In this region Herodontus traveled and expressed his astonishment at the hundred or more great cities he saw, while in Babylon, once the “glory of the kingdoms,” presided over them all. All is now in ruins. Of the hundred or more visible mounds covering the sites of once mighty cities and temples, scarce a half dozen have yet been exhumed. But from these have been taken thousands of burnt clay tablets, cylinders, images, and fragments, telling of a once great civilization that flourished here for three thousand years. Those people made arches, tunnels, aqueducts, canals, drains; used the mechanical lever and roller; manufactured glass and made lenses of it; engraved gems; practiced inlaying, overlaying, and enameling of metals; made jars, dishes, vases, ivory and bronze ornaments; were weavers, manufacturers of all sorts; architects and builders; had earrings, bells, and ewels of elegant forms; wrote poems, annals, hymns, and magic incantations, at a time that history knows not.
What was woman’s condition then? The ancient tablets show us somewhat of it, but the later empire more.
Cities and Houses
The early cities were of winding, narrow, muddy streets, littered with kitchen refuse and offal of beasts and men, where packs of dogs and ravens were the scavengers. There were crowded, noisy bazaars, each trade in its own lane or blind alley. The houses of the middle and lower classes were huts of reeds and puddled clay, or else were low, crude brick walls inclosing [sic] silent, almost desolate spaces, where the rich dwelt in palaces and gardens carefully screened from the gaze of the vulgar herd; while towering over all was the temple — palace of the god, with its ziggurat and painted or gilt sanctuary. The palaces of the rich were lighted by small holes in the upper parts of the walls; rooms were small, oblong affairs, a few only used for living purposes, others being store chambers for household treasures and provisions; the furniture of living rooms, mainly chairs and stools like those pictured on Egyptian monuments; bedrooms contained chests for linen and coverings, the beds, mainly mats on the floor with wooden head rest, almost the picture of those now used by the Galla people in Africa (whom some suppose to be their descendants), those ancient women putting their hair up like the Gallas in huge erections that require such head rests; in the corner of the courtyard an oven, and near it the millstones for grinding the grain, ashes aglow on the hearth always, or near at hand the fire-stick, pots of earthenware, water and wine jars, heavy plates, knives, scrapers, and mall heads of flint, bronze axes and hammers, and wicker baskets, great and small. In later Empire times the houses had flat roofs such as may now be seen in Bagdad, and other Euphrates towns, where the women spent most of their time, morning and evening, gossiping or story-telling or perchance in small housework, till driven below in the heat of the day.
Position of the Wife
The well-to-do had several wives, who dwelt in a harem, which, if the tablets do not belie, was the place of endless quarrels and intrigues. These, while supplied with the luxuries of the time in food and dress, were practically slaves, going out only to visit a female friend, or relative, or to the frequent festivals at the temple, when they were attended by a crowd of slaves, eunuchs, and pages, who carefully shut out the world to them.
Women of the middle and lower classes spent their lives in endless toil for husband and children. Night and morning they carried water from the public well, or river; they ground corn, made bread, spun, wove, made garments for the household, went bareheaded and barefoot to the market, wearing the loin cloth only, or else a long draped garment of wool of hair texture.
Maternity was the beginning and the sole end of woman’s existence, and she might be repudiated by a word from her lordly husband. If she was sterile, she was often divorced for it, unless the marriage contract had specified she should not be. (Under the later new Chaldean Empire, the divorced wife might demand the amount of the dowry the bride had always to bring her husband. And if she owned property in her own right before marriage, it remained hers independently of her husband, to be used as she pleased.)
If the wife was a scold or disobedient, the husband might sell her as a slave. If she miscarried or was permanently barren, she was believed to be possessed by an evil spirit and was a dangerous person, and accursed, and so was often banished from the family.
So hard was the lot of woman in those old days, that girl babies were often thrown into the river or left at cross roads, if possible to excite the pity of passers-by, or to be devoured by vultures.
Childless couples, to avoid the stigma of childlessness, were wont to adopt these foundlings, or others, in order to have children to support them or inherit their property. Newly born infants were shown to be reliable witnesses, then marked on the soles of their feet to insure identity to the parents. It was a misdemeanor in parents to disown a child, unless for cause, and they were shut up in their house so long as they persisted in it.
If a son said to his father, “Thou are not my father,” the father marked him by a conspicuous sign and sold him as a slave in the public market. If he said thus to his mother, he was similarly branded and led through the street, or along the road, with hooting and clamor and driven out of the city or province.
The rich owned many slaves of both sexes, while the middle classes owned but two or three at the time. These were captives taken in war, as was Lot, or in the almost constant raids made on peaceful settlements by petty chieftains to replenish their treasury. Slaves were counted by the law as cattle only, and the owner’s will was as absolute over them as over his flocks or trees. He could shackle them, whip them mercilessly, or take their lives. Male slaves sold for from ten shekels of silver by weight, to a third of a mina; females for four and a half shekels. Female slaves counted it as great honor to be taken as a wife by the master, who could treat them as he would. Slaves married among themselves and their offspring went to the master. Occasionally a slave was allowed by the master to purchase his freedom, rarely was it ever given him. At times, if apt at trade, the master set him up in business, allowing him some of the profits. If a slave became free he could marry sometimes in the middle class. Workmen taught their own trades to their children.
Originally the middle and lower classes seemed to have owned their own homes, but often they fell into the hands of the usurers, who were wont to ask twenty and twenty-five percent interest on loans, and when they had to rent the houses, the rates were very high.
Gold, silver, and copper were in use as money, but it was not coined, or even cut in rings or twisted in wire, as in Egypt, at this early date of which we now speak, but was exchanged by weight, silver being very generally the preferable money.
Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.