Old Sumerian Period: Wars & Expansion

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  • 0:02 Old Sumerian Period
  • 0:45 Background
  • 1:27 Kings and Warfare
  • 4:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the Old Sumerian Period, a period of Mesopotamian history where the growth of prosperous city-states led to intermittent periods of warfare.

Old Sumerian Period

For most native-born Americans, all they have ever known is democratic government. Democratic government and the principles of a free society, which we all live by, allow us to choose our leaders, enjoy many civil rights, and generally conduct our lives without fear of being beaten up by a strong man walking down the street. In ancient Sumer, however, democratic and free societies were virtually non-existent. In fact, the strong man you encountered walking down the street might not only beat you up and take your stuff, but if he was strong enough, he'd happily take control of the entire city!

In this lesson, we'll explore the rule of some of those strongmen during the chaotic Old Sumerian Period, its background, and some of the important cities and kings of the period.


So, exactly where and what was Sumer? Sumer was an ancient civilization that inhabited the lower region of Mesopotamia, beginning approximately around 5000 B.C. By the rise of Sumerian civilization, humankind in Mesopotamia had already pioneered agriculture in the region for several millennia. The rise of agriculture switched humankind in this area from a mainly hunter-gatherer society to a more sedentary society with fixed homes and settlements. As agriculture and animal husbandry proved successful, these settlements grew into urban centers and cities. Soon these cities developed their own political systems, with general control over the surrounding countryside.

Kings and Warfare

Beginning around roughly 2900 B.C., ancient Sumerian civilization entered the Old Dynastic Period, or simply the Old Sumerian Period. Early forms of Sumerian writing had already developed, first appearing around 3200 B.C., so numerous clay tablets have been discovered by paleontologists and historians that tell us about the period.

Perhaps the most important of these artifacts is the Sumerian King List. Likely produced at some point early in the period to gratify and legitimize the rule of a Sumerian king, the list provides historians with both mythical and likely historically accurate information. For example, while the list details the reigns of Sumerian kings from the beginning of time - some of who it claims reigned for thousands of years - the list also includes seemingly more accurate and plausible details of the reigns of kings in the Old Sumerian Period.

At the beginning of the period, about 30 city-states existed in Sumer. Though most of Sumer followed roughly the same ideology, each city-state had its own patron deity that it honored with temples and events. The prosperity of these city-states caused each to want to expand. Not only did they decide to expand east, they also grew at the expense of one another. According to historians, throughout the Old Sumerian Period, Sumerian city-states were in constantly alternating states of war and peace. One city-state, for example, would gain supremacy over its neighbors, exacting tribute and taxation from these neighboring city-states until a succession of weak kings weakened the first city-state's grip on regional power, or a new city-state or coalition of other city-states defeated it.

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