Sunday, March 27, 2011

Babylon, I'm going to babble on

Lawyers are well represented among the pirlas who bedevil my evenings at the Pen & Pencil Club, but I always love reading about the law in older societies.

Most recently the Laws of Eshnunna and the Code of Hammurabi got me thinking about the societies of ancient Mesopotamia — and about what kinds of crime stories one could set in those societies.

As nearly as I can tell, legal life in the ancient Near East involved property, contracts, and beer. The forty-first article of the Laws of Eshnunna, for example, specifies that
"If an unbarum, a naptarum or a mudum wants to sell his beer, the sabitum shall sell his beer for him at the current price."
And what are unbarum, naptarum and mudum? "Social classes who seem to be entitled to a ration of beer." *

(Sumerian beer tablet)

Not that Eshnunnites were entirely licentious. The forty-second article provides penalties for possible results of excessive consumption of that price-controlled brew:
"If a man bites the nose off another man and severs it, he shall pay 1 mina of silver ... "

The edict of Hammurabi's great-great-grandson Ammisaduqa, meanwhile, suggests that beer was a valued, carefully regulated commodity and that Mesopotamian barmaids were not to be messed with:
"A taverness who has given beer or barley as a loan may not collect any of what she had given as a loan. A taverness or a merchant who ... dishonest weight shall die."
I don't know about you, but I see vast potential for Prohibition-like gangster tales and strong female characters.
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* Pritchard, The Ancient Near East (Princeton 2010), page 153, note 10.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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9 Comments:

Blogger Loren Eaton said...

I would absolutely read anything written in this setting. Sounds fascinating.

March 28, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Fun! Including the title.

March 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, just as I was surprised to read in the Icelandic sagas how litigious the old Nordic people were, it's a surprise to read about such things as government regulation of commodities trading from four thousand years ago or five-thousand-year-old praise of cities. The criminal sectrions of the law codes make simple reading. They generally amount to pay or die.

March 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J. it's a delight to discover these things.

As for the title, I've rolled my eyes at overuse of rock and rill references in crime novels, but I've noe used such references in the titles of three consecutive posts, though two of the titles are puns.

March 28, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Rock and roll? Passed me by completely. See, you're way too clever for me. Puns I do get, mostly.

March 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

This one was a bit more obscure than "Emotional rescue" and "Gimme Shelta."

It's from "Babylon" by the New York Dolls and, while lyric sheets give the last line of the refrain as "Babylon, I'm going to Babylon," the singer's reading makes clear that he has in mind my version. Rock and roll should never take itself too seriously, and this song does not.

March 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And yes, rock and roll, not rock and rill.

March 28, 2011  
Anonymous Fred Zackel said...

No kidding, you didn't want to drink the water. Stick to beer. Except they had no filtration, so the beer was sort of a pasty mash ... which I guess we could all learn to live with ... after the second bowl. Oh, and the beer was close to 15 percent alcohol.

March 29, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, yeah: Beer with a punch, beer as a staple beverage in the absence of water. I guess you had to be one tough doll to make it as a tavern-keeper in Sumer.

March 29, 2011  

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