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Ancient State Systems: Sumeria, Persia and Assyria
The ancient state-systems of Sumeria, Assyria and Persia each rose, flourished and fell in the region known as Mesopotamia between 3500 BC and 330 BC. Each exerted a considerable, if highly variable, degree of authority over a large geographical area; authority created and maintained by governmental and administrative institutions and backed by diplomacy and military force. Each depended on complex trading and commercial systems, and each succeeding in growing wealthy and achieving advances in agriculture, technology and social organization. As Mesopotamia was the first region to experience the development of organized states based on urban civilization, the nature of these early states, their internal structures and relationships with the societies around them, and the ways in which they laid the foundations for, and ultimately gave way to, one another, are all significant issues for the history of politics, diplomacy and international relations.
Perhaps most important as a determining and unifying theme in the evolution of state systems in Mesopotamia is the geography of the region. It is significant that it was in the area of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, forming wide fertile valleys enclosed by mountains, that the first urban civilization developed; and the topography, resources and economic potential of the Mesopotamian landscape was crucial in influencing the character of the societies that flourished there.
Here in Mesopotamia we have an area capable of producing a massive agricultural surplus, with excellent links to areas rich in the basic raw materials, especially metals, which it lacked. Trade was the life-blood of the economy and probably a critical factor in the development of urban life in the region and of one of the earliest civilizations the world has seen.
The combination of irrigation, agriculture and widespread trade, underpinned by the increase in population which agricultural improvements permitted, contributed to the development of cities in this region, which in turn produced radical innovations in religion, administration, culture, society and political life. The importance of these developments is perhaps symbolized most clearly in the appearance in this region of writing during the fourth millennium BC; a phenomenon intimately linked with the rise of complex administration and government, and the requirements of wide-ranging trade and diplomacy. Beginning with the city states of Sumer, the political entities of ancient Mesopotamia had in common a tradition of bureaucratic government, of complex administration and record-keeping, that marks them out as among the first organized and sophisticated state systems in human history:
When the records of their dealings with each other begin, the Sumerian city-temple states had achieved a high level of civilization, with well-developed agriculture, seafaring, trade and accounting, held together by an impressive system of religion and government.
In The Evolution of International Society, Adam Watson proposes a spectrum along which the political and administrative character of any state system can be plotted, running from 'absolute independence' to 'absolute empire' through stages of 'independence,' 'hegemony,' 'dominion' and 'empire.' Watson's overall account of Sumeria, Assyria and Persia depicts state systems which reflect hegemony rather than centralized empire, but which can also be seen as following a historical trajectory of development (related partly to the evolution of military technologies and techniques, and commercial and agricultural systems) towards the unity, dominant authority and coherence of 'empire' and away from the fragmentation, contested authority and loose organization of 'independence.' The significant differences that can be identified between these states largely reflect this developing tendency; equally, the crucial similarities between them reflect the degree to which they drew on a strongly-rooted tradition of the exercise of legitimate, recognized political authority.
The Sumerian city-state system can be seen as a model in miniature of the concept communities evolving regulations and rules to govern their interaction, and these rules constituting the basis of inter-state relations. Sumeria consisted of a number of urban communities - Uruk, Lagash, Nippur, Umma being among the most prominent - possessing a substantial degree of independence, but united by a largely shared linguistic and social culture, and a common tradition of political institutions, economic practices, religious beliefs, gods, legends, and administrative systems. The northern city of Akkad was separated from the southern area of Sumer by linguistic differences, but when the ruler of Akkad, Sargon, became the dominant ruler in Sumeria he followed an evidently considered policy of stressing his continuity with Sumerian tradition and legitimacy:
Sargon was a formidable soldier and a considerable administrator. He became one of the great heroic prototypes on whom later monarchs modelled themselves... he went out of his way to abide by the old customs and, like many of his Sumerian predecessors, built a temple at Nippur, the home of the national god.
As self-ruling communities, however, each had its own temple and its own king (the religious and political elites forming two elements in the same ruling structure), and controlled its own economic, political and diplomatic life. Watson describes the way in which each city was identified with its own god, with the king acting as the representative of that god on earth. This system underpinned a system of relationships between the various city states based on shifting hegemony, characterized by constant economic and diplomatic rivalry and occasionally marked by violence, but based upon an acceptance that hegemonic authority would be exercised by one city over the others.
The system in Sumer, one realizes as one looks at the records, was summed up by their formula that 'the kingship must reside somewhere.' The kingship was necessary in their eyes because it reflected the situation in heaven, because it was authorized by the holy city of Nippur and because it was necessary for the settlement of disputes.
The location of that authority varied as the fortunes of different cities (and thus, it was believed, the strength and influence of their gods) rose and fell, but the concept of one centre possessing authority - that 'kingship must reside somewhere' - was not itself generally challenged or undermined.
Watson interprets the rise of Babylon to its first period of hegemony in southern Mesopotamia within this overall pattern, while recognizing that the greater authority claimed by the king of Babylon over local rulers - who became 'vassals' of the great king in a way that was not true of the rulers of Sumerian city states - marked a movement of the political culture away from a system based on independence and towards one embodying a vision of empire: 'the Babylonian supremacy was nearer to the imperial end of the scale.' As with the Sumerian city-states, religion and legitimate authority were inextricably identified, with the law code of Hammurabi (c.1750 BC) expressing the moral purpose of the new laws as being an expression of the moral purpose of the gods. This moral purpose was to be expressed by the just and effective government of the earth, echoing the harmony which ruled in the heavens.
One of the districts subjected for a time to the authority of the first Babylonian empire was the northern region inhabited by the Assyrians, whose state subsequently rose to achieve the status of an 'empire' in its own right. The factors influencing the development of the Assyrian state system were different in important respects from those determining the nature of the Sumerian system. Most importantly, Assyria was more exposed to external pressures than the Sumerian cities further south, which were to some extent protected by their geography from other significant powers such as the Hittites of Asia Minor and from the assaults of nomadic and tribal peoples. This resulted in Assyria itself having long experience of external rule, and on the Assyrian kingdom having a greater emphasis on centralized military strength than was the case in Sumeria:
The Assyrians learned in a hard school, and were a hard people. Because of their exposed position their army was the indispensable bastion of the state. Alongside well-trained infantry they were the first settled people in the area to make effective use of horses in war, and also the first to adopt iron weapons and armor on a large scale.
By contrast, the armies of Sumer owed allegiance to particular city-states; in that sense an army of 'Sumeria' did not exist. Under the Akkadian king Sargon the Great, who unified much of Mesopotamia under his rule in the later third millennium BC, Sumer achieved the nearest thing to a unified army that it knew before the advent of Assyria, and effective military force was an essential ingredient of the extension of Sargon's authority, but it was not as integrated politically, social and economically into the state system as was the army of Assyria.
The new 'imperial' current in Assyrian self-perceptions is suggested by Watson's comment that the Assyrian state system 'was the first real attempt to organize politically the whole ancient world.' He immediately goes on to point out, however, that direct government of Assyria's area of dominance was not possible, and that a system of vassal rulers - native governments backed (and effectively dominated) by resident Assyrian garrisons…[continue]
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