and standing on their headless bodies. (credit: “Orthostats showing Assyrian soldiers, Tell Tayinat, Amuq Valley, Iron Age, 738 BC, limestone” by “Daderot”/Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

Those who defied the Assyrian war machine could expect swift and devastating consequences, including public torture and mutilation to demonstrate the price of rebellion (a response scholars have called “calculated frightfulness”). Another tactic to shut down regular or particularly difficult rebellions was the forced deportation of entire populations to other parts of the empire. The elite and skilled in a city were compelled to move to a previously depopulated region, there to be steadily assimilated into the surrounding culture until they became culturally indistinguishable from other Assyrians.

Beyond the Book

The Neo-Assyrian War Machine

Inscriptions, art, and even the Bible attest that the Neo-Assyrian military at its height was the most modern and efficient in the ancient world. Unlike other armies whose farmer-soldiers could fight only in summer, the Neo-Assyrians were a highly trained professional standing army of both male citizens and subject peoples. Training and the ability to fight year-round gave a considerable advantage and transformed the waging of war in the Near East.

Specialized groups worked together in battle. A standard Neo-Assyrian infantry team included spear fighters as well as archers and slingers who provided cover in battle (Figure 4.13).

A picture of a stone carving is shown. Six figures are shown facing to the right, all wearing striped headdresses, having long beards, cloths around their waists, and tall boots. They all hold spears in their right hands and full length shields in their left hands.
Figure 4.13 This large seventh-century BCE stone relief from the wall of a palace in Nineveh shows a line of Assyrian soldiers with large shields and spears. (credit: modification of work “Gypsum Wall Panel Relief, North Palace, Nineveh, Iraq, 645-635 BC” by Gary Todd/Flickr, Public Domain)

The archers used composite bows, a design capable of firing accurately at a range of four hundred feet (Figure 4.14).

A picture of a stone carving of two almost identical figures is shown on gray stone. Both figures are facing left, wearing rounded helmets with long hair and beards, cloths tied with long sashes around their waists, and barefoot. Both figures carry bows in their left hands, axes at their waists, and quivers on their backs.
Figure 4.14 Helmeted Neo-Assyrian archers carry large bows in this relief from about the eighth century BCE, which once decorated the Palace of Sennacherib. (credit: modification of work “Ancient Assyria Bas-Relief of Armed Soldiers, Palace of King Sennacherib (704-689 BC)” by Gary Todd/Flickr, Public Domain)

Four-wheeled chariots had featured in Mesopotamian warfare since at least 3000 BCE, but the two-wheeled, horse-drawn chariot that appeared around 2000 BCE proved far superior (Figure 4.15). Neo-Assyrian fighters often assembled in squadrons of fifty chariots, each with a driver and an archer carrying swords and clubs for close combat.

A picture of a gray stone carving is shown with a crack running down the middle and a piece missing from the top right. The scene depicts two figures in the back of a standing chariot being pulled by two horses chasing a lion. The two figures wear long headdresses, have long beards, and have cloths around their waists. The figure in the back holds the reins of the chariot while the figure in the forefront aims a bow and arrow to the right. A spear sticks out the back of the chariot. The two horses pulling the chariot have elaborate décor on their heads and their front legs are in the air. The muscular lion is facing backward toward the horse and chariot and baring its teeth. Arrows stick out its head and shoulders.
Figure 4.15 This Assyrian stone relief from the ninth century shows charioteers on a lion hunt; a similar vehicle served in battle. (credit: modification of work “Ancient Assyria Bas-Relief of Lion Hunt, Nimrud, 883-859 BC” by Gary Todd/Flickr, Public Domain)

Though mighty, the Neo-Assyrians tried to avoid warfare, usually by demanding a besieged city surrender without a fight. But if forced, they used “calculated frightfulness” to demonstrate the price of resistance, inflicting various forms of torture on the conquered peoples (Figure 4.16).

A picture of a gray and black stone carving is shown. Eight figures are shown. The four standing on the right half of the image wear helmets, have beards, and wear cloths around their waists. One has a cape. They have their arm in various poses. Two figures are seen on the left laying down and staked to the ground by their arms and legs without clothing. Two figures bend over them. A patterned section can be seen along the top in the background.
Figure 4.16 This stone relief made after a battle against the Elamites in 653 BCE shows two rebellious chiefs staked to the ground and being flayed alive. Such displays would remind other chiefs of what awaited resistance to Neo-Assyrian rule. (credit: modification of work “Image from page 248 of ‘History of Egypt, Chaldea, Syria, Babylonia and Assyria’ (1903)” by Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr, Public Domain)
  • Why might some rulers have resisted Neo-Assyrian control despite knowing the cost?
  • What set the military of the Neo-Assyrians apart from their rivals? How did their use of technology increase the severity and frequency of warfare in the Near East?

Hittite society differed dramatically from that of the Assyrians and Babylonians. The entire empire included only a few large cities, like Hattusas, and most people lived in small rural villages or towns. With the exception of some leased acreage, village land was mostly held in common and worked by the people. Early in Hittite history, enslaved people had been relatively rare, but they became more numerous later on as the number of war captives rose. The Hittites practiced chattel slavery, meaning enslaved people were considered property and could be sold at will. They were frequently put to work in agricultural settings to free Hittite citizens for military service.

The religion of the Hittites incorporated elements from a number of different religious traditions, including that of Mesopotamia. Divination rituals, for example, were essentially Mesopotamian in origin and included studying the organs of sacrificed animals, consulting female soothsayers, and observing the movement of birds. Among the most important gods were the sun goddess Arinna and her consort the weather god Tarhunna (Figure 4.17). The former oversaw the government of the king and queen, the latter the rains and war. The king was the high priest and was responsible for performing specific rites at major religious festivals, such as the New Year Festival when gods laid out the course of events for the coming year. The people were expected to do their part by performing religious rites at cult centers, such as giving sacrificed animals and food and drink to the gods.

A gray and black stone carving of a figure is shown. A crack runs down one side and the bottom is spotted with black dots. The figure wears a tall hat and has long hair and a long beard. He wears a cloth around his waist with squares along the edges and a sword hangs from his belt. Both of his arms are up in the air and in his right hand he holds an axe. In his left hand he holds a three pronged large item.
Figure 4.17 This stone relief made between the tenth and eighth centuries BCE depicts the Hittite weather god Tarhunna. He is holding his traditional symbols, an axe in one hand and a three-pronged thunderbolt in the other. (credit: “God of Thunder. Hittite relief from Samal (now Zincirli)” by “Maur”/Pergamonmuseum/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax