government | Definition, History, & Facts

Angelena Iglesia

Agricultural society So long as humans were few, there was hardly any government. The division of function between ruler and ruled occurred only, if at all, within the family. The largest social groups, whether tribes or villages, were little more than loose associations of families, in which every elder or […]

Agricultural society

So long as humans were few, there was hardly any government. The division of function between ruler and ruled occurred only, if at all, within the family. The largest social groups, whether tribes or villages, were little more than loose associations of families, in which every elder or family head had an equal voice. Chieftains, if any, had strictly limited powers; some tribes did without chieftains altogether. This prepolitical form of social organization may still be found in some regions of the world, such as the Amazonian jungle in South America or the upper Nile River valley in Africa.

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The rise of agriculture began to change that state of affairs. In the land of Sumer (in what is now Iraq) the invention of irrigation necessitated grander arrangements. Control of the flow of water down the Tigris and Euphrates rivers had to be coordinated by a central authority, so that fields could be watered downstream as well as farther up. It became necessary also to devise a calendar, so as to know when the spring floods might be expected. As those skills evolved, society evolved with them. In early Sumer, it is reasonable to assume, the heads of the first cities, which were little more than enlarged villages, only gradually assumed the special attributes of monarchy—the rule of one—and the village council only gradually undertook a division of labour, so that some specialized as priests and others as warriors, farmers, or tax gatherers (key figures in every civilized society). As organization grew more complex, so did religion: an elaborate system of worship seemed necessary to propitiate the quite elaborate family of gods who, it was hoped, would protect the city from attack, from natural disaster, and from any questioning of the political arrangements deemed necessary by the ruler group.

Unfortunately—but, given human nature, inevitably—the young cities of Sumer quarrelled over the distribution of the rivers’ water, and their wealth excited the greed of nomads outside the still comparatively small area of civilization (a word deriving from the Latin word for city, civitas). War, perhaps the most potent of all forces of historical change, announced its arrival, and military leadership became at least as important an element of kingship as divine sanction. It was to remain so throughout the long history of monarchy: whenever kings have neglected their military duties, they have endangered their thrones. The wars of Sumer also laid bare another imperative of monarchy—the drive for empire, arising from the need to defend and define frontiers by extending them and the need to find new means to pay for troops and weapons, whether by the plunder of an enemy or by the conquest of new lands, or both.

The spread of civilization

The history of Old World monarchy, and indeed of civilization, was to consist largely of variations on the patterns mentioned above for four or five millennia. Trade contacts carried the principles of civilization to Egypt and to India (China, like the pre-Columbian societies of the Americas, seems to have evolved independently). And everywhere, once the social order was established, the problem of defending it became paramount. Although the broad zone of civilization spread steadily, so that by the reign of the Roman emperor Trajan (98–117 ce) there was a continuous band of civilized societies from Britain to the China Sea, it was always at risk from the barbarian nomads who roamed the great steppelands of central Eurasia. These nomads had retained the loose and simple institutions of primitive societies, but they had in other ways evolved as rapidly and successfully as the cities themselves (and partly under the cities’ influence). The steppe was horse country, and, armed with bows and arrows, the barbarians of all epochs possessed marvelously swift and deadly light cavalry. They fought constantly among themselves for pasturage, and the losers were forever being driven west, south, and east, where they often overcame any defenses that the farms and cities of civilization could muster against them.

Yet the nomads’ military challenge was never sufficient to overturn civilization entirely. Either the invaders would overrun the settled lands and then adopt civilized customs, or the frontier defenses would prove strong enough to hold them off. There were even long periods of peace, when the barbarian threat was negligible. It was at such times that the spontaneous ingenuity of humankind had greatest play, in politics as in everything else. But it is noteworthy that, in the end, what may be described as the ancient norm always reasserted itself, whether in Europe, the Middle East, India, or China. Military crises—barbarian invasions, civil wars, or war between competing polities—recurred, necessitating the strengthening of government.

The effort to secure a measure of peace and prosperity required the assertion of authority over vast distances, the raising of large armies, and the gathering of taxes to pay for them. Those requirements in turn fostered literacy and numeracy and the emergence of what later came to be called bureaucracy—government by officials. Bureaucratic imperialism emerged again and again and spread with civilization. Barbarian challenge occasionally laid it low but never for very long. When one city or people rose to hegemony over its neighbours, it simply incorporated their bureaucracy into its own. Sumer and Babylon were conquered by Assyria; Assyria was overthrown by the Medes of Persia, in alliance with a resurgent Babylon and nomadic Scythians; the empire of the Persians was overthrown by Alexander the Great (356–323 bce) of Macedonia; the Macedonian successor states were conquered by Rome, which was in due course supplanted in the Middle East and North Africa by the Islamic Caliphate of Baghdad. Conquerors came and went, but life for their subjects, whether peasants or townspeople, was not much altered by anything they did, as long as the battles happened elsewhere.

Nevertheless, from time to time experiments were made, for no monarchy had the resources to rule all its subjects directly. So long as they paid tribute punctually, local rulers and local communities were perforce left to govern themselves. Even if they did not pay, the effort required to mount a military operation at a distance from the imperial centre was so great that only in exceptional circumstances would it be undertaken, and even then it might not succeed, as the kings of Persia found when they launched punitive expeditions from Asia Minor against mainland Greece at the beginning of the 5th century bce (see Greco-Persian Wars). Thus, in normal times the inhabitants of the borderlands had extensive freedom of action.

Although civilization, as its advantages became clear, spread west and northwest out of Asia, bureaucratic monarchy could not easily follow it. The sea was becoming a historical factor as important as the steppe and the great irrigable rivers. Tyre and Sidon, maritime cities of Phoenicia (modern Lebanon), had long exploited their coastal situation, not only to remain independent of the landward empires but also to push across the sea, even beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, in quest of trade. Their daughter cities—Carthage, Utica, and Cádiz—were the first colonies, but primitive communications made it impossible for Phoenicia to rule them.

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