Mesopotamia: Cradle of Democracy?
Did a form of primitive democracy exist during the 4th and 3rd millennium in Southern Mesopotamia?
Andrew Howard-Smith
The geographical areas ascribed to Southern Mesopotamia are the flood plains and fertile pastures that exist between the two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, stretching from modern day Baghdad in the Northern most division to the confluence of the two rivers in the South, where Basra stands. The reason why the two territories are given such strong definitions is not solely influenced by the obvious geographical differences but more concerned with the evolutionary gap that existed between the two during the fourth and third millennium. The rationalisation for this gap occurring is of course hypothetical and is thought to relate to the flooding of the plains during the harvesting seasons. Agriculture, as we know already, had its roots in the Near East and in Southern Mesopotamia it was heavily reliant on the use of irrigation schemes to ensure that optimum output was acquired. Northern Mesopotamia, due to its naturally mountainous topography, was able to sustain an agricultural community however without the necessary communication and autonomous resource allocation that irrigation schemes obligate. This use of irrigation run concurrently with the necessity to drain the land by use of canals after the floods led to high mobility of resources that of course needed centralised control. Enough though has been said of the differences between North and South Mesopotamia and although it has served as a useful preamble to the emergence of what may be termed a primitive democracy, a little should be mentioned of the sources; the information they pertain and the infinite dangers that are involved when interpreting them.
The sources that we have are numerous, and unlike any other period prior to this one we have the benefit of written texts. The sheer weight of excavated material and the breathtaking amount of written records that have survived have enabled us to build up a very accurate picture of Mesopotamian society during the fourth and third millennia and beyond. But let us not be so hasty, arrogant even to assume that we know these people. For the most part, the written records that we have detail the economic transactions and political movements that were taking place at the time. This was important, yet socially elite information that was only understood by a fragment of the social hierarchy, it does not give one an over view of the whole society. However, from this information, hypotheses, wild at times have been drawn about the nature of civilisation during this era. The biggest mistake one can make is to take this data, process it through a twenty first century brain and project it back through thousands of years to attain a magic answer.
Textual evidence has created a number of enigmatic pitfalls, the most common of which is the use of written evidence from richly document periods to fill in dry areas from contemporaneous times. The problem arises from the fact that authors and scholars alike find it all too easy to pass over a century that appears inconsequential and head for the areas that have a milieu of information, then attempt to make amends by filling in the information through backward projection. The fact that we do not have information concerning all the geographic areas, with a set chronology for all the centuries does not make them superfluous, but rather serves testament to the unequal distribution of evidence. There are many reasons for this imbalance; one of the most evident is the nature of excavation itself.
For the most part excavations take place on tells or tepes that represent the debris of accumulated occupation. Very often these mounds contain temple buildings which have usually been built and rebuilt in continuous succession, (A.Kuhrt 1995) this offers a wealth of information to the archaeologist and can result in excavations concentrating a significant amount of their resources to the recovery of this material. Temple complexes as with textual information offer us a clear window with which to peer into a fragment of Southern Mesopotamian society. It does not offer us the opportunity to make massive assumptions on the intricacies of the big picture. To do that one would need to invest far more time into excavating the less rewarding complexes that exist perhaps well away from the temple complexes. Inherent problems exist here as well, very often the land is still being lived on or worked so access is denied, leaving the diligent scholar with holes to fill. This essentially is an underlying theme in this essay. It must be remembered from the very beginning that all hypotheses offered here and all conclusions made are subject to scrutiny and argument to a greater or lesser degree as all sources can be interpreted and acknowledged in many different ways. Also the sheer weight of information surrounding this time period has led me, as with co-authors and scholars, to disregard certain areas and periods that have no relevance to the specific question posed.
So then, did a primitive form of democracy exist in the fourth and third millennium in Southern Mesopotamia? The best way to address this question is to work through the chronological sequence that we have and accumulate the evidence, starting with the Uruk expansion beginning Ca.4000 BC up to and including the Third dynasty of Ur which ended in 2004 BC (J.Reade 1991).
Uruk was the major city of the early fourth millennium and the Uruk expansion is so-called due to the indistinguishable nature of its material culture found to the West and as far as Habuba Kabira some 900 Kilometres to the North. Essentially the Uruk period was to set the standard that we now find in the later third millennium and beyond. It is thought that the expansion was driven by the necessity for raw materials such as base metals, timber, common stone and oils. As well as exotic goods such as rare metals, semiprecious and precious stones, of which none of these goods were to be found in the alluvial plains of the South. The necessity of these essential goods led the Uruk culture to establish a number of urban sized communities along the lines of older trade routes - attained by either tribute to local rulers, small foraging insurgents and plundering, or more commonly by reciprocating with labour intensive processed and semiprocessed goods. This setting up of links between the raw materials and their native lands, controlling the flow of goods meant a high level of centralised and complex political organisation.
The Uruk occurrence may have characterised the earliest instance of an informal empire or a world system (G.Algaze 1989) based on their ability to tend a diplomatic, economic and political infrastructure beside societies with complementary resources and significantly different levels of socio-economic integration. Concurrent to this external expansion there were also strong cohesive social policies being nurtured in and around the Uruk city area. An example of this is the temple structure that would have required a considerable amount of resource mobility inviting the notion of specialisation. There was of course a slave trade at this juncture in prehistory but it is unlikely that they were solely, if at all, working on the construction of a public monument. The indistinguishable material culture that occurs from the Uruk expansion suggests that specialisation had already taken place, expressive of the fact that the agricultural sector were providing a surplus that was then being redistributed by the central organisation, possibly the temple.
The ubiquitous beveled-rimmed bowl and the discovery of cylinder seals further attest to this condition. Much has been made of the beveled rim bowl, from magical function to the popularity of the salt trade (J.Reade 1991). What is clear is that these bowls were mass-produced to the maximum and once used discarded, similar to the way in which we discard paper wrappings today. The best argument however is either the use of the bowl as a container for daily rations distributed by the temple, or the use of the bowl as an offering to the temple. The former, although plausible is unlikely due to the unwieldy nature of being forced to carry rations back to your domicile with a heaped bowl full of grain, the chance of spillage is high and considering the more advanced container capability they had is unlikely. The latter is the most recent explanation offered. It claims that the bowls were made for a chthonic "festival" whereby the bowls were very simply produced at the home, from the earth and were then filled with some form of harvest and offered back to the temple to ensure the earth's future and fertility (T.W.Beale 1978). This would satisfactorily explain several erroneous factors; namely the crudity of their production, mass manufacture and their proximity to the temple.
The availability and wide spread use of seals is also a prime indicator that points to a rudimentary form of government. These seals are the precursor to the crudest form of writing, cuneiform, to be discussed later. The seals were put in place as a form of documentation that served both to witness and prove identity to the recipient of the good; they were obviously marks of responsibility and were the property of individuals and in some cases offices. Here I shall mention seals only briefly as they are to be discussed further on.
That the Uruk period spanning from 4000-3000BC was not a democracy is an undisputed statement. Nevertheless under a theocratically oriented regime their society laid the foundations for such innovations as the birth of writing, a complex system of taxes, land ownership, laws and an elaborate stratification of society to name but a few. However as with most societies the trend was inevitable, their rapid expansion and revolutionary impact on less complex socio-political societies, supported by environmental changes led to the eventual demise of the Uruk epoch. The theory is that they could no longer keep up with the reciprocal trade agreement that they had themselves established due to increased salinisation of the alluvium and so agricultural product declined. The power of their supporting enclaves and outposts had increased during the years of profitability and due to the availability of their own agricultural product trade was severed. One of the outstanding reasons for this decline is that one must not envisage the Uruk phenomenon as a core with peripheries, such as the later Akkadian period. Rather it was governed by a number of small cores, represented by a unified religious theme, that were all in fierce competition with one another, as shown by the number of contemporary pictorial representation, such as the Vulture Stele, depicting a variety of military scenes and the taking of prisoners. In this section the inclusion of military prowess has been deliberately underplayed, as has the importance of other large urban centres that is not to say that they did not exist. In so doing I have concentrated more on the emergence of complex hierarchical administrative structures, class stratification and the use of both reciprocal and redistributive economies (G.Algaze1989).
In this section I shall not even attempt to wade through the monumental list of individual kings, rulers, cities and the infinite archaeological data referring to chronology. Rather I should like to concentrate more closely on the state of complexity and its exponential growth throughout the third millennium to attempt to establish if a primitive form of democracy existed at this period.
That which emerges from the fall of the Uruk period can now be loosely termed "historical" as from the early dynasties onwards there is the increasingly complex development of writing in Southern Mesopotamia. Clearly though it must be stated that this was not a phenomenon alienating the South only. Elsewhere, places such as Ebla were also formulating a distinct but not dissimilar form of documentation for their own Semitic language. What transpires from these texts is that although the society was theocratically based, the role of the temple and religion as an entity had been highly over stated in the past. Each urban centre was allocated a principal god on the day of creation and the people of that city answered to that god, although dedicatory services to other gods were undertaken as well. The intermediary between god and people was the ruler who was also seen as the protector of the city during conflagrations. In return for this privilege, the ruler, ENSI or EN when related to temple function and symbolised in art by the characteristic kilt or skirt and braided headdress was responsible for building and maintaining the temples. Thus tending to the gods every need and so securing the safety of the city-state and its people. All other levels of society played a part in the maintenance of the patronising god by using their basic produced goods as offerings, though it must be stated that it was the sole responsibility of the king to ensure that all religious practises were asserted satisfactorily.
Southern Mesopotamian society during the third millennium (ED's 2-3 onwards (J.Oates 1977)) was highly stratified with several distinct segregations, from LUGAL meaning big man to GEME/ARAD meaning slave (C.K.Maisels1990). Within this stratigraphy there were also levels for freemen, temple initiates, trade specialists and landowners. Their society was characterised by neither classical slavery nor feudalism and it is important to remember that the term "slave" is used very loosely. As the whole of the religious belief system was based about the notion that the gods created man to do their work for them, in essence they were all slaves. Evidence exists of a council under the king, a house of Elders and a Lower House of Men, these were known as UNKEN, literally "a circle of people." It appears that these councils could meet and did not so much as vote, but more agreed by consent, what the best course of action was. This evidence comes from the written record chronicling the epic of Gilgamesh who consulted the council as to whether he should resist the king of Kish. At this point it should be noted that these written records came from much later on and are not contemporary with the time. The rest of the social stratification was based around agriculture, specialisation of crafts, trade links, maintenance and rebuilding of monumental structures and the military. Though it should be stressed that it is still unknown whether or not there was a permanent military facility or men from relevant levels of societies were called to arms. That there was a highly organised military facility available, permanent or not, we know both from texts and from the artwork that has been excavated. One such example of this is the Vulture Stele of Eanatum of Lagash that pictorially represents an army that is homogenous in uniform and shown to have ranks of men bearing different arms. The implications of this are that during the mid-third millennium the Sumerians had a basic knowledge of "foot soldier and heavy artillery," showing a great degree of social organisation. The king, now promoted to the title of LUGAL, literally "big man" would lead the army into battle and it is clear that the winning side had the benefit of capturing land, titles and slaves. Although from the textual evidence it appears that some leaders were more brutal than others, from the same stele Eanatum boasts, "twenty burial mounds for the fallen enemy." (A.Kuhrt 1995)
Writing at its roots was used to detail economic transactions of any nature. However as we move through the Dynastic periods onto the Akkadian dynasties and that of Ur one finds that the content of the texts discovered through excavation begins to change considerably. The crude glyptic inscriptions develop into a form that is able to transcribe the spoken word into text. From this point on the history of Southern Mesopotamia becomes relatively clear, as with the help of documents such as the Sumerian King List it is possible to vaguely chronicle the years as they were related to either ruler's names or to prodigious events recognised by the people. This aids the archaeologist to build up a more accurate picture of the sumarian society, although it should be recognised that this list may have been conceived in a biased form as propaganda to justify the claims of later kings. Again from these texts one is able to build an accurate view of the economy. Long distance trade as in the Uruk period was rife and came from further afield bearing more extravagant goods, gold and silver appear to have been available in large quantities and it is clear that inter city exchange among flax, grain, olive oil, wine, wool and textiles existed. A monetary system was as such still unknown although an elaborate system of equivalents had existed using copper and grain initially. By the Agade period silver replaced the over abundant copper and various translations of documents found contain evidence of the accuracy of the exchange system. For example 0.3 grains of silver would buy the relatively expensive quart of smoked fish, whereas 0.1 grains of silver would enable the purchaser 60 dried fish (H.E.W.Crawford).
So what then was the relationship between inter city-states? We know that during the third millennium trade of more than just goods took place between cities, ideas and ideals also traveled along lines of communication, this has been backed up by the artifacts found in various cities that obviously have their origin elsewhere. This and the religious theme aided as a cohesive gel to the Sumerian region and each city paid tribute to a house of gods that existed. Also we know that one of the individual states held an ill-defined hegemony over the other political centres, this appeared to rotate, never remaining in one city for too long. So why the wars? As is always inevitable, the fact that there are strong cultural, religious, artistic and commercial links between cities (A.Kuhrt 1995) does not mean that rulers could not become embroiled in territorial disputes over established boundaries in a bid to compete for dominance. In fact after the Early Dynastic phases various city states collaborated to form political coalitions to control greater tracts of land, such as Ur, Umma and Uruk under Lugalzagesi who eventually went on to control much of the area by quelling inter city rivalries and then gaining significant political control by granting land to local rulers, forming governors in these areas though which he could implement a new system of administration.
South Mesopotamia in the fourth and third millennium boasts the birth of mankind, as we know it to be today. Philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, city planning, schools, writing politics, economics and religion were all a corner stone of their beliefs. The ability of these communities to learn and live in large conglomerated settlements, to interact with the peripheral settlements of their boundaries, to produce and redistribute so that all had availability to necessary goods and to live and pray under one ruler and one set of gods bears testament to their complexity. As far as a democracy in their society is concerned they were under developed. Democracy, in any period or any place, cannot be felt or acknowledged unless the people have the power to change the system. In contrast, Southern Mesopotamian rulers had the ability and the power to change the people. It was the rulers who decided the laws and delegation of the hierarchy and who became embroiled in petty arguments over territory and power, the people followed, perhaps not blindly but certainly without authority to question. Rather then, I would suggest that the civilisations of South Mesopotamia had achieved a "World system" as set out under the criteria by Stein in "Rethinking World Systems." During the fourth and third millennium these civilisations did have large scale, axial divisions of labour, productive organisations, unequal economic relationships grounded in asymmetrical between regions and hegemony of strong states in a core region (G.Stein 1999). These are of course only the views of some of the authors that I have read and my interpretation of that reading.

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