Property and Personal Dignity in the Ancient World

The Spivonomist brings forward some of his usual light-hearted polemic, and he has every confidence to be light-hearted and incisively dismissive of the “property is theft” meme that seems to crop up with every new round of vampire movies, for “property is respect” is not far removed from the basic precepts of human dignity since the very beginning of Western Civilization. To shovel up and turn over that foundation would be one heck of a people’s revolution, overturning at least 4500 years of precedent, inculcated in our several language systems and in our various justice systems.

Moreover, those precedents are rooted in narrative history, meaning the precepts represented within the earliest organizing legal documents have been forged through the human experience and practice of Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt, and Anatolia. In other words, not only are these precepts organic in their nature, but their systematization also reflected generations of legal application, balancing the varied uses of force and mercy to maximize stability and prosperity.

For example, one of the earliest complete examples is a treaty created by my best friends, the Sumerians, a royal inscription known as the Eannatum Treaty, created during the 25th Century. Its significance lies in no small part that the treaty was not of one subjugating nation over a subjugated nation, as the later Hittite treaties exemplify, but is a treaty between two allied cities who were susceptible to boundary disputes and the occasional ambitious, conquest-minded ruler, conflicts which flared up during the course of hundreds of years. A few things emerge when working through the treaty:

  1. The basis of the treaty is a narrative rooted in historical realities, witnessed by heaven and earth (the deities).
  2. Once the frontier was secured, the concern was rebuilding infrastructure and returning soldiers to their ordinary occupations.
  3. Once the army was largely disbanded, the concern was defense of the frontier against outside invasion, as opposed to civil disputes between two cities.

In a word, the concern was establishing peace in order for the people to prosper. A rising tide lifts all boats, including the boat on which sits the throne.

More importantly, this particular treaty has parallels throughout the entire larger region, including a contemporary treaty found at Ebla, near Damascus. Unlike the Eannatum Treaty, however, it was one nation subjugating another. Nevertheless, its primary concern was the provision of mutual protection of merchants, detailing how sojourners were to be received and how the sojourners themselves were to conduct business.

A few hundred years later, with the rise of uninhibited travel throughout the larger region, treaties became much more specific with regard to the conduct of commerce. The protection of an empire or nation guaranteed its citizens, its vassals, and visitors particular rights. While they were not laid out as great, sweeping concepts, as we have now, e.g., “property rights,” they were delineated in such a way as to create principles for court judgment. By the 15th Century, nearly every treaty, law code, and covenant–anything that organized a society, small and large–had these several components, in one order or another:

  1. Title
  2. Historical Prologue
  3. Stipulations
  4. Deposition (publicly acknowledging the validity and legitimacy of the treaty)
  5. Witnesses (The Big [human] King and/or the deities and/or Heaven and Earth)
  6. Curses and Blessings (if/then statements promising judgment or reward)

Drilling down a bit further, internal societal organizing treaties stipulated (#3) the behavior of its constituency, namely, the king’s subjects or the citizens of a nomadic order. Stipulations, then, would be the regulatory legal code. For the most part, they were concerned not with obeisance to the ruler, per se (although that was assumed because of all the other components of the treaty), but the laws, precepts, regulations, and statutes were concerned with individual dignity and property, and what was to be done if those were violated.

For example, one may find in the stipulations something along these lines: “If a man’s ox shall wander into his neighbor’s field, and the ox tramples his neighbor’s grain, then the man shall repay his neighbor according to such and such a schedule. Furthermore, if the man’s ox again wanders into his neighbor’s field and does more property damage, then the man’s ox shall be slaughtered, and a portion of the slaughter shall go to the man, and a portion shall go to his neighbor. If the ox maims or kills his neighbor’s wife or children, then the man shall repay according to a much more punitive schedule…” and so forth.

From kingdom to kingdom and people to people, the examples and punitive damages varied, but the enduring ones showed two main characteristics: 1) Mercy for the wronged, regardless of social status; 2) mercy for the wrong-doer. Even in cases of rape and murder, the perpetrator was to be shown some measure of mercy, complete with investigation of the crime, whether it was justified, committed in a fit of passion, or premeditated. The guilty were to be punished swiftly and publicly, not tortured out of sight.

Delineation of a single case in all its imaginable variations is not, as a cursory assessment might yield, the regulation of every aspect of the daily life of every faceless, soulless revenue generator for a power-mongering chieftain bent on sucking the marrow out of every life within his grasp. The narratives demonstrated how that wouldn’t work. It is, instead, as in the case of the ox, a precedent laid out, a touchstone for all subsequent judgment that might be related to that series of laws, e.g., if someone’s horse got loose in the marketplace.

In addition, casuistry made these stipulations of the treaty deeply personal, touching directly to the person of an individual. That is to say, indignation is the natural response to an ox trampling your field, perhaps yielding an outcry such as, “How am I supposed to feed my family?” Or, “This year’s crop was dedicated to sending little Jimmy to scribe school!” It is directly associated with the autonomy of a person to work out his existence the best way he sees fit with respect to interacting with his neighbors. An individual had some confidence to work out his existence without a terrible lot of interference, for these stipulations also, by default, put limits upon a ruler and a ruling class.

Upon this foundation, incidentally, a welfare state is created, but that discussion should be reserved for another endless post.

One thought on “Property and Personal Dignity in the Ancient World

  1. Pingback: Property and Personal Dignity in the Ancient World | Official site of DJ Michael Heath

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