Early Sumeria

The Old Sumerian Period, c. 2800-2300 B.C.

By 2800 B.C., the Sumerian cities had emerged into the light of history.¬† This first historical age, called the Old Sumerian (or Early Dynastic) period, was characterized by incessant warfare as each city sought to protect or enlarge its land and water rights. Each city-state was a theocracy, for the chief local god was believed to be the real sovereign. The god’s earthly representative was the ensi, the high priest and city governor, who acted as the god’s steward in both religious and secular functions. Though endowed with divine right by virtue of being the human agent of the god, the ensi was not considered divine.

¬†Early Sumerian society was highly collectivized, with the temples of the city god and subordinate deities assuming a central role. “Each temple owned lands which formed the estate of its divine owners. Each citizen belonged to one of the temples, and the whole of a temple community – the officials and priests, herdsmen and fishermen, gardeners, craftsmen, stonecutters, merchants, and even slaves – was referred to as ‘the people of the god X.'” ^6 That part of the temple land called ‘common’ was worked by all members of the community, while the remaining land was divided among the citizens for their support at a rental of from one third to one sixth of the crop. Priests and temple administrators, however, held rent-free lands.

[Footnote 6: H. Frankfort, The Birth of Civilization in the Near East (London:

Williams and Norgate, 1951), p. 60.]

In addition to the temples lands, a considerable part of a city’s territory originally consisted of land collectively owned by clans, kinship groups comprising a number of extended families. By 2600 B.C., these clan lands were becoming the private property of great landowners called lugals (literally “great men”). Deeds of sale record the transfer of clan lands to private owners in return for substantial payments in copper to a few clan leaders and insignificant grants of food to the remaining clan members. These private estates were worked by “clients” whose status resembled that of the dependents of the temples.

In time, priests, administrators, and ensis became venal, usurping property and oppressing the common people. This frequently led to the rise of despots who came to power on a wave of popular discontent. Since these despots were usually lugals, lugal became a political title and is generally translated as “king.”

The Sumerian lugals made the general welfare their major concern. Best known is Urukagina, who declared himself lugal of Lagash near the end of the Old Sumerian period and ended the rule of priests and “powerful men,” each of whom, he claimed, was guilty of acting “for his own benefit.” Urukagina’s inscriptions describe his many reforms and conclude: “He freed the inhabitants of Lagash from usury, burdensome controls, hunger, theft, murder, and seizure (of their property and persons). He established freedom. The widow and the orphan were no longer at the mercy of the powerful man.” ^7

[Footnote 7: “The Reforms of Urukagina” in Nels M. Bailkey, ed., Readings in

Ancient History: Thought and Experience from Gilgamesh to St. Augustine, 4th

  1. (Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath, 1992), p. 21.