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The Responsibilities of the King in Ancient Mesopotamia

by Rachel Alexander, Demand Media

    Though not divine themselves, but rather divinely chosen, the kings of ancient Mesopotamia acted as earthly representatives of the gods. As stated in a Sumerian proverb, “Man is the shadow of god, but the king is god’s reflection.” The main responsibilities of the kings involved participation in religious rituals, managing the affairs of the state in war and peace, writing laws and guiding the administration and execution of justice.

    Divine Agent

    Although it was believed that the cosmic ruling body of the state in ancient Mesopotamia was the gods, a human steward was selected to enact that cosmic order. The king was believed to be personally chosen by the gods and, although he was acting to manifest the will of the gods, he himself was not considered to be godly. In this way, his primary role was as a divine agent.

    Military Leader

    War and conquest were considered to be the divine mission of the ancient Mesopotamian kings, whose duty it was to allocate more resources and people into their domain. They believed that in order to protect themselves and their kingdoms they would need to expand and conquer areas of perceived threat. War was also the primary means of economic gain as conquering meant the accrual of slave labor, people to tax and land to tribute.

    Codes of Law

    Another primary role of the king was to disseminate codes of law--codes that today are considered to be the world's oldest surviving legal documents. The codes were written by the king, in the tone of a constitution, proclaiming his duty to enact the godly will in an effort to build a more just society. The codes speak to problems of daily life from land ownership to divorce and dowry as well as professional malpractice.

    Serving Justice

    Ancient Mesopotamian society was not democratic in nature, as there was no regular court system, lawyers or prisons to aid in enacting justice. Instead the cultural characteristic of innate compliance to authority, which permeated the mindset of the Mesopotamians, allowed for the execution of justice. The state and the will of the gods took precedence over individual rights. The king’s role in the serving of justice was to appoint judges to decide the guilt or innocence of criminals based on their oral testimony. He also acted to ensure punishment was bestowed upon the guilty.

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    About the Author

    Rachel Alexander is a cultural and political area specialist of South Asia and the Middle East. She received the State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship in 2011, and again in 2012, to live in northern India and study advanced Hindi. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies from Loyola University of Chicago.

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