The Mesopotamian political structure is the earliest form of democracy that we know today. With this, the ancient Mesopotamians undoubtedly gave us the earliest blueprints of what it means to govern a society.

Though the Babylonians and Sumerians had a very different government than our modern times, we can learn and trace our political roots and learn about the values which held their society together.

How the Mesopotamian Political Structure Began: Farmers Turned Kings

Mesopotamia began as scattered communities that lived near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for food. The most skilled farmers were looked up to as they provided food for the communities and protection from animals for their flocks. Over time, these head farmers started to be called lugal, which in Sumerian directly translates to “big man.” These lugals became the leaders of their community.

Within Mesopotamian city-states such as Babylon and Sumer, their creation myths played a role. To them, the gods were the reason for their food and communities; to please the gods meant better rainfall, better harvests. The men who worked closely with the gods were called priests. These priests worked together with the lugals to organize and keep the peace between the community and the gods. The priests would conduct sacrifices and rituals for the people to perform to make the gods happy.

The priests also aided the kings in their worship, instructing them on which days of the week the planets would be in certain parts of the sky. For the ancient Mesopotamians, the planets were physical manifestations of their gods, so the priests had to understand the planets and motions of the sky.

Why Was Religion So Important to the Ancient Mesopotamian Government?

For the Babylonians and Sumerians, their gods were personifications of nature and a symbol of what their communities represented. In Babylon, Marduk was their chief god. The people were allowed to worship other gods in their households, but Marduk was the god of other gods, and kings, nobles, and even slaves had to report to him. In the early Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish, Marduk was their hero. Marduk turned out superior and brought order to the universe, defeating chaos and evil once and for all.

Another Mesopotamian creation legend that was influential in their political structure was the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. This story tells of the superhero king, Gilgamesh, who was two-thirds god and one-third human. He protected his family and his city from monsters and even moved mountains for his city.

This legend of Gilgamesh set the standard for their kings to live up to. It was also the example that their kings should be like the gods and are of the gods. These epics were key to the political structure of Mesopotamia.

Who Was Hammurabi? What Was His Code?

Hammurabi was a Babylonian king credited with constructing the first written list of laws. These were not just any laws; these were divine laws. These laws were inspired by their god, Marduk, to Hammurabi and the priests.

To break one of the laws meant to disrespect Marduk and the king. These 282 laws helped Hammurabi turn Babylon and other Mesopotamian cities into a cohesive and unified territory.

The expression, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,’ came from Hammurabi’s Code. These laws were the step in concretizing our ideas of fairness, equality, and justice today. The original lines of the ‘eye for an eye’ expression came from here:

“If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out… if a man knocks out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out.” This quote is taken from “The Code of Hammurabi,” translated and edited by L.W. King.

These were not laws that Hammurabi created. These laws existed throughout Mesopotamia, especially in Sumer. They were expected to be upheld on an individual level. Since nothing was yet set in stone, many citizens would change laws convincingly to escape punishment. However, Hammurabi’s Code made it so that no one could change the law. Hammurabi’s Code cemented our idea of a justice system that holds people accountable.

Centralized Government or Not? The Hierarchy in the Mesopotamian Political Structure

First, in Babylon and Sumer, the government was decentralized. An assembly gathered to pick the most skilled farmers and most righteous priests, and these assemblies had a fair chance to decide their leader. As the cities grew, they became patriarchal: the sons of farmers and priests were to be the next king, which turned into a centralized government as Hammurabi’s Code began to play. Now, the city was answering only to the king and his councilmen.

The early states of Mesopotamia are called the earliest forms of democracy by historians. We can clearly state that towards the later eras of Mesopotamia, it became centralized. The city-states of Mesopotamia, like Babylon and Sumer, gradually became one as Babylon took over the entire south of Mesopotamia.

With this new unified rule, the kings began to have a council of 120 men. These councilmen consist mainly of priests and scribes. The councilmen aided the kings in appeasing the gods and helping the citizens.

Soon, the entirety of Mesopotamia was under the rule of the Assyrians. This rule bridged together the north and south of Mesopotamia, creating a centralized government.

The hierarchy in Mesopotamia consisted of:

  • The King
  • The Priests
  • The Scribes
  • The Artisans
  • The Commoners
  • The Slaves

In this list, ordered from most important to least important, the slaves had the least protection of their rights. Yet again, under Hammurabi’s Code, everyone received a fair chance of justice and equality. The slaves in Mesopotamia were usually captives of other city-states or foreign lands. They were captured during wars and during pillages.

The scribes and artisans were noble people who had skills. The artisans, for example, were skilled sewers, leather workers, pottery workers, jewelers, metalworkers, and crafters of weaponry. They provided custom-made items for the king, priests, and their armies.

The scribes were the ones who had the task of copying down the laws. They were lawyers, judges, and scholars. Besides the priests and the kings, the scribes were to be the ones who had the most knowledge on the law and how it affected daily life. They were the most educated out of the hierarchy. The scribes were also some of the only people who could write. The act of writing was seen as a professional, sacred, and extremely honorable skill to have.

The commoners were the laypeople of daily life: the poor, the cooks, the women, and the children. The commoners had no upright status as the more noble people did, but they were what defined the communities. The commoners would uphold religious standards by worshipping Marduk and other gods they pleased.

Mesopotamian Political Structure as an Early Form of Democracy

It’s been mentioned already that historians have noted Mesopotamia as being the earliest form of democracy. It isn’t to say that their political structure was a complete democracy because it wasn’t. The Mesopotamian government had democratic features and developed democratic-like laws.

The main evidence historians use the proof of a general assembly that settled conflicts, issues of war, debts of slaves, and others. Over this assembly, the king’s priest councilmen supervised this assembly.

These assemblies had rights to vote in or out a king, a priest, and banish people. The assembly could vote generals, could plan strategic war victories, and even get funded in bartering for animals and weapons.

These assemblies were born out of the beginning of Mesopotamia. A time when Mesopotamia was decentralized and in communities foraging and farming for food. Despite later on in Mesopotamia becoming totalitarian, the early settlements Mesopotamia had democratic traits.

Conclusion

  • The skilled farmers and priests ruled over the people.
  • Their creation myths set standards for their governments and kings.
  • Hammurabi systemized laws of fairness and equality for everyone on the social ladder.
  • Early Mesopotamia was decentralized and later turned centralized.

Today, we don’t believe our presidents and leaders to be gods or goddesses. We have made a lot of progress to free the idea of politics from religion. In our modern Western society, we no longer use motivations of religion and mythology in our choice of leaders or in our belief of what it means to be a leader. Though, we still hold our modern-day rulers to the same standards of virtue that the Mesopotamians did.

It has now been shown that the Mesopotamians paved a road that we still follow today. Their influence is monumental, things like our ideas about equality, early forms of democracy.

Furthermore, they also influence the image of the leader of their country to be wise, strong, and courageous, despite the differences in our modern society and their ancient society. In our modern society, we separate religion and state. The standards of the Mesopotamians have been followed throughout history to the present day.

When we take the time to educate ourselves about the ways of the ancient ways of life, it gives us insight into our origins. Learning about the past allows us to see what not to do so that we may know only better our personal lives and our notion of civilization.

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