||War and the culture of war at the dawn of history:
|5,000 years of increasing monopolization of the culture of war by the state|
The History of the Culture of War
Let's begin with the oldest civilization with writing - the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia. The chapter, "From State to Empire" in Volume II of the UNESCO history describes the rise of the state and its culture in this region. Emphasis here, as we will see with other accounts of early empires, is on the function of war to capture slaves, enlarge territory and amass wealth. The functions of war for external defense and internal control are implied but not specifically mentioned. As described here, leadership of the state originates from military leadership.
"The emergence of "city-state" ..."denotes the beginning of civilization, when the productivity of social labour reached a level at which society could use the surplus produce to maintain a considerable number of people who were not themselves engaged in productive labour, but fulfilled functions of great importance to society: as administrators, warriors, priests and the 'intelligentsia' - scholars, artists, poets and so on . . surplus product could only grow extensively through robbing neighbours, capturing slaves, enlarging one's territory and so increasing one's population, or else through unequal trade with neighboring peoples. All this could be done only through war, and war now became a constant factor in the life of society.
"By the Early Dynastic period, the increased centralization of state power had produced a dependent labour force among temple and palace personnel, along with the slave and semi-free workers who provided services and production to the estates. Individuals of rural communities may also have been recruited for temporary labour on irrigation and construction work, and have been obliged to give tribute to the temple in the form of agricultural produce. These societies thus contained five major classes of people: nobility, among whom were counted royal administrators, merchants and priests; citizens or community members who held private property; clients of the temple or palace, like artisans who temporarily held pieces of property in exchange for craft products; semi-free labourers who received payment by subsistence rations; and slaves, prisoners of war and other indigent members of the community."
In the chapter in Volume II on Economic and Socio-Political Developments there is discussion of the evolving status of warriors and priests and how each of them serves the palace and the king, i.e. the leadership of the state:
"The centre of society and of the political structure is provided by the 'great organizations,' that is the temples and the royal palaces ... [in the shift to the late Bronze Age] the different specialized groups are mostly dependent on the palace (temples being now economic agencies subordinated to the palace). The proportion is quite different from area to area, but we may guess that 20% of the population was composed of palace dependents, classified in various groups ... The top of the social and economic ranking is occupied by warriors, scribes, priests and merchants ... .Besides the chariot warriors, the palace maintains lower-rank military personnel, mainly as guards. . . Priests are generally reduced to the rank of king's dependents "
We know something of military education in ancient Mesopotamia from the extensive library of one of its last rulers, Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC), over 20,000 cuneiform tablets of over a thousand distinct texts. Ashurbanipal describes in his own annals his education in horsemanship, hunting, chariot driving, and soldiering as well as oil divination, mathematics, reading and writing. The following quotation comes from Curtis and Andre-Salvini (2005):
"The art of master Adapa I learned - the hidden treasure of all scribal knowledge ... I mounted my horse ... I held the bow. I shot the arrow, the sign of my valour. I threw unwieldy azmaru-spears like arrows. Holding the reins like a driver I made the wheels go round. I learned to handle the aritu and heavy kababu shields like a fully-equipped bowman."
This was echoed later by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus who said, "The Persians teach their sons, between the ages of five and twenty only three things: to ride a horse, use the bow, and speak the truth."
For a more detailed description of the role of the religion and priests in support of the state and military leader, the UNESCO chapter on the Development of Religion describes how the king came to be considered as divine and sacred:
"From the beginning of the third millennium BC we find the same form of government from India to the Atlantic both among nomadic peoples and ethnic groups settled in one place: they had at their head a leader who was acknowledged to have divine powers. Historians call this sacral kingship . . "
"In Mesopotamia, the various arts depict the feats of the monarchs in the hunting and battle grounds. The Stela of vultures is a bas-relief of the victory of the ruler of Lagash in the twenty-ninth century BC. In another bas-relief in the palace of Nimrud, Ashurnasirpal (ninth century BC) is shown laying siege to a city. Two centuries later, and using the same technique Ashurbanipal appears in a hunting scene at his palace in Ninevah."
This description is echoed in Plates 64 and 69 in the UNESCO history, volume 2. Plate 64, the "victory stela" of Narma Sin (2254-2218 BC), shows the king standing upon his vanquished enemies. Plate 69, the so-called "Standard of Ur" (2685 BC), shows elaborate scenes on its two sides, one of peace (a banquet scene) and one of war, including four-wheeled chariots trampling the enemy, spearmen in armor, soldiers carrying axes, and prisoners of war being presented to the king. As for literature, there were important epic poems preserved as clay tablets in the ancient library of Ashurbanipal. Accounts of warfare are included, although the main themes seem instead to be more religious and philosophical, including how a good king should govern.
Considering the oral tradition of epic poetry relating to the god Marduk in ancient Mesopotamia, it is suggested in the UNESCO History section on Oral Traditions and Literature that the great Creation epic, probably written at the end of the twelfth century BC, served as a "propaganda instrument for an empire seeking to justify its political and religious expansion."
The male domination associated with the culture of war that was common in prehistory is apparently retained in early Mesopotamia. Although we find no information in Volume II of the UNESCO History, we may assume that the subservience of women in the period from 700 BC to 700 AD, as described in the following excerpt from Volume III, was also applicable to the earlier period.
"... in all ancient civilizations - women had no political rights, and nowhere were they allowed to reach a social status even remotely comparable to that of free males. Of course it made some difference whether a woman was enslaved, bought or sold on the market, or if she were the wife of a freeman or of a higher ranked member of society. But even in those cases where women enjoyed excellent material conditions in their daily life, they could only exist within the context of a patriarchal system of life. Even in the highest circles, marriage was arranged by the male members of the two families involved, and the sphere of the married woman's activities was restricted to the household. Normally women belonging to the elite groups of society were also excluded from higher education and from participation in the 'Classical cultures' as creative members of the society. In all cultures there were exceptions - women who gained prominence as artists, writers or scholars - but they mostly were treated as outsiders."
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