Early empires – success and failure.
We started our look at the development of empires and cities by looking at the beginnings of sedentary lifestyles from those of nomadic hunter-gatherers at the end of the last glacial period. In this part, we will take a quick look at some of the issues that these early civilisations encountered and whether they contributed to the success or failure of those civilisations.
Although initially one would presume that political domination would be a key feature in the rise of an empire, and social inequality would be the result, it is my view that they were not necessarily factors. By comparing different strategies from both the Ancient and the New Worlds to investigate this theory, using examples from Akkad, Rome, the Aztecs and the Mayans as evidence we can see that other forces could drive an Empire to succeed and that social hierarchy need not change as a result.
The Akkad rise to domination across Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Iran towards the Mediterranean coast, according to inscriptions found, took place around the final few centuries of the third millennium BC. Led by Sargon, large areas of the Sumer lands were taken by force. Sumer has long been accepted as being the birthplace of, amongst other things, writing, mathematics, law, the twelve-month calendar, monarchism and the wheel.
All these elements of life were combined with the Akkadian ideals of Sargon, and continued and developed. Sargon does not appear to have changed much of the social structure that was already in existence in Sumer, perhaps that was one of the attractions of conquering the state. The stela depicting Naram-Sin, a subsequent king of the Akkadians, shows his implied divinity amongst his people, and his rule certainly seems to have been a successful one. This rule continued through further generations until the collapse of the empire some seventy or eighty years later. The empire was resurrected less than a century later under the third Dynasty of Ur, who revived a large area of the territory but returned to pre-Akkadian concepts. This subsequent empire also lasted a relatively short time before itself being conquered by a greater power just a century or so later.
This sequence of events leads to the theory that whilst Sargon and his followers held sway over the empire, political domination was a key factor in its success, it was only when he became removed from living memory that the collapse of the empire came about. Not long thereafter we also see the collapse of other large empires, such as Egypt showing us that the disintegration of trade and political unity between these large dominating bodies contributed to their downfall. External factors could include invasion from stronger empires, and climate change. Without the skills of such an experienced leader to negotiate these factors successfully, it would not be too difficult to understand why they would collapse. Therefore, in this instance political domination was a necessary requirement in Ancient Asia.
Comparing this area and the methods of conquer and subsequent rule to that of the Roman Empire is interesting. Rome also started out on a small scale, firstly by taking over neighbouring cities in Italy, and then striking out to other areas.
Examples have been drawn from studies of the ruined city of Pompeii, not too far from Rome and one of the earlier conquests. Although much is given in archaeological terms to the excavation of the city after its disastrous liaison with Mount Vesuvius, further studies have uncovered evidence of the capture by Rome prior to the eruption. This evidence shows that whilst Pompeii was annexed as part of the Roman administration, as they were part of the same area of Italy, the daily way of life was not altered to a great degree after conquest. Traditions, language and so on remained much the same. Trade was expanded to include more distance and in turn, more variety of goods, and lifestyles as a result were improved. This shows that although force was used initially, benefits for many far outweighed anything else. The Pompeian people continued to be governed by the same administration, the only difference being that they now answered ultimately to Rome. On the other hand, when the Roman Empire extended its conquests overseas, including to Britain, many things changed for those lands. New customs, languages, money, religious deities and so on were introduced. The Roman Empire had a strict code from the Elite classes down to the plebs and slaves, and the gulf between the two was vast. However, the benefits that went with the new regime, such as free bread, must have gone some way to appeasing the situation. If we look back from a modern point of view, we would probably be horrified at the social structure of the Roman Empire, but on the whole it seems to have worked in their favour.
When looking at the Ancient World and comparing to the New World, we see a slightly different approach to the domination of empires.
Let’s first examine the Aztec empire. We can see that although military domination was used to conquer, the driving force was not wholly a matter of politics as with the Romans, but more a need for a new settlement and more importantly a religious overture. The Aztecs had been forced to abandon their own lands. Legend speaks of the Aztecs earning the displeasure of their patron God and being banished. Over a period of several generations they wandered the area occasionally stopping to build a semi-permanent settlement. Rather than one large body of citizens of a state, they were a relatively small group of cast outs from various cities. They fought and bargained their way across Mexico, sometimes suffering defeat and large losses, forming alliances based on marriage rather than politics. Some of these alliances were later severed. One thing this constant warring gave the Aztecs other than land won was a steady supply of Human sacrifices to appease their Gods. It has been noted that over a period of several years the Aztec priests disposed of many tens of thousands of prisoners, in ritual sacrifice, in their constant struggle to keep at bay the disapproval of their Gods. Other evidence shows that this was also a means to provide the population with protein in their diets, due to lack of land for livestock breeding.
The Aztecs eventually managed to gain a substantial amount of land, some of which surrounded rival bodies. This not only gave them the monopoly on trade, with all the accompanying bargaining privileges, but also served to prevent further warring to a degree. This gaining of power occurred only after forming the triple alliance with two other major states. The empire was eventually overthrown some years later in around 1519 with the revolt of a large army of indigenous people and foreigners.
Political domination was not a key factor in the rise of the Aztecs to power. Provided the local rulers continued to supply their tributes to the Aztecs, peace remained. Everyday life for the conquered peoples remained much the same as before. Kings of the different captured cities were invited to participate in celebration feasts, perhaps as an offering of goodwill from the conquerors, more likely as a veiled threat to co-operate.
Excavations show that common architecture pre-dates invasion, both with the residences of the common people and those of the Upper classes. Public buildings remained in their accepted style. Therefore, we can surmise any social structure existed prior to central administration. However, we do know that the Aztec empire remained confined to its own region and little evidence has been uncovered to suggest that moves were made to expand beyond their own land, unlike the Romans.
Comparing this with the Mayan people of the region, shows the Mayans had several cities but have not been included in the scope of an Empire as they remained self-governing and were not unified under one political domination. Each city continued its own customs and administration and they were not taken over by a larger body. Why they did not choose to unify and conquer is unclear. We can only surmise that it was not a part of their political agenda, and they were perhaps not considered important enough nor have enough of benefit to offer a potential invading force.
Archaeology carried out by NASA climate scientists suggests that the Mayan civilisation collapsed due to their deforestation around 1200 years ago to make way for agriculture. The increased open ground forced temperatures up by around 6 degrees and made the area unsuitable for farming. Coupled with a possible drought, they could not survive. Is this the reason why the Mayans did not develop their own civilisation to that of Empire status?
I have attempted to show the similarities and differences of each of these Empires, both in their rise to power and their subsequent daily administration. I would have to conclude that the methods of domination, and continuing rule varied greatly depending on the driving factors behind the conquests. Whereas in Rome, power and expansion of land were important, daily administration for the most part remained peaceful and harmonious with the benefits seeming to outweigh the negatives; The Aztecs in comparison, for example, were driven by a religious need, administration appears lacking and the only social structure, that of ‘elite’ and ‘others’ was unchanged and as a result they struggled to maintain their leadership.