Bloodaxe's Realm     The Medieval World  

Mesopotamian Cultures

The Sumerians   2900-1800 B.C.

   Among the earliest civilizations were the diverse peoples living in the fertile valleys lying between the Tigris and Euphrates valley, or Mesopotamia, which in Greek means, "between the rivers." In the south of this region, in an area now in Kuwait and northern Saudi Arabia, a group of people, speaking a language unrelated to any other language we know of, began to live in cities, which were ruled by a monarch, and began to write. These were the Sumerians, and around 3000 BC they began to form large city-states in southern Mesopotamia that controlled areas of several hundred square miles. The names of these cities Were: Ur, Lagash, Eridu. These Sumerians were constantly at war with one another and other peoples, for water was a scarce and valuable resource. The result over time from these wars was the growth of larger city-states as the more powerful swallowed up the smaller city-states. Eventually, the Sumerians would have to battle the Akkadians, who migrated up from the Arabian Peninsula.  When the two peoples clashed, the Sumerians gradually lost control over the city-states they had  created and fell under the hegemony of the Akkadian kingdom which was based in Akkad, the city that was later to become Babylon.

   But that was not the end of the Sumerians. The Akkadians abandoned much of their culture and absorbed vast amounts of Sumerian culture, including their religion, writing, government structure, literature, and law. But the Sumerians retained nominal control over many of their defeated city-states, and in 2125 bc, the Sumerian city of Ur rose up against the Akkadians and gained for their daring control over the city-states of southern Mesopotamia. But the revival of Sumerian fortune was to be short-lived, for after a short century, another wave of Semitic migrations signed the end of the original creators of Mesopotamian culture.

   But history sometimes plays paradoxical games and human cultures sometimes persist in strange ways. For the great experiment of the Sumerians was civilization, a culture transformed by the practical effects of urbanization, writing, and monarchy. While the Sumerians disappear from the human story around 2000 BC, the invaders that overthrew them adopted their culture and became, more or less, Sumerian. They adopted the government, economy, city-living, writing, law, religion, and stories of the original peoples. Why? What would inspire a people to deliberately adopt foreign ways? For whatever reason, the culture the later Semites inherited from the Sumerians consisted of the following:


   The Sumerians seem to have developed one of the world's first systems of monarchy; the early states they formed needed a new form of government in order to govern larger areas and diverse peoples. The very first states in human history, the states of Sumer, seemed to have been ruled by a type of priest-king, called in Sumerian, a ; among their duties were leading the military, administering trade, judging disputes, and engaging in the most important religious ceremonies. The priest-king ruled through a series of bureaucrats, many of them priests, that carefully surveyed land, assigned fields, and distributed crops after harvest. This new institution of monarchy required the invention of a new legitimation of authority beyond the tribal justification of chieftainship based on concepts of kinship and responsibility. So the Sumerians seemed to have at first justified the monarch's authority based on some sort of divine selection, but later began to assert that the monarch himself was divine and worthy of worship. This legitimation of monarchical authority would serve all the later peoples who settled or imitated Mesopotamian city-states; the only exception were the Hebrews who imitated Mesopotamian kingship but construed the monarchy not as a divine election but as disobedience to Yahweh, the Hebrew god.


   The principal character of Sumerian government was bureaucracy; the monarchy effectively held power over great areas of land and diverse peoples by having a large and efficient "middle management." This middle management, which consisted largely of priests, bore all the responsibility of surveying and distributing land as well as distributing crops. For city living greatly changes the human relation to food production: when people begin to live in cities, that means a large part of the human population ceases to grow or raise its own food, which means that all those people who do grow and raise food need to feed all those who don't. This requires some sort of distribution mechanism, which requires the greatest of all inventions of civilizations, the bureaucrat. And to make sure that the entire mechanism works, the newly urbanized needs to invent a tool to make the bureaucrat's life easier: record-keeping. And record-keeping means writing in some form or another.

   The first writings, in fact, were records—tons of records: stone tablets filled with numbers recording distributed goods. These early writings (besides the numerals) were actually pictures, or rough sketches, you might say, of the words they represented; this early Sumerian writing was pictographic writing. The Sumerians would scrawl their picture words using reeds as a writing instrument on wet clay which would then dry into stone-hard tablets, which is very good because it's hard to lose your records if they are big old heavy tablets. (And more permanent: when all the paper in all the books you see around you has gone to dust and ashes, the Sumerian tablets will still bear mute witness to the hot days when farmers brought grain to city storehouses and bureaucrat-priests parceled out food to their citizens while scratching on wet clay with their reeds) Eventually, the Sumerians made their writing more efficient, and slowly converted their picture words to a short-hand consisting of wedged lines created by bending the reed against the wet clay and moving the end closest to the hand back and forth once. And thus was born a form of writing that persisted longer than any other form of writing besides Chinese: cuneiform, or "wedge-shaped" (which is what cuneiform means in Latin) writing.

Science and Mathematics

   All this administration of agriculture required much more careful planning, since each farmer had to produce a far greater excess of produce than he would actually consume. And all the bureaucratic record keeping demanded some kind of efficient system of measuring long periods of time. So the Sumerians invented calendars, which they divided into twelve months based on the cycle of the moon. Since a year consisting of twelve lunar months is considerably shorter than a solar year, the Sumerians added a "leap month" every three years in order to catch up with the sun. This interest in measuring long periods of time led the Sumerians to develop a complicated knowledge of astronomy and the first human invention of the zodiac in order to measure yearly time.

   Record-keeping pushes the human mind in other directions as well. In particular, record-keeping demands that humans start doing something all humans love to do: calculating. Numbers have to be added up, subtracted, multiplied, divided, and sundry other fun things. So the Sumerians developed a sophistication with mathematics that had never been seen before on the human landscape. And all that number crunching led the Sumerians to begin crude speculations about the nature of numbers and processes involving numbers—abstract mathematics.

Sumerian Religion

   We know very little about the early Semitic religions, but the Semites that invaded Mesopotamia seem to have completely abandoned their religion in favor of Sumerian religion. Sumerian religion was polytheistic, that is, the Sumerians believed in and worshipped many gods. These gods were incredibly powerful and anthropomorphic, that is, they resembled humans. Many of these gods controlled natural forces and were associated with astronomical bodies, such as the sun. The gods were creator gods; as a group, they had created the world and the people in it. Like humans, they suffered all the ravages of human emotional and spiritual frailties: love, lust, hatred, anger, regret. Among the gods' biggest regrets was the creation of human life; the Sumerians believed that these gods regretted the creation of human life and sent a flood to destroy their faulty creation, but one man survived by building a boat. While the destruction of the earth in a great flood is nearly universal in all human mythology and religion, we can't be sure if the Semites had a similar story or took it over from the Sumerians. This is, of course, a question of contemporary significance: according to Genesis, the originator of the Hebrew race, the patriarch Abraham, originally came from the city of Ur.

   Although the gods were unpredictable, the Sumerians sought out ways to discover what the gods held in store for them. Like all human cultures, the Sumerians were struck by the wondrous regularity of the movement of the heavens and speculated that this movement might contain some secret to the intentions of the gods. So the Sumerians invented astrology, and astrology produced the most sophisticated astronomical knowledge ever seen to that date, and astrology produced even more sophisticated mathematics. They also examined the inner organs of sacrificed animals for secrets to the gods' intentions or to the future. These activities produced a steady increase in the number of priests and scribes, which further accelerated learning and writing.

   Sumerian religion was oriented squarely in this world. The gods did not occupy some world existentially different from this one, and no rewards or punishments accrued to human beings after death. Human beings simply became wisps within a house of dust; these sad ghosts would fade into nothing within a century or so.


   Among the inventions of the Sumerians, the most persistent and far-reaching was their invention of law. While all cultures have some system of social regulation and conflict resolution, law is a distinct phenomenon. Law is written and administered retribution and conflict resolution. It is distinct from other forms of retribution and conflict resolution by the following characteristics:


Law is retribution that is administered by a centralized authority. This way retribution for wrongs does not threaten to escalate into a cycle of mutual revenge. Sumerian law sits half way between individual revenge and state-administered revenge: it is up to the individual to drag (quite literally) the accused party into the court, but the court actually determines the nature of the retribution to be exacted.


Law is written; in this way, law assumes an independent character beyond the centralized authority that administers it. This produces a sociological fiction that the law controls those who administer the law and that the "law" exacts retribution, not humans.


Law is at its heart revenge; the basic cultural mechanism for dealing with unacceptable behavior is to exact revenge. Unacceptable behavior outside the sphere of revenge initially did not come under the institution of law: it was only much later that disputes that didn't involve retribution would be included in law.
   Although we don't know much about Sumerian law, scholars agree that the Code of Hammurabi, written by a Babylonian monarch, reproduces Sumerian law fairly exactly. Sumerian law, as represented in Hammurabi's code, was a law of exact revenge, which we call lex talionis. This is revenge in kind: "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life," and reveals to us that human law has as its fundamental basis revenge. Sumerian law was also only partly administered by the state; the victim had to bring the criminal to court. Once there, the court mediated the dispute, rendered a decision, and most of the time a court official would execute the sentence, but often it fell on the victim or the victim's family to enforce the sentence. Finally, Sumerian law recognized class distinctions; under Sumerian law, everyone was not equal under the law. Harming a priest or noble person was a far more serious crime than harming a slave or poor person; yet, the penalties assessed for a noble person who commits a crime were often far harsher than the penalties assessed for someone from the lower classes that committed the same crime.

   This great invention, law, would serve as the basis for the institution of law among all the Semitic peoples to follow: Babylonians, Assyrians, and, eventually, the Hebrews.

Richard Hooker