Property and Succession

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Property and Succession


Inheritance. Patterns of inheritance varied by time and place. Each city had its own customs. For the most part, the eldest son received a larger share of his father’s estate than his brothers; for example, he might be left two of the shares instead of one; an extra proportion, at least 10 percent, of the total assets; or a choice of what part of the estate his share might comprise while his brothers drew lots for their shares. Inheritance might include land, houses, furniture, slaves, and animals, as well as religious and military duties. During the second millennium b.c.e., in some peripheral areas such as Nuzi in northeast Mesopotamia and Emar in Syria, a daughter was treated the same as a son in the eyes of the law and could inherit a share of her father’s estate.

The Estate. The estate was physically divided after the father’s death so the married brothers could set up independent households. The oldest son might be left the family home because of his duties to maintain the family graves, which were often beneath the house. Burying the

dead beneath the family’s house was practiced in various parts of Mesopotamia from Early Dynastic times (circa 2900 - circa 2340 b.c.e.) through the Old Babylonian period (circa 1894 - circa 1595 b.c.e.). Cemeteries were also found within and outside cities. In some periods, in order to maintain the revenue it produced, real estate was not divided. If the family home was large enough for each brother to have separate family quarters in it, the house was divided. Sometimes the division of the family house resulted in such small rooms that people could not live in them. In these cases some people transferred ownership of tiny uninhabitable rooms to other family members in “paper transactions.”

Wills. Even though a will might favor the eldest son, bequests to others could be made as well. The father could also disinherit family members, but this decision required validation by the court, which could modify or revoke a father’s action if it found that the father acted either quickly or unfairly. Because sons of a deceased brother inherited their father’s share of the grandfather’s estate, uncles sometimes questioned the paternity of a son born after his father’s death. The resolution to a case of disputed paternity is found in a tablet from Nippur during the reign of Samsu-iluna (circa 1749 - circa 1712 b.c.e.) during the Old Babylonian period:

Ninurta-ra’im-zerim, son of Enlil-bani, approached and faced the court officials and judges of Nippur (testifying): “When I was in the womb of Sin-na’id, my mother, Enlil-bani, my father, died before (my mother) gave birth to me. Habannatum, my paternal grandmother, informed Luga, the chief herdsman, and Sin-gamil, the judge, (and) she sent a midwife and delivered me. When I grew up, in the 20th year of Samsu-iluna …” (The uncles testified:) “Ninurta-ra’im-zerim is not the son of Enlil-bani.” … The court officials and the judges investigated the case. They read the earlier tablet with the oath. They questioned their witnesses, and discussed their testimony. In this regard, thus was their testimony: “We know that Ninurta-ra’im-zerim is the child of Enlil-bani,” they said. (Leichty)

Gifts. During his lifetime the head of the household could give gifts that were not later considered part of the family estate. The Laws of Hammurabi (circa 1792 - circa 1750 b.c.e.) cover this situation:

If a man awards by sealed contract a field, orchard, or house to his favorite heir, when the brothers divide the estate after the father goes to his fate (dies), he (the favorite son) shall take the gift which the father gave to him and apart from that gift they shall equally divide the property of the paternal estate. (LH §165; Roth)


In a patrilineal system, property is divided among the surviving sons or the closest related male line. The children of a man whose brother died without heirs therefore stood to inherit from their uncle’s estate. Sometimes uncles became greedy and disputed the paternity of a baby born after a brother’s death. Three tablets from Emar on the Euphrates in Syria include an attempt to forestall actions that might prevent a man’s children from inheriting his estate. One or both footprints of each child—two bow and one girl, apparently triplets—were impressed on tablets next to the seals of the witnesses. For example, written around and across one footprint are the words: “Foot(print) of Ishma-Dagan, the son of Satamma, son of Karbi, a man from the city of Satappa. The seal of Dagan-belum. The seal of Lahe. The seal of Aya-damqat.”

Source: Erle Leichty. “Feet of Clay,” in DUMU-E2-DUB-BA-A: Studies in Honor of Ake W. Sjöberg, edited by Hermann Bchrcns. Darlene; Loding, and Martha T. Roth, Occasional Publications of the Samuel Nuan Kramer Fund, no. 11 (Philadelphia: Samuel Noah Kramer Fund, University Museum, 1989). pp. 349–356.

Such gift giving also protected daughters so that they might receive a proper dowry. Also, if the father died before a dowry was executed, the sons had to give a share of the estate to their sister.

Widows. The Akkadian term almattu designated not only a widow in the modern sense of a woman whose husband has died but also any married woman who had no financial support from a male member of her family. Such a woman was in need of legal protection and could even contract a second husband or enter a profession. A woman who had children was granted control of her dowry when her husband died, and it went to her biological sons and daughters when she died. A widow could not inherit from her husband’s estate if she had no children, and when she died, her dowry became the property of her brothers and their descendants. However, her husband could set aside property for her before he died. If a husband died before his wife and left no will, his widow was allowed to live in his house, and their children had to support her. A widow could run her husband’s business by herself, but, if she remarried, she lost this right. Contracts from Emar, a city on the Euphrates in western Syria, describe a symbolic act performed by a widow leaving her late husband’s family to remarry. She placed “her clothes on a stool” and left without taking any of her possessions.

Priestesses. If a girl became a priestess, her brothers were obligated to support her. They managed the dowry she took with her to the temple or cloister, and when she died, they or their descendants inherited her estate. This practice conserved the family estates. However, the priestesses of Marduk (the patron god of Babylon) kept their dowries, and their brothers were not permitted to claim their estates. Sometimes a priestess adopted another priestess or a slave and left her property to that person instead of her brothers. The slave could be emancipated with the condition that the slave take care of the priestess in her old age and carry out the burial rites.


F. R. Kraus, “Von Altmesopotamischen Erbrecht,” in Essays on Oriental Laws of Succession, Studia et Documenta, volume 9 (Leiden: Brill, 1969), pp. 1–57.

Erle Leichty, “Feet of Clay,” in DUMU-E2-DUB-BA-A: Studies in Honor of Åke W. Sjöberg, edited by Hermann Behrens, Darlene Loding, and Martha T. Roth, Occasional Publications of the Samuel Noah Kramer Fund, no. 11 (Philadelphia: Samuel Noah Kramer Fund, University Museum, 1989), pp. 349–356.

Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat, Cuneiform Mathematical Texts as a Reflection of Everyday Life in Mesopotamia, American Oriental Series, volume 75 (New Haven: American Oriental Society, 1993).

Nemet-Nejat, Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, Daily Life through History (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998).

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

Martha T. Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, second edition, Society of Biblical Literature, Writings from the Ancient World Series, volume 6 (Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1995).