Slavery in Babylonia was a part of the society, and it will be mentioned in this book again and again. It is a controversial subject, but I hope the readers will realize that it was entirely different from what we know of slavery in the modern world. Most of the slaves were Babylonians of the same race and nationality as their masters, spoke the same language, and worshipped the same gods. The slave was regarded as a member of the family and was educated at the same level, so many slaves were skilled artisans and even had literary or scientific knowledge. Many times slaves were adopted by their owners and thus became free citizens. The lines separating slavery and freedom were fuzzy anyway, since a man or a woman could sell themselves to settle a debt, and later acquire their freedom by various means. Parents could sell their children, and in certain circumstances brothers could sell their sisters if they were minors and the parents were dead.
There were three classes of slaves. The first consisted of people who were the property of a private family or individual. The second consisted of serfs who were attached to the land and would be transferred with it if the land was sold, and the third consisted of temple slaves who were dedicated to the god or goddess of that temple.
Some slaves were brought from foreign countries as spoils of war, but since Babylonia was not particularly military, there was not much traffic in foreign slaves. Mostly the slaves were sons and daughters of former slaves. There were many laws that involved the institution of slavery, some protecting the rights of the owners, some protecting the slaves. The law made it clear that even though the slave was property, the masters could not maim, beat, injure, or kill them at will. If the master lent the slave to another person, and the slave was injured, the person who hurt the slave had to pay high fines. This rule was created to prevent the temporary owner from abusing the slave, and it was important
because slaves often were apprenticed to others in order to learn a trade, which would be for the duration of a few years. Some records exist where slaves even apprenticed themselves to learn a trade, without the need for a separate contract with their owners. Most important, being a slave did not imply a social stigma. The slave could not hold a public office, but once he or she acquired freedom, they could attain high office like any other citizen. Slaves could be witnesses in court, with their evidence just as important as the evidence of a free born person.
The wages for the slaves’ work for other people were paid to their owner, but slaves could also acquire property and create businesses for themselves. There is evidence regarding some slaves who became so wealthy that they lent money to their own masters. Often they used the wealth to buy their freedom. A very interesting contract exists where a female slave named Khunnatu received furniture and household goods, rented a house in her own name to put them in, and borrowed money from her owner with which to buy fifty casks of beer. Clearly the owner helped Khunnatu to open an inn or a pub. This document is not unique – many slaves had their own businesses.
However, it was still slavery. While a slave, a man or a woman was property and could be given away as a part of someone’s dowry, given as security for a loan, or sold whenever the master wished to do so. The master had the right to change the slave’s name, particularly if the slave came from a foreign country. The reason for the name change is not entirely clear and it is possible that it was only done during adoption. There is a contract regarding a young woman named Mutibasti, who was adopted by her mistress, whose name was Saddasu. The girl’s name was changed to “Zabini, the daughter of Saddasu” in the contract. Perhaps Zabini was a family name and keeping it meant the continuation of family tradition. There is evidence that some slaves ran away from their masters, and in addition, part of the contract of the sale of a slave involved a guarantee that he or she was not disobedient. No doubt some masters were harsh or even cruel. However, there was a limit to the damage that could be done to the slave. For example, the Law protected the slave from losing his or her family. If one bought a married male slave, the owner was obliged to buy his wife and children. If the slave in question was a woman with children, the owner was obliged to buy the children as well as the mother.
The reason for the rights of slaves, much like the rights of women can be explained by the commercial nature of Babylonia, where business and practical considerations were more important than ideology. The Babylonian Law, always interested mostly in commercial enterprise, stressed individual responsibility and individual possession of property, and since the slave was a human being and could hold property, his rights were held as important.