The Great Fatted Bull
Tablet #36
Sumerian Images
Sumerian History
The Royal Tombs of Ur
The Standard of Ur:  War
The Standard of Ur:  King
The "Standard" of Ur?
Vulture Stele Translation
Sumerian War Chariots
War Chariot Deconstructed
Gudea Translation
The Face of Gudea
The Face of Ur-Ningirsu
The Face of Lugal-agrig-zi
Ur-Namma Translation
The Face of Ur-Namma
Face of Ur-Namma, part II
I am Ur-Namma
The Face of Shulgi
Who Were the Sumerians?
Other Sumerian Kings
The Shepherd Kings
The Kings of Uruk
War: Umma and Lagash
Enmetena Vase
Enmetena Tablet
Enmetena, not Urukagina
Urukagina Liberty Cones
The Man of Umma
Lugalzagesi Translation
The Princess Wife
The Great Fatted Jackass
Sargon's Victory Stele
Helmet: the King of Kish
The Standard of Mari?
The Invention of Writing
Adventures in Cuneiform
The Sumerian Scribe
A Masterpiece
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A Sumerian king. There are no known images of Urukagina. This terra cotta figure is from the city of Ur and is dated in a later period. The king carries a shepherd's flail, a symbol of authority, and he stands before an offering table. He wears a shepherd's hat, the crown of a Sumerian king.

Urukagina reigned for seven years in the city of Lagash, sometime around 2375 B.C. (Sumerian dates are never very certain). The current pronunciation of his name is Uru-ka-gina, though he is also known as Iri-ka-gina and Uru-inim-gina. His signature is shown at the bottom of the page. As the ensi (ruler, governor) of the city of Lagash, he followed a long line of powerful monarchs that began with Ur-Nanshe and continued for several generations with Eannatum and Enmetena. During recent years, however, the power and prestige of Lagash seemed to be on the decline.

Urukagina may not have been of royal descent, since he did not assume the rulership by the normal means of royal succession and he never signed himself as dumu, "son of", which seems to indicate his father was not a high-ranking nobleman with a title worth mentioning. It has also been suggested that his wife Sasa (or Shasha) was a commoner because her brother was a "chief herdsman", an official in charge of livestock. However, this title was sometimes held by members of the minor nobility. She nonetheless became the administrator of the temple of the goddess Bau (Ba-u, or Baba) which employed more than 1,000 workers. This suggests she was educated, and thus a member of the nobility. Many of her administrative tablets from the temple have survived to the present day.

(Temple of)  Bau/ Sasa/ wife of Urukagina.

Urukagina’s immediate predecessor was the ensi Lugalanda, who had a reputation for greed and corruption. Lugalanda seized control of the most important temples, those of the gods Ningirsu and Shulshagana and the goddess Bau. He placed them under the administration of an official that he appointed who was not, as formerly the case, a priest. Lugalanda also appointed himself, his wife Baranamtarra, and other members of his family as administrators  of the temples. He referred to these temples as the private property of the ensi. He no longer mentioned the name of the deities in temple documents and he levied taxes on the priesthood. Lugalanda and his wife became the largest landholders in the region. His wife shared in the ensi’s power, managing her own private estates and those of the Bau temple. She sent diplomatic missions to neighboring states and she bought and sold slaves. (source: "The Creation of Patriarchy", by Gerda Lerner)

Tensions between the ensi and the community increased. On his foundation cones (below) Urukagina describes the prevailing conditions for the common people. Their boats were seized by the chief of the boatmen. Their sheep were appropriated by the head herdsman, and their fish stores were confiscated by the fisheries inspector. The “men of the ensi” cut down the orchards of the poor and conscripted workers to labor in the fields. Court officials were “everywhere”. The ensi took the best land for himself and used the sacred oxen from the temples to plow his fields. The temple officials were also greedy and corrupt. They charged excessive fees to perform their religious rituals and to bury the dead. They took bribes, levied onerous taxes which they shared with the ensi, and they likewise used temple oxen to plow their fields. Although these conditions had existed to some degree since time immemorial (“from distant days”) they seemed to have become much worse during the reign of Lugalanda.

Lugalanda reigned for less than 6 years before Urukagina seized power. The fact that Lugalanda’s son Urtarsirsira is known to be alive a year later indicates that it was not a bloody coup d'état. This by itself was a notable break with ancient tradition. It was usually the custom to execute a deposed monarch and his sons, thus ending any pretensions they had about reclaiming the throne. In seizing power, Urukagina declared he was acting on behalf of boatmen, shepherds, fisherman and farmers, and he implied that he was aided by the priests. The priesthood of Lagash had always been very influential, but if the temple officials thought they were playing the role of “king maker” by bringing Urukagina to power, they would later have cause to regret it.

Urukagina, ensi of Lagash.

The examples of cuneiform writing on this page are from tablets
and from clay "tags" that were used to identify various statues.

The statues themselves were destroyed long ago in the many wars that occurred in the region.

Ensi Urukagina soon set about making some changes. He dismissed many corrupt officials, the chief boatmen, head herdsmen and fishery inspectors who had seized private property. He confiscated the estates of the ensi and placed them under the jurisdiction of the gods (i.e., the temples). Urukagina removed many court officials, including supervisors who controlled the grain tax. He dismissed the priests who had taken bribes and the temple administrators who had shared tax revenues with the ensi. Then Urukagina set limits on the amount that the priests could collect for their religious rituals and their fees for burying the dead. He cancelled debt‑slavery and declared a general amnesty for the citizens of Lagash, even for criminals, even for thieves and murderers (“their prison he cleared out”). Last but not least, he provided charity for the poor and the elderly. In all of these actions Urukagina claimed he was directed by the gods.

The goddess Bau confirms the commands given by Urukagina.

All of these reforms were carefully recorded on Urukagina’s cones and tablets to insure that “the orphan or widow to the powerful will not be subjugated”. The “Liberty Cones” of Urukagina are the world’s first documented effort to establish the basic legal rights of citizens. Although some of the credit must go to Enmetena’s earlier efforts at reform (see Enmetena Translation), Urukagina’s reforms are far more comprehensive. There is nothing else like them in the annals of ancient history. Unfortunately, they don’t get the credit they truly deserve, even though in the evolution of human society they are just as important as the legal codes of Ur-Namma or Hammurabi, the Magna Carta, or the American Bill of Rights. (See a complete translation of the Liberty Cones, along with some explanatory comments.)

One of Urukagina’s “Liberty Cones”.   The cone was covered with inscriptions written to the gods, then buried beneath the foundations of a new temple.

Some historians like to portray Urukagina as a leader of a populist revolution in which freemen battled against the aristocracy and wealthy landowners. But Urukagina’s reforms went only so far; he was merely trying to correct the worst abuses of power, he wasn’t trying to overturn the basic structures of society. Other historians like to emphasize his role in transitioning the Sumerians from a “temple economy”, where the temples were the administrative centers of government, to a modern secular society based on royal power. In this regard he would be like an ancestor of Henry the VIII, in the age old struggle between church and state; but Urukagina wasn’t an anti-religious revolutionary or an iconoclast. The estates that he confiscated from the ensis he gave to the temples. Still other historians point to his claim of working on behalf of the gods to right the wrongs of society as a self-justifying assertion of the divine right of kings, but this ground had already been covered by his predecessors, Eannatum and Enmetena, for instance. Although there's no reason to doubt  the sincerity of his efforts, the simple result of his reformations was more power for himself. Evidence for this is found in the second year of his reign, when Urukagina changed his title from ensi (“ruler or governor”, which the monarchs of Lagash usually called themselves) to the loftier title of lugal, meaning “king”.

Urukagina, king of Lagash.

There has been some speculation on whether or not Urukagina enacted his reforms into law or if he was just paying lip service to social reform as a way to increase his popularity with his subjects (many kings announce high-minded reforms at the beginning of their reigns, only to proceed with “business as usual”). With Urukagina there can be little doubt as to his intentions. He repeated his reforms on other foundation cones. The reforms were the central event of his reign, and they would end up costing him dearly, as will later be shown. As for whether or not he enacted the reforms into law: Urukagina was the king, his word was law. This alone was enough to guarantee that the reforms were enacted.

Watch on the wall/ of the temple E-barbar/ Urukagina/ king/ of Lagash.

These social reforms weren't his only concern. He ruled during a period of political instability and civil war between the Sumerian city-states. His main antagonist was Lugalzagesi,
the king of Umma who was making a bid to conquer all of Sumer and Akkad (and beyond). Lugalzagesi made several attacks on the kingdom of Lagash. One administrative tablet from this period is dated “the month that the man of Uruk came a third time”. It seems as if Lagash was under repeated attacks from two different cities, Umma and Uruk, but in this case they are essentially the same. Although Lugalzagesi was originally the king of Umma, he had moved his capital to the city of Uruk, so “the man of Umma”, as he’s called on another tablet, and “the man of Uruk”, both refer to Lugalzagesi. Umma and Uruk would have been allies in the war against Urukagina, since both cities were ruled by Lugalzagesi. 

Three (or more) attacks on Urukagina within the span of seven years is a bit much, even by the Sumerian standards of internecine warfare. The reason for this was the long standing animosity between Umma and Lagash. They had been at war for more than a century, battling for control of the Guedena, the fertile land between the two cities. Although Lugalzagesi was currently 'the Man of Uruk', he had been born and raised as a royal prince of Umma. As such, he would have grown up hating Lagash and dreaming of the day when he could defeat it. The Sumerian Hundred Years War was about to culminate into its final battle.

Urukagina was focused on his social reformations. He wasn't interested in foreign wars abroad or Sumerian civil wars at home. Nonetheless, although social reforms were Urukagina's primary concern, he spent most of his time defending his kingdom.

The goddess Bau is concerned about the throne of Urukagina.

The gloominess of Urukagina’s situation can be sensed in a fragment from a heavily damaged foundation cone (CDLI P222617):

n lines missing
“For my part, what did I have of it?” I said to him:
“I did not do any violent act, but the dogs {the enemy} today are ... my city(?)”
n lines missing
Girsu was surrounded by it {the enemy army},
and Urukagina
exchanged blows with it with weapons.
A wall of it he {Lugalzagesi} made grow there,
and dogs he made live there.
He went away to his city,
but a second time
he came ...
rest of column missing

The “wall” is probably the enemy army surrounding the city, or it may be a siege wall constructed by the invaders to trap the civilians and defenders inside the city, cut off from outside food supplies, in order to starve them into submission. The prolonged siege of the city caused the enemy “dogs” (soldiers) to live there for a while.

The goddess Bau soothes the heart of Urukagina.

This is when Urukagina’s social reforms came back to haunt him. He had thoroughly alienated the aristocracy, who highly resented any reduction of their royal prerogatives, even to the slightest degree. Throughout the ages, the aristocracy has always been the military class. They justified their privileged lifestyle by bringing their armies of peasants to the battlefield when summoned by the king, by being recklessly brave in combat, and by dying heroically in defense of the realm. Many a king in history has suffered tragedy and downfall after alienating his aristocracy. Urukagina was no exception. Now, when he needed them most, he could not rely on his lords and noblemen. Their defense of his kingdom would be lukewarm at best. They may have even refused to defend him, or with a few bribes and blandishments they could easily be persuaded to switch sides. It didn't help matters much that Urukagina had also alienated the clergy.

All this is proven by the fact that Lagash eventually lost the war with Umma. This had seldom happened. Through generations of conflict, under the leadership of Ur-Nanshe, Eannatum, and Enmetena, Lagash had always been the victor and Umma the vanquished. Now, under the leadership of Urukagina, bereft of effective military support from his disgruntled nobility because of his social reforms, the roles had been reversed. Lugalzagesi, “the Man of Umma”, thoroughly sacked the city of Lagash, as if to avenge a century of humiliating defeats. The savagery of the attack, especially the looting of the temples, shocked the Sumerians. Sumerian civil wars were usually a lot more “civilized”. (See “The Man of Umma” for a translation of a tablet detailing Lugalzagesi’s plundering of Lagash.)

A letter from the high priest Lu-enna addressed to the king of Lagash, believed to be Urukagina, informing him that his son had been killed in combat.

Urukagina survived the sacking of Lagash and moved his capital to the smaller neighboring city of Girsu. He was still a king, but his kingdom was considerably reduced. Lugalzagesi followed him to Girsu and twice besieged the city. Soon afterward, Urukagina disappears from the historic record.

Urukagina, king of Girsu.

It’s not know for certain how he died, but the possibilities are endless. Perhaps he died of
natural causes. Perhaps he was captured and executed, or killed himself rather than being
taken alive. Perhaps he was murdered by an unseen assassin in a palace coup by someone
trying to curry favor from Lugalzagesi. Hopefully he died in combat, in one last heroic battle,
in defense of his kingdom and his vision of a better world.

The goddess Bau will never give up her love for Urukagina.