Social Reform in Ancient Mesopotamia
BENJAMIN R. FOSTER
Social reform in contemporary experience implies change in society with longterm consequences, usually legal and economic, for a group within that society. Examples of social reform from modern times include universal suffrage and abolition of slavery. When we survey the three thousand years of Mesopotamian written tradition, we cannot readily identify social reforms understood in this way. Unless avowed Marxists, we find little direct evidence for social discontent, popular movements, charismatic crusaders, or other familiar forerunners of social reform. This is no doubt to a large extent due to the nature of the written record, which tends to reflect the interests and concerns of the literate elite. Social discontent as expressed in literature does not, so far as we know, result in long-term change: We have no Uncle Tom's Cabin to point to. But in a culture where only a small percentage of the population could read, mass movements inspired by the written word are not to be expected.
We have an assortment of Mesopotamian documents that record government action to modify certain social conditions--and, thus, are candidates for the modern category "reform." Most date to the period 2000-1550 B.C.E., for reasons that need to be considered. Translations and bibliographies for certain of these documents are given in the Appendix to this chapter.
The first text to be considered (see Appendix, Text 1) records a nine-point royal program analyzable as follows: