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Classical Journal On-Line <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 14 Mar 2010 12:38:23 -0500
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The Dynamics of Ancient Empires: State Power from Assyria to Byzantium. 
Oxford Series in Ecology and Evolution. Edited by IAN MORRIS and WALTER 
SCHEIDEL. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xii + 381 + 7 maps. 
Cloth, $85.00. ISBN 978–0–19–537158–1.

Order this text for $73.38 from Amazon.com 
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This and previously published CJ Online reviews are at 

CJ Online 2010.03.03

A book that presents the Roman or Athenian empire in the context of others 
in the ancient world seems like an eminently good idea, with the potential 
for real or unusual insights. This volume offers some of these, but because 
its contents are extremely disparate, it hardly provides the material for a 
general understanding.

A highly theoretical introduction by Jack Goldstone and John Haldon sets 
the tone for a work evidently designed for a scholarly rather than a 
popular audience. The introduction first deals with states, which it sees 
as defined regions with a central authority capable of exercising coercive 
power. Successful states have administrative structures and an ideology, 
and are acceptable not only to their own elites but to the general 
population. Relations between rulers and elites, however, are always 
crucial. This leads to a definition of empire as a territory ruled from a 
distinct organizational center with ideological and political sway over 
elites who in turn exercise power over populations whose majority has 
neither access to nor influence over political power (p. 18). This 
definition seems both broad and incomplete, for it could describe virtually 
any stratified society and could as well refer to a state as an empire. 
Some might prefer Michael Doyle’s succinct definition in the opening 
sentence of his Empires (1986): “Empires are relationships of political 
control imposed by some political societies over the effective sovereignty 
of other political societies.”

The first subject of discussion is the Neo-Assyrian Empire (not, for some 
reason, the earliest empires—the Sumerian, Babylonian or Egyptian), which 
lasted from the 9th–7th centuries BC and had considerable influence. 
Peter Bedford reviews the problems of the sources and provides a clear 
historical outline and a useful appendix of texts. He explains the dual 
administrative system, with provinces ruled by an Assyrian elite and client 
states under their local rulers, and shows how ever more territory was 
incorporated into Assyria. The king represented the will of the god Assur, 
who demanded conquest and had to be recognized as supreme by all. Below the 
king were the elites, both Assyrians and foreigners who subscribed to the 
imperial ideology. Assyria’s important innovation was to create an 
ideology that integrated subject populations into the Assyrian world view. 
Since conquered territories became part of Assyria, it was legitimate to 
move their populations around to exploit new lands. In the process, the 
state broke regional and ethnic identities, turning its varied population 
into Assyrians. This is a clear and stimulating essay.

Josef Wiesehofer’s discussion of the Achaemenid empire offers something 
similar. The Persians were a small minority ruling over the vastest empire 
of the ancient Near East. They succeeded through flexibility and 
compromise. Instead of forcing their subjects to become Persians or 
subordinating local gods to Ahura Mazda, the Persians allowed their 
subjects to follow local traditions and left local elites in power as long 
as they were loyal to Persia. The king ruled through governors (satraps) 
and garrison troops, so that he could exercise coercive authority as 
needed, although he rarely had to until the empire began to decline. 
Central power was strengthened by grants of land to members of the royal 
family and the new administrative elite. Persia reached its height under 
Darius, who as a usurper needed to create a false genealogy relating him to 
the royal house and who mobilized the empire’s resources to build a 
symbol of imperial splendor in Persepolis. Unfortunately, this chapter 
gives short shrift to the long decline and ultimate collapse of the empire.

Problems begin with the exceedingly long and heavily documented study (78 
pages with 390 notes) of the “Greater Athenian State” by Ian Morris, 
who points out that the Athenian domain was tiny in size, population and 
resources compared to others, and that it had a homogenous population. He 
believes that it was not an empire at all. Why, then, include it here? 
Because, it seems, it was an example of state formation, in which the 
Athenians tried to develop an Ionian Greek territorial state with Athens as 
its capital. For Morris, an empire must have a large territory and be 
hierarchical and multiethnic, with a strong sense of foreignness between 
rulers and ruled. He supports his argument with a comprehensive survey of 
the environment, political systems and economic, social and cultural bases 
of classical Greece states. Although there is much of value in his 
argument, it seems to me that the central point is seriously flawed. First, 
well-placed people in 5th-century Athens believed that they were involved 
with an empire: “your empire (arche) is a tyranny exercised over subjects 
who do not like it” (Cleon in Th. 3.37). Second, why is foreignness such 
an essential element in defining an empire? Surely it would not apply to 
the Chinese or to the British who in the 18th century ruled over North 
Americans just as British as they were. And was the Athenian domain really 
so homogenous? For Morris it seems all Ionian; but in the islands and Asia 
Minor Athens ruled large Aeolian and Dorian populations, who were fully 
conscious of their relationship to Thebes or Sparta (see, e.g. Th. 7.57 on 
the composition of the force Athens sent against Syracuse and the 
compulsion exercised upon its non-Ionian contingents). For the moment, it 
probably remains best to see an Athenian empire.

The sketch of the political economy of the Roman empire was unfortunately 
cut short by the death of its author, Keith Hopkins. Nevertheless, it 
explains the relation of the state and its ruling elites, who formed an 
aristocracy predicated upon service rather than heredity and who in the 
period of expansion were rewarded with the profits of conquest. The empire 
did its best to control the aristocracy, whose agricultural wealth often 
made it difficult to extract full potential tax revenues. The long life of 
this empire reflects the effective destruction of previous political 
systems and the subordination of existing cults, all behind a facade of 
autonomy. Hopkins deals also with the economy and money supply, but the 
essay ends in mid-stream.

John Haldon’s long essay on the Byzantine Empire also focuses on central 
power and elites, and is particularly concerned with who exploited whom in 
social and political terms. The chapter will be hard going for anyone not 
already acquainted with Byzantine history. It deals primarily with the 
medieval state, not the East Roman realm of late antiquity (4th–7th 
centuries), and thus falls outside the ostensible scope of the volume. 
Byzantium had the advantage of an elaborate system of precedence and an 
all-encompassing fiscal administration, which enabled the center to keep 
the upper hand during most periods until the 12th century. Byzantium also 
had an unshakable sense of its own superiority derived from its classical 
tradition and Christian orthodoxy. Haldon presents the Islamic state of the 
7th–9th centuries as a kind of alternative, seeing a three-cornered 
struggle between the center, local interests and provincial rulers. 
Certainly, centrifugal tendencies were always strong and eventually led to 
collapse. But all this needs to be seen in a clearer context. The early 
Islamic state, unlike Byzantium, was ruled by a tiny military elite of 
Muslim Arabs who controlled vast Roman and Persian populations. It had the 
power of a new religion and also of a complex inherited administrative 
apparatus. This section (which also demands previous knowledge of history) 
is really too short to exploit its subject satisfactorily.

The volume ends on an odd note, with a lengthy essay (70 pages with 389 
notes) by Walter Scheidel on “Sex and Empire.” Drawing on anthropology 
and sociology, he asks why there are empires at all and why they have 
power. He finds a strong correlation between status, power and male 
reproductive success and asks whether ancient empires conform to a model of 
competition for females and other resources. Unsurprisingly, he finds that 
in the ancient Near East the rich and powerful wound up with a 
disproportionate share of women and resources. Interestingly, though, 
polygyny has been the most desired mating pattern in history, with the 
monogamy of the classical (not Homeric) Greeks and Romans an unusual 
phenomenon. Monogamy seems designed to force the appearance of equality and 
encourage cooperation more then competition. Yet, Scheidel finds, it is a 
bit of a fraud, since the men at the top have greater sexual opportunities 
from owning slaves, supporting hetairai or belonging to a conquering or 
colonizing force that can appropriate local women. In those cases, empire 
brings sexual rewards that reflect superiority over the subjected 
populations. The phrase “sexual exploitation” frequently occurs here, 
but there were also benefits for women. Surely one reason for polygyny was 
that many young men were killed off in wars, leaving women without 
support—and one might wonder whether a woman was better off digging in 
the fields or lolling in a harem. This is a provocative essay, though that 
it is more relevant to empires than other societies is not obvious.

In sum, this volume is less than the sum of its parts. Some individual 
chapters have merit and at least show the need to understand the role of 
dominant elites as well as supreme rulers. But they are all so different 
that it is hard to draw general conclusions or to come away from the book 
with a clearer idea about ancient empires than one had upon opening it.

Georgetown University

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