The Politics of Ancient Mesopotamia: Prelude to Democracy?

Lecture transcript

Dr Benjamin Isakhan, 23 August 2012

[music]

Linda Sproul: Good evening, everyone. I'd like to welcome you to Melbourne Museum. My name's Linda Sproul. I'm the manager of education and visitor programs at Museum Victoria. It's my very special job this evening to introduce Dr. Benjamin Isakhan. Before we do that, I would like to pay my respects to the Kulin Nation and acknowledge the traditional owners of the land that we're on tonight, the Bunurong and the Wurundjeri people, and pay my acknowledgments to any ancestors past and present. We have a long sense of ancient civilization in this country, and we have a very long sense of ancient civilization in what we're going to experience tonight via the lecture.

The other part of this, what's really fantastic, is this program and series is from a really deep collaboration between Melbourne Museum and the University of Melbourne. That's also where our speaker is from this evening. These specialist lectures provide the museum with an opportunity of presenting to you specialists and depths of knowledge that we don't have within our own departments. That's what makes these partnerships unique and special.

Tonight's lecture is "The Politics of Ancient Mesopotamia: Prelude to Democracy?" ‑‑ with a big question mark, because we all know that Mesopotamia is considered to be the cradle of western civilization. I'm just going to give you some background on Benjamin before I let him take over.

At the moment, he's an Australian Research Council Discovery research fellow at the Centre for Citizenship and Globalization at Deakin University. He has published widely on the politics and history of Iraq. His current research includes the ARC, the Australian Research Council funded project managing the destruction of heritage and spikes of violence in Iraq.

What's really interesting about Benjamin's work is that moves across ancient deep time as well as what are contemporary situations. I hope that you enjoy that tonight. Now, along with me, it's your job to welcome him to the stage. Thank you.

[applause]

Dr. Benjamin Isakhan: Good evening, everybody. It's a real pleasure to be here tonight. I'd like to begin by thanking Linda for that very kind introduction and for giving you that background there. I'd also like just briefly like to pause and thank the Melbourne Museum. They've done an exceptional job in putting together this exhibition on the wonders of Mesopotamia. Those of you who have been through the exhibition and have been able to see it will, I think, agree with me that it really is a world‑class exhibition,

I know that it took an enormous amount of work behind the scenes to pull the exhibition together in collaboration with the British Museum. I think that they deserve public acknowledgment for having done such a fantastic job. On behalf of everyone who's interested in ancient Mesopotamia, I'd like to thank them for that.

I'd also like to thank them for inviting me here and then for running this lecture series. As Linda said, this is a very important part of any big exhibition like that on Mesopotamia, and that is to link the museum, which is able to do these fantastic exhibitions on Mesopotamia, to the universities and the scholars who are out there and who are studying various aspects of ancient Mesopotamia. It's a beautiful thing when we're able to come here and give these kind of lectures about our research, and connect that, then, to an exhibition. That's going to be part of my job tonight.

What I would like to do is actually reinterpret, or reread for you, if you like, six pieces from the exhibition that are here less than 100 metres away in the actual exhibition. I would like to reread these six pieces ‑‑ I'll go through what these six pieces are, in turn ‑‑ in order to discuss what they tell us about the politics of ancient Mesopotamia.

As was said by Linda, there is some kind of cheeky subtitle to all of this. Is what we see in the earliest political arrangements in ancient Mesopotamia a prelude to democracy? It's not a commonly connected thing.

Usually we connect the politics of ancient Mesopotamia to these bloodthirsty tyrants who rule by fear and domination and bloodshed in these massive empires that conquer and control. To an extent, that's true, but there's also another side to ancient Mesopotamia and politics. I'm going to be dealing tonight exclusively with that other side.

I'm going to try to show to you and reveal to you some of the political nuances that perhaps suggest to us that they were practicing things very similar in tone and in scope to what we've come to call democracy in more recent times.

Before I begin this investigation for you on the politics of ancient Mesopotamia, and on the idea that it may or may not be an important precursor to democracy, I think that we need to begin by establishing a few key facts about Mesopotamia, about where and when and what ancient Mesopotamia is.

I'm aware that in this room there will probably be people who are great experts in Mesopotamia, who have read enormous volumes on it and know everything there is to know. There will be other people at the other end of the spectrum who, maybe, this is among their first exposures to what Mesopotamia is all about.

To bridge that divide, I'm going to give you a few key facts to set the scene of what ancient Mesopotamia is all about. We can start with the term itself, "Mesopotamia." What does "Mesopotamia" actually mean?

"Mesopotamia" is a Greek word that is, in fact, a composite of two other Greek words. The first word is "mesos." "Mesos" means "in between." The second word is "potamos." "Potamos" means "the rivers." So, immediately, through the name, "Mesopotamia," we have an insight into what or where Mesopotamia might be. It is, for all intents and purposes, in between the rivers.

What are the two rivers that we're talking about here? You can see them here on the map. The two rivers are the mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers that stretch their long fingers up across ancient Mesopotamia or across what is largely contemporary Iraq, but also going a little into Syria and into Turkey there, for those of you who know your geography.

When we're talking about Mesopotamia, we're talking about the region that lies in between or around these two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates.

What happened was, there were these two great rivers. They flood regularly. Well, they flooded in ancient times regularly. This created a very fertile plain. In this fertile plain emerged the earliest organized farming practices. These farming practices led to permanent civilizations, and then we see the emergence of city‑states and empires and so on over time.

This is why it's such a significant part of the world, not just because there are two great rivers, but because these rivers flooded and created a very fertile region.

This leaves us with another question that we need to answer at the outset so that we understand what it is we're talking about. When we say the word "ancient" or the words "ancient Mesopotamia," when are we referring to?

Obviously, we're not referring to contemporary Iraq, or we're not referring to this region, for example, 1,000 years ago, when it was under the influence of the Islamic Abbasid Empire. We're talking about a region that goes much further back in time than all of that.

I've got this chart here. None of you will be able to see all of the details on this particular timeline, but what you do need to be able to see is at the bottom here. You can see that the period begins around 3700 BCE. This is the very beginning of ancient Mesopotamia.

What is it that happens around 3700 BCE that is significant is the founding of the world's first‑ever ‑‑ as far as we know, anywhere in the world ‑‑ the first‑ever city‑state. That city‑state is called Uruk, a very important city‑state.

Then, over time, what we see is the emergence of a number of other city‑states. Gradually, one of these city‑states conquered another city‑state and formed an empire. These enormous and powerful empires emerge over time, and are able to conquer vast territories and control enormous parts of the region, such as the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, which I'll talk about a little later.

Finally, our period of ancient Mesopotamia ends with the fall of the Neo‑Babylonian Empire around about 539 BCE. That's the top of the chart. If you look, you can see that the end of Neo‑Babylonian Empire and the beginning of Persian domination.

I'm not very good at maths, but anybody who's good at maths will be able to work out that this period is more than 3,000 years. This is an enormous period of human civilization. If you think about all that has happened, all of the world events, all of the empires that have risen and fallen, all of things that have happened ‑‑ for example, since Christ until today, roughly 2,000 years ‑‑ we're talking about a much longer period of human history, 3,200 years of human history.

What we must be careful of when we talk about ancient Mesopotamia is not to think that it's a monolith, that we can understand it as one entity or one period in the same way that we might understand something like the Roman Empire. Ancient Mesopotamia is a sequence of all different empires, all different city‑states, all different peoples. We have different languages, different cultures, different religions, and, as I say, different empires emerging and controlling parts of the region.

This is a very long and very complicated history, but we squash it more or less together and talk about it as if it's ancient Mesopotamia. That's the period that we want to talk about today, this 3,000‑odd years of human history.

Those of you who have been through the exhibition, those of you who have read before about ancient Mesopotamia, and those of you who have been coming to this lecture series will know that this period, this 3,200 years that we call ancient Mesopotamia is, in fact, responsible for some of humankind's earliest and greatest achievements.

There is a very long list of things that I could recount here for you. I just want to give you a couple of highlights. We're talking here about the world's first sophisticated agriculture, irrigation, animal domestication, farming techniques. We're talking about sophisticated artistic, literary, and cultural production.

We have advanced engineering and the erection of impressive palaces, buildings, and temples. We have complicated economies and sophisticated bureaucracies. We have formal religions and their associated hierarchies, a series of bishops and priests and so on. We also have the emergence of relatively urban and cosmopolitan societies. This is an incredible period of human history, responsible, as I say, for an enormous amount of contributions to human civilization.

One of the greatest contributions ‑‑ something that's very important ‑‑ is, again, as far as we know, anywhere in the world, it was in Mesopotamia that we have the origins of the world's first‑ever written language. It is because of this written language that we know so much about ancient Mesopotamia.

Of course, as was said in the introduction, there have been many ancient civilizations throughout time, all over the world. But what Mesopotamia did, and the reason that we know so much detail about how their society functioned, is because they wrote things down. They were meticulous recorders of detail of all kinds of different things that were going on at the time. That's how we've come to understand. That's why we know so much about how their world functioned.

Now that we've established some of the basic facts about who, when, where, what Mesopotamia is, and we've discussed very briefly some of its greatest contributions to human civilization, I want to move now onto the actual topic of tonight's lecture, which is the politics of ancient Mesopotamia.

I want to begin by, if you like, debunking right at the outset a key framework through which we typically analyze or typically understand the politics of ancient Mesopotamia. Our general understanding, as I said at the beginning, is that ancient Mesopotamia was ruled by a series of kings who were bloodthirsty, who were cruel tyrants, who had megalomaniacal tendencies. They wanted to control the world. They wanted to conquer everything that they saw.

We get this impression of ancient Mesopotamia for a number of different reasons. Of course, one of the key reasons that we have this impression is because there is some truth in it. The ancient empires of Mesopotamia did go through periods of very aggressive military expansion.

They also were very cruel. They kept a lot of records. One of the records that they kept was about the treatment of those they captured in battle. They were very cruel at times to their enemies. Also what we know is that the worst of the kings of ancient Mesopotamia were able to strike fear into the hearts of men, women and children right across the region. They were incredibly powerful and incredibly feared.

Another reason that we have this particular view of ancient Mesopotamia as being ruled by these bloodthirsty tyrants is because they themselves, these kings themselves were very keen to always portray themselves as these mighty figures.

You can see here. This is a relief of King Ashurbanipal, who was an Assyrian king. In fact, in this relief, what we see... Anyone who came to Colin Hope's lecture about a month ago now, will know that these giant reliefs just like this decorated many of the palaces of ancient Mesopotamia.

They were very delicately painted. The paint has since, of course, washed away, so we're just left with the carving. But you can imagine these in full color, how detailed they are, the incredible artistic merit to them.

You can read this image here a little bit like a comic strip in the sense that you start in the top right‑hand corner, move to the left and then down.

What you see in this one, for example, is the king, Ashurbanipal. In the first slide, he's the one holding the bow and arrow. You can see that someone releases a lion, arguably the world's scariest, strongest, most powerful animal. Ashurbanipal stands his ground. He's not afraid of the lion. He's aiming his bow and arrow at him, and so on.

In the second one, we see that someone distracts the lion while Ashurbanipal is not only sneaky enough or clever enough, but also powerful enough to come up behind the lion and tease him and grab his tail and so on.

In the third and final relief, we see one whole comic strip, which is, if you like, the victory celebration or ritual that goes on after these lions have been killed. You can see that there are four lions at the feet of King Ashurbanipal.

We can also notice a couple of things about him. You can't quite see him in the second one ‑‑ I realize that ‑‑ but you can just make him out there. In all three portrayals of him, at least here, what do we notice about him? Firstly, he's the tallest man in every image. It didn't really matter if you were a stumpy, short king in the ancient times. You were always portrayed as this ginormous, mighty man.

In many of the other reliefs, they're usually the ones with the most muscle definition and look the strongest and the most powerful. You can also see, usually, that the king has the longest and the bushiest and the proudest beard, because beards were, of course, the sign of a man's virility and strength.

Finally ‑‑ this is quite important ‑‑ in all three of them and in many depictions of the king and of all the different kings of ancient Mesopotamia, you'll see that their head actually, if you like, penetrates the top of the comic strip. Their head slightly goes above the frame. Can you see what I mean by that? His head slightly comes above where the frame should stop.

Where's an example? Right here. You can see. His head is slightly above. This is to suggest that the king is not only above all human beings, but connected, if you like, to the divine realm, that he is the gods' representative here on earth, that he is somehow between the two worlds ‑‑ the godly world and the human world.

All of this ‑‑ the fact that they controlled vast armies, they conquered massive parts of the Mesopotamian region, that they portrayed themselves in these very hyper‑masculine, power‑mongering ways ‑‑ has amounted to this overwhelming impression of the politics of ancient Mesopotamia, as I've said a couple of times now, as that of one ruled by a series of bloodthirsty tyrants.

But ‑‑ this is what I'd like to focus on is this "but" ‑‑ since the 19th and into the 20th century, a whole heap of archaeological evidence has begun to emerge which, in fact, portrays a very different picture of the day‑to‑day practice of how politics was done in ancient Mesopotamia. That it wasn't the case that the king could make decisions as he liked, that he was the all‑powerful, all‑knowing ruler. That, in fact, there was much more to the way that politics was done.

This is what we're going to talk about tonight, and talk about some of these earliest signs of collective forms of governance which we might call some of the earliest signs of democracy. In fact, there's a whole heap of evidence about this now. I cannot possibly show you in one hour lecture all of the evidence that supports this claim that there's much more to the politics of ancient Mesopotamia.

If no one thinks that it's too shameful for me to self‑promote, I've brought along a couple of articles that I've written over the years, and print‑outs of these articles ‑‑ I'm very happy for you to take them away ‑‑ in which I document a lot more of the evidence that supports this claim that there's much more to the politics of Mesopotamia than we usually consider.

Tonight, what I'm going to do, as I said at the outset, is, in fact, show you six items or artifacts from the exhibition here, just up the hallway, and try to reread them for you through this lens of re‑thinking the politics of ancient Mesopotamia.

The first one that I'd like to begin with is, in fact, this one, the myth of Enuma Elis. The myth of Enuma Elis is more or less the Mesopotamian equivalent of the story of Adam and Eve only in the sense that it's the myth of creation. It's the myth of how human beings came to be on this planet. It's very different in content to the story of Adam and Eve.

In the myth of Enuma Elis, there are 50 gods and goddesses who rule more or less equally, men and women. They convene in an assembly in order to govern the key issues that are facing the universe. What we know about them is that they also held regular elections, these gods and goddesses, to elect who would lead them, the council of the 50 great gods and goddesses.

In the myth of Enuma Elis, we see that they hold one of these elections. In fact, the 50 gods and goddesses are under threat by a powerful goddess whose name is Tiamat. She threatens to defeat them in battle, to confront them openly and defeat them. The gods and goddesses convene one of their very regular assemblies and hold an election in order to see who would be the best god to confront Tiamat and to take her on in battle, and then lead them beyond that.

A very young and very powerful god comes forward. His name is Lord Marduk, We'll mention him a little bit later. He is, in fact, elected by the gods in order to take on Tiamat.

I have copied a translation directly from the source, from the myth of Enuma Elis, into modern standard‑day English so that we can all understand what's going on. This is the time that Marduk is elected. He comes before the assembly of these 50 gods and goddesses who rule the universe, and he says to them, "If I am to be your champion or your leader, if I am to defeat your enemies and save your lives, call an assembly, name a special fate for me, and make it known that henceforth I and not you shall have control over what comes to pass."

What's interesting, of course, is here we have evidence that they've called an assembly, that someone is putting their name forward in order to be elected as leader of the gods.

In fact, Marduk is elected leader of the gods. He sets out on behalf of these 50 gods and goddesses, confronts the goddess Tiamat, defeats her in battle, and then comes back to the assembly. Of course, these 50 gods are very happy. They drink strong wines. These are quotes from the thing. They celebrate the victory, and so on.

Marduk again stands up in the assembly before the 50 gods and goddesses and says to them, "You elected me, and that election must stand firm and supreme." In other words, "I'm the elected representative. We held the election. The deal was that if I went out and defeated Tiamat and came back, I would be the guy in power until we have another election. That's the way it works. That's the agreement."

What stands out here, what I've highlighted and I've put in bold for you and, I think, is very important, is terms like "assembly" and "election." Again, these are terms that we would never normally think we would find in ancient Mesopotamian myths and epics. They're very important terms. They're very important in the practice of political science. Political science is my field.

Why are they important? Because they indicate to us the degree to which a particular society ‑‑ in this instance, a body like the gods and goddesses ‑‑ functions according to democratic principles.

Why are they so important? Well, what does "assembly" indicate to us? "Assembly" indicates that there isn't one person taking control and making all of the decisions. But, in fact, a community comes together, discusses the pros and the cons of each issue. Everybody has right to speak. Then they come to a consensus, they make a decision, and they put that decision into action. It's very important, the idea of assembly.

Similarly important is the idea of an election. What does an election tell us? We all partake, presumably. I hope all of you partake in the elections. Of course, it means that the leader doesn't come to power by force. In an election, a leader comes to power because he campaigns, because he's the best person for the job, because he puts himself forward, and he wins the agreement of the people to represent them on their behalf.

These terms are very important. Terms we would not normally associate with ancient Mesopotamia. We'll develop these ideas further and further as we go forward, but I wanted to start right at the beginning. This is the myth of creation. This is the very origin of human existence on earth according to the ancient Mesopotamian myth.

The next one that I wanted to talk to you ‑‑ again, this is here in the exhibition ‑‑ is the Epic of Gilgamesh. This epic poem tells us about a guy called Gilgamesh, who was, in fact, the king of a city called Uruk.

Now, Uruk is the same city I mentioned before that was the very first city, founded in 3700 BCE. But the time that Gilgamesh is in power is quite a bit later. It's about 2800 BCE, nearly 5,000 years ago. It was a long, long time ago.

Also, the Epic of Gilgamesh not only details his time in power, but it also details his quest ‑‑ this is why it's an epic, because it was an epic quest ‑‑ to go out and find the secrets to life and to try and find how to become immortal.

I won't recount the entire Epic of Gilgamesh. That would require the full hour. But what I can tell you is that in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Uruk, which is the city that Gilgamesh is the king of, is under threat from the armies of Kish. Kish is a neighboring city‑state.

Kish has decided, for whatever reason, that they are going to launch a military attack and going to conquer Uruk and rule Uruk. This presents the king, Gilgamesh, with a big problem. What do we do? Do we go out and fight against the armies of Kish as they march towards us, or do we surrender and give up our independence and our livelihood and become part of Kish and part of their empire?

What's most interesting about this is how Gilgamesh deals with the problem. He's confronted with this huge problem. "Kish is marching towards us; the end is nigh" kind of thing. "Do we surrender or do we do something about it?"

Gilgamesh, if he was that bloodthirsty tyrant that we've come to know of ancient Mesopotamia, would surely make the decision himself and would simply either go to war or surrender. But Gilgamesh doesn't do that.

Again, I've taken a direct English translation from this Epic of Gilgamesh. It's a little bit long. I apologize for that. I want to show you how Gilgamesh deals with this very important problem.

Gilgamesh presents the issue; that is, the issue that, "Kish is marching towards us. We're under threat. We've got to do something about this." He presents the issue before the elders of his city in the convened assembly, so we know that there was a body of elders who met in an assembly. It's very important.

His city's elders answered Gilgamesh. They want to surrender. They don't want to fight. The elders have decided they don't want to fight Kish. "We should submit to the House of Kish. We should not smite it with weapons. We can't win this. Let's not fight the battle." That's the advice of these elders.

What's really interesting is how the epic recounts what Gilgamesh does next. I really like this line. "Gilgamesh did not take seriously the advice of his city's elders. Gilgamesh presented the issue again before a second assembly." This assembly is made up of the arms‑bearing men of the city; that is, the people who were potentially going to fight this war.

The arms‑bearing men of the city answered Gilgamesh, "You old men should not submit to the House of Kish. Should we young men not smite it with weapons?" In other words, "No. You old guys have no idea. We can definitely win this war. Let's not surrender. Let's take them on. Let's fight for the freedom and liberty of Uruk," and so on.

What's really important about this is, again, it's revealing to us a totally different picture of that picture of this bloodthirsty tyrant who goes out and wages war on his own and doesn't care about what the people think. In fact, what's interesting about it is we see something very sophisticated, given that we're talking about 5,000 years ago. What do we see?

We see the first layer of government is, if you like, the executive. This is Gilgamesh. He makes the executive decision. In that sense, he might be like a modern‑day president or prime minister.

Underneath the executive is two chambers of government. The first chamber of government is the body of elders. These are the senior wealthy merchants, bureaucrats, scholars, religious figures, military figures, and so on. They constitute a body of elders.

We also see a second chamber of government and, in fact, that Gilgamesh has the power to veto the decision made in that first chamber of government and appeal to a second chamber. That chamber is much broader. In the time of Gilgamesh in Uruk, there must have been thousands of soldiers, thousands of people who were going to fight these battles.

He had to hold a huge assembly and put the idea of, "What are we going to do about the armies Kish?" before this assembly. He was able to take their advice, veto the decision of the elders, and instead go into war. This is I think very important for us tracing these origins, these ideas of early democratic principles in ancient Mesopotamia.

Now I want to talk about the fact that eventually these ancient city‑states like Uruk and Kish, one defeated another and, of course, empires emerged. With these empires came a whole new period in the politics of ancient Mesopotamia. Two of the most significant of these empires were old Assyrian and the old Babylonian empires. I should point out that in no time in history did they look like two Easter eggs on a map like that, but this is my crude way of telling you where the heartland, if you like, of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires came from.

We know a lot about the politics of this time. What we know is that the kings, again, did not hold power absolutely or indefinitely. That in fact, there was a whole series of different institutions, that politics gets increasing complicated over time and that in fact, there's a whole series of bodies and institutions that are designed to keep the power of the king in check. One of these that's very important is the sophisticated legal system that evolves over time. There is a whole body of laws that start to emerge in these ancient empires in order to govern these very sophisticated and complex societies.

Arguably the most important is here in the exhibition I'm happy to say, and it is the Code of Hammurabi. In 1765 the king, Hammurabi, conquered the Assyrian Empire and created the Babylonian Empire. He devised a series of roughly 300 laws that were designed to rule and manage the society which he was trying to rule over.

You can see here he was sitting on his throne and dictating some of these laws to one of his senior scholars or scribes here. I should say, beneath him are the laws. The etchings are very small on this thing, but the etchings that are beneath the relief and that you can just make out on the actual body of it there are the 300 laws themselves.

These provide for us a really important and rich insight into the way in which ancient Mesopotamian civilizations ‑‑ in this case, the ancient Babylonian Empire ‑‑ functioned, because laws are a great way of understanding what a society prioritizes, whether it supports civil rights and punishes crime, and all of these kind of things. Which of course, it did.

I wanted to read to you. Again, I have recorded for you or I've written down for you a translation into English of one of these laws. This is, in fact, the fifth law that makes up these 300 laws. It's law number five. The first thing you'll recognize I think, is how similar or how little legal jargon has evolved over the centuries. It is as impenetrable in the time of Hammurabi as it is today.

Here is one law for you that I would like you just to have a quick look at and we'll talk about what it's about. It says, "If a judge renders a judgment, gives a verdict, or deposits a sealed opinion, after which he reverses his judgment, they shall charge and convict the judge of having reversed the judgment which he rendered, and he shall give twelve fold the claim of that judgment. Moreover, they shall unseat him from his judgeship in the assembly and he shall never again sit in judgment with the judges."

Firstly, very impenetrable, I think is what you've noticed. Secondly, very strict. If you look at what they're doing here, they are saying that if a judge is found to be corrupt or to abuse his very privileged position within a society, he will not only be kicked out... We know today that if a judge is kicked out from practicing law, this is a massive public humiliation for a person if they're found to be corrupt or abusing their privilege. This is a very serious offense. I also quite like the idea of fining judges 12 times the amount of the judgment they were found to be corrupt on.

You can imagine if these judges were dealing with, in today's terms, multi‑million dollar properties and estates, and dealing with very sophisticated legal matters, that having to pay 12 times the amount of that judgment surely worked as a good way to curtail abuses of their power and to prevent them from being corrupt. This is very important.

It also tells us a lot of other things. There was a whole assembly of judges who governed, just as judges govern today, civil matters on behalf of the state. There was a body of law that's devised by the state, and there's a whole legal institution whose job it is to enforce these laws and to make sure that these laws are brought into practice. It's very sophisticated.

In fact, we know from other laws that judges and lawyers not only had to be familiar with all 300 of these laws, which is not many by today's standard, but had to be with familiar with all 300 of these laws, but also could cite legal precedent. They could say that in the matter of X versus Y, "We interpreted law number 25 in this particular way, and if we had done so then, we should do so now unless we have a significant reason to alter that." You see? They could build a case based on precedent.

Finally, something that I do want to point out and I think that it's very important, is the idea ‑‑ I've highlighted it there for you ‑‑ the idea that the judge could deposit a sealed opinion. Why is this so important, do you think, if we're talking about the origins of democracy and some of the earliest democratic principles? Because today we vote by secret ballot. We vote anonymously, we vote in private and we vote in writing.

What we have here is a very early example of judges being able to give a verdict in exactly the same fashion ‑‑ anonymously, in private, and in writing ‑‑ and deposit, presumably, just as we deposit today our vote into a tub or one of those crappy cardboard box things that they make for us, here perhaps in an urn or some kind of a other thing. What we know is that it was a sealed opinion. They could give their verdict in private. This is of course, the reason we do secret ballots and the reason it was presumably done then is to be prevent corruption, is to prevent people from conspiring, and is to stop people suffer reprisal attacks for having a particular opinion or for voting a particular way.

These things, I think, are very important. I want to move forward to the second Age of Empires. You can see straight away, the first impression you get is that this is a much bigger Age of Empires. This is the Age of Empires which we typically know much more about and tends to be emphasized. There's a great deal of emphasis on it in the exhibition and there is a great deal of emphasis generally on this period because it is the period in which they made many of their most iconic achievements.

You can see straight away that they conquered massive territories. The red is the Neo‑Assyrian Empire and the purple is the Neo‑Babylonian Empire. The Assyrians came first. They were at that time in history the world's largest ever, yet, empire. It was a massive empire and the conquered massive amounts of territory.

What I wanted to tell you about is that as the empires grew and as they came to rule these massive amounts of territory, they needed to develop an increasingly sophisticated political landscape. The court, the king had to entertain, had to listen to, and had to take advice from an increasing array of people ‑‑ bureaucrats, merchants, physicians, priests, clergymen, judges, poets and military leaders. There was, in fact, one group who were very influential over the king. They're worth reflecting on a little bit here. These are called the scholars, if you like.

The scholars practiced two very refined disciplines. In fact we might call them sciences. By today's standards of scientific rigour, they wouldn't hold up, but you have to remember were talking about thousands of years ago. It was a very different scientific landscape.

They practiced two very intricate, detailed sciences. The first one was called extispicy. Anybody know what "extispicy" means? Extispicy means where you sacrifice a lamb or a goat and you read the entrails. You take out the liver and you look at the color and the consistency, and so on, of the entrails of this particular goat.

It sounds a little bit not very scientific by today's standards. But it's not like just reading the tea leaves at the bottom of a cup, with some lady with a crystal ball or whatever. This was, in fact, an incredibly sophisticated process. There were entire schools who had different opinions and very senior scholars who could practice extispicy. They did it according to a very rigorous scientific methodology. Again, scientific in the broad sense of the term. There were entire compendiums written and composed about how this process should be done.

The second science, just briefly, is often mistakenly called astrology because they were very interested in things like comets, and meteor showers, and solar eclipses, and so on. They were also interested really in anything unusual ‑‑ lightning, earthquakes, animals dying suddenly. All of these things could be interpreted as omens from the gods. I want to show you two very quick examples before I do run out of time, that are, again, taken from the exhibition here.

The first one is this one here, in which the Assyrian king, Esarhaddon, asks military advice from a very famous Babylonian scholar by the name of Baal Ush Hazib. He asks him a very important question. "Should I continue my military campaign? Should I continue the war against the Manayan kingdom to the north?" This is a decision over continuing war.

In the second one which I want to show you here, this is also from King Esarhaddon in which he asks a number of scholars to interpret the will of the god Shamash, who was a sun god. Interpret the will of Shamash to decide whether or not Esarhaddon's son should become his heir, should become the crown prince and then his heir. What's interesting here, what we see is that a king who vests his power must seek the advice of the gods, but to get the advice of the gods he must go through human beings, these scholars who were there to interpret the will of the gods on the king's behalf and pass advice on to him.

What we have here, then, is that the king vested in these scholars an enormous amount of political power. They were allowed to make big decisions about whether or not he should continue a war, for example. Whether or not his son should be the next crown prince. We're very cynical ‑‑ I am, at least, and I'm sure most of you are ‑‑ very cynical about today's politicians. We know that. It doesn't take a great deal of cynicism, it doesn't take a great deal of imagination to think of the situation in which these scholars would have conspired against the king.

For example, the scholars don't like the king's son, he's not a very nice guy, he doesn't respect them, he doesn't go through his appropriate religious rituals and so on, so we're going to interpret the will of the gods. We're going to practice some extispicy, and read a couple of planets, and watch a couple of animals die unexpectedly and say to the king, "No, your son should not be the crown prince." You see that they have an enormous amount of political power, that they become a political institution in and of themselves.

What's most interesting about that is that the king started to cotton on to this. They started to realize, "Hang on. I've given far too much power to these scholars. They're capable of telling me who should be my next crown prince or whether or not I should continue this war," and so on.

The best example is this guy, King Ashurbanipal. What's most interesting about this picture is this is the same king that I showed you at the beginning, who was the mighty one whose head went above the thing, who was the tallest and had the biggest beard and all of that kind of stuff. This is just obviously an artist's impression. This is not a real picture of King Ashurbanipal. Nonetheless, it betrays a very different picture, doesn't it? Here's a guy who's sitting there reading some tablets, contemplating what's going on in the universe and so on.

The thing that King Ashurbanipal did was compile the great library at Nineveh. This was the greatest library of the ancient Mesopotamian world. It composed thousands of texts from across the Assyrian, the Babylonian and the broader Mesopotamian region.

In fact, Ashurbanipal we know could read and write several different languages. His library contained texts like the "Epic of Gilgamesh," which we talked about, the myth of Enuma Elish, but also a whole heap of different volumes on astrology, on medicine, mathematics, accounting, engineering, a whole heap of sophisticated stuff. We know that he was a very learned and educated king, but he also had a very political purpose for composing this library.

What's the political purpose? The political purpose is, when the scholars came to him and said, "King Ashurbanipal respectfully your majesty, we have done some extispicy. We've read some livers and organs of various sheep. We've watched the meteor come and go. We've seen an earthquake," and so on. "We've decided that, in fact, the gods don't want your son to be the next crown prince."

Ashurbanipal, as he's doing in this picture, could go, "Really! That's interesting because when I read Tablet Nine, paragraph four, clause three, it says that if that the liver is black and it's the 14th of the month, that that in fact means that my son should be the crown prince. I wonder if you maybe should go back to your sources and double check."

You see what he's able to do? He's able to keep check on these scholars and he's able to use the power of information to prevent anybody conspiring against him, and to prevent some conspiracy, and from corruption, and people wanting to overthrow him because he has the power of knowledge. Because he's educated and because he has composed this vast library.

What does all of this have to do with democracy? I think it has a lot to do with democracy because democracy is done best when it is a debate between learned individuals, when people who have the knowledge come together, and discuss and debate the issues that concern the kingdom or the community.

I'm not saying that King Ashurbanipal was a democrat. What I am saying is that we have some of the earliest signs emerging here of what we later come to term democracy. That from the things like the myth of Enuma Elish right through to this guy, Ashurbanipal.

I have a couple of minutes so I'm going to finish with one more example. This is also in the exhibition. It's the verse on King Nabonidus.

What we've done, we've traced from the earliest myth, the myth of Enuma Elish, which describes, of course, for us how human beings came onto this planet. Then we talked about the first city‑state Uruk, which Gilgamesh was king of. Now what we're doing is we're talking about Nabonidus who was, in fact, the king of the Neo‑Babylonian Empire in 539 BCE when it fell, and that therefore ends the period that we're talking about when we talk about ancient Mesopotamia. We've gone through from 3700 all the way now to 539.

Nabonidus was the last guy on the throne, the last of the ancient Mesopotamian rulers, but he was really unpopular. Why was he so unpopular? Firstly, he had staged a coup to come to power. Secondly, his mother was a high priestess. She was a high priestess of a completely different cult. The people of Babylon, where the Babylonian empires was ruled out of, where Nabonidus ruled, followed Lord Marduk who we talked about before. That powerful god who took over and won the election. Nabonidus worshipped another god called Nanna or Sîn depending on which of the ancient languages you use.

He not only staged a coup to come to power but he was of a completely different religion. The people of Babylon hated that because they were devoutly of the cult of Marduk. Also, Nabonidus really neglected his religious rites and rituals. He did not look after the traditional way of doing things in Babylon. He also tore down many of the statues to the gods of Babylon, including those to Marduk, and tried to impose his cult upon the city. All of this makes him really, really unpopular.

What happens when you have a really unpopular king or leader? Well, what happens is they get mocked and ridiculed in the tabloid journalism of the day. Just like today's "Who" magazine, or "OK" magazine, or the hundreds of tabloid things that seem particularly to come out of Britain, mocking the royal family or laughing at celebrities and rulers and leaders and so on, the verse on Nabonidus is a detailed critique of the king.

It mocks him unbelievably. "He's from a different religion. He doesn't look after our city. He's never here." In fact, he left because he was so unpopular. He left the city and left his son to rule. The empire was falling apart, so on and so on. The tabloid journalism of the day... We usually think of tabloid journalism at best beginning with the founding of the modern printing press, but in fact we can go right back to these clay tablets and find these critiques of celebrities and of royal families and so on.

Of course, this is very significant to us because it is about critiquing those in power. We talk about a democracy. One of the fundamental aspects of democracy is what we call the fourth estate. The idea that a democracy should have a free press that can critique and deride those in power, play a watchdog role over those in power, and criticize them when they do wrong or when they neglect their duties.

Again, I'm not saying this is the best example of democracy ever found in history, but what I am saying it is a really important and really interesting precedent to what we talk about when we talk about democracy today.

Throughout this long period that we've discussed, we in fact find some of the earliest traces of democracy. some of the earliest beginnings, rumblings, and ideas of democracy far back in the ancient Mesopotamian world. All of this ‑‑ I'm going to wind up now ‑‑ forces us, I think, to reconsider the politics of ancient Mesopotamians. It forces us to reconsider the history of democracy. It also, I think, forces us to think about the very origins of Western civilization.

[applause]

[music]

Transcription by CastingWords

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