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The system of city-states of ancient Sumer

Sumer was divided into at least twelve major city-states. Each city had its own ruler and way of life. These city-states, however, still relied on each other for three reasons:

  • To maintain the system of rivers and canals that acted as the marine 'highways' to connect the city-states of the Mesopotamia area.
  • To maximise the benefits of extensive trading.
  • To better serve the gods, who regularly met at the Assembly of the Gods in the holy city of Nippur on the Upper Euphrates.

The people in these city-states still spoke the same language, used the same writing system and had a common religion. Refer Image 1

The structure of the government

Sumerian government was based on a monarchy. Sumerians believed their kings established rule through divine right.

The king

The lugal, or king, of each city-state was responsible for constructing buildings and temples, maintaining the city borders and irrigation systems, and enforcing the laws. In case of war, he would lead the armies. Although the king had power, he was not permitted to act with ultimate power, or as a dictator. As the government became more complex, the king employed scribes, official public secretaries, to collect taxes and keep records for the government. The king was also assisted by his advisors who helped him rule and ensured that people obeyed his laws. Refer Image 2

The priests

In ancient Sumer, priests were the largest landowners. The priests also became skilled as scribes. In some city-states the priests sat with the council of elders. These city councils exercised a lot of influence, and sometimes conflicted with the king.

Sumerian governments drafted commoners to work on community projects. All citizens in ancient Sumer had to pay taxes to the government. A portion of the crops was taken by the government as tax. The city could either sell the crops or use them feed its soldiers.

Government during the three stages of ancient Sumer

Sumerian history can be divided into three stages. In the first stage (3360 BC-2400 BC), Sumer was a collection of many city-states. The kings of the city-states exercised political power and religious authority. This period marked the beginning of wars between the Sumerian city-states. Cities fought each other for control of the river valleys in lower Mesopotamia. Refer animation

During the second stage (2400 BC-2200 BC), Sumer was conquered by Sargon I (or Sargon the Great), who was the king of Akkad. About 2334 BC he fought more than 30 battles to unite northern Mesopotamia. He incorporated the Sumerian city-states into the Akkadian kingdom. Sargon's rule introduced a new level of political organisation. In this stage of Sumerian history, there was a more defined separation between religious authority and secular (non-religious) authority. A centralised government was established under the authority of Sargon the Great, his royal court, and the class of priests.

In the Akkadian Dynasty, Sargon and his royal court took control of all economic activities. In previous Sumerian dynasties these tasks had been carried out by the priests. Sargon introduced many royal servants and administrators into the government in an attempt to create a bureaucratic organisation to rule his kingdom.

During the Akkadian Dynasty, the status of the temple priests was very much reduced. Priests stopped acting as mediators between the gods and ordinary men and women. The role of mediator was fulfilled by Sargon.

To ensure his supremacy, Sargon created the first conscripted army (where enrolment was compulsory). Sargon was then able to mobilise large numbers of labourers for irrigation and flood-control works.

The composite bow, a new weapon made of strips of wood and horn, was invented during this dynasty. This weapon strengthened Sumer's military power.

The Akkadian Dynasty only lasted 200 years in Mesopotamia. By 2000 BC the Amorites, a Semitic people from the west, and the Elamites, a Caucasian people from the east, attacked Sumer. This attack ended the Third Dynasty of Ur. The invaders chose Babylon as their capital and established the Babylonian Dynasty (1900 BC-1750 BC) and the third stage of Ancient Sumer.

Under the dynasty of King Hammurabi (1792 BC-1750 BC), the sixth king of the first Babylonian dynasty, the territory of ancient Sumer spread. The territory of Ancient Sumer stretched from the Tigris-Euphrates river valley and the Persian Gulf in the south to Assyria in the north.

To rule over such a large area, Hammurabi devised an elaborate administrative structure. Hammurabi designed a law code, known as The Code of Hammurabi, (the Code) 'to cause justice to prevail in the country, to destroy the wicked and the evil, that the strong may not oppress the weak.'

The Code of Hammurabi

The Code was written by Hammurabi with the aim of maintaining a society of strict justice. It was not the earliest but certainly the most complete law to appear in the Near East. Hammurabi's Code dealt with many aspects of daily life such as land ownership, women's rights, slave rights, marriage, divorce, death, inheritance, contracts, wages, labour conditions, and administration of justice. Refer Image 3

Hammurabi's Code set out stern rules. There were severe punishments for anyone who broke those rules. The Code did not accept excuses for any mistakes or faults. The Code was openly displayed for all citizens. By publicly displaying the Code, no one could say that they were ignorant of the law and use that as an excuse.

Penalties varied according to the social class of the offender. If a man committed a crime against a member of the upper class, he would receive a heavier punishment. If the offence was made against a member of the lower classes, the crime could be overlooked if a sum of money was paid. Most of the rules were based on the principle of retaliation when a man committed an offence against his social equal.

The Code was so strict that even the king was not exempt from punishment. The Code also took the responsibilities of public officials very seriously. The Code was carved in stone, and as a result was binding and could not be changed.

Hammurabi's Code showed that the Sumerian civilisation had moved to a more advanced level. The relationships referred to in the Code extended far beyond family.

Women were granted the right to own property and to engage in business. The Code reflected an advanced business society. There were established regulations for protecting property and business contracts. The Code also set out limits on interest charged on loans, and set out wages for workers.

In politics, Hammurabi's Code provided a clearer separation of religious authority and secular (non-religious) authority.


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1. Who was the lugal?

king of each city-state

king of the whole territory of Sumer

priest of each city-state

priest of the whole territory of Sumer

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