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8-10-2015, 11:52

Political and ideological aspects of early state formation

The socio-economic stratification of society caused by the rise of labour specialisation was not just a structural change, but also one that affected a society’s function. This stratification was ‘vertical’ (i. e. hierarchical), since the various groups did not have the same degree of access to the city’s resources and its decision-making process. However, it was also ‘horizontal’ (i. e. in terms of space), since privileged groups began to concentrate in cities. Stratification also led to the emergence of a ruling class, in charge of the decision-making process and residing in the city’s great organisation. The Urban Revolution therefore led to the formation of the Early State, not just in its decisional function, which already existed in pre-urban communities, but in the fullest sense of the term. The latter is to be understood as an organisation that solidly controls and defends a given territory (and its many communities) and manages the exploitation of resources to ensure and develop the survival of its population. What distinguishes the State is the stratified, yet organically coherent, structure of the human groups constituting it. In other words, the formation of the State placed collective interests above individual ones (or of individual groups such as families, villages and so on), the former being pursued in the various functions and contributions provided by each group.

Early state formation was an organisation centred on a differentiation between groups. In reality, this differentiation was both evident and difficult to accept. Therefore, it became necessary to develop some ideological motivations to convince those carrying out the heavier tasks that social disparity had a key role to play in the overall development of the State. In other words, these explanations tried to portray the exploitation of people as advantageous to those exploited. Early state formation therefore featured both the rise of a ruling class, making decisions and benefiting from a privileged position, and the development of a political and religious ideology. The latter was able to ensure stability and cohesion in this pyramid of inequality.

The ruling class had to work on an operational and ideological front, leading to the formation of a bureaucracy and a priesthood. Bureaucracy, managed by the scribes and hierarchically subdivided, took care of the economic administration of the city-state. It managed and recorded the movement of surplus from the villages to the city. It also determined the redistribution of resources to its workers, and managed the State’s land. Finally, the bureaucracy sent orders to specialised workmen, planned and constructed key infrastructures (such as canals, temples, or walls), and engaged in long-distance trade. The priesthood took care of daily and private cultic activities, as well as public festivals. It managed that relation with the divine that provided the ideological justification for the unequal stratification of society. The urban community was already used to justifying events outside human control through its belief in divine entities, and to propitiate them through human acts such as offerings and sacrifices. Consequently, these ideas were applied to the socio-economic organisation of the State and its centralised political structure.

This process led to a sort of parallelism between the accumulation and redistribution of resources and the practice of providing offerings to the gods. The community gave up part of its produce (actually the best part of it, namely the first fruits) to the divine sphere in exchange for the correct and favourable behaviour of natural phenomena. Similarly, it gave up a part of its produce to the ruling class in exchange of a successful organisation of the State. The ruling class therefore managed both the relations with the divine through its priesthood, and the organisation of the State through its bureaucracy, making the two groups overlap. Moreover, just like society was structured into a series of specialised functions, so the divine came to be composed of various characters (polytheism). Each deity had one or more functions and specific responsibilities. Deities therefore formed a pantheon, a structure that organised their various roles into a system of relations (hierarchical and based on kinship). Consequently, relations between gods were expressed through the number and location of temples, indicating different hierarchies in each city.

A third aspect that was fundamental for the functioning of a state was the use and monopoly of defence forces to protect internal cohesion. The wealth and technical knowledge accumulated in cities had to be defended against foreign attacks, both from other city-states and other enemies (for instance, nomadic tribes). This defence system then turned into an offensive tactic. The latter was aimed at getting hold of products, workforce and territories belonging to other city-states or marginal communities. Instrumental for these kinds of activities was the creation of an army, which was divided into two groups. One group was made of fulltime workers, specialised in military activities (although this remains purely hypothetical for the Uruk period). In case of war, an army was assembled through military conscription, and was supported by mandatory provisions of military supplies. In this sense, joining an army was not dissimilar to any other kind of work requiring the contribution of the whole population. A certain degree of military intervention was also required to control the community itself. Given the visible inequality of the redistribution of resources, the degree of contribution and the social classes, when ideological beliefs were not enough, the central authorities could establish themselves through coercion. In this way, the State could maintain order in case of rebellion.

The three functions of the State, which were performed by specialised officials (administrators, and priestly and military officials), were united into one figure, namely, the head of the community. The decisions and interdependence of the groups constituting the State had to be represented by a leading figure embodying the power and responsibilities of the State, as well as its ideology. This individual was supported by a communal assembly (unkin in Sumerian), which was a legacy of the egalitarian organisation of pre-urban communities. Moreover, he was also supported by specialised advisors and a wide range of functionaries. The latter remained subordinate to his authority.

Therefore, the main role of the king was his administrative function as head of the palace, or ‘large house’ (e-gal in Sumerian). The latter was managed like a large organisation. The king was also responsible for strategic and managerial decisions. However, the king’s most visible role was in relation to cults. The king was the high priest (en in Sumerian) of the city-god, the human administrator of the city on behalf of the god, the latter being the ideological head of the city. In the Uruk phase, the palace as the exclusive residence of the king did not yet exist. The temple, imagined as the house of the god, was the symbolic and administrative centre of the city. Therefore, as a priest-king, this individual officiated at collective ceremonies, guaranteeing good relations between the human and the divine spheres. In addition to that, the king was in charge of defending his city and his people against foreign attacks. Depictions from the Uruk period show him engaged in more or less symbolic battles against ferocious animals threatening the temple or the city’s herds, as well as enemies threatening the warehouses.

The temple was the physical, administrative and symbolic centre of the city. Its sheer size, as well as its facade and furnishings separated it from any other building in the settlement. All these features were meant to highlight the magnificence and richness of the temple. The latter, then, acted as the place in which the community communicated with a deity, as well as the place in which the ruling class presented itself to the rest of the population. Consequently, specific spaces were built around the temple for the performance of processions and festivals. These were the only occasions bringing the population together for ideological purposes. The latter would in turn motivate economic activities. In the case of Uruk, the temple area was particularly developed (see next chapter). The influence of the priesthood on the city’s population was closely linked to the strong commitment in the religious justification of socio-economic inequality. This gives us an idea of the actual influence of the central authorities at the expense of the community.

Other forms of political and religious propaganda are not attested for the Uruk period. The temple, as well as the ceremonies dedicated to it and performed around it, seem to have supported the whole ideology of the early State. The image of the king itself, as a priest-king, along with the prestige of his functionaries and priests, is directly linked to the authority of the temple. An enthusiastic religious faith, untarnished by doubts, therefore seems to have been at the core of the formation of the early States’ communities in Lower Mesopotamia. Consequently, the king as high priest took advantage of the prestige bestowed upon him through his close connection with the divine sphere.