Notes on the Economy of the Isin-Larsa – Old Babylonian Period

September 27, 2015 – 6:48 pm

Tendencies in the changing economy which had been noted in the Neo-Sumerian period strengthened in the Isin-Larsa and Old Babylonian periods. Much of the information for this period comes from the very large number of ‘Old Babylonian Contracts’ that have been recovered. This is particularly the case for the private economy of the Land.[1]


During the classic era of Sumerian civilization in the ED periods, the very clear state ideology had it that the material resources of the Land (and the people too) were the property of the God of the city, controlled on his behalf by the temple and with the palace playing very much a supporting role. The ideology cannot have perfectly reflected reality, however, for we know that even the poor man might have a garden that Urukagina’s laws forbade the priest to violate; but it probably paints a generally accurate picture. By the time of the Ur III period, the king – often enough a god – had assumed control of the temple and its economic rights and responsibilities. In this period we had noted that despite the near complete silence of the available texts it was clear that even in the highly centralised Ur III state there was scope for private enterprise – not least because something would be required to fill the gaps in the economic structure as it was described by the extensive palace and temple account texts.

Now, with the fall of Ur, there was a notable increase in the significance of private enterprise. This must be attributed at least in part to the preferences of the newly settled tribesmen, plausibly a consequence of the strong tribal preference for autonomous power structures still notable today.[2] But even without crediting such a cultural motive, we can trace a certain development from the practices of earlier times. It is known, for example, that some workers of the Ur III period were not permanently assigned to the work of the temple or palace – indeed, the existence of some independent class must be traced back into the ED period. In the Isin-Larsa period it became increasingly common for work for the large institutions of temple or palace, which still dominated the economy, to be administered by those institutions but to be performed by contract labourers or labourers who shared their time with other employers. Those workers were paid a salary rather than a ration, or they might take a share of the product or profit. 

Such workers were, of course, to be found in the workshops of the institutions. Others could be found tending the animals of the temple, supplying a quota of their product and undertaking to increase the numbers. Any excess they could manage would be theirs, but so would the responsibility for any deficit, which they would have to make up.[3] Others again could be given land to farm on their own account with a large portion of the product again going to the landholding institutions. For example, up to ½ to 2/3 of the date harvest in such arrangements went to the treasury. Still other such workers were employed at administrative tasks. Independent agents acted as intermediaries between the large institutions and the relevant citizens: they collected taxes and fees, issued payments and rations, organized the collection and distribution of resources, etc. With time many more of these tasks associated with the operation of the institutions became commoditized, divisible, tradable, and heritable as sinecures.

Long Distance Trade

A particular form of enterprise under the control of the Palace was the long-distance trade. This was conducted by merchants on behalf of the palace, who in turn contracted out the business of trade to ‘commercial travelers.’ These latter were entrusted by their merchant principals with capital in the form of silver, or with trade goods consisting usually of various products of agriculture such as oil, grain, or wool, and they were also given a sum for travelling expenses. In return they were to import metals, timber, or slaves.

These journeys could be risky, but they could also be highly profitable if they succeeded. This is reflected in the arrangements made for funding and distribution of risk and reward. The costs of the journey could be large because, apart from the obvious need to buy the goods to trade and to pay support the staff who would go on the voyage, there were also costs levied by river transporters, and ‘taxes’ imposed by any king or strongman across their path who had the power to do so. The initial capital for the venture was loaned to the traveler by the merchant, or by a collection of merchants, and if the trip was successful they would receive their traveling expenses back, plus the initial capital, plus a share of those profits – the profit expected in such cases seems to be something in excess of 100%. In the case that the venture proceeded normally but failed to make a profit, the traveler had to pay back twice the value of the seed fund plus the travelling expenses. If the venture failed through some accident and no fault of the traveler then he was only required to make a simple reimbursement. And if he had failed because of an attack by hostiles on the road he needed to make no repayment at all.

Credit, Debt, and Relief

Private loans which were known in the Ur III period now became extremely common, and this probably had something to do with the nature of the new economic organization, for there was every incentive for the owners of resources who were loaning out the use of their resources to maximize their share of the result. This left little room for the producing classes to weather what might have been merely temporary setbacks with their own resources. They were forced to make use of lenders who priced their loans quite high. An acceptable price for borrowed silver was 20% of the value of the loan, and 33% for grain. This price had to be paid whatever the term of the loan, so short-term emergency loans were very expensive.[4]

The consequences of this new system were widespread recurrent and chronic indebtedness which if left unchecked would lead to immiserisation of the population and certain social unrest. To prevent this, and to demonstrate its capacity to create justice in the Land, the state found it expedient to relieve this distress in repeated acts of debt forgiveness in the form of decrees of mišarum (níá) or ‘righteousness.’ Such acts are known to have occurred under the dynasties of Isin and Larsa, and are probably in the tradition of the reform act of Urukagina. By the time of Hammurabi they had become normal ways of beginning a reign, and repeated every seven years:[5] which only goes to show how serious were the faults in the economic system.

Only the Edict of Ammisaduqa, who ruled Babyon a century after Hammurabi, is sufficiently well-preserved to indicate the nature of this traditional remedy, though a fragment is also known of a similar edict of his grandfather Samsuiluna. From this document it appears that although some segments of the population and some parts of the realm might be especially favoured – possibly because their needs had become critical – all free men, whether ‘Akkadian or Amorite,’ were relieved. Slaves were excepted, but it is possible that those who had fallen into debt-bondage by defaulting on a loan were released. In general, the relief applied to debts of producers whose loans had been required for their survival and their dues, but not to loans made in the course of normal business operations. The Palace accepted it as its responsibility to bear this loss, rather than imposing an ‘injustice’ on the lenders.

Palace action was also required in a second aspect of the economy where, once again, the new system showed itself unstable and unable to regulate itself. Thus there developed a practice of fixing prices by royal decree. Again, this is in the tradition of the Reforms of Urukagina, which included a revision of wages and fees.[6] The regularity of such requirements is reflected in their inclusion in published laws of the Isin-Larsa period, such as the Laws of Ešnunna. Indeed, it may have been that this was the principal motivator for the development of so-called ‘Law Codes.’ Other regulations, such as compensation rates and criteria of negligence and guidelines for consumer protection and dispute resolution and so on, naturally arose from consideration of just prices for goods and services. The implications and consequences and points requiring clarification would ramify to involve much of the life of the society.


It is worth noting at this point also, that the intricate social stratification observed in the earlier periods is no longer dominant. In the Isin-Larsa and Old Babylonian periods a simple tripartite structure is recognised in the laws.[7]

  1. Awilum:                 ‘Man’                     Free citizen
  2. Muškenum:           ‘Subject’                Royal retainer/Palace dependent
  3. Wardum:               ‘Slave’                   Slave

These classes are usually presented as hierarchical, but we are only sure that the slave was seen as below all others. The exact status of the other two is obscure, but legal penalties differed depending upon which of these classes the perpetrator and the victim fell into.

[1] Gadd:H, p.19
[2] Gadd:H, pp. 17-23.
[3] vdMieroop:H, pp. 88 f.
[4] vdMieroop:H, p. 89; Gadd:H, pp. 22 f.
[5] ANETP2, p. 36; 17.18, 8.9.
[6] Gadd:H, pp. 17 f.
[7] Gadd:H, pp. 23 f; Kuhrt, p. 114.

  1. One Response to “Notes on the Economy of the Isin-Larsa – Old Babylonian Period”

  2. The bibliography for this has:
    ANETP2 = Pritchard, J. B. (ed.) (1975) The Ancient Near East: Volume 2, Princeton: Princeton University Press
    Gadd:H = Gadd, C. J. (1965) Hammurabi and the End of His Dynasty, CAH2/1 ch. 5 (fasc. 35)
    Kuhrt = Kuhrt, A. (1995) The Ancient Near East c. 3000-330BC, NY: Routledge
    vdMieroop:H = van de Mieroop, M. (2004) History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000-323BC, Malden, MA: Blackwell

    By SteveGW on Sep 27, 2015

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