Introduction: Six Thousand Years
Recent anthropological research suggests that a significant and dramatic shift occurred in human cultures around six thousand years ago, resulting in the relatively sudden and massive advances in technological and linguistic innovations which were such a prominent characteristic of the extraordinary new civilisations of Sumer and Babylon, as well as in equally sudden and massive advances in social inequality, war, hierarchy, and accountancy.
The emergence of these developments around six thousand years ago is of particular relevance in a discussion of Blake as he repeatedly alludes to the cultures of Babylon, Tyre, and Egypt (Mesopotamia) as being of significance in the “fall into Division” that he recounts in his long prophetic poems (“the Works/Of Egypt and Babylon Whose Gods are the Powers of this World”; Laocoon). This psychological or dissociative “fall”, he remarks, originates in or is coeval with these centres, considered both as historical locations and metaphorical states, and even more interestingly in this context, Blake notes that this fall has lasted for a period of “Six Thousand Years”, a phrase that recurs in his longer poems almost like a heart-beat.
Awake Albion awake! reclaim thy Reasoning Spectre …
Let the Four Zoa’s awake from Slumbers of Six Thousand Years
– Milton 39:10–13
Blake suggests that these giant sleeping energies within man are beginning to awaken, and with them the awareness of history and of man’s real state. “Six Thousand years are passd away the end approaches fast”, sings Los (Mil 23:55), and with it the end of the unconscious Urizenic processes currently nailing down man’s intuitive awareness.
I behold the Visions of my deadly Sleep of Six Thousand Years
Dazling around thy skirts like a Serpent of precious stones & gold
I know it is my Self
– Jerusalem 96:11–13
“The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true”, Blake notes in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “as I have heard from Hell.” “Hell” here denotes the energetic Freudian subconscious; “six thousand years” refers to the period of egoic Urizenic control from Sumer and Babylon to the present day.
James C. Scott’s Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (2017) is a compelling exploration of the exact nature of the dramatic shifts that occurred in the lands of the “Fertile Crescent” at this time, and a remarkable corroboration of Blake’s understanding of the changes, both internal and external, that occurred in human societies and psychologies during this period and which quickly spread out geographically and temporally. This coincided with the rise of so-called “civilised” cultures in Sumer and Mesopotamia, radical new States that were both political and psychological in nature, and driven by a new system of organised human slavery which was simultaneously mental (the historical origins of the “mind-forged manacles”) and physical. As Blake notes, we are in many ways still living under the state of “Babylon”, and within forms of organisational structure that in many respects have changed little since the time of Uruk and Ur.
Taylor notes that “after 4000 BCE the Middle East saw a sudden surge of technological development which quickly outstripped anything which had come before.” These innovations included the wheel, the plough, “complex new writing and number systems, and the calendar” (Taylor, 2005). As Baring and Cashford also remark, “a tremendous explosion of knowledge took place as writing, mathematics and astronomy were discovered. It was as if the human mind had suddenly revealed a new dimension of itself” (Baring & Cashford, 1991).
These new high-rise, high-tech worlds were therefore characterised both by the emergence of new technological, left brain, Urizenic forms of being, and a concomitant subjugation and eclipse of far older imaginative, intuitive, and collective modes of perceiving and relating. Indeed the very point of these new states was the control of these vast energies, with whole populations herded into the new walled compounds or resettlements (which resembled as Scott notes, concentration camps): Sumer and Babylon became the centres of slavery, domestication (of us, as much of as animals), and “Civilisation” (from civitas, “city”), within which we in many ways still live.
PREFACE: Civilisation: A Narrative in Tatters
The astonishing advances in our understanding over the past decades have served to radically revise or totally reverse what we thought we knew about the first “civilizations” in the Mesopotamian alluvium and elsewhere. We thought (most of us anyway) that the domestication of plants and animals led directly to sedentism and fixed-field agriculture. It turns out that sedentism long preceded evidence of plant and animal domestication and that both sedentism and domestication were in place at least four millennia before anything like agricultural villages appeared.
Agriculture, it was assumed, was a great step forward in human well-being, nutrition, and leisure. Something like the opposite was initially the case. The state and early civilizations were often seen as attractive magnets, drawing people in by virtue of their luxury, culture, and opportunities. In fact, the early states had to capture and hold much of their population by forms of bondage and were plagued by the epidemics of crowding.
There is a strong case to be made that life outside the state—life as a “barbarian”—may often have been materially easier, freer, and healthier than life at least for nonelites inside civilization.
My focus is almost entirely on Mesopotamia, and in particular the “southern alluvium” south of contemporary Basra. The reason for this focus is that this area between the Tigris and Euphrates (Sumer) was the heartland of the first “pristine” states in the world — though it was not the location of the first sedentism, the first evidence of domesticated crops, or even the first proto-urban towns.
The historical period I cover (aside from the deep history of domestication) encompasses the Ubaid Period, beginning roughly in 6,500 BCE, through the Old Babylonian Period, ending roughly in 1,600 BCE.
By far most of the evidence I bring to bear concerns the period from 4,000 until 2,000 BCE, as it is both the key period of state formation and the focus of the bulk of the existing scholarship.
INTRODUCTION: Civilisation is not a story of ‘Progress’ and the creation of ‘Order’
The narrative of this process has typically been told as one of progress, of civilization and public order, and of increasing health and leisure. Given what we now know, much of this narrative is wrong or seriously misleading. The purpose of this book is to call that narrative into question on the basis of my reading of the advances in archaeological and historical research over the past two decades.
Permanent settlement, agriculture, and pastoralism, appearing about 12,000 years ago, mark a further leap in our transformation of the landscape.
The first states in the Mesopotamian alluvium pop up no earlier than about 6,000 years ago, several millennia after the first evidence of agriculture and sedentism in the region. No institution has done more to mobilize the technologies of landscape modification in its interest than the state.
The first evidence of cultivated plants and of sedentary communities appears roughly 12,000 years ago. Until then—that is to say for ninety-five percent of the human experience on earth —we lived in small, mobile, dispersed, relatively egalitarian, hunting-and gathering bands.
Still more remarkable, for those interested in the state form, is the fact that the very first small, stratified, tax-collecting, walled states pop up in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley only around 3,100 BCE, more than four millennia after the first crop domestications and sedentism. This massive lag is a problem for those theorists who would naturalize the state form and assume that once crops and sedentism, the technological and demographic requirements, respectively, for state formation were established, states/empires would immediately arise as the logical and most efficient units of political order.
Historical humankind has been mesmerized by the narrative of progress and civilization as codified by the first great agrarian kingdoms. As new and powerful societies, they were determined to distinguish themselves as sharply as possible from the populations from which they sprang and that still beckoned and threatened at their fringes. In its essentials, it was an “ascent of man” story. Agriculture, it held, replaced the savage, wild, primitive, lawless, and violent world of hunter-gatherers and nomads. Fixed-field crops, on the other hand, were the origin and guarantor of the settled life, of formal religion, of society, and of government by laws. Those who refused to take up agriculture did so out of ignorance or a refusal to adapt. In virtually all early agricultural settings the superiority of farming was underwritten by an elaborate mythology recounting how a powerful god or goddess entrusted the sacred grain to a chosen people.
Yet there is massive evidence of determined resistance by mobile peoples everywhere to permanent settlement, associating it, often correctly, with disease and state control.
CHAPTER ONE: Slave States: The Domestication of Fire, Plants, Animals, and … Us
Guillermo Algaze puts the matter even more boldly: “Early Near Eastern villages domesticated plants and animals. Uruk urban institutions, in turn, domesticated humans.”
This is why I choose to call such locations late-Neolithic multispecies resettlement camps. It turns out that while it provides ideal conditions for state making, the late-Neolithic multispecies resettlement camp involved a lot more drudgery than hunting and gathering and was not at all good for your health. Why anyone not impelled by hunger, danger, or coercion would willingly give up hunting and foraging or pastoralism for full-time agriculture is hard to fathom.
And what about the “domesticators in chief,” Homo sapiens? Were not they domesticated in turn, strapped to the round of ploughing, planting, weeding, reaping, threshing, grinding, all on behalf of their favorite grains and tending to the daily needs of their livestock?
There is no reason why a forager in most environments would shift to agriculture unless forced to by population pressure or some form of coercion.
A polity with a king, specialized administrative staff, social hierarchy, a monumental center, city walls, and tax collection and distribution is certainly a “state” in the strong sense of the term. Such states come into existence in the last centuries of the fourth millennium BCE and seem to be well attested at the latest by the strong Ur III territorial polity in southern Mesopotamia around 2,100.
While fixed settlements and domesticated grains can be found earlier elsewhere (for example, in Jericho, the Levant, and the “hilly flanks” east of the alluvium), they did not give rise to states. Mesopotamian state forms, in turn, influenced subsequent state-making practices in Egypt, in northern Mesopotamia, and even in the Indus Valley. For this reason, and aided by surviving clay cuneiform tablets and the prodigious scholarship on the area, I concentrate on Mesopotamian states.
States came into existence around 4,000 BCE, as a result of the convergence of a number of factors including:
- tax collection (strata of officials), and taxable produce and systems of accountancy
- hierarchical arrangement of power, with an appreciable division of labour
- an organised army, and the erection of massive state walls to enclose the “unprecedented concentrations of domesticated plants, animals, and people that characterize states”
- the establishment of a king or priest or “a monumental ritual center or palace”
- irrigation, canals, and navigation systems for trade – as for Mesopotamia, so for Phoenicia, the Iberian peninsula, the Egyptian Delta, and Neolithic British waterways (Cornwall, Ireland, Wiltshire). All late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age “religious” sites were found in these locations, as an ideological expression of the new underlying colonial and agricultural mindset
These conditions might be summarised, Scott observes, as: “walls, tax collection, and officials.” Scott argues convincingly that early states are “population machines” designed to control labour, domesticating them as a farmer domesticates his herd.
Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread: The First Political Crop
One might be tempted to say that states arise, when they do, in ecologically rich areas. This would be a misunderstanding. What is required is wealth in the form of an appropriable, measurable, dominant grain crop and a population growing it that can be easily administered and mobilized.
The larger question is important because it bears on the role of coercion in establishing and maintaining the ancient state. Though it is a subject of heated debate, the question goes directly to the heart of the traditional narrative of civilizational progress. If the formation of the earliest states were shown to be largely a coercive enterprise, the vision of the state, one dear to the heart of such social-contract theorists as Hobbes and Locke, as a magnet of civil peace, social order, and freedom from fear, drawing people in by its charisma, would have to be reexamined.
Evidence for the extensive use of unfree labor—war captives, indentured servitude, temple slavery, slave markets, forced resettlement in labor colonies, convict labor, and communal slavery (for example, Sparta’s helots) —is overwhelming. Unfree labor was particularly important in building city walls and roads, digging canals, mining, quarrying, logging, monumental construction, wool textile weaving, and of course agricultural labor. The attention to “husbanding” the subject population, including women, as a form of wealth, like livestock, in which fertility and high rates of reproduction were encouraged, is apparent. The ancient world clearly shared Aristotle’s judgment that the slave was, like a plough animal, a “tool for work.” Even before one encounters terms for slaves in the early written records, the archaeological record speaks volumes with its bas relief depictions of ragged captive slaves being led back from the field of victory and, in Mesopotamia, thousands of identical, small, beveled bowls used, in all likelihood, for barley or beer rations for gang labor.
Formal slavery in the ancient world reaches its apotheosis in classical Greece and early imperial Rome, which were slave states in the full sense one applies to the antebellum South in the United States. Chattel slavery on this order, though not absent in Mesopotamia and early Egypt, was less dominant than other forms of unfree labor, such as the thousands of women in large workshops in Ur making textiles for export.
CHAPTER TWO: Draining the Swamp: The work of civilization
What might have been an earlier trend toward population growth and settlement in the Fertile Crescent owing to warmer and wetter conditions ended abruptly around 10,800 BCE. A millennium-long cold snap that followed is believed by some to have been caused by a massive pulse of glacial melt from North America (Lake Agassiz) suddenly draining eastward into the Atlantic through what we now call the Saint Lawrence River. Population receded, the remainder shrank back from marginal highlands to refugia where the climate, and therefore the flora and fauna, were more favorable.
Then, around 9,600 BCE, the cold snap broke and it became warmer and wetter again—and fast. The average temperature may have increased as much as seven degrees Celsius within a single decade. The trees, mammals, and birds burst out of the refugia to colonize a suddenly more hospitable landscape—and with them, of course, their companion species, Homo sapiens.
Between 8,000 and 6,000 BCE, all the so-called “founder crops”—the cereals and legumes: lentils, peas, chickpeas, bitter vetch, and flax (for cloth)—are being planted, though generally on a modest scale.
Over the same two-millennia span—the timing vis-à-vis cereals is not clear—domesticated goats, sheep, pigs, and cattle make their appearance. With this suite of domesticates the full “Neolithic package,” seen as the decisive agricultural revolution that marks the beginning of civilization, including the first small urban agglomerations, is in place.
Permanent proto-urban settlements emerge in the wetlands of the southern alluvium near the Persian Gulf around 6,500 BCE. These urban agglomerations at the mouth of the Euphrates—for example, Eridu, Ur, Umma, and Uruk—go on to become, much later, the very first “statelets” in the world.
Southern Mesopotamia not only was the site of the first state system, but it also directly influenced later state making elsewhere in the Middle East as well as in Egypt and India.
In turn, such a huge project of landscape modification required the mobilization of labor to dig and maintain the canals, which implied the existence of a public authority capable of assembling and disciplining that labor force.
Why, one might well ask, were the wetland origins of early sedentary villages and early urbanism overlooked? In part, of course, this is due to the older narrative of civilizations arising from the irrigation of arid lands, a narrative that fit with the contemporary landscape that those formulating the narrative were observing. I believe, however, that the larger context of this historical myopia comes from the nearly indelible association of civilization with the major grains—wheat, barley, rice, maize. (Think of the “amber waves of grain” in “America the Beautiful.”)
Within this perspective, swamps, marshes, fens, and wetlands generally have been seen as the mirror image of civilization—as a zone of untamed nature, a trackless waste, dangerous to health and safety. The work of civilization, when it came to marshes, was precisely to drain them and transform them into orderly, productive grain fields and villages. Civilizing arid lands mean irrigating them; civilizing swamps means draining them; the goal in each case is making arable grain lands.
H. R. Hall wrote of early Mesopotamia in “the state of chaos, half water and half-land, of the [alluvial] fans of southern Babylonia before civilization began its work of draining and canalizing.”
Whether in ancient China, in the Netherlands, in the fens of England, in the Pontine Marshes finally subdued by Mussolini, or in the remaining southern Iraq marshes drained by Saddam Hussein, the state has endeavored to turn ungovernable wetlands into taxable grain fields by reengineering the landscape.
A last and more speculative reason for the obscurity of wetland societies is that they were, and remained, environmentally resistant to centralization and control from above. They were based on what are now called “common property resources”—free-living plants, animals, and aquatic creatures to which the entire community had access. There was no single dominant resource that could be monopolized or controlled from the center, let alone easily taxed. Subsistence in these zones was so diverse, variable, and dependent on such a multitude of tempos as to defy any simple central accounting. Unlike the early states that we will examine later, no central authority could monopolize—and therefore ration—access to arable land, grain, or irrigation water. There was, therefore, little evidence of any hierarchy in such communities (as usually measured by differential grave goods). A culture might well develop in such areas, but the likelihood was small that such an intricate web of relatively egalitarian settlements would throw up great chiefs or kingdoms, let alone dynasties.
The breathtaking four-millennia gap between the first appearance of domesticated grains and animals and the coalescing of agro-pastoral societies we have associated with early civilization commands our attention. The anomaly of such a stretch of history, when all the building blocks for a classic agrarian society are in place but fail to coalesce, begs an explanation. An implicit assumption of the standard “progress of civilization” narrative is that once domesticated cereals and livestock were available, they would generate, more or less automatically and rapidly, a fully formed agrarian society. As with any new technique, one might anticipate some hesitation as new subsistence routines were accommodated—perhaps even a millennium—but four thousand years, or roughly 160 generations, is far more than a working out of the kinks.
CHAPTER THREE: The Deification of Crops and the New Religion of Wheat
Starting from the unassailable premise that plough cultivation typically required far more work for the calories it returned than did hunting and gathering, the great Danish economist Ester Boserup reasoned that full cultivation was taken up not as an opportunity but as a last resort when no other alternative was possible.
Some combination of population growth, the decline in wild protein to hunt and nutritious wild flora to gather, or coercion, must have forced people, reluctantly, to work harder to extract more calories from the land they had access to.
This demographic transition to drudgery has been read by many as metaphorically captured in the biblical tale of Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden to a world of toil.
We are as much a product of self-domestication in both intended and unintended ways as other species of the domus are products of our domestication.
We, as a species, are inclined to see ourselves as the “agent” in narratives of domestication. “We” domesticated wheat, rice, the sheep, the pig, the goat. But if we squint at the matter from a slightly different angle, one could argue that it is we who have been domesticated.
If our domesticated plants cannot thrive without our help, it is equally true that our survival as a species has likewise become dependent on a handful of domesticated cultivars.
Once cereals became established as a staple in the early Middle East, it is striking how the agricultural calendar came to determine much of public ritual life: ceremonial ploughing by priests and kings, harvest rites and celebrations, prayers and sacrifices for an abundant harvest, gods for particular grains.
The metaphors with which people reasoned were increasingly dominated by domesticated grains and domesticated animals: “a time to sow and a time to reap,” being “a good shepherd.” There is hardly a passage in the Old Testament that fails to make use of such imagery. This codification of subsistence and ritual life around the domus was powerful evidence that, with domestication, Homo sapiens had traded a wide spectrum of wild flora for a handful of cereals and a wide spectrum of wild fauna for a handful of livestock.
CHAPTER FOUR: Zoonoses: The City as Zoo
Why would foragers in their right mind choose the huge increase in drudgery entailed by fixed-field agriculture and animal husbandry unless they had, as it were, a pistol at their collective temple?
Mesopotamians, it seems, lived in the ever-threatening shadow of fatal epidemics. They had amulets, special prayers, prophylactic dolls, and “healing” goddesses and temples—the most famous of which was at Nippur—designed to ward off mass illness. Such events were, of course, poorly understood at the time. They were seen as “the devouring” of a god and as punishment for some transgression requiring compensatory ritual including the sacrifice of scapegoats.
Nevertheless, Mesopotamia of the late fourth millennium BCE was a historically novel environment for epidemics. By 3,200 BCE, Uruk was the biggest city in the world, with anywhere from twenty-five thousand to fifty thousand inhabitants, together with their livestock and crops, dwarfing the concentrations of the earlier Ubaid period. As the most demographically packed area, the southern alluvium was especially vulnerable to epidemics; the Akkadian word for epidemic disease “literally meant ‘certain death’ and could be applied equally to animal as well as human epidemics” (Nemet-Rejat, Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia). That concentration and an unprecedented flow of trade created, as we shall now explain, a uniquely new vulnerability to the diseases of crowding.
The importance of sedentism and the crowding it allowed can hardly be overestimated. It means that virtually all the infectious diseases due to microorganisms specifically adapted to Homo sapiens came into existence only in the past ten thousand years, many of them perhaps only in the past five thousand. They were, in the strong sense, a “civilizational effect.” These historically novel diseases—cholera, smallpox, mumps, measles, influenza, chicken pox, and perhaps malaria—arose only as a result of the beginnings of urbanism and, as we shall see, agriculture. Until very recently they collectively represented the major overall cause of human mortality.
It is not as if pre-sedentary populations did not have their own parasites and diseases, but such diseases would have been not the crowding diseases but rather diseases characterized by long latency and/or a nonhuman reservoir: typhoid, amoebic dysentery, herpes, trachoma, leprosy, schistosomiasis, filariasis. It continues today. Little wonder, then, that southeast China, specifically Guangdong, probably the largest, most crowded, and historically deepest concentration of Homo sapiens, pigs, chickens, geese, ducks, and wild animal markets in the world, has been a major world petri dish for the incubation of new strains of bird and swine flu.
“Civilisation diseases are responsible for 80% of deaths.” The literal meaning of “parasite,” from the original Greek root, is “beside the grain.”
CHAPTER FIVE: Population Control: Bondage and War
The embryonic state arises by harnessing the late Neolithic grain and manpower module as a basis of control and appropriation. Settled populations growing crops of domesticated grains, and small towns with a thousand or more inhabitants facilitating commerce, were an autonomous achievement of the Neolithic, being in place nearly two millennia before the appearance of the first states, around 3,300 BCE.
The Neolithic agro-complex was a necessary but not a sufficient basis for state formation; it made state formation possible but not certain.
Thus it was possible and not uncommon at the time to have sedentary farming populations on alluvial soils practicing irrigation without any state. But there was no such thing as a state that did not rest on an alluvial, grain-farming population.
What constitutes a state in this context? How would we know the first pristine state when we saw it? The answer is not cut and dried. Pinpointing the birth of the early state is a relatively arbitrary exercise that is further constrained by the few sites from which we have convincing archaeological and historical evidence. Among these characteristics, I propose to privilege those that point to territoriality and a specialized state apparatus: walls, tax collection, and officials. By such standards there is no doubt that that the “state” of Uruk is firmly in place by 3,200 BCE. Nissen calls the period from 3,200 to 2,800 BCE the “era of high civilization” in the Near East, during which “Babylonia was, without doubt, the region that produced the most complex economic, political and social orders.” Not incidentally, the iconic founding act of establishing a Sumerian polity was the building of a city wall.
A wall at Uruk was, in fact, built between 3,300 and 3,000 BCE, when Gilgamesh was thought by some to have reigned. Uruk was the pioneer of the state form that would be replicated throughout the Mesopotamian alluvium. By the first half of the third millennium, at the latest, major cities such as Kish, Nippur, Isin, Lagash, Eridu, and Ur belong to the same category as Uruk.
As the place-names of Ur, Uruk, and Eridu appear not to be of Sumerian origin, this suggests an in-migration displacing or absorbing earlier inhabitants.
How did this happen? One convincing explanation for how this cultivating population might have been assembled as state subjects is climate change. Nissen shows that the period from at least 3,500 to 2,500 BCE was marked by a steep decline in sea level and a decline in the water volume in the Euphrates.
This new environment required water navigation systems for trade and survival. I am tempted to say, “no water transport, no state”—only a slight exaggeration. Navigable, calm water for much of the year is typically essential.
Additionally, the subsistence bases of all the earliest, major agrarian states of antiquity— Mesopotamia, Egypt, Indus Valley, Yellow River—bear a remarkable resemblance to one another. They are all grain states: wheat, barley, and, in the case of the Yellow River, millet. Subsequent early states follow the same pattern, although irrigated rice and, in the New World, maize are added to the list of staple crops. Grains make States.
Why? The key to the nexus between grains and states lies, I believe, in the fact that only the cereal grains can serve as a basis for taxation: visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and “rationable.” To appreciate the unique advantages of the cereal grains, it helps to place yourself in the sandals of an ancient tax-collection official interested, above all, in the ease and efficiency of appropriation.
These characteristics are what make wheat, barley, rice, millet, and maize the premier political crops.
A tax assessor typically classifies fields in terms of soil quality and, knowing the average yield of a particular grain from such soil, is able to estimate a tax. If a year-to-year adjustment is required, fields can be surveyed and crop cuttings taken from a representative patch just before harvest to arrive at an estimated yield for that particular crop year. As we shall see, state officials tried to raise crop yields and taxes in kind by mandating techniques of cultivation.
For purposes of measuring, dividing, and assessing, the simple fact that the cereal harvest consists ultimately of small grains, husked or unhusked, has enormous administrative advantages. Like grains of sugar or sand, cereal grains are almost infinitely divisible, down to smaller and smaller fractions and precisely measurable by weight and volume for accounting purposes. Units of grain served as standards of measurement and value for trade and tribute against which the value of other commodities was calculated— including labor.
Most towns in the Mesopotamian alluvium were, by the middle of the third millennium BCE, walled. The state, for the first time, had grown a defensive carapace.
‘To be governed is to be at every operation, at every transaction, noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, reformed, corrected, punished.’ —Pierre-Joseph Prudhon
Peasantries with long experience of on-the-ground statecraft have always understood that the state is a recording, registering, and measuring machine.
Behind the coercive machinery lie piles of paperwork: lists, documents, tax rolls, population registers, regulations, requisitions, orders—paperwork that is for the most part mystifying and beyond their ken.
Something utterly remarkable and without historical parallel was taking place here. On one hand, groups of priests, strong men, and local chiefs were scaling up and institutionalizing structures of power that had previously used only the idioms of kinship. They were creating for the first time something along the lines of what we would call a state, though they could not possibly have understood it in those terms. On the other hand, thousands of cultivators, artisans, traders, and laborers were being, as it were, repurposed as subjects and, to this end, counted, taxed, conscripted, put to work, and subordinated to a new form of control.
It is at roughly this time that writing makes its first appearance. The coincidence of the pristine state and pristine writing tempts one to the crude functionalist conclusion that would-be state makers invented the forms of notation that were essential to statecraft. But it would not be too strong to assert that it is virtually impossible to conceive of even the earliest states without a systematic technology of numerical record keeping, even if it took the Inka form of strings of knots (quipu). The first condition of state appropriation (for whatever purpose) must be an inventory of available resources—population, land, crop yields, livestock, storehouse stocks.
A powerful case for linking state administration and writing is that it seems to have been used in Mesopotamia essentially for book-keeping purposes for more than half a millennium before it even began to reflect the civilizational glories we associate with writing: literature, mythology, praise hymns, kings lists and genealogies, chronicles, and religious texts.
So when a government surveyor arrives with a plane table, or census takers come with their clipboards and questionnaires to register households, the subjects understand that trouble in the form of conscription, forced labor, land seizures, head taxes, or new taxes on croplands cannot be far behind.
What can one infer from the trove of cuneiform tablets that have been recovered and translated about actual governance on the ground in Sumer? They reveal, at a minimum, the massive effort through a system of notation to make a society, its manpower, and its production legible to its rulers and temple officials, and to extract grain and labor from it.
As a mark of this aspiration, the very symbol of kingship in Sumer was the “rod and line,” almost certainly the tools of the surveyor.
The earliest administrative tablets from Uruk (Level IV), circa 3,300– 3,100 BCE, are lists, lists, and lists—mostly of grain, manpower, and taxes. The topics of the surviving tablets in order of frequency are barley (as rations and taxes), war captives, male and female slaves.
The entire exercise in early state formation is one of standardization and abstraction required to deal with units of labor, grain, land, and rations. Essential to that standardization is the very invention of a standard nomenclature, through writing, of all the essential categories—receipts, work orders, labor dues, and so on.
As with other early precocious states, the process of standardization was applied to coinage and to units of weight, distance, and volume for, among other things, grain and land.
Much of early statecraft was an artful political landscaping to facilitate appropriation: more grain land, a larger and more concentrated population, and the information software made possible by written records that could make it all more accessible to the state.
CHAPTER SIX: Slavery and Civilisation
Concern over the acquisition and control of population was at the very center of early statecraft. Control over a fertile and well-watered patch of alluvium meant nothing unless it was made productive by a population of cultivators who would work it. To see the early states as “population machines” is not far off the mark.
The imperative of collecting people, settling them close to the core of power, holding them there, and having them produce a surplus in excess of their own needs animates much of early statecraft.
Warfare in the Mesopotamian alluvium beginning in the late Uruk Period (3,500–3,100 BCE) and for the next two millennia was likewise not about the conquest of territory but rather about the assembling of populations at the state’s grain core.
Polities aimed to assemble “unpacified,” “scattered” people and to “herd non-state clients into state orders by both force and persuasion.” This process, Richardson notes, is a continuing imperative inasmuch as states are simultaneously losing “their own constituent populations from and to non-state units.”
The Old Babylonian legal codes are preoccupied with escapees and runaways and the effort to return them to their designated work and residence.
Human bondage was undoubtedly known in the ancient Middle East before the appearance of the first state. As with sedentism and the domestication of grain that also predated state formation, the early state elaborated and scaled up the institution of slavery as an essential means to maximize its productive population and the surplus it could appropriate.
It would be almost impossible to exaggerate the centrality of bondage, in one form or another, in the development of the state until very recently. As Adam Hochschild observed, as late as 1800 roughly three-quarters of the world’s population could be said to be living in bondage.
O Human Imagination O Divine Body I have Crucified
I have turned my back upon thee into the Wastes of Moral Law:
There Babylon is builded in the Waste, founded in Human desolation.
O Babylon thy Watchman stands over thee in the night
Thy severe judge all the day long proves thee O Babylon
With provings of destruction, with giving thee thy hearts desire.
But Albion is cast forth to the Potter his Children to the Builders
To build Babylon because they have forsaken Jerusalem
The Walls of Babylon are Souls of Men: her Gates the Groans
Of Nations: her Towers are the Miseries of once happy Families.
Her Streets are paved with Destruction, her Houses built with Death
Her Palaces with Hell & the Grave
– Jerusalem, 24:23–33
In Southeast Asia all early states were slave states and slaving states; the most valuable cargo of Malay traders in insular Southeast Asia were, until the late nineteenth century, slaves.
Provided that we keep in mind the various forms bondage can take over time, one is tempted to assert: “No slavery, no state.” Moses Finley famously asked, “Was Greek Civilization based on Slave Labour?” and answered with a resounding and well-documented yes.
Slaves represented a clear majority —perhaps as much as two-thirds—of Athenian society, and the institution was taken completely for granted; the issue of abolition never arose. As Aristotle held, some peoples, owing to a lack of rational faculties, are, by nature, slaves and are best used, as draft animals are, as tools.
Imperial Rome, a polity on a scale rivaled only by its easternmost contemporary, Han Dynasty China, turned much of the Mediterranean basin into a massive slave emporium.
By one estimate, the Gallic Wars yielded nearly a million new slaves, while, in Augustinian Rome and Italy, slaves represented from one-quarter to one-third of the population. The ubiquity of slaves as a commodity was reflected in the fact that in the classical world a “standardized” slave became a unit of measurement: in Athens at one point—the market fluctuated—a pair of working mules was worth three slaves.
In the earlier, less documented, and smaller city polities of Mesopotamia the existence of slavery and other forms of bondage is beyond question. Finley assures us, “The pre-Greek world—the world of the Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Assyrians … was, in a very profound sense, a world without free men, in the sense in which the west has come to understand the concept.”
Slavery, while hardly as massively central as in classical Athens, Sparta, or Rome, was crucial for three reasons: it provided the labor for the most important export trade good, textiles; it supplied a disposable proletariat for the most onerous work (for example, canal digging, wall building); and it was both a token of and a reward for elite status. The case for the importance of slavery in the Mesopotamian polities is, I hope to show, convincing. When other forms of unfree labor, such as debt bondage, forced resettlement, and corvée labor, are taken into account, the importance of coerced labor for the maintenance and expansion of the grain-labor module at the core of the state is hard to deny.
The most unambiguous category of slaves was the captured prisoner of war. Given the constant need for labor, most wars were wars of capture.
Of the many sources of dependent labor identified by I. J. Gelb — household-born slaves, debt slaves, slaves purchased on the market from their abductors, conquered peoples brought back and forcibly settled as a group, and prisoners of war—the last two appear to be the most significant.
The only substantial, documented slave institution in Uruk appears to have been the state-supervised workshops producing textiles that engaged as many as nine thousand women. They are described as slaves in most sources but also may have included debtors, the indigent, foundlings, and widows— perhaps like the workhouses of Victorian England.
Various estimates put the Uruk population at around forty thousand to forty-five thousand in the year 3,000 BCE. Nine thousand textile workers alone would represent at least 20 percent of Uruk’s inhabitants, not counting the other prisoners of war and slaves in other sectors of the economy. Providing grain rations for these workers and other state-dependent laborers required a formidable apparatus of assessment, collection, and storage.
The scribal summaries of laboring groups (both foreign and native) employ the identical age and sex categories as those used to describe “state-controlled herds of domestic animals. It would appear, therefore, that in the minds of the Uruk scribes and in the eyes of the institutions that employed them, such laborers were conceptualized as ‘domesticated’ humans, wholly equivalent to domestic animals in status” (Algaze, The End of History and the Uruk Period).
Other evidence about slaves and prisoners of war indicates that they were not well treated. Many are shown in neck fetters or being physically subdued. As Nissen and Heine note, “On cylinder seals we meet frequent variants of a scene in which the ruler supervises his men as they beat shackled prisoners with clubs” (From Mesopotamia to Iraq).
The later well known code of Hammurabi fairly bristles with punishments for aiding or abetting the escape of slaves.
A curious confirmation of the conditions of slave and enslaved debtors in Ur III comes from reading a utopian hymn “against the grain.”
Finally, war helped to a great discovery — that men as well as animals can be domesticated. Instead of killing a defeated enemy, he might be enslaved; in return for his life he might be made to work. This discovery has been compared in importance to that of the taming of animals … By early historic times slavery was a foundation of ancient industry and a potent instrument in the accumulation of [ie living] capital. —V. Gordon Childe, Man Makes Himself.
The most obvious advantage is that the conquerors take for the most part captives of working age, raised at the expense of another society, and get to exploit their most productive years.
In a good many cases the conquerors went out of their way to seize captives with particular skills that might be useful—boat builders, weavers, metal workers, armorers, gold- and silversmiths, not to mention artists, dancers, and musicians. Slave taking in this sense represented a kind of raiding and looting of manpower and skills that the slaving state did not have to develop on its own.
The continuous absorption of slaves at the bottom of the social order can also be seen to play a major role in the process of social stratification—a hallmark of the early state.
As earlier captives and their progeny were incorporated into the society, the lower ranks were constantly replenished by new captives, further solidifying the line between “free” subjects and those in bondage, despite its permeability over time. One imagines, as well, that most of the slaves not put to hard labor were monopolized by the political elites of the early states.
If the elite households of Greece or Rome are any indication, a large part of their claim to distinction was the impressive array of servants, cooks, artisans, dancers, musicians, and courtesans on display. It would be difficult to imagine the first elaborate social stratification in the earliest states without war-captive slaves at the bottom and elite embellishment, dependent on those slaves, at the top.
States, we know, did not invent slavery and human bondage; they could be found in innumerable prestate societies. What states surely did invent, however, are large-scale societies based systematically on coerced, captive human labor.
What if we were to examine slavery, agrarian war captives, helots, and the like as state projects to domesticate a class of human servitors — by force — much as our Neolithic ancestors had domesticated sheep and cattle?
Alexis de Tocqueville reached for this analogy when he considered Europe’s growing world hegemony: “We should almost say that the European is to the other races what man himself is to the lower animals; he makes them subservient to his use, and when he cannot subdue, he destroys.”
If we substitute for “Europeans” “early states,” and for “other races” “war captives,” we do not greatly distort the project, I think.
The state no more invented war than it did slavery. It did, however, once again scale up these institutions as major state activities. This transformed what had been modest but constant prestate raids for captives into something like a war with other states for the same purposes. In a war for captives between two states the losing state was, virtually by definition, effaced.
What is perhaps distinctive about internal strife is that there was a new and valuable prize worth commanding: a walled, surplus-producing grain core, with its population, livestock, and stores.
Internalisation of Slavery: How Manacles led to the Mind-forg’d Manacles
CHAPTER SEVEN: The Golden Age of the Barbarians
Finally, there is a strong case to be made that life outside the state—life as a “barbarian”—may often have been materially easier, freer, and healthier than life at least for non-elites inside civilization.
And what about these barbarians who, in the epoch of the early states, are massively more numerous than state subjects and, though dispersed, occupy most of the earth’s habitable surface? The term “barbarian,” we know, was originally applied by the Greeks to all non–Greek speakers—captured slaves as well as quite “civilized” neighbors such as the Egyptians, the Persians, and the Phoenicians. “Ba-ba” was meant to be a parody of the sound of non- Greek speech. In one form or another the term was reinvented by all early states to distinguish themselves from those outside the state. It is fitting, therefore, that my seventh and last section is devoted to the “barbarians” who were simply the vast population not subject to state control. I will continue to use the term “barbarian”—with tongue planted firmly in cheek—in part because I want to argue that the era of the earliest and fragile states was a time when it was good to be a barbarian.
If the barbarian realm is one of diversity and complexity, the state realm is, agro-economically speaking, one of relative simplicity. Barbarians are not essentially a cultural category; they are a political category to designate populations not (yet?) administered by the state. The line on the frontier where the barbarians begin is that line where taxes and grain end. The Chinese used the terms “raw” and “cooked” to distinguish between barbarians. Among groups with the same language, culture, and kinship systems, the “cooked” or more “evolved” segment comprised those whose households had been registered and who were, however nominally, ruled by Chinese magistrates. They were said to “have entered the map.”
To Romans, for example, a key defining characteristic of barbarians was that they ate dairy products and meat and not, as Romans did, grain. To the Mesopotamians, the “barbarian” Amorites were beyond the pale because they purportedly “know not grain … eat uncooked meat and do not bury their dead” (Yoffee and Cowgill, The Collapse of Ancient States).
I should make it crystal clear, once again, that I am using the term “barbarian” in an ironic, tongue-in-cheek sense. “Barbarian” and its many cousins—“savage,” “wild,” “raw,” “forest people,” “hill people”—are terms invented in state centers to describe and stigmatize those who had not yet become state subjects.
In the Ming Dynasty the term “cooked,” referring to assimilating barbarians, meant, in practice, those who had settled, had been registered on the tax rolls, and who were in principle governed by Han magistrates—in short, those who were said to have “entered the map.” A group that was identical in language and culture would often be divided into “raw” and “cooked” fractions entirely on the basis of whether they were outside or inside state administration. For the Chinese as for the Roman, the barbarians and tribes began precisely where taxes and sovereignty stopped.
Though hardly precise Linnaean categories, “barbarians” often denoted a hostile pastoral people who posed a military threat to the states but who might, under certain circumstances, be incorporated; “savages,” on the other hand, were seen as foraging and hunting bands not suitable as raw material for civilization, who might be ignored, killed, or enslaved. When Aristotle wrote of slaves as tools, one imagines that he had in mind “savages” and not all barbarians (for example, Persians).
The lens of “domestication” in general is useful for making sense of “barbarians” from the perspective of state centers. The grain growers and bondspeople at the state core are domesticated subjects, while foragers, hunters, and nomads are wild, savage, undomesticated peoples: barbarians.
There is, I believe, a long period, measured not in centuries but in millennia —between the earliest appearance of states and lasting until perhaps only four centuries ago—that might be called a “golden age for barbarians” and for nonstate peoples in general. For much of this long epoch, the political enclosure movement represented by the modern nation-state did not yet exist. Physical movement, flux, an open frontier, and mixed subsistence strategies were the hallmark of this entire period.
The life of “late barbarians” would, on balance, have been rather good. Their subsistence was still spread across several food webs; being dispersed, they would have been less vulnerable to the failure of a single food source. They were more likely to be healthier and live longer—especially if they were female. More advantageous trade made for more leisure, thus further widening the leisure-drudgery ratio between foragers and farmers.
Finally, and by no means trivial, barbarians were not subordinated or domesticated to the hierarchical social order of sedentary agriculture and the state. They were in almost every respect freer than the celebrated yeoman farmer. This is not a bad balance sheet for a class of barbarians over whom the waves of history were supposed to have rolled a long time ago.
The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true. as I have heard from Hell.
For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at the tree of life, and when he does, the whole creation will be consumed, and appear infinite. and holy whereas it now appears finite & corrupt.
This will come to pass by an improvement in sensual enjoyment. —Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
James C. Scott is an American political scientist and anthropologist and specializing in comparative politics. He is a comparative scholar of agrarian and non-state societies subaltern politics, and anarchism. His primary research has centred on peasants of Southeast Asia and their strategies of resistance to various forms of domination. He is the author of Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998), and Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (2017). To find out more about his work please click here.