Thursday, August 8, 2013

Sumerian Tyrants

Normally we look at Sumerian kings through either through their royal inscriptions or their administrative records, both official portraits. Piotr Michalowski has some interesting observations about the flip side of those documents:
An Old Babylonian copy of an inscription placed on an illustrated stele with representations of scenes from victory over the highland land of Zabšali contains these words:
(Šu-Sin) killed both the strong and the weak, heads of the just and wicked he piled up like (heaps) of grain, corpses of their people he piled up like sheaves. . . . their established cities and villages he turned into (empty) tells, destroyed their walls, blinded all the young men of the cities he had conquered, and made them serve in the orchards of Enlil, Ninlil, and in the orchards of all the great gods; he donated all the women of the cities he had conquered to the weaving establishments of Enlil, Ninlil, and the great gods.

These seemingly contradictory portraits of a Sumerian sovereign are, of course, hardly unique as far as tyrants are concerned. And yet the word "tyrant" is scarcely, if ever, used in describing ancient Mesopotamian kings. Instead, they are usually portrayed, in the manner of their own propaganda, as heroic and patriotic, bringing together quarrelling smaller political units for the common good. . .  . In the study of early Mesopotamia, we invariably favor periods of centralization of authority, if for no other reason than that such times provide more ample documentation. But this sort of centralization is the anomaly rather than the norm; in the third and early-second millennia, it accounts for 250 years or so at most. We may celebrate the various civil accomplishments of the famous kings associated with these times—namely, Sargon, Naram-Sin, Šulgi, or Hammurabi—but we should also remember the piles of corpses and shattered lives that they left in their wake. (Piotr Michalowski, The Correspondence of the Kings of Ur (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2011), 11-12.)