Sumer was the first major civilization to emerge in ancient Mesopotamia, reaching its peak sometime in the late 5th or early 4th millennium B.C, lasting until the late 3rd millennium B.C. In many ways, it set the template for future political, social, and cultural entities in the region.
Cuneiform writing originated here; organized religion in Mesopotamia found its footing in Sumerian cities. Its system of social hierarchy was repeated and modified over the coming millennia.
The focus of this article is on that last point. We’ll take a detailed look at ancient Sumer’s social structure, whose foundation rested on hierarchical grounds constituted by descending order of social classes. We’ll also take a trip back through time to try and figure out why this was such a revolutionary step not only in ancient Mesopotamia but for the evolution of human society as a whole.
Sumerian Social Classes: The Levels of the Ziggurat
Today, when we describe a structure of any kind by its levels of importance, we tend to label it a pyramid. We try to guide our nutritional intake by the Food Pyramid, regardless of how fruitless, sometimes literally, the effort may be. We try to avoid dreaded pyramid schemes for our financial well-being.
It doesn’t seem appropriate, though, to do the same in this explicitly Mesopotamian context. Instead, let’s picture the social classes of the Sumerians as a ziggurat, those gigantic, multi-tiered towers that once dominated ancient Mesopotamian cityscapes. We’ll go from the top down and then review each of the classes in more detail:
- Ruling class: kings and high priests
- Upper class: nobles, minor priests, scribes, and other high-ranking politicians
- Common class, most analogous to our middle class: merchants, artisans, smiths, and other craftsmen
- Lower class: farmers and other agricultural laborers
This form of social hierarchy helped keep Sumerian society structured for most of its existence. This isn’t to say that it never changed or adapted over the millennia in which it was in place. As we’ll see in the next section, it definitely did, but the same basic outline is apparent. Without further ado, let’s dive in head first!
– Kings and High Priests: The Ruling Class
Even if you’re not familiar at all with Sumerian history or culture, the odds are that you’ve come across the name of Sumer’s most famous, albeit heavily mythologized, ruler: Gilgamesh, the main character of his namesake epic.
What knowledge we have of the historical Gilgamesh amounts to where he was king in the city of Uruk, now southern Iraq, and the relative era of his reign (the Sumerian Early Dynastic Period, c. 2900-2350 B.C.).
Gilgamesh, like other kings of other cities, occupied the top tier of the Sumerian social hierarchy. However, the king wasn’t always the be-all and end-all of Sumerian society; at least, not the only one.
Greek sociologist Manussos Marangudakis explains that, in the earlier periods of Sumerian civilization, the responsibility of governance was split between “kingship” and “temple power” (that is, priests). However, the disparity between kings and priests and lower classes wasn’t as emphatic as it would become.
Priests engaged in the crucial-yet-tedious work needed to run society, such as record-keeping, wealth distribution, and control over the economic sectors of life in ancient Sumer, on top of their religious duties!
As such, temples became hubs of cities and priests, their most important residents, as they seamlessly bridged the gap between economic survival and communication with the gods. Let’s dig a little deeper into how this was the case.
Marangudakis suggests that early Sumerians retained a Neolithic belief system in which the essence of the divine was located in the natural world, in things like water, weather, the sun, and agricultural processes; nature manipulated by humans, humans consorting with the divine.
Priests, then, were the intermediaries in charge of the relationship between man and the gods. They controlled the material output like crops, largely, of this relationship and knew what to do if the gods weren’t happy with mankind. It’s no wonder why priests were so valuable in the early days of Sumer, and their prominence never really faded!
As Sumer’s society progressed, the peak of the social hierarchy began to adapt to the needs of the times. At the beginning of the 3rd millennium B.C., Sumerian cities underwent some of the same issues we face today: overpopulation and climate change resulting in less and less arable land for crop growth.
Fertile land was the hottest commodity in ancient Mesopotamia, and, with its depletion, the conflict between cities for control over the land became frequent. Consequently, warlike qualities, like bravery in combat or a demonstrated ability to protect cities, were valued over what the priests offered, though they were still necessary.
Cities associated themselves with martial gods, and kings, who also associated or even viewed themselves as war gods, took over the top position of ancient Sumer’s social structure, and this would prove to be the model for subsequent civilizations, too.
– Climbing Down the Ziggurat: The Upper Class
Directly below the ruling class comes the upper class. This group consisted of Sumer’s nobility, like the king’s family, other priests, wealthy landowners, and scribes. While not as prominent in the populace’s eyes as the ruling class, the upper class enjoyed many benefits that the lower classes didn’t. There was no toiling in the hot sun or digging ditches for nobles; instead, they were in charge of the people that performed those tasks.
A special note should be made for scribes and why they were members of the upper class. In today’s world, we sometimes take for granted the fact that we can read and write. This luxury wasn’t the case for much of human history, including in ancient Mesopotamia.
Literacy was a privilege reserved for the highest social classes, in part because it was both expensive and required a major time commitment, about a decade, to learn how to write in cuneiform.
Scribes kept track of administrative details, logistics, and trade accounts between cities by working on wet clay tablets with reed styluses. Without this extensive written record, life could come to a halt.
Think about how much we rely on the written word to navigate through our own lives; the same was true back then, just on a more limited scale. Established scribes in Sumer were also responsible for teaching successive generations of the best, brightest, and richest Sumerian youth and were often the most knowledgeable members of society.
– Commoners and the Middle Class
The closest equivalent to our middle class in ancient Sumerian society is referred to as the common class. This social class consisted of the people who would’ve made Sumer’s marketplaces buzz, such as merchants selling trade goods like fruits, vegetables, animals, and perfumes, as well as rarer imported materials, like timber and metals. Artisans and craftsmen displaying their handiwork, such as baskets, pottery, and artwork. And lastly, smiths working their forges dutifully. Imagine how electrifying the atmosphere would’ve been!
If the ruling class and the upper class were the heads of the Sumerian social hierarchy, the common and middle classes were the veins leading to and from the pumping heart of Sumerian society, supplying citizens with the necessities vital to life in ancient Mesopotamia.
– Working the Land: Farmers and Slaves
Farmers and slaves, respectively, occupied the bottom two tiers of ancient Sumer’s social structure, though their contributions to society shouldn’t be undervalued in hindsight.
Farmers grew crops like wheat and barley and raised pigs and sheep to sell at markets. Another significant development that Sumerian farmers came up with was irrigation, achieved by digging canals and diverting the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to soak and fertilize their crop-growing land.
We know a bit of the specifics of a Sumerian farmer’s daily tasks, thanks to a clay tablet discovered in the city of Nippur. Known as the Sumerian Farmer’s Almanac, the inscription on the tablet provides instructions to farmers as to the steps needed to make and maintain arable land for various crops. Some of them pray to the goddess of vermin so that mice and insects don’t ruin any yields.
Slaves performed similar backbreaking work, but more in the arena of construction such as walls, forts, roads, and other buildings. The “luckier” slaves got to work inside, as servants to members of the upper class or in temples, but make no mistake; it was never glamorous to be a slave, regardless of how invaluable their work was. Many slaves were captured during military raids on rival cities or smaller settlements and lived the rest of their lives in forced servitude.
One Giant Leap for Mankind
The question of the first complex civilization on the planet remains contentious, but it’s clear that Sumer is in the debate, if not outright the earliest. Part of what renders Sumerian society complex is explicit evidence of social classes forming a discernible hierarchy.
They reached these milestones independently in ancient Egypt, India, China, and disparate parts of the Americas, but it seems like Sumer was the first to do it on a major scale.
Sumer set the tone for societal evolution in ancient Mesopotamia and arguably its direct neighbors. For example, it’s possible that Mesopotamia had a vast presence in pre-Dynastic Egypt. Regardless, Sumer’s achievements in establishing the earliest known model of any kind of stable social hierarchy are groundbreaking for human history, for better or worse.
If we could travel through time, seeing Sumer develop would be pretty high on my list. In this article, we looked at:
- The overall shape of ancient Sumerian social structure
- Who occupied what level of the social hierarchy
- The characteristics and responsibilities of each level
- Why the development of social hierarchy was so important to human history
Today, we hear so much about issues concerning social classes: the upper class is waging war on the lower class, the disappearance of the middle class, etc. Thank the Sumerians for coming up with the idea of a permanent, multi-tiered society.
A lot has changed in the way of historical particulars and economic systems, but look hard enough, and you’ll see that the song remains the relative same: we still, across the world, occupy different levels of social hierarchies, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.