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date: 04 July 2022

(p. 331) Decisions

In the cuneiform sources, the subject of decision-making is most visible in judicial records documenting the binding resolution of conflicts. As Sophie Démare-Lafont stresses in Chapter 16, in addition to court procedure, arbitration was the principal strategy employed to resolve legal argument. At court, judgment was normally passed by a board of judges who decided the case jointly, providing early evidence for decision-making in committees, a subject that enjoys much attention in economics and political science (e.g. Facione and Facione 2007; Levy 2007).

Joint decision-making is also a key topic in Chapter 17, where Karen Radner surveys the impact of advice received from two principal sets of counsellors—the highest state officials and the scholarly experts—on the decisions made by the king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Andreas Fuchs, in Chapter 18, deals with the same period and milieu when portraying Assyria at war. In war and peace, a crucial role in the decision-making process was played by divination, for which Dominique Charpin provides another case study from 18th-century Mari in Chapter 12. The principles are studied in more detail by Ulla Koch and Francesca Rochberg in Chapters 21 and 29. Reliance on messages and signals from the gods to provide guidance in decision-making was not exclusive to Mesopotamia, as highlighted by recent scholarship on ancient Greece, Rome, and China (e.g. Athens: Bowden 2005; Sparta: Powell 2009; Republican Rome: Rasmussen 2003; Han China: Loewe 1994). This valuable tool in facilitating non-hierarchical discourse is, of course, still in use in many parts of the world today (e.g. Kim 2005 on South Korea).

Medical decision-making is just emerging as a topic in research on ancient healing (e.g. Sanchez and Burridge 2007) after commanding much attention in the recent literature on psychology and medicine. There, the concern with decision-making, its mechanisms and their impact, reflects in part the great changes affecting the authority and autonomy of the ‘gods in white’ since the 1960s: no longer is the medical practitioner ‘alone with his patient and God’ (Jonas 1969: 238) but decision-making is now heavily (p. 332) regulated and monitored by outsiders, including legislators, lawyers, and the media (Rothman 2003). Anne Löhnert and Daniel Schwemer discuss the approaches and strategies of two Mesopotamian therapeutic professions, the ‘lamentation expert’ (kalû) in Chapter 19 and the ‘exorcist’ (āšipu) in Chapter 20. These practitioners made decisions in regard to their remedial or preventative strategies largely at their own discretion, although heavily controlled by the constraints of tradition. Barbara Böck's discussion of cuneiform literature on pharmacology in Chapter 32 enhances this picture, while in Chapter 13 Michel Tanret provides a biographical sketch of one such expert, the lamenter Ur-Utu. The king's association and interaction with men of learning is Eckart Frahm's subject in Chapter 24.

Further reading

Westbrook (2005) provides a concise introduction to the powers and duties of judges. Oppenheim (1975) is the classic text on the impact of ‘intellectuals’ on Mesopotamian policy and decision-making. Jacobsen (1943) was the first to advocate the idea that there is a strong Mesopotamian tradition of collective decision-making, and his concept of ‘primitive democracy’ has become part of the terminology used in political science (cf. Robinson 1997; Isakhan 2007). Critics have rightly stressed that Jacobsen argued primarily on the basis of literary evidence regarding the assembly of the gods (e.g. Bailkey 1967) but there can be little doubt that collective governance was practised in the ancient Near East (e.g. Fleming 2004 on Old Babylonian Mari; Barjamovic 2004 on the Neo-Babylonian city-states of the first millennium bc).


Bailkey, N. 1967. ‘Early Mesopotamian constitutional development’, American History Review 72: 1211–36.Find this resource:

Barjamovic, G. 2004. ‘Civic institutions and self-government in southern Mesopotamia in the mid-first millennium bc’ in J.G. Dercksen (ed.), Assyria and Beyond: Studies Presented to Mogens Trolle Larsen: 47–98. Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten.Find this resource:

Bowden, H. 2005. Classical Athens and the Delphic Oracle: Divination and Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Facione, P., and N. Facione. 2007. Thinking and Reasoning in Human Decision Making: the Method of Argument and Heuristic Analysis. Millbrae: California Academic Press.Find this resource:

Fleming, D.E. 2004. Democracy's Ancient Ancestors: Mari and Early Collective Governance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Isakhan, B. 2007. ‘Engaging “primitive democracy”: Mideast roots of collective governance’, Middle East Policy 14: 97–117.Find this resource:

Jacobsen, T. 1943. ‘Primitive democracy in ancient Mesopotamia’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 2: 159–72.Find this resource:

(p. 333) Jonas, H. 1969. ‘Philosophical reflections on experimenting with human subjects’, Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 98: 219–47.Find this resource:

Kim, A.E. 2005. ‘Nonofficial religion in South Korea: prevalence of fortunetelling and other forms of divination’, Review of Religious Research 46: 284–302.Find this resource:

Levy, G. 2007. ‘Decision making in committees: transparency, reputation, and voting rules’, American Economic Review 97: 150–68.Find this resource:

Loewe, M. 1994. Divination, Mythology and Monarchy in Han China, University of Cambridge Oriental Publications 48. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Oppenheim, A.L. 1975. ‘The position of the intellectual in Mesopotamian society’, Daedalus 104: 37–46.Find this resource:

Parpola, S. 1993. Letters from Assyrian and Babylonian Scholars, State Archives of Assyria 10. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press.Find this resource:

Powell, A. 2009. ‘Divination, royalty and insecurity in Classical Sparta’, Kernos 22: 35–82.Find this resource:

Rasmussen, S.W. 2003. Public Portents in Republican Rome, Analecta Romana Instituti Danici, Supplementum 34. Rome: ‘L'Erma’ di Bretschneider.Find this resource:

Robinson, E.W. 1997. The First Democracies: Early Popular Government Outside Athens. Wiesbaden: Steiner.Find this resource:

Rothman, D.J. 2003. Strangers at the Bedside: a History of How Law and Bioethics Transformed Medical Decision Making. 2nd edn. New York: de Gruyter.Find this resource:

Sanchez, G.M., and A.L. Burridge. 2007. ‘Decision making in head injury management in the Edwin Smith Papyrus’, Neurosurgical Focus 23/1: 1–9.Find this resource:

Westbrook, R. 2005. ‘Judges in the cuneiform sources’, Maarav 12: 27–39.Find this resource: