The Ancestors of Democracy in Ancient Iraq?

Ancient Greece is rightly venerated as the place where western democracy began. However, Daniel E. Fleming, in a book published in 2004, suggested that the origins of western democracy may lie even further back and to the east, in ancient Mesopotamia, now modern Iraq. In his book Democracy’s Ancient Ancestors, Fleming examined 3,000 letters from the archives of the ancient city of Mari, finding in them evidence for collective leadership and early democratic ideas and vocabulary in the city’s myths and literary traditions.

I haven’t read the book, but I think I can see where Fleming is coming from. The cities of the Babylonian Empire were ruled by three different layers of government. There was the governor, appointed by the emperor; the city’s local ruler, the mayor; and the karim, or chamber of commerce. This last could be the popular assembly of a limited kind that provided the proto-democratic element in the Babylonian political system.

The Babylonians were also rather like us, in that they also expected their rulers to act in their interests, and had a cynical contempt for them when they didn’t. There’s one Babylonian story about a citizen, who gives the mayor a golden cup, expecting a suitable favour in return. When he doesn’t get it, the citizen arranges a series of four incidents, in which the mayor has the living daylights beaten out of him in consequence. Okay, so it isn’t democracy so much as a bribe, but it does show that there were limits placed on the actions of their rulers, and the citizenry considered it their right to mete out appropriate justice when their rulers didn’t govern on their behalf.

Aside from this, since Edward Said’s Orientalism, there has been a move by some historians to challenge the simplistic notion of a free, democratic West versus a despotic East. Said traced this idea back to Herodotus’ The Histories, and the Father of History’s account of the Persian War as a battle between Greek democracy and Persian absolute monarchy. Sasan Samiei, for example, in his book Ancient Persia in Western History: Hellenism and the Representation of the Achaemenid Empire , wrote a measured attack on this view, in particular examining and contrasting the works of Goethe and Gibbon.

Said’s Orientalism was an attempt to challenge what he viewed as Western imperialist attitudes towards Arabs and their cultures, attitudes, which justified American and European imperialism and domination. The same attitudes have been seen as influencing Frank Miller’s 300, about the Spartan victory over the Persians at Marathon. Clearly histories like Samiei’s are important as they challenge the assumptions about the Near East and the Arab and Iranian worlds, which see them as a terrible ‘Other’ implacably hostile to the West and democracy, and which partly justify Huntingdon’s theory of renewed ‘culture wars’ between the democratic, free West, and a despotic, Muslim East.

And I wondered if Fleming’s book also didn’t provide another key to explaining the destruction of the priceless Assyrian artefacts by Isis a few weeks. They weren’t just trying to destroy the remains of a civilisation they considered to be pre-Islamic and therefore idolatrous. They were trying to destroy the reminders that Iraq had a history and culture going back thousands of years, in which democracy, rather than the rule of force, may have played a part. This last might provide a point a rapprochement between the West and Iraqi Islam. ISIS despise the West, and would like to provoke us into further attacking Iraq and its people further, in order to create more chaos. This would, they hope, further cut the rug from under the moderates and radicalise more of the people against us. Smashing those artefacts was part of that process, in the hope it would incense the West, as well as destroy the ancient, and possibly democratic legacy, of that ancient civilisation.

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7 Responses to “The Ancestors of Democracy in Ancient Iraq?”

  1. notesfromthenorth75 Says:

    Reblogged this on Notes from the north and commented:
    Very interesting post looking at a couple of different and interlinked issues such as democracy, ethnocentricism and history

  2. jaynel62 Says:

    Shared – this is a really interesting and intriguing post Beast – Thanks xx

  3. jaynel62 Says:

    Reblogged this on jaynelinney and commented:
    The Ancestors of Democracy in Ancient Iraq?
    An interesting and intriguing Read from The Beast
    WELL worth a read

  4. The Ancestors of Democracy in Ancient Iraq? | W... Says:

    […] Ancient Greece is rightly venerated as the place where western democracy began. However, Daniel E. Fleming, in a book published in 2004, suggested that the origins of western democracy may lie even…  […]

  5. syzygysue Says:

    Didn’t those societies also recognise that regular debt jubilees were necessary events to keep the economy running?

    • beastrabban Says:

      Yes, they did. I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right. The ancient Israelites had one every seven years. I think in ancient Assyria it was four.

  6. Chris Says:

    Back in history, American Indian tribes had a variety of democratic council democracies in North America.

    Not least, the Iroquois Confederacy (NE USA and into Canada today) with a female electoral group that could impeach the Tribe’s Chieftain.

    Our cave dweller ancestors were family groups, clans, who had male and female councils.

    So democracy (demos the people, cracy the state – in ancient Greek) was the core way we interacted from our modern human past from the start.

    The UK has never had a democracy,

    With UK’s unelected upper house of parliament called the House of Lords, filled with people with aristocratic titles (either true by blood or by patronage).

    UK’s political class are in the same aristocratic mindset, through their education in public schools and Oxford and Cambridge, trapped in a feudal way of thinking, a thousand years into the past.

    UK is the only nation with the nonesense feudal way of multiple duplicate layers of councils.

    And the even greater nonesense of the cardboard cut out,
    non politicians of the ceremonial mayors and Lord Mayor
    (nothing to do with the proper politician job, full time, of the
    direct public elected mayor, that is not a mere will of the wisp doing expensive ceremony).

    Scotland passes laws without them going through the House of Lords.

    There is a way to get a proper democracy, with politicians that come direct from the people,
    in this Vote or Starve election on 7 May.

    See more at:

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