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During the early days of Sumer, there were only two classes of people: free people and slaves. As the settlements, and subsequently the civilisation, expanded, a more structured society emerged. A number of city states were established and each was governed independently by a king. Some of the main city states included Ur, Lagash and Uruk. 


Much of what is known about Sumerian society is inferred (guessed) from stone tablets excavated from the area. These tablets not only tell us that the Sumerians were an organised people who liked to keep records, but also provide specific information on the daily lives of the Sumerians. Facts such as the sizes of shops that certain professions had and how much room was dedicated to certain people and professions recorded on the tablets also give us clues as to the importance of different people in Sumerian society. See image 1. 

Social hierarchy

Sumerian society was thought to have been made up of four social classes: nobles, commoners, clients and slaves.

The nobles included the ruling family, priests, warriors and families who owned large areas of land and were usually very wealthy.

Commoners owned smaller amounts of land. Fishermen, craftsmen, and merchants were commoners.  

This class made up a large part of Sumerian society. Within the client class, there were three sub-classes:
 Senior administrators, scribes
 Temple personnel
 The dependants of the nobility

People in the first two client classes usually owned small amounts of land. People of the third class, however, were poorer and worked for the nobles, usually in exchange for payment.

As with many early civilisations, slavery was a part of Sumerian life. People could become slaves in two ways. They were either taken in battle by neighbouring city states or they sold themselves or their children as payment if they were unable to repay their debts.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

Under Hammurabi's code of law (created around 1760 BC), however, a person who was taken into slavey for being unable to repay debts was required to be freed after three years.  Slaves were the property of their masters and were beaten if they tried to escape or tried to steal. Most slaves, however, were not mistreated as they were more valuable to their masters if they were healthy. Slaves could marry free people and were also able to purchase their freedom. See animation.


Although they did not have a high social standing, farmers were essential to the success of the Sumerian civilisation, which relied on agricultural produce to sustain it. The main crops grown in Sumer were emmer, barley and wheat.  A small number of farmers owned a portion of land but the majority worked plots of land belonging to the temple or to the nobility.


Scribes were part of the client class and were another important part of Sumerian society. Many scribes were trained for a specific role some were scribes for the king, some worked for the temples and others looked after the daily transactions of the merchants and craftsmen.  Although scribes were part of a lower social class, their occupation was prestigious and families that could afford to sent their sons to school in the temples to learn the profession. See image 2.


Within the temple, there were various levels of priests who had different duties. There was a senior priest who was in charge of administration, for example, and a priest who was in charge of spirituality. There were also many subordinate priests who looked after things such as singing and music and religious services and those who looked after the land belonging to the temple and its administration.  

Priests were once very powerful in Sumer. As fighting between city states increased, however, warriors grew in power and prominence, which gave rise to military kings and ruling families. At some point along the timeline of Sumerian history, people began to believe that kings were appointed by the gods. Priests remained significant figures in the city states but their influence gradually waned.

Family life

The Sumerians placed great importance on their families. The man was the head of the family and could have more than one wife. Men were employed as craftsmen, merchants, fishermen, or farmers of their own land or land that belonged to wealthier families or the temple.   Children were expected to respect and obey their parents and in return they were treated fairly. Each family had a cylindrical seal with markings and images which acted as their signature. Most families lived in small houses made from clay bricks and reeds.




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Question 1/5

1. What were common occupations for men in Sumer?

House-husbands, teachers and cleaners

Merchants, fishermen or farmers

Scribes, kings and priests

Farmers, emperors and warriors


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