Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 2/3


Early Mesopotamia

J.N. Postgate
Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History
Routledge, London 1992, pp. 367, £18.99

Paul-Alain Beaulieu
The Reign of Nabonidus, King of Babylon 556–539 BC
Yale University Press, New Haven 1989, pp. 270

OUR FIRST book is a very impressive achievement, weaving together the archaeological and literary sources to make a coherent picture of society at the dawn of history. Although it was conceived as a handbook for courses in Near Eastern archaeology at Cambridge, it is superbly illustrated and documented, and makes a real attempt to be accessible to outsiders by providing each chapter with a compact introduction to all the subjects dealt with in it. And it takes us right to the heart of the historical problems surrounding the emergence of class society, civilisation, state and religion where they first become open to investigation. From this wealth of information we have only space here for those themes that are of interest for framing a Marxist view of ancient society.

Whilst it is stated early on that ‘throughout history whenever South Mesopotamia has fostered a flourishing society this has been centred around an efficient agricultural regime dependent on the controlled exploitation of the rivers’ (p. 14), Wittfogel’s theory of hydraulic civilisation is dismissed as ‘no longer fashionable’, and centralised water control is no longer regarded as ‘the “prime mover” converting a society of villages to one of cities’ (p. 173). And whilst temples and palaces ‘are seen as gathering to themselves large reserves and distributing these to their dependants’, and ‘are therefore important in the process of state formation ... it would be dangerous to assume that this was the only route to civilisation’ (p. 191). This is because water control in Southern Iraq remained a localised concern even into the present century (p. 293), and all the evidence is that this was the predominant pattern during the early period. ‘Site survey has suggested that adaptations of the natural system into localised branching networks was the norm well on into the Early Dynastic’ (c 3000–2750 BC), notes Dr Postgate, and only at the end of this period when city life had well got under way were the ‘multiple, small shifting canals ... consolidated into a much reduced number of larger and more permanent courses’ (p. 174). The task of regulating canalisation at district and village level rested on a local official called a gugallum, who rarely appears in official texts. Large-scale brick construction of canal regulators is first mentioned under Entemena of Lagash (c 2450 BC), and major schemes involving redirecting the flow of the Tigris or Euphrates only start to crop up in royal inscriptions and date formulae after the time of Sargon of Akkad (p. 179; 2371–2315 BC). ‘Rural society may therefore have been able to fall back on a minimal default level if central government disintegrated’, explains Dr Postgate, but ‘where the scale of the works required a geographical control beyond the reach of local authorities, the agricultural regime must have rapidly deteriorated’ (p. 293), so that the abandonment of marginal lands must have been the inevitable result of political disorder, and their reclamation would only become viable when stability returned. And ‘for the society’s long-term survival the institutions’ rôle may well be crucial: where natural forces led to the drying of a major river course, the capital investment required to counteract this effect or relocate urban society to another stream must have been beyond individual villages’ (pp. 299–300).

As far as religion fitted into this, it seems that the ‘temple-state’ construct of ancient society held by Gordon Childe and Deimel can no longer be justified in the present state of our knowledge (pp. 109, 292): ‘We cannot any longer maintain that because the temple collected commodities and distributed them to its dependants the entire economy operated through “redistribution”, or that the priests controlled all agricultural production and commercial activity’, Dr Postgate considers, but ‘we must not overcompensate, and so underrate the importance of the temple’s rôle.’ (p. 109) Speaking of the archives of the Bau temple at Lagash just before the rise of Sargon I, he notes that even if ‘the accepted opinion that the temples were the state has been drastically revised’, ‘nevertheless the range of the temple’s economic activities recorded in the texts remains unchanged ... including the control of irrigation waters’ (p. 115). Even writing itself appears to be a by-product of the wealth accumulated by the Eanna temple at Erech, where history’s earliest records on clay tablets (developed from what were previously clay bullae marked with numerals and commodities) originate in administrative lists, a genre that along with lexical material (according to table 3:13 on page 66) begins earlier and continues later than any other written form.

Temples remained important sources of wealth, power and status to king and commoner alike throughout Mesopotamian history. The reversion of offerings was a valued source of revenue. To begin with, cultic offerings must have gone to the regular staff of the temples, but ‘in the course of time, as in the temples of contemporary Egypt, many of these posts became sinecures, the tenure of which could be passed on, whether by inheritance, rôle, or even rental’ (p. 125) (we even have deeds of sale for temple offices in Egypt). When the paternal estate was divided at death in Nippur the temple offices came into the possession of the eldest son, and each individual might own more than one office at a time (as was common practice in Egypt as well). This has led Assyriologists to describe these usages as ‘prebends’, on the analogy of the pluralism of the late Medieval church. Rather more than a perk was the practice that as early as pre-Sargonid Lagash ‘a major part of the land was assigned to the office-holders of the temple for their sustenance, and can be called “prebend fields” ... as one might expect, the area assigned varied in proportion to the importance of the holder’ (p. 126).

The cult had a no less important a function in society as a whole:

‘The old sedentary population had developed an explicit ideology to describe the relationships between ruler and ruled, and between politics and religion ... In the spheres reflected in our documents Mesopotamian religion is politics. From the earliest times historical statements are couched in religious metaphors, and this alone is enough to show that their ideological statements were important on a purely secular level.’ (p. 260)

On the difficult question as to which emerged first, temple or palace, it appears that in the south temple precedes palace, whereas in the north the order is reversed (pp. 140–1). ‘In some Early Dynastic cities’, we are told, ‘the government rested in the hands of the chief priests, who no doubt ruled from the temple precincts.’ (p. 137) For example, at Erech ‘where traditionally religious and secular power seem to have been united’, an assemblage of buildings ‘within the Eanna temple precinct was probably in effect the ‘palace’ of the Early dynastic dynasty’ (p. 140), whereas the earliest clearly identifiable royal palaces at Kish are set well away from the temples (p. 137). Dr Postgate still considers that Jacobsen’s theory that the king owed his authority to an emergency appointment in a popular assembly may well have substance to it (pp. 269–70), and even that ‘it is arguable that it was precisely the strength of the communal ethos of South Mesopotamian civilisation that was responsible for the sophistication of its social forms’, so that ‘the palace should perhaps be seen more as an intrusive element from less complex societies than as any sort of political progression in the traditional Mesopotamian scene’ (p. 137).

And the basic institutions of state power long remained rudimentary and undifferentiated. As in ancient Egypt (Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no. 3, p. 171), Mesopotamian armies were often assigned to ‘peace-time tasks of communal labour’ (p. 152), and, again as in Egypt, ‘the word for “troops” is used indifferently for men engaged on any tasks under state control, whether military or civil, just as they themselves would have been redeployed indifferently as occasion demanded from the agriculture and communal labour essential to a southern city state into a military rôle’. In fact, ‘our earliest clear reference to a permanent military force belongs to the Akkad Dynasty’ (p. 242; 2371–2230 BC), the first demonstrably imperial state.

Nonetheless, the shift from sacred to secular, and from institutional to private activity already noticed (Revolutionary History, Volume 4, no. 3, p. 104) obviously comes into play here, so that although ‘in the early third millennium the temples would have been the principal actors’, ‘there do seem to be various indications during the period 2500–1500 BC of the formal transfer of power from the temples to the palace’. The first indications of conflict between the two appear during the reign of Urukagina of Lagash (c 2380 BC), King Shulgi of Ur (2095–2047 BC) appears to have placed the temples under the supervision of secular appointees and used them ‘as an arm of the state economy’, and this was repeated by Hammurapi of Babylon (p. 300; 1792–1749 BC). And ‘as far as the private sector is concerned, another frequently asserted trend is the development of private property at the expense of the state after the collapse of the UR III Dynasty’ (p. 292; 2006 BC).

This leads on to a fascinating section (pp. 292ff.) dealing with Dark Ages and Intermediate periods as ‘obvious sources of social change’. These are, of course, a feature of contemporary Egyptian society as well, but whereas there the political structure on the whole maintained its basic unity, the city state was the rule rather than the exception in ancient Iraq, and the pattern here is of a very brief period of conquest of a surprisingly large area, followed by a relapse into internecine city state warfare. As in Egypt, there is an absence of relevant written information, which is ‘obviously symptomatic of conditions, but also veils from us the nature of events’ (p299). But there are some indications that some of these interludes might result from the collapse of a top-heavy state, freeing initiative from below. Speaking of extreme bureaucratism during the Third Dynasty of Ur, during which the title of scribe is used ‘almost as though it were a class’ (p. 153), Dr Postgate feels that ‘when the death of a single sheep appears three times in the government archives, it is hard to believe that the bureaucratic ideal had not become an encumbrance which ultimately contributed to the state’s inability to respond to internal and external threats’ (p. 42). During the same period there was an absolute ban on land sales (p. 183), and perhaps what amounted to a state monopoly of foreign trade, since ‘down to and including the UR III Dynasty the merchant class was indeed partly in the direct employ of the institutions’ (p. 220). But during the Isin-Larsa period that followed (2006–1763 BC), this trade fell into the hands of groups of merchants, for ‘the bureaucratic pyramid of the UR III system could not have survived the collapse of the state, and the local kings could have had neither the capital nor the administrative staff to re-establish a comparable level of inter-state commerce’ (p. 221). Indeed, the ‘apparent shift towards private from institutional enterprise’ (p. 22) is seen as a general feature of development.

Our second book is a valuable insight into the fall of this civilisation, which was in many respects the end of the ancient world as a whole, in the rise of Persia and the development of classical Greece. For many years scholars have been perplexed at the enigma of the last of the neo-Babylonian emperors, obviously a man of considerable ability, who seems to have upset all the traditional religious establishments in his fanaticism for the cult of the god Sin at Harran, whilst absenting himself from the capital for 10 years in the oasis of Teima in Arabia at a time when the Medes, and later the Persians, were threatening the existence of his empire. At first sight this would seem to be an ancient equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns, and the virtual absence of conventional annalistic material makes his conduct all the more baffling.

It is, in fact, the interaction between cult, state and realpolitik in pre-classical society that enables Dr Beaulieu to make a credible interpretation of what was actually going on. In the absence of palace archives he brings together building dedications, cultic inscriptions and temple accounts to reveal a fascinating picture of the death agony of the ancient world at the highest state level.

Ancient Mesopotamian society always suffered from the same problem of stability and continuity as the later Roman Empire, in that there was no necessary legal reason why any king should be succeeded by his son, as Dr Postgate reminded us in his book (p. 270). Obviously dynasties were established based on the prestige of one successful king or another, but few of them lasted more than a century or so. This built-in instability was particularly the case with the last neo-Babylonian dynasty, where Nebuchadrezzar II’s son was dethroned by the army commander Nergal-sharezer, whose son in turn was overthrown by Nabonidus himself. At the same time the rising power of Iran threatened to engulf the state and its civilisation as a whole.

The analysis set out here allows us a unique glimpse into how this society attempted to meet the threat to its existence, and the forms of internal conflict that raged between the different factions as to how this should be done. It is clear that for Nabonidus the traditions of Babylon alone were too narrow a basis upon which to assure survival. A previous researcher had already drawn attention to ‘the idea of imperial continuity with Assyria, centred on the figure of Ashurbanipal’ as one of ‘the main characteristics of Nabonidus’ personality’ (p. 2), to which our writer adds that ‘according to him, the successive empires of Assyria and Babylonia were two historical manifestations of the same imperial idea, and royal legitimacy rested more on the ability to fulfil the imperial mission than on a legalistic claim to the throne by right of descent’ (p. 140).

Nabonidus appears to have been an outsider, an Aramaean with a military background, ‘an able ruler who tried to save a hastily built and unstable empire from internal political turmoil and from an uneasy, if not desperate position on the international scene’ (p. xiii). Although we moderns would separate out his policies for achieving this into religious, economic and foreign, it is clear that no such divisions existed within the society of the time. Nabonidus’ mysterious 10 year absence in Teima, for example, ‘may well have been provoked by a split between him and an influential party led by his son’ (p. 63), but it was also a logical continuation of the expansion of the last Assyrian emperors and of Nebuchadrezzar II into this area, which controlled the wealth of all the trade from the east (pp. 178–81), possession of which could well have tipped the balance in the war that followed.

A similar picture emerges with what we might call religious policy, which was never a simple matter of individual conscience in the ancient Near East. ‘Royal interference with temple affairs often indicates a major shift of policy at court’, comments Dr Beaulieu (p. 234). Nabonidus evidently regarded himself as heir to the pretensions of the Sargonid dynasty of the Assyrian Empire (722–609 BC), and attempted to mobilise the whole of the cultural tradition of Mesopotamian civilisation in his defence, for which the city cults of the Babylonian heartland were too restricted in their appeal. His long-term aim to restore the cult of the god Sin at Harran, the last bastion of Assyrian power, was also a vital strategic goal, since its dominating position was under the control of the Medes: ‘Nabonidus’ motives for this may have been primarily personal, but the way he translated them into political terms suggests that the issue was subordinate to a broader one, the contest for hegemony over the Near East between the Medes and the Babylonians, a problem which had remained unresolved ever since the downfall of Assyria at the end of the sixth [sic] century’. (p. 114) So his anxiety to re-establish the cult of this temple not only ‘involved a redefinition of the respective spheres of Median and Babylonian influence in the Near East’ (p. 143–4), but ‘the inclusion of Harran in the Babylonian realm necessitated the breakdown of the Median kingdom’ (p. 114).

By demonstrating that ‘it is virtually impossible to draw a firm line between religion and politics when trying to evaluate Nabonidus’ goals’ (p. 110), Dr Beaulieu takes us right to the heart of the functioning mechanism of pre-classical society on the eve of its collapse. So that in spite of their very different aims and focus, these two books ideally complement each other.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 29.9.2011