Early Civilizations – Mesopotamia

Veröffentlicht: 8. Oktober 2012 in Oberstufe
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Map of Ancient Mesopotamia„We will buy the poor for silver, the needy for a pair of sandals.“ (Amos)

This chapter discusses the role of debt in the emergence of states in the early Mesopotamian civilization. The Mesopotamian civilization is the best-documented, more so than that of Pharaonic Egypt, Shang China, or the Indus Valley civilization when it comes to the question of the emergence of the first states and what this had to do with the changes in the economic and social relations among people.
Money was not the product of commercial transactions. Money was created by bureaucrats (= temple officials and priests) who developed a system of accountancy in order to keep track of resources and to calculate debts (rents, fees, loans…) in silver. Merchants were among the few people who did actually use silver in transactions; but even they did much of their dealings on credit.
The Sumerian economy (in Mesopotamia) was dominated by vast temple and palace complexes. These were often staffed by thousands: priests and officials, craftspeople who worked in their industrial workshops, farmers and shepherds who worked their considerable estates. Even though ancient Sumer was usually divided into a large number of independent Cuneiform_Tabletcity-states, by the time the curtain goes up on Mesopotamian civilization around 3500 B.C., temple administrators already appear to have developed a single, uniform system of accountancy – one that is in some ways still with us, actually, because it’s to the Sumerians that we owe such things as the dozen or the 24-hour day. The basic monetary unit was the silver shekel. One shekel’s weight in silver was established as the equivalent of one bushel of barley. A shekel was subdivided into 60 minas, corresponding to one portion of barley – on the principle that there were 30 days in a month, and Temple workers received two rations of barley every day. It’s easy to see that money in this sense is in no way the product of commercial transactions (as has been claimed by some Historians and Economists). It was actually created by bureaucrats in order to keep track of resources and move things back and forth between departments. Temple bureaucrats used the system to calculate debts (rents, fees, loans…) in silver. Silver was, effectively, money. And it did indeed circulate in the form of unworked chunks, „rude bars“ as the Economist Adam Smith had put it. But opposed to popular ideas about money circulating on markets, in this case the silver did not circulate very much. Most of it just sat around in Temple and Palace treasuries, some of which remained, carefully guarded, in the same place for literally thousands of years. It would have been easy enough to standardize the ingots (= Silberbarren), stamp them and create some authoritative system to guarantee their purity. The technology existed. Yet no one saw any particular need to do so. One reason was that while debts were calculated in silver, they did not have to be paid in silver – in fact, they could be paid in more or less anything one had around. Peasants who had to pay tribute or tax to the Temple or Palace, or who owed money to some Temple or Palace official, seem to have settled their debts mostly in barley, which is why fixing the ratio of silver to barley was so important. But it was perfectly acceptable to show up with goats, or furniture, or lapis lazuli. Temples and Palaces were huge industrial operations – they could find a use for almost anything. In the marketplaces that cropped up in Mesopotamian cities, prices were also calculated in silver, and the prices of commodities that weren’t entirely controlled by the Temples and Palaces would tend to fluctuate according to supply and demand.
But even here, evidence suggests that most transactions were based on credit. Merchants – who sometimes worked for the Temples, sometimes operated independently – were among the few people who did, often, actually use silver in transactions; but even they mostly did much of their dealings on credit, and ordinary people buying beer from „ale women“, or local innkeepers, once again, did so by running up a tab, to be settled at harvest time in barley or anything they might have had at hand.

Especially in years of bad harvests some kind of debt crises developed and became common in Mesopotamian societies and later in the Persian Empire as well as in the early Hebrew kingdoms and in ancient Greek city states. Some farmers became indebted to rich neighbors or to the temple or to wealthy moneylenders in the towns, they would begin to lose title to their fields and to become tenants on what had been their own land, and their sons and daughters would be removed to serve as servants in their creditors‘ households, or even sold abroad as slaves. In the case of complete insolvency, the debtor himself might lose his own freedom as well.
In the book of Nehemia, one of the books of the Old Testament, some evidence is found about how debt crises were dealt with in ancient civilizations. Nehemia was a Jew born in Babylon in the 5th centura B.C. who was appointed by the Persian King as governor of his native Judaea. He also received permission to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar more than two centuries earlier. In the course of rebuilding, sacred texts were recovered and restored. In a sense, this was the moment of the creation of what we now consider Judaism. When appointed as governer of Judaea, Nehemiah quickly found himself confronted with a social crisis. All around him, impoverished peasants were unable to pay their taxes; creditors were carrying off the children of the poor. His first response was to issue a classic Babylonian-style clean plate edict – having himself been born in Babylon, he was clearly familiar with the general principle. All non-commercial debts were to be forgiven. Maximum interest rates were set. At the same time, though, Nehemiah managed to locate, revise, and reissue much older Jewish laws, now preserved in Leviticus, which in certain ways went even further, by institutionalizing the principle. The most famous of these is the Law of Jubilee: a law that stipulated that all debts would be automatically cancelled in the Sabbath year (that is, after seven years had passed), and that all who languished in bondage owing to such debts would be released.
Freedom, in the Bible, as in Mesopotamia, came to refer above all to release from the effects of debt. Over time, the history of the Jewish people itself came to be interpreted in this light: the liberation from bondage in Egypt was God’s first, paradigmatic act of redemption. The historical tribulations of the Jews (defeat, conquest, exile) were seen as misfortunes that would eventually lead to a final redemption with the coming of the Messiah – though this could only be accomplished, prophets such as Jeremiah warned them, after the Jewish people truly repented of their sins like carrying each other off into bondage or worshipping of false Gods. In this light, the adoption of the term by Christians is hardly surprising. Redemption was a release from one’s burden of sin and guilt, and the end of history would be that moment when all slates are wiped clean and all debts finally lifted when a great blast from angelic trumpets will announce the final Jubilee. If so, redemption is a matter of destroying the entire system of accounting. In many Middle Eastern cities, this was literally true: one of the common acts during debt cancelation was the ceremonial destruction of the tablets on which financial records had been kept. This act was to be repeated, much less officially, in just about every major peasant revolt in history.
In his Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, Jesus Christ dealt with the problem of redemption from debt. The parable is quite an extraordinary text and has long been a challenge to theologians. Certainly, the unforgiving servant is a genuinely odious character. Still, what is maybe more striking is the tacit suggestion that forgiveness is a difficult issue. Christians, every time they recite the Lord’s Prayer, ask God to „forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.“ It repeats the story of the parable almost exactly, and the implications are similarly dire. Do Christians, reciting the prayer, really forgive their debtors? If not, why then should God forgive them their sins?
Jewish and Chrisitan religion as well as other World religions, are full of this kind of ambivalence. On the one hand they are outcries against the market; on the other, they tend to frame their objections in commercial terms – as if to argue that turning human life and social relations into a series of transactions is not a very good deal. What these few examples reveal, though, is how much is being papered over in the conventional accounts of the origins and history of money and the state.
When people in ancient civilizations thought about money, some might have thought about their tab at the local ale-house, or, if they were a merchant or administrator, of storehouses, account books, exotic imported delights. For many, though, what was likely to come to mind was the selling of family member as slaves to their creditors. They might have thought of mortgages and interest, extortion and punishment. Above all, there was the tension between the need for money to create families, to acquire a bride so as to have children, and use of that same money to destroy families – to create debts that lead to the same wife and children being taken away. „Some of our daughters are brought unto bondage already: neither is it in our power to redeem them.“ One can only imagine what those words meant, emotionally, to a father in a patriarchal society in which a man’s ability to protect the honor of his family was everything. Yet this is what money meant to the majority of people for most of human history: the terrifying prospect of one’s sons and daughters being carried off to the homes of repulsive strangers to clean their pots and provide the occasional sexual services, to be subject to every conceivable form of violence and abuse, possibly for years, conceivably forever, as their parents waited, helpless. Technically, daughters taken in debt bondage were not, if virgins, expected to be sexually available to creditors who did not wish to marry them or marry them to their sons. But even as laws protected them, fathers must often have had little means to protect them or cause those laws to be enforced. Clearly this was the worst thing that could happen to anyone – which is why, in the parable, it could be treated as interchangeable with being „turned over to the jailors to be tortured“ for life. And that’s just from the perspective of the father. One can only imagine how it might have felt to be the daughter. Yet, over the course of human history, untold millions of sons and daughters have known (and in fact many still know) exactly what it’s like.
What’s striking about the historical record is that in the case of debt crises, debt was considered a moral issue, a matter of right and wrong. It’s particularly striking because so many other things do seem to have been accepted as simply in the nature of things. One does not see a similar outcry against caste systems, for example. Why was it that the debtors‘ protests seemed to carry such greater moral weight? Why were debtors so much more effective in winning the ear of priests, prophets, officials, and social reformers? Why was it that officials like Nehemiah were willing to give such sympathetic consideration to their complaints? Some have suggested practical reasons: debt crises destroyed the free peasantry, and it was free peasants who were drafted into ancient armies to fight in wars. No doubt this was a factor; clearly it wasn’t the only one. There is no reason to believe that Nehemiah, for instance, in his anger at the usurers, was primarily concerned with his ability to levy troops for the Persian king.
It is something more fundamental. What makes debt different is that it is premised on an assumption of equality. In the case of debt, we are dealing with two individuals who begin as equal parties to a contract. Legally, at least as far as the contract is concerned, they are the same. We can add that, in the ancient world, when people who actually were more or less social equals loaned money to one another, the terms appear to have normally been quite generous. Often no interest was charged, or if it was, it was very low. Between close kin, many „loans“ were probably, then as now, just gifts that no one seriously expected to recover. Loans between rich and poor were something else again.
The problem was that, unlike status distinctions like caste or slavery, the line between rich and poor was never precisely drawn. One can imagine the reaction of a farmer who went up to the house of a wealthy cousin, on the assumption that „humans help each other,“ and ended up, a year or two later, watching his vineyard seized and his sons and daughters led away. Such behavior could be justified, in legal terms, by insisting that the loan was not a form of mutual aid but a commercial relationship – a contract is a contract. It also required a certain reliable access to superior force. But it could only have felt like a terrible betrayal. What’s more, framing it as a breach of contract meant stating that this was, in fact, a moral issue: these two parties ought to be equals, but one had failed to honor the bargain. Psychologically, this can only have made the indignity of the debtor’s condition all the more painful, since it made it possible to say that it was his own turpitude (Schandtat) that sealed his daughter’s fate. But that just made the motive all the more compelling to throw back the moral aspersions: „Our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children.“ We are all the same people. We have a responsibility to take account of one another’s needs and interests. How then could my brother do this to me?
In the Old Testament case, debtors were able to marshall a particularly powerful moral argument – as the authors of Deuteronomy constantly reminded their readers, were not the Jews all slaves in Egypt, and had they not all been redeemed by God? Was it right, when they had all been given this promised land to share, for some to take that land away from others? Was it right for a population of liberated slaves to go about enslaving one another’s children? Contemporary language of social justice, our way of speaking of human bondage and emancipation, continues to echo ancient arguments about debt.
Analogous arguments were being made in similar situations almost everywhere in the ancient world: in Athens, in Rome, and for that matter, in China – where legend had it that coinage itself was first invented by an ancient emperor to redeem the children of families who had been forced to sell them after a series of devastating floods.
Through most of history, when overt political conflict between classes of poor and rich did appear, it took the form of pleas for debt cancellation (Streichung von Schulden) – the freeing of those in bondage, and usually, a more just reallocation of the land. What we see, in the Bible and other religious traditions, are traces of the moral arguments by which such claims were justified.

1. Why and how was money – according to David Graeber – actually created in ancient Mesopotamia?

2. If there was no money (coinage) to pay with – how did peasants settle their debts in Mesopotamia?
3. Why did debt crises occur in ancient Mesopotamia?
4. What happened to the families of indebted farmers?
5. How was the debt crisis solved by Nehemia? What did the Law of Jubilee stiputlate?
6. How does Jesus Christ deal with the topic of redemption in his Parable of the Unforgiving Servant?
7. Try to give reasons, why the debtors’ protest seemed to carry a great moral weight!
8. Why was – according to a legend – coinage invented in Ancient China?


Redemption – Erlösung, Befreiung
To stipulate – bestimmen, festlegen (Gesetze)


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