The Reforms Of Urukagina

The Reforms of Urukagina

"He established freedom."

While Greek political experience was so rich and varied that it has been said with pardonable exaggeration that the Greeks "invented politics," that of ancient Mesopotamia is commonly said to have been limited to an unvarying despotism that was total and not benevolent, whose subjects knew only "the language Of the whip." There is good evidence, however, that not only were many Of these despots exceptionally benevolent, but also that ancient Mesopotamia experienced forms of government other than despotism.

The greatest Political achievement of the Greeks was democracy, which never developed in Mesopotamia or elsewhere in the ancient Near East. But before the Greeks attained democracy they had experienced three other Major types of government, which they called Monarchy, Oligarchy, and tyranny. These three constitutional forms did develop in Mesopotamia .

The Greeks called their earliest form of government monarchy because of the prominent part played by the war leader, as shown in the Homeric epics. But because the power of this early monarch was greatly limited -his actions had to be approved by an aristocratic council of nobles and, in moments of crisis such as war, by a popular assembly of all arms-bearing men -modern scholars prefer the term "primitive monarchy," or even "primitive democracy." Primitive monarchy was followed by oligarchy ("rule of the few") when the council of nobles succeeded in eliminating both the king and the popular assembly. In time, discontent with the oppressive rule of the oligarchs caused the common people, both peasantry and rising middle class, to support the rise of usurping despots called "tyrants," a non-Greek word meaning "boss" or 49 chief" that was borrowed from the Orient.

That primitive monarchy was also the earliest form of government in Mesopotamia is revealed in a number of epic tales. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, the nobles of Uruk resent Gilgamesh's "arrogance," and they seek to curtail his arbitrary actions by setting up Enkidu as anti-king. Again, Enkidu in a dream sees "the great gods in council," an illustration of the way in which men attribute to the gods in heaven institutions similar to their own on earth. An independent Gilgamesh tale describes how Gilgamesh circumvented the opposition of his council to his proposal for a preventive war against the ruler of Kish . He is described as turning to the "convened assembly of the men of his city," who readily supported him and upbraided the nobles:

0 ye who are raised with the sons of the king, 0 ye who press the donkey's thigh...

Do not submit to the house of Kish , let us smite it with weapons.

There is also evidence that the nobles of Uruk- ultimately resorted to the use of force, severely wounded Gilgamesh, and drove him into temporary exile.

Gilgamesh was the last of the Sumerian primitive monarchs whose exploits were celebrated in epics. Thereafter, for more than a century, priest-dominated aristocratic councils ruled the Sumerian city-states through weak and compliant magistrates called ensi-gar, "governors installed (by a superior)." But from roughly 2550 B.C., when true historical sources first become relatively abundant, to about 2350 B.C., when Sargon of Akkad conquered Sumer , dissatisfaction with oligarchic rule led intermittently to the rise of tyrants in the Greek sense of the term. Best known among these lug2l's (literally "great [gall man [lu]," a term used also in the sense of "master" and usually translated "king") was Urukagina, who usurped power as "lugal of Lagash" about 2400 B.C. and promulgated so many reforms in the interest of the oppressed common people that he has been called the first social reformer in history.

Urukagina's inscriptions, selections from which follow, begin with a description of the abuses which "since time immemorial," or so it seemed, had been undermining the original "divinely decreed way of life." It is Urukagina's view that all the leading elements in society -priests, administrators, powerful men, and even the ensi ("governor") and his family -were guilty of acting each "for his own benefit." Particularly noteworthy among the many resulting abuses - partly because the same evil inspired Hesiod's demand for social justice at a parallel moment in Greek history and partly because Urukagina seems to have taken greatest pride in eradicating it - was the seizure of the property and even the persons of debtors by temple officials working in collusion with corrupt judges (mashkim).-3 Of special interest, also, is Urukagina's use of a contract theory of government to justify both his usurpation of power and his reforms: he made a "covenant" with Ningirsu, patron god of Lagash, and he carried out Ningirsu's instructions.


Since time immemorial, since the seed corn (first) sprouted forth, the head boatman had the boats in charge for his own benefit, the head shepherd had the asses in charge for his own benefit, the head shepherd had the sheep in charge for his own benefit; the head fisherman had the fishing places in charge for his own benefit. The incantation-priest measured out the barley rent (to his own advantage)....

The [temple] oxen of the gods plowed the gardens of the ensi; the gardens and the cucumber fields of the ensi were in the best fields of the gods; the asses and oxen of the priests were taken away (by the ensi). ne barley rations [income] of the priests were administered by the men of the ensi....

In the garden of a humble person a priest could cut a tree or carry away its fruit. When a dead man was placed in the tomb, it was necessary to deliver in his name seven jars of beer and 420 loaves of bread. ne uh-mush priest received one-half gur [about fourteen gallons] of barley, one garment, one turban, and one bed. ne priest's assistant received one-fourth gur of barley...

The workingman was forced to beg for his bread; the youth was forced to work in the a-zar-la. The houses of the ensi, the fields of the ensi, the houses of the Enzi’s wife, the fields of the Enzi’s wife, the houses of the Enzi’s children, the fields of the Enzi’s children - all were joined together side by side. Everywhere from border to border there were the priest-judges [mash- kim] ....Such were the practices of former days.


When the god Ningirsu, the warrior of the god Enlil, granted the lugal-ship of Lagash to Urukagina, picking him out of the entire population, he [Ningirsu] enjoined upon him (the restoration of) the divinely decreed way of life of former days. He [Urukagina] carried out the instructions of his divine lugal, Ningirsu.

He removed the head boatman in charge of the boats. He removed the head shepherd in charge of the asses and sheep. He removed the head fisher- man from the fishing places. He removed the bead of the storehouse from his responsibility of measuring out the barley ration to the incantation-priests.... He removed the palace official in charge of collecting the il-tax from the priests.

The houses of the ensi and the fields of the ensi were restored to the god Ningirsu. The houses of the ensi's wife and the fields of the ensi's wife were restored to the goddess Bau. The houses of the ensi's children and the fields of the ensi's children were restored to the god Shulshaggana.

Everywhere from border to border no one spoke further of priest-judges (mashkim).

When a dead man was placed in the tomb, (only) three jars of beer and eighty loaves of bread were delivered in his name. The uh-mush priest received one bed and one turban. The priest's assistant received one-eighth gur of barley....

The youth was not required to work in the a-zar-la; the workingman was not forced to beg for his bread. The priest no longer invaded the garden of a humble person.

He (also) decreed: If a good ass is born to a client and his overseer says to him, "I will buy if from you," then if be wishes to sell it he will say, "Pay me what pleases me"; but if he does not wish to sell, the overseer must not force him. If the house of a powerful man is next to the house of a client, and if the powerful man says to him, "I wish to buy it," then if he wishes to sell he will say, "Pay me in silver as much as suits me," or "Reimburse me with an equivalent amount of barley"; but if he does not wish to sell, the powerful man must not force him.


He [Urukagina] freed the inhabitants of Lagash from usury, burdensome controls, hunger, theft, murder, and seizure (of their property and persons). He established freedom (of a type). The widow and orphan were no longer at the mercy of the powerful: it was for them that Urukagina made his covenant with Ningirsu.

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