History of Accounting - Ancient Babylon

History of Accounting > Accounting in Ancient Babylon

Three or four thousand years before our era, Babylonia was a flourishing state. The code of Hammurabi, a ruler of Babylonia, 2285 B. C. to 2242 B. C, shows that the partnership form was known; also the relation of principal and agent; drafts and checks were common; legal decisions had been recorded covering contracts, conveyances by deed, bonds, receipts, inventories, sales, and accounts of all sorts; customs and ferry dues were collected; highway tolls and water rates were imposed. The records of two banking and money-lending firms, the Sons of Egibi of Babylon and the Marashu Sons of Nippur, have come down to us. The method of keeping their records was by means of sun-baked tablets or slabs, one-half by three-quarters inches in size, written on the front, back, and sometimes on the edges; others were as large as nine by twelve inches. Also carefully prepared registers for the state made record of the ownership of property as the basis of taxation. All these records, it seems, were kept by scribes, who were presumably the only ones who could make the record.

The Chaldaean-Babylonian Empire is said to have been the first regularly organised government in the world. As far back as 4500 B.c. civilisation in Babylonia had already reached a high point, pre-supposing unknown ages of previous development. Babylon was from the remotest antiquity one of the chief commercial centres of the East.1

So great was its influence that Babylonian became the language of commercial and political influence throughout the whole civilised world.2

Among the most notable evidence of the wonderful civilisation of Babylonia is the monument discovered at Susa, on which is inscribed the code of laws promulgated by Hammurabi—a contemporary of Abraham, supposed to be Amraphel of Genesis — who reigned in Babylon from 2285 to 2242 B.c. This code contains a number of enactments dealing with commerce. Thus—

” (104.) If the merchant has given to the agent corn, wool, oil, or any sort of goods to traffic with, the agent shall write down the price and hand over to the merchant; the agent shall take a sealed memorandum of the price which he shall give to the merchant.

“(105.) If an agent has forgotten and has not taken a sealed memorandum of the money he has given to the merchant, money that is not sealed for, he shall not put in his accounts.”3

A large number of business records has come down to us from the period beginning about 2600 B.c., dealing with sales, letting, hiring, money-lending, partnership, &c. The medium employed by the scribe in preparing these records was clay, an abundant supply of which was ready at hand. He wrote with a stylus on a small slab, sufficiently moist to receive an impression easily, and sufficiently firm to prevent the impression from becoming blurred or effaced, and then he made the record permanent by baking or sundrying the slab.

Among these tablets are the records of two banking and money-lending firms, The Sons of Egibi of Babylon and Marashu Sons of Nippur. The firm of Egibi carried on

1 ” History of Babylonia and Assyria,” Rogers, i. 386.

2 Nippur, Peters, ii. 259. 3 Johns’s Translation.

business from an unknown period to about the fourth century before Christ. ” The tablets recording their transactions vary in size from three quarters of an inch by half an inch to nine inches by twelve. They are usually covered with writing on both sides, and sometimes on the edges as well. Many contain no date, and these, on examination, prove to be either rough memoranda, lists of objects or produce, or letters. The more important transactions were re-copied on larger tablets with great care and elaboration of details. These larger tablets usually contain impressions from cylinder seals, and nailmarks, which were considered to be a man’s natural seal.”1

A room at Nippur, excavated by the Expedition of the University of Pennsylvania, contained 730 tablets recording the transactions of Marashu Sons, who flourished in the times of Artaxerxes I. (464-424 B.c.), and Darius II. (423-405 B.c.), in whose reigns the documents are dated.2 Other tablets indicate the existence of similarly important trading firms as far back as 2700 B.C.8

The provinces of this vast empire were administered by satraps or governors, one of whose principal duties was to receive the tribute in money or in kind, for which purpose each was assisted by a superintendent of the revenue, under whom were numerous officials. The business of the central administration and of the provinces was carried out by the scribes, who seem to have combined the functions of the barrister, the attorney, and the accountant of the present day. A carefully prepared register served as a state record of the titles to estates, and also as a basis for the imposition of taxes.4 The system of storehouses for the custody of the taxes paid in kind seems to have been similar to that of Egypt, to which we shall presently refer.

1 “Records of the Past,” XI. 89.

* “The Babylouian Expedition of the University of Pennsylvania,” Series A., Vol. IX. 13.

! ” Babylonians and Assyrians,” Sayce, 161.

4 ” Ancient History of the East,” Lenormant, i. 424.

The offerings to the gods were treated by the priests, says Maspero, as articles of commerce. ” We have to look upon the temple and the industrial establishment of the rich citizens as factories. We have a number of certificates of delivery which show how the raw materials were delivered into the establishments, and how the finished products were delivered from them. These indicate how long the labourers worked, and what wages they received.”l From the temple archives of the sun god have been derived ” a great mass of tablets, which, after the fashion of commercial book-keeping, record the temple revenues in money and other commodities, the expenses in salaries, wages, &c., and the investment and employment of the temple property in loans, real estate, rents, &c.”2

Much information as to business methods is derived from these ancient tablets, but we have not succeeded in finding evidence that any of them can, strictly speaking, be described as accounts; and Dr. Budge of the British Museum, in courteous response to our inquiry, informs us that he knows of none. He says: ” There is no reason for thinking that they (the Babylonians and Assyrians) managed their money affairs as we do. There are many contract tablets known, and hundreds of records of commercial transactions, but I know of none which could be considered as accounts in the modern sense of the word.”

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