Bowing to the king in Assyria

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.

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.

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.

Websites on Mesopotamia: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia ; International Association for Assyriology ; Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures, University of Chicago ; University of Chicago Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations ; University of Pennsylvania Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations (NELC); Penn Museum Near East Section; Ancient History Encyclopedia ; British Museum ; Louvre ; Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Ancient Near Eastern Art Metropolitan Museum of Art; Iraq Museum theiraqmuseum ABZU; Archaeology Websites Archaeology News Report ; : ; Archaeology in Europe ; Archaeology magazine ; HeritageDaily; Live Science

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.

Taxes and Welfare in Mesopotamia

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.

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 5, 1992]

Claude Hermann and Walter Johns wrote in the Encyclopedia Britannica: “The state claimed certain proportions of all crops, stock, etc. The king's messengers could commandeer any subject's property, giving a receipt. Further, every city had its own octroi duties, customs, ferry dues, highway and water rates. The king had long ceased to be, if he ever was, owner of the land. He had his own royal estates, his private property and dues from all his subjects. The higher officials had endowments and official residences.[Source: Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian Law — The Code of Hammurabi. Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-1911]

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."

Some women did obtain positions of power. Cuneiform tablets at Cornell described a 21st century B.C. Sumerian princess in the city of Garsana that has made scholars rethink the role of women in the ancient kingdom of Ur. According to the Los Angeles Times: “ The administrative records show Simat-Ishtaran ruled the estate after her husband died. During her reign, women attained remarkably high status. They supervised men, received salaries equal to their male counterparts' and worked in construction, the clay tablets reveal. "It's our first real archival discovery of an institution run by a woman," said David Owen, the Cornell researcher who has led the study of the tablets. Because scholars do not know precisely where the tablets were found, however, the site of ancient Garsana cannot be excavated for further information.” [Source: Jason Felch, Los Angeles Times, November 3, 2013]

Political Power in Mesopotamia

Cylinder Nabonidus
Morris Jastrow said: In Babylonia and Assyria “the people, as a whole, had no share in the government, and, as we have seen, only a limited share in the religious cult, which was largely official and centred around the general welfare and the well-being of the king and his court. Slavery continued in force to the latest days, and, though slaves could buy their freedom and could be adopted by their masters, and had many privileges, even to the extent of owning property and engaging in commercial transactions, yet the moral effect of the institution in degrading the dignity of human life, and in maintaining unjust class distinctions was none the less apparent then than it has been ever since. The temples had large holdings which gave to the religious organisation of the country a materialistic aspect, and granted the priests an undue influence. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 ]

“Political power and official prestige were permanently vested in the rulers and their families and attendants. We hear, occasionally, of persons of humble birth rising to high positions, but the division of the classes into higher and those of lower ranks was on the whole rigid. Uprisings were not infrequent both in Babylonia and Assyria, and internal dissensions, followed by serious disturbances, revealed the dissatisfaction of the majority with the yoke imposed upon them, which, especially through enforced military service and through taxes for the maintenance of temples, armies, and the royal court, must often have borne heavily on them. The cruelties, practised especially by the Assyrian rulers in times of war, must also have reacted unfavourably on the general moral tone of the population.

“But such conditions prevailed everywhere in antiquity; nor would it be difficult to parallel them in much later ages, and even among some of the leading nations of modern times. The general verdict in regard to the ethics of the Babylonians and Assyrians need not, therefore, be altered because of the shadows that fall on the picture that has been unrolled. A country that offers protection to all classes of its population, that imposes responsibilities upon husbands and fathers, and sees to it that those responsibilities are not evaded, that protects its women and children, that in short, as Hammurabi aptly puts it, aims to secure the weak against the tyranny of the strong and to mete justice to all alike, may fairly be classed among civilisations which, however short they may fall of the ideal commonwealth, yet recognise obedience to ethical principles as the basis of well-being, of true culture, and of genuine religion.

“And yet how harsh is the judgment passed by the Hebrew prophets and psalmists on both Babylonia and Assyria! Prophet and religious poet unite in accusing them of the most terrible crimes; they exhaust the Hebrew vocabulary in pronouncing curses upon Assyria and Babylonia. All nature is represented as rejoicing at their downfall, and it has often been remarked that the prediction that jackals and hyenas would wander through the ruins of Assyria’s palaces and Babylonia’s temples has been fulfilled almost to the letter. The pious Jews of later ages saw the divine punishment sent for the many crimes of these empires of the East, in the obliteration of the vast cities of the Euphrates Valley and the region to the north, until their very foundation stones were forgotten.

“It was natural that to the Hebrew patriots Assyria and Babylonia should appear to be the embodiment of all evils; was it not through Assyria that Israel fell, and through Babylonia that Jerusalem was destroyed? Through the double blow the national life of the Jews was threatened with utter extinction. Both empires, therefore, appeared to the Jews as incarnations of all that was evil and cruel and sinful.

“Assyria was cruel toward her foes and, if Babylonia has a gentler record, it is because she never so greatly developed military prowess as did her northern cousin. Cruelty to enemies is indeed the darkest blot on the escutcheon of all nations, ancient or modern. The Hebrews are no exception, and one need only read the pages of their own chronicles to match therein some of the cruelties so vividly depicted by the Assyrians on their monuments. To judge fairly of the ethics of any people, we must take them at their best. War for conquest, while it may lead to heroic exploits, unfolds the worst passions of men. This has always been the case and always will be. The conqueror is always haughty and generally merciless, the conquered are always embittered and filled with hatred towards those who have humiliated them. Tested by their attitude towards rivals and foes, what modern nation can stand the judgment of an Isaiah or a Jeremiah? The culture that developed in the Euphrates Valley is full of defects, its ethics one deficient, the religion full of superstition. Assyria exhausted her vitality by ceaseless warring; Babylonia fell into decay through internal dissensions and through intrigues against her rival. The pages of the annals of both nations are full of abhorrent stains, but maugre all drawbacks, the tendency of culture, religion, and ethics was toward higher ideals; the movement was in the right direction.

“Many-sided may be the touchstones of progress. Perhaps sharpest is respect for human life. Herein modern civilisations represent, and naturally, an advance beyond antiquity. We are become more humane, though the lowest instincts of man remain, and may always remain unconquered. None the less, the ancient civilisations, and not the least among them that which arose in the Euphrates Valley and spread its influence far and wide, have much to teach us. To the study of the religion of Babylonia and Assyria the summons is full of promise:— in - troile, nam et hie dii sunt. Ay, so indeed they are! The breath of the Divine sighs through that religion —as it does through all sincere religions, however various their forms, or humble and manifold their yearnings after truth.”

Ethics of Rulers and Leadership in Mesopotamia

Babylonian tablet with administrative text

Morris Jastrow said: “The kings themselves, although not actuated, perhaps, by the highest motives, set the example of obedience to laws that involved the recognition of the rights of others. From a most ancient period there is come down to us a remarkable monument recording the conveyance of large tracts of land in northern Babylonia to a king of Kish, Manishtusu, (ca . 2700 B.C.), on which hundreds of names are recorded from whom the land was purchased, with specific descriptions of the tracts belonging to each one, as well as the conditions of sale. The king here appears with rights no more exclusive or predominant than those of a private citizen. Not only does he give full compensation to each owner, but undertakes to find occupation and means of support for fifteen hundred and sixty-four labourers and eighty-seven overseers, who had been affected by the transfer. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 ]

“The numerous boundary stones that are come down to us (recording sales of fields or granting privileges), which were set up as memorials of transactions, are silent but eloquent witnesses to the respect for private property. The inscriptions on these stones conclude with dire curses in the names of the gods against those who should set up false claims, or who should alter the wording of the agreement, or in any way interfere with the terms thereon recorded. The symbols of the gods were engraved on these boundary stones as a precaution and a protection to those whose rights and privileges the stone recorded. The Babylonians could well re-echo the denunciations of the Hebrew prophets against those who removed the boundaries of their neighbours’ fields. Even those Assyrian monarchs most given to conquest and plunder boast, in their annals, of having restored property to the rightful owners, and of having respected the privileges of their subjects and dependents.

“For instance, Sargon of Assyria (721-705 B.C.), while parading his conquests in vain-glorious terms, and proclaiming his unrivalled prowess, emphasises the fact that he maintained the privileges of the great centres of the south, Sippar, Nippur, and Babylon, and that he protected the weak and righted their injuries. His successor Sennacherib claims to be the guardian of justice and a lover of righteousness. Yet, these are the very same monarchs who treated their enemies with unspeakable cruelty, inflicting tortures on prisoners, violating women, mutilating corpses, burning and pillaging towns.

“More significant still is the attitude of a monarch like Hammurabi, who, in the prologue and epilogue to his famous Code, refers to himself as a “king of righteousness,” actuated by a lofty desire to protect the weak, the widow, and the orphan. In setting up copies of this Code in the important centres of his realm, his hope is that all may realise that he, Hammurabi , tried to be a “father” to his people. He calls upon all who have a just cause to bring it before the courts, and gives them the assurance that justice will be dispensed,—all this as early as nigh four thousand years ago!

“On a tablet commemorative of the privileges accorded to Sippar, Nippur, and Babylon—to which, we have just seen, Sargon refers in his annals—there are grouped together, in the introduction, a series of warnings, which may be taken as general illustrations of the principles by which rulers were supposed to be guided:
If the king does not heed the law, his people will be destroyed; his power will pass away.
If he does not heed the law of his land, Ea, the king of destinies, will judge his fate and cast him to one side.
If he does not heed his abkallu, his days will be shortened.
If he does not heed the priestess, his land will rebel against him.
If he gives heed to the wicked, confusion will set in.
If he gives heed to the counsels of Ea, the great gods will aid him in righteous decrees and decisions.
If he oppresses a man of Sippar and perverts justice, Shamash, the judge of heaven and earth, will annul the law in his land, so that there will be neither abkallu nor judge to render justice.
If the Nippurians are brought before him for judgment, and he oppresses them with a heavy hand, Enlil, the lord of lands, will cause him to be dispatched by a foe and his army to be overthrown; chief and general will be humiliated and driven off.
If he causes the treasury of the Babylonians to be entered for looting, if he annuls and reverses the suits of the Babylonians, then Marduk, the lord of heaven and earth, will bring his enemy against him, and will turn over to his enemy his property and possessions.
If he unjustly orders a man of Nippur, Sippar, or Babylon to be cast into prison, the city where the injustice has been done, will be made desolate, and a strong enemy will invade the prison into which he has been cast.

“In this strain the text proceeds; and while the reference is limited to the three cities, the obligations imposed upon the rulers to respect privileges once granted may be taken as a general indication of the standards everywhere prevailing. We must not fail, however, to recognise the limitation of the ethical spirit, manifest in the threatened punishments, should the ruler fail to act according to the dictates of justice and right. For all this, whether it was from fear of punishment, or desire to secure the favour of the gods, the example of their rulers in following the paths of equity and in avoiding tyranny and oppression must have reacted on their subjects, and incited them to conform their lives to equally high standards.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, 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.

Last updated September 2018

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