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Ancient Sumerian Social Class System

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Sumerians developed the oldest cities in the world, but what was life like in ancient Sumer? In this lesson, we'll talk about class structure and see how Sumerian civilization was organized.

Sumer

Why did ancient Mesopotamians always want to go to the beach? Because for them it was always Sumer time! Okay, that was a bad joke. We may never know much about their beach-going habits, but there is a lot for us to learn about the people of ancient Mesopotamia, the region of the Middle East between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It was in the southern part of this region, an area called Sumer, where the world's very first cities appeared, and that's pretty exciting.

Starting around 4,000 BCE, people of the region were able to develop agricultural systems reliable enough to allow for population growth. As the population grew, as did the need to organize people, so around 3500 BCE they formed what is considered to be the world's first city: Uruk.

It is worth noting that the Sumerians claimed that their oldest city was Eridu, but this isn't supported by archeological evidence. Regardless, across the Sumerian cities, a new style of civilization emerged. So, what was life like as a Sumerian? Well, let's just say that for some people that life wasn't exactly a day at the beach.

Sumer was the southern part of Mesopotamia
Sumer

The Ruling Class

Sumerian civilizations were some of the first in the world to have strict systems of social organization. The rise of complex urban societies led to the rise of various social classes, giving some people more rights and power than others. Now, the Sumerians lived a long time ago so there's a lot about their society that is unclear. How hard was it to increase one's social status? Exactly what rights did each class have? How did this system originate? We don't know. It does seem evident, however, that they took the class systems pretty seriously and used it to define their concepts of civilization.

At the very top of this class system were the rulers and the priests. Religion was extremely important in Sumerian cities, so these two groups were basically one in the same.

At the very top was a king or priest, who was a nearly divine figure himself. Depictions from the time show kings, like the famous Sumerian ruler Gilgamesh, depicted as giants of enormous power. The king was attended by various other priests and people with political authority, who were easily recognizable in society not only by their clothes and fine jewelry, but also their shaven heads. The priests served as advisors to the king, helping him interpret the will of the many Sumerian gods.

Sumerian rulers often took on epic proportions- here Gilgamesh is holding a lion
Gilgamesh

The Middle Class

Sumerian society brought a lot of people into a shared urban space, which required a lot of organization and created an entire group of people whose jobs were essentially managing goods. This was the world's first middle class, although they were wealthy enough to live in an upper class lifestyle. The middle class included a few bureaucrats, people who implemented political policies at a local level, but was mostly merchants, scribes and artisans. This was not a very large group in Sumerian society, but they likely would have been more visible than the rulers and priests who stayed confined within their temples and palaces.

Sumerian society was strictly organized- everybody had their place
Sumer

The Working Class

As we move down the social ladder, we come to the largest of the social classes. The working class consisted of the people who worked with their hands. They didn't make political decisions like the ruling class and they didn't facilitate trade like the middle class, they simply worked to create all of the things that made Sumerian society possible.

Many were laborers in the city, building temples and palaces, and walls, but the majority were farmers. It's important to remember that urbanized civilization was only possible because of advancements in agriculture. The farmers had to produce enough not only for their families, but also enough to sell in the markets for the city laborers, merchants, artisans, priests, and rulers. Despite their importance to Sumerian society, they had little wealth and power, relying on the priests and rulers to dictate their daily lives.

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