West Civ. 1

Precursor to Modern Society

The first civilization rose in the Middle East, nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. This area was known as the "Fertile Crescent" due to its rich soil. The civilization, generally termed "Mesopotamian," was highly civilized, despite the lack of later knowledge and technology. They possessed organized religion, written laws, working government, economic stability, and social stratification. They were the first to provide written records of their existence. Although Mesopotamia existed thousands of years ago, it was a flourishing civilization whose influence may still be felt today.

One way to determine a civilization is to consider its spiritual life. Ancient Mesopotamians were polytheistic, worshipping many gods, each with different connotations or specialties. To appease and worship their gods, the Mesopotamians built great temples, or Ziggurats, which were shaped like step-pyramids. "Ziggurats also served as administrative and economic centers of cities, with storehouses and administrative rooms housed in the lower levels" (The West in the World, 10). Not only were the cities in Ancient Mesopotamia organized enough to construct such buildings, but they had a hierarchy of priests and priestesses, who organized more than just religious activities. "Temple administrators organized irrigation projects and tax collection" (The West in the World, 10). Priests also acted as doctors because they believed that demons caused illness (The West in the Word, 10). Some of their legends, such as "The Epic of Gilgamesh" are reminiscent of later epic tales, such as those of Odysseus or Ulysses, and some of the tales therein remind one of Old Testament stories. Despite their complex religion, Mesopotamians did not have a positive outlook on life or the afterlife. Their gods were hard and very human in their emotions and temperaments, much like those of later civilizations, such as the ancient Greeks or Romans.

Strangely, this society broke the ties of feudalism, an institution which reappeared years later and did not relinquish its hold until after medieval times. According to The West in the World, "ancient loyalties to family and clan were slowly replaced by political and religious ties that linked devoted followers to the city guarded by their favored deity" (The West in the World, 10). Because of their religion, ancient Mesopotamians believed that social stratification and social hierarchy were natural (The West in the World, 12). The West in the World states, "Kingship was universally accepted as the correct political order… Inequality among people was seen as normal and theologically justified" (The West in the World, 12). Also, they believed that war was due to feuds between city gods (The West in the World, 11). Because of that belief, "conquerors made a conscious effort to appease the local deities" (The West in the World, 11), thus making it easier for them to conquer, but also making it easier to combine and appease separate cultures. For example, Sargon, an Akkadian king, invaded Sumer and gave his daughter the position of priestess for both the Akkadian and the Sumerian goddesses (The West in the World, 11). Naturally, because of Sargon's success of this, later rulers also gave their daughters such positions in attempts to unite cultures.

Cultures in ancient Mesopotamia not only connected through conquest and religious combinations; they also connected through extensive trade. Because the Fertile Crescent lacked certain materials, such as metal or stone, "the earliest settlements depended on long-distance trade" (The West in the World, 10). Trade extended to Syria, the Arabian Peninsula, India, and even as far as China (The West in the World, 10). Because of its location and the extensive trade networks, Mesopotamia flourished. Laws were established to regulate trade, and legal contracts were apparently highly valuable. According to Hammurabi's Code, a compilation of laws named after the king who compiled them in one written form, "If a seignior has purchased or has received for safekeeping… any sort of thing from the hand of a seignior's son or a seignior's slave without witnesses and contracts, since that seignior is a thief, he shall be put to death" (Kishlansky, 21). The Code also states that "If a seignior acquired a wife, but did not draw up the contracts for her, that woman is no wife" (Kishlansky, 21). The Code also discusses compensation for law enforcement's mishaps. "If the robber has not been caught, the robbed seignior shall set forth the particulars regarding his lost property in the presence of god, and the city and governor, in whose territory and district the robbery was committed, shall make good to him his lost property" (Kishlansky, 22). This seems almost like an early version of insurance. The West in the World says about Hammurabi's Code, "It regulated everything from family life to physician's fees to building requirements" (The West in the World, 14). Clearly, lawmakers in ancient Mesopotamia had great foresight.

The society was so advanced that it allowed women to work in various occupations. "Women could practice various trades and hold public positions" (The West in the World, 14). According to The West in the World, "…women worked in many shops in the cities – as wine sellers, tavern keepers, and merchants" (The West in the World, 10). The text goes on to say that women were, at first, allowed in scribal schools, and there is evidence to show that there were "a number of successful female scribes" (The West in the World, 13). Women were also allowed to divorce their husbands, another strange phenomenon that would disappear years later and not reappear until the modern era. She was even allowed to keep her dowry or a divorce-settlement if she proved not to have neglected her household (Kishlansky, 23).

Rights extended not only to women, but also to the poor and to slaves. Peasants are allowed to pay a smaller price to their wives when divorced because they cannot afford more (Kishlansky, 23). Slaves, according to The West in the World, "might own land and marry free persons." "Slaves could save money to purchase their freedom, and children born of a freewoman and a slave were free" (The West in the World, 8). Rights also protected those accused of wrongdoing. In Hamurabi's code, if the accusers could not prove the crimes, they were often punished with death or the penalty of the crime which they accused another (Kishlansky, 21-24). As stated in the Code, "If a seignior came forward with false testimony in a case, and has not proved the word which he spoke, if that case was a case involving life, that seignior shall be put to death" (Kishlansky, 21). The laws also promote equal punishment; for example, "If a seignior has destroyed the eye of a member of the aristocracy, they shall destroy his eye" (Kishlansky, 24).

Of course, family still remained the center of society. "The earliest written laws regulated married life in an attempt to preserve public peace through private ties" (The West in the World, 10). In Hammurabi's Code, laws were indeed formed to regulate family life. Laws prevented violations of vows, sexual relations between fathers and daughters, fathers and daughters-in-law, sons and mothers, etc (Kishlansky, 23). Adultery was punishable by death (The West in the World, 10), although men were allowed to keep concubines (The West in the World). During war, women who could afford it had to wait for their husbands if their husbands had been captured, but if they could not afford living without him, they were allowed to marry another until he returned (Kishlansky, 23). The laws even discuss what should happen to children in certain instances. If a woman had children with the second husband in the aforementioned circumstance, and her husband returned, the children would have to stay with their father, and she would have to go back to her first husband (Kishlansky, 23). Because prostitutes were considered dangerous to the families, "laws arose that insisted upon special clothing to distinguish 'respectable' women from prostitutes" (The West in the World, 10). Women began veiling their heads in public, while prostitutes and slaves did not (The West in the World, 10-11). This practice can still be seen in the Middle East today. Another lasting practice was that of arranged marriages, although that is not seen as often today. Women also had dowries, which "bound the marriage contract" (The West in the World, 10).

As one can undoubtedly see, ancient Mesopotamia was not only the first civilization on earth, but the basis of all civilizations thereafter. Their ideas of justice, although more strict and harshly punished, still remain today. Although their religious beliefs have since been abandoned, those beliefs no doubt affected those that came after them. Some of their policies toward trade are accepted at least in part, and ancient ideas of family ties are still considered valid today. Although women's rights vanished for years, women in many countries today enjoy a vast amount of freedom and have protected rights. Clearly, ancient Mesopotamia's contributions to future civilizations cannot be surpassed.


Salisbury, Joyce, and Sherman, Dennis, The West in the World, Volume I: to 1715.

New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006. 2nd ed.

Kishlansky, Mark A. Sources of the West: Readings in Western Civilization. Volume I: From the beginning to 1715. United States: Pearson Longman, 2006.