The most fundamental principle of kingship in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt appears to be the welfare of the people. We find evidence of this notion within both the literature and physical representations of kingship that have survived from these early western civilizations. A close look at this evidence also suggests that the people played a major role in their own welfare in terms of providing loyalty and support to the crown, which was most likely reflected in the way kings were viewed as either a gift from the gods or the earthly manifestation of a god. What is most interesting about this collective responsibility of welfare is that it brings to bear how anyone could put his or her trust in one person to govern. Further, should any part of this twofold relationship be severed by neglect or abuse of power will overwhelmingly result in devastation, as we have seen in the rise and fall of civilizations.
In an attempt to explain the turmoil caused by a king to his subjects, the Sumerians in Mesopotamia developed a story about a king who fails to look out for the welfare of his people. The Epic of Gilgamesh opens with a description of a mighty king, Gilgamesh, who was created perfectly by the gods and given to the people of Uruk. Gilgamesh builds this city-state with unparalleled strength but loses the faith of his people when he begins to abuse his power. The people of Uruk ultimately cry out to the gods for help, and the goddess of Uruk heeds their call and creates a match for Gilgamesh to contend with. Our first piece of evidence that supports the welfare principle of kingship comes from the men lamenting in their houses about Gilgamesh:
But the men of Uruk muttered in their houses, “Gilgamesh sounds the tocsin for his amusement…No son is left with his father, for Gilgamesh takes them all, even the children; yet the king should be a shepherd to his people. His lust leaves no virgin to her lover…yet this is the shepherd of the city, wise, comely, and resolute. (Gilgamesh 16)
The use of the word “shepherd” to describe Gilgamesh’s role is mentioned twice and solidifies the claim in regard to the basis of kingship because a shepherd is generally concerned about the health and, perhaps arguably, the happiness of its flock. In another example, after the goddess of Uruk creates Gilgamesh’s match, Enkidu, a game trapper finds him interfering with his hunting tactics and is scared. The trapper eventually beseeches Gilgamesh to allow him to take a harlot for the purpose of humanizing Enikdu. The doctrine of kingship is obviously implied by Gilgamesh when he grants the trapper permission to take a harlot, however, it is also interesting to point out the symbolic portrayal of Gilgamesh’s predicament. It can be inferred that the harlot and Enikdu represent the King’s need for companionship and his barbaric behavior, considering how far removed kingship is from the rest of society and its elevated status. The success of any leader, however, is its ability to understand and relate to their people.
After Hammurabi became King of Babylon in 1792 B.C.E., he established a set of codes within Mesopotamia as a framework for ruling the Babylonian people. Readers of those laws will immediately notice the self-serving message within the preamble and epilogue, but they give additional credence to the role of kingship. In the first part of the preamble, King Hammurabi begins by detailing the origin of his reign and talks about how he was named specifically by the gods to promote the welfare of the people. “…at that time Anum and Enlil named me to promote the welfare of the people…” (Hammurabi 19-20). This statement is one of the most direct pieces of evidence that we find within the ancient literature that definitively elucidates the welfare of the people as important to kingship. Ironically, the text does not say that Hammurabi was named king but an advocate for the people’s wellbeing. This particular choice of language begs the question about whether the people would still follow Hammurabi if their welfare had not been considered. In the epilogue, King Hammurabi essentially gives us a resume of his accomplishments and describes how they were done with the people in mind: “…I rooted out the enemy above and below; I made an end of war; I promoted the welfare of the land…” (Hammurabi 26).
Ancient Egyptians, unlike the Mesopotamians, believed that their leaders were gods. They used agricultural tools to express their kingship. These tools, the flail and shepherds crook, both signify the principle of kingship in terms of a guide and authoritative figure that is responsible for maintaining what the Egyptians called “Maat,” which is harmony, order, balance, truth, and justice. Since every Egyptian strove for Maat in their lives, we can conclude that the welfare of the people was the responsibility of every citizen. The kneeling statue of Queen Hatshepsut with a Maat offering succinctly captures this conclusion and further supports the essence of kingship because when Maat was not achieved the Egyptians believed it either caused high or low flooding from the Nile River.
Kingship in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt was important for the development of these civilizations. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, we first realized how the role of kingship could have devastating effects on a people when their welfare is not considered. Next, the preamble and epilogue to Hammurabi’s Code gave us a glimpse of kingship’s triumphs when its most fundamental principle is observed. Finally, the Ancient Egyptians taught us that the welfare of the people is a collective responsibility by introducing us to Maat. The lessons learned here set the standard for many future civilizations and ultimately determine their success. In the end, to make kingship work it has to be a joint effort, selfless, and each member of a civilization needs to be accountable.