MESOPOTAMIAN GOVERNMENT AND JUSTICE SYSTEM
Cylinder Nabonidus The Mesopotamians arguably invented the centralized state and the developed kingship. Cities were political focal points as well as urban center and leadership was passed down by kingly dynasties. As Mesopotamian culture developed it city-states coalesced into kingdoms.
The Mesopotamians are also credited with inventing government bureaucracy. Taxes were in the form of tithes paid by farmers. The day-to-day affairs of government were handled by scribes and palace officials. They made records of the tithes and transactions of farmers.
There were also many civil servants. One of the highest positions was the scribe, who worked closely with the king and the bureaucracy, recording events and tallying up commodities. Temples provided welfare service and protected widows and orphans. The earliest reforms protecting the poor, widows and orphans was found in Ur and date to around 2000 B.C.
Some have called Sumer the epitome of the welfare city-state. Sam Roberts in the New York Times, “Work was a duty, but social security was an entitlement. It was personified by the Goddess Nanshe, the first real welfare queen immortalized in hymn as a benefactor who ‘brings the refugee to her lap, finds shelter for the weak.’... Nanshe, the Mesopotamian goddess, was hailed by some bards of Sumer for her compassion and, undoubtedly, denounced by others as a dupe." [Source: Sam Roberts, New York Times, July 05, 1992]
Mesopotamians are said to have developed imperialism. The late second millennium B.C. has been called “the first international age.” It was a time when there was increased interaction between kingdoms. The Assyrians created a kingdom that embraced many smaller kingdoms made up a variety of different ethnic groups.
Books: Sumerian Dictionary of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania edited by Ake W. Sjoberg (University of Pennsylvania, 1984); The Sumerians, Their History, Culture and Character by Samuel Noah Kramer (University of Chicago Press, 1963); The Ancient Near East By William Hallo and William Kelly Simpson (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1971); Ancient Near Eastern History and Culture by William H. Stiebing Jr. Experts and Sources: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; John Russell, an art historian at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston; Irene Winter, professor of art history at Harvard; McGuire Gibson of Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago; Jeremy Black, Oriental Institute at Oxford University; Piotr Michalowski, University of Michigan.
Websites and Resources: Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu.com/Mesopotamia ; Mesopotamia University of Chicago site mesopotamia.lib.uchicago.edu ; British Museum mesopotamia.co.uk ; Interent Ancient History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/ancient ; Louvre louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_periode.jsp ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/toah ; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology penn.museum/sites/iraq ; Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago uchicago.edu/museum/highlights/meso ; Iraq Museum Database oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/dbfiles/Iraqdatabasehome ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia
Sumerian Theocratic Government
Kudurru of Gula-Eresh Sumer was a theocracy with slaves. Each city state worshiped its own god and was ruled by a leader who was said to have acted as an intermediary between the local god and the people in the city state. The leaders led the people into wars and controlled the complex water systems. Rich rulers built palaces and were buried with precious objects for a trip to the afterlife. A council of citizens may have selected the leaders.
Some scholars have described the Mesopotamian system of government as a "theocratic socialism." The center of the government was the temple, where projects like the building of dikes and irrigation canals were overseen, and food was divided up after the harvest. Most Sumerian writing recorded administrative information and kept accounts. Only priests were allowed to write.
Early Sumerians established a powerful priesthood that served local gods, who were worshiped in temples that dominated the early cities. Much of political and religious activity was oriented towards gods who controlled the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and nature in general. If people respected the gods and the gods acted benevolently the Sumerians thought the gods would provide ample sunshine and water and prevent hardships. If the people went against the wishes of the local god and the god was not so benevolent: droughts, floods, famine and locusts were the result.
In Uruk kings took part n important religious rituals. One vase from Uruk shows a king presenting a whole set of gifts to a temple of the city goddess Inana. Kings supported temples and were expected to turn over some of the booty from wars and raids to temples.
Mesopotamian Leaders and City-State Governments
Assurbanipal chase Eblaite kings were responsible for looking after widows, orphans and the poor as well as hold together a strong and united kingdom. If they failed to look after the disadvantaged they were ousted by a group of elders. Citizens aired their grievances before the king in the audience court of the king's palace.
The early Mesopotamian city-states were ruled a council of elders that was led by a lugal ("big man") who made decisions in times of crisis. Later on, when times of crisis were more prolong and continuous, the legal developed into a kings that like Egyptian rulers were elevated to god-like status and were said to have been "lowered from heaven.
In some Mesopotamia cities each quadrant was overseen by a lugal , a kind of ward boss. Rulers of relatively equal power often addressed one another as "brother." The more powerful often asked to be addressed by less powerful kings as "your father."
Mesopotamian Justice System
Hammurabi bas-relief at the
U.S._House_of_Representatives The world's oldest surviving judicial code is the code of King Ur-Nammu from the third dynasty of Ur in 2250 B.C. The first texts dealing with ideal justice were found on the clay tablets of Shulgi of Ur, who ruled from about 2079 to 2032 B.C.
In Mesopotamia there were legal codes but no lawyers. Parties involved in disputes had to plead their cases directly to government authorities, often people close to the king or the king himself. All legal decisions and agreements were ratified by an oath taken before the gods and subject to their wrath or punishment if the agreement was broken.
In the cuneiform libraries there are records of divorces and petty theft trials. In a murder case involving a woman one person who spoke in her defense said: "granted that she killed her husband—what can a [mere] woman do that she should be killed?" But in the end though the court decided "her guilt exceeds that of the ones who were killed..."
According to one tablet from 1900 B.C., three men—Ku-Enlilia, the son of a barber, Enlilennam, son of an orchard keeper, and one Nanna-rig—murdered a priest at the behest of the priest's wife, who had been having an affair with one of the men. The king ordered a trial that was judged by an assembly of nine elders whose professions included birdcatcher and potter. The verdict and sentence: "Those three males and that woman should be killed."
No long after shekels appeared as a means of exchange, kings began levying fines in shekels as a punishment. Around 2000 B.C., in the city of Eshnunna, a man who bit another man's nose was fined 60 shekels. A man who slapped another man in the face had to pay up 20 shekels.
The Babylonian described a sinner as "one who has eaten what is taboo to his god or goddess, who has 'no' for 'yes' or has said 'yes' for 'no,' who has pointed his finger (falsely accusing) a fellow man...caused evil to be spoken, has judged incorrectly, oppressed the weak, estranged a son from his father or a friend from a friend, who has nor freed the captive..." Sins could be absolved by a penitential psalm, prayer or lament or an expiatory sacrifice in which a "lamb is substitute for man." Demons were exorcized by a priest who transferred the demon to a wax or wooden figure that was thrown in a fire. [ World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]
The Babylonians had police. In Mesopotamian times, brigands roamed the countryside. Occasionally soldiers on horseback were sent on missions to shoot them or arrest them.
Legal Code of Hammurabi
Code of Hammurabi The Babylonian king Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.) produced the Code of Hammurabi, the oldest surviving set of laws. Credited with originating the eye for an eye justice, it consisted of 282 case laws with legal procedures and penalties. Many of the laws had been around for a while. Hammurabi codified them into a fixed and standardized set of laws. He also instituted a highly developed administration that included courts and a system for the enforcement of laws.
The legal code of Hammurabi is listed on an 8-foot-high black diorite stele from the 18th century B.C. On the top of the stele Hammurabi is shown standing before Shamash, the god of justice, receiving the laws. The stele is believed to be one of many that were set up throughout the Babylonian domain to inform people of the law of the land. The Code of Hammurabi slab that exists today was moved to Susa in Iran in 1200 B.C. and discovered in 1901. It is currently at the Louvre.
The legal code of Hammurabi dealt with theft, marriage, debt, slavery, commerce. One of the central tenets of the laws was to protect the weak against the strong. The "an for an eye" saying reads: "If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye...If a son strike his father, they shall cut of his fingers...if one break's a man's bone, they shall break his bone." It came from list of penalties for surgeons. If a surgeon caused someone to lose an eye through negligence the surgeon could lose his eyes.
Hammurabi justice could be quite cruel. One law stated: “If a fire has broken out in a man’s house and a man who has gone to extinguish it has coveted an article of the owner of the house and takes the article of the house, that man shall be cast in that fire.” Hammurabi instituted the death penalty for illegal timber harvesting after wood became in such short supply that people took their doors with them when they moved. The shortages degraded agriculture land and cut production of chariots and naval ships.
There are records of divorce trials in Babylonian and Assyrian cuneiform libraries. Under the Code of Hammurabi a woman could get a divorce and keep her dowry, property and children and get child support if she could prove her husband "degraded" her.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Mostly from National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine and New York Times articles, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988. Also from the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011