The American Historical Review/Volume 23/Oriental Imperialism


American Historical Review


RESTATEMENT of our ideals in government, and especially with reference to that phase which deals with smaller, backward, or dependent peoples, is imperatively demanded by the present world-crisis. To secure the requisite foundation for such an investigation, the anthropologist advises the study of the less advanced races of the present-day world. Large as is the degree of truth in his claim, in the almost universal backsliding to a regime of tooth and claw, which has proved that after all the so-called retarded races are not such distant brothers, far more can be learned from the history of the ancient Near East. The one shows us parallel development, the other the very elements from which have arisen our present-day conceptions.

Long centuries before written history developed elsewhere, the historian has an adequate knowledge of the Near East. The tribal stage was long past, urban civilization well developed. In Egypt and in Babylonia alike, we have the city-state, a section of land, rarely more than a man could cover in a day's walk, devoted to agriculture, and with its centre in a village which in time of peace furnished a market-place for the simple industrial needs of the peasant, and in war could furnish protection against enemy raids. In them ruled representatives of the deity, patesi they were called in Babylonia, kings we can hardly name them with accuracy.

Much that is attractive is found in these early city-states, developing behind the protection of their mud brick walls the first civilization the world had seen, and conjecture may play with the dream of what might have been had there been a more delicately poised balance of power, how they might have anticipated the Phoenician aristocracy or even the democracy of the Greeks. Perhaps the times were too early and too rude, certain it is that before such a stage could be reached, the victorious city-state had become imperialistic and the day of the city-state was done.

This imperialism was not developed without a struggle. Against it were ranged the forces of geography and of racial temperament. In the case of Egypt, it needs no proof that the long thin line of civilization along the Nile, where city-state bounded city-state on but two sides, up stream and down, was not conducive to unity, and that such a condition bred a localism which broke up Egypt into its constituent parts every time that the central power weakened. In spite of this difficulty, the dawn of history finds the process virtually complete, and the intermediate stage, when north and south were separate units, was important in later times only in so far as it furnished the ruler with separate crowns, separate titularies, and a separate administration. North or south might in turn furnish that ruler. Re or Amon might be the supreme god, the dream of a united Egypt was never forgotten.

Babylonia seemed more favorable to unity, with its lack of frontiers in its dead level, its easy communication by river and by canal, the need of a common irrigation system, yet unity came late. We must attribute this not so much to the location of the leading states along the ancient bed of the Euphrates as to the ingrained particularism of the individual city-state, the result, we may conjecture, of unnumbered generations of Shumerians who had led an isolated life in the mountain valleys to the east. The pages of a detailed history, then, must be burdened by the names of dozens of village chiefs whose battles have scores of casualties. From all this welter of meaningless names, states of a larger importance gradually emerge, under a true king but still with no real unity. If the patesi of the conquered city paid his tribute, he was retained, otherwise another took his place. The average citizen had his status changed not a whit, he retained his local customs, and worshipped his city god as before. These kingdoms, likewise, found their centre in a single state: for example, the possession of Kutu permitted the bearing of the title "King of the Four World Regions". Significant is the fact that to the end there was no single title which unqualifiedly gave its possessor the rule of all Babylonia.

The first Semites, the Sargonids, extended the empire outside the alluvium, but no change of policy or of administration is marked thereby. First under the kings of Ur, representing the Shumerian reaction, was there such a centralization of authority that the patesi sank rapidly to the status of a mere governor whose every act was directed from the capital. By the first dynasty of Babylon, the correspondence of Hammurapi shows the process complete and the smallest details are controlled by the monarch at home.

Then follows the Kashshite conquest. These mountaineers from the east might well be particularistic, and where Hammurapi had over-centralized they brought in a system which can only be called feudal. Already the foundation was laid, for, from the beginning, Babylonia like Egypt had possessed a land organization which was ancestor and prototype of the manorial system of medieval Europe. Once more like its successor, the actual feudal development came only with the invasion of foreigners with cruder ideals. No longer do we have governors appointed and removed by the crown, but a group of great landlords, holding because they had aided the king in battle, and with charters which freed them from the usual dues, so that the royal officials are definitely prohibited from so much as entering the domain thus granted out, whether to inflict taxes, to collect rents, to levy troops, or for any other seigniorial right whatsoever. The influence of these great feudal barons on the course of history is infinitely more important than is that of the majority of so-called kings of an earlier time.

Meanwhile, Egypt had outgrown a similar feudal regime and had cast out the foreigners who had taken advantage of the weakness which feudalism had brought in its train. The reaction carried the Egyptians across the desert, beyond the Sinaitic Peninsula, which they had always held as a bridge-head against Syria, and up to the Euphrates. The archive-materials now show full-grown powers, in direct contact with each other, evenly matched and adopting the principle of the balance of power, diplomacy developed to a high degree, recognition of commercial interests and of spheres of influence, treaties with extradition clauses for equals and with close regulations for subject allies. But one modern characteristic we miss; we look in vain for actual provincial organization.

This provincial system we first find developed among the Assyrians. Their earlier conquests were of the usual type, but Assyria had one great advantage over her rivals: city, state, and god were identical. The original city-state of Ashur merged into the empire and other capitals became the royal residences, but the name of the larger state was still Ashur, the city was still peculiarly sacred, and the chief god, Ashur, the deified state itself, was worshipped in the best days with an almost single-minded devotion which left other deities little more than saints. Thus we have a psychological unity foreign to Babylonia.

The city of Ashur stood on a great land strait, on the Tigris, between two strips of unirrigated land, at the crossing of the one line of hills which commands the east-west road of the ancient world. Such a position, of danger and of opportunity alike, could not but develop in the Assyrians the spirit which found its only worthy activity in war and in government, which looked down with contempt on the merchant princes of the south. While the earlier Assyrian monarchs were, as they called themselves, "kings of kings", the formal change was made by Ashur-nasir-apal and the conquered states began to be placed directly under provincial governors. By the reign of the last Adad-nirari, the system was in full working order.

In the system, the provinces were of regular size. The officials were advanced in a regular cursus from the provinces of Assyria proper, where they were under the direct control of the king, to the marches on the exposed frontiers to which could be sent only the most experienced and the most trusted. Taxation was formally organized and there was a regular budget of taxes and expenditures. The whole organization centred around the worship of Ashur, the deified state, and of the reigning king, prototype of the later cult of Rome and Augustus. When all the archival material is utilized, not the least the more than a thousand letters exchanged between the king and his provincial governors, we shall have a picture of the system in its actual workings which will rival that of the Roman.

Like the Romans, the Assyrians permitted their sentiment in one instance to outweigh their political sense, for Babylonia was the same culture mother-land to them as was Greece to the Romans. Thus, while a part of the country was ruled by governors, Babylon itself was never brought within the system. At first Assyrian intervention meant merely placing on the throne the Assyrian nominee. The last Tiglath Pileser began the practice of ruling Babylonia directly, but only by a personal union and that hidden by the changed name he used in official documents. But one king, Sennacherib, fairly grappled with the problem, and then only after repeated attempts to rule through a native nominee or through members of the royal house. When his own first-born was treacherously betrayed into captivity, Babylon was destroyed. A sentimental son, Esarhaddon, rebuilt it and granted almost complete autonomy, "so that a dog entering its borders should not be killed". The result of this ill-advised clemency was that Babylon succeeded Assyria. Rome was wiser when she destroyed Carthage and Corinth.

We have seen in our own day and in these very regions the revival of the Assyrian system of deportation. We have learned how terribly effective and how wasteful it all was and is. Revolt was stamped out by separating leaders and led, and by placing the former under such conditions as colonists that they secured only the hatred of the peoples among whom they were settled. Thus they were forced to look for protection to the very power which had dragged them across the empire. The Assyrian peace was indeed a very welcome change from the petty wars which were destroying the life of the east, and the Aramaean and Phoenician merchants were not slow to seize the opportunities which the Assyrian noble scorned. Thought followed trade along roads formerly taken by armies, and the deportations increased the cultural unification of the empire. For those who believe in cultural unification, the value of the system is obvious. There are those, however, who believe that smaller nations have their rights and their value to history. What would it have meant to the world, to take but a single illustration, if Ashur and the king had succeeded in reducing to a subordinate position Yahweh in his own temple at Jerusalem?

Then, too, the losses in deportation were enormous. Not all the women and children, the old men and the young, whom the sculptures show us marching into captivity, reached their goal. When mountaineers of Asia Minor were settled in the fever-laden swamps of Babylonia, few can have survived. And the deported were not the rank and file but the political leaders and the cultural as well, an Ezekiel as well as a Jehoiachin, to illustrate from the Chaldaean period. The breakdown of industry and trade, the lapsing of lands from cultivation, the loss of capital, the discouragement of further effort, all heavily discounted the Assyrian peace. Only the crushing taxation was needed to complete the dissolution of the Assyrian world.

The Chaldaeans followed the example of their Assyrian predecessors, but with the Persian Empire we have a difference. The very first ruler, Cyrus, shows in his dealings with Babylonians and Jews a desire to pacify the subject peoples, a marked toleration which was quite unlike the attitude of the Assyrians. A Darius might emphasize the supreme position of Ahuramazda, but he also cherished officially Apollo, and there was no worship of Persia and of the king. The empire was much larger, but instead of increasing the number of the provinces, their size was enlarged until some were little inferior to the old Assyrian empire in size, wealth, and population. The larger size of the provinces and the greater distance from the capital made direct control less practicable, notwithstanding the fact that to the postal service, which had been in use since the first Semites ruled in Babylonia, Sargon and Sennacherib had added paved roads and mile-stones.

The satrap was thus not far inferior to the Assyrian king in actual power. Two systems of check were invented. One was the use of the two subordinates, reporting directly to the king and aided by the espionage so characteristic of an Oriental despotism. The other was the new principle, that subject peoples might be a formal part of the provincial organization and yet have so much local autonomy that they would prefer their chains. The best illustration we may find in the Old Testament, where Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah are virtually local dynasts and enforce their own schemes of reform. The system had its dangers, for it kept alive nationalist feelings, and a change of dynasty might allow revolt or a weak rule result in civil war, but this is only to express in other words the truism that, in an hereditary monarchy, all depends on the character of the monarch. Thanks to this toleration, Judaism, for instance, with all that it has meant to the world, was preserved, with Persian coloring, it is true, but with natural growth permitted.

To those who have thought of the empire as a despotism, there comes a shock of surprise when they find the Persians, after the Ionic revolt, actually introducing democracies into the cities of Asia Minor; still more strange does it seem that the democracies of Athens and of the other Greek city-states were pro-Persian up to the very outbreak of the Great War. This attitude cannot be explained as simply another example of the stupidity of the proletariate. Persian rule permitted the Carian kingship, the Carduchi tribal organization, the Judaean theocracy, the Phoenician aristocracy, the Ionic democracy, and this rule of the foreigner was less repellent to the democrat at Athens than was the close oligarchy of his oppressors at home. The newly risen merchant class likewise desired those commercial advantages now so largely monopolized by Phoenician and Aramaean. At the very end of Greek freedom, revived and sobered Athens was pro-Persian.

Once more we may conjecture what might have been. Would Greece as a whole have had a less full life if the city-states had become municipalities with local autonomy within the empire? The Acropolis would not have been decked with the spoils of subject city-states, but neither would the Peloponnesian War have brought Greek civilization close to ruin. The extreme democracy of Cleon probably never would have been reached but stasis would have been checked likewise. Had the brilliant but erratic Greek genius been steadied by the empire, had the empire in turn been vivified and supported by the Greek, how different history might have been! But the gods willed otherwise, the Greeks were victorious, Persian expansion came to a sudden end. It was Rome and not Persia that Greece permeated, and by that time Greek culture had lost its pristine bloom.

Men commonly assume that the Persian empire was a failure because after a little more than two hundred years men of Persian race ceased to rule. Yet history shows no more striking case of a conquered state taking its conqueror captive, and in this case the conqueror was at least veneered with the highest culture the world had thus far seen. Alexander began as leader of a crusade against the Orient. He ended by being more Oriental than the Persians themselves. He took over, not only the royal robes, the harem and the harem exclusiveness, the satrapial system. To the royal obeisance he added a sonship of the god which the Persians had been willing to leave to Egypt and he spread it broadcast over the world. Intellectuals at Athens might still joke about Alexander being god if he wished, the masses of the Orient took it in dead earnest, and as the West came to be more and more penetrated by men of Oriental descent and by the Oriental ideas which followed their incoming, the Oriental conception of kingship followed.

Political conditions under the successors of Alexander have more in common with the days of Hammurapi or of Ramses than with those of Pericles. The theory behind the fact is also descended from the empires. From the earliest days to the present, the bulk of the land in the Near East has been in the possession of the king, of his court, or of his church establishment. These lands pay, not taxes but rent, and the king is not so much monarch as landlord. Divine right to the land, whether in the Hellenistic period or in the twentieth century after Christ, meant loss of individualism, dynastic wars, a total denial of nationalism.

None the less, nationalism of a sort persisted. Three quarters of a century after the death of Alexander, the eastern half of the empire had relapsed into Orientalism, and in another century the old culture-lands of Babylonia, Assyria, Media, and Persia had followed. Astonishingly little of Greek culture was left behind. As a single illustration, we have cuneiform business documents from Uruk, one of the Babylonian city-states of former days, which date from the very end of the Seleucid period. Aside from the dating by Macedonian kings, the presence of a half-dozen Greek names. the use of the signet seal, we might be a thousand years earlier. What was left to Macedonian or Roman sway was more thoroughly Hellenized, but how superficial this was is shown by the constant tendency to fall away to the Oriental power across the Euphrates, by the ease with which the Arabs brought about its conquest, by the fewness of the survivals in the land to-day of the once dominant foreign influence.

But while such foreign influence as we find in the Near East to-day is almost without exception modern, or at the very best medieval, the very reverse is true of the western lands. The great stream of political thinking from its source in Babylonia and Egypt passed, with many a notable change but still the same stream, through the organization of Assyria and Persia, to the writings of the Hebrews and of the later Greeks, to the practice of the Romans, through feudalism and the Holy Roman Empire alike, to the classicism of the Renaissance and the modernity of the present day. As the eagle which is the state symbol of Lagash, earliest of Babylonian states, is the direct ancestor of the birds of varied plumage and number of heads which to-day adorn the national seals, so there is a direct line of apostolic succession from the priest-god of the early Orient to the divine right of the twentieth-century rulers, from the first feeble attempt to enforce tribute from the conquered rival to our own enlightened government of dependencies.

  1. [The three articles which follow, on Oriental Imperialism, Greek Imperialism, and Roman Imperialism—sketches or "short studies of great subjects"—were prepared for the meeting of the American Historical Association held at Philadelphia in December, 1917, and were read in the ancient history section of that meeting as a series of papers on Ancient Imperialism. Ed.]