The Family Unit
The Family Unit
Patriarchy. Documents from as early as circa 2100 b.c.e. indicate that the Mesopotamian family was patriarchal; that is, the father was head of the family for his entire life, and descent was traced from fathers through sons. The father’s importance is shown in the Laws of the Babylonian king Hammurabi (circa 1792 - circa 1750 b.c.e.): “If a son hits his father, they shall cut off his hand.” Referred to as a “house,” the family was nuclear, not extended; that is, the family unit included only a man, his wife, and their children. Grandparents, as well as adult brothers and sisters and their offspring, had their own family units. The husband was expected to “build a house.” Each family worshiped one particular god, a personal deity who intervened on the family’s behalf with the major gods.
Children. Sons and daughters lived in their father’s home until they married. To satisfy a debt, the father could give his slaves or any members of his family to his creditors, a practice known as “debt slavery.” The father could redeem them later, but he was not obliged to do so. When the father died, unmarried children became the responsibility of the oldest son, the executor, or the state. A son was expected to support his parents when they became old and to perform the appropriate rituals when they died. If children were young when their father died, their mother might be given the power of “fatherhood,” a practice documented by a mid-second-millennium b.c.e. text from Nuzi on the periphery of northeast Mesopotamia.
Adoption. In general, not having children was unacceptable to Mesopotamians. A man whose wife was barren could have children by a surrogate, or a couple with
no male heir could adopt an abandoned, unwanted newborn. Such children were described as “left to the dog” because they were sometimes left to die in the streets, where dogs were likely to eat them unless passersby decided to save them and perhaps adopt them. Older children could be adopted if the adoptive parents reimbursed the birth parents for their expenses in feeding and raising the children. Records of these transactions resemble sales agreements. Some childless families freed slaves and adopted them as sons. Even an adult could decide to enter another family. Adoptive parents agreed that the adopted child would be their heir even if they later had natural children.
Names. A baby was named soon after birth. Many Akkadian personal names reveal the family’s feelings about the newborn and also acknowledge a deity. For example, a baby might be named Nidinti-Bel, “gift of (the god) Bel”; Nabu-apla-iddina “(the god) Nabu gave me an heir”; or Sin-ahhe-eriba (Sennacherib), “(the moon god) Sin replaced for me the brothers (that died).” A foundling might be named Suqayya, “the one of the street.” In addition to a personal name, each man or woman was identified by his or her father’s name; that is, “so-and-so, the son (or daughter) of so-and-so.” In some cases where paternity was in doubt, especially among slaves, the child was given the mother’s name instead. In the first millennium b.c.e., the naming system became more complex. A free citizen was described as “so-and-so, the son of so-and-so (the patronymic), the descendant of so-and-so (the family name).” Sometimes an occupational title was given in addition to or in place of the family name. Slaves were never given a family name.
Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat, Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, Daily Life through History (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998).
J. J. Stamm, Die akkadiscbe Namengebung, Mitteilungen der Vorderasiatisch-Aegyptischen Gesellschaft, volume 44 (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1939).
Marten Stol, “Private Life in Ancient Mesopotamia,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, 4 volumes, edited by Jack M. Sasson (New York: Scribners, 1995), I: 485–501.