weights and measures
- Mercantile activities, including buying and selling; money exchanging; and trade, both local and foreign, as well as reckoning the sizes of land parcels and erecting large buildings, necessitated the development of standards of weights and measures in ancient Mesopotamia. These standards, which came to be used across the region and in a number of neighboring Near Eastern lands, were not invented all at once. Instead, they evolved over many centuries when and where need dictated. It appears that many were introduced, or at least modified and passed along, by the Sumerians.Their creation of the world's first cities and large farming estates in the late fourth and early third millennia b.c. significantly increased the volume of commerce and trade in the region. This stimulated a demand for uniformity in weights and measures in order to reduce the confusion caused by using many different local systems. A similar effect occurred with the rise of empires in Mesopotamia beginning in the late third millennium b.c.; an empire's central administration imposed a uniform series of weights and measures for everyone in the realm.By the time that the Babylonian and Assyrian empires arose, a fairly standard set of weights and measures was in general use across Mesopotamia. It was based in large degree on Sumerian models, which is evident by its frequent reliance on the Su-merian counting system, which combined a sexagesimal approach (based on the number 6) with a decimal one (based on the number 10). The Akkadian (Babylonian and Assyrian) system also employed measurements based on the approximate lengths of the human finger and forearm.Basic Units The early basic Akkadian unit of weight was the she (from the Sumerian se), which was equivalent to 1/600 of an ounce (.05g). By the Neo-Babylonian period, dating to the mid-first millennium b.c., the she had been replaced by the shiklu, later popularly known as the shekel, equal to 180 she, or .3 ounces (9g). This is about the weight of a U.S. quarter. In the Akkadian system 60 shekels equaled 1 manu, and 60 manu equaled 1 biltu, equaling roughly 67 pounds [30kg].Akkadian measures of length and distance were based on finger and forearm lengths. The average forearm length was later widely called a cubit, a term used frequently in the Old Testament, which was written in Mesopotamia and Palestine in the first millennium b.c. One ubanu, based on the Sumerian shu-si, or "finger," was equivalent to about .6 inches (1.6cm). And 1 ammatu, or cubit, was equal to about 15.5 inches (39cm). Large units of measure included the kanu, or "cane," equal to 6 ammatu (7 feet 10 inches [2.3m]); the ashlu, equal to 157 feet (48m); and the beru, or "league," equal to 5.25 miles (8.4 km).Because the Sumerians were the first people to employ farming on a large scale in Mesopotamia, the units they developed for measuring the areas of plots of land became universal in the region. For example, the Sumerian sar, or "garden," became the Akkadian musaru, equal to 27.5 square yards (23 sq. m). One Su-merian iku, or "field," became an Akkadian iku, equaling 100 musaru, or .79 acres (.32ha). And 1 Sumerian bur became an Akkadian buru, which equaled 18 iku,or 15 acres (6ha).Units of volume were also important for trade, and the Sumerians and the Akkadians developed their own equivalents of modern pints, gallons, and bushels. For instance, the sila (the term used by both the Sumerians and the Akkadians) was equivalent to about 1.5 pints (.9l). One massiktu,or pi, equaled 60 sila, an amount equivalent to 11 gallons (41.6L) or 1.3 bushels. An average donkey load in ancient Mesopotamia was called an imeru, equal to 100 sila, or about 2.25 bushels.When the Achaemenid Persians took over Mesopotamia from the Babylonians and the Medes in the sixth century b.c., Persian officials adopted a system of weights and measures similar in many ways to the traditional Sumerian-Akkadian one. Like the older version, the new one had units of length called fingers, hands, cubits, and canes, for instance. However, the actual measurements in the Persian system differed somewhat. A Persian finger (aiwas) was .8 inches (2cm); a hand (dva), equal to 5 fingers, was 4 inches (10cm); a cubit (panka), was 20 inches (50cm); a cane was 5 feet (1.5m); and a parasang, supposedly the distance a person could walk in an hour at an average pace, was 3.7 miles (6 km). Some of the basic Persian units of weight were the shekel, at .3 ounces (8.3g); the mina, equal to 60 shekels; and the talent, equal to 3,000 shekels.The Seleucid System Following the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great and the wars among his successors following his death, the Greek-ruled Seleucid Empire took charge of Mesopotamia. Unfortunately, the use of weights and measures in the region now becomes somewhat uncertain because of a lack of reliable surviving evidence. It appears that Seleucus and his successors did not introduce a new system of weights and measures. Instead, they seem to have kept in place a conglomeration of older systems, each predominating in a different part of the empire. In Babylon, for example, merchants and traders probably used the Akkadian or Persian system, or perhaps both. The Seleucids also appear to have used a Greek system, specifically the Attic, which was the one used in Athens and was the most widely used system in Greece at the time. The Attic foot measured 11.6 inches (29cm); 600 of these feet equaled a stade, or stadion. Smaller Greek units of length included the fathom (orgyia), equal to 6 feet (2m); the pace (bema), equal to roughly 2.5 feet (.7m); and the cubit (pekhys), equal to about 1.5 feet (.5m). The chief Greek unit of area was the plethron, roughly equivalent to 10,000 square feet, in today's terms perhaps .25 acres (.1ha). A major unit of liquid measure was the amphora, roughly equivalent to a bit more than 8 modern gallons (about 39L). And one of the most common units of dry measure was the medimnos, probably equivalent to a bit more than 11 modern gallons (52l). The late Michael Rostovtzeff, the leading scholar of the economies of the Seleucid and other Greek kingdoms of that period, suggested that individual major cities in the Seleucid Empire may have issued their own sets of standard weights and measures with the permission and guidance of the central government. This, he says, implies the existence in the Seleucid administration of a department of weights and measures which issued the royal standard weights [probably based on the Attic system] and controlled those issued by the magistrates [officials] of at least the most important cities of the kingdom. Unfortunately, [the matter remains somewhat vague because] there is no complete collection of the numerous weights of the Seleucid kingdom. (Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World, vol. 1, p. 454)After the decline of the Seleucid Empire, the Parthians seem to have kept the old Persian and Greek standards of weights and measures in place, although little or no evidence for Parthian weights and measures has been found. Not surprisingly, the Sassanians, who supplanted the Parthians in the region, utilized the Persian system since the Sassanians considered their realm a reborn version of Achae-menid Persia and tried to emulate the earlier Persians in numerous ways.
Ancient Mesopotamia dictioary. Don Nardo Robert B. Kebric. 2015.
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