Notes on the Nature of Authority in the Isin-Larsa Period

September 19, 2015 – 9:21 pm

The influx of Semitic elements, of which the Amorites were the latest, led to alterations in the political forms of Sumer.

Tribal Authority

Whereas there is no trace of residual tribal structure in Sumero-Akkadian society of the third millennium BC, the Amorites, as relative newcomers to the Land and arriving in such large numbers, were both closer to their tribal roots and less isolated from the social pressures that preserve tribalism. From the Mari archives we have some idea of the functioning of this tribal society.

We can infer from these documents that there are two principal forms of division to be noted within the Amorite population. First, though one speaks of a ‘tribe’ as if it were an uncontroversial concept, there is in fact a hierarchical organization of tribal federations and subtribes each of which might equally well be called a tribe. Each tribe would typically trace its origin or distinctness back to some supposed ancestor. Tribal loyalties are hierarchical, and the loyalty to the higher tribe would be secondary to the lower divisions of that tribe. The divisions and relationships amongst the tribes are not precisely known as yet, but there are some major groupings known: the H?aneans, who were a relatively settled people on the Middle Euphrates; and the Yaminites (DUMU.MEŠ.yamina, biniyamini, ‘Sons of the right’ = ‘Southerners’) a less settled, more widely dispersed people found from Sippar all along the east bank of the Tigris and across the North Jazirah to the Syrian plain and Mount Basor; the Sim’alites (DUMU.MEŠ.sim’al, binisim’al, ‘Sons of the left’ = ‘Northerners’,) who occupied undetermined regions in the North near Harran; and the nomadic Sutu about Mari. Subordinate to the Sutu were the Almutu, Mih?alizayu, Yah?mamu. Subordinate to the Yaminites were the Ubrabu, Amnanu, Yah?ruru, Yarih?u, and Rababu. Other important tribes whose affiliations are unknown were the Numh?a and Iamutbal from around the Khabur river, and the Ya’ilanu from east of the Tigris.[1]

Second, the Mari archives indicate that tribal society operated in distinct nomadic and urban modes. Tribes might undergo one or another process of gradual sedentarization: either parts of the tribe settling and other parts remaining nomadic, or practicing transhumance by spending the grazing season in the steppe or desert but settling down in town for the remainder of the year – or of course combinations of these processes. In that case, social structures and ways of life relevant to nomadism would persist in the town, and the distinction between the tribesman and the townsman would continue to be felt. In the area of Mari, for example, the evidence is that a town or village tended to be populated by members of one tribe or clan, and (only around Mari) was managed by a sugagu who represented it to the palace authorities, whereas the nomads had a sugagu who acted as a liaison with the state. Since the tribal authority was a separate focus of power from the state, when conflicts between those powers arose, the citizen/tribesman would find his loyalties divided or the nomad and the citizen would be divided against each other. There are records in Mari of such disputes, and it must have happened similarly in the Sumerian cities where a large share of the population was recently settled Amorites.

The structures of tribal authority continued therefore to be effective even after the process of settlement was well begun. Recognising this, the new city rulers sought to preserve their tribal authority, as we can see in their use of certain titulary referring to tribal roles. The term, abu or ‘father.’ for example, derives from the patriarchal principle of tribal societies. Each subordinate part of a tribe was headed by a ‘father of the household’ (ab? b?tim,) and each higher level of the tribal organization was occupied by those selected from amongst these ab?t b?tim. These titles and perhaps some of the associated expectation of subordination were preserved amongst the rulers of the settled tribes. Kudur-Mabuk, for example, the Larsa dynast with the Elamite name, called himself, rather grandly, Abu Amurru (ad.da kur mar.dú, father of the Amorite land) and Abu Iamutbal. Similarly, it was fairly common for the Amorite rulers to include the title rabi?nu, or ‘chief,’ amongst their honours. They would call themselves rabi?n amurru, ‘chief of the Amorites’ or ‘chief of’ some more specific tribal or regional distinction. Again, the kings of Larsa provide examples; with such claims being made by, for example, Zabaia and Abi-Sare.

Of course, the most famous of these rulers who identified themselves as Amorites was Hammurabi, who called himself ‘king of all the Amorite land’ (lugal da.ga.an kur.mar.dú.) Indeed, kingship was always at the top of the hierarchy, though it may have begun amongst the Amorites as a specifically wartime measure. One notes, however, the strict hierarchalism of the Amorites, lacking the independent hierarchies that the Sumerians recognised.

Supersession of Cities

The process which had begun under the kings of Akkad and Ur III by which the ideological centrality of cities to the political life of the Land was diminished continued under the rule of the Amorites. This process was probably somewhat assisted by the fact that the Amorite population, though it was integrating into the Sumero-Akkadian culture, was still aware of the not-so-theoretical possibility of another way of ordering society and justifying political power. The resurgence of small states based on capital cities under the petty kings of the Isin-Larsa period in the South did not retard this trend, for each of those states aspired, whenever this ambition might be realistic, to be the centre of a new empire rather than simply an autonomous city. As a consequence, the elements of this ideology were also devalued. It is particularly to be noted that the status of the city temple was vastly altered from previous times. The kings were increasingly unwilling to tolerate independent and countervailing power centres in their realms, and so the economic independence of the temples and their central role in the organization of economic life had to be curtailed.

[1] Whiting, p. 1238; EJ, s.v. ‘Mari’, §§ C1-3.

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  1. One Response to “Notes on the Nature of Authority in the Isin-Larsa Period”


  2. Bibliography

    Whiting, R. M. (2000) ‘Amorite Tribes and Nations of Second-Millennium Western Asia’ in Sasson, pp. 1231-1242
    Sasson, J. M. et al. (2000) Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers

    By SteveGW on Sep 19, 2015

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