Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

Nomads and Citizens in the Second Millenium B.C.

Steve Muhlberger

We ended our discussion of Mesopotamian politics, two lectures ago, with the establishment of the first Iraqi empire, by Sargon of Agade, and its collapse about a century later, in 2193 B.C.

The great cycle of Middle Eastern empire had begun.

This cycle can be summed up in four steps.

Why did this cycle take place? Last week I said that empires are like pyramid schemes, in which only the hope of future conquests, and the loot from them, motivates the followers of the conqueror. If the conqueror rewards his followers, they eventually get rich and restive and revolt; if he doesn't, then they also revolt.

I stand by that statement, but I won't pretend that it is the whole picture.  We also have to understand the interaction between civilized peoples and barbarians, between citizens and nomads. In tracing out this relationship, it will be useful to have an example in front of us. The example I've chosen in Babylon in the era of Hammurabi, an era that can also be called the "Amorite" period, for reasons that will soon be clear.

Due to accidents of preservation, the Amorite period of Mesopotamian history is well known. Lots of documents have survived. A great many of those documents and monuments belong to Hammurabi or Hammurapi, who ruled Babylon, a city he helped make famous, around 1800 B.C.

Hammurabi's fame is so great because he was found at an early stage in Middle Eastern archaeology. He particularly impressed people in the early part of this century because he left, carved on a stele, what has often been called the first code of laws. The code bears a resemblance to another Semitic body of laws from ancient times, the Mosaic law of the ancient Hebrews. The two codes both emphasize retribution. For instance, law 229-30: If a builder has constructed a house for a free man but has not made his work strong, with the result that the house which he built collapsed and so caused the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death. If it has caused the death of the son of the owner of the house, they shall put to death the son of the builder..

The resemblance to the laws of Moses and the early date much impressed the finders of the stele, and Hammurabi's time was at first advertised as an important era in the progress of human civilization. Subsequent research tended to cast doubt on that early notion. For one thing, at least one earlier code, from the previous Ur Three period [Ur-Nammu's], has been found, and it makes Hammurabi's emphasis on an eye for an eye look "more primitive" than it used to.

Another question is whether we should believe law codes at all. We have court records from the time of Hammurabi, and his laws are almost never referred to. They were certainly not the working basis of jurisprudence. One hypothesis is that Hammurabi put up his stele to impress the gods with his righteouness, rather than to accomplish any down-to-earth goals.

The time of Hammurabi remains one of the better known periods of Mesopotamian history. Not only does his code give us insight into common problems and practices of daily life, some of the best archaeology of daily life comes from just this era, which is usually called "Old Babylonian." The lower levels of Babylon itself are under the modern water table, and so inaccessible, but Sir Leonard Wooley did extensive work on a residential district in Ur. (Discussion of map in class, and the school, restaurant, shrines and residences shown on it.)

The substantial buildings from Ur give the impression of a prosperous middle-class life. It is very likely that traces of a less pleasant and more transient life for the poor. I cannot help contrasting the private cemeteries of the servant-employing class with Gilgamesh's remarks about bodies floating down the Euphrates. Archaeologists, just like literary historians, only have a part of the data, and have to extrapolate for the rest.

The Amorite period provides many examples of the urban culture of Mesopotamia, a culture that was already more than a thousand years old.  I am going to discuss the man and the dynasty who ruled the area (no longer called Sumer and Akkad, but Babylonia).

Hammurabi was an Amorite. That is, he was the descended from a group that had long been known to the city-dwellers of Mesopotamia. They had long been known and long been despised. In the past, city people had said that the Amorites (who were originally located in the western desert) were a crude bunch, unacquainted with bread and too careless even to bury their dead.  Yet when the third dynasty of Ur, the last Sumerian dynasty, collapsed, it was Amorite war-lords who moved in and picked up the pieces. Hammurabi was the heir of the most successful Amorite family.

How did the Amorites change from being despised barbarians to being a ruling race? It would be easy to say that of course warlike people conquer weaker neighbors and leave it at that. But as we have seen, the civilized cultures of Mesopotamia were not pacifistic. They invented large-scale warfare. It was the wealth and large populations produced by successful agriculture that made possible warfare as a way of life. How on earth could small, poor groups of outsiders take over and rule rich, mighty cities full of potential weapons and warriors?

But if outsiders, villagers or nomads, were weak compared to the insiders in the urban, agricultural heartland, they did have two advantages.

Let's look at these points one at a time.

When I said the outsiders were hungry, I was not talking about greed for luxuries, or palaces, or a pocket full of silver and a night on the town in decadent Babylon. Of course, some of the outsiders were greedy for just those things. Others were not. But as a group, the outsiders who clustered civilized Mesopotamia were hungry all the time for things they needed but could not produce. The outsiders were not the self-sufficient hunter-gatherers of old. They were either villagers living in marginal areas, or  nomads who lived in desert or semi-desert areas and followed their flocks from one grazing area to the next. Both groups were different from the old hunter-gatherers in that they could not freely roam from place to place, feeding off the best that the land could provide, competing only with animals and other small human groups like their own. No: that was the lost Eden. The fat lands were now monopolized by city-folk. Their neighbors were left with unproductive land and poverty, both relative and absolute.

It's easiest to see this in connection with nomads, who became the most important "barbaric" neighbors of Mesopotamia. Nomadism, or pastoralism, is a way of life in which small human communities depend on herds. Nomadism was invented after agriculture, and is a poorer way to make a living. Nomads must live almost entirely on what their animals produce.  It can't really be done. Nomads are forced to be parasites on their agricultural neighbors and urban. That is why nomadism is newer than agriculture.

Nomads have a tough time trading with farmers. Farmers and city people often want things that the nomads have, but not nearly as often as the nomads need tools or grain or fruit or cloth from them. This disparity pushes nomads to become raiders -- something that they eventually can become very good at. Nomads have at various times invented superior weapons and tactics that magnify their strength.  Nomads of 1500 B.C. invented the war-chariot.  Nomads of 500 A.D. the Central Asians invented the stirrup.  At the same time the Arabs perfected the military use of the camel.

Here is where a disadvantage becomes an advantage. I've been telling you about the disadvantages of being hungry nomad neighbors of farmers and Seldom can nomads actually overrun and conquer a civilized state by sheer brute force -- only perhaps just after a major tactical innovation like chariots or stirrups, before everyone else has caught up. But they can extort tribute. Even more importantly, nomadic groups can sell their military services to rulers. As mercenaries, they worm their way into the existing establishment, and, in a moment of weakness, take over.

Thus Hammurabi's Amorite ancestors became kings of Babylon; thus the Manchus became emperors of China in the 17th century; and any number of other examples could be cited.

But it is not just enough to be hungry to do this. It is not even enough to be militarily tough and talented. Here is where the second advantage of the uncivilized comes in. They know who they are. Every member of any small marginal group knows deep in the gut that his or her individual survival and prosperity depends on cooperation with a few dozen or hundred others, all of whom are thought of as relatives of one sort or another (example:  Scottish clans). They may fight among themselves quite often, but when crisis or opportunity occurs, they know who they can count on. This easier for them than for people in larger, richer, more diverse cultures, because the nomads or other "barbarians" have come up in a hard school and there are fewer of them, and they know who they are.

Hammurabi was where he was because his ancestors knew who they were.

Now let us reflect a bit on the situation of Hammurabi the successful king of Babylon. He rules over a city and empire, that, as we have seen, continued to be an example of Sumerian style urbanity (though by 1800 B.C. Sumerian was a dead language and nobody thought of themselves as Sumerian any more). In this context, does Hammurabi know who he is anymore? What about the other Amorites who are among his most important partners in government?

The solidarity of a group of successful nomads, nomads who have become conquerors, can't last forever. The original group knew who they were because of personal experience with the nomadic life. As mercenaries, they still depended on each other and remembered their common links. But when they take over, they start to lose it. They become rich and soft. Worse, some become unbelievably rich, and the others start to envy them. All of them, rich and poor, start to marry into the subject population. They give their children city educations. And someday, in a crisis, when solidarity is necessary, it no longer exists.

A new, hungry group of barbarians who know who they are move in and take over. The old ruling group usually disappears entirely. Hammurabi's descendents, about 200 years after his time, were deposed by the Kassites, and the Amorites ceased to exist. A more modern example are the Manchus. The Manchus became a ruling race in China for about 300 years, but once the Republicans deposed the dynasty, all that was left of the Manchus were a few old aristocratic families and a larger number of poor ones, scattered over the face of China. The Chinese colonized Manchuria and there are hardly any Manchus there anymore.

This pattern of interaction between civilized and barbarian people is an important one. It was first analyzed in detail by Ibn Khaldun, a 14th century Muslim scholar from North Africa. He had a political career, and served as ambassador for a variety of North African princes to various Berber tribes in the African interior. His experience of nomadic life, and his knowledge of history, led him to detect the pattern (though his analysis and mine are not identical).

The pattern applies to more than just North Africa. It applies very strongly to the ancient Middle East. The fertile areas of Iraq, Syria, and Palestine were sandwiched between two areas where nomadism was the dominant way of life: the Arabian and Syrian deserts, which produced such groups as Amorites, Aramaeans, Chaldaeans, the Hebrews, and the Arabs, and Central Asia which produced the Kassites, the Medes, the Persians, the Huns, the Hungarians, and the Mongols.

Until very recent times, these two areas had the potential to produce bands of raiders or bands of conquerors. The nomads might be either, depending in large part on how strong the governments and economies of civilized countries were. City people, if united, had the power to keep their poorer neighbors out. But if they were disunited, the nomads might move in. Only the invention of gunpowder has finally made nomads militarily marginal.


Colin McEvedy, The Penguin Atlas of Ancient History (NU)
Ibn Khaldun, The Muqqadimah (NU)
Joan Oates, Bablyon
Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq
Marshal Sahlins, Tribesmen (NU)
This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.