Ancient World

Poetry, war, and the invention of law

The Invention of Writing

The invention of written language is the most important milestone in human history, and we owe it to the accountants. Mesopotamia was a wild place at the dawn of the Bronze age. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers created a fertile stripe of perfect agricultural land arcing from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf. Human civilization had flourished since the development of metal tools around 4500 BCE, and the potter’s spinning wheel had recently made storage and trade of agricultural produce possible. In this hotbed of development, trade between Mesopotamia’s many emerging city-states became a staple of the urbanizing culture, and around 3000 BCE we see the first examples of the written word—as receipts.

Storage vessels were sealed with clay, and stamped with marks of ownership, and cylinder seals were rolled into clay tablets to designate the quantities of sheep or grain to be exchanged. This earliest form of writing is known now as cuneiform, and while the earliest writings recorded transactions, it was quickly adapted to the recording of ideas. Luckily for historians, cuneiform was finally deciphered successfully by the French scholar Eugène Burnouf in 1836, opening the nearly two million discovered cuneiform tablets to translation. Only a fraction of these writings are translated, but already we've found stories, prayers, poetry and songs of the Mesopotamian world.

War, celebrity and social order

The rich and rapid social growth of the Mesopotamian city states brought war. From 3000 BCE to the region’s final conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, Mesopotamia was awash in bloody conflict. To understand the politics of the time, it’s important to understand the geography. Mesopotamia was home to many urban centers, each home to a unique culture and lineage of kings. Surrounding these cities was farmland, kept fertile by irrigation ditches. The more farmland and irrigation a city controlled, the more powerful it became. For 3000 years these city’s fought, traded, taxed and murdered each other. For 1000 years the Sumerians from Sumer were dominant, until temporary defeat by the Akkadians from Akkad. Babylon rose to power in 1900 BCE and competed with the Hittites from 1450-1200 BCE. And so on…

But in this violent, messy time some extraordinary things happened. In 2140 BCE, Gudea of Lagash, a Sumerian king, realized he could control his domain more effectively with words than with the sword. Gudea understood that stable power grows from order, so he funded massive public works: temples to the popular local gods Ningirsu, Nanshe, Ningishzida and Geshtinanna. These imposing structures emphasized the values of peace and religion, and reinforced the Gudea’s authority. Finally, and most brilliantly, Gudea commissioned small, moveable statues of himself to be delivered to cities across his kingdom, making his face a fixture throughout Mesopotamia and becoming the first superstar, the first celebrity.

380 years later the sixth Babylonian king, Hammurabi, created another defining feature of human civilization: the first unified code of law. Engraved on a seven foot tall basalt stone the 282 laws establish terms of judgment for business transactions, proper wages, and relationships, including divorce and inheritance. The laws also defined a strict set of punishments for breaking the laws, including the now infamous lex talionis, or eye-for-an-eye system of retaliatory punishment. Hammurabi’s Law Code was not the first set of laws in Mesopotamia, but it was the first to be compiled by legal experts, reviewed, edited, and codified into a universal definition of law—setting a standard for governmental justice that’s in place to this day.


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Reed Enger, "Mesopotamia, Poetry, war, and the invention of law," in Obelisk Art History, Published May 14, 2015; last modified November 07, 2022,

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Bull Head from Girsu (Telloh), Mesopotamia

Bull Head from Girsu (Telloh) 3000BCE

Votive Figurines from Eshnunna, Mesopotamia

Votive Figurines from Eshnunna 2700BCE

In the midst of Umma Entemena overthrew Urlumma and killed him. He left behind 60 soldiers of his force dead on the bank of the canal.

The war for the Tigris and Euphrates canal 2500BCE

Perforated plaque of Dudu, Mesopotamia

Perforated plaque of Dudu 2450BCE

The Eannatum Boulder, Mesopotamia

The Eannatum Boulder 2450BCE

Clay Nails, a Treaty of Fraternity, Mesopotamia

Clay Nails, a Treaty of Fraternity 2400BCE

Cone of Entemena, Mesopotamia

Cone of Entemena 2400BCE

Hinge inscripted with Entemena, Mesopotamia

Hinge inscripted with Entemena 2400BCE

Silver Vase with Cuneiform, Mesopotamia

Silver Vase with Cuneiform 2400BCE

Stele of the Vultures - Historical Side, Mesopotamia

Stele of the Vultures - Historical Side 2350BCE

Stele of the Vultures - Mythological Side, Mesopotamia

Stele of the Vultures - Mythological Side 2350BCE

Inscription by Naram-Sin: Temple Construction, Mesopotamia

Inscription by Naram-Sin: Temple Construction 2250BCE

Naram-Sin Rock Relief at Darband-iGawr, Mesopotamia

Naram-Sin Rock Relief at Darband-iGawr 2250BCE

Male Worshiper of Ninshubur, Mesopotamia

Male Worshiper of Ninshubur 2250BCE

Victory Stele of Naram-Sin, Mesopotamia

Victory Stele of Naram-Sin 2230BCE

Gudea cylinders, Mesopotamia

Gudea cylinders 2125BCE

I am Nin-jirsu. No country can bear my fierce stare, nobody escapes my outstretched arms.

The Building of Ningirsu's Temple - Cylinder A 2125BCE

The day was for supplication, the night was for prayer. The moonlight ... early morning, its master.

The Building of Ningirsu's Temple - Cylinder B 2125BCE

Head of Gudea, Mesopotamia

Head of Gudea 2144 – 2124BCE

Gudea Diorite Sculpture, Mesopotamia

Gudea Diorite Sculpture 2120 – 2120BCE

Dedication Nail, Mesopotamia

Dedication Nail 2100BCE

The Epic of Gilgamesh, Mesopotamia

The Epic of Gilgamesh 2100BCE

Statue of Gudea, Mesopotamia

Statue of Gudea 2090BCE

"Wake me early in the morning, I must not be late, or my teacher will cane me."

Diary of a Scribe 2000BCE

Divination Liver Model: Omen of siege, Mesopotamia

Divination Liver Model: Omen of siege 2000BCE

Head of a Ruler, Mesopotamia

Head of a Ruler 2300 – 2000BCE

Lion of Mari, Mesopotamia

Lion of Mari 2000BCE

Hymn to Iddin-Dagan, Mesopotamia

Hymn to Iddin-Dagan 1950BCE

Your kingship is good for the people. The people spend their days in abundance thanks to you.

A Praise Poem of Iddin-Dagan 1900BCE

In order to find sweetness in the bed on the joyous coverlet, my lady bathes her holy thighs.

The Fertility Ritual of Inana and Iddin-Dagan 1900BCE

The Head of Hammurabi, Mesopotamia

The Head of Hammurabi 1790BCE

Prologue to Law Code of Hammurabi, Mesopotamia

Prologue to Law Code of Hammurabi 1780BCE

The First Law of the Land: if any one ensnare another, then he that ensnared him shall be put to death

Law Code of Hammurabi Hammurabi, 1754BCE

Law Code of Hammurabi, Mesopotamia

Law Code of Hammurabi 1750BCE

The Liver Tablet, Mesopotamia

The Liver Tablet 1600BCE

Funerary Male Portrait, Mesopotamia

Funerary Male Portrait 1500BCE

King Untash-Napirisha Axe Head, Mesopotamia

King Untash-Napirisha Axe Head 1300BCE

Action and inaction will both destroy you in the end

The Dialogue of Pessimism 1000BCE

The Oldest Love Poem, Mesopotamia

The Oldest Love Poem 800BCE

The Gilgamesh Flood Tablet, Mesopotamia

The Gilgamesh Flood Tablet 700BCE

Chogha Zanbil, Mesopotamia

Chogha Zanbil 1250 – 640BCE

Baal Stele, Mesopotamia

Baal Stele 1450

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