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Civilization in Mesopotamia

Class, Power and War among the Sumerians | Sumerian Polytheism, Sin and a Flood | Sargon, Sumerians and Babylon | Sumerian Culture and Hammurabi at Babylon | Arrival of Hittites, Hurrians and Kassites | Hittites, Asyrians and Aramaens | Babylonian Science and the Gods | Babylonian Myths of Creation and a Great Flood

Map of Ancient Mesopotamia, to 2500 BCE

Class, Power and War among the Sumerians

In that part of the Middle East called the Fertile Crescent, hunter-gatherers began planting gardens. By 7000 BCE there was farming that required permanent settlement. By 4500 BCE those archaeologists call Ubaidians were living in towns near where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers emptied into the Persian Gulf. This was in Mesopotamia (Greek for "between two rivers"). The Ubaidians drained marshes. They grew wheat and barley and irrigated their crops by digging ditches to river waters. They kept farm animals. Some manufactured pottery. They did weaving, leather or metal work, and some were involved in trade with other societies.

Map of Fertile Crescent

The Fertile Crescent, 9000 to 4500 BCE.
Click to enlarge and focus enlargement icon

Where there had been small hunter-gatherer societies getting food for themselves, the producers of food were now able to support many who worked at other occupations – such as the priesthood, pottery making, weaving, carpentry and smithing. There were also traders, and the Sumerians developed an extensive commerce by land and sea. They built seaworthy ships, and they imported from afar items made from the wood, stone, tin and copper not found nearby.

There was ownership of property. Some people were more wealthy than others, and political power was unevenly distributed. Sumerian society around 3000 BCE was not as sharing or as egalitarian as hunter-gatherer societies had been or were. The Sumerians appear "to have been the first people to commandeer the agricultural surplus grown by the community and create a privileged ruling class." note3  

Around 4000 BCE a people called Sumerians moved into Mesopotamia, perhaps from around the Caspian Sea. By 3800 BCE the Sumerians had supplanted the Ubaidians and Semites in southern Mesopotamia. They built better canals for irrigating crops and for transporting crops by boat to village centers. They improved their roads over which their donkeys trod, with some of their donkeys pulling wheeled carts.


Sumerian writing is the oldest full-fledged writing that archaeologists have discovered. The Ubaidians may have introduced the Sumerians to the rudiments of writing and numerical calculation, which the Sumerians used for calculating and to keep records of supplies and goods exchanged. The Sumerians wrote arithmetic based on units of ten – the number of fingers on both hands. Concerned about their star-gods, they mapped the stars and divided a circle into units of sixty.

Sample Sumerian characters

Sample Sumerian characters
circa 3200 BCE

The Sumerians wrote poetically, describing events as the work of their gods, and they wrote to please their gods. The Sumerians wrote by pressing picture representations into wet clay with a pen, and they dried the clay to form tablets. Instead of developing their writing all at once (as one might expect with divine revelation) they developed their writing across centuries. They streamlined their pictures into symbols called ideograms, and they added symbols for spoken sounds – phonetic letters – forming what is called cuneiform.

Cities, Power and Politics

Sumerian cities grew from what had been the place where a temple was located. At least twelve cities arose among the Sumerians. Among them were Ur, Uruk, Kish and Lagash – Ur, for example, becoming a city of about 24,000 people. In the center of each city was a temple that housed the city's gods, and around each city were fields of grain, orchards of date palms, and land for herding. According to Samuel Noah Kramer, early in Sumerian civilization a temple corporation owned "some of the land, which it rented to sharecroppers; the remainder was the private property of individual citizens. note4

Sumerian priests had once worked the fields alongside others, but now they were separated from commoners. A corporation run by priests became the greatest landowners among the Sumerians. The priests hired the poor to work their land and claimed that land was really owned by the gods. Priests had become skilled as scribes, and in some cities they sat with the city's council of elders. These councils wielded great influence, sometimes in conflict with a city's king. And the priests told commoners that their drudgery was necessary to allow the gods their just leisure.

Hunter-gatherer societies have been described as matrilineal – families traced through the mother. Scholars are not describing Sumerian society as having been matrilineal, but Sumerian society has been described as patrimonial – property traced through the father. note5 And patrimonial societies in ancient times tended to treat women as property and to give authority to males. The tribal societies that followed the smaller hunter-gatherer societies tended to be warrior societies, and it was the warriors who got together and made decisions for their entire society. Presumably before the time of the Sumerians, kings were chosen by the warriors, with the king as the leading warrior. Kings are described as working in conjunction with the priesthood. "The ruler needed the endorsement of the gods as delivered by the priests, and if they withdrew their support his rule was in grave danger." note6

With economic inequality there was need for authoritarian rule, for control, supplied by the king and supported by priests and other elite members of society. Sumerians remained illiterate and without political power or credibility. It was the religious duty of common people to accept the authority of the king and priests.

Kings drafted common people to work on community projects, and common people were obliged to pay taxes to the government in the form of a percentage of their crops, which the city could either sell or use to feed soldiers and other agents of the king.


Sumerian women of high status families owned or inherited property, indicated today on extant tablet inscriptions. Privileges varied among the city-states. In the early periods of Sumerian civilization women went to marketplaces, they represented their families in legal and business matters. They had households to run and slaves to manage. Women belonging to royal families might be taught to read and write and given some administrative authority.

Females held positions in temples, and the sexual power of the fertility goddess was celebrated. But apparently in the minds of most Sumerians of this period, males were supreme. The king of their gods was Anu, or An, a male god of the sky.

In Sumerian religion and civilization males and females procreated, an often cooperative and friendly enterprise, and this was a part of their view of how the world worked. Generally, women were not equal, especially women who were commoners. note7  But this does not mean Sumerian women were without the power of their personalities in running household matters and in rearing children.


Early in Sumerian civilization, schooling was associated with the priesthood and took place in temples. But this changed. Education apart from the temples arose for the children of affluent families, which these families paid for. Most if not all students were males. The students were obliged to work hard at their studies, from sun up to sun down. Not believing in change, there was no probing into the potentials of humankind or study of the humanities. Their study was rote learning of complex grammar and practice at writing. Students were encouraged with praise while their inadequacies and failures were punished with lashes from a stick or cane.

War and Slavery

Sumerians at War

Sumerians at War. The army of King Eannatum of Lagash (with pikes and shields) trample on the defeated of Umma. (Source: UCLA Art History.)

Sumerian kings sent men out to plunder people in hill country, and they acquired slaves. The Sumerian name for a female slave was mountain girl, and a male slave was called mountain man. The Sumerians used their slaves mainly as domestics and concubines. And they justified their slavery as would others: they claimed that their gods had given them victory over an inferior people.

As Sumerian cities grew in population and expanded, the swamps that insulated city from city disappeared. Sumerians from opposing cities were unable or unwilling to resolve conflicts over territory and the availability of water, and wars between cities erupted – wars the Sumerians saw as between their gods. And the Sumerians made slaves of other Sumerians they had captured in war.

It was a new kind of warfare. In herding and hunter-gatherer societies – mobile societies – the entire community might enter the field of battle. In settled agricultural communities such as those of the Sumerians, the younger and stronger, maybe a fourth or fifth of a city's population went to war. The others remained at home, working at farming or other chores.

Wars with distant people were fueled by the greed and ambitions of kings. The Sumerians described this in a poetic tale of conflict between the king of Uruk and the distant town of Arrata. (Uruk has been described as Ereck in the Book of Genesis 10:10.) It was a story written by a Sumerian some five hundred years after the event, a tale of which only fragments remain. Here was reporting as it would be for more than 3,000 years, as it would be with Homer and his Iliad, the sacred writings of Hindus and with the Old Testament, with gods in command and not disapproving of war.

The rulers and perhaps peoples of various Sumerian cities wanted their city to have supreme power. And, around 2800 BCE, Kish had become the first of the cities to dominate the whole of Sumer. Then Kish's supremacy was challenged by the city of Lagash, which launched a bloody conquest against its Sumerian neighbors and extended its power beyond Sumerian lands. A bas-relief sculpture uncovered by archaeologists depicts a king of Lagash celebrating his victory over the city of Umma, the king's soldiers, with helmets, shields and pikes, standing shoulder to shoulder and line behind line over the corpses of their defeated enemy.


Civilized societies had more diversity in opinion than existed in the less populous societies of hunter-gatherers. Civilized societies had dissent – something authoritarians would never be able to extinguish. A Sumerian complained in writing that he was a "thoroughbred steed" but was drawing a cart carrying "reeds and stubble." Another complained of the futility of war, writing "You go and carry off the enemy's land; the enemy comes and carries off your land."

Rather than docile, people in the city of Lagash in 2380 BCE instigated history's first recorded revolt. This came after Lagash's rulers had increased local taxes and had restricted personal freedoms. Lagash's bureaucrats had grown in wealth. The people of Lagash resented this enough that they overthrew their king. They brought to power a god-fearing ruler named Urukagina, who eliminated excessive taxation and rid the city of usurers, thieves and murderers – the first known reforms.


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