Sunday, January 12, 2014

What Ancient Babylonians Did For Fun: Entertainment in Ancient Mesopotamia

Did they have any free time to enjoy themselves? You bet. In ancient times the working classes had twelve days off each month. In general, our modern society has only eight days off each month, four days less than the ancients. Huh.

Assyrian Royal Lion Hunt, from Wikimedia Commons

The most widely recognized recreation was that of the ancient kings and their love of big-game hunting. They preferred to hunt large, aggressive animals as a successful royal hunter could prove his kingly power to be legitimate. Archaeologists have discovered many bas-relief panels depicting lion hunts and it is plain that the lions weren't given much of a 'sporting' chance. Kept in game reserves, the big cats were driven by servants into wooden cages and then released to be attacked by dogs and beaters. The job of the beaters was to hit the lions with sticks and drive them toward the king, waiting in the safety of his chariot to kill them using a bow or spear. Occasionally a king is pictured on foot, apparently grasping a lion by the mane before thrusting his sword into the beast. Even if this were true, I doubt the lion had much fight left in him by that time. I chose one of the less graphic scenes above as some were pretty disturbing. It was an ugly sport.

Lavish banquets were also held and bas-reliefs show kings and queens receiving guests in lush gardens entertained by musicians and waited on by servants at tall tables of four. One of the most extravagant affairs was held by King Assurnasipal II to celebrate the construction of his new capital city. There were over forty-seven thousand guests and tens of thousands of animals were slaughtered to feed the huge crowd along with ten thousand loaves of bread, ten thousand jars of beer, ten thousand skins of wine and crates of vegetables, sweet fruits, nuts, honey and cheese.

Ancient Mesopotamian Boxers from

But enough of kings. Boxing was a popular sport, as was wrestling. They also played a form of polo but instead of sitting on the backs of horses, men sat on one another's shoulders. In the Epic of Gilgamesh "there is a reference to Gilgamesh oppressing his subjects by tiring the young men with endless contests of this polo and then taking sexual advantage of the young women." (1)

Ancient game from Ur, Ancient Encyclopedia History

Board games were popular too and archaeologists have recovered a couple of types. One was a game of twenty squares. Players raced using button-like pieces that moved according to rolls of the dice. Everyone, from the very rich to the very poor, played this game. Boredom must have accounted for some archaeological finds. Unearthing the huge statues of bulls that guarded either side of King Sargon's palace at Khorsabad, excavators found this very board game scratched into the pedestal of one of the enormous statues, much as we might do with a game of tic-tac-toe. Probably by guards. The second type of board game contained fifty-eight holes, an early model for cribbage. Still another game board was found that contained instructions on the back for playing the game using game pieces shaped like various birds. The word for game pieces was 'doll, figurine', just like we use the word 'man' in chessman. There were also dogs, cones, pyramids and other shapes.  Most games were played by throwing dice and moving game pieces. The dice that have been found were cubes made from bone, clay, stone or glass with the numbers one through six scored on them.

Lion and Hedgehog, from BAS Library 

Children played with miniaturized weapons of the time such as slingshots, bows and arrows, boomerangs or throw sticks much like today's children might play with toy guns. There were also spinning tops, rattles, jump ropes, pucks and mallets, hoops, balls, and the buzz or button - a disc piece of pottery with holes for string. Children played 'house' or 'grown-up' and used miniature furniture for role playing - tables, beds, stools, dolls and small-sized animals. They also played with miniature carts, wagons, chariots and ships. A little hedgehog on wheels and a lion on wheels were found at Susa, dating back to around 1250 BC. It's unclear whether or not they were toys or offerings to the gods. They look like toys to me.

Ancient Lyre, from
Singers and musicians entertained at festivals. Stringed instruments, pipes and a clay whistle have been recovered from excavations. Lyres and harps have been found throughout the Near East and an elaborate lyre inlaid with shell and trimmed in gold was found at the Royal Cemetery of Ur.

Finally, men and women were entertained by the performance of literary works, sometimes set to music and sung, sometimes recited by more than one person like actors in a script. For a price, a 'teller of tales' would regale you with a story in the market place.

So, there you have it. Like the old French proverb says, "The more things change, the more they stay the same".

(1) Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia by Karen RheaNemet-Nejat


  1. I hadn't heard that they played a form of polo by having men ride men. That does sound exhausting. Giglamesh was a racy dude, wasn't he?

  2. Wow! This really helped me with my homework(we have to make post-cards) Thank soo much

  3. thx had to write an essay

  4. Awesome for my ancient Sumerian hundred facts book. Thank you!

  5. Your article are so good and so well redacted that reading it was actually fun.
    ¡Please write more about entertainment!

  6. this helped me so much with my eassay and my "journal entry" for school!!!! thx :D

  7. thanks this helped with my humanities project.

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  9. Did they have theaters?

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