Wein, Weib und Gesetz?

“The Code of Hammurabi (1800 B.C.) includes a law that punishes fraudulent wine sellers: They were to be drowned in a rive[r]”

This tweet by Bacchus and Beery (https://twitter.com/BacchusandBeery/status/231767136807292928) triggered me. Not because of the fraudulent wine-sellers of old. Why should fraud be a modern phenomenon? But wine-sellers? What kind of wine? Selling to whom?
As Bacchus and Beery didn’t share more than their surprise, I consulted Dr Google and found out that we might not be talking about wine at all: one of my first hits was a Dutch website on beer that stated that the Code of Hammurabi includes a law that punishes fraudulent beer sellers: they were to be drowned in a river.
Time to play the amateur historian and consult the text in a more trustworthy translation. According to Robert Francis Harper (Chicago 1904) law no. 108 says:

“If a wine-seller do not receive grain as the price of drink, but if she receive money by the great stone, or make the measure for drink smaller than the measure for corn, they shall call that wine-seller to account, and they shall throw her into the water.”

An astonished male (?) reader of this translation added in pencil between the lines: “women were winesellers,” and had to conclude after the next law, which again featured a she-wine-seller, that this was more than just a possibility: “apparently the winesellers were women.”
W.L. King, a British Assyriologist who translated the Codex in 1910, has “tavern-keeper (feminine)” instead of wine-seller, but doesn’t specify the “drink” either.

Is it so difficult to make out whether the “drink” is wine or beer, or, for that matter, milk? Yes, says Marvin A. Powel, author of “Wine and the Vine in Ancient Mesopotamia: The Cuneiform Evidence”: it “requires tedious labor and presupposes the work of many specialists to answer when, where, and what the ancient texts are really talking about.” Translations of cuneiform are no more, or less, than attempts to understand the materials. And we should not forget that the old Mesopotamians didn’t carve out the obvious.

I can’t help it, but after some background reading I’d say the circumstantial evidence points to beer. To introduce but a few exhibits:

A. Babylonia, to be situated in Southern Iraq, a flat country with a high water level, is much more suitable for barley.
Barley is easier to crop.
Beer is cheaper and more nutritious and probably tasted much better than wine.
There is an abundance of words for kinds of beer and things related to beer.
Wine was used for offerings to the gods and was imported (so say several experts).
What viticulture there was, was used for grape sugar and raisins.

“In short,” as Marvin Powel writes, “Babylonia like Bavaria was essentially a beer drinking culture. No one with their wits about them would have gone there to drink wine any more than a sensible person would go to the Mediterranean today to drink beer” (p. 106).

Want to do some further reading yourself?

Hans Neumann, “Beer as a Means for Compensation for Work in Mesopotamia during the Ur III Period [2111-2003 BC]”, in Drinking in Ancient Societies: History and Culture of Drinks in the Ancient Near East: Papers of a Symposium Held in Rome, May 17-19, 1990, ed. L. Milano (Padova: Sargon, 1994).

A.Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization. Rev. Ed. Completed by Erica Reiner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977).

Marvin A. Powel, “Wine and the Vine in Ancient Mesopotamia: The Cuneiform Evidence,” in The Origins and Ancient History of Wine: Food and Nutrition in History and Anthropology Series, eds. Patrick E. McGovern, Stuart J. Fleming, and Solomon H. Katz (Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach, 1996).