Ancient History & Civilisation

3. Government

The kings—Ways of war—The feudal barons—Law

Indeed each city, as long as it could, maintained a jealous independence, and indulged itself in a private king. It called him patesi, or priest-king, indicating by the very word that government was bound up with religion. By 2800 B.C. the growth of trade made such municipal separatism impossible, and generated “empires” in which some dominating personality subjected the cities and their patesis to his power, and wove them into an economic and political unity. The despot lived in a Renaissance atmosphere of violence and fear; at any moment he might be despatched by the same methods that had secured him the throne. He dwelt in an inaccessible palace, whose two entrances were so narrow as to admit only one person at a time; to the right and left were recesses from which secret guards could examine every visitor, or pounce upon him with daggers.34Even the king’s temple was private, hidden away in his palace, so that he might perform his religious duties without exposure, or neglect them inconspicuously.

The king went to battle in a chariot, leading a motley host armed with bows, arrows and spears. The wars were waged frankly for commercial routes and goods, without catchwords as a sop for idealists. King Manish-tusu of Akkad announced frankly that he was invading Elam to get control of its silver mines, and to secure diorite stone to immortalize himself with statuary—the only instance known of a war fought for the sake of art. The defeated were customarily sold into slavery; or, if this was unprofitable, they were slaughtered on the battlefield. Sometimes a tenth of the prisoners, struggling vainly in a net, were offered as living victims to the thirsty gods. As in Renaissance Italy, the chauvinistic separatism of the cities stimulated life and art, but led to civic violence and suicidal strife that weakened each petty state, and at last destroyed Sumeria.35

In the empires social order was maintained through a feudal system. After a successful war the ruler gave tracts of land to his valiant chieftains, and exempted such estates from taxation; these men kept order in their territories, and provided soldiers and supplies for the exploits of the king. The finances of the government were obtained by taxes in kind, stored in royal warehouses, and distributed as pay to officials and employees of the state.36

To this system of royal and feudal administration was added a body of law, already rich with precedents when Ur-engur and Dungi codified the statutes of Ur; this was the fountainhead of Hammurabi’s famous code. It was cruder and simpler than later legislation, but less severe: where, for example, the Semitic code killed a woman for adultery, the Sumerian code merely allowed the husband to take a second wife, and reduce the first to a subordinate position.37 The law covered commercial as well as sexual relations, and regulated all loans and contracts, all buying and selling, all adoptions and bequests. Courts of justice sat in the temples, and the judges were for the most part priests; professional judges presided over a superior court. The best element in this code was a plan for avoiding litigation: every case was first submitted to a public arbitrator whose duty it was to bring about an amicable settlement without recourse to law.38 It is a poor civilization from which we may not learn something to improve our own.

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