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Ancient Near East - Political Developments in Southern Mesopotamia

Updated: Jun 19, 2021


The basic element of the political organization of Babylonia at this time was the city-state: defined as an urban center directly controlling a hinterland with a radius of about 15 kilometers, where people lived in villages. There city-states relied heavily on agriculture, and as a result, had to be near rivers in order to irrigate their crops.

In the early third millennium, Babylonia experienced a general population growth which was possibly accelerated by immigration or by the settling down of semi-nomadic groups. There was a regional trend toward urbanism with the cities and the villages surrounding them becoming larger in size. The smaller hamlets seemed to have disappeared. The city-states at first were located at sufficient distance from one another, but the increased population necessitated an extension of the cultivated areas and the borders began to overlap. This process may have been aggravated by a gradual drying of the climate, causing a lowering of the sea levels and a retrenchment of the rivers into fewer branches.

With the expansion of the city-states, competition for the remaining open areas developed and soon led to wars for cultural land. A leader’s military, rather than cultic role, became of primary importance in such situations. As in the later Sumerian stories reflecting on this period, the people granted a war leader authority on a temporary basis only. In a moment of crisis, the popular assembly elected a strong man as leader, while that body controlled his movements. This system has been called “primitive democracy” and may have eventually led to a dynastic system under which rule was passed on from father to son.

The last independent head of state in the Early Dynastic Period, around 2400 B.C., was a usurper by the name Urukagina. Early in his reign he proclaimed a reorganization of the state, ostensibly removing control over the agricultural land from himself and his family and granting it to the city-god and his family. However, he retained this property, along with other sources of wealth, by changing the household of his wife to the household of the city’s goddess.

As king and war leader, Urukagina transferred the ownership of land and estates to the city-god and his family, while in practice, he and his own family members were trying to dominate the god’s estates. The king ruled by divine favor, but he was totally in control of the god’s earthly possessions, so any prior distinction between secular and divine authority had disappeared.

Urukagina’s measures turned out to be short-lived, but the merging of divine and earthly authority was not. Later kings all proclaimed that their powers derived from the gods, but they controlled temple property and the actual basis of their power was their military skill.


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