Thursday, May 20, 2021

The Extraordinary History of Mesopotamia

The Greek and Roman cultures are universally recognized as the greatest Western civilizations from the time we consider “ancient.” Their influence was rooted in culture, which provided a foundation for modern society and its political frameworks, and they would ultimately become models for post-Enlightenment governments. The Greeks, as specialists in ideas, pioneered modern philosophy, art, theater, poetry, mathematics, and science. The Romans, as a more practical people, contributed engineering, law, and a political system called the Republic.

The accomplishments of Greece and Rome cast a shadow over their predecessors, suggesting the older civilizations were less important. That line of thinking is a serious mistake, which we will attempt to reverse here by highlighting the importance of Mesopotamia, one of the most important civilizations in all of human history. Mesopotamia built the world’s first true civilization making it the father of all cultures in the West that would follow it. Mesopotamia served as the crucible for mankind to develop agricultural, pre-dynastic, and monarchical cultures.

The word Mesopotamia is a collective term for several ancient cultures located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now Iraq. These societies prospered as independently from 5000 BCE to 1800 BCE. Their advent was facilitated by the presence of an alluvial plain, which provided the spark for mankind to begin irrigation farming. An alluvial plain is a gently sloping land surface formed by sediment left from rising and falling water levels.

1 Alluvial Plain Tigris River

Planting in an alluvial plain maid the sowing and watering crops easier because the softness of the soil allowed seeds to be pressed into the ground, by hand, without difficulty.

The history of the Mesopotamian region is too expansive to describe in a short article because its many separate cultures existed over a span of four millennia. To simplify the story, we will focus our discussion on Sumer, arguably the most important of the Mesopotamian cultures. The term Sumer refers to a specific geographical region of Mesopotamia, in the south, near the point where the Tigris and Euphrates empty into the Persian Gulf. That geography would come to support one of the greatest of the world’s ancient cultures.

The map above shows ancient Sumer and its cities.  At the time when the area which would become Sumer was established (6500BC), the Persian Gulf extended farther north than it does today. Baghdad and Babylon are shown as reference points only. Neither existed during the time of Sumerian domination.

The Ubaidians were the first to exploit the alluvial plain of Sumer and build a civilization between the great rivers.

The cities shown on the map, which would later become the jewels of Sumer, were originally Ubaid cities. We know this because their names predate the Sumerian language. The Ubaids developed as a civilization of farmers, cattle raisers, and fishermen. Their craftsmen included weavers, leatherworkers, carpenters, smiths, potters, and masons. Excavated remains from the period include hoes, adzes, and knives, along with clay artifacts such as sickles, bricks, loom weights, figurines, and painted pottery. Together, these artifacts provide a record of stunning accomplishments for a people who predated the Greeks by 4000 years.

As the Ubaid culture matured, outsiders from the Syrian desert region and Arabian Peninsula began to settle in their territory, gradually taking control of the area via assimilation and military conquest. The result was an ethnic fusion that became Sumer. By 3800 BCE, the Sumerian civilization had reached its peak.

The ziggurat is Mesopotamian temple and one of the most important symbols of the Sumerian civilization. These structures were the largest built by man at the time and represent the power and sophistication of the great Sumerian cities. Sumerians believed that the gods resided in their temples and so they prohibited the public from entering their sanctuaries. The ziggurat also contained separate structures for grain storage, recalling the time when the cities operated as theocracies and the priests served as municipal administrators in addition to their religious duties.

The first phase of the Sumerian Era is known as the Uruk period (4100-2900 BCE), after the Sumerian city of that name. Uruk seems to have been the cultural centre of Sumer at the time because it housed the principal monuments of the region and exhibited the most obvious traces of an advanced urban society. By 3500 BCE, the world’s first system of writing, had been developed as Uruk exerted influence over the entire Near East. The written form of the Sumerian language, called Cuneiform, was developed through the evolution of characters from representative (pictograms) to non-representative.

Sumer was the most agriculturally productive region of Mesopotamia, as a result of an irrigation system which was focused on the cultivation of barley and the pasturing of sheep for their wool. Although it lacked mineral resources and its climate was arid, the region had undeniable geographic and environmental advantages; it consisted of a vast delta with a flat region transected by waterways, resulting in a potentially vast area of cultivatable land, over which communications by river or land were easy. Sumer became a highly populated and urbanized region in the 4th millennium BCE, with a social hierarchy, an artisan economy, and long-distance commerce.

During the Uruk period, the volume of trade goods transported along the canals and rivers of southern Mesopotamia facilitated the rise of many large, stratified, temple-centered cities (with populations of over 10,000 people), where centralized administrations employed specialized workers. It is fairly certain that it was during the Uruk period that Sumerian cities began to make use of slave labor captured from the hill country, and there is ample evidence for captured slaves as workers in the earliest texts.

Following the Uruk period, an early dynastic period evolved in Sumer. Political systems became centralized and were controlled by a small group of individuals. This period saw the emergence of multiple city-states, that developed and solidified over time.

The dynastic period began in 2900 BCE and was associated with a shift from the temple establishment headed by council of elders led by a priest towards a more secular leader such as the legendary patriarchal figures Dumuzid, Lugalbanda and Gilgamesh, who reigned shortly before the historical record began. The center of Sumerian culture remained in southern Mesopotamia, even though rulers soon began expanding into neighboring areas, and local Semitic groups adopted much of Sumerian culture for their own.

The earliest dynastic king on the Sumerian king list whose name is known from any other legendary source is Etana, 13th king of the first dynasty of Kish. As the Epic of Gilgamesh shows, this period was associated with increased war. Cities became walled, and increased in size as undefended villages in southern Mesopotamia disappeared. Both Enmerkar and Gilgamesh are credited with having built the walls of Uruk.

In the year ~2350 BCE, the Sumerian dynasties were overrun by Sargon, king of the Akkadian Empire. Akkad and its capital Agate were located to the north of Sumer, just beyond Kish. The Akkadian Empire has been labeled the first empire in human history. Sargon built an empire that stretched from the Persian Gulf to Cyprus, but the empire was always unstable and collapsed after two hundred years.

The last gasp at power by the Sumerians began immediately after the fall of the Akkadians. The 3rd dynasty of Ur under Ur-Nammu and Shulgi, was able to extend its power as far as southern Assyria. Ur III would only survive for 100 years before it was absorbed into the growing Babylonian Empire. By then, the region had become more Semitic than Sumerian, with the resurgence of the Akkadian speaking Semites in Assyria and elsewhere, so the purity of the Sumerian race was compromised. The Sumerian language continued as a sacerdotal language taught in schools in Babylonia and Assyria, much as Latin was used in the Medieval period.

The Ur III period coincides with a major shift in population from southern Mesopotamia toward the north. Ecologically, the agricultural productivity of the Sumerian lands was being compromised as a result of rising salinity. Soil salinity in this region had been long recognized as a major problem. Poorly drained irrigated soils, in an arid climate with high levels of evaporation, led to the buildup of dissolved salts in the soil, eventually reducing agricultural yields severely. During the Akkadian and Ur III phases, there was a shift from the cultivation of wheat to the more salt-tolerant barley, but this was insufficient, and during the period from 2100 BCE to 1700 BCE, it is estimated that the population in this area declined by nearly three fifths. This greatly upset the balance of power within the region, weakening the areas where Sumerian was spoken, and comparatively strengthening those where Akkadian was the major language. From that point on, Sumerian would remain, only serving as a literary and liturgical language, similar to the position occupied by Latin in medieval Europe.


1. Climate Change Post. Climate change impacts in the Euphrates–Tigris Basin. March 27,2021.

2. Arch Eyes: Timeless Architecture. Religious Architecture. Urban Design. Ziggurat Architecture in Mesopotamia, April 18, 2016.

Monday, January 18, 2021

The Influence of Ancient Politics on Modern Political Systems

Most people believe ancient political systems have had a minimal effect on politics of the modern and postmodern world. The common belief is that the ancient world was largely barbarian with human rights virtually non-existent, so history from that time must be discounted. Is this a correct assumption or is there something can we learn about politics from antiquity?

The earliest Western civilizations were theocratic, but that model became obsolete with the advent of warfare. Winning in battle required military leadership and the power generated by a military leader’s success led to the evolution of kingship as the center of civil power in the state. The next step in the evolution of government was the monarchy, which bolted hereditary authority onto the kingship model. Monarchies were the most common form of government before the Enlightenment. They survived because the authoritarian state could manage the society efficiently and, at the same time, protect its status.

In the midst of the monarchies permeating the ancient world, stood two models that would foreshadow modern politics: the Greek Democracy and the Roman Republic. These governments were true innovations in the application of liberty and human rights.

The mountains of Greece were an opportune setting for democracy. They divided the Greek landscape into small spaces which acted as incubators for the development of rights-based political systems. After the Mycenean civilization ended, the Greek peninsula descended into a dark age period, where political and social advancement came to a halt. Then slowly, small communities, governed by the people, began to develop. These communities blocked attempts by the wealthy to gain power, keeping control in public hands.

The Polis evolved to became the standard form of government across Greece after 700 BC. Each Polis developed its own characteristics, but all featured the institutions of democracy. In time, Athens became the most famous of the Poleis, because of its size and influence over the Greek peninsula. Athens developed its final democratic form after periods of tyrants and a flirtation with republicanism under Solon. Its high point occurred during the so called “Golden Age,” in the fifth century BC, when Pericles was its leader.

The Golden Age was also the beginning of the end for Athens, because she would soon be defeated by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. The structure of the Polis had weakened and the advent of the sophists ushered in a new focus on the individual, replacing the cultural unity that had existed previously. It was only 60 years after the Peloponnesian war that Philip of Macedonia (father of Alexander) subdued the Greek peninsula and the Polis passed out of existence.

The story of Rome was vastly different. Rome began as a hilltop community founded near a ford in the Tiber River, in a part of Italy known as Latium. The early tribes of Rome were farmers, married to the land. Rome was far from the sea, and its people had no history of sea trade, so land was its most valuable asset. Early Rome was influenced by the nearby Etruscan civilization. Its customs and government structure were readily adopted by the Romans. Two of the early kings of Rome were Etruscans.

Rome could not tolerate a monarchy. It threw off the last of the kings in 509 BC and became a republic. The word republic comes from the Latin res publica, or “thing of the people.” This thing of the Roman people was the rights they obtained through the people’s assembly. The republic featured an executive branch consisting of elected magistrates, led by a pair of consuls. The legislative branch consisted of the Senate and the people’s assembly. The assembly could pass laws but not propose them. The Senate could propose laws but not vote on them.

In the early days of the republic, Rome was dominated by the wealthy patrician class. Descendants of the three original Roman tribes, the patricians, controlled money and power in the republic. The Plebeians had no rights in the beginning, but through organized efforts, they won for themselves an expansion of their rights. They fought for executive branch representation, so the college of tribunes was created. They demanded written laws, so the twelve tables were posted in the Forum. They demanded access to all elected offices and this was also granted by the Senate over time. What made the Roman republic work was the willingness of the Senate to extend rights to all citizens. That reality prevented instability and allowed Rome to prosper.

But the republic did not survive. After 400 years, it began to crumble because of mistakes by the Senate, inefficient government, and territorial expansion, which required a large army. Until the end of the second century BC, Rome had a citizen army; farmers put down their implements and went to war.

In 107 BC, Gaius Marius, the leading general in the republic, created a professional army. This caused the soldiers to shift their loyalty from the Senate to their commander. Now any general, with a lust for power, could bend the army to his will and overthrow the government. That fear became a reality when Julius Caesar made himself permanent dictator, leading to the collapse of the republic.

The founding fathers of the United States knew the stories of Athens and Rome. Most could speak Latin and Greek, and they had read the history of antiquity in the original language. When it came time to create the American Constitution, they thought long and hard about the design of their new government. The United States would be the first “new” nation in the last thousand years of Western civilization, but what form should its government take?

The founders looked to the models of Greece and Rome as templates. In a short time, the Greek model was rejected. The polis was small enough so that citizens could attend meetings of the assembly and vote. This was not possible in a territory as large as the thirteen colonies. The new government had to be built on representation; elected officials representing citizens.

The founders had the experience of the colonial governments to draw upon and they understood the British Constitution. They decided that adapting the Roman republic to America would be the most logical approach. During the Constitutional Convention, the design of each branch of government was debated at length. There was early agreement on the Legislature which would contain an upper class of “elders” and a people’s assembly. There was a long negotiation about how the legislature should be constituted and how the representatives should be elected. A balance was reached by having two senators per state and an assembly determined by population distribution. Senators would be elected by the states and representatives directly by the people.

The executive branch was also subject of a lengthy debate. How would the chief magistrate (president) be elected and for how long? In the end, the delegates chose a presidential term of four years with the president elected by the states.

The founders looked at the new government as a republic of state republics. The states would share power with the Federal government with no overlap of jurisdictions. The founders believed that too much democracy was dangerous: that the public could be influenced to vote for a tyrant. Better to have the senior legislative chamber and the president elected by the states. They also battled over the power of the Federal government. Some wanted it to be small, only functioning in areas inappropriate for states, like treaties with foreign governments. Others wanted it to have more power, thinking that professional politicians from the elite class would be the best managers of the country.

America’s founders learned much from the ancient governments of Greece and Rome. They could read about the impact of citizens as direct participants in government. They had the luxury of analyzing systems that failed so they could avoid those same problems.

The debate about the structure of the American government has continued from the time of the Constitution until the present day. During the passage of time, the Federal government has grown exponentially, as the demand for its programs have increased, the courts have accommodated the shifting of the role of the Federal government to one as caretaker for society, and the American social culture has changed enormously. There is no playbook for how to adapt a political system to these types of changes, but we have history to guide for the direction we have to take now.

The Enlightenment made us believe that individual rights were important. That concept allowed democracies to take over the world as the default political system. The ancients taught us about the value of tradition as applied to changing societies. Tradition has to be used as a guide for moving forward, because too much change creates instability. The French Revolution warned us what can happen when all traditions are discarded.

Why is the study of ancient political systems important? The answer lies in the fact that all human societies are experiments in a public morality built by a consensus of the individual moralities of their citizens.

Man did not evolve to live among strangers; he evolved to live among small kinship groups. There are no human socio-psychological mechanisms to cope with living in societies, so each iteration becomes a unique model. The brilliance of the ancients is that their ideas can accommodate the postmodern society. The ancients understood human nature well enough to create models that are timeless and function at any time and place.