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Thorkild Jacobsen - Primitive Democracy in Ancient Mesopotamia

Thorkild Jacobsen - Primitive Democracy in Ancient Mesopotamia

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Published by Nippurean
Jacobsen traces his inquiry backward in time, in a hunt for the oldest sources of Mesopotamian justification for democratic assembly.

Only recently [in history] has it been stressed that what is deeply valued will be discovered and is attainable in the future.

The great ancient civilizations tended to think otherwise, expecting to discover the good most fully in the continuous, sacred dimensions of life, and in origins.

In this article, Jacobsen is not making a reactionary case that the best democracy was in the oldest stages of Mesopotamian civilization. Instead, he’s up to something else: by working with his evidence in reverse chronological order, he is encouraging his reader to try on the point of view of Mesopotamians, to search back in time to the origins of the most powerful articulation of ancient Mesopotamian belief in democratic action.

http://nippurean.blogspot.com/2009/11/passages-from-thorkild-jacobsen.html

Thorkild Jacobsen (7 June 1904 – 2 May 1993) was a renowned historian specializing in Assyriology and Sumerian literature. He was one of the foremost scholars on the ancient Near East.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorkild_Jacobsen
Jacobsen traces his inquiry backward in time, in a hunt for the oldest sources of Mesopotamian justification for democratic assembly.

Only recently [in history] has it been stressed that what is deeply valued will be discovered and is attainable in the future.

The great ancient civilizations tended to think otherwise, expecting to discover the good most fully in the continuous, sacred dimensions of life, and in origins.

In this article, Jacobsen is not making a reactionary case that the best democracy was in the oldest stages of Mesopotamian civilization. Instead, he’s up to something else: by working with his evidence in reverse chronological order, he is encouraging his reader to try on the point of view of Mesopotamians, to search back in time to the origins of the most powerful articulation of ancient Mesopotamian belief in democratic action.

http://nippurean.blogspot.com/2009/11/passages-from-thorkild-jacobsen.html

Thorkild Jacobsen (7 June 1904 – 2 May 1993) was a renowned historian specializing in Assyriology and Sumerian literature. He was one of the foremost scholars on the ancient Near East.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorkild_Jacobsen

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Published by: Nippurean on Dec 03, 2009
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Primitive Democracy in Ancient MesopotamiaAuthor(s): Thorkild JacobsenSource:
Journal of Near Eastern Studies,
Vol. 2, No. 3 (Jul., 1943), pp. 159-172Published by: The University of Chicago PressStable URL:
Accessed: 20/11/2009 16:17
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 Journalof Near Eastern Studies.
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JOURNALOF
NEAR
EASTERN
STUDIES
JULY 1943
Number3
PRIMITIVEDEMOCRACYINANCIENTMESOPOTAMIA1
THORKILDJACOBSEN
W
ORDS
whichembodythehopes,thefears,andthevaluesofgen-erations arelikelyto loseinclar-itywhattheygainindepth.One suchwordis"democracy,"which denoted aformofgovernmentandnow stands for awayof life.Itmaynotbeamiss,there-fore,first to make clearinwhatsenseweintendtousethewordbefore weplungein mediasres.Weshalluse"democracy"inits classi-cal ratherthaninitsmodern senseasde-notinga formofgovernmentinwhichin-ternalsovereigntyresides inalargepro-portionofthegoverned,namelyinallfree,adult,male citizenswithout distinction offortune or class. Thatsovereigntyresidesin thesecitizensimpliesthatmajorde-cisions-suchasthedecision toundertakeawar-are madewith theirconsent,thatthese citizens constitute thesupreme ju-dicialauthorityinthestate,andalsothat
1 The substanceofthis articlewaspresentedinapaperreadat themeetingoftheAmericanOrientalSocietyheldinChicagoinApril,1941.Since then Pro-fessorE. A.Speiserhas touchedonthesubjectina
paragraphof hispaper,Some SourcesofIntellectualandSocialProgressin the AncientNear East("Studies
in theHistoryofCulture"[Philadelphia,1942]), p.60.Speiser'sviewsagreewithoursinimportantpoints;the term whichhesuggests,"politocracy,"seems,however,lessexpressivethan"primitivedemocracy"andtendsinadditiontosever the closeties whichconnecttheMesopotamianformswithsimilarprimi-tive forms ofgovernmentelsewhere,manyofwhichwereflourishinginapredominantlytribal,noturban,setting.
rulersandmagistratesobtain theirposi-tionswithandultimatelyderive theirpowerfromthatsame consent.By"primitive democracy,"further-more,weunderstandforms ofgovernmentwhich,though they maybeconsidered asfallingwithin the definitionofdemocracyjustgiven,differ from theclassicaldemoc-raciesbytheirmoreprimitivecharacter:thevariousfunctions ofgovernmentareasyetlittlespecialized,thepowerstruc-tureisloose,and themachineryfor socialco-ordinationbymeans ofpowerisasyetimperfectly developed.We shouldperhapsaddthat thecon-trast with which we areprimarilycon-cernedistheonebetween"democracy"asdefinedabove,on theonehand,and"au-tocracy,"used asageneraltermforformswhich tendtoconcentrate themajorpoli-ticalpowersinthehands ofasingleindi-vidual,on theother."Oligarchy,"whichsosubtly mergesintodemocracyandwhichsooften functions informssimilartoit,canhardly,at thepresentstageofourknowledgeofancientMesopotamia,beprofitably distinguished.
AUTOCRATICORIENTATION INHISTORI-CALTIMES
Thepoliticaldevelopmentinearlyhis-torical times seemsto lieunder thespellof
159
VolumeII
 
JOURNAL OFNEAREASTERNSTUDIES
onecontrollingidea: concentration ofpo-liticalpowerin asfewhands aspossible.Withinsmallareas,intown and town-ship,thisprinciplehad beenrealized-orwasbeingrealized-toaverysubstantialdegree duringthefirst centuries of Meso-potamian history.2Thecountryformedamosaic ofdiminutive,self-sufficient,au-tonomouscity-states,andineach suchstate oneindividual,theruler,unitedinhishands the chiefpoliticalpowers: legis-lative,judiciary,andexecutive.Onlyhecouldpromulgateandcarryinto effectnewlaw;3healone waspersonally respon-siblebycontract withthecity-godforupholding justiceandrighteousness;4as
2
ThebeginningofhistoryproperinMesopotamiamaybeplacedapproximatelyatthetime ofUrnanshe.Ashis date wegaveca. 2800
B.c.
in TheSumerianKingList("O.I.C.,"No.11),Table II. Sincethen,however,new material and treatments haveappearedmakingithighly probablethat thedateoftheFirstDynastyofBabylon, uponwhichall absolutedatesintheearlierperiodsdepend,mustberadicallylowered.Althoughthe various newchronologieswhich havebeenproposedareundoubtedlyingeneralnearertothe truththanwas the oldhighchronology,the mate-rial doesnot,inouropinion,permitus to fix onanyoftheavailablepossibilities.We are thereforeleavingthequestion open, acceptingprovisionallythedateforHammurabiproposedby SidneySmith(AlalakhandChronology [London,1940], p.29),1792-1750B.c. Thismeans that the scaleoftimegiveninTheSumerianKingList should beshifted downwardby275years.3Themajorpartof thelegislativeactivitiesofearly Mesopotamianrulersfallswithin theprovinceof"speciallaw"inthesense ofcommands issuedbythestate,enforcedbyitsauthority,and aimed atsomeimmediateandspecificsituation. Herebelongordersinitiatingthebuildingandrebuildingofspecifictemplesatspecifictimes andplaces,repairsanddig-gingofcanals,wagingofwars,etc.Forsuch achieve-ments therulergets-ortakes-solecreditinthein-scriptions.The mainbodyof the"generallaw" whichregulatedSumero-Akkadiansocietywaspresumablyunwrittencommonlaw.Heretoo, however,therulermayintervene,asisevidencedbyUrukagena'ssweepingchangesin theexistinglegalorder(seehisConeB+Cand OvalTablet).Theruler'spowers,however,thoughautocratic,werenotabsolute. Theauthorityfor newspeciallawas well as for newgener-al lawwas thewill of thegodofthe state as communi-catedto the rulerthroughdreamsand omens. Ade-taileddescriptionof thegenesisofaspeciallaw,thatinitiatingtherebuildingof thetempleEninnuinLa-gash,isgiveninGudeaCyl.A i 1-xii20.ThedivineordersleadingtoUrukagena'sreforms are referred toin ConeB+Cvii20-viii13.
4
UrukagenaCone B
+
Cxii23: n
u-s
i
g-
nu-ma-sulu-a-tukunu-na-ga-ga-adNin-gir-su-daUru-ka-ge-na-ke4
supremecommanderof allarmedforces,heled thestateinbattle;5and,as adminis-trator of the maintemple complex,6hecontrolledthemostpowerfulsingleeco-nomic unitwithinthestate.Butthemomentumof theautocraticidea was stillfarfromspentwith there-alization of this idea within smallsepa-rateareas.ItdroveMesopotamiafor-wardrelentlesslytowardthemore distantaim:centralization ofpowerwithin onelargearea. Each rulerofacity-statewasforeverstrivingtosubdue hisneighbors,strivingto becomethe onewhowouldunite all ofsouthernMesopotamiainto asinglecentralized state under asinglerul-inghand-his own. Frombefore the dawnofhistory7throughthesoldier-kingdomsofLugalzagesiandtheearlySargonidstothehighly organizedbureaucraticstateof theThirdDynastyofUr,wewatchthese effortstoward ultimatecentraliza-tionsteadilygrowinpower,inintensity,andinefficiency.8
DEMOCRATIC INSTITUTIONSINTHEJUDICIARY IN POST-IMPERIALTIMES9
Tofindinaworldsosingularlyauto-craticinoutlook,propelledinitsdomesticandforeign policies bythe oneurgefor
i n im-beka e-da-si r:"Urukagenacontract-ed withNingirsuthat he(i.e.,Urukagena)wouldnotdeliveruptheorphanand the widowto thepower-fulman."5See,e.g.,Eannatum's SteleoftheVultures obv.ix1-x4andthepictorial representationson thatmonument;alsothe accountofthewarsbetween La-gashand UmmainEntemena'sConeA(onone oc-casion,thebattlein iii5ff.,thesonoftherulerofLagashseems tohave been incommand),theinscrip-tionofUtuhegal,RA,IX,111-20,andX,98-100,andmanyothers.
6
See DeimelinAnalectaorientalia,II,80.
7Thereis reasontobelievethatsuccessful at-temptstounifysouthernMesopotamiaweremadevery early.SeemyremarksinJAOS,LIX(1939),489,endofn. 11onp.487.
8
Seeforthe timebeing myremarksibid.,p.495,n. 26.9Weareemployingfor thehistoricalperiodsthe
termsproposedinThe SumerianKingList,P1. II.
160

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