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Life at the Bottom of Babylonian Society

Servile Laborers at Nippur in the 14th and 13th Centuries B.C.

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Jonathan S. Tenney

Life at the Bottom of Babylonian Society is a study of the population dynamics, family structure, and legal status of publicly-controlled servile workers in Kassite Babylonia. It compares some of the demographic aspects proper to this group with other intensively studied past populations, such as Roman Egypt, Medieval Tuscany, and American slave plantations. It suggests that families, especially those headed by single mothers, acted as a counter measure against population reduction (flight and death) and as a means for the state to control this labor force. The work marks a step forward in the use of quantitative measures in conjunction with cuneiform sources to achieve a better understanding of the social and economic forces that affected ancient Near Eastern populations.
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Jonathan S. Tenney

Abstract

To date, servility and servile systems in Babylonia have been explored with the traditional lexical approach of Assyriology. If one examines servility as an aggregate phenomenon, these subjects can be investigated on a much larger scale with quantitative approaches. Using servile populations as a point of departure, this paper applies both quantitative and qualitative methods to explore Babylonian population dynamics in general; especially morbidity, mortality, and ages at which Babylonians experienced important life events. As such, it can be added to the handful of publications that have sought basic demographic data in the cuneiform record, and therefore has value to those scholars who are also interested in migration and settlement. It suggests that the origins of servile systems in Babylonia can be explained with the Nieboer-Domar hypothesis, which proposes that large-scale systems of bondage will arise in regions with plentiful land but few workers. Once established, these systems persisted and were reinforced through Babylonia’s high balance mortality, political ideologies, economic incentives, and social structures.