Episode 38. Tonia Sharlach: the power behind the throne: transcript

0:14  JT

Welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge, the podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.

0:32  JT

We’re used to thinking of ancient Iraq as being ruled by a series of cookie-cutter  individuals, almost entirely men, who wielded power according to the role set out for them by convention. The reality was of course different for many reasons. In some cases, we can peek behind the curtain of power, and see a more nuanced picture of kingship.

0:58  JT

In this episode, we explore the world of one of ancient Iraq’s most famous rulers. A ruler who made bold claims. An innovator. An individual, with very human hopes and fears. Someone with a complicated family life. A person whose life and death can be investigated through written records and material remains.

1:25  JT

Our guest is an expert in the empire that ruled Iraq four thousand years ago. For many years she has researched the ruling family, and shone a light in particular on the women who lived their lives behind the throne.

1:41  JT

So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.

1:54  JT

Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.


Well, I’m really flattered to be here, Jon. Thank you for inviting me.

2:03  JT

Could you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?

2:08  TS

My name is Tonia Sharlach. And I’m professor of ancient history at Oklahoma State University. I teach all of ancient history here. You know, Greece, Rome, Egypt, Israel, Mesopotamia. But by training, I’m a Sumerologist. And I focus on the late 21st century BC. And in particular, economic documents, because what I’m interested in is … although it’s old fashioned to say that … is the truth. What actually happened. So when you look at receipts, you see reality.

2:43  JT

We’re going to focus today on the royal family, and in particular, one king and his family. So could we start with some background, please, on this period, and this king?

2:56  TS

So the capital city at this time was called Ur. And according to their thought, there had been two previous dynasties at Ur. So they called this the Third Dynasty of Ur. And we then abbreviate that “the Ur Three Period”. And what that is, is a period about a century long. According to conventional chronology, 2112 to 2004 BC. So roughly 4000 years ago. And obviously, a really short period. It was a period of centralisation and prosperity, sandwiched in between the period before and the period after were not. That was decentralisation and trouble.

3:45  TS

Why study this period? Just simply because, well, a) it’s interesting, but b) there so many documents. There’s somewhere between 95,000 to 100,000 published documents from this period alone. Especially from about a 40 year period, towards the end of it. So often, we have literally 40 tablets a day for this period. And that allows us to really start answering a lot of the questions that we have for other periods, for earlier periods or, or later ones, in fact, that we just don’t have the information from those times, when we don’t have that level of recording.

4:29  TS

So the royal family that I’ve spent the most time looking at is the family of a king named Shulgi, who is the second king in the dynasty. And he came to the throne pretty young, and then rules for 48 years, dying in about 2050 BC. And the big avalanche of documentation starts around his 30th regnal year, because in part, he was very busy. He was always building things and reforming things. He tried to increase taxes and tributes to pay for all these things that he was doing. He was one of the only Mesopotamian kings who claimed to be able to read and write, and found scribal schools, a ton of self-praise literature. But because he’s changing so many things, and asking for so many more obligations to be paid to the state, people have to start writing stuff down much more to record, you know, what they paid, and that they were in good standing. And we think therefore, actually, the reason that we have so many tablets then from this period, really is directly related to his changes in government structure.

5:47  JT

It’s fair to say, isn’t it, that Shulgi’s family life is a little more complicated than the average person at this time. So who’s in his family? How do they get there? And how do they all fit together?

6:02  TS

Yeah, that’s really a huge question, because his family is huge. So I want to just start by saying that it was normal for people at that time to have a family that wouldn’t be that different from our family today. So you’d have one man, one wife, although Sumerian, of course, is gender neutral. So “spouse”, perhaps is a better translation. But in effect, one wife, and then kids. Of course, since they didn’t have birth control, they had lots of kids. But unfortunately, many of them died, either, you know, when very, very young or in early childhood. And kings had that same kind of family, normally, at that time.

6:46  TS

So Shulgi was born into just a normal regular, what we might call a nuclear family. Um, the one thing that was kind of different about Shulgi’s family was, of course, that his father was king; the first king of the Third Dynasty of Ur. And his mother, we don’t know that much about her. But it’s not unlikely that she came from the city of Uruk and was a member of the royal family there. We know that Shulgi had a couple of brothers and sisters who survived. So they were maybe three or four kids in his family. So he’s born into a normal family. When he first becomes king, he’s engaged to a lady from a[n] allied neighbouring kingdom called Mari, which is now in Syria. And he seems to have started out just like with the normal family.

7:39  TS

Um, his very first wife appears to have died after they had a couple of kids. We think that she disappears in any case, and he marries again. Again, everything just really normal. For some reason that we’re not clear about, around his 20th regnal year–so after he’d been king for a couple of decades–Shulgi starts telling people that he is the god of his land. He deifies himself, he declares himself to be a god. Not a city god, which I think would have been considered to be hubris, but this sort of like vague guardian spirit of his land. And at that time, then, he looks around and he sees that some of the gods have priestesses that are said to be brides of the god, just like nuns used to be called brides of Christ. So certain gods in the land had groups of priestesses called LUKUR. And they were considered to be brides of the gods. So at this point, Shulgi then renames his, chief wife with this sort of glorious goddess-like name NIN. And then he also takes between five to seven concubines, that he then calls by this same sort of priestess term. Now, of course, they’re not priestesses, right, they’re not serving his godhead. He is de facto married to them. So at that point, his family gets weird. And as to where these concubines come from, we really have to guess.

9:19  JT

Alright, then, let’s think about his children. With all of these wives, he must have had lots of children. Why does he want so many children? What’s he doing with them?

9:32  TS

I don’t think he has a choice about how many children he has. Yes, but I think it is clear that having a lot of children was a good thing. And especially if you’re king, because the children were super, super, super useful. So in terms of how many kids he actually had, we don’t know. Because they didn’t record the births. We only see them when they’re adults, and they’re receiving things or paying things in, in the economic records. So for sure we’re missing a lot of the children. We know of I think 31, who lived to adulthood, and that’s for sure an undercount. So, you know, the actual number may have been more like 45, or 50, or 60 that he had. Which is obviously a lot of kids, right.

10:20  TS

And the age range of those is huge, because he gets engaged and starts having children really early in his reign, right. But he’s still producing offspring with some of these young concubines in the 40s of his reign. So we know he had about 14 daughters and about 17 sons that we’re sure of. And then there are a lot who are called princes and princesses, literally “offspring of the king”. You know, just like in the English royal family, you call Prince Harry and Prince Andrew by the same title, but they’re not in the same generation, right? So it’s a little bit hard to unpick exactly who is the child of whom.

11:05  TS

But in any case, the daughters had basically two choices, you could get made a sort of celibate priestess, which was great for your dad, because it gave him control over a lot of the religion. It may have been kind of grand for them. Or you could get married. And if you got married, you were super useful to your dad, the king, because you could really cement his power over people not in his family. So a lot of the girls are married off to foreign principalities, and they then become the queen or the chief wife in various other places. Or they could be married to local people, that the king really wanted to reward and to, in a way, buy the loyalty. And then they would stay calm.

11:54  TS

As for the sons, although in theory, they could become celibate priests, in general, at least in that generation, they didn’t. I think there’s only one example. Mainly they became military men, generals, or other high military ranks, and they would, like, hold border outposts, undertake wars. But also they could be sent abroad, as diplomats or goodwill ambassadors, perhaps to check on their sisters, we don’t know. But Shulgi seems to have really had a complex relationship with his sons in that on the one hand, he absolutely needs them, to rule for him and to conduct the military operations that he cannot. But I think he’s also afraid of them, because he’s constantly shuffling them out. Like literally every year or two years, they have a different job. And they’re moved from one place to another. So I think he’s quite worried about any one son becoming too powerful and potentially unseating him.

13:01  JT

Do we know why Shulgi takes this approach? Why does he make this change in the royal policy rather than relying on ministers or eunuchs, for example?

13:10  TS

Yeah, so I don’t think there are eunuchs. I don’t know of any, I mean, not at this time. I think the eunuchs come later. I mean, at least eunuchs in terms of like in the palace. You know, it’s a little bit dangerous to use the later literature about Shulgi, to back it up to say that it was, you know, an accurate reflection of what’s happening in the period. And I say it’s dangerous, just because the texts are so much later, at least the ones that we can date. But if you look at the royal hymns and the self praises of Shulgi, he was really narcissistic. And he was so into controlling absolutely everything himself. There’s this one hymn that really reminds me of in, you know, Annie Get Your Gun: “anything I can do, you can do better”, right? And so he just he goes through, like, “I can do divination, I’m a great runner, I can do this, I can do that. I can read, you know, I can do music”. Just the idea of like delegating anything, I think just really freaked him out. Now, obviously, that’s not like a really scholarly statement, right? I don’t know that about him. But it is true, if you look in the records of the later kings, they are delegating. They have a minister of this and the minister of this does, you know his job portfolio. Shulgi is absolutely not doing that. He wants to do everything himself or through his family.

14:37  JT

With so many wives, especially in the context of the Middle East, inevitably, the idea of a harem will come to many people’s mind. If we’re going to use that word, what should we understand by it in ancient Iraq of this period?

14:54  TS

The root for the Arabic word comes from a meaning “taboo”, right? And so this can be used for often like a women’s quarters, right, where it’s taboo for men other than x category to go in. So basically, what we’re referring to in the ancient Middle Eastern context is a sort of women’s quarters, where you would have not necessarily the queen, because the queen often is stated to have her own living quarters. And she is not inside there most generally. But for these junior wives, keep in mind that we believe many of them were actually taken as prisoners of war. So they’re not necessarily really pleased to be there, right? They don’t necessarily want to stay. You know, there’s also the question of if the king is abroad or at war, or in another town or living in another palace for a little while, you know, who’s coming around and flirting with his pretty young wives. So I think the idea with the women’s quarters, is to just make sure that there’s no trouble, there’s no funny business. And that would be the reason for it.

16:16  TS

If you look in Mesopotamian history, there are lots and lots and lots of attestations of harems in palaces, starting from Ebla in the earlier centuries, and then moving down certainly into the Middle Assyrian and Neo-Assyrian times. And we often see each palace has a harem of about 200 to 300 women. Now, for sure, the king is not sleeping with all those women, right? There might be like, let’s say, in each harem, five to seven or ten women, that have concubine status, and then other like performers, dancers, acrobats, whatever that he may also be on intimate relations with. But then also just a whole lot of women who are scribes, or midwives, or hairdressers or sweeping the courtyard or whatever it may be. So the question then is, is it accurate to put that term back into the Third Dynasty of Ur? I think it is. I mean, I think you can find a term E UZGA, which does literally mean “taboo house”. And that does seem to be where the royal women are. I think, because Shulgi was doing something new. This was quite a new arrangement. And some of the details that will come later, like eunuchs guarding the women or bars on the doors or something like that, they are certainly not to be found in the Third Dynasty.

17:47  JT

Right. So Shulgi has this large family with lots of sons to whom he delegates power, and he rotates them into and out of positions. But there were also important families across the kingdom. Presumably, then, there’s a court filled with people other than his offspring. So who else shares power? And how do they fit in?

18:11  TS

Yeah, so surprisingly, the issue of the court and what do we mean by the court has been really understudied, I think. Not just for early Mesopotamian history, but also for contiguous fields in ancient history. So where this has received the most attention is actually with medieval studies. And medieval studies have pointed out that it’s not really very accurate to talk about the court like it’s a building. So in other words, in some literature, we refer to the court as if it’s a synonym of the palace. But the court, actually, the most helpful way I think of looking at the court, is a group of people who regularly are around the king.

18:58  TS

And so in the case of a later Ur Three king, that might be like that particular king, his wife, his ministers, somebody’s servants and some immediate family. In the case of Shulgi, it’s actually pretty different, I think. So who’s around Shulgi is actually not his sons. They’re very, very, very rarely at court, because he wants them out and about doing things for him at the borders and in the military. So it is certainly his chief wife. And then the various royal women: daughters, princesses had precedence over the junior wives, because the princesses had royal blood and the junior wives the concubines usually didn’t necessarily.

19:49  TS

But then there’s also some notable people around. You might have his so-called secretary, right, and various other body servants. Then we would distinguish then this group of people who are normally around the king, from what in medieval studies, they call the full court or the outer court. And that’s like a whole bunch of people who don’t normally live there and aren’t normally there. But who would come for a major holiday, like on the new year’s festival was … is a big one, or the so-called boat of the heavens festival in Uruk. And so then you would get like foreign ambassadors, you would get governors, you would get the married kids who lived somewhere else who came back in. And this would be the big pomp and circumstance, the public face, if you will, of the king.

20:44  TS

So we have the inner and the outer court. And the outer court people, they may not see the king all that much. But when they come, they bring a lot of gifts. And they really want to look good in order to get favours from the king. And one of the ways to get favours from the king is to donate a lot of animals … might be like, sheep, goats, or birds, sometimes even pigs, to one of these junior wives. And they had this kind of religious foundation going, where they would make sacrifices to various gods. And so you could kind of get brownie points from the royal wives, and then therefore, from making by being generous with your donations.

21:35  JT

This raises one of the bigger questions, doesn’t it, namely, what the agency of the royal wives might have been? Now there is documentation that tells us about an organisation run by one of the royal wives. But do we know if this activity is a personal project driven by the interests of this individual? Or is this more her playing the role given to her? It’s part of an institutional obligation?

22:04  TS

Yeah, so this is a really complicated question that I’ve thought a lot about. And the answer is sort of yes to both, I think. So there was a really, really, really old tradition going all the way back to, let’s say, 2500 BC, and so-called Early Dynastic Period, that the ruler had religious obligations. But that the ruler’s family maps over the divine family. And therefore the ruler is particularly responsible for the chief god, whereas the ruler’s wife is particularly responsible for the chief goddess. And there’s kids that are responsible for the divine children of that divine pair.

22:53  TS

I think this was a lot easier in the time of Shulgi’s dad, because then it was really clear. You had one wife. It was very clear what her religious obligations were. I think it becomes much less clear when you have all these concubines, at least my reconstruction is that there is in part an official institutional, public, if you will, role that any wife of the king has to do in taking care of certain deities. To some extent, goddesses are very important there. But it would be inaccurate to say that the women only worshipped goddesses, because that’s simply not true. They worshipped gods as well. So there is an institutional element to it. The tablets that we have are found as part of an institutional archive. The people who are writing the tablets and who appear in the tablets appear in other facets of the institution later. So it’s clear, they’re not her people, they’re not her staff. It’s also clear it’s not her funds. She does have some livestock of her own. She gets an allowance of 30 sheep a month. And those are kept physically quite separate from the animals that are used for the religious purpose. So in other words, there’s a fiscal separation between what she personally is given, and the fund into which the various donations go and also other animals go. So that all looks institutional.

24:36  TS

Having said that, the list of deities and festivals that she is having people celebrate are a little out there. Not the usual deities at all. So did she choose them? Some people have argued that she chose these particular deities because they came from a sort of a northern border area, that it’s suggested that she may have come from. But we have zero evidence for that. We really cannot say that. Another possibility is that each one of the, let’s say, five to seven junior wives gets assigned a particular constellation of deities that they’re going to take care of. And her constellation of deities happens to be pretty obscure just because she’s so low ranking.

25:30  JT

We do know her name, don’t we?

25:32  TS

Well, yes, and no. We don’t know her birth name. We do know that once she becomes affiliated with Shulgi, he renames her Shulgi-simti. And that means something like “Shulgi is my treasure”, or “Shulgi is my pride”. So that’s what her new name is.

25:56  JT

Could we come back to something you mentioned earlier? So partway through his reign, Shulgi makes himself a kind of god. I was wondering what the impact of that kind of move might have been on his existing family members. Presumably, it would have had consequences beyond just redefining the royal role.

26:17  TS

Yeah, the whole question of the deification of Shulgi, because it happens before people started writing so much stuff down. We don’t really know all that much about what caused him to do that. But if you look at other cases, like for instance, the Roman emperor Augustus, you know, he starts being worshipped as a god, at least in the East during his lifetime. So my curiosity was to see, well, what did that mean for his wife? And it meant absolutely nothing. Livia does not take part in that deification. In part because the deification had to do with the king as a public person.

27:03  TS

And so the queen, his chief wife, is never deified. His mother, interestingly, is syncretised with a vegetation goddess and does receive worship. But none of the queens become deified. So aside from them having this sort of priestly title, to be honest, I don’t think deification really affected them that much.

27:32  JT

Okay. So we have a certain amount of information about the activities of Shulgi’s family while they’re alive. But we also have information about what happened after they died. Could you tell us about that, please?

27:48  TS

Yeah, I mean, the one that we obviously know the most about after he’s dead is the king, Shulgi himself. His burial place was actually excavated by Sir Leonard Woolley. When he went to Ur, he found a series of what he called mausolea. And these are actually constructed tombs that he dug in Ur. These excavations happened in the [19]20s, and [19]30s. And so he didn’t actually keep the bones, which of course, would have been extremely useful to have now, since now we have more tests that we could do on them.

28:23  TS

Now, these mausolea were sacked in antiquity. At the end of the period, around 2000 BC, some people from Iran come in, and they really trash the place. But Woolley was a very careful excavator, and he was able to show that the ground was undisturbed, going right up into the burial. And what he found in the burial was actually not one body, but three. He found three bodies. One, a man. One he believed was a woman. And one was very small; he believed it was a child of about 12. And if you think about it, a woman who’s maybe like, four [feet] seven [inches] / four [feet] eight [inches], which was a normal size back then, could very easily be mistaken for a 12 year old. So there are certainly multiple people buried originally at the same time in Shulgi’s burial. And we can be pretty clear that that really actually was what happened in antiquity, because of the way the grave is built.

29:27  TS

So ancient people believed that the dead needed to drink and eat. And so they had these pipes that were actually built in, the so-called KI A NAG, literally “place of drinking”. And these were pipes that would run from above ground, where people could pour liquids and things down, and they would go all the way down to where the body was. And if you look at where Shulgi’s body is laying down in the earth, there are not one, not two, but in fact three feeding pipes. So to me, that’s really pretty clear evidence that three people were buried in there.

30:04  TS

An obvious question is, how did that happen? Was it that Shulgi died? And you know, he had to be pretty old after 48 years reign, right? Shulgi died. Well, what did he die of? Did he die of, I don’t know, pneumonia, and a couple of his wives died with him? And they go in there too? We know that Shulgi-simti and another woman disappear at almost exactly this time. When Shulgi dies, literally within a month, quite possibly, literally instantaneously. So it could have been like an epidemic. Some people even claimed it was like an assassination that Shulgi was killed and some of his wives with him. We have zero evidence for that.

30:50  TS

It’s also quite possible that Shulgi died, and there was kind of a creepy custom at Ur from way back in the Early Dynastic Period–where we see these so called Death Pits–of what we call “retainer sacrifice”. So a king or a priestess or something like that, when they died, certain of their enslaved staff or other servants might be killed to go with them. And this is a practice that doesn’t die out in the Early Dynastic Period. We see it right through the Sargonic period, and even up to the early Ur Three Period. We also see some textual evidence, in some Gilgamesh stories, and also just some economic texts of slaves who do appear to be essentially grave goods. So my reconstruction is that either there was a sickness, and they died at the same time and were buried together. Or I think what’s more likely, is that Shulgi didn’t go alone. And two of his junior wives who, you know, presumably didn’t have important daddies who were the kings of neighbouring towns who would object to this, that they were killed to go with him in the grave.

32:11  JT

How can we follow your work?

32:12  TS

Well, so my articles are up on my Academia page. Just a little bit about what I do and what I teach is up on the Oklahoma State History Department page. But if anybody has any questions, I’m really happy to just answer emails. You know, whenever people listen to the podcast, and they’re curious about something or they want to know more, they should feel free to email me at the address that I think will be in your podcast notes.

32:44  JT

Thank you very much.

32:46  TS

Well, it’s a great pleasure visiting with you. Thank you, Jon.

32:50  JT

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33:56  JT

I really appreciate your support. It makes a big difference. Every penny received has contributed towards translations. Thanks of course to the lovely people who have worked on the translations on a voluntary basis or for well below the market rate. For Arabic, thanks in particular to Zainab Mizyidawi, as well as Lina Meerchyad and May Al-Aseel. For Turkish, thank you to Pinar Durgun and Nesrin Akan. TEW is still young, but I want to reach a sustainable level, where translators are given proper compensation for their hard work.

34:35  JT

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