The First Economic Reforms

The Sumerian city-state of Lagash has some of our earliest documented evidence for how a city was administered. We don’t know when the city was founded, but it existed as early as 2500 BC. Lagash was near the coast, or at least the coast as it was 4500 years ago. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers have since filled in much of the former Persian Gulf with silt.

Sumerian city-states were ruled by kings. The king was an absolute sovereign, who had both a secular function as ruler of his city and a religious function as an intermediary between the citizens and the gods. The king was supposed to intercede with the gods on behalf of his people, and honor the gods to ensure their continued benevolence towards the city. If the king neglected the gods, the gods could in turn be expected to neglect the city.[1]

Part of this duty involved building large temples as public works projects in order to honor the gods. Inside these temples, food offerings were left to the gods. Food offerings had to be collected from the populace. Over time, the temple grew to be a major center of government and economic activity. Sumerian temples employed numerous priests, priestesses and administrative staff. Scribes, archivists, storage supervisors and other administrators were required to make the operation run. Hundreds of laborers were employed to move items and undertake new construction projects.

Temples came to own large tracts of farmland. This provided more jobs for agricultural workers, who delivered the produce to the temple storehouses in return for being allowed to keep some of it for their own use. Cash did not exist in Sumer, rather, trade was done by bartering and wealth was primarily accumulated in barley and livestock.

What did the temple do with all this food? Some of it was used in ritual offerings to the gods. Most of it was distributed to employees of the temple as well as temple dependents – the old, orphans, the very poor and the widows. The temple therefore functioned partly as a religious charity and partly as a system of income redistribution.[2]

As a result, the temples grew to be very powerful, rivaling the king. The temple elders had tremendous influence over the government. In Lagash, the Temple of Ningirsu slowly gained direct control over a large portion of the city’s economy and imposed high levels of taxation on the private sector. Lagash was still nominally ruled by an ensi (king) but the king was beholden to the temple and the priests for support.[3]

Under the reign of ensi Lugalanda (in the early 2300′s BC), the temple of Lagash controlled the populace through direct control of much of the farmland and heavy taxation of the private sector. Corrupt priests and temple officials grafted and stole property from the people. According to an anonymous writer of the time:

The man in charge of the boatmen seize the boats. The head shepherd seized the donkeys. The head shepherd seized the sheep. The man in charge of the fisheries seized the fisheries. The man in charge of the food felled the trees in the garden of the indigent mother and carried off the fruit.[4]

Royal Seal of Lugalanda of Lagash.

The document goes on to say that in order to conduct a funeral, the priests charged the family of the deceased 420 loaves of bread, 21 gallons of barley, a turban, a bed, a suit of clothing and 7 jars of beer. As a result of the heavy taxation by the temple, the people were extremely poor. According to the author, “The working man was forced to beg for his bread.” The writer concludes: “From the borders of the god Ningirsu to the sea, there was the tax collector.”[5]

In a manner that is not entirely clear to us, Lugalanda was replaced by Urukagina at around 2350 BC (sometimes called Uruinimgina in newer works). All that is written about Urukagina’s ascent to power is that he was picked by the god Ningirsu “out of 36,000 men” (the population of Lagash). It is not known if he was Lugalanda’s designated successor or if he seized power by some other means. After gaining the kingship, Ningirsu “enjoined upon him the decrees of former days” and sent him to reform the system.[6]

Urukagina began a series of reforms designed to break the power of the temple over the economy, reign in corrupt officials and restore private enterprise. To accomplish this, he removed corrupt officials from office, reduced or eliminated taxes and enacted legislation to protect property rights. The anonymous writer goes on to tell us:

He held close to the word which his god spoke to him. He banned the man in charge of the boatmen from seizing the boats. He banned the head shepherds from seizing the donkeys and the sheep. He banned the man in charge of the fisheries from seizing the fisheries.[7]

Land was reformed, and temple lands restored to their proper purpose of producing for the temple rather than being used to enrich the king. The cost of a funeral was reduced to a bed, a turban, 80 loaves of bread, 3 1/2 gallons of barley, and 3 jars of beer. Urukagina also introduced laws protecting the rights of all property owners:

He also decreed: if a good donkey is born to a client and his overseer says to him, “I will buy it from you,” then if he wishes to sell it he will say, “Pay me what pleases me;” but if he does not wish to sell, the overseer must not force him. If the house of a powerful man is next to the house of a client, and if the powerful man says to him, “I wish to buy it,” then if he wishes to sell he will say, “Pay me in silver as much as suits me,” or “Reimburse me with an equivalent amount of barley;” but if he does not wish to sell, the powerful man must not force him.[8]

As a result of the reforms, economic prosperity seems to have returned to Lagash, so that “Everywhere from border to border no one spoke further of tax collectors…the working man was no longer forced to beg for his bread. The priest no longer invaded the garden of a common person.” The temple economy was restored to its original limited duties of providing for the priests, the poor, widows and others who could not work. The writer concludes that:

He freed the inhabitants of Lagash from usury, burdensome controls, hunger, theft, murder, and seizure. He established freedom. The widow and orphan were no longer at the mercy of the powerful. It was for them that Urukagina made his covenant with Ningirsu.[9]

Tablet issued in Urukagina's fourth year, issuing monthly barley rations to certain adults and children.

The document seems to indicate that Lagash had written laws by this time. This would make it our earliest known reference to a fixed legal code, pre-dating the Code of Ur-Nammu and the Code of Hammurabi. Urukagina’s reforms are also the first case in history of a ruler cutting taxes in order to spur economic growth. The combination of tax cuts, the prevention of abuse and the reduction of corruption seems to have restored economic prosperity to Lagash while preserving the temple’s economic support for the vulnerable people who needed it.

Yet, Lagash’s economic recovery was to be short-lived. Urukagina reigned for only eight years. After this, at about 2342 BC, Lugalzaggesi, the ruler of Lagash’s long-time rival city state of Umma, conquered the city on the way to conquering all of Mesopotamia and uniting it into one Sumerian empire. Lugalzaggesi ruled over a united Mesopotamia only until 2316, when he was defeated and deposed by Sargon of Akkad, who created a new empire spanning Mesopotamia.[10] Urukagina’s reforms were short lived and the “freedom” he brought was soon buried under the oppression of Akkadian rule (as evidenced by relief sculptures of torture that have survived as evidence of the conquest). Yet, his reforms are remembered in the modern world as an important first step towards our modern conceptions of human rights and limited government powers. As a result, Urukagina has been embraced by organizations ranging from Humanist Texts to the libertarian Liberty Fund’s Online Library of Liberty, and the John Locke Foundation as a pioneer of humanism or free market economics. On the other hand, it could also be argued that Urukagina’s reforms were primarily targeting corruption and excessive taxation instead of excessive spending, as much of the money seems to have gone to enriching the temple and government officials rather than being spent on government programs. Lack of statistics has always been the peril of ancient economic history.


[1] J.N. Postgate, “Royal Ideology and State Administration in Sumer and Akkad” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. I, ed. by Jack Sasson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 396-398.

[1] John F. Robertson, “The Social and Economic Organization of Ancient Mesopotamian Temples” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. I, 444-445.

[3] Samuel Noah Kramer, The Sumerians: Their History, Culture and Character (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 57-58.

[4] Reform Text of Urukagina, in Mario Liverani, “The Deeds of Ancient Mesopotamian Kings” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. 4, 2355-2356.

[5] “The Reforms of Urukagina,” (accessed July 30, 2011); Reform Text of Urukagina, in Liverani, “The Deeds of Ancient Mesopotamian Kings” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. 4, 2355-2356.

Liverani provides a more readable translation, but in an abridged version.

[6] Reform Text of Urukagina, in Liverani, “The Deeds of Ancient Mesopotamian Kings” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. 4, 2355-2356.

[7] Reform Text of Urukagina, in Liverani, “The Deeds of Ancient Mesopotamian Kings” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. 4, 2355-2356.

[8] “The Reforms of Urukagina,”

[9] “The Reforms of Urukagina,”

[10] Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq, (New York: Penguin Books, 1992), 138-145; Samuel Noah Kramer, History Begins at Sumer: Twenty-Seven ‘Firsts’ in Man’s Recorded History (New York: Doubleday, 1959), 46-49; Kramer, The Sumerians, 57-59.

Image Sources: (Header); (Body);;

Article © Christopher Jones 2011.

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