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The Birth of Kingship:
From Democracy to Monarchy in Sumer

Jacob Klein

Click here to purchase the January/February 2001 Archaeology Odyssey containing this article with all accompanying photos and illustrations.

See "The Sumerian King List,"

"The Goddess Inanna's Love Song to King Shulgi,"



If you read later Sumerian literature, you will think that Sumer was always a monarchy ruled by a king. That is what these later kings wanted you to believe. But this is not necessarily so. How monarchy came to Sumer is in fact a fascinating, if somewhat obscure, historical development.

Sumer was an early civilization in southern Babylonia, now southern Iraq. The Sumerians were a small but ambitious and enlightened group, whose most important cultural achievement was the invention and development of cuneiform writing. The Sumerian language is unrelated to any known language family, but the style of writing—cuneiform—was later adopted for many other languages, such as the Babylonian and Assyrian dialects of Akkadian, and, in an alphabetic form, Ugaritic.

Historians usually divide Sumerian history into three major periods. They would be much easier to remember if they were called simply early, middle and late. But for complicated reasons related to the history of scholarship, they are called by these less mnemonic names:

Phases of Sumerian History
Early Dynastic Period c. 2900-2300 B.C.E.
Ur III (New-Sumerian) Period c. 2100-2000 B.C.E.
Isin-Larsa Period c. 2000-1760 B.C.E.

The gap between the early and middle periods was a “period of darkness.” In the first, greater part of this dark period, Sumer was conquered and ruled by the Akkadians, a Semitic people, who occupied the northern part of Babylonia. The last 50 years of so of this historical gap experienced the occupation of Sumer by the Guteans, a “barbaric” people from the east, who brought about the downfall of the Akkadian Empire and disrupted all civilized life in Sumer.

According to the standard Sumerian king list, a list of royal dynasties that was composed in the Ur III period and revised at the end of the Isin-Larsa period, kingship was sent down from heaven. Indeed, it was sent down twice, once before the great flood, when it landed in Eridu, and again after the flood, when it landed in Kish. Obviously, these later kings wanted their subjects to believe that kingship was a divinely ordained institution that existed from time immemorial. The hoary antiquity of kingship is also implied by many Sumerian myths and stories, which tacitly assume that urban civilization in general, and kingship in particular, were created by the gods at the time of the creation of mankind. This, however, is royal propaganda.

In fact, in the early part of the Early Dynastic period, Sumer consisted of independent city-states. Each city-state included the area surrounding it, with the city itself functioning as a kind of capital. The economy was based primarily on agriculture and small industry. These city-states were governed by a form of primitive democracy. The ruler of the prehistoric city-state was presumably elected by a general assembly of the elders and the male arms-bearing citizens, perhaps with the participation of the priestly representatives of the city god. The city-states, in turn, were organized in an amphictyony (a league of allied powers), whose members in times of emergency selected their leader in a democratic assembly at Nippur, with the sanction of the supreme god, Enlil.

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