Term Paper: Ancient State Systems: Sumeria

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[. . .] This reveals the extent to which Assyria reflected the nature of all ancient 'imperial' states: not a single unitary polity but a subtle gradation of authority from a central core, through a penumbra of dominion, to a fringe of semi-autonomous allied or client states. This kind of structure is clearest in large political units such as Assyria, rather than relatively small state structures such as the Sumerian city-states. It also influences the nature of the relationship between state-structures. For the Sumerian cities, relations with other political units seem to have been carried out on a fairly ad-hoc basis, with central 'policy' only coming into play where the interests of the whole community of cities, as interpreted by the king who currently exercised dominion, were called into question. In the case of Assyria a far more coherent and considered system of 'international relations' developed, with a consciously-created image of what it meant to be under Assyrian hegemony (and of the penalties of resisting that hegemony) being assiduously propagated:

In contrast to many ancient rulers who were indifferent to what their subjects and their enemies thought, they took pains to extol the advantages of living under the overlordship of Asshur, and they deliberately encouraged stories of their ferocity in battle and the terrible punishments they meted out afterwards, especially to defeated rulers.

For Assyria, as for Sumeria, commercial relations with external powers were an important element in shaping perceptions of the interests of the state and the ways in which those interests were expressed. It is notable, for example, that Assyrian merchants living in communities beyond Assyria, in regions such as Asia Minor, had extensive dealings with surrounding rulers and communities, and were recognized as a coherent community in their own right, coming under the authority of Assyria proper. This phenomenon was continued into the Persian period, where the existence of resident Persian trading communities was a significant factor in determining Persia's policies towards 'marcher' states on the fringes of its dominion.

The propaganda that characterized the exercise of authority by the Assyrians served to give expression to both the power and the legitimacy of the Assyrian state structure. Such legitimacy had spiritual significance as an expression of the harmony of a properly-ordered universe; it also had firmly practical benefits in terms of peace, stability and prosperity. The wealth and importance of the Mesopotamian region was ultimately based on production and trade. If local conflict was allowed to rage unchecked, the basis of that wealth would be undermined. Internally, a state with centers of power judged to be legitimate would not experience challenges to that authority in the form of rebellions, insurrections and coups; externally, it would be respected and taken seriously as a great power. Assyria, with its strong central monarchy, its intimate co-relationship of political and religious authority, and its effective military strength, achieved that status. The Assyrians, hardened by their environment, were well-placed and well-equipped to establish their power and legitimacy in this way, but they also had the tradition of Sumerian kingship, administration, and belief in legitimate authority on which to draw. With the fall of Assyria in the late seventh century BC, the Persians inherited, extended and built upon this model of imperial authority and created one of the greatest state-systems, in terms of sheer geographical spread, that the world had yet seen.

The Persian rulers themselves stressed continuity with what had gone before, with Persian kings styling themselves 'King of Babylon.' At its greatest extent the Persian Empire stretched from Asia Minor to the Indus Valley; and, in accord with the model already established for the Sumerian and Assyrian polities, represented not so much a unitary state as an area of radiating and fluctuating authority, in which the power of the central core extended along lines of communication but became transformed as it spread from that center into a system of increasing local autonomy. From the Assyrians the Persians took an imperial culture, based on propaganda and imagery, which expressed the benefits of Persian rule; as with Assyria, this reflected a state structure based on conciliation and a balancing of interests rather than direct military and political domination (although always backed by the ultimate threat of military intervention). In some ways, as was the case with the Egyptian and the Hittite kingdoms, the pervasiveness and potency of Persian imperial and military imagery is an expression, not of powerfulness and unchallengeable might, but of relative weakness and a need on the part of rulers to create an image which will do some of the ruling for them. In a wider sense, it is no surprise to see propaganda - art, architecture, literature, the trappings of kingship and so on - playing such a central role in a part of the world in which a written culture had made such an early appearance.

If an indicator of state authority is the monopoly of armed force, none of the three state systems discussed here quite achieved this status, although Assyria came closest. In all cases local armed forces remained in existence, and were used by local rulers against their neighbors. In the case of Sumeria, as described above, there were only local armed forces; Assyria possessed a strong central army, but local rulers under Assyrian suzerainty continued to maintain their own armed forces; while Persia also possessed an effective military force of its own but similarly did not seek to disarm the local rulers over whom it exercised its authority:

Persian imperial authority was superimposed on local political entities, that were autonomous enough to have their own armed forces and to use them not just to maintain domestic order within their jurisdiction but on occasion against neighbours.

One indication of the increase of imperial authority under the Persian system was an insistence in many cases that the communities under Persia's authority should refrain from using armed force against each other (although not from possessing armed forces of their own). This expressed a self-confident imperial rhetoric of authority, but beyond the rhetoric it reflected a pragmatic assessment of the necessity for internal peace if the Great King's dominion was to be secure and successful, and avoid the challenges that could so easily disturb that dominion:

This defensive statecraft... stemmed from the Persians' awareness specifically of their military weakness in Hellas [i.e. At the western fringes of their dominion], including the Asian shore, and more generally of the limitations of their power and the need for tactical expediency.

This pragmatic 'defensive statecraft' represents an important line of continuity through the development of the state systems of Sumer, Assyria and Persia and their relations with external communities.

If the evidence of these three Mesopotamian state-systems is reviewed, a picture emerges of the ways in which such issues as legitimacy and pragmatism in the exercise of authority, the role of tradition and continuity, the influence of economic, geographical and other factors, and the role of military and diplomatic influences determined the patterns of continuity and change in these early states. In the first place the geography of the region concentrated the area of agricultural production and the nodes of communication in the river valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates, encouraging the growth of centralized communities typified by complex administrative and social structures. The relative lack of many raw materials such as metals and building stone in this region, but the easy accessibility of these resources in nearby regions such as the mountains of Persia and Asia Minor, encouraged the evolution of sophisticated trading systems based on extensive communication systems, and requiring advanced techniques of written record-keeping and accounting. These characteristics unite the systems of early Sumeria to the late Persian empire, and run through the development of political systems and their relationships with each other to the present day.

It is perhaps significant that the region which produced the states most characterized by unified and effective military force (for example, Akkad and Assyria) were in the northern portion of Mesopotamia, where geography gave less security to communities than was the case in the relatively well-protected south. The move towards relative unity - towards what Watson views as more 'imperial' systems of authority - came from outside the southern heartland of Mesopotamia and was imposed upon that region by external centers of power: Akkad, Assyria and Persia. Accordingly it is with these states that expressions of the ideology of imperial power are most developed, with Assyria and Persia both creating a model of powerful central kingship that served to 'sell' the benefits of their respective overlordship in areas where it could not realistically be maintained by military might alone. A continuity can be detected here in the identification of religious with political authority and the claim of legitimacy based on that identification, but the wider extent and greater emphasis on centralized authority represented by Assyria and Persia gave such phenomena a new significance in these systems that had not been present in early Sumeria.

The fundamental legitimacy upon which Assyria and Persia… [END OF PREVIEW]

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