BMCR 1998.10.09

The Ancient Mesopotamian City


Students of the Ancient Near East have often been frustrated that the results of their researches have found so little resonance with Classicists and ancient historians. To some extent this is a situation of our own making, since the prevailing scholarly discourse in cuneiform studies discourages generalization, model building, and indeed any efforts which go beyond the careful presentation of textual evidence and its philological explication. The opacity of much of our writing to lay readers and even to experts in other areas of ancient studies has long been a concern to a minority of cuneiformists, a number of whom have endeavored to produce more accessible works for a wider audience. Perhaps most noteworthy in this regard was A. Leo Oppenheim (1904-1974), whose late books Ancient Mesopotamia. Portrait of a Dead Civilization (1964) and Letters from Mesopotamia (1967) received an enthusiastic reception from the educated public yet were controversial among some of his Assyriological colleagues.

The author of the volume under review explicitly identifies himself with the scholarly legacy of Oppenheim (3, 7-9) and with his efforts to address an audience beyond those initiated into the reading of cuneiform texts (xii). Like his forebear, Van De Mieroop has read widely in non-Mesopotamian history and social sciences including anthropology, sociology, and economics and is not shy in applying the fruits of this learning to Mesopotamian questions.

Van De Mieroop’s focus here, urbanism, is an ideal topic through which to interest Classicists in the work of researchers into the ancient Near East. After all, the city as both a structure for human social and economic life and as a political form arose in Sumer (southernmost Mesopotamia) around 3400 BCE, and had therefore already existed for around 2500 years in the East before the flowering of the polis. It is no exaggeration to refer to the region’s culture, hardly imaginable without its cities (260), as “the most urbanized society of antiquity” (1). Yet by and large, ancient historians have ignored the towns of ancient Iraq and Syria, at best giving a cursory nod to the Phoenician cities of the first millennium before proceeding with their accounts of Greek developments. Of course, the alleged irrelevance of Near Eastern socio-economic conditions in general for Classical history owes much to the view at least as old as Aeschylus and Herodotus which contrasts Greek freedom and self-government with the despotism under which Asians lived.

Indeed, the communis opinio among cuneiformists is in essential agreement with this gloomy assessment of the character of Mesopotamian administration through the ages. Two very influential articles by the Sumerologist Thorkild Jacobsen claiming to demonstrate a progression in Mesopotamian political organization from rule by primeval popular assemblies in the early third millennium to absolute autocracy under the monarchs of the first millennium have gone largely unchallenged, despite the fact that Jacobsen reconstructed the earliest stages of this evolutionary Märchen almost entirely from an exegesis of mythological and epic texts written hundreds of years after the period whose conditions they supposedly reflect.

A major contribution of Van De Mieroop in this book is his presentation of a plausible case that the actual historical course of political development was precisely the reverse of that posited by Jacobsen. Self-government of urban entities seems to have grown stronger over time, and the late cities of Babylonia (lower Mesopotamia) and Assyria (upper Mesopotamia) may therefore in many respects instructively be compared to the city-states of contemporary Greece.

Starting from a clear summary of the voluminous literature concerning Mesopotamia’s “pristine urbanism”(23) and the question of urban origins in general (Chapter 2), the author maintains that the city emerged in early Sumer primarily as a center of redistribution for the foodstuffs and by-products raised or gathered in its surrounding agricultural and pastoral corona. Concomitantly, the town would have been the locus of manufacturing and of the performance of services by those persons whose subsistence needs were met by the surplus extracted from the hinterland. The city would have been able to play such a role only if it subsumed an agency with the authority to enforce the contributions due from the countryside. Van De Mieroop’s analysis of mid-third-millennium economic documents demonstrates that in earliest urbanized Mesopotamia this task fell to the temple, which far from looking after the people’s spiritual needs, “fulfilled primarily a managerial role in the local economy” (24).

The requirements of defense against the depredations of neighboring communities eventually called for the creation of a permanent military establishment. The provisioning of this force under its hereditary leader (the “king”) during wars and its maintenance in peacetime was based on an additional center of urban socio-economic power, the palace (Chapter 6). Thus the public life of the Mesopotamian city came to be dominated by two “great institutions” whose mutual relationship was to evolve throughout the remainder of the region’s ancient history: Initially the religious and military establishments were rivals, but the latter gradually assumed predominance, and by the Ur III period (twenty-first century), the temple had become a mere adjunct of royal power.

Available records indicate that during the third millennium, temple and palace were the major landholders in Mesopotamia, although few scholars any longer believe that all productive land was concentrated in their hands. At this time the great institutions played an immediate role in economic administration. Their bureaucrats directly appropriated a significant portion of the land’s produce and disbursed it in turn among institutional dependents in the form of rations — primarily barley, sesame oil, and wool, but also sometimes beer and finished textiles (154-55). This system is attested not only by innumerable “ration lists” documenting payments, but also by the ubiquitous bowls of standard sizes which have been found in the excavation of most early urban sites in the region.

Later, during the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries, this cumbersome economic structure was gradually dismantled as temple and palace gave up the responsibility and risk involved in the collection and storage of primary goods in favor of a regime of tax farming. In return for payments of silver, entrepreneurs (“merchants”) were given the right to collect dues in kind from the producers. These contractors must then have disposed of their perishable goods on the largely undocumented market, since even medium-term storage would have been impossible under Mesopotamian conditions (157-58).

With this change in the mechanism of surplus extraction, rations became a thing of the past. Craftsmen and common laborers in state service now received wages in grain or silver, and there are strong indications that they supplemented their income through free-lance work in the private sector. High-level employees of the great institutions henceforth drew their support from land allotments worked by dependent labor, hirelings, or sharecroppers, over time becoming de facto owners of these properties. This evolution resulted in greater economic and social independence for at least the entrepreneurs and some other individuals residing in the cities. This elite dealt collectively with the crown through one of their number (the “mayor”), and managed most of their own business and judicial affairs in their assembly.

By the first millennium, when the administration of their far-flung territorial states rested on the network of Mesopotamian cities, Assyrian and Babylonian emperors cultivated the allegiance of urban dwellers by granting them tax exemptions and other privileges, in addition to a large measure of self-government. These privileges were formulated in religious terms, and the temples “became a bulwark of the citizens’ power” (120), particularly in the cities of the south.

Much of this analysis had been presented in earlier publications of the author and others. The great value of The Ancient Mesopotamian City lies not in new details, but rather in Van De Mieroop’s synthesis of the results of the past thirty or forty years’ research in the field of Mesopotamian socio-economic history. In particular, when considered over the longue durée and in light of comparative evidence, it becomes obvious that the power of the state over the individual in Mesopotamia would have been greatest precisely during the earlier third millennium when temple and palace so dominated the economy of city and country. In my view, Jacobsen’s thesis of an antique “primitive democracy” must now be considered not only undemonstrated but discredited.

Beyond the question of political evolution, Van De Mieroop discusses the role of large kinship groups in Mesopotamian society (103-110), the provisioning of cities (Chapter 7), the organization of crafts and commerce (Chapter 8), the function of credit in the economy (Chapter 9), and the town as a center of culture (Chapter 10). His careful summaries of eastern conditions should prove stimulating to Classical historians constructing models of the societies of the ancient Mediterranean world, especially in regard to areas of life for which their own sources offer little documentation.

In his Conclusions (248-63), Van De Mieroop builds his own model of the Mesopotamian city. Abstracting the essential features of three millennia of unevenly-documented urbanism, and allowing for differences between the ecological and economic conditions of southern and northern urban communities, he judges that the Sumerian/Babylonian/Assyrian town can be accommodated within the parameters of Max Weber’s definition of the “ancient city” (257-58), and that in particular it is to be assigned to his ideal type of “consumer city” (255). But while drawing more resources from its hinterland than it returned, in most periods the Mesopotamian city was not simply parasitic on its rural neighbors. After all, the people of the countryside also benefited from the activities of the hydrological, military, and long-distance trade organizations centered in the town, and they consumed a portion of its craft production as well (256).

In the course of this work Van De Mieroop also touches upon several important methodological questions in current ancient Near Eastern inquiry, such as the limits inherent in our documentation and the appropriate geographical and temporal boundaries to be drawn for Mesopotamian history (Chapter 11). He argues forcefully against decontextualizing the history of the ancient Near East by sundering it from that of succeeding periods and makes a start toward correcting this common fault by sketching the fate of the Mesopotamian city in Hellenistic, Roman, Parthian, Sassanian, and early Islamic times (233-245).

As its author intended, this book is accessible to the reader with no prior acquaintance with Mesopotamia and its languages or with the world of cuneiform studies. All Sumerian and Akkadian texts adduced are presented in translation only, unburdened by philological commentary. Only a few native terms are employed and these are clearly explained. The notes are relatively sparse, but a concise bibliographical essay presenting the most important recent secondary literature closes each chapter.

In recent years the gulf between Classical and ancient Near Eastern studies has begun to narrow, particularly in regard to literary questions. May this excellent volume, like those of Oppenheim, contribute to a greater cooperation and exchange of ideas between historians of Mesopotamia and those of Greece and Rome!

See the thumbnail intellectual biography prefaced by E. Reiner to the posthumous revised edition of Ancient Mesopotamia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977. Witness the negative review of Letters by F. R. Kraus in Journal of the Social and Economic History of the Orient 12 (1969): 200-11. As a typical example only I cite C. G. Starr, The Economic and Social History of Early Greece, 800-500 B.C. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977, Chapter V, “Cities and Coinage.” This attitude, which might be called “Orientalism avant la lettre,” has been well treated by P. Georges, Barbarian Asia and the Greek Experience. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. “Primitive Democracy in Ancient Mesopotamia,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 2 (1943): 159-172; “Early Political Development in Mesopotamia,” Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 52 (1957): 91-140. Both of these pieces are easily accessible in Jacobsen’s collected essays, Toward the Image of Tammuz, ed. W. L. Moran. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970. These developments are of obvious relevance for the theoretical debate among economic anthropologists as to whether primitive economic structures are best understood as “substantivist” or “formalist,” or — to put it in terms more familiar to Classicists — whether a “primitivist” or “modernist” model of ancient economies is more accurate (13-19). Crafts in the Early Isin Period. Leuven: Departement Oriëntalistik, 1987; Society and Enterprise in Old Babylonian Ur. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1992. Most significantly, the south was dependent upon rivers and canals for irrigation and transportation, while the climate in the north was suitable for rain-fed agriculture. The relatively small number of navigable waterways, however, made the latter region dependent on slower and considerably more expensive overland travel and shipment of goods. In a very interesting discussion elsewhere in the volume (164-67), Van De Mieroop shows that the food needs of the urban aggregations of Babylonia and Assyria were normally supplied by their immediate hinterlands. Despite the great volume of written evidence from Mesopotamia, we must recognize that much of the business of society was of no interest to the scribal elite (18), and that many types of activity left no textual record whatsoever (9). For instance, among transfers of real or movable property, only those transactions which might be challenged legally or require later verification were routinely documented. This fact and the skewing of our data by the accident of discovery make it impossible to quantify any aspect of the ancient Near Eastern economy (14). These points are set forth in more detail in “Why Did they Write on Clay?,” Klio 79 (1997): 7-18. Van De Mieroop correctly observes that it is the availability or absence of cuneiform documentation rather than rational historical considerations which set the conventional limits. Did the coming of Alexander really mark a greater hiatus in the history of the region than that of the Achaemenids? Or do we draw a disciplinary line through the Hellenistic period in Syro-Mesopotamia because many of us are incompetent to analyze Greek or Parthian archival material? See also his “On Writing a History of the Ancient Near East,” Bibliotheca Orientalis 54 (1997): 285-305. Note especially Walter Burkert, Die orientalisierende Epoche in der griechischen Religion und Literatur. Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1984; Charles Penglase, Greek Myths and Mesopotamia. London: Routledge, 1994; and M.L. West, The East Face of Helicon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.