Social Systems

Social Classes:

In ancient Mesopotamia, a land of blazing sun and very little rainfall, irrigation was vital for farming. Centuries before the beginning of known history, the Sumerians undertook the stupendous task of building embankments to control the floodwaters of the Euphrates River. Gradually they drained the marshes and dug irrigation canals and ditches. Large-scale cooperation was needed to build the irrigation works, keep them in repair, and apportion the water. This need gave rise to government and laws.

The rich soil produced abundant crops of barley, emmer (a kind of wheat), beans, olives, grapes, and flax. For the first time there was a surplus to feed city workers such as artists, craftsmen, and merchants. This great change in living habits brought about civilization--defined as a city-based society held together by economic enterprises. There were no nations then, only small city-states

Each Sumerian city rose up around the shrine of a local god. As a reflection of a city's wealth, its temple became an elaborate structure. The temple buildings stood on a spacious raised platform reached by staircases and ramps. From the platform rose the temple tower, called a ziggurat (holy mountain), with a circular staircase or ramp around the outside. On the temple grounds were quarters for priests, officials, accountants, musicians, and singers; treasure chambers; storehouses for grain, tools, and weapons; and workshops for bakers, pottery makers, brewers, leatherworkers, spinners and weavers, and jewelers. There were also pens for keeping the sheep and goats that were destined for sacrifice to the temple god.

Horses and camels were still unknown, but sheep, goats, oxen, donkeys, and dogs had been domesticated. The plow had been invented, and the wheel, made from a solid piece of wood, was used for carts and for shaping pottery. Oxen pulled the carts and plows; donkeys served as pack animals. Bulky goods were moved by boat on the rivers and canals. The boats were usually hauled from the banks, but sails also were in use. Before 3000 BC the Sumerians had learned to make tools and weapons by smelting copper with tin to make bronze, a much harder metal than copper alone.

Mud, clay, and reeds were the only materials the Sumerians had in abundance. Trade was therefore necessary to supply the city workers with materials. Merchants went out in overland caravans or in ships to exchange the products of Sumerian industry for wood, stone, and metals. There are indications that Sumerian sailing vessels even reached the valley of the Indus River in India. The chief route, however, was around the Fertile Crescent, between the Arabian Desert and the northern mountains. This route led up the valley of the two rivers, westward to Syria, and down the Mediterranean coast.

Early in Sumerian civilization, eighty to ninety percent of those who farmed did so on land they considered theirs rather than communal property. Here, too, the Sumerians were expressing a trend that was common among others. Another individual effort was commerce, and with a growth in commerce the Sumerians had begun using money, which made individual wealth more easily measured and stored. Commerce required initiative, imagination, an ability to get along with people and luck, and, of course, some merchants were more successful than were others. Farming took stamina, strength, good health, good luck and organization. And some farmers were more successful than were other farmers.

Those farmers who failed to harvest enough to keep themselves in food and seed borrowed from those who had wealth in surplus. Those who borrowed hoped that their next harvest would give them the surplus they needed to repay their loan. But if the next harvest were also inadequate, to meet their obligations they might be forced to surrender their lands to the lender or to work for him. When Sumerians lost their land, they or their descendants might become sharecroppers: working the lands of successful landowners in exchange for giving the landowners a good portion of the crops they grew.

Within a few centuries the Sumerians had built up a society based in 12 city-states: Kish, Uruk (in the Bible, Erech), Ur, Sippar, Akshak, Larak, Nippur, Adab, Umma, Lagash, Bad-tibira, and Larsa. According to one of the earliest historical documents, the Sumerian King List, eight kings of Sumer reigned before the famous flood. Afterwards various city-states by turns became the temporary seat of power until about 2800 BC, when they were united under the rule of one king--Etana of Kish. After Etana, the city-states vied for domination; this weakened the Sumerians, and they were ripe for conquest--first by Elamites, then by Akkadians.

The Sumerians had never been very warlike, and they had only a citizen army, called to arms in time of danger. In about 2340 BC King Sargon of Akkad conquered them and went on to build an empire that stretched westward to the Mediterranean Sea. The empire, though short-lived, fostered art and literature.

Led by Ur, the Sumerians again spread their rule far westward. During Ur's supremacy (about 2150 - 2050 BC) Sumerian culture reached its highest development. Shortly thereafter the cities lost their independence forever, and gradually the Sumerians completely disappeared as a people. Their language, however, lived on as the language of culture. Their writing, their business organization, their scientific knowledge, and their mythology and law were spread westward by the Babylonians and Assyrians.


Accompanying divisions in wealth was a division in power, and power among the Sumerians passed to an elite. Sumerian priests who had once worked the fields alongside others, soon 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.


Common Sumerians remained illiterate and without power, while kings, once elected by common people, became monarchs. The monarchs were viewed as agents of and responsible to the gods. It was the religious duty of his subjects to accept his rule as a part of the plan of the gods. Governments 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 its soldiers and others it supported. And priests told commoners that their drudgery was necessary to allow the gods their just leisure.


The Tigris-Euphrates plain lacked minerals and trees. Sumerian structures were made of plano-convex mudbrick, not fixed with mortar or cement. Mud-brick buildings eventually deteriorate, so they were periodically destroyed, leveled, and rebuilt on the same spot, to protect them from floods. This constant rebuilding gradually raised the level of cities, which thus came to be elevated above the surrounding plain. The resultant hills, known as tells, are found throughout the ancient Near East.

According to Archibald Sayce, the primitive pictograms of the early Sumerian (i.e. Uruk) era suggest that "Stone was scarce, but was already cut into blocks and seals. Brick was the ordinary building material, and with it cities, forts, temples and houses were constructed. The city was provided with towers and stood on an artificial platform; the house also had a tower-like appearance. It was provided with a door which turned on a hinge, and could be opened with a sort of key; the city gate was on a larger scale, and seems to have been double. The foundation stones - or rather bricks - of a house were consecrated by certain objects that were deposited under them."

The most impressive and famous of Sumerian buildings are the ziggurats, large layered platforms which supported temples. Sumerian cylinder seals also depict houses built from reeds not unlike those built by the Marsh Arabs of Southern Iraq until as recently as 400 AD. The Sumerians also developed the arch, which enabled them to develop a strong type of dome. They built this by constructing and linking several arches. Sumerian temples and palaces made use of more advanced materials and techniques,[citation needed] such as buttresses, recesses, half columns, and clay nails.


Woman were not free. Men dominate women as they were physically stronger. They often ruled women by brute force always making the decisions. The Sumerians put the domination of men over women into law. If a husband died, the widow came under the control of her former husband's father or brother, or if she had a grown son under his control. A woman in Sumer had no recourse or protection under the law. A woman's only power, if she had any, was the influence of her personality within her family.

If the wife of a man followed after another man and he slept with her, they shall slay that woman, but that male shall be set free. If a man proceeded by force, and deflowered the virgin slave-woman of another man, that man must pay five shekels of silver.


Early in Sumerian civilization, schooling was associated with the priesthood and took place in temples. But this changed, and an education apart from the temples arose for the children of affluent families, who paid for this education -- and with men dominating women, 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 "practical" -- 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.

Cuneiform was difficult to learn. To master it, children usually went to a temple school. Using a clay tablet as a textbook, the teacher wrote on the left-hand side, and the pupil copied the model on the right. Any mistakes could be smoothed out. The pupil began by making single wedges in various positions and then went on to groups of wedges. Thousands of groups had to be mastered. Finally the pupil was assigned a book to copy, but the work was slow and laborious. Many first chapters of all the important Sumerian works have been handed down from students' tablets, but only fragments of the rest of the books survive.

Students also studied mathematics. The Sumerians based their number system on 10, but they multiplied 10 by 6 to get the next unit. They multiplied 60 by 10, then multiplied 600 by 6, and so on. (The number 60 has the advantage of being divisible by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, and 30.) The Sumerians also divided the circle into 360 degrees. From these early people came the word dozen (a fifth of 60) and the division of the clock to measure hours, minutes, and seconds. The Sumerians had standard measures, with units of length, area, and capacity. Their standard weight was the mina, made up of 60 shekels--about the same weight as a pound. There was no coined money. Standard weights of silver served as measures of value and as a means of exchange.

War and Slavery

Serfs and slaves made up majority of population and were responsible for all manual labor.

As Sumerian cities grew in population and expanded, the virgin swamps that had insulated city from city disappeared. And, like other peoples, the Sumerians were inclined to empathize more with those closer to themselves and inclined to see their own interests more clearly than those distant from them. Sumerians from different cities were unable or unwilling to resolve their conflicts over land and the availability of water, and wars between Sumerian cities erupted -- wars they saw as between their gods.

Eventually, the Sumerians made slaves of other Sumerians they had captured in their wars with each other, but originally they acquired their slaves from peoples beyond Sumer. 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: that their gods had given them victory over an inferior people.

Eventually, the Sumerians made slaves of other Sumerians they had captured in their wars with each other, but originally they acquired their slaves from peoples beyond Sumer. 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: that their gods had given them victory over an inferior people.

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 Uruk1 and the distant town of Arrata, a tale 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 three thousand 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.

Among the Sumerian cities was an impulse to be supreme, 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.


The variety of populous, civilized life produced differing opinions, and dissent - something authoritarians would never be able to extinguish. Sumerians complained. One wrote that he was a "thoroughbred steed" but drawing a cart carrying "reeds and stubble." Another complained in writing of the stupidity in one city taking enemy lands and then the enemy coming and taking its lands. Rather than docility, people in the city of Lagash instigated history's first recorded revolt. This came after Lagash's rulers had increased local taxes and restricted personal freedoms. Lagash's bureaucrats had grown in wealth. And the people of Lagash resented this enough that they overthrew their king and 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.