This unit looks at how earlier governments developed institutions that still influence and impact us today. The hope is that by understanding how these institutions evolved, we will gain a better understanding of how our own current political institutions are continuously evolving. We begin by looking at governments in southwest Asia during the Iron Age, which began about 1500 BCE. Note: the “BCE” means “Before Common Era” – the “Common Era” beginning at 1 AD.
We often associate the adoption of agriculture as if it were invented, like the telephone. But hunter-gathers have always engaged in some agriculture. They would plant seeds, move on to the next food source and then return, to harvest whatever grew. Those tribes that had the most success with agriculture had the most surplus food – and the most population growth. More people required more food which meant more planting. Eventually, a tipping piint is reached where the food needs are so great they can only be met through continuous planting. In such a manner did hunter-gather tribes transition from hunting, gathering and migration to settled agriculture. Such a gradual process is autocatalytic or self-starting. Once it begins, the positive feedback loop thus created will generate the final outcome.
Çatalhöyük, pictured here, is a large Neolithic settlement in central Turkey that represents this transitional period from hunter-gatherers to settled, city life. Çatalhöyük flourished about 7000 BCE and is interesting in that the buildings are grouped closely together, without any hierarchy (no one house is much bigger or better than the others). Access was via rooftop, not by side doors. At this point, agriculture is making huge population densities possible and those extra people can now engage in specialization. Specialization leads to hierarchies, to priests and kings but the evidence of Çatalhöyük is that humans in southwest Asia clung to older, hunter-gatherer ideas of equality even after population densities allowed for towns and cities. The final step in this process will be the development of writing in southwest Asia about 4,000 BCE and the beginnings of recorded history.
For government to work, those who govern must have power over the people. But power cannot come through continued threat – government works best when people want to obey their leaders. When someone’s power over you is seen as legitimate, we call that “authority”. Power without authority is a threat. Authority without power is a contradiction.
We obey traditional authority because our culture expects us to, we are raised by our parents to respect their traditional authority. We don’t have to like or respect traditional authority figures, we merely need to obey them. The earliest governments relied primarily on this type of authority – often reinforced by religious beliefs. Today, states like North Korea, represent the total domination of the people by one person and that one person has tremendous power, based on long-standing tradition.
“Charisma” means the quality of being interesting and attractive – it is often (but not always) tied into good looks (recall the “Halo Effect” from our presentation on cognitive bias). Charismatic authority is often not enough to guarantee a stable government but when combined with other forms of authority, it makes those other forms even more effective. It has been argued that Hillary Clinton’s relative lack of charisma worked against her in the 2016 Presidential election.
The first written document that held this type of authority was probably the Code of Hammurabi, a set of laws written down by a Babylonian king about 1750 BCE. By writing the laws down, the king was giving up some of his power to make arbitrary decisions. Writing things down also guaranteed stability – a future king would be less likely to change a written law than an unwritten one. Such stability is critical for trading and about one-half of Hammurabi’s code deals with commercial issues. Still, at this point the king was above the law. True legal-rational authority occurs when the official is bound by the law and is subject to it.
Monarchy is a simple way to handle government. The king has the power to rule and everyone has to obey the king. Like most things in the social sciences, monarchy operates along a continuum (they can be ranked). Monarchies where the king has absolute power, where his word is law and the people are his property – this is sometimes called “tyranny” or in more modern times, “totalitarianism” (think of North Korea). Kings often derive their power from the people’s belief in religion. Situations in which kings are basically high priests are known as “theocracies”. Again, these things are ordinal, they lie on a continuum. Sometimes a secular king still claims his power ultimately comes from God – this is referred to as the “Divine Right of Kings”.
“Oligarchy” is a form of government where only an elite group of citizens have power. Sometimes the elites are military in nature (think of knights). Sometimes the elites have wealth. Sometimes it is a combination of both. Once again, like with theocracy, the two can blend. In ancient Persia and India (and in medieval Europe), a group of aristocratic, noble warriors chose a king from their ranks.
Democracy is (historically speaking) the rarest form of all. In a democracy, power resides with the people. Again, it operates ordinally, along a continuum. At one end would be a pure democracy, where everyone votes on everything and every person has an equal share of power. At the other end would be a representative democracy, where a subgroup of people called “citizens” elect representatives to make their decisions for them.
Sociologists look at government from two different perspectives: functionalism and conflict. From the functionalist perspective, government exists because cultures with governments can outcompete and outfight those that do not. Government exists, they say, because it makes everything more efficient. The four functions of government should seem familiar: planning out the actions of society, taking care of the people (social welfare), maintaining law and order and finally, handling relations with other nations. In this perspective, everyone can be a winner – the success of one group of citizens does not automatically mean some other group had to fail. Functionalist perspectives make more sense when resources are abundant.
The conflict perspective says that government is a tool used by the elites to keep resources under their control and out of the hands of the people. From a conflict perspective, resources are always scarce and if I eat, you must go hungry. If I get rich, you must become poor. This is also called a “zero-sum game” in that if I add up all the positive gains of the winners with all the negative losses of the losers, they add up to zero.
Egypt is our best example of a long-lasting Iron Age government, although Babylon and Assyria would have been similar. All these governments derived their power through control of river systems and irrigation that were essential for agriculture. They faced attack from neighbors who were poorer, less advanced and pastoral in nature (nomadic herdsmen) The theocratic nature of these governments cannot be overstated – the laws of the state are divinely revealed by the gods to the king. Hammurabi’s Code (about1700 BCE) is an excellent example of this. Another trend in Iron Age government was consolidation and empire-building: Egypt unified its Upper and Lower Kingdoms early on (3150 BCE) Babylon unified various warring city-states and Assyria conquered several rival states, merging them into a larger empire.
The Old Testament would be typical of most major Iron Age religions, except that as a pastoral people, the Israelites didn’t place as much emphasis on the harvest or fertility compared to their agricultural neighbors. Russell makes a distinction between Egyptian and Babylonian religion – he believes the Egyptians were focused more on the life of the world-to-come while the Babylonians cared about prosperity and success within their lifetimes. Some believe that various common religious themes involving male heroes slaying female chaos-monsters (Marduk versus Tiamat for example) represents a codification of a patriarchy replacing an older matriarchal culture.
Greek states are small and cut off from one another by mountains and the sea. This isolation because of geographical barriers makes union and empire much more difficult. While many of the Greek communities had aristocracies and kings, he lack of empire kept their power in check – a tyrant might soon find his subjects had fled to another community. Finally, types of democracy in which the citizens themselves were responsible for major government decisions was able to develop because of the small size of the Greek polis: it was possible to regularly assemble all citizens in one place and have a meeting. Something impossible (and unthinkable) in Babylon.
The Egyptians had an alphabet as far back as 3000 BCE, as did the Sumerians. Both these written languages were pictographic in nature – a symbol stood for an entire word or concept. With hundreds of symbols, both writing and reading in a pictorial alphabet requires much training. The seagoing traders known as the Phoenicians developed a phonemic alphabet about 1200 BCE. In a phonemic alphabet, each symbol represents only a specific sound. Phonemic alphabets only have a few dozen symbols and are easier to learn and to read, which encourages literacy. The Greeks took the Phoenician alphabet and improved upon it by adding vowels. Now the Greeks had a simple, streamlined alphabet that could be learned quickly and used to record then transmit any type of knowledge. Philosophy without such an alphabet would have been a much more difficult undertaking.
The ancient Greeks had colonies all along the Mediterranean Ocean and Black Sea by the fifth century BCE. Using the trireme (so named for its three rows of oars), a brisk and profitable trade was carried out between the Greek colonies and the main Greek cities. Trading was also done between Greece and the Iron Age Empires of the day: Egypt, Babylon, Assyria and Persia. Particularly prized were Greek wine and Greek olive oil, the two primary Greek exports. As for the impact of trade upon Greek philosophy - merchants need accurate information; they are natural skeptics and trading may have helped to emphasize rational thought at the expense of the supernatural in early Greek culture. giving philosophy a chance to develop unhindered by superstition.
Iron Age trade had generally involved barter, but barter has obvious inefficiencies – what if I don’t need what you are offering? The Lydians of Asia Minor may have been the first people to hit upon the idea of using gold, silver and electrum coins to facilitate trade. The 6th century BCE Lydian king Croesus was responsible for this innovation and profited greatly because of it (according to Herodotus). The Greeks were early adopters of currency and because of access to gold mines on the Greek mainland, were able to take part in seigniorage profits. Seigniorage occurs when the cost of producing the coin is much less than the value of said coin. The profit, the seigniorage, goes to the government that produces the coin. Profits from currency-enabled trade and profits from seigniorage allowed the ancient Greeks the leisure time needed to engage in philosophy.
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