Montreal, January 15, 2010 • No 274


Martin Masse is publisher of QL.




Gudea, Urukagina, and the Mesopotamian
Origin of the Concept of Liberty*


by Martin Masse


          New York's Metropolitan Museum organized, in 2003, what was without a doubt the most beautiful and fascinating museum exhibit I have ever seen, Art of the First Cities, which contained the major masterpieces of Mesopotamia and other ancient Middle Eastern and Central Asian civilizations. The Met also has a few magnificent pieces in one room of its permanent collection that I rarely fail to revisit whenever I find myself in the Big Apple, even if I'm pressed for time.


          There are many reasons to be interested in ancient Iraq. One can learn about the beginnings of western civilization, the first large scale cities and organized societies, the invention of writing, the first written laws, etc. There is also the sheer fascination of looking upon works that are several thousand years old.

          Among my favourite pieces at the Metropolitan is this statue of a believer praying that dates back to sometime from 2750 to 2600 B.C. Like other similar statuettes that have been recovered, it would have been placed in a temple to pray in perpetuity in the name of the person whom it represented. No one believes in the gods Enlil, Ishtar, or Abu anymore, but the religious impulse has not changed that much in the intervening five millennia.

          There is also and especially the magnificent statue of Gudea, the "ensi," which is to say governor or prince, of Lagash, a city in southern Mesopotamia where he reigned from approximately 2141 to 2122 B.C. Numerous statues have been recovered depicting him in a similar fashion, with his strange cap, and his face is recognizable as soon as one enters the room, be it in the Louvre or in other museums housing one of the statues.

How Can We Pass Judgment 4000 Years After the Fact?

It is easy, today, to criticize our leaders, who can no longer plead ignorance when adopting interventionist policies that have failed over and over again in the past. In this day and age, we know very well to what horrors authoritarian power can lead. But how can we judge the actions of a leader like Gudea (or what we know about him, anyway) four thousand years later? The same problems arise with any attempt to judge historical events. We cannot really apply a strict contemporary libertarian analysis, which would be futile given what was known and universally accepted at the time, and given the development of ideas, institutions, and technologies. But by placing ourselves in that context, we can nonetheless pass judgment by finding out what most resembled or corresponded to our philosophy. Liberty, responsibility, respect of others, nonaggression, and exchange are universal concepts, which could be put into practice just as well 4000 years ago as they can today.

In the end, it's not that difficult. Mesopotamian civilization lasted far too long—three millennia—to summarize its historical, political, and economic history in a few paragraphs. But according to the little that we know about it, we can surmise that its economic system was not so different from the one we have known in recent centuries. The laws of economics are also the same today as they were back then, and human behaviour hasn't changed all that much either.

          Independent city-states prospered there, even as empires dominated vast regions, notably the Assyrian empire. They had neither democracy, nor free markets, nor individual liberties as we conceive of them today. Coined money had not been invented, even if bars of silver were being used as a medium of exchange. Yet the rule of law and a complex social order existed, as did commerce, a few basic industries, and the country was extraordinarily prosperous and well-organized compared to the rest of the world at the time.

          Political and religious powers controlled a good portion of the land and of the production of certain staples. Bureaucracy was ubiquitous. Monarchs attempted to conquer territory and build empires in part to control the trade in certain goods, just as the mercantilist European powers did more recently. We don't really know how private exchanges functioned since the administrative documents that survived are almost exclusively those of royal palaces and religious temples. But it must certainly have contributed to the general level of prosperity along with those sectors controlled by princes and priests.

          What we know for sure is that one way or another, the division of labour was developed to a greater extent than anywhere else up to that moment in the history of the human race, which allowed for the development of complex cities and communities. The legal framework protecting property, contracts, and exchanges and delimiting the leaders' powers of taxation must have played an important role, since a dynamic economy cannot develop without the rules of the game having a certain transparency and permanence. It is precisely this that differentiates a civilized society from one in which physical force determines the allocation of resources. (Of course, the distinction is not as obvious when the tyrant forcefully extracts 40% of what we produce…!)

"Mesopotamian civilization lasted far too long—three millennia—to summarize its historical, political, and economic history in a few paragraphs. But according to the little that we know about it, we can surmise that its economic system was not so different from the one we have known in recent centuries."

The First Liberal Reform

          And in point of fact, civilization was able to advance because people at the time had already noticed the harmful effects of high taxes, excessive bureaucracy, unjustly powerful elites, and wars of imperial conquest on their society's peace and prosperity. A clay tablet dating back to 2300 B.C. thus tells of the fascinating liberal reforms of Urukagina, one of Gudea's predecessors at Lagash who led the principality a century and a half before him. The Sumerologist Noah Kramer described it as follows in his book From the Tablets of Sumer: Twenty-Five Firsts in Man's Recorded History (The Falcon's Wing Press, 1956):

          Urukagina, the leader of the Sumerian city-state of Girsu/Lagash, led a popular movement that resulted in the reform of the oppressive legal and governmental structure of Sumeria. The oppressive conditions in the city before the reforms is described in the new code preserved in cuneiform on tablets of the period: "From the borders of Ningirsu to the sea, there was the tax collector." During his reign (ca. 2350 B.C.) Urukagina implemented a sweeping set of laws that guaranteed the rights of property owners, reformed the civil administration, and instituted moral and social reforms. Urukagina banned both civil and ecclesiastical authorities from seizing land and goods for payment, eliminated most of the state tax collectors, and ended state involvement in matters such as divorce proceedings and perfume making. He even returned land and other property his predecessors had seized from the temple. He saw that reforms were enacted to eliminate the abuse of the judicial process to extract money from citizens and took great pains to ensure the public nature of legal proceedings.

          It is also on this tablet that were found the famous cuneiform signs for the word amagi (or amargi), which means "liberty." This would be the oldest written representation of this concept in the history of the human race. Kramer explains the context in the following very interesting paragraph from another of his books, The Sumerians. Their History, Culture and Character (University of Chicago Press, 1963, p. 79):

          As can be gathered from what has already been said about social and economic organization, written law played a large role in the Sumerian city. Beginning about 2700 B.C., we find actual deeds of sales, including sales of fields, houses, and slaves. From about 2350 B.C., during the reign of Urukagina of Lagash, we have one of the most precious and revealing documents in the history of man and his perennial and unrelenting struggle for freedom from tyranny and oppression. This document records a sweeping reform of a whole series of prevalent abuses, most of which could be traced to a ubiquitous and obnoxious bureaucracy consisting of the ruler and his palace coterie; at the same time it provides a grim and ominous picture of man's cruelty toward man on all levels—social, economic, political, and psychological. Reading between its lines, we also get a glimpse of a bitter struggle for power between the temple and the palace—the "church" and the "state"—with the citizens of Lagash taking the side of the temple. Finally, it is in this document that we find the word "freedom" used for the first time in man's recorded history; the word is amargi, which, as has recently been pointed out by Adam Falkenstein, means literally "return to the mother." However, we still do not know why this figure of speech came to be used for "freedom."

A Pacifist Prince Who Favoured Trade

          And what about Gudea? He comes off fairly well on this score. Georges Roux devotes a few telling paragraphs to him in his book Ancient Iraq, a classic first published in 1964:

          Gudea built—or rather rebuilt—at least fifteen temples in the city-state of Lagash, but on none of them was he so lavish as on the E-ninnu, the temple of Ningirsu, the city-god of Girsu. On two large clay cylinders and on some of his statue inscriptions he explains at length why and how he built it, giving us, incidentally, invaluable details on the complicated rites essential to the foundation of sanctuaries in ancient Mesopotamia. (...)

Respect for the temple—says Gudea proudly—pervades the country; the fear of it fills the strangers; the brilliance of the Eninnu enfolds the universe like a mantle!

          Alas, of this magnificent temple practically nothing remains, and we would be tempted to tax Gudea with gross exaggeration were it not for the seventeen odd statues of the ensi that have come to us, mostly as the result of illicit digging. Carved out of hard, polished black diorite from Magan, they are executed with a simplicity of line, and economy of detail, a sensitivity of expression which give them a prominent place in the gallery of world sculpture. If such masterpieces were displayed in the sanctuaries of Girsu we can well believe that the rest of the decoration and the buildings themselves were of no inferior quality.

          This young man sitting calmly, a faint smile upon his lips, his hand clasped in front of his chest, the plan of a temple or a foot rule across his knee, is the finest example of a figure unfortunately soon to disappear: the perfect Sumerian ruler, pious, just, cultured, faithful to the old traditions, devoted to his people, filled with love and pride for his city and, at least in this particular case, pacific—in all the inscriptions of Gudea, only one military campaign in Anshan (East of Elam) is mentioned; there is therefore no doubt that the timber, metal and stone used in his buildings were acquired by trade and not by territorial conquests. What was given in exchange is not disclosed, but the widespread commercial undertakings of the ensi of Lagash testify to the almost unbelievable prosperity of a Sumerian city-state after one hundred years of Akkadian government and almost fifty years of foreign occupation.

          A pacifist prince in a world of nearly constant conflict, who favoured trade, who tried to be pious (note: piety is not synonymous with religious fanaticism) and wise? Now there's a model of government that is still perfectly relevant for our time. I could easily name many current leaders that I would love to see replaced by a Gudea. And that will only increase my appreciation of the beauty of his statue the next time I spot him in a museum!