Sumerian Civilization

Length: 435 words

The first true civilization of Sumer came into being between 5900 and 2500 BCE of the Ubaid and Uruk cultures in Mesopotamia in what is now modern day Iraq. Although somewhat rigid, each member of the ancient Sumerian civilization had their own duties, talents, rights, and wealth according to his or her place in this unique society. While the peoples of Sumer upheld all of its nearly 1500 gods as according to their shared religion, discordance was common. Each individual city-state saw their patron god as the owner of its land, and sought to praise, worship, and glorify him to ensure the city-state prospered.

Each city was ruled by its priestly class, as this was a theocratic society, the centers of their culture revolved around religion in their great temples or ziggurats. Much of the arable land belonged unequivocally to the temple of the city’s patron god, and therefore most of its production passed through the temple’s surplus holdings, where it would then be distributed to its citizens by the priests and officials. Priests held most of the wealth and power.

Nearly half of Sumerians were commoners, each holding a small portion of land to support their families and to pay the required

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fees to the temple. Some free peoples were employed by the priestly class as farmers and skilled craftsmen who owned no land. There also existed many slaves, people who were the property of their masters, whom were usually prisoners of war. If a slave came from another conquered Sumerian city, his master’s power was finite and he would be released after three years, although those from other places were enslaved permanently or until able to buy freedom.

Sumerian societal structure was absolute, and it is clear each person’s worth was determined by their social standing. This is apparent in the Code of Hammurabi, the first known set of laws, put in place by the Babylonian king of its namesake. In this document, while each offense holds equal punishment, in cases of stolen goods, an aristocrat would be compensated thirty fold, while a common man only ten fold.

This also states “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” but if said tooth belonged to a common man, the fine was merely one mana of silver. Although very complex, Sumerian society was nonetheless unyielding. There were little if any opportunities for a one to change their destiny, especially limited if this person happened to be a commoner. Source: Coffin, J. G. Western Civilizations Vol. 1 : Pre-history to the Age of Absolutism. 16th ed. Vol. 1. Boston: W. W. Norton & Company Limited, 2008. 14-28.

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