Chapter 5: The Bronze Age Near East


As noted in the previous chapter around 5000 BC, sustained agricultural settlement arose globally, particularly in broad flat river valleys where large scale irrigation projects were possible. Following the invention of technologies such as ceramics, weaving, and textile production (the mastery of all of which occurred by ca. 6500 BC), metallurgists in the region of Mesopotamia generated bronze tools around 3500 BC. Bronze is achieved through the mixture of small amounts of copper, tin, arsenic, and other metals with low firing temperatures to form a brittle but hardened metal capable of holding its edge. The molten metal could be poured into open or closed molds to make tools and weapons, or simply hammered into sheets for later processing. The invention of bronze tools revolutionized laboring activities, most significantly, farming. This enabled settled agricultural communities to harness the rich alluvial soils and abundant water of river basins such as the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia. The ensuing era is known as the Bronze Age (3300-1100 BC), and the large urban societies that emerged in riverine environments at this time are often referred to as hydraulic civilizations. As opposed to dry farming techniques employed in the surrounding highlands, farmers settling in river valleys had the advantage of harnessing their water supply by trapping and storing floodwaters for sustained use in crop production. The inhabitants of Mesopotamia, for example, learned to conserve flood waters by opening networks of canals along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (approximately 50 km apart in central Iraq). The vestiges of these vast canal networks remain visible today in aerial and satellite photography.


Flooding in Mesopotamia tended to occur in two phases, the first was generated by winter rains in the distant mountains of Anatolia, the second phase came with the spring snow melt in the same highlands. Given the fact that the origins of flooding events lay far beyond the horizon of Mesopotamian settlements, the flooding appeared to the inhabitants to arrive violently and unpredictably. The natural topography of the river plains compounded the challenge – large meandering rivers tend to build up natural levies that gradually lift the level of the river above that of the surrounding flood plain. Early settlers learned to tap these levies to direct water onto neighboring lowlands. However, during surging floods the rivers themselves could breach the levies and forge new channels across farmland and settlements, causing extensive damage to man-made landscapes. Sudden adaptation to changing circumstances was necessary, therefore, and helps to explain the frequent relocation of settlements in Mesopotamia. Otherwise the climate had little to recommend. The land between the rivers presented itself as a hot, dry, mostly flat, seemingly barren stretch of desert. Natural resources such as stone, timber, or metals were nonexistent and needed to be imported from neighboring regions. Mesopotamia's chief natural resource, the deep layers of soil deposited by the rivers at the end of the Ice Age, served multiple purposes. By means of irrigation the earth furnished abundant food supplies. Through the adaptation of frame-formed, sun-dried mud bricks it furnished an essential construction material. And through its flat, open terrain it offered mobility - essentially an open highway - to assorted peoples who migrated into the region. In addition, the terrain beyond the river basin rose into low hills and valleys that furnished grazing land for herders who could supplement agricultural food production with abundant livestock. The inhabitants of Mesopotamia thus produced ample surpluses of food, principally grain, but a host of garden crops as well, enough to sustain an estimated population of 1-2 million people by Roman times. With temperatures attaining 140˚ F. during the summer months, the climate can best be described as daunting. Shade furnished by date palm trees, lush canal-fed gardens and mud brick domestic quarters, not to mention abundant food and water, made life bearable.


As we saw in Chapter One, the region of the Fertile Crescent functioned as a major crossroads for migratory peoples. By the time populations became sedentary a diverse array of human cultures coexisted (and competed) within its horizon. Dry farming techniques (those relying principally on rainfall) remained the norm in northern Mesopotamia and along the hillscape of the wider region of modern day Iraq, eastern Turkey, western Iran, and Syria. Crop yields tended to be lower in these regions making it necessary to cultivate larger areas to feed populations equivalent to those employing irrigation techniques in basins to the south. Numerous cultures took root along a wide arc extending from the Mediterranean coast to the Persian Gulf. In chronological order these were Hassuna Culture (6000-5500 BC), Samarra Culture (5600-5300 BC), and Halaf Culture (5500-4800 BC). Hassuna culture was characterized by small village enclaves of 100-200 inhabitants who resided in houses framed around central courtyards. Finds of Hassuna styled painted wares help to map the spread of this culture across northern Mesopotamia. Samarra culture displayed imported grave goods (turquoise, carnelian, copper); its inhabitants cultivated flax for clothing, produced olive oil for diet, fuel, and personal hygiene, and they experimented with irrigation techniques. They used sun-dried mud brick to build rectangular houses with buttressed walls, communal storage facilities that resemble later Mesopotamian temples, and earthen defenses. Halaf culture extended over a much wider area than either of the preceding cultures and attributes such as a return to circular houses suggest that it was imported by new comers to the region later known as Assyrians. Halaf people manufactured spectacular ceramic wares -- hard fired, finely turned, brightly painted, and intricately decorated with geometric patterns and designs. Since the distribution of these wares extended far beyond their region of production, the culture clearly attained levels of complexity necessary to accommodate professional potters and long-distance trade. In general the more dispersed rural populations of this region tended to generate secular rather than priestly hierarchies. Tribal chieftains and kings residing in fortified palaces came to dominate the urban landscape of northern Mesopotamia.


In the south where urban civilization would first emerge, geological evidence indicates that the sea level ceased to rise around 5000 BC, causing the mouths and estuaries of the great rivers to silt in. This impeded natural drainage and formed a large area of inland lagoons and marshes. As the climate became drier, communities adapted to small scale irrigation in areas where water tables were high. Crop yields rose dramatically. Mesopotamian texts dated to 2100 BC record yield to seed ratios of 30:1 and even 50:1. With the advent of bronze tools around 3500 BC, the labor intensive aspects of irrigation work became more manageable, stimulating the rise of urban settlements.


Archaeological investigation indicates that the process of urbanization in southern Mesopotamia began as early as 5800 BC, with several large centers of population arising by 4300 BC. Ubaid culture (c. 5500-3700 BC) in southern Mesopotamia was contemporary with Halaf culture in the north. Already by 4500 BC the settlement at Eridu is estimated to have accommodated 2000 to 4000 inhabitants. It is important to note that excavations at Ubaid sites such as Eridu have yet to reach the earliest levels of human occupation, raising the possibility that Ubaid culture actually predated those to the north. Ubaid settlements typically consisted of much larger villages (ca. 750 residents) whose inhabitants resided along the river banks in houses constructed of reed and mud brick. Unlike settlements in northern Mesopotamia, Ubaid settlements tended to cluster around religious complexes, temples with altars for burned offerings erected on raised mud brick platforms. Given the limited durability of unfired brick (which weather in about a century), these platforms had to be repeatedly refashioned. The remodeled complexes were typically built over the remains of earlier structures, gradually forming step-like raised platforms known as Ziggurat. At the Ubaid settlement of Eridu, for example, the ziggurat was rebuilt on the same location for more than 1000 years. Since these monuments assumed central positions in Ubaid settlements, they most probably functioned as regional ceremonial centers, organized and controlled by local hierarchies of priests. Early Sumerian texts demonstrate that many of these cities were ruled by priest kings known as ens. Many settlements also exhibited large centrally located storage facilities, suggesting that the priest kings controlled the community’s capacity for food storage and redistribution. Neighborhoods of socially stratified inhabitants (based on house size and the range of burial gifts) emerged around these complexes.


Ziggurat at Ur; Illustration by John Hill




By 4700 BC Ubaid culture expanded outward to replace Halaf culture in northern Mesopotamia, neighboring Iran, Arabia, and the Persian Gulf. By the so-called Early Dynastic Period of Sumer (3100-2700 BC), some 89% of the population of southern Mesopotamia lived in communities of 100 or more acres. According to survey investigations, between 4500 and 3000 BC the number of villages in southern Mesopotamia increased from 17 to 124, towns multiplied from 3 to 20; and small urban centers from 1 to 20. The population of Uruk attained an estimated population of 50,000 and several other cities grew to the range of 20-30,000. In addition to ziggurats their inhabitants constructed massive fortification walls for enhanced security. As cities grew they incorporated older villages and towns into urban-centered economic and political complexes, a process often referred to as an urban revolution. As urban settlement increasingly became the norm, it is essential to bear in mind the physical and social distinctions that emerged with the dry farming settlements to the north, not to mention those of nearby tribally organized pastoral groups that exploited the wastelands of the Mesopotamian desert to raise livestock. These last elements lived in close proximity to the emerging cities and traded their yields for tools and equipment. Mobile, highly autonomous pastoral populations, typically self-identified as tribes, remained a permanent fixture on the Near Eastern landscape. Other scattered populations cut timber and quarried rock and metal ores in neighboring mountains such as the Tauros Mts. in southern Anatolia and the Zagros Mts. in Iran. To the east of Sumer Elamite civilization (to be discussed below) emerged at Anshan and Susa, exhibiting the same urban features as Sumer and exporting these to the highlands of the Iranian plateau. Still other populations in places later known as Dilmun (Bahrain) and Magan (Oman) maintained fishing settlements, smelted copper, and gradually invented means of maritime transportation along the shores of the Persian Gulf. Through their intermediacy Mesopotamian populations made contact with those in the Indus valley (Meluhha). As the wider regional distribution of Halaf and Ubaid pottery demonstrates, the production of food surpluses along the river basins stimulated ancillary activities over an extended radius. 


Historical Outline of Bronze Age Mesopotamia, 3300-1100 BC

Writing technology was achieved in Sumer by 3100 BC, enabling us to obtain a better grasp on developments and events. Although we will discuss the character of this technology below, for the moment a basic outline of Bronze Age history becomes essential. The array of Bronze Age chronological systems tends to bewilder the uninitiated. Their complexity largely arises from the fact that early archaeologists working locally throughout the Near East devised idiosyncratic dating systems without the benefit of coordination. In addition, recent dendrochronological and astronomical evidence has indicated that the convention chronology for the Bronze Age Near East (what is now known as the Middle chronology) is off by about a century beginning in the second millennium BC. In broadest terms, scholars tend to characterize Bronze Age Near Eastern history in three phases: Early Bronze Age (3100-2100 BC), Middle Bronze Age (2100-1600), and Late Bronze Age (1600-1200). These approximate phases are of course subject to dispute, but they do tend to map a pattern of ebb and flow in the development of Bronze Age world-systems to be considered in the following pages.


CHRONOLOGY 2: Bronze Age World Chronology


Ø Early Bronze Age 3100-2100 BC

Ø Middle Bronze Age 2100-1600

Ø Late Bronze Age - 1600-1200 BC


Bronze Age Near Eastern Chronology


Ø Pre-Dynastic Sumer: Uruk Phase 3700-3300; Jemdet Nasr Phase 3300-3000

Ø [Early Bronze Age 3100-2200]

Ø Early Dynastic Sumer 3300-2300 BC (Death Pit at Ur, 2600 BC)

Ø Akkadia 2300-2150 (Sargon the Great, 2334-2279 BC, Naram-Sin 2190-2154)

Ø Climate flicker - Akkadian regional collapse 2150 (Collapse of Old Kingdom Egypt 2180)

Ø Third Dynasty of Ur 2119-1940

Ø Early Bronze Age Regional Collapse ca. 1940-1750

Ø [Middle Bronze Age 2100-1600]

Ø Rise of Assyria, Babylonia, and Mari ca. 1800

Ø Hammurabi's Babylonia ca. 1792-1750 (dynasty lasted until 1590)

Ø Middle Bronze Age Regional Collapse ca. 1600-1500; More Invasions, Hurrians, Kassites, Mitanni (Indo-Europeans) (Collapse of Egyptian Middle Kingdom, ca. 1720; Hyksos Invasions) Minoan destruction c. 1600)

Ø [Late Bronze Age 1600-1200 BC]

Ø Competing Territorial States, Mitanni (1600-1400), Assyria (1800-through end of Bronze Age) and Kassite Babylonia (1600-1200), New Kingdom Hittite Empire (ca. 1400-1100), New Kingdom Egypt (1550-1070), the Mycenaeans (1600-1200 BC)

Ø Collapse of Late Bronze Age world system ca. 1200-1000 BC


During the Early Bronze Age the chief cultural unit in Mesopotamia was the independent, autonomous city state with its surrounding hinterland of irrigated agricultural terrain. As many as twenty of these existed in southern Mesopotamia by the Early Dynastic Period (3300-2300 BC). However, written sources such as the Sumerian Kings List (ca. 1900 BC) indicate that by the 2700 BC neighboring city states in Sumer were increasingly embroiled in conflict. Within each Sumerian city a military leader known as a lugal supplanted the en and essentially eliminated any prior distinction between secular and religious authority. Competition and military rivalry among city states gradually forced inhabitants to accept the hegemonial authority of individual lugals over increasingly larger territory. This authority was rationalized in the Kings List as a process of divine selection -- only one divinely legitimized ruler could exist at a time, and the selection was restricted to a handful of ruling houses. The result was a gradual development of extraterritorial states or empires. Although the early parts of the Sumerian Kings List were plainly legendary (with reigns of kings extending hundreds if not thousands of years), the accuracy of later parts of the list are corroborated by externally dated texts. By 2700 BC, for example, Lugal Emmerbaragesi of the city of Kish overwhelmed his neighbors to establish a wider hegemony. His example was followed by Lugal Gilgamesh of Uruk (ca. 2500 BC), Lugal Mesannepadda of Ur (ca. 2600), Lugal Eannatum of Lagash (2450-2360), and Lugal Zagesi of Umma (2360-2350). As regional authorities the lugals continued to recognize the legitimacy of neighboring communities and to respect the authority of associated patron deities. Despite remaining a militarily insignificant community, for example, the priests of Nippur enjoyed inordinate status due to the importance of the town’s patron deity, the chief god of the Sumerian pantheon, Enlil. The priests used this authority to demand and to obtain regional contributions to support the cult of Enlil and on occasion to mediate boundary disputes between neighboring states. By extension they maintained the right to anoint, and thus to legitimize a regional lugal. Successful kings such as Sargon of Akkad (2334-2279 BC) responded to these circumstances by designating relatives to preside over the cult of Enlil as well as those of other Sumerian patron deities.


The architecture for Mesopotamian hegemony was first crafted by this last mentioned king, Sargon of Akkad, who rose allegedly from humble origins to assume the office of royal cupbearer to the king of Kish. He then usurped the throne, defeated neighboring rivals, and claimed authority throughout Sumer. He built a new capital for himself at Akkad, believed to lie beneath the modern city of Baghdad. After defeating the Elamite king of Anshan (and establishing a provincial headquarters at Susa), he marched northward along the Euphrates, conquering other important settlements such as Mari and Ebla and pushing all the way to the Tauros Mts. Sargon exerted forceful control over subject populations, demolishing the defenses of rebellious communities, removing and replacing local kings with personally appointed governors (who received the title of ensi). He appointed relatives such as his daughter Enheduanna (2285-2250 BC) to important priesthoods throughout the realm. Outside Sumer he enslaved conquered populations and expropriated their lands. He forcibly relocating prisoners to work areas in distant regions of the empire and distributed land allotments to warriors recruited from unruly pastoral elements. One inscribed document records that he dined regularly with 5400 such retainers. He extended trade lines from the Mediterranean in the west to the Indus and the Oxus valleys in the east, opening up exchanges of bitumen, agricultural produce, and textiles for gold, silver, copper, lead, stone, timber, spices, and resins. The Akkadian dynasty had its ups and downs; both Sargon and his successor had to suppress coordinated rebellions. His grandson Naram Sin (2190-2154 BC) eventually reasserted Akkadian supremacy throughout the region and assumed divine status, boasting that his rule extended to the "four corners of the earth.” The Akkadian dynasty thus established a model for Near Eastern empire building that would be imitated for centuries.




Head of an Akkadian ruler, from Nineveh (modern Kuyunjik), Iraq, ca. 2250-2200 BC; Copper, 1’ 2 3/8” high; Iraq Museum, Baghdad


Shortly thereafter, the Akkadian Empire collapsed and along with it the trade links of the wider world system. Contemporary sources blamed this on the invasion of a migrating people called the Gutians who probably originated in the Zagros Mts.; however, the extent of the disturbances appears to have been much wider and far more significant. Not all constituent societies were affected in the same manner or at the same time. In Sumer a hierarchy known as the Third Dynasty of Ur (2119-1940 BC) was able to flourish for at least another century, commanded by two notable kings, Ur Nammu (ca. 2047-2030 BC) and Shulgi (2029-1982 BC). However, this too collapsed amid crushing conflicts with the Elamites and with semi-pastoral elements known as the Amorites. The last king of Ur actually attempted to construct a defensive line of fortifications between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers to stem the tide of these intruders. The Semitic Amorites seem either to have migrated into Mesopotamia around 2000 BC -- driven by disturbed conditions elsewhere -- or to have dwelled there all along. Regardless, they were now becoming increasingly troublesome. Bronze Age societal collapse also occurred at this time (ca. 1900 BC) in the Indus Valley (Harappan Civilization), suggesting that this too was somehow connected to the overall pattern. Likewise, a sustained thousand-year era of stability in Old Kingdom Egypt came to a close (2100 BC) amid reports of lowered river volume and famine in the Nile Valley. Settlements in Palestine and the Negev likewise exhibit evidence of destruction ca. 2200 BC, followed by abandonment for nearly two centuries. Even agro-pastoral peoples beyond the immediate horizon of the Near East appear to have been set in motion at this time. Indo-Europeans dwelling in the steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas migrated into Greece ca. 2200-2000 BC (where evidence of destruction is less significant but material contexts show dramatic changes), as well as into Anatolia (where survey data indicates a 75% decline in settlement occupation) and the Caucasus. Culturally related Indo-Iranians or Aryans migrated from the same region into Central Asia (where they possibly conveyed their agro-pastoral lifestyle to the Oxus River civilization ca. 2200-1700 BC), the Iranian plateau, and the Indus Valley (arriving by 1700 BC). Another element known as the Hurrians moved from the highlands of eastern Anatolia (modern day Armenia) into northern Mesopotamia to play an influential role in the following era. A combination of accumulating textual and archaeological evidence demonstrates, accordingly, that something dramatic, if not transformative, occurred at the close of the Early Bronze Age.


Many researchers associate the occurrence of so many contemporary disturbances at the end of the Early Bronze Age with a prolonged period of climate change that appears to have induced widespread and sustained phases of drought ca. 2200 to 1900 BC. Geological and textual data for this has accumulated throughout the region. Sediment cores reveal evidence of low water tables in regional rivers (the Tigris, Euphrates, Nile) ca. 2100-2000 BC, and similar soil samples obtained in Oman exhibit significant concentrations of windborne silt originating from Mesopotamia ca. 2000 BC. Since surviving Sumerian texts record evidence of skyrocketing grain prices, the extreme drought conditions potentially impacted agricultural yields even in the irrigated lowlands. Failing food production throughout the affected regions possibly induced famines, disrupted trade lines, and set fringe populations into motion. In this regard the chaos provoked by the movement of severely affected inhabitants of dry-farming and pastoral terrain along the margins of Mesopotamia to the irrigated fields of the river basins may account for the widespread rebellions that weakened the Akkadian empire. Regardless of the validity of the climatological explanation, the general pattern of gradually expanding interconnectivity visible in the Near East during the third millennium BC came to a halt. When urban societies reemerged shortly afterward, their complexion was dramatically altered in most if not all affected regions.


During the Middle Bronze Age (2100-1600 BC) the earlier urban states of Sumer remained core repositories of religious authority, agriculture, craft production, and knowledge, but political authority gravitated increasingly toward emerging polities in central and northern Mesopotamia such as Babylonia (ca. 1700), Assyria (ca. 1800), and Mari (ca. 1800) as well as to the powerful regional polities of Elam (Susa and Anshan) to the east. Amorite warrior chieftains assumed control of numerous communities throughout the region, including Sumer. Several of these emerged as kings of comparably sized states to compete for regional domination. Despite their pastoral origins these dynasties assimilated the prevailing urban attributes of the region and became indistinguishable from their Sumerian neighbors, even as additional non-sedentary peoples, such as the Hurrians and Kassites (from the Zagros Mts.), infiltrated the basin. In general, states were larger in this era and incorporated numerous villages and city states within their territories. Hammurabi (1792 - 1750 BC), the king of a small and previously unimportant city of Babylon, ultimately defeated his rivals to impose a brief tenure of world order comparable to that of Akkad and Ur III during the previous era. We will discuss the significance of Hammurabi’s celebrated law code below. Although Hammurabi’s dynasty persisted for 150 years, its control of the region proved tenuous and his empire began to unravel following the death of his son Samsu-iluna (1686-1648 BC). Simultaneously, emerging powers just beyond the horizon began to target the stored riches and resources of Mesopotamia by marauding the region with devastating effect. The Hittite King Mursilis I (1620-1590) invaded Mesopotamia from central Anatolia around 1600 BC, destroying Mari and neighboring polities in the north and sacking the capital of Babylon. His sizeable army was spearheaded by squadrons of horse chariots, an emerging technology from Central Asia that would revolutionize military tactics in the coming era. The consequences of this momentary razzia ushered in a century of political confusion throughout the region.


Although the overall chronology of Middle Bronze Age developments remains disputed, the Hittite campaign in Mesopotamia is increasingly recognized as a second marker for system-wide societal collapse. Once again polities throughout the region underwent transformation as interregional connectivity subsided. The Hittite King Mursilis I returned to Anatolia in triumph only to be assassinated in a palace coup, thereby, plunging his realm into a century of political disturbance. These difficulties were compounded by evidence of a plague that his army contracted during the invasion. Hittite records indicate that the plague persisted in Anatolia for many decades. Similar reports of plague were recorded in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, leading to the suspicion that a regional pandemic possibly occurred. Meanwhile, political hierarchies collapsed throughout the region. For example, the Egyptian Middle Kingdom (2100-1750 BC), which had become increasingly engaged with neighboring communities along the eastern Mediterranean coast, relinquished control of its crucial delta region to an influx of Semitic peoples referred to as the Hyksos. For nearly two centuries Hyksos kings based at Avaris at the Nile Delta directed the flow of prestige goods in and out of the Nile basin, diminishing the power of native Egyptian hierarchies in Upper Egypt. Between 1700-1600 BC palace-based Bronze Age communities in Minoan Crete experienced a rash of cataclysms, some possibly the result of conflict, but others apparently induced by natural disasters such as a conjectured earthquake storm (a wave of successive earthquakes) followed by a powerful volcanic eruption at the nearby island of Thera. The latter event, carbon dated to 1600 BC, emitted four times the seismic energy of the eruption of Mt. Krakatoa in 1883 AD, the greatest known volcanic eruption of modern times. Although Minoan inhabitants survived this event and eventually restored their communities, the disturbances appear to have enabled neighboring Mycenaean hierarchies on the Greek mainland to supplant Minoan influence throughout the Aegean. In a similar manner following the sack of Babylon, Hurrian warrior elites, many of them bearing Indo-European names, filled the vacuum created by the Hittite invasion in 1600, along with the Assyrians and the Kassites, the last of whom seized control of Babylon. As the Mitanni, the Assyrians, and the Kassites, these hierarchies would dominate Mesopotamia and become recognized parties of the international ruling order that controlled the Near East during the era of the Late Bronze Age.


Several additional features about the Middle Bronze Age appear noteworthy. First, the chronology of the Middle Bronze Age was shorter than the Early Bronze Age (approximately 500 years as opposed to 1000), as was its duration of collapse, depending on the region. In this instance apart from the eruption of Thera there is no significant evidence that climate change induced system-wide collapse. Instead, societal ebb and flow during the Middle Bronze Age appear to have resulted more directly from anthropogenic forces. Second, the era could more accurately be described as one dominated by regional polities – Assyria, Mari, Babylon, Sealand, Elam, Minoan Crete, Mycenaean Greece, Hittite Anatolia, Canaan, and Egypt – as opposed to city-states or larger empires like Akkadia or Ur III, the brief hegemony of Babylon notwithstanding. Few rulers during the Middle Bronze Age presumed to refer to themselves as god kings, as Naram Sin and the Pharaohs of Old Kingdom Egypt had done during the previous era. Expectations seem to have been substantially lowered. Third, the flow of communications during the Middle Bronze Age appears to have shifted away from the Persian Gulf and toward the basin of the Mediterranean Sea. Prestige goods undoubtedly continued to flow along the first mentioned water way, but major polities such as Harappan civilization in the Indus Valley collapsed by 1900 BC, leaving the political lines of material transfers more difficult to follow. In the eastern Mediterranean basin, meanwhile, the royal dynasties in Middle Kingdom Egypt became actively engaged with neighboring communities, trading surplus resources from the Nile for timber, wine, and oil from Canaanite cities such as Byblos and Ugarit. With the advent of sea-going cargo ships in this era urban societies in Cyprus, Cilicia, and Crete began to ship resources to the Near East in increasing volumes, with the result again that older societies increasingly looked westward for staple and exotic goods. In short, a much wider radius of urban states came into existence during the Middle Bronze Age, and the volume of extra-regional exchanges continued to expand. Instead of empire building the polities of the Middle Bronze Age appear to have concentrated on developing local resources, maximizing agricultural output, and expanding urban landscapes within their respective territories. Material transfers were secured more through negotiation and diplomacy than through outright conquest. Undoubtedly, the objective was to develop the means necessary to acquire foreign prestige goods and to compete militarily with neighboring powers, but these efforts, for the most part, proved transitory. At the same time, mobile foreign elements, such as the Hurrians, Indo-Europeans, Kassites, and Hyksos, simultaneously infiltrated the perimeters of developing principalities to pose significant military distractions. On the one hand, these new comers infused the established societies with additional laboring power and new technologies such as the horse chariot and the compound bow. On the other hand, they destabilized regional hierarchies by virtue of their growing and unruly presence. As a result, the Middle Bronze Age in the Near East resembled a transitory period in which newly developing cultures absorbed and assimilated the legacy of the previous era while expanding the dominant urban lifestyle of the region and harnessing the available resource capacity of their immediate vicinities. This dynamic grass-roots investment ultimately laid the foundation for the powerful and more sustainable civilizations that would emerge during the Late Bronze Age (1600-1200 BC).


The Late Bronze Age (1600-1200 BC) was characterized by a new, much broader, and more highly integrated network of world powers than in either of the previous two eras. Large imperial hegemonies such as the New Kingdom of Egypt, the Hittite Empire of Anatolia, the Mycenaean Civilization in the Aegean, and the Mitanni, Assyrian, and Kassite realms in Mesopotamia engaged in close economic and political communication throughout the period. The hierarchies of these empires displayed a remarkable degree of diplomatic correspondence, crucial vestiges of which survive. In each principality, royal chancelleries administered a constant flow of messages with their counterparts abroad, typically in Akkadian cuneiform. Trade between these realms was significant and likewise directed by royal bureaucracies. Treaty relations and marriage alliances between dynasties were commonplace, as rival powers attempted to forge alliances, intimidate neighbors, and achieve a balance of power. Since displays of force were likewise necessary to secure territory and to assert boundaries, the primary expenditure of each competing hierarchy went to the military. Rival kings conducted repeated military campaigns with sizeable armies spearheaded by squadrons of horse chariots. Each king attempted to expand his territory by picking off the border states of his neighbors. These exercises culminated in the greatest military event of the era, the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC, between the forces of the Hittite King Muwatallis II and King Ramses II of New Kingdom Egypt. Some 40,000 chariots and 80,000 infantry reportedly fought to a standstill on the plains of western Syria during this clash. The Late Bronze Age world system persisted until approximately 1200-1100 BC when widespread, even catastrophic collapse affected the entire region, from the Greek mainland to Egypt, Anatolia, Canaan, Syria, Mesopotamia, and beyond. The records of this era and the events, the societies, and the personages they record are so detailed that they warrant particular attention in the chapters that follow. In the meantime, a number of details presented above require explanation, including the cultural attributes of Early and Middle Bronze Age societies, the nature of early written records, the economic and social organization of Near Eastern societies in general, and the status of their inhabitants, especially women.


The Cultural Attributes of Ancient Mesopotamian Populations

The historical outline presented above raises a number of issues that require sorting out. First, we need to identify as best we can the cultural distinctions that separated the Sumerians from neighboring peoples such as the Elamites, the Akkadians, the Assyrians, the Amorites, the Hurrians, the Gutians, and the Kassites. To do this, one must inevitably resort to language distinctions, at least insofar as they are used to identify cultural heritage. Invariably when investigating early historical societies scholars rely on linguistic tools. It is important to recall that culture remains an artificial construct, slowly developed through human experience and preserved through recursive memory. People of different ethnic or racial backgrounds can be taught to speak the same language. One must avoid confusing culture and ethnicity in what follows.




We owe our understanding of the cuneiform script to Sir Henry Rawlinson, a British diplomat and classicist who carefully recorded three inscribed texts of the royal inscription of king Darius I of Persia at Behistun in 1838. The accomplishments or Res Gestae of the Persian emperor, Darius i were inscribed  in three languages; in Babylonian (Akkadian), old Persian, and Elamite, below a relief portraying the king paying homage to the Iranian deity Ahura Mazda. The relief and inscriptions were recorded on a cliff face of a large mountain at the gate to one of the passes leading from Mesopotamia into Iran. At considerable risk to his own person Sir Henry Rawlinson allegedly scaled the face of the cliff using rope and planks to carefully transcribe the inscribed texts. Rawlinson and others were able to use the knowledge of Persian Sanskrit to decipher the cuneiform version of the text.


Cuneiform Writing Technology

Although the precise origins of the Sumerians remain uncertain, they were the first to develop an urban civilization complete with a written language. The Sumerians devised a system of writing based on wedge-like characters that were impressed on clay tablets with a reed stylus. Hence, the Latin, cuneiform, "wedge-like characters." These were inscribed on a number of writing implements, including clay tablets, cylinder seals, and bullae (stamped lumps of clay used to seal documents). The earliest known written texts were found in Uruk and date to ca. 3600-3500 BC. They amount to little more than temple inventories detailing the assets, the labor force, and the stored resources at the disposal of a priestly establishment. Temple priests attempted to catalogue these resources using pictographic representations of items such as sheep or measures of grain. Eventually they were able to create shorthand symbols representing the same. From these pictographic characters early chroniclers came to the realization that the symbol for something such as the human foot could also be used as a measurement or for the action of "walking” itself, and hence, that written characters could assume more flexible, abstract functions as ideograms (signs used to represent ideas). In addition, some symbols came to represent the sounds of words or the ideas they represented. Cuneiform symbols thus became syllabic and could be used to write any word in the spoken language, including many words that were impossible to convey through pictures. As a spoken language Sumerian was well suited for the development of syllabic writing because it consisted largely of monosyllabic words and contained many homophones (words having the same sound but different meanings). To avoid confusion scribes added signs called determinatives to distinguish between similar sounding words. Eventually hundreds of such characters were devised rendering Sumerian cuneiform a difficult, highly complex writing technology that required years of training to master. By 2500 BC most Sumerian cities supported schools knows as edubba, or tablet houses, to train scribes and officials. Although the day-long regimen of studies was demanding and punctuated by instances of corporal punishment, the graduates of these schools rose to become government officials, military officers, sea captains, public works supervisors, construction foremen, accountants, scribes, and other professionals. The edubba thus facilitated the recursive memory of Sumerian civilization, inventing new systems of learning and culture while preserving and disseminating the knowledge and traditions of the past. Due to its complexity cuneiform remained the exclusive property of a limited elite, such as the priestly authorities mentioned above, and the scribal elements that supported these hierarchies. Most rulers probably could not read or write cuneiform, for example.


Cuneiform was one of several competing writing systems to develop in the Early Bronze Age, but it gradually acquired the most practitioners and thus attained regional ascendancy. The presence of competing writing systems reminds us, however, that Mesopotamia was inhabited by a diverse variety of cultures. Most language cultures recorded in Mesopotamia were present by the end of the Pleistocene era, including several such as Subarian, Gutean, Hurrian, and Kassite that appear to have been autochthonous (that is, native to the region as opposed to having arrived from without). Others (Sumerian, Semitic, and Indo-European) appear to have originated elsewhere. The capacity of Mesopotamian resources to sustain expanding populations appears to have attracted a diverse yet blended population by the Early Bronze Age. Despite speaking multiple languages the inhabitants of Sumerian cities appear to have ceased to identify themselves according to tribal or cultural origins. Sargon of Akkad (2334-2279 BC), for example, was a Semitic speaker but a resident of Sumerian Kish. Although his father was allegedly a commoner, his mother was a temple priestess. Hence, the family was fully integrated in Sumerian culture. As Semitic speaking rulers like Sargon assumed control of urban hierarchies, they adapted cuneiform script to their own spoken language, known today as Akkadian. To do this, scribes added phonetic signs behind Sumerian ideograms to indicate that the symbol in question was meant to be read as an Akkadian word instead of the original Sumerian. The success of the Akkadian empire, with its implementation of governors and hierarchies in conquered cities, essentially imposed the Sumero-Akkadian script as the international language of the region. Its use was adapted by the Elamites to the east and the Hurians and Assyrians to the north. Assyrian traders likewise conveyed the script to their trading colony at Kanesh in southeastern Anatolia, and thus to the Hittites. Widespread usage led to greater efficiencies, such as the increasing tendency to employ cuneiform symbols phonetically. Inscribed tablets became flatter and more rectangular and the entire appearance of the script gradually improved. Akkadian script remained the primary written language, or lingua franca, of the Ancient Near East for centuries, and was used until the collapse of the Persian Empire (330 BC). (The last known recorded cuneiform tablet is dated to the first century AD.) Making things more complicated still, Indo-European and other elements in the region such as the Mitanni, the Luwians, and the Hittites likewise adapted Akkadian cuneiform to their spoken languages, adding yet another layer of complexity and diversity to the resulting script. Despite its modern status as a dead language, in other words, cuneiform enjoyed long and widespread use for nearly 3000 years in the Ancient Near East. We owe our understanding of cuneiform to Sir Henry Rawlinson, a British officer and classicist who carefully recorded the inscribed text of the royal inscription of King Darius I of Persia at Behistun in 1838. The text was inscribed in three languages: Old Persian (Avestan), Elamite, and Babylonian-Akkadian. Rawlinson and others were able to use their knowledge of Old Persian to decipher the cuneiform versions of the text.


Ancient Near Eastern Language Families

From surviving texts linguists have determined that Sumerian was an agglutinative language of a class more commonly encountered in northern Central Asia, namely, among the sub families of the Altaic language family, such as Turkish and Mongolian. As such Sumerian language would not appear to have been native to the region of Mesopotamia. The texts themselves seem to confirm as much by insisting that the Sumerians arrived in Mesopotamia from across the sea. If they did migrate to the region from afar they did so by the end of the Pleistocene era. This in turn raises the questions which languages were 'native' to the Ancient Near East and what do they tell us about the origins of various ancient Near Eastern peoples? Theories based on historical linguistics are highly speculative, to be sure, and the information they bring to the history of the Ancient Near East must be utilized with caution. Today more than 5000 languages are spoken worldwide. Linguists who tend to “lump” languages together argue that all spoken languages arose from common root languages that lend themselves to reconstruction. According to this line of reasoning, all existing languages descend from some nineteen original language families. Moreover, at the foundation of each language family was an original proto-language that was spoken by a small isolated population living in a specific place during prehistoric antiquity. Adding to the complexity of this question is the fact that several languages once written in the Ancient Near East and its vicinity are today dead languages, including Akkadian, Assyrian, Hurrian, Kassite, and Hittite, mentioned earlier. Civilizations that preserved written records of themselves furnish us with insight to their cultural attributes undeniably in far greater detail than those obtainable solely from material remains. This is why investigators place so much emphasis on the language properties of early historical peoples.


As we noted, some of the language families present in Mesopotamia during the Bronze Age appear to have been native to the region. Subarian, Hurian, for example, are believed to have originated in the mountains of eastern Anatolia (modern day Armenia); whereas, Gutian, and Kassite possibly emerged from the Zagros Mts. to the east (modern day Iran). Although their prevalence and influence on neighboring language cultures during the Bronze Age was significant, like Sumerian they failed to endure to modern times. Three language groups that did survive were Semitic, Indo-European, and Elamitic (Dravidian). Each of these will be considered in turn.


Semitic languages represent the largest sub family of the Afro-Asiatic family of languages spoken throughout the Middle East and northern Africa. Ancient Semitic languages included Akkadian, Babylonian, Ugaritic, Canaanite, Phoenician, Hebrew, Moabite, Aramaic, and Nabataean, from which arose modern Arabic, Hebrew, Ethiopic, and Amharic. As one scholar has observed, Semitic language speakers have furnished us with the Old Testament (Hebrew), the New Testament (Aramaic) and the Koran (Arabic). Afro-Asiatic languages are believed to have descended from a single language originally spoken in a narrowly conscribed region. The question remains where. One theory posits that Semitic languages descend from the language spoken by the Natufians in Israel and that they spread out across the region in conjunction with the diffusion of Natufian agricultural technology. Another points to the Red Sea shore, where highland rainfall along the arid Red Sea coast presented humans with an extremely fragile habitat. Excess population may repeatedly have surpassed the limited carrying capacity of this region, inducing out migration. This may explain the recurring pattern of migration among Semitic peoples not only toward Mesopotamia, as we have seen, but also into the Nile delta of Egypt (the Hyksos, on which see below). Historical linguists who have examined the root words of Semitic languages suggest that the Proto Afro-Asiatic language was older than neighboring Proto Indo-European. They have observed, for example, that ancient Semitic languages contain fewer words for domesticated plants and animals and appear to predate agriculture itself. Other cultural attributes ascribed to Semitic peoples include prohibitions against eating pork and the tendency to revere individual warrior deities who protect the migrations of specific pastoral communities. The problem with assigning cultural attributes such as these to ancient peoples based solely on language affinities seems evident. Usually by the time a given population attained literacy, it had assimilated broad ranging belief systems from neighboring peoples. For example, by the time we possess written testimony nearly all known Ancient Near Eastern peoples worshiped pantheons of gods and tended to designate one such deity as a patron. The patron deities of Sumerian city states furnish an obvious example, particularly the heightened importance placed by all Sumerian inhabitants on the cult of the storm god, Enlil, at Nippur. Another problem lies in the tendency to confuse language heritage with ethnicity. As with all cultural attributes Semitic languages, particularly Akkadian, were borrowed and / or assimilated by people bearing non Semitic ethnic backgrounds, such as the Elamites, the Hurrians, the Luwians, and the Hittites. To suggest that people who spoke the same language necessarily shared the same culture is logically unsound. Accordingly, it becomes dangerous to read into language heritage anything beyond what the languages themselves have to offer.


Elamite offers some alternative insights to cultural development in the Ancient Near East. Elamite was present in Khuzistan (western Iran) by the Jemdet Nasr Period (3300-3000 BC). Close contact with Ubaid and Uruk cultures in Mesopotamia led to the emergence of urban communities in the region of Anshan and Susa. These expanded into the Iranian plateau by a process either of colonization, conquest, or cultural diffusion. The language appears in cuneiform tablets found throughout the region. In the second millennium BC a powerful Elamite hegemony extended its authority from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf and eastward across the highland desert of Iran. Unlike the prevailing pattern of independent city states in Sumer, the Elamites relied on their extensive cultural horizon to collaborate as a wider hegemony centered around three separate polities -- Awan (later known as Susa), Shimashki (in a region north of the Susan plain) and Anshan (modern Fars in southwestern Iran). At different times each of these regions gained power over the wider federation and the capital shifted accordingly. The polities of Elam remained menacing to those in Mesopotamia, whose inhabitants depended on them, nonetheless, for natural resources such as timber, metals, and stone. The Elamites also used their extensive reach to dominate the overland trade routes to Afghanistan where valuable commodities such as lapis lazuli and tin could be obtained. Control of so many important resources insured them of an important place in Near Eastern history from the Bronze Age to the rise of the Persian Empire (539 BC). Notwithstanding this long Near Eastern heritage, linguists have suggested that Elamitic is most closely related to Dravidian languages that are more generally spoken today in southern India. Based on the location of ancient Elam along the southern flank of the Zagros Mts. in Iran (none too far from the Persian Gulf), some have suggested that Elamitic-Dravidian languages were once widespread along coastal lowlands from the Persian Gulf to India. According to this scenario Elamitic-Dravidian languages were spoken by inhabitants of these maritime lowlands of this region prior to the rise in sea level around 8000-5000 BC. This last event conceivably isolated these populations from one another. Another possibility is that the Elamitic-Dravidian language family expanded as population elements migrating eastward from an origin near Mesopotamia. Around 2000-1800 BC Elamite-Dravidian language speakers were then driven farther eastward and southward by northern invaders speaking Indo-European languages. Today, Dravidian languages, such as Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, and Telugu, are spoken principally in southern India and Sri Lanka.


Where Indo-European languages are concerned, scholars have known for centuries that most of the languages spoken across western Eurasia (from Britain to India) are derived from a common ancestral language known as proto Indo-European. Today Indo-European languages are spoken by more people on the planet than any comparable language family. Indo-European languages include Indic languages such as Hindi and Urdu, Iranian languages such as Farsi and Kurdish, Slavic languages such as Russian, Polish, and Serbo-Croatian, ancient and modern Greek, Latin and its derivative “romance" languages (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian), Germanic languages such as German, Norwegian and English, and Celtic languages such as Irish. Linguistic historians believe that these languages were all descended from a single language originally spoken by a small group of people, probably a few thousand, living somewhere in the vicinity of the Black or Caspian Seas. According to one theory around 4000 BC the proto Indo-Europeans lived along the northern shores of these bodies of water. According to another they originated from Anatolia proper, near Çatal Höyük, for example. Either way, around 2200-2000 BC these people began to radiate outward in various directions -- southward to the Balkans, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Iran and the Indus, northward to the Baltic and Scandinavia, westward to Europe and Britain, and eastward into Central Asia (the Tocharians). Based on the reconstructed proto Indo-European language, placing particular emphasis on the survival of commonly shared words and multiple words for the same things, investigators argue that Indo-Europeans raised cattle, grew crops, kept dogs as pets, used bows and arrows in battle, and worshiped a male god associated with the sky. Similarly, Indo-Europeans are presumed to be the first to have domesticated horses. Indo-European languages bear several related words for wool, for example, and an equally rich vocabulary for trees, indicating the likely importance of herding and wooded environments to their origins. Naturally, the reservations expressed earlier about Semitic language heritage apply equally as much to Indo-European. Notwithstanding the need for caution, from the Hurians, Kassites, Sumerians, the Elamites, the Semitic Akkadians and Babylonians, the Indo-Europeans (who show up in the hierarchy of the Mitanni), and still other peoples of unresolved origin, we obtain a fairly good idea not only of the points of origin of peoples who migrated into Mesopotamia, but also of their remarkable diversity.


Social Organization of Mesopotamian Communities

Along with the remains of ziggurats one of the most telling artifacts in the assemblages of Sumerian urban sites is the ubiquitous ration bowl, a hastily worked, gray ceramic bowl with an angled or beveled rim. These bowls were typically mold-made, of uniform size, and produced in large quantities. At some sites they represent more than 75% of the excavated pottery. Ration bowls were used to distribute food rations to members of large autonomous units known as households, making these the fundamental building blocks of the Sumerian urban revolution. In essence, households formed closed, self-contained and self-sustaining corporate entities. Early Sumerian households were organized hierarchically by members of the social elite (priests, kings, queens, nobles) but unlike modern notions of family, they incorporated potentially scores of unrelated people, including farmers, herders, artisans, and fishermen. By working together these large combines generated the necessary food and material to sustain the organization as a whole. Within each household personnel was hierarchically organized. Numerous male and female laborers existed at the bottom of the household and were rewarded for their labor with rations of barley, oil, and wood. Ration amounts varied accord to sex and status; male laborers typically received double rations, labor supervisors received greater portions than subordinates, specialized craftsmen more than unskilled laborers, and so forth. While many dependents lived separately with their families, others dwelled in institutional lodgings furnished for their particular element of the household. Widows, children, and the elderly likewise found shelter in these combines. Among the great families or in temple organizations the size of these households was sometimes prohibitive. In the Sumerian city of Shuruppak surviving registers record ration distributions of barley sufficient to feed a population of 20,000 for six months. Grain silos excavated at the site demonstrate a genuine capacity to store such large reserves. At the same time recorded ration distributions make clear that the amounts distributed were inadequate to maintain all household personnel throughout the year. Rations were never intended, in other words, to be sustainable; members of various households were expected apparently to find additional external means of support. This implies that supplementary activities, such as bartering, tenant farming, contact laboring, and other forms of profit outside the household were important to its maintenance. With the stable surpluses generated by these combines, household hierarchies were able to amass the wealth necessary to acquire prestige goods from abroad.


The emergence of households ultimately enabled limited elements of population not engaged in agricultural work to sustain themselves while pursuing alternative activities in crafts, accounting, the military, administration, and the priesthood. This becomes important for two reasons: first, it suggests that early urban societies evolved from redistributive patterns of economic behavior. Leadership cadres could assign the increasingly large and diverse household populations to laboring activities according to need, thus heightening efficiency and raising productivity. Economic and social principles necessary to sustain complex societies, including the division of labor into specialized occupational groups and the emergence of elites exempt from subsistence labor, arguably evolved in this manner. Second, these entities developed sufficient scale and complexity to sustain themselves corporately, that is, independent of family structure. This development marked a fundamental requirement in the process of state formation. In complex societies such as Mesopotamian city states, no one individual, family, or profession was crucial to the survival of the community. Lugals and ens could come and go, but the society was sufficiently well trained and staffed and its resources sufficiently abundant and organized to allow for the selection of replacements as life went on. In Mesopotamian city states cultural forms of identity, such as membership in a community’s priestly and royal hierarchies and its constituent households, gradually transcended the bonds of lineage based social formations (hunting bands, clans, or tribes). The ration bowl thus becomes a crucial bell weather for the development of urban states throughout the region; its remains are found not only in emerging city states in northern Mesopotamia and Syria, but also in Elamite settlements as far removed as the Caspian Sea.


Hammurabi's Law Code

The development of complex societies in Mesopotamia becomes clearer when we consider the contents of the inscribed Law Code of King Hammurabi of Babylon (1792 - 1750 BC). This was erected very late in his reign in the Sumerian temple of Shamash at Sippar. In this document we can see that despite the rise and fall of large territorial states such as the Akkadian empire and the Third Dynasty of Ur, Mesopotamian society still depended greatly on collectives and exhibited a relatively limited range of complexity. Before considering in greater detail what the law code reveals about status hierarchy in Babylonian society we need to assess briefly the code as a legal document. In structure Hammurabi's law code presents itself as a list of seemingly unrelated rulings of the kind that in some respects resemble U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Framed between a prologue and an epilogue are some 282 statements all structured on the same pattern, if…, then… There is no actual code in other words, but rather a list of settlements and punishments to be imposed depending on circumstances or the seriousness of the crime. Closer inspection of the code does seem to indicate, however, that the king's rulings are arranged according to types of offenses. It begins with a section addressing abuses by aristocratic legal authorities and progresses through abuses by military hierarchy, fraudulent aristocratic business dealings (again indicating that aristocratic abuses formed a large part of the problem), fraudulent contracts, issues of marriage disputes, divorce, widow and child support, crimes of passion, inheritance disputes, and it concludes with a list of punishments for acts of physical abuse and negligence. The organization of the code appears to contain bracketed rubrics of legal precedents that in some respects resemble classic Roman legal notions, namely, the laws of person, property, obligation, and actions.


Beyond this there is serious disagreement concerning the actual purpose of the code. Some have argued that the code represented Hammurabi’s attempt to resolve disputes that had arisen between the crown and elements of Babylonian hierarchy, others that it represented a selection of royal decisions to be made available as precedents, and still others that the code actually functioned as a textbook containing sample tractates on law to train bureaucrats aspiring to become judges and legal experts. Taking issue with this logic, many scholars have observed that the entries do not cover an adequate range of legal outcomes and exhibit a number of contradictions. This has led to yet another hypothesis that the stone was never really intended to furnish a functioning law code. Rather, its purpose was to serve as a memorial erected to glorify the king as an exemplary enforcer of justice. Instead of a list of legal precepts, in other words, the code served to demonstrate to the gods and the Babylonian people that the king had fulfilled his judicial responsibilities. In response to this point of view, others point specifically to a passage in the epilogue where the king states, Let the oppressed, who has a lawsuit, come before my image as king of righteousness. Let him read the inscription on my monument, and understand my precious words. Let my inscription throw light upon his case, and may he discover his rights, and let his heart be made glad… This seems to imply that the king had indeed intended that his code be made accessible for consultation. Moreover, a contract found at Ur appears to furnish actual proof as such, since it states that “the amount of wages for a hired worker is written on the stele…” The imperfect nature of the code and the uncertainty of its intended purpose need to be recognized, therefore, notwithstanding the value it holds for our understanding of social organization in Middle Bronze Age Mesopotamia. What is certain is that the process of legal formulation and compilation in Mesopotamia had been ongoing for centuries: fragments of Sumerian law codes predating that of Hammurabi survive and most probably furnished models for his code.


Hammurabi's Law Code (lex talionis)


Ancient law codes serve as useful barometers for the political health of societies undergoing transition from rural to urban lifestyles. The same pattern can be demonstrated for law codes recorded in Mesopotamia, Hittite Anatolia, Iron Age Israel, and archaic Greece and Rome. On the surface ancient law codes demonstrate the existence of a rigid social hierarchy, usually entailing brutal disregard for human rights. The codes typically reflect the dominance of a hierarchy based on autocratic or at best aristocratic rule. Falling back on the Latin expression, lex talionis, the law code of Hammurabi, for example, imposed legal punishments based entirely on one's status in the Babylonian society. If a noble destroyed the eye, broke the bone, or knocked out the tooth of another noble, according to the code, the victimized noble could legitimately obtain retribution by destroying the eye, breaking the bone, or knocking out the tooth of the perpetrator (196). In other words, justice was meted out according to the biblical dictum, "an eye for an eye." However, the law code goes on to assert that if a noble were to commit these same offenses against a "commoner,” he would pay one mina of silver for the damaged eye or broken bone, and 1/3 mina of silver for the damaged tooth. Were a noble to destroy the eye or break the bone of a slave belonging to another noble, that noble would pay one-third the monetary value of the slave.


To comprehend fully the significance of this logic, one must know that a mina represented a standard weight of precious metal such as gold or silver and was used as a medium of exchange. In essence, 60 mina equaled a talent (approximately 30 kg of silver), which was the largest weight standard used in transactions. In addition, a mina equaled 60 shekels, with a shekel (ca. 8 grams of silver) representing what was essentially a day's wage for everyday unskilled labor. A mina thus equaled approximately a third of a year's income and was no trifling amount. Notwithstanding the value of the imposed penalty, the fact remains that the punishment allowed for personal injury, as well as for various other offenses, was calibrated according to one's rank in Babylonian society. Aristocrats enjoyed higher status than ordinary citizens, whose status in turn ranked above that of slaves. Modern notions of equal rights before the law simply did not exist; moreover, ancient notions of status were based on arcane criteria such as aristocratic in-breeding. The importance of law codes as a progressive influence on society seemingly becomes lost in all this; yet, it remains a salient truth. Recording laws and rulings in written manner and exposing them in plain view made them accessible to the wider public and established them as benchmarks in all future deliberations.


Mesopotamian Social Status According to Hammurabi’s Law Code














Dependents and Slaves

Dependents and Slaves

Dependents and Slaves


What the law code tells us is that Babylonian society still very much relied on systems of dependence such as the Sumerian household, but that the expanding urban landscape and the development of extraterritorial states had induced significant societal dislocations with a growing tendency toward privatization and piecemeal contract labor. This created opportunities for some but placed far greater burdens on the majority. Below the monarch, whose powers were nearly unrestricted, the code distinguished Babylonian society according to three social orders (avoiding the modern expression of class with its anachronistic implications), the awelum or nobles, the mushkenum or commoners, and the wardum or slaves or dependents. While none of these elements was monolithic, in general we can identify the nobility as freeborn land-holding property elites, the commoners as those that enjoyed free status and some hold on property, and the slaves and dependents as serfs who tilled the lands of their superiors to furnish resources for everyone above.


The law code essentially demonstrates that the king enjoyed extremely close ties with his nobility and his army. Nobles enjoyed privileges of appointed positions of authority, such as commanders of the army, emissaries to foreign states, urban priesthoods, provincial governors, and administrators within the palace. They descended from wealthy landholding families typically related by blood or marriage to the royal family itself. Aristocrats enjoyed feudalistic relationships with the king, pledging him loyalty and service in exchange for offices, commissions, and gifts of land and wealth. As generations passed these resources became hereditary within specific aristocratic families, inevitably weakening the king's hold on his elite. Aristocrats remained privileged elements in all ancient societies and every urban society to be discussed in this book was dominated to a large degree by some form of local land-holding elite. Beneath the aristocracy but standing in similarly close relation to the king was the army. Individual soldiers tended to be commoners who pledged unquestioned loyalty and service to the king in exchange for allotments of land, assigned and monitored by the king’s bureaucracy. These land grants sustained the warrior and his family and enabled him to maintain his abilities as a professional soldier. In addition to the land the king might award the soldier laborers, slaves, and livestock to work the land. With respect to the land allotments the law code indicates that the king maintained firm control over land and its assets, including fields, orchards, domestic structures, and livestock. He prohibited their sale or lease under rigorous penalties. Precisely what happened to the royal land grant when a soldier passed away remains obscure; most likely the estate remained hereditary so long as the soldier's family was able to furnish recruits for the king's army. In one article the law code stipulates that the widow of a soldier be allowed to keep one third the estate for the purposes of raising the soldier's son. Soldiers formed the backbone of the king's power and authority, and the law code details at considerable length the kinds of abuses they endured: taken prisoner in battle and ransomed, missing in action for years on end, and forced to sell their property and livestock to corrupt officers to pay off debts. In every instance the king took measures to protect the soldier's interest and the king's own land allotments with decided firmness. In one article the king declared that a noble who purchased a soldier's livestock would forfeit his money and the animals; in another he decreed that the temple treasury of a captured solder's home town would be used to defray the cost of his ransom, “since the soldier's own field, orchard, and house may not be ceded for his ransom” (30). This demonstrates that the king not only viewed the soldier's land allotment as royal property, but also that he regarded the soldier's service as a civic burden to be borne by all subordinate institutions, including priestly hierarchies.


With respect to city councils, the law code demonstrates that the king delegated considerable authority and responsibility to this hierarchy insofar as the governance of the urban population was concerned. In the law code city councils were repeatedly commissioned the task of resolving judicial disputes, particularly the task of administering trials by ordeal, to be mentioned below. Contractual disputes, marriage and divorce disputes, and various offenses concerning women were assigned by the king to the adjudication of city councils. Even disputes involving nobles were sometimes adjudicated by the councils. The role of city councils was obviously pivotal to the maintenance of public order in various Mesopotamian cities within the empire. Nonetheless, the law code furnishes little concrete information about the council's composition. Since nobles themselves were subject to its authority, it stands to reason that the councils consisted of patriarchs representing the wealthiest noble families of each respective city. Membership in the councils was probably determined by election or cooption to municipal offices, such as judge, festival manager, or tax collector, after the tenure of which the ex-magistrate would enter the council for life. Whether or not the councils co-opted wealthy non aristocrats such as financiers and merchants remains an open question, but it stands to reason that the latter professionals undertook extensive dealings with the councils merely to conduct their business activities. Liquid assets were always in short supply in agricultural societies, and merchants possessing large quantities of capital typically loaned out resources in kind or in bullion at high rates of interest. Interest rates as high as 20% are specifically mentioned by the law code (88). Even the palace administration relied extensively on merchants to manage credit transactions related to long-distance trade and military logistics. The widespread reliance on such financiers and petty usurers could occasionally lead to debt crises and public disturbances. Although Hammurabi and other monarchs made a point of proclaiming that they successfully intervened to annul debts (and that they did so on more than one occasion), the very fact that they had to revisit the matter demonstrates the recurring tendency of merchants to gain the upper hand in these transactions. One needs to distinguish, in any event, between the local nobility that staffed the city councils of individual Mesopotamian cities and the aristocrats who served as courtiers for Hammurabi's wider empire. Imperial authorities enjoyed much greater status as will become apparent below.


Since the councils were charged with maintaining public order in their respective cities, they appear to have exercised extraordinary authority over the activities of the urban population. Two things that become evident from the law code in this regard are the rich array of professionals who worked in the city, and the heavy reliance placed on contracts in the conduct of their business. At the top of the heap of urban professionals the law code records the activities of merchants and traders, whose distinction becomes less apparent when rendered into English. Merchants are better translated as moneylenders or financiers, as noted above. Typically they were self made businessmen who began their careers as traders and toiled successfully to accumulate the necessary assets to lend at high rates of interest to traders, soldiers, and nobles. Much of the material loaned and returned represented trade in kind -- measures of grain, for example. The fact remains that merchants successfully transformed surplus wealth into metal bullion in order both to store it and to use it in commercial transactions.


Traders were more typically small scale businessmen who borrowed extensively from merchants to purchase commodities with which to traffic abroad through caravan trade. These were the professionals largely responsible for the actual conveyance of resources such as metals, stone, timber, spices, and resins. In addition to these two recurring professionals, the law code mentions a plethora of skilled laborers, including boatmen, ferrymen, builders, contractors, carpenters, hired cultivators, livestock branders, cattle herders, shepherds, wagoners, laborers, brick makers, weavers, seal cutters, jewel makers, smiths, leather and basket makers. Cities were places where the activities of skilled professionals typically occurred. According to the law code all dealings between these professionals required the completion of formally witnessed contracts.


The priestly castes of Babylonian cities operated at various levels depending on the importance of the cult. Religious administrators of the major cults were typically appointed by the king and enjoyed noble status, not to mention the benefit of a large household. They also employed an array of religious staff, including scribes, servants, hierodules, and nuns (naditu). Many of these last were aristocratic females assigned to the orders and sustained in part by their families. While their purpose appears to have been to perform religious observances in the interest of their families, at the same time they furnished noble houses with direct contacts and leverage inside the temple hierarchies. Much like the nobility the administrators of temple complexes owned significant landholdings that they rented out to tenant farmers or farmed directly through dependents and slaves. Temple hierarchies also borrowed extensively from merchants to fund trading ventures to acquire important religious materials such as incense, precious stones and metals, and building materials. Their household staffs also included skilled slaves and artisans to manufacture the necessary elements of cult.


Lower Orders in the Law Code

Typically skilled professionals, including merchants and traders, began their careers as slaves or were otherwise of low origin. They themselves purchased additional slaves to work as laborers. The matter of fact acceptance of slavery remains one of the least savory aspects of ancient societies. Slavery reflected the cold, harsh reality that humans were considered potential commodities in antiquity and were exploited for manifold purposes -- from use as skilled and unskilled labor to abuse as sexual objects. Investment in slaves reaped greater benefit depending on the skill set of the laborer. The most highly prized slaves were those who could earn significant profits for their masters, such as accountants, financiers, traders, jewelers, gem cutters, not to mention, teachers, artists, performers, philosophers, gourmet cooks, prostitutes, and undertakers. To hone these skills through apprenticeship represented an investment that was more safely rewarded within one’s household through ownership of the apprentice's labor rather than by contracting out for the same. As the Mesopotamian economy expanded, however, slave and dependent artisans were increasingly encouraged to find piecemeal employment outside the household. Skills led to profits and from early antiquity slave owners came to understand that more profit could be reaped from slave laborers by allowing them to keep some small portion of their earnings (in Latin, a peculium). Over the course of a career a skilled slave could expect to save a sufficient amount of capital eventually to purchase his or her freedom. Manumission was a common component to slavery in all ancient societies, some more than others as we shall see.


Slaves largely came from conquest in warfare. Whole populations were enslaved by victorious kings and their armies. Rural farming populations were probably the most vulnerable group since they could be easily rounded up during razzias (plundering expeditions). During sieges of cities, on the other hand, conquering armies tended to eliminate the male populations while enslaving females and children. Regardless of whether it occurred as large scale conquest like this or as small scale conflict between neighboring urban populations who captured prisoners and sold them to outside slave traders, warfare was the main source of slave labor in all eras. Other sources included debt-bondage and foundlings abandoned by mothers who lacked the wherewithal to raise them. In other words, slavery necessarily began under tragic circumstances. In the Babylonian era most slaves belonged to the elite households – the palace itself, the large households of noble families, or those of the priestly hierarchies, leaving most of the agricultural work to be done by freeborn farmers and dependents. However, a considerable portion of the laboring force of the Mesopotamian urban environment is likely to have consisted of slaves employed by merchants, financiers, and members of the city councils.


At the bottom of Babylonian society existed a vast, historically muted population of farmers. One estimate holds that half the population of ancient Babylon was represented by free farmers. Given the size of this element, it is disconcerting that we know so little about it. Presumably uneducated and illiterate they tended to represent elements of indigenous population that sustained the cosmopolitan hierarchies of their respective cities. In several instances during the Bronze Age victorious kings relocated whole populations of conquered cities and regions to build and populate newly founded cities in their home territories. Although they were not treated as slaves, they were assigned to land that remained the property of the king. Everything they needed to work the farm (livestock, seed, etc.) they received on credit, requiring that they perform additional tasks and obligations apart from taxes. One of the postulated reasons for the rapid collapse of the Assyrian empire in 612 BC, for example, was that the populations of its three capital cities, Assur, Nineveh, and Khorsabad, consisted largely of alienated inhabitants such as these. Later Hellenistic Greek sources would refer to the broad farming populations of the rural landscape somewhat generically as the laoi, a nameless, faceless population that tilled the land. This population appears to have worked incessantly in the fields not only to sustain their own immediate families but also to provide surpluses to social elements that stood above them -- soldiers, priests, merchants, nobles, and kings. Some significant portion of their yield was seized by the hierarchy in the form of rent, taxes, tribute, customary duties, and interest. Their interaction with the hierarchy varied greatly. In some polities neighborhoods of farmers were required to pool together resources to furnish one fully equipped warrior for military service with the king; in all eras farmers themselves were conscripted for brief periods of time (a lunar month) to engage in public building enterprises, something referred to as corvée labor. Unlike skilled slaves, we hear nothing about farmers growing rich and rising into higher social orders. Their role in society tended to be fixed and their places locked in or tied to the land. With little other recourse but to labor, pay taxes, and fulfill social obligations, one may legitimately wonder why this vast rural population so readily accepted its plight. Therein rests one of the cognitive dissonances that distinguish prevailing attitudes of the ancient world from those modern. Ancient farmers possessed what could best be described as a peasant mentality. They saw the land and its proceeds as a means to survival. Kings could come and go, cities could rise and fall, but so long as the farmer maintained control over his land, its crops, and its storage bins he could survive. In essence, farmers were tied to the land but enjoyed higher status than slaves. Barring warfare, they could not be bought and sold, nor could their land be taken away from them and given to someone else. Although we may perceive them as agricultural serfs, they might have argued that they and only they had the right to farm their particular land allotments. This gave them a certain degree of leverage over their societies, not to mention their own immediate futures. Urban hierarchies depended on the back-breaking efforts of these rural populations to sustain their communities. It was counterproductive ultimately to disturb their laboring activities other than through the implementation of measures intended to enhance agricultural output. In the Ancient Near East in particular farmers enjoyed the unique position of staying put, securely harnessing the land, enjoying the benefits of family and community while watching the better recorded elements of the social hierarchy pass by. As societies grew increasingly complex and empires came to control large swaths of distant rural terrain, the dislocation between the laoi of local farming communities and the ruling classes in distant urban centers became extreme.


The Status of Women in the Law Code

As one of the earliest recorded signposts for the status of women in antiquity, Hammurabi’s Law Code possesses unsurpassed value. To be sure, generalizations derived from this evidence carry obvious and significant risks. However, the data obtained from the law code is remarkably consistent with information furnished by external records not only in Bronze Age Mesopotamia but in other civilizations defined as traditional societies. In the interest of this textbook we need to establish a general working construct for the role of women in antiquity, or at least for the period of the Bronze Age, while acknowledging where possible its parallels in neighboring and / or later civilizations.


From a modern perspective the construct of women’s place in society was not a happy one. Much depended on social status, as we shall see. In Mesopotamia and elsewhere women enjoyed status best described as separate but parallel to that of men. Women did not serve in the military, nor did they engage in public life; as such, they lacked commensurate socio-political status. Contrastingly, women were recognized as the social agents most responsible for the reproduction of the family, the maintenance of household, and the longevity of society. At least among property-holding elements of society, therefore, respectable, freeborn, property-holding women were accorded enormous respect. For this reason their role could be viewed as parallel. In other respects, attitudes toward women could be described as patriarchal. The space they typically occupied in life and in work was rigorously segregated according to ancient notions of public and private, with a woman’s place located decidedly in the private sphere. Hence their world was separate. Therein lay the dichotomy of female status in most ancient societies: women were not regarded as equals, but they were recognized as crucial to the wellbeing of Babylonian society.


Respectable women were expected to maintain the household, to manage its daily tasks, to raise the children, and if necessary to tend to its agricultural work. Women were regarded somewhere between the status of a man’s property and his ward. As a child a woman lived under the protection of her father’s household. When she reached puberty she was transferred from the protection of her father to that of her husband through a marriage agreement. Marriages were arranged and the agreements were decidedly contractual, with women being exchanged as commodities. The husband typically paid a purchase price to acquire the bride and the woman’s family furnished a dowry to assist with the costs of forming a new household. In essence, the woman was sold to the husband to furnish him with children and to establish and maintain his household.  Before and after marriage a woman’s world was largely restricted to the domestic areas of the family dwelling. A respectable matron was also restricted by social norms from leaving the household unless modestly dressed (her person fully covered by clothing) and accompanied by chaperones. It needs to be reiterated that this description is based on the assumption that the woman was of freeborn status, raised by a respectable, property-holding family, and married according to all the necessary procedures and rituals. Otherwise, a woman’s treatment tended to be considerably worse and her exposure to potential physical abuse significantly greater. In other words, apart from the autonomy enjoyed by female members of the aristocracy, this description was about as good as it got.


Marxist theorists have argued that the subservient position of women in ancient society resulted from the changing lifestyle induced by the Neolithic Revolution. Prior to sedentism, it is theorized that women in mobile cultures enjoyed significantly greater status. With the advent of agriculture and stored wealth came notions of property. It is interesting to note, for example, that in ancient pastoral societies apart from immediate personal effects, property, including wives, was shared in common. This view became radically altered by agricultural existence. Farmers worked hard to produce surplus wealth. They altered the natural landscape by clearing and tilling land, they dug wells and built shelters for themselves, their families, and their livestock, and they constructed storage facilities to protect their harvests. In microcosm they created an artificially maintained landscape capable of sustaining human life in a predictable and reliable manner. Having invested so much energy in this enterprise, they worked to protect it and to hand on to their descendants. Accordingly, they came to regard the results of their labor as private property. The principal question remains why this notion came to have a deleterious impact on the status of women.


Within the household the predominant hierarchy was patriarchal. The oldest surviving male controlled everyone and everything within his domain. Any man who had successfully created and / or inherited a viable agricultural concern regarded all living and inert elements of the farm as his property, including the worked land itself, the stored grain, the farm implements, the farm animals, the slaves and servants, and even the members of his own family. The farmer determined the legitimacy of infants born to him (and could deny it). Through his power to determine the distribution of surplus, he acquired the absolute authority of life and death over everyone and everything in his possession. As a way of guaranteeing the permanent maintenance of his built environment, the farmer determined the marriage prospects of his children, not to mention the timing with which they would actually get married. More importantly, he determined the apportionment of wealth among his descendants. Usually this occurred in two phases. Each time a child was married a viable estate would be created to sustain the new family through an arrangement of dowry and purchase price between the two contracting families. On the death of the patriarchal head of the family, the remaining assets of the estate would be distributed among his widow and surviving children. This second phase of redistribution typically meant that children would become adults before they acquired financial independence. Particularly among wealthy aristocratic families, it was commonplace for adult married males with children of their own to exist on estates and subsidies awarded them by the eldest male of the household. The ability of elderly males to control the lives of adult children obviously provoked potentially significant friction and resentment within families. Younger generations of a given family might dutifully have to wait for the grandfather or even the great-grandfather to pass on before they could acquire inheritance and get on with their lives. The male patriarch was the dominant figure at the core of most ancient social structures. In the Indo-Iranian Vedic culture in early Iron Age India (northwest Pakistan), for example, the central importance of the husband was demonstrated by a custom known as Sati, where the wife immolated herself over her deceased husband’s remains. This ritual functioned simultaneously as a form of human sacrifice and as an acknowledgement by the dutiful wife that with the demise of her husband her own life had no further purpose.


We stress these examples as an indirect way to demonstrate the decided impact that the emergence of property had on human society and the possible reasons why the status of women experienced decline. As noted in the previous chapter, paleoethnobiologists have argued that the Neolithic Revolution possibly induced biological changes in female development. The existence of stored food and sedentary lifestyles possibly raised levels of female body fat sufficiently to generate an earlier onstage of puberty. It may even have altered human menstrual cycles from the seasonal pattern common to other mammals to the accelerated monthly pattern common to modern women. The ability of the female to procreate numerous children was valued as an asset by agricultural societies, particularly given extremely high rates of infant mortality. The tendency toward more frequent reproductive cycles was possibly enhanced as well by natural selection. Since women are physically most vulnerable during pregnancy and early child rearing, increased child bearing may have rendered them increasingly dependent, and hence subordinate, to men. Theories such as these remain controversial and hypothetical, to be sure, but they do seem to conform to the treatment of women as property as recorded in the earliest surviving texts. The tendency of early agricultural societies to view women as property to be sold by a father to a prospective husband (as arranged typically by the father of the groom) thus explains the uniquely separate character of female status.


Beyond this basic construct generalizations become more difficult because the range of a woman’s behavior depended significantly on her place in society. Those at the top of society, aristocrats and members of royal dynasties, enjoyed considerable freedom and opportunity because of their wealth, upbringing, and social status. The lives of those in the middle of society, free-born, property-holding families, were considerably constrained by norms of propriety, but their status was protected, nonetheless, and accorded respect. Those living at the bottom of society, impoverished women without the benefit of a family safety net, such as slaves and orphans, were treated terribly. Due to their lack of means they enjoyed greater freedom but only at the lowest possible thresholds of existence. Any number of variables could influence the outcome of a given female’s experience including family dynamics and her own unique talents and quality as a person.


Aristocratic women, for example, were valued for the worth they stood to inherit from their families as well as for the important roles they played in political marriages. Aristocratic families vied with one another to arrange worthwhile marriages for their children in order to position young males for highly competitive public careers in politics, the military, or religion. Aristocratic women were typically accorded some degree of education, therefore. There was no way to predict the inevitable dynamic that would emerge in such a household. Women with powerful personalities could potentially dominate both their households and their husbands, particularly if their own families enjoyed greater status. In one Babylonian text, for example, a father and son were locked in dispute over a field that was brought before the local magistrate. Despite the implication of unfilial behavior on the part of the son, the father refused to blame him. Instead, he accused the son’s wife and mother-in-law of having bewitched him. The son in turn responded that the father had been bewitched by his own sorceress, most probably an allusion to an existing step wife or a concubine. Aristocratic women were occasionally singled out as scapegoats in this manner or otherwise accused of unsavory behavior such as political intrigue, adultery, and even murder to achieve some dynastic advantage. Some experienced divorce (even repeated divorce) and used their divorced status to enhance their personal autonomy. However notorious or despised these “liberated” women appeared to wider society, their wealth and aristocratic status insured high social standing and the likelihood of continued desirability among men. In other words, despite the fact that the model of the respectable matron remained the norm in aristocratic society, individual females at this level of society enjoyed a considerably greater range of freedom.


Votive Disk of Enheduanna




Votive disk of Enheduanna, from Ur (modern Tell Muqayyar), Iraq, ca. 2300-2275 BC; Alabaster, diameter 10”; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia


Women of gifted intelligence often pursued intellectual careers. Female poets were recorded in all civilizations covered in this book. In Sumer, in particular, all love poetry was written in a feminine dialect called emesal, which presumably imitated the high-pitched voice associated with females. Female poets and composers of religious hymns likely played a role in its development. Enheduanna (2285-2250 BE), the daughter of King Sargon of Akkad, who was appointed head priestess of the Moon god Nanna (Sin) at Ur, composed ritual hymns, including the Exaltation of Inanna, that were recited for centuries. She left behind a corpus of literary works that are regarded today as one of the first attempts at a systematic theology. When we examine neighboring traditional civilizations, similar examples arise. In ancient India, for example, aristocratic females studied and wrote history, composed verse, taught mathematics, served as Jainist nuns and disciples, and instructed initiates in the Vedic mantras. Likewise, during the Han Dynasty of China two of the most renowned historians were Ban Zh’ao (Pan Ch’ao, AD 45-116) – whose brothers included a famous historian, Ban Gu (32-92 AD), and a famous general, Ban Zhao (Pan Chao), to be mentioned in a later chapter -- and Liu Xiang (79-8 BC) who wrote biographies of 125 important Chinese women. Both women arose from highly placed families in Chinese society. Female intellectuals, such as Enheduanna, Ban Zh’ao, and Liu Xiang, would appear to have been exceptions, particularly since there is little evidence of recursive institutions in ancient society specifically intended to insure the flow of female intellectuals over time. Typically, these women had to sacrifice the more typical expectations of their aristocratic upbringing to pursue intellectual careers. It is interesting to note, for example, that the most celebrated treatise written by Ban Zh’ao, Admonitions for Women, expressly reinforced the construct of female subordination to males furnished above.


Significantly greater status was accorded female members of ancient monarchies and imperial families, but this was offset by the tendency among these elites to employ polygamy or royal harems for political and diplomatic purposes. Not only was polygamy commonplace in royal households throughout the ancient world, but in addition to wives, kings tended to acquire numerous concubines, reportedly dozens, if not one for every day of the year, as symbols of royal wealth. King Solomon of Israel (ca. 970-931 BC) allegedly had 700 wives and 200 concubines. Allowing for obvious exaggeration in this instance, the evidence obtained from several Bronze Age Near Eastern dynasties does indicate a tendency for polygamy on a much smaller scale. Typically, the number of queens was quite small, two or three, with one invariably recognized as the main queen and the others typically referred to as minor wives. Most were native princesses possibly of the same royal family, many haled from leading aristocratic families of the realm, and still others were foreign princesses used in this manner for diplomatic purposes. Ramses II of New Kingdom Egypt (1279 – 1213 BC) had two principal wives; however, he acquired several additional wives during the course of his 66-year reign and boasted before his death at having sired more than 100 children (59 daughters, 79 sons). Where polygamy is concerned, the most informative example of any certainty is that of King Philip II of Macedonia (359-336 BC). Philip married seven women, all but two of whom were foreign nobles and princesses (Phila and Cleopatra were both Macedonian). As one ancient source (Athenaeus) observed, “Philip liked to marry a new wife with each new war he began.”


A queen’s influence was largely determined by her place within the harem, therefore, and the mother of the heir apparent typically enjoyed the highest status as the chief queen. Mesopotamian queens frequently possessed separate palaces, bureaucracies, and households, sometimes managed by powerful female officials. Several Near Eastern queens took advantage of the power vacuum created by the demise of their husbands to act as royal regents, particularly in those instances when the heir apparent was too young to rule. Precisely how the heir apparent was determined varied not only according to civilization, but even according to dynasty, and ultimately depended on personal dynamics within the royal family. For the best examples, we must extend our search beyond the realm of Babylon, once again. On at least seven occasions Bronze Age Egyptian queens assumed the throne on behalf of infant sons, three as kings and four as regents (the reigns of all but two are disputed). The most noteworthy example, Queen Hatshepsut  (1479-1458 BC), assumed the throne during the infancy of her stepson, Thutmosis III, and continued to rule Egypt for 21 years, long after her stepson attained adulthood. She employed Pharaonic titles, wore the male clothes of the king (including the ceremonial beard), made her daughter Neferure pose as queen, and ordered that she herself be acknowledged as king by all her officials. As Pharaoh she organized military raids into Nubia and Palestine and conducted maritime expeditions to the Horn of Africa. Naqi’a, the mother of King Esharhaddon of Assyria (681 – 669 BC), furnished another notable example of queen regent. Following her son’s accession to the throne, she continued to conduct herself as a co-ruler, dwelling in her own palace, receiving daily dispatches on religious and military matters and composing royal dedications. She outlived her son and remained a force to be reckoned with well into the reign of his successor, Ashurbanipal. Some queens were forced to engage to violence. According to her own hymns Sargon of Akkad’s daughter, Enheduanna, was driven from Ur in a political uprising following the death of her father. With the help of her brother Rimush she was eventually reinstated. Looking further abroad, we find an Indian queen named Cleophis of the Ashvakas taking up arms to resist Alexander the Great’s invasion of the Indus Valley in 326 BC. After her son fell fighting at the siege of Massaga, she personally assumed the defense of her kingdom, reassembled her son’s army, and fought to the death against the Macedonian invaders. Perhaps the most notorious queen of all antiquity was Olympias of Macedonia, a princess of neighboring Epirus who married King Philip II of Macedonia as a teenager and became the mother of Alexander the Great. Not only was she rumored to have participated in the assassination of her husband (and to have personally murdered her rival, Philip’s last wife Cleopatra), but following her son’s death in 323 BC, she competed for the control of his empire. During the Macedonian wars of succession, she opposed the authority of Alexander’s generals, assumed command of a personal army, exploited control of her son’s wife and child in a bid for power, and paid the ultimate penalty for her ambitions. In the traditional venues of religion, politics, and warfare, therefore, Mesopotamian queens, princesses, and aristocratic females and those from other ancient civilizations closely shadowed those of males. On occasion queens and princesses assumed active roles in the men’s arena.  In virtually every phase of activity, women born to wealth and high aristocratic status chose individual paths and pursued careers and activities similar to those of men. As poets, queens, regents, priestesses, philosophers, historians, and warriors, women at the top of ancient society tended to leave an indelible mark.


As opposed to royal spouses, Mesopotamian concubines were typically women of inferior social status who were selected and cared for by the ruler for personal reasons. Concubines apparently were commonplace among freeborn property-holding social strata as well. In Hammurabi’s law code a concubine was viewed legitimately as a wife, though not of the same rank as a husband’s formally recognized wife. She was usually a free woman (with a dowry) selected to produce children in the event that the wife proved incapable. Her children were viewed as legitimate although they would not necessarily be eligible to acquire inheritance alongside the husband’s legally recognized children. Royal concubines typically arose from affairs of the heart, and kings tended to collect them like trophies. One of the greatest fears, in fact, of a client king was that a daughter taken in marriage by a great king might end up treated as a concubine. Although the offspring of such relationships could not expect to be in line for the throne, it is certain that they participated in the palace hierarchy.


Underclass Women in Hammurabi’s Law Code

Looking more specifically at Hammurabi’s Law Code, women arising from non-aristocratic, freeborn, property-holding families tended to enjoy more constrained circumstances in conformance with prevailing mores. Yet, it is precisely here that the nuances to the existing constraints on women’s behavior are best illuminated. Hammurabi’s Law Code carefully unfolds the requirements of marriage, including the need for a dowry, a purchase price, and the preparation of formal contracts. It likewise reinforces the expectations of the wife’s subservience to the husband in the marriage relationship. Divorce proved to be a prevalent feature of female existence in Babylonia according to the law code. Apart from religious marriages where taboos sometimes prohibited divorce, marriage was a secular arrangement. Divorce typically required little more than a letter written by a husband to his wife to indicate that he was divorcing her and ordering her to return to her father’s house. Since the wife’s dowry was an original component of that household, it would naturally have to be returned as well, along with whatever portion of the family’s assets the wife could demonstrate possession of. As recorded in the law code, If a man put away his wife who has not borne him children, he must give her the amount of the purchase money [as much as he paid her father when he married her], and the dowry which she brought from the house of her father; then he may put her away (divorce her) (138).  In other words, divorce was relatively simple, but divorce settlements were complex and generally required years to resolve. Naturally, in non-amicable divorces the separating parties would attempt to avoid restitution altogether. This is where the respectability of the married female came into play. In marriage disputes much about the outcome was determined by the comportment of the woman in question. Typical accusations leveled against the wife included adultery, immodesty, or disrepute. If she were found wanting in any of these areas, usually through an investigation conducted by the city council, the woman could necessarily be divorced without recovering her dowry. In one extreme instance a wife apparently attempted to ruin her husband’s fortune, If a man’s wife, living in his house, has made up her mind to leave that house, and through extravagance run into debt, have wasted her house, and neglected her husband, one may proceed judicially against her; if her husband consent to her divorce, then he may let her go her way. He shall not give her anything for her divorce. If her husband do not consent to her divorce and take another wife; the former wife shall remain in the house as a servant (141). In this instance, in other words, the wife’s negative behavior resulted in her diminution in status from housewife to household servant. In other instances, however, a wife whose conduct was unimpeachable could expect to prevail against her husband’s accusations. In the case of a husband who maliciously accuses his wife of adultery, for example, the code states, If a man have accused his own wife, but she has not been caught lying with another man, she shall swear by the name of God, and then may return to her [father’s] house (131).


Usually when the accused party could not be convicted on the basis of material evidence and the accusation remained unresolved, the outcome would be determined through a trial by ordeal. Being “thrown into the water” (presumably that of the rapidly flowing Euphrates River at Babylon) represented one such trial, as it was believed that the accused person’s survival (and hence his guilt or innocence) would be determined by the gods. Presumably, most people in antiquity could not swim and if thrown in the water were not likely to survive. This was particularly true in those instances where the law code specifically stipulated that the accused party(ies) be bound with rope before being thrown into the water. Apparently, the gravity of the crime was sufficiently abhorrent. A few external examples of trial by ordeal do seem to indicate that the punishment had as much to do with public spectacle and humiliation as it did with forms of judgment. One tablet found at Mari indicates that wealthier citizens could assign substitutes for this punishment, such as gangs of household servants. In one instance where the accused party’s substitutes actually began to drown, the man reluctantly agreed to sign a contract to rectify the situation rather than to endure any further loss of life. In Mesopotamia trial by ordeal, thus, functioned as a principle means to resolve guilt or innocence in those cases where the facts were unclear. As another example of a Babylonian woman accused of adultery makes clear, it had the capacity to remove any lingering suspicion, If the finger have been pointed against a man’s wife [i.e., if she have been suspected], but she have not been caught lying with another man, she shall plunger herself into the river for her husband’s [satisfaction] (132).


The likely reason that this woman was subjected to trial by ordeal while the one noted earlier was allowed simply to testify to her innocence under oath probably lay in the unquestionable reputation of the earlier woman in the public eye. In still another instance, a wife of impeccable reputation actually refused to cohabitate any longer with her husband, If a wife quarrel with her husband, and say, ‘Thou shalt not possess me’; then the reasons for her prejudices must be examined. If she be without blame, and there be no fault on her part, but her husband has been tramping around, belittling her very much; then this woman shall be blameless, she shall take her dowry and return to the house of her father (142). Naturally, if her reputation was questionable, she ran the risk of a harsher penalty. If she be not frugal, if she gad about, is extravagant in the house, belittle her husband, they shall throw that woman into the water (143). In other words, a woman’s status in Babylonian society was largely determined by the degree to which she conducted her married life with modesty, dignity, and industry.


Other articles of the law code worked to insure the welfare of married women and their children in a variety of untoward circumstances. These ranged from guarantees of material support with respect to inheritance disputes to those that arose in the event of declining health, such as mental illness. If a man take a wife, and sickness attack her, if he then set his face to take a second one, he may; but he shall not put away his wife, whom disease has attacked; on the other hand, she shall dwell in the house he has built and he shall support her as long as she lives (148). The law code made certain, in other words, that the people whom the king viewed as responsible for the maintenance of the most fundamental institutions of society (family, property, morality) found protection under the law. Regardless of whether Hammurabi’s Law Code functioned as a genuine law code or merely as a testimonial to his fairness as king, its formulation demonstrates a keen interest in protecting the rights and resources of women. It also displays an awareness of equity, or the notion that extenuating circumstances such as those that frequently arise with crimes of passion warrant careful consideration. Another point that Hammurabi appears to have wanted to demonstrate by this code was his guarantee that women who abided by the undeniably subservient position accorded them in life, and did so with unimpeachable modesty – raising and tending to families, building and maintaining households, and contributing to the livelihood of their families through handiwork -- would receive fair treatment from the state and protection from society at large. Although the law code focused primarily on the status of females arising from elite urban households, one may presume that the status of freeborn women who labored in the countryside was more or less the same.


As noted earlier, the emergence of urban societies inevitably bred underclasses that included women among their constituencies. Underclass women found themselves in much harsher circumstances, enjoyed greater freedom to the extent that they were left to fend for themselves,  but typically were accorded little to no protection under the law. Urban society imposed a significant financial burden on families that many were unable to endure, culminating in a breakdown of the traditional safety net afforded by households and family networks. Widows, orphans, and impoverished citizens fell through the cracks in Babylonian society and ended up on the streets, oftentimes homeless and without means of support. As families failed, their servants and slaves would suffer similarly, creating a form of urban proletariat that had to be monitored by authorities, particularly since crime was often commensurate with destitution. In ancient Mesopotamian cities impoverished unattached women labored in a variety of ways. They ran bars and taverns, sold produce in the market places, performed artisan tasks, and engaged in menial labor, such as milling grain, baking bread, brewing beer, and washing and dying clothes. Not coincidentally most of these activities entailed services to patrons who were principally males. At the bottom of society the status of females, slave or free, hardly mattered because they stood at the mercy of their predicament and at the risk of physical and sexual abuse. In addition they frequently communed with criminals, oftentimes through no fault of their own. Regardless, any woman who engaged in activity in the public environment crossed the rigidly segregated boundaries of ancient gender relations and in the eyes of the law abandoned all claim to respectability. All those existing outside the protection of Mesopotamian patriarchal households lived implicitly in ill repute. No unattached laboring women was afforded legal protection from physical abuse, and in the case of female laboring in public establishments such as taverns and inns, it was generally assumed by the authorities that they also free-lanced as sex laborers. As the law code demonstrates, taverns and inns and the women who worked in them incurred unsavory reputations. If conspirators assemble in the house of a tavern-keeper [woman wine-seller], who are not captured and delivered to the court, that tavern-keeper shall be put to death (109). Women working in other menial establishments were subjected to similar physical abuse by their masters, employers, and patrons. In such an environment and under such circumstances, marriage and family were inconceivable depending as they did on nonexistent foundations of dowry, bride-price, household, and the property necessary to support a family.


Even at the bottom of society social stratification becomes observable. Underclass women blessed with enormous talent, attractiveness, and energy could sometimes rise above their station to become public figures as actors, mimes, and dancers, not to mention, professional high-priced sex laborers known as courtesans. Courtesans usually rose from slave or non-native origins to be raised by pimps, the latter of whom invested in their potential as entertainers. Courtesans typically offered their sexual favors for a price, but to describe them narrowly as prostitutes diminishes their true capacities. They worked primarily as entertainers and performers. Courtesans sang, danced, recited poetry, and acted out scenes of famous tragedies, perhaps at first as dinner theater in a neighborhood bar or tavern, but eventually in public festivals or by invitation to royal courts. In other words, their abilities and celebrity as performers sometimes obtained courtesans access to the highest levels of society, particularly since the wealthiest elements of society were invariably the ones most able to afford their services. We will discuss this in greater detail in a later chapter. For now it suffices to recognize that courtesans existed in all ancient societies, that their talents made them attractive to men at the highest levels of society, that they frequently offered their services as paid companions to kings and aristocrats, and that they represented the most visible avenue by which women at the bottom of society could rise above their station to mingle with the urban elite. Despite their being branded as social outcasts, the potential competition these women posed to respectable married females at all levels of society forms one of the salient contradictions to ancient social mores.



From royalty to slavery Hammurabi’s Law Code demonstrates rigid status orientation in Bronze Age Mesopotamian culture. However, along the margins of each gradation the nuances of an ongoing process of blending and variation points to a society in a dynamic state of development. Large household combines of the Early Bronze Age gradually yielded place to more privatized collectives, including the development of stored wealth by individuals, the activities of independent merchants and traders in long-distance trade, and the advancement of professionals in a variety of trades. In many ways the social constructs that would more or less dominate the urban landscape of various later civilizations were already functioning in Middle Bronze Age Babylon.