Notes on World History – Ancient Mesopotamia

– Mesopotamia comes from two Greek words meaning “the land between the rivers,” referring to the place between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.


Mesopotamia: Ancient and Modern Names

– The area of ancient Mesopotamia established reservoirs and canals to irrigate fields of barley, wheat, and peas. Irrigation began as far back as 6000 B.C. By 5000 B.C. Sumerians constructed complex irrigation networks, which, by 3000 B.C., lead the population of Sumer to increase to nearly one hundred thousand – an anomaly in the ancient world. The early Sumerian cities held large bazaars, standing armies, judicial courts, organized religious classes, and scribes who developed writing and formal education.

Gilgamesh, whom the Epic of Gilgamesh is named after, ruled around 2750 B.C., and was the fifth king of Uruk. Gilgamesh’s life is surrounded by legend, and little is known about the actual details of his life. (see pg. 31 in Traditions & Encounters).

Sargon of Akkad, who lived  in the 24th century B.C., lead a coup against the king of Kish, and subsequently conquered the surrounding Mesopotamian city-states. Sargon enforced his rule by marching with his army from city to city, essentially bullying his subjects into submission, forcing them to provide precious resources to an ever-expanding army.

Hammurabi – Because of unreliable management, Sargon’s empire disintegrated by 2150 B.C. One of the Mesopotamian’s successor emperors was the Babylonian Hammurabi. Ruling in the 18th century B.C., Hammurabi established an empire that would last another two centuries. In contrast with Sargon’s marching militia administration, Hammurabi established a centralized bureaucracy. Rather than confiscating essential resources from his subjects, Hammurabi promulgated regular, measured taxation, collected by appointed deputies.

Hammurabi is most popular for his code of law. Hammurabi’s code borrowed from previously existing Sumerian laws and laws surrounding Babylonia. In the prologue of Hammurabi’s laws, Hammurabi declared the gods chose him to…

“promote the welfare of the people, cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and evil, that the strong might not oppress the weak, to rise like the sun over the people, and to light up the land.”


This basalt stele shows Shamash, the sun god, passing his royal authority to Hammurabi.

Murder, theft, false witness, sheltering runaway slaves, failure to obey royal orders, adultery, and incest were all crimes punishable by death. Other civil laws regulated prices, wages, commerce, matrimony, and the conditions of slavery.

From the 5th Paragraph of Hammurabi’s Code: If a judge try a case, reach a decision, and present his judgment in writing; if later error shall appear in his decision, and it be through his own fault, then he shall pay twelve times the fine set by him in the case, and he shall be publicly removed from the judge’s bench, and never again shall he sit there to render judgement.

From the 45th Paragraph of Hammurabi’s Code:  If a man rent his field for tillage for a fixed rental, and receive the rent of his field, but bad weather come and destroy the harvest, the injury falls upon the tiller of the soil.

Hammurabi’s code relied heavily on the principle of lex talionis, that is, “the law of retaliation,” whereby offenders suffered punishments resembling their own violation, assuming the two persons involved were part of the same social class. A person of higher social standing, such as the nobleman to a commoner, or a commoner to a slave, faced a less harsh punishment for his crime. The example given by Traditions & Encounters goes as follows…

“<if> a noble who destroyed the eye or broke the bone of another noble would have his own eye destroyed or bone broken, but if a noble destroyed the eye or broke the bone of a commoner, the noble merely paid a fine in silver.”

The laws of Hammurabi created a cultural and legal unity within the expansive Babylonian empire, creating an identity which transcended mere city-state mentality. But Babylon’s wealth provoked its covetous neighbors, and around 1595B.C., the Babylonian empire fell beneath the swords of the Hittites.

The Later Mesopotamian Empires

– Building on the economic advantage of their location in Northern Mesopotamia, the Assyrians came to dominate the political sphere, establishing wealthy cities at Assur and Nineveh. The Assyrians organized an efficient military relying on a meritocratic, rather than hereditary system. Equipped by the Hittites, the Assyrians used chariots to demolish the Babylonian forces. Around 1300 B.C. the Assyrians began to expand their territory, and by the eight-seventh century B.C., under King Assurbanipal (668 B.C.-627 B.C.), Assyria reached its pinnacle.


The Assyrians relied on the legal codes handed down by their Babylonian predecessors, and indeed preserved much of its literary and cultural traditions. King Assurbanipal maintained an enormous library at his palace in Nineveh, where much of our texts regarding Ancient Mesopotamia were preserved, including the Epic of Gilgamesh.

King Assurbanipal hunting, a palace relief from Nineveh

As Assyria encompassed Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, Anatolia, and Egypt, the sheer size of the empire became difficult to maintain, and constant uprisings and foreign invasions caused the empire to crumble in 612 B.C.

– For a brief period of time (600 B.C.-550 B.C.), Babylon was ruled from Mesopotamia by the New Babylonian, or Chaldean King Nebuchadnezzar (reigned 605 B.C. – 562 B.C.). Babylon itself was lavished with wealth. Within the city-walls sat, “enormous palaces and 1,179 temples, some of them faced with gold and decorated with thousands of statues.”

After the death of Nebuchadnezzar in 562 B.C., the Babylonian Empire was mostly absorbed into foreign empires.

Technology, Economy, and Culture in Ancient Mesopotamia

Metal, Wheels, and Ships – 

– By 4000 B.C. Mesopotamian metalworkers alloyed copper and tin, creating bronze. Bronze weaponry was much tougher than the copper preceding it. Because of the scarcity of copper and tin, and its resulting expense, the smithing of bronze was usually limited to military weapons, though later farmers would eventually use bronze knifes and bronze-tipped plows.

Though experimentation began with iron as early as the fourth millennium B.C., effective forging techniques weren’t developed until the Hittite Empire in 1300 B.C. Iron weapons were tougher, cheaper, and more accessible than bronze, quickly displacing it after about 1000 B.C.

According to Traditions & Encounters, “The first use of wheels probably took place about 3500 B.C.E., and Sumerians were building wheeled carts by 3000 B.C.E. Wheeled carts and wagons enabled people to haul heavy loads of bulk goods such as grain, bricks, or metal ores — over much longer distances than human porters or draft animals could manage.” Though the wheel may have seen its earliest use in the ancient Near East in the 4th millennium B.C., the people of the New World would not make effective use of the wheel until the Spaniards conquered them in the 15th century A.D.

Not to be content with landlocked commerce, the Sumerians developed maritime trade as early as 3500 B.C., building ships which brought them into the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean. The Sumerians exported woolen textiles, leather goods, sesame oil, and jewelry to India while importing copper, ivory, pearls, and semiprecious stones.

Class and Status in Early Mesopotamia 

The development of agricultural communities and the and the urbanization of populations lead to a noticeable class divide between the rich and the poor. Class identity was more distinct in ancient Mesopotamia, and the meritocratic ruling class was displaced by a hereditary monarchy.

The priests and priestesses, some of whom had familial ties to the ruling class, were the most influential group on the day to day activities of governance. Intervening with the gods to help the communities, the religious class was repaid by the charity of the people. According to Traditions & Encounters…

“Temples also generated income from vast tracts of land that they owned and large workshops that they maintained. One temple community near the city of Lagash employed six thousand textile workers between 2150 and 2100 B.C.E. Other temple communities cultivated grains, herded sheep and goats, and manufactured leather, wood, metal, and stone goods.”


Ur, Ziggurat, meaning "to build on an elevated place," was a placed of religious significance for the Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Sumerians.

The lower strata of Mesopotamian society consisted of free commoners, dependent clients, and slaves. Free commoners tended to be better off than the latter two, mostly landowners who worked in agriculture, “although some worked in the cities as builders, craftsmen, or professionals, such as physicians or engineers.” Dependent clients were worse off, usually relying on an ancient and heavily regulated form of sharecropping (see the 45th Paragraph of Hammurabi’s Code above), where the laborer would till a landowner’s soil, and pay him a legally negotiated amount in return for using his land. Both free commoners and dependent clients were obligated to pay taxes. Slaves were often prisoners of wars, debtors, and criminals. Though some slaves would work on the fields of landowning nobles, most slaves were domestic servants  on noble estates or in the temples. According to Traditions & Encounters

“Many masters granted slaves their freedom, often with a financial gift, after several years of good service. Slaves with accommodating masters sometimes even engaged in small-scale trade and earned enough money to purchase their freedom.”

In ancient Mesopotamia, the authority over public and private life was vested in the hands of men. Male kings would wield power, and fathers of all classes would be in charge of their household. Marriages were arranged by the head of the house. It is important to remember that our concept of romantic love was born with the knight’s code of chivalry in the Western European Middle Ages.

Though generally subservient to men, some women held a formal education and worked as scribes for the royal authority. According to Traditions & Encounters, Mesopotamian women, “also pursued careers as midwives, shopkeepers, brewers, bakers, tavern keepers, and textile manufacturers.” As time progressed, men began to assert more control over the economic and social life of their wives. Earlier than 1500 B.C., married women began covering their faces with a veil, a prototype to the modern burqa.

Language, Literature, and Education

Cuneiform is the world’s earliest known form of writing, originating in the fourth millennium B.C. Beginning with pictographs, the morphology transformed into words symbolizing concepts by 3100 B.C. According to Traditions & Encounter, to write, “…a Sumerian scribe used a stylus fashioned from a reed to impress symbols on wet clay. Because the stylus left lines and wedge-shaped marks, Sumerian writing is known as cuneiform, a term that comes from two Latin words meaning ‘wedge-shaped.'” The use of cuneiform lasted into the AD centuries, but it was largely replaced by Greek in the 4th century B.C.


Akkadian Cuneiform

After cuneiform evolved enough to convey abstract ideas, legends, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, became accessible to literate scholars, and it is the best known piece of Mesopotamian literature available. The stories explore themes of friendship, loyalty, ambition, the relationship between the gods and human, and the meaning of life and death. The influence of the old Sumerian legend was so grand that it comes down to us, not from Sumerian or Babylonian sites, but Assyrian ones.

Literacy was essential only for vocational purposes, usually for those pursuing careers in government or for professionals, such as physicians or priests. The common people were almost never literate, as learning a difficult language like cuneiform was time-consuming. As language developed, it lead to the expansion of knowledge. Mesopotamian astronomers dedicated themselves to study the cosmos, helping the to prepare accurate calendars, which are essential for any prospering agricultural society. According to Traditions & Encounters, “Some Mesopotamian conventions persist to the present day: Mesopotamian scientists divided the year into twelve months, for example, and they divided the hours of the day into sixty minutes, each composed of sixty seconds.”

In my next post, I will examine broader ancient Near Eastern societies, focusing firstly on the early Hebrews.


** Semitic groups, Akkadians, Hebrews, and Phoenicians traveled to Sumer an integrated with their advanced society.

** Between 3200 B.C. – 2350 B.C., Eridu, Ur, Uruk, Lagash, Nippur, Kish, and others dominated Mesopotamia. These cities established themselves as polities by necessity — in order to defend against external pressure and exert influence over their surrounding areas.

** By 2500 B.C., the cities of Assur and Nineveh had been established, both of which exist to this day in Northern Iraq.

** “The greater part of <Hammurabi’s Code> remained in force, even through the Persian, Greek and Parthian conquests, which affected private life in Babylonia very little, and it survived to influence Syro-Roman and later Mahommedan law in Mesopotamia.” By the Rev. Claude Hermann Walter Johns, M.A. Litt.D., from the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-1911.

** King Assurbanipal coined himself “king of the universe.”


Bentley, Jerry H., and Herbert F. Ziegler. Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2008.

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