Some Thoughts on “Aspects of the Economic History of Babylonia”
Written by
Categories: Ancient

Some Thoughts on “Aspects of the Economic History of Babylonia”

M. Jursa with contributions by J. Hackl, B. Janković, K. Kleber, E.E. Payne, C. Waerzeggers and M. Weszeli, Aspects of the Economic History of Babylonia in the First Millennium BC. AOAT 377. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2010.

Aspects of the Economic History of Babylonia in the First Millennium BC is a weighty academic tome 900 pages long full of charts of prices and case studies based on unpublished tablets, but it also grapples with one of the great dramas of the ancient world: the time when silver money came to Babylonia. People in Babylonia, Syria, and Egypt had kept accounts in weights of bronze and silver or baskets of barley for thousands of years, but for most people most of the time this was an accounting convenience. Most families had enough land to produce most of what they needed, and the kings and gods just had bigger estates and more dependants, so people kept track of who owed what in their heads and every so often exchanged some bronze or barley to balance their accounts. But then, in the cities of Babylonia in the sixth century BCE, we see another world: a world where almost any good or service could be had for silver in the hand. Wet-nursing, fringed cloaks dyed commercial red, substitutes to fulfill your service obligation, chalcedony seals carved with goats in the tree of life, laundry services at a convenient yearly rate, bowcases full of Kimmerian arrows … in the sixth century, it was hard to live for a month in a Babylonian city without exchanging goods or services for silver.

Jursa and his co-authors suspect that this began when Nabopolassar sacked the Assyrian cities around 612 BCE and his successors marched into Syria and launched vast construction projects in Babylonia. They found that they did not have enough slaves and dependants to do all of this work, and the literati were always telling them that the gods became angry if they imposed too much service on the citizens of Babylon. So they started hiring workers with the silver stolen from Syria, and as silver flowed into their hands, other people in the cities thought of things to do for the workers. From 610 to 540 BCE, prices fell and wages rose. These changes bewildered many of the magnates. Since the Flood, life had been good when a shekel of silver could buy 180 litres of barley and support a family for a month, but now male workers were demanding 2, 4, and even 10 shekels a month. One letter complains that the writer is besieged by men seeking employment, but if he refuses them the work will not be done (p. 680). Another laments that he is out of barley, so if he brings serfs they get hungry and run away, but it is the month of the date harvest, so hired workers are not to be had for less than six shekels a month. Readers of David Graeber or good books on Shakespeare’s England can imagine how this upset old values and old ways of doing things.

These changes do not appear in the chronicles of the day. Instead, they appear in the everyday business and administrative documents which happened to survive the periodic discarding of old records and be excavated. This book cites about 2600 tablets, some of them still unpublished. While these documents are formulaic and difficult to understand, they give us glimpses of social history as bright as the Sun peeking through a slit in a mud-brick wall. From a letter to the wife of a businessman explaining that the writer is at court and cannot leave and could she please lend him some silver for interest (p. 624), to the switch from drinking barley beer to date wine in the first millennium BCE (p. 212: beer continued to be brewed for sacramental purposes: apparently they were not sure whether the gods would accept this new beverage), to the dimensions and weight of a mountain garment (TÚG.KUR.RA) in different cities, this book is spotted with interesting details. (For my own research, there is very helpful information about the archives of Zēru-ukīn, a rab hanšê “chief of fifty” of Nippur, and of Itti-Šamaš-balāṭu of Larsa who kept hiring the same substitute whenever Nabonidus or Cyrus conscripted him).

There are all kinds of things which we cannot know about ancient history: Keith Hopkins once wrote that he had no idea what a Roman marriage ceremony in the first century CE involved, because the sources just focus on the legal implications or imitate Greek poets from hundreds of years earlier. But there are some things about Babylonia which we can know very well, and more where the sources plus comparison with other cultures suggest some tantalizing possibilities. I hope that specialists in Late Babylonia continue to study material culture and social history, and continue to move towards a synthesis rather than being intimidated by the many difficult and interconnected problems.

Aspects of the Economic History of Babylonia is available on

paypal logo
patreon logo

2 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on “Aspects of the Economic History of Babylonia”

  1. Pen Name says:

    Well at least it was a happier labour disruption than the post Black Death one in Europe. Before the plague Aristocrats relied on plentiful Serfs to get things done and raise crops. After the plague they had to find less labour intensive ways to make their land productive.

    It seems that Wage and Price controls have a long history.

    There seems to have been a shift toward less labour intensive agriculture after the Plague. That must have been a bit of a social upheaval. Without grain hay and silage would have been more important.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Yes, there are half a dozen royal inscriptions which proclaim how low prices were under the benevolent reign of the king paying for the inscription, but they usually don’t match prices in documents of the same period. Earlier on it seems like the accepted opinion among the literati was that wages in silver should be static and times were good when those wages bought plenty of produce, but it takes a lot of work to get an idea for what incomes and wages were actually like.

      It seems like in this period there were a lot of projects to build canals and turn steppe into date gardens and barley fields, but ‘big projects’ like that produce ‘big paperwork.’

Write a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.