Sumerian Uruk-Agina Makes Social and Political Reforms

Uruk-Agina was the first ruler to address social ills by proclaiming reforms to alleviate the oppression of the population of the Sumerian city Lagash by its priestly class.

Summary of Event

Uruk-Agina was the first known social reformer of the ancient world. He was the last independent king of Lagash, a Sumerian city located in the southern Mesopotamian basin. His reign is dated to c. 2340 b.c.e., which places his reign in the Early Dynastic IIIb period (c. 2500-2334 b.c.e.). The series of reforms he effected as king in Lagash were intended to correct economic abuses perpetrated on the general population by those of the priestly class. His reforms are known from inscriptions left on three clay cones and an oval-shaped plaque found at the site of ancient Lagash in 1878. Uruk-Agina

Uruk-Agina does not appear to have risen to the position of ruler over Lagash through hereditary succession. This is suggested by the notable absence of any reference in his surviving inscriptions to a father or grandfather who may have preceded him on the throne. Further, he attributed his succession to the god Ningirsu, who led him by the hand from the larger population of the city to assume his reign over the city. Although the political circumstances that allowed for his ascent to the throne are unknown, it is known that he used his new position to champion the cause of those who were being economically oppressed.

In the statements he made to introduce his reforms, Uruk-Agina proclaimed that it was his intention to protect those who had been preyed upon by rapacious religious and civic officials. In so doing, Uruk-Agina was the first to suggest that the king, acting as an agent of the patron god of the city, was responsible for providing social justice for the weaker citizens of the state. Therefore, his view of a socially just reign prefigured the lofty goal that Hammurabi included in the preamble to his code, which proclaimed his intention that “the strong should not wrong the weak.”

What followed in Uruk-Agina’s inscriptions was a series of proclaimed reforms designed to free the general population from various burdens imposed on them by members of the priestly class. First among the complaints of the people was the appropriation of the best fields by priests: As translated by J. N. Postgate in Early Mesopotamia (1992), “The oxen of the gods ploughed the garlic plots of the ensi, and the best fields of the gods became the garlic and cucumber plots of the ensi.” Uruk-Agina effected a fair redistribution of the use of agricultural lands, considered to be the property of the gods, among the population of the city.

He also identified the abuses of various state inspectors who used their examinations of crops, herds, fisheries, and boat travel on the canals to extract exorbitant taxes from all segments of society. As part of his reforms, Uruk-Agina reduced the number of state inspectors, many of whom had adopted the practice of billeting themselves among the people.

In addition, the population of Lagash had suffered extortion by priests who charged exorbitant fees for officiating at individual burial ceremonies, which from early times involved the interment of the dead in the wall of a house or in a shaft grave underneath a house. Again as part of his reforms, Uruk-Agina prescribed limits for the fees that priests charged for their services at these rites.

One of the more unusual aspects of the reforms that Uruk-Agina effected was his reform of the practice of polyandry—the practice of wives taking more than one husband. This is the only reference found indicating that such social arrangements were contracted. The practice is at odds with the common practices known throughout the cities of the southern Mesopotamian basin. If this was, indeed, a marital practice in Lagash, Uruk-Agina took steps to end or restrict it.

In addition to the inscriptions that relate to Uruk-Agina’s reform, there also survives from this period an inscription recording that a large offering of different kinds of fish was sent to Nippur by Uruk-Agina’s wife. The reference provides some insight into the complex nature of the inter-state relationships that existed among the several Sumerian cities of the southern Mesopotamian basin.

The reign of Uruk-Agina came to an end when Lagash was attacked by Lugalzagesi, the king of Mesopotamia (Umma) who subjugated all the cities of Mesopotamia from the Persian Gulf to the Taurus Mountains—that is, the entire Mesopotamian river valley. In a lament that survives from that time, Lugalzagesi is identified as the one who committed sacrilege against Lagash’s patron god, Ningirsu, by sacking his city’s temples and laying waste its fields. In a final statement from this lament, Uruk-Agina’s memory is mentioned favorably as the mourner appeals to his gods: “It is not a sin of Uruk-Agina, king of Girsu! May Nisaba, the goddess of Lugalzagesi, ruler of Umma, make him bear the sin!” (Postgate, 1992).


Historians of ancient Mesopotamia have long known that Hammurabi, king of Babylon, was not the first to establish laws to provide basic protections for the general population of his realm. Aspects of his law code had precedents in any number of laws proclaimed by earlier Sumerian and Akkadian rulers of the southern Mesopotamian basin. Uruk-Agina was first among Hammurabi’s known predecessors.

Further Reading

  • Charvat, Petr. Mesopotamia Before History. Rev. ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. An archaeological overview of Mesopotamian society. Includes figures, maps, plates, and bibliography.
  • Cooper, J. S., trans. Sumerian and Akkadian Royal Inscriptions, I: Presargonic Inscriptions. New Haven, Conn.: American Oriental Society, 1986. A collection of inscriptions from the ancient cities of the southern Mesopotamian basin dating to the second millennium b.c.e.
  • Kramer, S. N. History Begins at Sumer. 3d ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989. A general work on the history of the Sumerians.
  • Postgate, J. N. Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. London: Routledge, 1996. A treatment of the general culture of the ancient societies in Mesopotamia.
  • Snell, Daniel C. Life in the Ancient Near East. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. A treatment of the full sweep of history in ancient Mesopotamia, which places the reforms of Uruk-Agina in their fuller historical context.