Family and Household

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Family and Household

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Definitions. Evidence for reconstructing Mesopotamian social organization comes from a vast variety of written texts as well as from archaeological excavation of private houses and the architectural complexes of the great institutions, the temples and palaces. Social historians define family as persons related by blood or marriage, and household as persons living under the same roof. A married couple and their children constitute a nuclear family. If other relations—such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins—are included in the group, it constitutes an extended family. Family groupings that encompass even wider family ties are known as tribes or clans. Members of a nuclear family living together in one house constitute a family household, and extended family households are also possible. In Mesopotamia the temple and the palace were organized and functioned as households, even though their members might not have been related. Every household, family or institutional, shared the same general structure. At its head was an individual who held the authority for managing the household’s assets and who was responsible for the well-being of its other members. In a Mesopota-mian family household, the head was the senior adult male; that is, the father and husband, who was the holder of the family property. The head of the temple household was the god who “owned” the resources of the temple and to whom the temple and its personnel were dedicated. In Mesopota-mian ideology, the chief administrators of the temple were the representatives of the deity and managed the temple resources on the god’s behalf. The head of the palace household was the king, who also had a large staff to execute his decisions concerning the household and its resources. Thus, family and household structures played crucial roles in the Mesopotamian economy.

Urban Family Households. Textual and archaeological evidence from the third millennium b.c.e. indicates that the people who initially settled in Mesopotamian cities lived in extended family enclaves. Early legal contracts reveal that in these new and rapidly developing cities, neighbors were related. Sale documents from that time indicate that properties were owned by multiple family members rather than by individuals. Over time, the size and complexity of houses built in the cities decreased. Space was restricted in urban centers, and members of a growing extended family were forced to establish individual family households in other parts of the city. After the earliest settling of cities, for much of Mesopotamian history the basic building block of urban society seems to have been the simple or nuclear family: a married couple and their children—with or without additional relatives such as unmarried aunts and uncles or elderly grandparents. Children lived at home until marriage, at which point they founded their own family households. Because land was always subject to family ownership, however, ties of the extended family—tribal and clan affiliations—continued to be important in cities even though individuals did not live together in extended family households. The seemingly ageless custom of identifying persons according to their patrilineal descent—“Samsu-iluna, son of Hammurabi,” for example—also helped to perpetuate clan and tribe affiliations even among people who did not live together.

Rural Family Households. While written evidence from rural areas is meager, people living outside Mesopotamian urban centers do occasionally appear in documents generated in cities. Extended family households were more likely in rural areas, where there were fewer restrictions on living space. Larger groupings, such as tribes or clans, were also more in evidence among nonurban nomadic or semi-nomadic people, with whom tribe or clan affiliation played a significant political and economic role. Tribe and clan affiliations appear in written economic documentation, for example, in dealings concerning livestock, whose urbanbased owners would send them to outlying regions for pasturage under the supervision of nomadic or semi-nomadic herders. Evidence from Mari, a city on the middle Euphrates, indicates that herders usually had tribal or clan connections to the urban owners of livestock. At times, extended family affiliations provided the basis for urban political power, particularly in the early second millennium b.c.e., when people identified as Amorite (literally, “westerner“) were able to establish ruling dynasties in several urban centers—the best known being Hammurabi’s dynasty in Babylon (circa 1894 - circa 1595 b.c.e.). This pattern occurred again in the first millennium b.c.e., when first Aramaeans and then Arabs—both ethno-linguistic groups whose power lay in extended family structures outside the urban-centered traditional Mesopotamian elites—used the strength of their tribal support to achieve political power in the cities.

Institutional Households. At the head of the temple or palace hierarchy was the deity or the king, followed by administrators, cultic personnel or courtiers, soldiers, specialized craftsmen, and large numbers of manual laborers, mostly engaged in the agricultural enterprises of the institution but also in animal husbandry and building projects. Among institutional resources were also slaves, who were the property of the institution, and dependents, people something like the serfs of medieval Europe, who owned no means of production and worked the resources of the institution. In theory, the household was self-sufficient; that is, its members produced what they consumed. The household functioned by a principle of redistribution: consumable goods produced by members of the household employed in various activities with its resources were collected by a central administration and then distributed back to the household members. This kind of closed-circle system in Mesopotamia may be described according to the oikos-model, employing the Greek word for “house.” (The word oikos is also echoed in the English word economy, which is derived from the Greek word oikonomia, literally “management of a household.“) With its dependence on irrigation and the labor-saving device of the seeder-plow, the agricultural regime of southern Mesopotamia was most efficient when land was cultivated on a large scale. The ability of the largest landholders, the temples and the palaces, to produce agricultural surpluses enabled them to maintain large households and to invest their resources— including the labor of their dependents—on diversified economic activities. For much of Mesopotamian history, the temple and the palace were the major landholders and thus the major players in the economy.

Limitations of the oikos Model. Like any model for describing the real activities of an economy, the oikos model has its limitations. The closed circuitry of the model fails to consider the need and the ability of the institutions to exploit outside labor at peak times of the agricultural cycle, such as when the temple drew on village-based farming communities for labor at the harvest and the evolution of the corvee system, whereby the crown exacted monthly labor obligations from subjects outside of the palace household. Access to these external supplies of labor was key to the ability of the institutions to produce agricultural surpluses, which in turn were fundamental to their ongoing economic prosperity. The oikos model also fails to take into account relationships among various institutions, particularly that between the temple and the palace. After the third millennium b.c.e., it appears that the palace had increasing power to command the resources of the temple. Finally, the oikos model does not account for the activities of independent entrepreneurs or middlemen, such as merchants, who contracted with the institutions to take on the responsibilities and risks of overseeing and executing some of the institutions’ activities in exchange for the opportunity to make profits.

Sources

M. I. Finley, Ancient History: Evidence and Models (London: Chatto & Windus, 1985).

Michael Jursa, Prywatyzacja i zysk?: Przedsiebiorcy a gospodarka instytucjonalna w Mezopotamii od 3 do 1 tysiaclecia przed Chr (Poznan: Poznan Society for the Advancement of the Arts and Sciences, 2002).

J. N. Postgate, Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History (London&New York: Routledge, 1992).

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Family and Household

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