regulating prices for goods and bads in ancient Mesopotamia

Ancient Mesopotamian laws set prices for goods and for bad acts.  For example, the Code of Ur-Nammu, written in the city of Ur about 2100-2050 BGC (about 4000 years ago), set “temple expenses” as specific prices in barley, sheep, and butter.  The code also declared, “If a man commits a murder, that man must be killed;” and, “If a man knocks out a tooth of another man, he shall pay two shekels of silver.”  The Code of Hammurabi, written in the city of Babylon about 1760 BGC, set prices for doctor’s operations of different types and on different classes of persons (six different prices), a price for a veterinary surgeon’s operation, prices for building a house, for caulking and pitching a ship, for renting a ship (including different prices for rent inclusive or exclusive of ship crew), for tending oxen and sheep, for farm laborers, for men ploughing, for ox ploughing, for threshing, etc. It also set prices for bad acts, e.g. “If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out”; “If a freed man strike the body of another freed man, he shall pay ten shekels in money.”  Other ancient Mesopotamian laws, such as the Laws of Eshnunna (ca. 1770 BGC, city of Eshnunna) and the Laws of Lipit-Ishtar (ca. 1930 BGC, city of Isin) include a similar mix of prices for goods and bads.[1]

This expansive, written price regulation was profoundly important to its authors.  The epilogue to the Laws of Lipit-Ishtar declares:

he who does anything evil to it [the represented Laws], who damages my work, who enters the treasure room, who alters its pedestal, who effaces this inscription and writes his own name (in place of mine), or, because of this curse, induces an outsider to remove it — that man, whether he is a king, an enu-lord, or an ensi-ruler … [May the] primary son of the god Enlil, not approach; may the seed not enter; … [May] the god Enlil … revoke the gift of the lofty Ekur temple.  May the god Utu … make his cities into heaps of ruins.[2]

These explicit, elaborate concerns for ownership of laws are conventional in epilogues to ancient Mesopotamian laws.  The epilogue to the Laws of X (written sometime between 2050 and 1800 BGC) includes similar language, as does the epilogue to the Code of Hammurabi.

The prices declared in ancient Mesopotamian laws were meant to last forever.  The Code of Hammurabi makes this goal explicit:

May any king who will appear in the land in the future, at any time, observe the pronouncements of justice that I inscribed upon my stela.  May he not alter the judgments that I rendered and the verdicts that I gave, nor remove my engraved image.  If that man has discernment, and is capable of providing just ways for his land, may he heed the pronouncements I have inscribed upon my stela, may that stela reveal for him the traditions, the proper conduct, the judgments of the land that I rendered … If that man (a future ruler) heeds my pronouncements which I have inscribed upon my stela, and does not reject my judgments, or alter my engraved image, then may the god Shamash lengthen his reign

At least formally, Hammurabi was quite successful in projecting his authority forward in time.  The Code of Hammurabi was studied and recopied for at least fifteen hundred years.[3]

Prices for bad acts differ significantly from price for goods important in ordinary life.  In a law such as “If a man commits a murder, that man must be killed,” the price for murder has a readily understood correspondence and symmetry. Prices for ordinary goods, such as a bushel of barley, lack such correspondence and symmetry.  Not surprisingly, the price of barley 4000 years ago in Mesopotamia is much less related to current prices for food than the ancient Mesopotamian price for murder is related to current prices for murder.

Moreover, prices for bad acts are relevant only in abnormal circumstances, while prices for goods important in ordinary life enter in daily transactions.  Hence the cost of regulated prices not responding to relevant changes in circumstances is much less with respect to bad acts than with respect to common goods. Observed prices for common goods in Babylon from 385 to 61 BGC show large variations.[4]  For example, the price of a cubic meter of barley in kilograms of wool had an interquartile range of 9.4 kg to 18.9 kg in Babylon from about 382 to 71 BGC.  Extreme variations were much wider (see graph below).  If the prices that Babylonian kings set for common goods had been practically important and enduring, they would have greatly harmed ordinary life. That’s not true for the prices that the kings set for bad acts.

(underlying price data)

Concern for common welfare and justice motivates governments to enact criminal laws.  Concern for common welfare and justice has also throughout human history motivated governments to regulate prices for ordinary goods.  Criminal law typically has low cost and high popular support, and the effects of bad prices for crimes often are not obvious. Price regulation for common goods typically has high cost and can rapidly lose popular support.  The implications are important but counter-intuitive: changes in government price regulation are much more likely to be consistent with common welfare and justice in the long run.  Common circumstances of human life regulate government regulation of goods’ prices much better than they regulate criminal law.

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[1] English translations of these laws can be found in Roth, Martha Tobi, Harry A. Hoffner, and Piotr Michalowski (1995), Law collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor (Altanta, Ga.: Scholars Press).  For a compilation of wages and goods prices from the Code of Hammurabi, see Godfrey Rolles Driver and John C Miles (1952), The Babylonian Laws: Ancient codes and laws of the Near East (Oxford: Clarendon Press) v. I, p. 476.

[2] This and the following quotation are from the translation in Roth, Hoffner, and Michalowski (1995). The “lofty Ekur temple” was a temple to Enlil in the sacred city of Nippur.

[3] See Babylonian Law.  About 1200 BGC, about 500 years after the Code of Hammurabi was written, an Elamite king Shutruk-Nahhunte took as plunder a stela displaying Hammurabi’s code. He brought the stela back to his kingdom in Khuzestan, Iran.  That stela is currently on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

[4] For a detailed discussion of these prices, see R.J. van der Spek, Commodity Prices in Babylon 385 – 61 BC.  Mr. van der Spek has made his convenient compilation of the data freely available on the web.  I am grateful for his generous contribution to world knowledge.

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