BMCR 2011.06.55

Writing, Law, and Kingship in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia (translated by Jane Marie Todd)

, Writing, Law, and Kingship in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia (translated by Jane Marie Todd). Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 2010. 182. ISBN 9780226101583 $55.00.


In Classical studies, since the 1990s, it has become increasingly clear that literacy was more widespread in society than had been previously thought. While many Assyriologists maintain that literacy was the exclusive domain of professional scribes and even kings, clergy, and generals are classed among the illiterate, Dominique Charpin has come to similar conclusions about Classical Babylonia. In this volume, Charpin focuses on the relationship between writing and law and, as we could expect from his previous works, makes a strong and convincing case for writing as a more wide-spread phenomenon than has been assumed.

Together with a new introduction and conclusion written by the author, the volume consists of eight chapters based upon reworked and updated previously published articles.1 In the Introduction, Charpin makes a number of points that deserves attention. He stresses the importance of context (1-2) and the purpose for which a text was composed (3). The importance of legal sources is brought out as “law was the foremost preoccupation of rulers” and “justice the first of a monarch’s duties” (4). Finally, Charpin notes that political relations “reflect on the legal bases for diplomatic life” (4-5).

Chapter 1,“Reading and Writing in Mesopotamia: The Business of Specialists?” is arguably the most important chapter in the book as it prepares the reader for the reasons behind the spread of writing and its legal and political uses.

Charpin first reviews the cuneiform writing system. Because the system is seen as very complicated, the assumption has been that writing and reading were the realm of professional scribes. This concept of illiteracy extended to kings, generals, and clergy. Charpin demonstrated that the last was greatly overstated in “his book on the clergy of Ur.”2 In this volume, he demonstrates that the concept of the illiterate king seems most unlikely in view of the texts from Mari (13-18). With regard to generals, Charpin cites the entertaining article by Simo Parpola wherein a general writes a letter requesting that a scribe be sent to him. While it is clear that the general was not a professional scribe, nevertheless, he was functionally literate.3 In respect of merchants, the consensus has shifted to acknowledge that “a great many Assyrians [merchants] knew how to read and write…” – because the Assyrian writing system was “highly simplified” (11).

This brings us to a very important point: “Why Cuneiform writing was not as difficult to master as is believed” (18). First, the apparent complexity of cuneiform rests on the fact that the “total number of possibilities [signs and combinations plus logograms] was very high” (19). This total, however, is the result of modern collations from across the life span of cuneiform – 3,000 years – and “not all values are attested in every period,” nor are they attested “in every kind of text” (19). A scribe would require only those signs used in a given period. In the nineteenth century BCE, the syllabary in Cappadocia required only 68 signs.4 Further, in Old Babylonia, it “was possible for a scribe to write with only 82 signs” and, even in divinatory texts, “112 syllabic signs and 52 logograms” were counted in the corpus being edited (19-20). He also notes that “others have emphasized that there is no connection between the objective difficulty of a writing system and the literacy rate of a population” (19). As Charpin points out: “contemporary Japan has a higher literacy rate than France” (20).

Charpin also discusses one text that “may suggest, however, that some scribes practiced silent reading” (20-21). In this case, a letter had been delivered to the wrong person. The scribe opened the envelope and saw that it was not addressed to the king. As the scribe makes a distinction between the term he uses when reading for himself “(saw)” and the term for when reading for the king “(have him listen),” it raises the possibility that he read silently when sorting letters (20-21).

Charpin addresses one more disputed issue: were people expected to read public inscriptions? “While the traditional translation” of the epilogue to Hammurabi’s stele “is ‘may he have my stele read out’, the text actually says, ‘may he read’” (21-22). A recently published letter from Mari makes it clear that King Zimri-Lim expected “a portion of the people assembled on the procession route might be able to read” inscriptions (22).

In Chapter 2, “Outline of a Diplomatic of Mesopotamian Documents,” he discusses the form of documents (25-35), the “constitution of archives” (35-39), and “access to archives” (39-41).

The focus of Chapter 3, “Old Babylonian Law: Gesture, Speech and Writing.” is a subject of interest to Classicists: The Babylonians took the symbolic gestures and oaths for any contract very seriously indeed. “The complimentarity between gestures and words is particularly clear in the case of oaths” (45). While the usual expression was to “swear an oath,” sometimes the expression is to “eat an oath.” Tablets from Mari show that in one case parties to a contract “ate herbs” and in another “swore by herbs” (45). The concept perhaps being that by eating the herb it will be “transformed into a destructive force in the event of perjury” (46). Treaties seem to have been concluded by the symbolic gesture of spilling wine from a cup. An alliance was terminated by dirtying the cup used in the ritual (47). Treaties, as usual in antiquity, were concluded “by uttering oaths before the two kings’ gods.” (48)

Chapter 4 moves into the private sphere and deals with the “Transfer of Property deeds and the Constitution of Family Archives.” Family archives chiefly consisted of the deeds in the exchange of real property, “inheritance, or a dowry” (53, 67). The custom of transferring deeds was wide-spread in Babylonia. “From the reign of Hammurabi on, the deeds thus transferred were designated by the expression tuppāt (or kanīkāt) ummātim.” Ummātim is “the plural of literally ‘mother’ and in context clearly means ‘point of origin’” (67). “The tuppāt ummātim were thus the old deeds of property, whatever their nature” (67). Charpin warns that we must beware of assuming “a gradual accumulation over their [family] history.” “In Babylonia, poor people had no archives, but neither did the bankrupt” (68).

Essentially a practical collection of case law, Chapter 5 deals with “The Status of the Code of Hammurabi.” Apparently the code was applied or served as guidelines (79). Unlike other law codes, Hammurabi’s is unique in being remembered down the centuries. Portions had been used for training scribes and excerpts were quoted until the Achaemenid period (81).

In Chapter 6 Charpin discusses the Mesopotamian institution of the “restoration” edicts of the Babylonian Kings. An extension of the role of the ruler as shepherd was the maintainance of stability and the “correction of iniquitous situations . . . by the abolition of debts” (83). These edicts reflected the concept of an ideal past rather than a reform. The point seems to have been to reestablish social equilibrium (96).

While Hammurabi’s code deals with private law, in Chapter 7 Charpin deals with his code in terms of international law. “The Hague Convention of 1907 CE required that its members not start a war without warning… Such measures are known to have been taken as early as the eighteenth century BCE” (104). Pacts of alliance were usual; when Hammurabi launched a war against the king of Larsa, the king of Mari, Zimri-Lim, “found himself, very much against his will, dragged into that distant conflict” (105). When it came to the annexation of conquered kingdoms, the specifics had to “be reconstituted on the basis of the legal documents” (106). After the defeat of Larsa, for instance, Hammurabi confiscated only the crown lands. There does not appear to be any known “genuine example” of international arbitration (112).

In Chapter 8, Charpin describes controlling cross-border traffic in a situation with about one hundred kingdoms in which, however, “constraints on freedom of movement were nevertheless very great” (115). What is clear is that “political borders played a role in restricting movement” (115). Foreign messengers were stopped at borders and given escort (116). Customs were levied on cargo and on diplomatic gifts (117). Writing played a crucial role in control of those who ignore borders — nomads, traders, and messengers (125).

There is one other aspect of writing in antiquity that Charpin stresses in both Chapter Three and in the Conclusion, for this aspect is alien to modern societies. To the Babylonians the written word was merely a more permanent recording of living speech. The tablets were understood as having “a mouth ( pī tuppim)” and also referred to as “the tablet’s speech ( awat tuppim)” (50). In fact, “the verb ‘read’ ( šitassūm) is a form of a verb whose primary meaning is ‘cry out, call’” (21).

In addition, they considered tablets not inscribed pieces of clay but living beings, in a civilization where the line between the living and the inanimate was not conceived the same way as it is in ours.. . . It is not surprising that tablets could be “killed.” Tablets had a mouth ( pum), which is why one could listen to them. Tablets could lie, like mouths.


Numerous ancient texts in both cuneiform (e.g., a letter from Ennando, King of Lagash) and alphabetic scripts (e.g., the stele of Kilamuwa, King of Yadi) indicate that stress and duration notation were to be written into the text, thus imitating the words as they were spoken. Once we understand this notation system, the modern reader may be able, like the ancients, to hear “the tablet’s speech” and the voice of the absent author. Some preliminary work on how they indicated stress and duration in Mesopotamian tablets and inscriptions has been carried out, but more needs to be done.5

While Charpin demonstrates that writing was key to the development of law and was more wide-spread than has hitherto been believed, his conclusion that students received both divinatory and scribal training is not as certain. As a divinatory scribe would need to learn the logograms, this would be a scribal specialty. It would seem more likely that only some students received both divinatory and scribal training.

Writing enabled control over distance. It created stability and enforced a common language. Intertwined, writing and law developed together and gave birth to a complex, hierarchical system of legal precedents and judiciaries. Well produced and engagingly written, for readers who are interested in the history of writing, legal history and the relationship between law and writing in the Ancient Near East this book is required reading.


1. Charpin’s articles in French, including the originals of several chapters, can be found in pdf format at his site:

2. Le clergé d’Ur au siècle d’Hammurabi (XIXe-XVIIIe siècles avant J.C.), Geneva/Paris, Librarie Droz, 1986.

3. Parpola, Simo, “The Man without a scribe and the question of literacy in the Assyrian empire,” in B. Pongratz-Leisten et al. (eds.), Ana šadî Labnani lu allik: Festschrift für Wolfgang Röllig (Alter Orient und Altes Testament 247), Kevelaer: Butzon & Bercker; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1997, pp. 315-324. ( pdf available)

4. The alphabet used for writing English contains 52 symbols: 26 lowercase and 26 uppercase. The forms are not the same and must be learned individually. The Romance and Germanic languages require even more symbols.

5. For illustrations and my discussions of stress and duration notation see pages 22- 24 for Ennando and pages 29-31 for Kilumuwa in Rochelle Altman, Absent Voices: The Story of Writing Systems in the West., Oak Knoll Press (2004).