Sumerian society was a strictly patriarchal society with males occupying dominant positions in the home and in public affairs. It was not uncommon for a male to maintain one or more mistresses (concubines) or even cavort with prostitutes, particular as part of temple fertility rites; however a woman found guilty of adultery was put to death, normally by drowning. Women were required to wear a veil covering their faces while in public so that she might not pose a temptation to any man she encountered.
The society was also quite stratified. At the top of the social pyramid were the rulers, normally kings, noblemen, etc. who occupied their position because of successful military accomplishments. Next were priests and priestesses (normally younger members of the noble class who could not expect to advance due to accident of birth;) followed by free commoners, dependent clients, (those who did not own their own land) and finally slaves. Social stratification was so engrained in the society that members of the nobility and commoners were afforded different treatment under the law for no other reason than social standing. The following from the Code of Hammurabi illustrates the point:
If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out. If he knock out the teeth of a freed man, he shall pay one-third of a gold mina. If any one strike the body of a man higher in rank than he, he shall receive sixty blows with an ox-whip in public. If a free-born man strike the body of another free-born man or equal rank, he shall pay one gold mina. If a freed man strike the body of another freed man, he shall pay ten shekels in money.
Sumeria established the basic definition of civilization. Its society was based upon economic surplus and was able to support priests, government officials, merchants, and artisans. The spreading irrigation systems made regional coordination vital. A clearly defined government developed. Most individuals lived in the countryside. In the emerging cities, residents amassed wealth and power; they exchanged ideas encouraging technological innovation and artistic development; they promoted specialization in trade and manufacture. The government defined state boundaries, regulated and enforced religious duties, and provided court systems for justice.
Kings were responsible for defense and warfare, and, along with priests, controlled land worked by slaves. Political stability and the use of writing allowed urban growth, and agricultural, commercial, and technological development.
The Sumerians also introduced writing to meet the needs of recording religious, commercial, and political matters. Their system of writing, called cuneiform, evolved from pictures baked on clay tablets which eventually became phonetic elements. Its complexity confined its use mostly to specialized scribes. Writing helped to produce a more elaborate culture. The world’s oldest story, the Gilgamesh epic, portrayed a hero constantly defeated by the gods. In art, statues and painted frescoes adorned temples and private homes. The Sumerians created patterns of observation and abstract thought, such as the science of astronomy and a numeric system based on units of 12, 60, and 360, still useful to many societies. Their religion, based upon a pantheon of anthropomorphic gods intervening arbitrarily in human affairs, was accompanied by fear and gloom among believers. Each city had a patron god. Priests were important because of their role in placating gods and in making astronomical calculations vital to the running of irrigation systems. Many Sumerian religious ideas influenced Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Sumeria was one of the first cultures to have a well developed written language and literature. They left behind many records indicating that they also conducted mathematical strategies.
The Sumerians were an agricultural culture that also traded goods. They had a strong military and drove chariots. Their religious beliefs talked of the spirits of the dead. Sometimes when kings died, their servants were put to death to accompany them into the next world.
The highest class of people was the king or governor. Next came the aristocratic nobles. They were usually the administrators, priests, and military officers. The next class of people were the middle class which consisted of the workers, teachers, farmers, and artisans. The lowest class were the slaves.
The women had some rights but were not equal to men. They also had different rights depending on their class. It was a patriarchal ruled society and the family fell under the total control of the male head of household.