The Lost Tradition of Biblical Debt Cancellations Part 4
by Michael Hudson
This paper is based on research done as a Research Fellow at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum in Babylonian economic history, and was originally published by the Henry George School of Social Science (New York City). ©1993 Michael Hudson, Ph.D.
These definitions pertain mainly to the Mesopotamian emergence of formal economic relations in the third and second millennia BC.
Absentee ownership. Control of property by a party other than its cultivator or direct operator. The earliest attested absentee owners were the Sumerian temples or palace, and in time the public collectors or damgar “merchants” who worked via these institutions.
Domestically, the major impulse for absentee ownership was debt. Creditors foreclosed on the debtor’s animals and the land’s crops, and later appropriated the land itself, often by roundabout stratagems such as fictive adoption, q.v. A major external impulse for absentee ownership came from foreign conquest. In Babylonia the first properties to be taken over by Amorite warlord chieftains were the temples (from 2000 BC onwards; see Prebend, Temple). In these two ways communal lands and public properties were privatized, or at least their usufructs were taken as debt-service or tribute.
Adoption (fictive). An early means of alienating land by the fiction of adopting the creditor as an heir. First documented in Babylonia (Stone and Owen 1991), this stratagem was elaborated in Hurrian-speaking Nuzi, upstream along the Euphrates (Eichler 1973).
Alienation. The transfer of property ownership or control. Today this occurs mainly through direct sale, but in archaic times, before a land market developed, the major ways of transferring property were upon death by the inheritance process and by pledging the asset as collateral for a debt obligation and then forfeiting it. Such alienations almost invariably were made under economic duress, and hence were restricted to only temporary duration, being subject to reversal by royal Clean Slate proclamations. Only gradually did outright irreversible sale develop for essential capital assets such as land and the tools of trade.
Amargi. The earliest Sumerian term for a royal proclamation of order cancelling the land’s debts. The first on record is that of Enmetena, ruler of Lagash c. 2400 BC. Its first translator, Maurice Lambert (1972), interpreted it as a return of the mother pledged for debt to her family, or a return of child-pledges to their mother. Charpin (1987) translates its meaning metaphorically, as the original paradigmatic “mother” status, the status quo ante.
Ammisaduqa. Great-great-grandson of Hammurapi, ruler of Babylonia for 21 years, 1646-26. He proclaimed misharum (q.v.) upon taking the throne in 1646, and again in 1626. His edict is the most complete on record in detailing just what debts were to be cancelled and closing loopholes. (See Kraus 1958, 1984, Finkelstein 1969, 1965 and 1961.)
Andurarum. An Assyrian royal proclamation of economic order, including a debt cancellation, found in the 19th century BC.
Antichretic loan. A loan in which the lender is compensated by the economic services generated by the borrower’s own collateral – a servant, animal, or (relatively late in time) land and its usufruct. However, to prevent debt-foreclosure from interrupting normal subsistence activity, tools of trade and essential means of livelihood such as the land traditionally were exempt from being pawned.
Aristotle. Macedonian-Athenian philosopher (fourth century BC), the most famous student of Plato, and tutor to his own countryman Alexander the Great. His discussion of interest in Politics became the basis for medieval Canon Law at the hands of Thomas Aquinas. HisConstitution of Athens (discovered only in 1891) describes Solon’s debt cancellation.
Calendar. A precondition for the economic regime sponsored by the Sumerian temples was to construct a regularized calendar to standardize the distribution of rations, compute interest accruals and schedule other periodic flows. By creating uniform 30-day administrative months for use by the temple and palace institutions, the Sumerians broke away from traditional timekeeping in terms of lunar months of varying length. The resulting 360-day administrative year went hand in hand with Sumer’s sexagesimal system of fractional arithmetic, whose unit fraction (1/60 th) became the basis for computing commercial silver-interest each month (12/60ths annually, or 20% in the decimal system).
Also calendrical were the New Year festivals — the archaic occasions for cancelling personal debts and restoring order. (See Saturn, Shemitta .)
Class and Rank v. Estate. The word class derives from the Roman classification of citizens by census according to their wealth for the purpose of assigning military rank, in an epoch when soldiers had to outfit themselves using their own resources. In Athens, Solon divided the citizens into five property-holding classes. The richest citizens traditionally made up the cavalry, requiring sufficient wealth to provide oneself with a horse, armor and leisure time to practice tactics. The lowest and most common rank was the light-armed infantry.
Marxist historians define members of an economic class in terms of their ownership of (or other relationship to) the means of production. Capitalists own capital, landlords own land, but laborers are obliged to work for wages, not possessing their own means of production or self-support. In ancient society, however, it was normal for all citizens to own their own means of self-support on the land. Indeed, possession of subsistence landholdings typically was a precondition for citizenship. Large-scale industry was public in character.
Marx himself was careful to distinguish pre-capitalist economic formations from those of modern capitalism. As the Soviet ancient historian M. Dandamaev (1984) points out, slavery and debt-servitude are best viewed as estates, defined politically and legally rather than economically. Slaves might own capital or, for that matter, other slaves. A landholder might fall into debt-servitude or be captured in war and sold as a prisoner.
Mesopotamia ‘s Early Bronze Age temple and palace labor force was composed of individuals taken out of their normal family context on the land, not as a result of economic factors but because physical infirmity prevented them from working at agricultural tasks. The blind, elderly and infirm, (war-widows and orphans became temple wards, not because of property or income, but because of physical qualification. (See Gelb 1965, 1972, 1973)
Clean Slate. A royal edict restoring economic order, that is, the (idealized) status quoante. See Amargi,Andurarum, Deror,Misharum, Nig.šiša and Shudutu. By the end of the third millennium BC the leading element of such Clean Slates had become their debt cancellations, freeing bondservants and returning subsistence lands to their formerly indebted holders.
Communal. Belonging to the community members in common rather than set aside as public “state” property or owned by individual households. Land-cultivation rights, for instance, typically were assigned on a user-need basis. If alienated through debt, the community retained periodic reassignment rights.
Debt. An obligation to pay or make restitution. The most archaic debt obligations show no indication of accruing interest, nor do they presuppose prior loans of money or any other advance. The most characteristic liabilities were personal restitution payments such as wergild.The idea of compensation (that is, “making whole”) is indicated by such words for debt as German Schuld (meaning “sin” as well as its compensating restitution payment, cognate to English should), French devoir (“duty”).
Decontextualization. To transfer to a new context. Often in the geographic diffusion of social institutions from the core to the periphery, only parts of the “original” complex of checks and balances are retained. The charging of interest on debt obligations, for instance, was brought to Greece and Italy by Phoenician and Syrian traders (probably in the eighth century BC) without the originally associated practice of periodically cancelling agrarian and other noncommercial debts.
Over time, contexts change in a given region. Mesopotamian property-holding and commercial innovations were removed from their communal and public-sector matrix after about 2000 BC (see Property).
Deror. Hebrew cognate to Assyrian andurarum. The Jubilee year described in Leviticus 25 is to be proclaimed every fiftieth year. America’s Liberty Bell is inscribed with a translation of this passage’s exhortation to “Proclaim liberty (deror) throughout all the land, and to all the inhabitants thereof.” Rather than signifying general political liberty, the idea was more akin to freeing bondservants from debt-servitude. It meant the liberty to rejoin their natural families rather than having to remain in their creditor’s household. Israelite families who had lost their land as a result of economic hardship were to be assured new plots in their traditional ancestral lands so as to provide them with the means of self-support.
Distress. A debtor’s collateral which has been distrained by a claimant, either to compel him to pay or to satisfy the debt obligation directly. The earliest distrainors were not money-lenders but injured parties. (See Maine 1888 and Ireland’s Brehon Laws.)
Enki and other Commerce Deities. Egyptian Thoth, Greek Hermes, Roman Mercury and Scandinavian Loki all share similar characteristics with Sumerian Enki (“Lord of the earth”). All are patron gods of commerce and its related social practices, including the calendar-keeping and astronomy needed to schedule markets and the industrial division of labor, as well as the writing and arithmetic needed to keep accounts. By extension these deities became patrons of the related applications of writing and mathematics, including music and magic.
Enki was the social planner par excellence. In the Sumerian myth of “Enki and Ninmah” (in Kramer and Maier 1989) he assigned a distinct task to every individual, even finding useful tasks for the crippled and infirm to perform.
Enmetena. Ruler of Lagash c. 2404-2375 BC, proclaimer of the first amargi act on record, cancelling personal debts following his victory over neighboring Umma. (See Lambert 1972.)
Enterprise . An economic activity conducted systematically to produce a surplus or usufruct, and to reinvest this profit in extending the scale of the endeavor. Tribally organized communities often erect social barriers against such enterprise, on the ground that mercantile gains tend to be at the expense of the community as a whole and counter its ethic of mutual aid. However, the Sumerians needed commercial enterprise to obtain raw-materials imports. They reconciled this need with their social-value system by setting their export industry corporately apart from the family households. They endowed their temples with land, herds of animals, and a dependent nonagricultural labor force which was put to work in the weaving workshops and at other handicraft professions. In this way temples became civilization’s first true entrepreneurs and the pioneers of corporate planning. Their public enterprise provided the model for subsequent private enterprise. (See Lambert 1960, .and Merchant, Public Sector, Temple.)
Entrepot. Entrepots tend to be neutral zones. To foster arms-length exchange free of favoritism to any local group, they often are multiethnic. Archaic exchange occurred mainly at the geographic margin, often on islands (such as Bahrain/Dilmun for trade between Sumer and the Indus valley), the intersection of trade routes (e.g. Ashur), or — for local trade — the quay areas outside the city gates. Rather than being centers of law and regulation, these entrepots typically were enclaves from the laws of the land. Their trade often was subject to sacred protection, and temples typically received votive offerings from merchants or a share of their earnings.
Southern Mesopotamia ‘s urban areas typically were coterminous with their temple and palace precincts. In time such free-enterprise zones, or what Karl Polanyi called ports of trade, became archaic society’s prototypical urban areas. ( See Temple, Urban.)
Feudal. A decentralization of authority and economic control to designated local administrators in exchange for a stipulated flow of resources — food contributions, money, and above all the supply of fighting men or other manpower for public tasks. Hammurapi (1794-50 BC) built up Babylonian suzerainty through such arrangements, gaining the alliance of local head-men in exchange for delegating legal and economic power to them. Individuals who felt oppressed might appeal to the palace if they did not find justice available locally, but access to Babylon often was difficult. Over time an aristocracy of local leaders became increasingly powerful, often blocking the palace from collecting its stipulated revenues.
Fine-debt . An obligation to make restitution to an injured party (e.g. wergild q.v.), or, in Babylonia, fines or compensation for negligence, e.g. the failure to maintain one’s dike, causing a neighbor’s land to be flooded (laws of Hammurapi §48).
Such debts do not presuppose money-lending, which seems to have come later and to have made use of collection practices first developed to enforce payment of fine-debts. There is no hint of fine-debts accruing in non-Mesopotamian societies.
Freedom/Liberty. The archaic Mesopotamian words often translated into English as freedom or liberty actually meant a return to an (idealized) status quo ante, the paradigmatic way that the world was supposed to have been organized when freshly established under the direction of the gods. An equitable and free order did not occur automatically. The polarizing financial workings of debt and other market forces had to be reversed by rulers acting to restore the primeval order. Rulers were expected to do this upon taking the throne, and occasionally as circumstances called for, e.g. following military conflicts, droughts or crop failure. (See Clean Slate, Market Equilibrium and Order.)
Gudea. Ruler of Lagash c. 2130 BC. His inscribed cylinders contain Sumer’s longest literary work. They describe a dream in which his city-god Ningirsu instructs him to rebuild Lagash’s temple, and the New Year celebration at which he dedicates it and cancels personal debts as part of renewing economic order in the land.
Hallelujah. The ritual term ‘aluluwas chanted to signify the freeing of Babylonian debt-slaves in a rite which was followed by anointing the manumitted individual’s head with oil. The term putam … ullulureferred to cleansing the former slave’s forehead, and was used by Babylonian rulers in their misharum proclamations. (See Dandamaev 1984.) Christians later adopted it as signifying redemption in a broader sense, although based originally on their redemption of brethren from bondage.
Hammurapi. Babylonian ruler 1794-50 BC, most famous for his guideline rulings (not really a “code”) inscribed on a diorite stele captured by an Elamite army in the 12th century BC and taken by French archaeologists in 1901, now in the Louvre. More concrete and binding in character were Hammurapi’s misharum edicts restoring order by cancelling the land’s debts, freeing debtors from bondage to their creditors, and returning forfeited lands to their customary holders. (On his rulings see Bottero 1992, Diakonoff 1982 and 1991, Kraus 1961; Feudal and Talion.)
Hapiru In the Late Bronze Age (after about 1600 in Mesopotamia) the landbecame closed off to a growing number of rural poor. Many left to become hapiru (LUSA.GAZ in Sumerian ideograms), landless have-nots working sometimes as migrant seasonal labor, mercenaries or joining robber bands. Diakonoff (1982) finds the major motive for their exodus to have been usury. Many were of Amorite stock, but the agrarian problem was so widespread that the term hapiru did not yet signify an ethnic identity such as the Hebrews subsequently were represented to be. They are found pressing into Canaan in the Amarna Age c. 1400 BC.
Hillel. Jewish rabbi and leader of the Sanhedrin from about 30 BC to AD 10. By his time, debts were owed more to private merchants rather than to public institutions as in the Bronze Age. Hillel reasoned that if the debt-forgiveness laws called for in the Jubilee Year (Leviticus 25) were observed, creditors would refrain from lending money. This led him to devise the prosbul, a clause in loan contracts whereby debtors relinquished their protection under the Torah’s pro-debtor laws.
Inalienable. Not subject to (permanent) loss or other transfer of ownership through forfeiture or (distress) sale. To the extent that such transfers occurred, they were kept only temporary by periodic Clean Slates “restoring order.” However, some conditions calling for sale were recognized, as long as they were economically voluntary and “at a fair price.”
The first inalienable land was that which southern Mesopotamian communities set aside for their temples for public beneficial use. Under Sargon’s Akkadian regime (c. 2320-2200) the palace purchased land from communal groupings, as attested by the Stele of Manishtushu. Such inalienable lands were marked off by boundary stones, in contrast to the more temporary markers used for landholdings in the subsistence-based communal sector.
Interest. The periodic return to money-capital, specified in advance and accruing regularly on stipulated dates. In antiquity these dates typically were those on which time was “reborn”: the new moon for monthly accruals such as silver-loans (silver being associated cosmologically with the moon), and the New Year for annual (hence “solar”) obligations such as barley debts. Indeed, the terms for interest in most ancient languages signified birth (see Livestock).
The charging of interest seems to have first developed in third millennium Sumer. It is first attested as being due to public bodies, beginning with the tribute owed by Umma to neighboring Lagash on the Guedena buffer territory following battles for this land in the 25th century BC. (See Steinkeller 1981.) From Mesopotamia it diffused westward to the Mediterranean lands, reaching Greece and Italy in the eighth century BC, becoming privatized in the process. Each society set its rate of interest at the unit fraction, that is, the smallest measure: 1/60th (per month) in Mesopotamia, 1/10th annually in decimal-based Greece, and 1/12th (8¹/³ %) annually in Rome. These rates dovetailed into the local systems of measures and weights, calendrically based except for the decimalized rate. The fact that they remained constant century after century indicates their insulation from market forces, profit or productivity rates, being built into the numerological cosmos as it were. This is in contrast to our own era’s rule of thumb that interest rates normally are half the (anticipated) profit rate.
Investment v. Loan. A commercial investor shares in the entrepreneurial risk, not knowing in advance what his specific return will be; a lender’s interest is stipulated in advance, throwing all risk onto the debtor. Consumer loans usually lack the protective safeguards (e.g. against loss of the cargo through shipwreck or piracy) found in commercial credit.
Justice. Righteousness or rectitude, typically characterized as being straight. This geometric imagery reflects an ideology of economic symmetry, at least as far as meeting basic needs for self-support is concerned. The envisioned equality is one of self-sufficiency.
Lagash . Located in southeastern Sumer near the mouth of the Persian Gulf, Lagash often dominated southern Mesopotamia during the second half of the third millennium BC. Much archaeological interpretation of Sumerian economic relations is based on the administrative records and royal promulgations unearthed in Lagash. Debt cancellations were proclaimed by its rulers Enmetena c. 2400 BC, Uruinimgina c. 2350 and Gudea c. 2130
Liberty . Freedom from slavery or other unfree status of subjection. Such self-sufficient autonomy presupposed land-tenure rights to ensure one’s economic livelihood. Hence, Bronze Age Clean Slates restored the communal land-tenure rights of debtors as well as freeing them from bondage to their creditors.
Livestock. As the paradigmatic form of movable capital (from Lat. caput, a head of livestock) in agrarian economies, livestock were the major denomination for calculating compensation for wergild-type offences (q.v.). Of course, livestock were too valuable to be used as means of payment for retail transactions, which are a relatively late development in the use of money. (See Money.)
Ancient words for interest were based on the birth metaphor (the offspring of livestock), beginning with Sumerian mash, “goat-kid,” late in the third millennium BC (after interest already had been charged under other names; see Steinkeller 1981). This birth metaphor for interest was picked up in Greektokos, “calf,” and Latin faenus, also meaning calf However, there is no indication of offspring literally being paid as interest (nor any hint of anyone in antiquity borrowing livestock).
The words for offspring are used in a metaphoric sense, and postdate the innovation of interest. In classical antiquity monthly debt and rental obligations were due on the new moon. Just as the moon was born afresh, so the capital-principal yielded (“gave birth to”) a “calf (tokos). Aristotle remarked upon the irony that metal was barren, hence coin-money was incapable of reproducing itself as did living beings. Medieval Canon Law picked up this observation, and Shakespeare disparaged usury by calling it a “breed of barren metal.”
Market Equilibrium. Bronze Age rulers saw that market forces, if left to themselves, would polarize their societies by subjecting insolvent debtors to a state of bondage to their creditors, while redistributing property into the hands of merchants through foreclosure. To have thus disenfranchised cultivators while favoring a nascent mercantile oligarchy would have been to commit social suicide. It would have undercut the economic foundation of the peasant-army, leaving the land prone to invasion from without and dissolution from within. Rulers accord ingly undid the effect of commercialization and “market equilibrium” by proclaiming Clean Slates to restore economic balance and ensure land-tenure rights to all citizens.
Marx, Karl. The first economic historian to undertake a systematic analysis of ancient economies. Discussions of antiquity prior to Marx were couched in political rather than economic terms. Marx distinguished antiquity’s economic structures from those of modern capitalism in his 1857Critique of Political Economy. He defined the “ancient mode of production” as characterized by slave labor rather than by wage labor, and its major economic usufruct as usury-interest earned on money capital rather than industrial profits earned by employing free wage-labor.
Merchant, mercantile. The earliest Mesopotamian merchants (Sumerian damgar , Babylonian tamkaru) seem to have worked for the public institutions directly as collectors or at least on their behalf. Often the temple provided merchants with transport and rations. Although mercantile activities became increasingly privatized, merchants long legitimized their activities by their quasi-public status.
Debts among merchants were not cancelled in royal Clean Slates, but only those of the needy. These debts were owed mainly to palace or temple merchant-collectors. (See Yoffee 1977 and Leemans 1950 on the merchant’s position in Bronze Age Mesopotamia.)
Misharum. Babylonian cognate to Sumerian amargi and Assyrian andurarum. A royal proclamation of economic order, headed by a cancellation of personal debts, liberty for individuals subjected to debt-servitude, and restoration of lands to peasant-cultivators who had forfeited them to creditors or sold them under distress conditions since the last such proclamation. The first misharum edict on record is that of Nidnusha of Der, in northwest Babylonia. (See Clean Slate.)
Subsequent edicts were greatly elaborated by the rulers of Hammurapi’s dynasty to countermand creditor attempts to evade them, culminating in Ammisaduqa’s acts in the late 1600s. (See Finkelstein 1961, 1965 and 1969, and Kraus 1958 and 1984.) They may have been signalled by the ruler raising a sacred torch. Their guiding spirit was much broader than a debt cancellation as such; they were proclamations of overall social order. However, as debt balances became more prevalent with the spread of commercialization and economic decentralization, debt cancellations became the paramount feature.
Money. A means of settling an obligation, originally of a capital character (such as the capital crime of manslaughter, typically compensated by the payment of heads of cattle, Lat. caput.) Such fines seem to have been civilization’s first formal “prices.” As capital payments, they were too expensive for use in retail trade. The Sumerians and subsequent economies used two major monetary commodities: silver (supplemented by gold and sometimes tin) and barley. For official account-keeping these two commodities were made freely convertible into each other, with a unit of barley exchanging for a shekel of silver. (§89 of Hammurapi’s laws rules that if a debtor lacks the silver to repay a loan, he may repay in barley at the official price.) (See Laum 1924 and Grierson 1978.)
Nabu (Saturn). The Babylonian god of Saturn, patron of justice and as such, the counterpart to the sun-god of justice. (See Jastrow 1909.) As the slowest-moving planet visible to the naked eye, Saturn signifies firmness, and was the foundation for Bronze Age chronological periodicity. Its period of revolution around the sun (to return to the same zodiacal point where it began) takes nearly 30 years, a number corresponding to the solarized 30-day administrative month used in Bronze Age Mesopotamia, Egypt and their culture-area. From this correlation follows the 30-year periodicity of Egypt’s royal sed festival and Babylonia’s misharum “order” proclamations, such as that of Hammurapi in 1764 celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of his ascending the throne.
The New Year festival at which these royal proclamations were handed down re-enacted the creation of order in the social as well as the physical cosmos. By classical antiquity, as rulers were overthrown and the Bronze Age of Saturn gave way to the Iron Age of Zeus/Jupiter, these festivals became Saturnalia, stripped of their social-justice character. (See Bourboulis 1964 and Versnel 1970).
Nig.šiša (pronounced neeg-SHEE-sha ). Sumerian word akin toamargi,used from Ur III onward to indicate a royal Clean Slate edict.
Order. (See also Freedom.) An ideology of economic symmetry in which each citizen’s family was (at least in principle) assured the means of self-support on the land, free of accumulated debt obligations, exile or other punishments and imbalances. The accumulation of mercantile wealth was compatible with economic order except in the form of financial claims impairing the liberty and self-sufficiency of individuals. Communities restored this paradigmatic status quo ante when their rulers proclaimed Clean Slates they cancelled non-mercantile debts, freed individuals who had fallen into debt-servitude, and restored the lands to debtors who had lost them or had sold them under economic duress.
Palace. The “state” arm of government. Palaces are first found emerging from within the temple precincts in early third-millennium Sumer, although they became increasingly secular as their military role increased throughout antiquity. (See Royal, State.)
Pledge or pawn. Collateral which the borrower turns over to the creditor to ensure payment of the money owed. Often such pledges were forfeited, but in Bronze Age Mesopotamia they were returned to debtors after rulers proclaimed Clean Slates restoring economic order (or in the Biblical laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, after a given period of time had passed.)
Prebend. The revenue yielded by temple property set aside to support an administrative official. In time, prebend revenues were dissociated from temple offices, being appropriated by individuals and, by the 1700s BC, bought and sold freely in Babylonia. ( See Temple.)
Priest. No general word for “priest” in our modern religious sense of the term existed in the Sumerian or Babylonian languages. Most temple officials were administrators, scribes and accountants, not preachers of religious doctrine as a separate moral sphere, much less an otherworldly one.
Private. Strictly speaking, “private” economic activity is that which is conducted for one’s own personal gain. Communalistic value systems tend to subordinate private drives to an ethic of mutual aid. Where wealth is accumulated, it is dissipated in the form of conspicuous consumption, feast-giving, burial of one’s ancestors or contributions to public institutions.
Individualism is documented in early Sumer mainly in the palace sector, culturally as well as economically by the ruler and his household. (The first “signed” literary text is a poem authored by Sargon’s daughter Enhuadanna.) Most “merchants” (q.v.) were public collectors. Unlike the case today, their personal business archives were freely intermixed with their official portfolios, indicating their ambivalent role.
In Early Bronze Age Mesopotamia the family-based rural sector was subordinate to
communal oversight and to the originally communalistic temple and palace institutions. Families became autonomous from communal and public oversight either by virtue of alien warlordship — e.g. the Amorite chieftains who became personal owners of southern Mesopotamia’s temples from about 2000 BC onward –or by the lever of interest-bearing debt, initially by creditors emerging out of the temple and palace bureaucracies, acting increasingly on their own account. (See Absentee Ownership.) Under Hammurapi’s sponsorship of feudal-type arrangements, property and related local economic power was delegated to headmen who promised specified obligations to the palace, above all to supply troops and contributions of crops and livestock. (See Feudal.) In this way the boundary between private control and public service became blurred.
Productive credit. Loans in which the borrower invests the lender’s advance to generate a profit, out of which to repay the loan and its stipulated interest. Bronze Age Clean Slates did not relate to such commercial debts, but only to rural/ consumer obligations.
Property. An asset which is owned (from Latin Privus, “alone, by one-self”). The idea of private/appropriations and “self”/“own” is reflected in the semantics of ownership. Movable property consisted mainly of livestock and money/jewelry; immovable property consisted of real estate. Communities “originally” allocated land to individual users for the duration of their productive use (usually coterminous with their adult lifetime), subject to their fulfilling traditional communal obligations such as serving in the army.
The tendency over time was for communally and publically owned property to pass into private hands, starting with those of public merchant-collectors and foreign overlords acting on their own behalf, lending money and converting the overdue obligations of insolvent community members into claims on property, which they then seized. Property became increasingly hereditary, remaining within the closed family than reverting to the communal pool. (See Private.)
Public Sector. The Sumeriansset public templeand palace property corporately apart from the community at large, that is, from the landed citizenry’s collective holding of subsistence land. They incorporated public institutions to undertake their profit-generating enterprise (q.v.).This was deemed inappropriatefor individual families to undertake inasmuch as this would have presupposed a disproportionate scale of wealth in their hands. Public enterprise had the virtue of concentrating the economic surplus, industrial handicrafts and the accumulation of communal savings of precious metals in the hands of permanent civic institutions— the temples, and in time the palace— rather than leaving these functions in private hands, as subsequently occurred under more oligarchic social formations. (See Enterprise, Palace, Royal, State, and Temple.)
Redeem . To liberate – a pledge from debt bondage by paying off the obligation due. Under Christianity this became a synonym for salvation from bondage, including worldly suffering in general.
Religion/sacred. Religion provided archaic societies with their underlying cosmology of order, and justice, that is, with the ideology which was their social ligament. Bronze Age cosmology sanctified an ideology of economic equity to the extent of ensuring citizens the basic means of self-support through land-tenure rights, and periodic release from debt obligations. Sun-gods of justice handed rulers their iconographic symbols of office, the measuring-rope and measuring rod.
As Babylonian society polarized and dissolved after about 1700 BC, religion began to turn inward, to subjective personal deities in contrast to the city-deities sponsoring overall social balance. (See Justice, Nabu, Order, Priest, Sun-God and Temple.)
Rent. The usufruct yielded by land or townhouses, originally accruing to temple or palace owners and later to private owners. In Early Bronze Age Sumer, before land became freely and irreversibly alienable, the “price” of a parcel of land was essentially its yield.
Rents varied, but one-third of the crop became typical by the end of the third millennium in the Ur III period, as did the typical agricultural barley-interest rate of 33¹/ 3 %. These rates equated the re turns on sharecropping rent and moneylending. In modern economic terms, an interest rate of 33¹/ 3 % would indicate a land value of three years’ purchase – low by modern standards, but normal by archaic ones. (A one-year purchase price for a property would indicate, in effect, ownership of the land’s usufruct for the period of just one year. (See Property.)
Royal, ruler. A ruler’s function was to rule, that is, to administer equity in the land. The major way to rule (the linguistic root of regal) was to proclaim order (q.v.), above all by cancelling debts. In these Clean Slates rulers in effect cancelled debts owed to themselves. This tradition was phased out by Biblical times as kings came to represent the wealthy nobility rather than being their overseers or antagonists as in Bronze Age Mesopotamia.
The word “king” is anachronistic as applied to Bronze Age rulers Sponsored by their local temples, they rarely spoke of their ancestral families but represented themselves as sons of the city-deity (as did Sargon) or as having been picked from the crowd by this deity (e.g. Uruinimgina). This imagery signified their transition from private family representatives to public administrators serving the common weal, ideologically obedient to the city-deity. ( See Palace, Order.)
Samsuiluna. Son of Hammurapi, he ruled for 38 years, 1749-1712. Taking the throne in 1750 when his father became too ill to rule, Samsuiluna restored order by proclaiming misharum (also using the old Sumerian term amargi), cancelling all the debts that had accumulated since Hammurapi had proclaimed misharum in 1761,some thirteen years earlier. (Samsuiluna again proclaimed misharum in 1741). His letter to a subordinate official explaining the logic behind his edict is a major source of information reflecting the Babylonian ideology of rulership. (See Kraus 1965.)
Saturn, Saturnalia See Nabu.
Shemitta. The septennial year of release called for in Deut. 23, freeing debt-servants after six years of service paying off their family’s creditors (compared to three years in Hammurapi’s laws). The number seven also figures in the Jubilee Year of Leviticus: As the 50th year, it follows seven septennial periods.
Shudutu. Hurrian word for “economic order” corresponding to Babylonian misharum.
Solon. Athenian lawgiver, an aristocrat who was appointed archon in 594 BC to resolve the city-state’s debt crisis (stasis), which threatened to culminate in a popular tyranny that would exile the aristocrats, confiscate and redistribute their lands, as had occurred in other Greek cities. (See Tyrant.) Solon cancelled the personal debts of Athenian citizens and permanently forbade their debt-servitude. His political poetry describes how he went so far as to redeem Athenians who had been sold into debt-slavery abroad. In time both democrats and oligarchs claimed Solon “the Lawgiver” for their own.
State. Modern political theorists define states as having the authority to raise armies and declare war, make laws, and levy taxes. These functions did not belong to Mesopotamia’s Early Bronze Age rulers. A passage in the Gilgamesh epic suggests that wars could be declared only by communal acclamation by the collective body of fighting men and elders (see Jacobsen 1941). Temples and palaces were endowed with the resources to support themselves instead of having to levy taxes. (Indeed, they were creditors rather than debtors.) The land was ruled mainly by oral common law; written royal laws such as those of Hammurapi applied mainly to the public sector and its members.
Sun-god of Justice. Bronze Age social ideology is epitomized by the qualities attributed to local sun-gods of justice: Shamash in Babylonia and corresponding deities in other lands. The sun became the paramount symbol of rectitude andregularity (which has the same linguistic root as royal and ruler).Hammurapi’s stele shows him showing his laws to Shamash or perhaps even receiving them from him.
The ritual combat between the ruler (acting the role of the sun-god Marduk in Babylonia’s New Year celebration) counterposed him to the lunar goddess of chaos, Tiamat. Public administrative calendars were solarized on the basis of standardized 30-day months, in contrast to the lunar months which varied in length and thus could not well serve as a basis for allocating rations and other monthly economic flows. Geographically, the sun traced the east/west axis to which ancient urban areas and their public buildings were aligned. In myth, the sun was likened to ail all-seeing eye feretting out and vanquishing evil.
Talion . Hammurapi’s law of talion (retaliation) applied to poorer Babylonians lacking the means to pay compensation. Legal records of the period show that in practice, injuries normally were resolved by the guilty party paying monetary compensation rather than suffering physical retaliation-in-kind. Talion thus seems to have been a late emergency measure to deal with offenders too poor to pay damages.
Temple . Southern Mesopotamia’s most characteristic and important public entity was the temple. It was here that communities saved their food, and also their monetary treasure and economic records. Set corporately apart from the community at large, temple precincts originally comprised the urban area as such. Whereas rural land periodically was redistributed among community members, temple estates were permanently endowed and demarcated as self-supporting entities, and indeed as the focus of commercial surplus-generating activities.
The motive for concentrating these activities in the temples evidently was to create an alternative to leaving industry and dependent labor in private hands. To have done so would have led to some families dominating the rest of the population, a familiar occurrence in tribally organized “chieftain” communities. Instead, handicraft industry was concentrated in temple workshops (and later, those of the palace). Dependent hand-labor was provided by widows and orphans, the blind and infirm who could not make a go of things on the land. In carrying out these specialized functions, Sumer’s temples innovated writing and account-keeping, weights and measures, corporate modes of organization and forward planning in general. (See Diakonoff 1982, Falkenstein 1954, Gelb 1965 and 1972, Lambert 1960, Oates 1972, Renger 1984, Lundquist 1983 and Makkay 1983.)
Temple administrators were assigned prebend lands (q.v.) which provided food-rations — often more than were needed for the admin istrator’s own use. The balance was sold, a perquisite of their office. But around the turn of the second millennium, as Amorite chieftains moved into southern Mesopotamia, rulers from Ur III onward turned over to these warlords temples in Nippur, Ur and other towns. Their prebends were privatized, divorced from the actual performance of temple duties to become pure claims on the usufruct produced by temple properties. Bequeathed from one generation to the next, these prebends became increasingly subdivided by the 18th century BC, and became market able– civilization’s first income-yielding securities. (See Charpin 1986 and Stone 1987.)
Temples were major creditors throughout antiquity. In war emergencies they lent their precious metal objects to the palace or other civic regime, in an epoch when public war debts to individual creditors did not yet exist. They lent money to the poor and needy, and to slaves to buy their freedom (including ransom money for captured war prisoners; see Hammurapi’s laws §32). Temple workshops also seem to have consigned inventories to merchants at interest. In sum, they were the dominant economic focal point of Early Bronze Age communities, the pioneers of corporate organization and planning. (See Enterprise, Prebend, Priest, Public Sector, Religion, Sacred, Urban, War Debts, Widows and Orphans.)
N.B. For many years cuneiformists believed that Sumer was a “temple-state,” but Igor Diakonoff and Ignace Gelb independently have demonstrated the existence of a landed, family-based communal sector. Community members belonged both to their own family grouping and to the local temple. Sumerian society was bifurcated between the public and communal sectors; indeed, trifurcated between the urban temples, the palace, and the landed family-based communal sector. This trifurcation led to a specialization of functions and interest-bearing debt balances emerging in Mesopotamia before they did so elsewhere.
Tyrant. The term “tyrant” was used primarily by aristocratic parties to denigrate popular leaders from the seventh century BC onwards. As economic life polarized between landed creditors and indebted cultivators falling into debt-servitude, equilibrium was restored by leaders (often themselves from the most prominent aristocratic families) who exiled the major families, cancelled debts and redistributed the lands among their followers. Tyrants came to power in Corinth (when Cypselus exiled the Bacchiads), in Miletus (under Thrasybulus), in Sicyon (under Cleisthenes), in Olbia Megara and other Greek towns. Solon (q.v.) managed to steer a path midway between the two extremes, but he was followed by Peisistratus and his sons, and then by Cleisthenes of Athens, who in 504 BC redesigned the Athenian constitution to vest power in the democracy.
Unproductive Debts. Loans or other claims for payment that do not find their counterpart in income-earning assets. In such cases debtors must pay their creditors out of their own resources, earning the money in ways unrelated to the loan or else forfeiting their collateral.
In most societies only mercantile lending is productive. Consumer loans are inherently unproductive, as are public debts to pay for wars or for tribute. Public debt would be productive only if its proceeds were used to finance a resource generating goods or services that earned the money to repay the loan – with its stipulated interest, e.g. _ as in public mining, shipping and other commercial ventures.
Urban. Belonging to the town as distinct from the countryside. Early Bronze Age urban precincts consisted mainly of the public temple area (what the Greeks called the temenos) and palace estates. Throughout antiquity the entire urban area and its gates were sanctified by ritual, and often aligned cosmologically. Urban/mercantile activities were governed mainly by written royal laws, while the land remained governed by customary oral common law. (See Diakonoff 1982 and 1991.)
In antiquity, as today, the countryside was indebted to urban creditors (including the temples). Cultivators owed public fees and obligations, and also money or food advanced by public merchant-collectors acting on their own behalf. Royal order/liberty proclamations annulled these rural debts, but did not restore the urban/mercantilestatus quo anteas they did that of the land. Commercial debts among merchants were not cancelled, nor were townhouses that had been sold since the last such proclamation returned to their former owners. The logic at work seems to have been that urban property holdings and mercantile credit did not impair subsistence self-support; that was ensured by maintaining customary landholding rights. The Biblical debt laws maintain this same urban/rural distinction.
Usufruct. The net yield produced by an asset: rent from land, profits for physical capital (including trading inventories), and interest for money-capital.
Usury. Ancient languages had no words to distinguish usuryfrominterest.The word usurysignifiesusus fructus “useof the fruits,” Churchmen in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were the first to distinguish between productive (commercial) lending and parasitic consumer debt. Their objective was to rationalize lending by the Lombards and other major international banking families, permitting loans when a foreign-exchange conversion (agio) was involved. Such loans typically were made to merchants, to royalty (mainly to wage wars or pay tribute to Rome) and to the nobility. To be sure, most of these latter loans were economically unproductive. But Canon Law’s main concern was to distinguish loans to the poor from those to the well-to-do. Bronze Age Mesopotamian rulers had done this by applying their Clean Slate decrees only to personal barley-debts, not to commercial silver-debts.
The return earned by legitimate mercantile loans came to be called interesse, signifying that lenders/investors shared an equity-type interest in sharing the commercial venture’s risks. The term usuryhence forth narrowed to represent lending at above-legal rates, typically to the poor for consumer purchases.
Warfare and War Debts. Warfare forced ancient economies into debt, but not into public debt. Indeed, public borrowing from private creditors was unknown until the Roman oligarchic epoch, when the wealthy took advantage of the state of emergency near the end of the Punic Wars to enrich themselves at the expense of society at large. To the extent that palaces or civic regimes borrowed, it was from the temples, e.g. as Athens melted down the Parthenon’s statues of Winged Victory, and Rome drew on the treasure in the temple of Juno Moneta (whence our word money derives). Temple credit to the palace usually took the form of precious metals, including from Sumerian times the (removable) golden garments of the city-deities, which could be melted down.
The major financial consequence of warfare throughout antiquity was to force the rural population into debt. Indeed, military disruption was the single major dynamic disturbing archaic economic balance, forcing populations (but not regimes) into debt and thus polarizing economic life between debtors and creditors. The return to peace following the end of wars became occasions for rulers to cancel the debts both of their victorious peasant-infantry and that of the defeated city (see Enmetena, Hammurapi). This won the peace by consolidating the loyalty of the land’s cultivators, who also were its infantrymen.
By the fourth century BC the Greek military writer Tacticus cited the stratagem of weakening a city’s defense by promising its citizens to cancel their debts if they would defect. This often obliged the local oligarchy to match the bid, as occurred from Jerusalem’s promise to its debtors by Zedekiah in 597 BC (on which the creditors later welshed), Rome’s secession of the plebs (a promise on which the creditors also welshed), and in. Ephesus luring the. Mithradatic wars in the first century BC.
But ultimately, by being called away from their lands to fight, the Roman peasantry was, in effect, fighting for its own disenfranchisement. The families of soldiers often fell into debt and ended up losing their lands. for many centuries it was normal policy to resettle returning war veterans in new colonies, but as the oligarchy grew stronger it monopolized all available land for itself.
Wars also were a major impetus for coinage from the seventh century BC onwards. Armies brought their own minters to melt down booty to remunerate their victorious soldiers. Major markets (mainly for food and sex) also developed around military camps.
Wergild. Compensation for personal injuries ranging from insults to manslaughter. (Deliberate murderers were exiled or killed by retaliation.) By providing an alternative to “feud justice,” such compensation replaced vindictiveness in an attempt to preserve the community intact.
Widows and orphans. Mesopotamian rulers pledged themselves to protect “the orphan and the widow” (see Urukagina’s “reform” text, the prologue to the laws of Shulgi/Ur-Nammu and Hammurapi, and the biblical laws). In the Early Bronze Age such individuals lost their families as a result of warfare or infirmity. Epitomizing the most needy persons, they were the paradigmatic debtors to the extent that they remained on the land in the absence of husbands and fathers. Job 24.3 deems it iniquitous for a creditor to take the widow’s ox as a debt pledge. But for the most part, unable to support themselves alone on the land, they became public wards. Many were put to work in the temple weaving workshops. Rulers were charged with overseeing their welfare by ensuring satisfactory ration levels.
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