Mesopotamia social structure differed from that of the other civilizations that superseded it. Furthermore, unlike the other great civilizations, Mesopotamia was never a single civilization.

Instead, many different people flourished in Mesopotamia over a period spanning several millennia, from the rise of Sumer to the final collapse of the Neo-Babylonian Empire and its conquest by the Persians under Cyrus the Great.

Mesopotamia never constituted a single, unified civilization but was home to a succession of civilizations that shared a similar culture and way of life. In this article, we will explore Mesopotamia’s social structure and its lasting effects on the world.

Mesopotamia: The Land Between Two Rivers

Mesopotamia’s geography played a vital role in shaping the civilizations that flourished for thousands of years in what is today Iraq, Kuwait, parts of Iran, Turkey, and Syria. The name Mesopotamia comes from Greek and denotes a land situated between two rivers.

The fertile crescent between the rivers Tigris and the Euphrates is commonly referred to by historians as the cradle of civilization. In this fertile land, humans started practicing agriculture on a massive scale, leading to the accumulation of goods and the building of large cities.

The World’s First Writing System Emerges in Ancient Sumer

Sumer was the first civilization to emerge in Mesopotamia. The Sumerians are credited with inventing writing, the wheel, irrigation and copper tools, among other things. The Sumerians were the first people to write on clay tablets using a cuneiform script. Thanks to these surviving records, we know a great deal about how their society worked.

A Very Brief Summary of Mesopotamian History

Evidence of human settlements in Mesopotamia date back to 10,000 BC but it would not be until 4500 BC and the rise of Sumer, in southern Mesopotamia, that the region saw the rise of the first true civilization.

The Sumerians were divided into numerous independent city-states governed by kings and priests. Sumerian city-states flourished for a period longer than 2,000 years until declining agricultural productivity, political instability and climate change, as well as foreign invasions, resulted in their eventual conquest by the Akkadians.

The Semitic-speaking Akkadians, under Sargon the Great, built one of the first Empires in history.

– The Rise of Assyria and Babylonia

The Akkadian language had eventually supplanted Sumerian as the main spoken language of Mesopotamia, even though Sumerian survived as the liturgical language used in religious ceremonies. After the downfall of the Akkadian Empire, Mesopotamia was divided between two Akkadian-speaking nations, Assyria in the north and Babylonia in the south.

The First Babylonian Empire under Hammurabi, centered on the city of Babylon, ushered in a new era for Mesopotamia, characterized by the introduction of the code of laws known as Hammurabi’s Code.

Hammurabi’s Empire would prove to be short-lived, however. Following its downfall, Mesopotamia remained politically fragmented between Assyrian kingdoms in the north and Kassites, Elamites, and Arameans in southern and central Mesopotamia.

– The Assyrians Build the First True Empire

The growing power of the Hittite Empire in Anatolia, and its rivalry with Egypt in the Levant and Upper Mesopotamia, resulted in the eventual weakening of both nations and the rise of the Assyrian Empire. Assyria would come to dominate Mesopotamia for several centuries.

Under the Neo-Assyrian Empire (912 – 612 BC) Mesopotamian culture flourished but internal instability brought the once-mighty Empire to its knees, resulting in the rise of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (626 – 539 BC) under Nebuchadnezzar II.

Babylon had once again become a center of learning and one of the largest and richest cities in the world but the Babylonian revival was but a short episode in the long history of Mesopotamia.

The rise of the Persian Achaemenid Empire and the fall of Babylon to the forces of Cyrus the Great (539 BC) marked the end of Mesopotamian culture.

Mesopotamia Social Classes

Mesopotamian society was predominantly agricultural and highly hierarchical. Most of the people dwelled in cities, the largest of which sometimes had as many as 50,000 inhabitants, as was the case with Uruk. The social structure of Mesopotamian cities consisted of several classes. These were:

  • The King and Nobility
  • The Priests
  • The Upper Class
  • The Lower Class
  • Slaves

– Priests as Rulers and Interpreters of Divine Will

Historians believe that during its earliest history, Mesopotamian cities were governed by priestly rulers who interpreted the will of the gods and ruled in accordance with their wishes. Even before the rise of Sumer, religion played a central role in the daily life of the people in southern Mesopotamia.

Cult centers dating back to 5000 BC are now thought to have functioned as important centers of pilgrimage. During this period, there seems to have been little distinction between religion and government, as the priests served as both religious and secular leaders.

– Monarchy Appears in Ancient Sumer

The ancient Sumerians are sometimes credited with inventing the monarchy as a system of government. It is assumed that kingship was established across ancient Sumer around 3600 BC.

Unlike the priest-rulers of old, the king directly communicated with his people and issued edicts in his own right, rather than merely interpreting the will of the gods through omens. The king was still seen as the representative of the gods and conducted religious ceremonies. Kings ruled according to divine will and their laws were, in consequence, divinely inspired.

Due to the fact that Mesopotamia was home to many different cultures and ethnicities, kings often had to resort to using force to impose their will on a heterogeneous realm. Great kings such as Sargon of Akkad, Hammurabi, Ashurbanipal, and Nebuchadnezzar, become semi-divine figures who played a central role in Mesopotamian history.

The All-Important Role of Priests in Mesopotamian Society

Priests and priestesses occupied the highest place in Mesopotamia social hierarchy. They not only conducted religious ceremonies and interpreted divine will, but served as healers and scholars.

Women seem to have enjoyed a great deal of equality in ancient Mesopotamia, although their position in the social hierarchy had changed throughout history. Priests and priestesses were seen as equals to the king, for they were the mediators between the people and the gods.

In addition to performing their sacred duties, the priests were responsible for the organization and administration of temples and temple complexes that formed the heart of a Mesopotamian city.

The Comfortable Lives of the Upper Class

The great majority of the people who lived in ancient Mesopotamia belonged to either the upper or the lower class. We don’t yet have a complete picture of the social hierarchy of Mesopotamia and how much social mobility there was, but those who belonged to the upper class must have led fairly comfortable lives.

Merchants, scribes, and officers belonged to the upper echelons of society, as did the accountants, architects, and astrologers. Wealthy merchants were attended by slaves and employed people of various professions.

As was the case in ancient Egypt, scribes were highly respected and occupied a place of special importance in Mesopotamia social life. They served as teachers and tutors and were employed at court.

Farmers, Laborers, and Builders: Men and Women Who Built a Civilization

Mesopotamian civilizations largely depended on agriculture to sustain a growing city population. Nevertheless, lower-class people could find employment in a great variety of occupations such as butchers, fishermen, basket weavers, construction workers, artists, carpenters, potters, and much more.

Artisans whose professions were highly valued could find employment with wealthy merchants or nobles. Although our knowledge about Mesopotamia class system remains inconclusive, existing archeological evidence indicates that lower-class people could climb the social ladder.

A mysterious Kubaba, a former tavern-keeper, rose to become the Queen of the city of Kish and the only woman to be included in the Sumerian King List.

Slaves Occupied a Place at the Bottom of Social Hierarchy

Slaves were the lowest among the social classes of Mesopotamia. As was the case in ancient Greece and Rome, many slaves were members of enemy nations, tribes, or cities captured in war. Sometimes, enslavement was a punishment for a crime or the means of relieving debt. Selling oneself into slavery to pay off a debt was not uncommon.

Slaves were employed in a variety of professions. They managed large estates for their masters, tutored children, worked as accountants, or even jewelry-makers. The members of the nobility relied on slaves for managing their households. Not much is known about the daily lives of the slaves. It was possible, however, for a slave to buy their freedom.

Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia’s intricate social hierarchy was reflected in the daily lives of its people. Mesopotamians enjoyed music, art, and were renowned builders and artisans. The daily habits depended on one’s social class, age, and sex.

The wealthy could afford to build lavish houses and mansions which were richly furnished with tables and beds, often intricately carved and made of gold or silver. The dwellings of the lower classes were, of course, much simpler.

Archeological evidence indicates that Mesopotamians enjoyed a rich and diverse diet that consisted of fruits and vegetables, fish, and livestock. Hunting was also popular. Beer was so valued that it was used to pay workers wages, but people also loved to drink wine.

Clothing as a Sign of Social Status

The way you dressed in ancient Mesopotamia largely depended on your social status and sex. Men commonly wore long robes or pleated skirts. These were made of goatskin or sheepskin. Women would clad themselves in one-piece tunics made of wool or linen. Women and older men also wore robes, whereas younger men also wore skirts. Both sexes used cosmetics to enhance their beauty.

Conclusion

Throughout its long history, Mesopotamia was home to many civilizations, from Sumerians and Akkadians to Assyrians and Babylonians. Ancient Mesopotamia social class determined one’s lot and reflected the daily life, habits, and appearance of an individual.

Mesopotamia’s social structure consisted of:

  • The king, nobility, and the priests who stood on the top of the social pyramid
  • Beneath them were the scribes and merchants who formed the upper class
  • The farmers, laborers, and craftsmen were the lower class
  • Slaves were at the bottom of social hierarchy and had to serve their masters

The cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, still fascinates us today as an example of human ingenuity and the first step towards the building of the world as we know it today.

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