Online Review: Book

Local Power in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia

Stephanie Dalley


By Andrea Seri. Pp. xvi + 240, tables 5. Equinox, London 2006. $55. ISBN 1-84553-010-1 (cloth).

Such a huge quantity of legal, epistolary, and administrative records has been retrieved from ancient Mesopotamia that Assyriologists are often embarrassed at their inability to answer basic questions about government and economy. This is especially true of the Old Babylonian period, but not for want of trying. In this book, the author begins by presenting a detailed account of the many scholarly attempts to overcome the laconic sources with their lack of context and to elicit reliable deductions. Conflicting opinions signal the problem that the same sources seem to allow such a variety of deduction. The first 50 pages are perhaps the most useful part of this doctoral thesis from the University of Michigan, giving full rein to the author’s fluent and engaging prose style, and showing changes of emphasis in scholarly analysis over time, such as evolutionary change vs. semantic or organizational. Two threads that run through Seri’s arguments discount a nomadic involvement and dismiss evolutionary arguments that are sometimes connected to the concept that nomads gradually settled down, becoming less numerous and important over time.

Using a few new texts, but also reinterpreting many long-known ones, she selects three terms—the rabiānum (sometimes translated as “Burgomaster”), the “city elders,” and the “assembly”—in her attempt to reconstruct city administration, on the understanding that those three represent local powers in contrast to the state. “The state” seems to be coterminous with “the crown” and “the royal sphere,” but it is not defined, although those local powers are portrayed in antithesis to it. An essential question for the reader is whether there is new evidence or methodology that allows us to improve upon earlier attempts to investigate much the same material. The author claims to make a new approach (184), but in essence the type of material and the arguments used in specific cases are scarcely different from the old ones. Some basic questions are not asked, such as whether each city or city-state used the three terms in the same way. It is assumed that they did until, at Mari and Eshnunna, evidence comes to light that contrasts with conclusions drawn from Sippar, Larsa, and Kish. The exceptions are then disregarded for the main conclusions. In the case of Eshnunna, the crucial information comes from a seal inscription on which, uniquely, the title rabiānum is given; by contrast, none of the seal inscriptions on tablets from Sippar gives it (see B. Teissier, “Sealing and Seals: Seal-Impressions from the Reign of Hammurabi on Tablets from Sippar in the British Museum,” Iraq 60 [1998] 109–86). Likewise, because the three terms are set up within a paradigm that contrasts with the royal sphere, use of the title rabiānum by the king is taken to represent a second, unrelated institution (94); although an alternative seems to be that “the state had attempted to fill” that position with its own men (188), a huge deduction drawn from neutral evidence.

Hard to evaluate is the relationship between people of the seminomadic encampments surrounding cities and the truly urban people. Is it really true, as the author states without argument, that “harvesting is usually not a nomad’s affair” (63)? How does one tell the difference between a nomad (the term she uses), a semi-nomad, and a sedentary urban person? Certainly not by an analysis of personal names. Can we accept a translation of hanû as “tent-dwellers” (114) when we now know that the kingdom of Hana was extensive and literate from the time of Samsu-iluna, taking up the mantle of local power from Mari? By referring to “nomads” rather than “seminomads,” Seri betrays a lack of appreciation of the nonurban element in the population, without which any study such as this is inadequate. As previous studies have noted, seminomads were an integral, symbiotic part of Mesopotamian society; the relationship provided a flexible and mobile labor force, a strength in society, not a troublesome inconvenience. Ancient Greek institutions of city life, where seminomads were not a part of society, cannot be compared, nor can the regulators of Old Assyrian merchants, although both are occasionally interpolated into the discussion of southern, Babylonian cities. In the case of “the Assembly,” to which chapter 6 is devoted, Greek and literary Sumerian material begins the discussion, but their relationship to the Old Babylonian texts is not clear. Simply by addition in English of the definite article “the,” an impression is given that an assembly was not just an ad hoc group of citizens but a formal organ of administration.

Given that the time-span covered is some 430 years during which different cities in lower Mesopotamia, presumably each with its own traditions of titles and offices, held sway, one might question the concept that a single understanding of the three terms is valid. But one has sympathy with the afterthought (191–92) that local powers might have one profile under a weak central government and another under firm central control, although an awareness that cause and effect cannot be demonstrated for any single example is lacking. Such a shift would be impossible to demonstrate without a long, uninterrupted sequence of records from a single city, which we do not possess.

When one knows that each city had distinct titles for its rulers in both earlier and later times, one cannot assume that homogeneity happened just because a single ruler exerted control. Conquerors often used local administrators rather than replacing them, as is known from good evidence from Mari and Larsa. Family loyalties and nepotism rather than a faceless meritocracy presumably played a part, but it is an insuperable problem that one hardly ever can find out whether a man succeeded his father or uncle, or whether he belonged to the doubtless extensive offspring of the king and the king’s brothers. As the author admits (88), the context of dealings can seldom be reconstructed. This lies at the heart of the problem. A contract for the sale of land may stand for utter penury on the part of sellers, or the division of property after inheritance, or arrangements to accommodate traveling salesmen. We usually cannot tell which is the case.

One vital question is whether each title or term is distinct from another. An example comes from the discussion of the sugāgum and his relationship to the “elders,” whether of the district, of the land, or of the city. Whether tribal or not, whether a royal appointee or not, scholarly speculation has given conflicting answers; the author denies that the role of the sugāgum at Mari can be compared with that of the rabiānum in lower Mesopotamia. Her determination to allocate a different meaning and function to each term is particularly clear, where the logogram š for “elders” (117) is said to represent an “institution” clearly different from the elders who are represented by the logogram, both logograms having the same Akkadian equivalent šībtum. This unlikely claim originates from a perhaps misguided principle that the concurrent use of two titles by one man is restricted to literary and poetic texts (79). The principle underlies the conclusion of several scholars (141) that “the city” and “the assembly” are synonymous in some contexts, but the reviewer’s experience, based on clearer evidence from neo-Assyrian texts, suggests that the categories are complex and often overlap.

The mass of detail given in the central chapters is almost overwhelming, but at no point is a crucial text presented in full philological detail; the reader must search hard to find the specific evidence that backs up the conclusions that are elaborated, without referring back, in the final chapter. It is in that last chapter that the aims and scope of the book are declared, an arrangement that makes difficulties for the reader who must search back, without a cross-reference, for the specific evidence that led to the clear-cut conclusions. In claiming that the three terms chosen for investigation are “a group of relatively independent powers” (187), the author gives the reader the feeling that results preceded research, and this impression is furthered by some unconvincing conclusions. For instance, she claims (132) to have shown that the office of the rabiānum rotated periodically among the members of the city elders and “the city,” but the reader searches in vain for clear evidence of this (cf. 95). (Is the suggestion made by comparison with the eponym office in Assyria, for which annual selection by lot is known?) Reference is often made to Greek city institutions, which may have influenced the approach that describes the city elders as a “corporate body” (121).

The publisher bears the responsibility for printing the seal impression on the front cover back-to-front, and for announcing, on the pre-title page, that this very book is “Also Forthcoming in this Series.”

Perhaps the most valuable outcome from reading the book is to find how almost every interpretation or deduction made from a text or a group of texts is disputed. Another value lies in the account of the various activities in which the rabiānum, city elders, and the assembly were involved. Those who hope for a clear account of local city administration in the Old Babylonian period should treat the book with caution, but Assyriologists will welcome the synthesis of views and disagreements that help to show why firm conclusions cannot yet be accepted.

Stephanie Dalley
Oriental Institute
University of Oxford
Pusey Lane
Oxford OX1 2LE
United Kingdom

Book Review of Local Power in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia, by Andrea Seri
Reviewed by Stephanie Dalley
American Journal of Archaeology Volume 111, Number 4 (July 2007), published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1113.Dalley

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