Book Summary: “The Dynamics of Ancient Empires” by Morris and Scheidel


Title: The Dynamics of Ancient Empires: State Power from Assyria to Byzantium
Editor: Ian Morris and Walter Scheidel
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

The book consists of a collection of essays about Ancient empires in the Middle East and Mediterranean Europe.

My Comments

My notes below are mainly from one essay: “Sex and Empire: A Darwinian Perspective” by Walter Scheidel.

We already know from other books that humanity has undergone rapid genetic evolution over the last 10,000 years. This article give a plausible mechanism for how this occurred in Agrarian and Horticultural societies. Elites males had far more children than other males, so they passed on far more of their genes to the next generation.

Key Take-aways

  • In addition to very high rates of income and wealth inequality, ancient empires had very high rates of male reproductive inequality. The most powerful men were able to pass on far more copies of their genes to the next generation than less powerful men.
  • Some form of polygamy was common among the elites of ancient empires.
  • The leaders of those empires had a very large number of children, either through multiple wives, concubines, harems or slavery.
  • At the bottom of the social hierarchy, many men had no children, so they could not pass on their genes.
  • The children of the powerful were usually separated into legitimate children who inherited both property and genes from their father and illegitimate children who inherited only his genes.
  • Ancient Greece and Rome, unlike the Asian empires had widespread monogamy, but the most powerful leaders had many mistresses and slaves. This gave elites the ability to pass on their genes to many children while still maintaining the fascade of monogamy.

Important Quotes from Book

The world’s first known empires took shape in Mesopotamia between the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf, beginning around 2350 b.c.e. The next 2,500 years witnessed sustained imperial growth, bringing a growing share of humanity under the control of ever-fewer states. Two thousand years ago, just four major powers—the Roman, Parthian, Kushan, and Han empires—ruled perhaps two-thirds all the people on Earth. Yet, despite empires’ prominence in the early history of civilization, there have been surprisingly few attempts to study the dynamics of ancient empires in the western Old World comparatively.

Our book is designed to address these deficits and to encourage dialogue across disciplinary boundaries by examining the fundamental features of the successive and partly overlapping imperial states that dominated much of the Near East and the Mediterranean in the first millennia b.c.e. and c.e.: the Neo-Assyrian, Achaemenid Persian, Athenian, Roman, and Byzantine empires.

“Ancient States, Empires and Exploitation” by Goldstone and Haldon

At one extreme of social-political organization, the term “state” can refer to a relatively short-lived grouping of tribal or clan communities united under a warlord or chieftain who is endowed with both symbolic and military authority—in anthropological terms, a “Big-man” confederacy. Such “states” rarely survive for long, however, and are sometimes referred to as “proto-states,” since they have not yet attained a degree of institutional permanence and authority is generally exercised over a mobile people rather than a sovereign territory. Examples include the majority of the “nomad empires” that arose on the Eurasian steppe zone.

At the other extreme we find more or less territorially unified political entities, with an organizational “center” (which may be peripatetic) from which a ruler or ruling group exercises political authority and that maintains its existence successfully over several generations; a key element in the formation and degree of permanence of such formations is that the authority of the ruler or ruling group is recognized as both legitimate and exclusive. In this respect, the ideological aspect is absolutely fundamental to state-building.

This more permanent type of state formation might be defined in the first instance as a territorially demarcated region* controlled by centralized governing or ruling establishments, which may or may not have a monopoly over the use of coercion but which usually have the coercive power to assert their authority over the territories they claim, at least on an occasional “punitive” basis when needed.

A key element in state formation is the generation of fairly complex ideological and legitimating systems, on the one hand, and at the same time more impersonalized and institutionalized modes of surplus extraction than proto-states or clan or tribal groupings are capable of developing.

Administration based on kinship and lineage relationships, and the exploitation of kin-based modes of subordination, tend then gradually to be replaced by nonkinship- based bureaucratic or administrative systems (although kin and lineage are rarely entirely absen.

And it seems also that this distancing of administrative apparatus from social base as well as from the kinship ties of the royal household represents a developmental shift, a process of maturation, as we follow the evolution of state formation through time. Where the Assyrian and Achaemenid empires recruited their administrative infrastructure from the elite families of the center and provinces, bound through kinship ties or vested interests shared with the ruling dynasty and its kin, more developed bureaucratic systems recruited their personnel from a wider social range and depended upon more broadly available literary and educational possibilities.

A key issue is clearly the potential for state formations to reproduce themselves, in contrast to the potential of a particular dynasty with its retinues based upon personal loyalties and notions of honor, obligation, and reciprocity, to maintain itself in power over a number of generations. A crucial factor in state reproduction is the evolution of a bureaucratic elite that has a sense of its own function within the state or society.

Some states survived only by virtue of their ability to coerce submission and the extraction of revenues and resources on a more or less continuous basis, such as the Aztec Empire of Mesoamerica or the empires of the Mongol “hordes.” But, over the longer term, this has not been a particularly effective way of evolving or maintaining state power. A good example of more lasting imperial power is provided by the case of Rome, in which a conquest state was able to evolve an ideological hegemony that in turn generated a consensual identity among the conquered territories.

Sex and Empire: A Darwinian Perspective by Walter Scheidel

Why empires? Or, more generally, why power?

This question is not nearly as pointless as it has been made to seem. From an evolutionary perspective, resources are of no value in and of themselves. They acquire intrinsic utility only in as much as they are instrumentalized in enhancing inclusive fitness, defined as “the reproductive success of individual genes, including that of identical copies which are present in near kin.”

In sexually reproducing species, competition for resources is ultimately equivalent to competition for mates.

Males are limited in their reproductive performance not so much by physiological features as by competitors. Whereas the mean reproductive success of all males in a generation must equal the reproductive success of all females, variance in reproductive success may greatly differ between the sexes. Unlike females, males may increase their reproductive success significantly by depriving competitors of mating opportunities. This difference is crucial in determining reproductive behavior. In all species, the sex that invests less will compete more for mating opportunities,5 because the sex allocating a smaller proportion of reproductive effort as parental effort benefits more from competing  for mate quantity. Therefore, males gain more reproductively from gathering a harem of females than females would gain from gathering a harem of males. This is why polygyny is so common in mammals, where females are high obligate investors. In about 95 percent of mammalian species, some males monopolize sexual access to more than one female, usually through intensive intermale competition. In polygynous species, variance in reproductive success is much higher for males than for females.

Typically, resources, status, and power co-vary with reproductive success for males. Because male variance in reproductive success is high, great expenditure and risk may be profitable. Among humans, where men use resources to gain reproductive advantage, this merely increases variance in male reproductive success.8 Male fitness differentials range from differences in mating success, such as the number of wives and their reproductive value (above all, age), the frequency of extramarital matings, and the incidence of remarriage, to differential marital fertility, differential child survivorship, and the differential allocation of reproductive chances to offspring. Dominance, status, and wealth have all been positively associated with a variety of mechanisms promoting male reproductive success, including the number of serial or simultaneous conjugal unions, the number of extramarital liaisons, age at first marriage or reproduction, spouse’s age at first reproduction, interbirth intervals, and probability of cuckoldry. Thus, a growing number of studies have established a strong correlation between cultural and reproductive success.

This scenario suggests that males cooperate in hazardous ventures because, ultimately, they stand to improve their reproductive success and inclusive fitness. Since humans in complex, sedentary societies are able to control territory and storable surplus, we expect them to compete primarily over territory and material resources because these will facilitate access to mates.

For men, polygyny has traditionally been the most commonly desired mating pattern in human history. In two samples of cultures from the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF), 77 percent (n = 250) and 76 percent (n = 563) practiced some form of polygyny, respectively, whereas only 17 and 21 percent were strictly monogamous. However, in polygynous societies, the majority of all unions are monogamous; plural marriage is usually limited to high-status individuals (i.e., those with wealth and/or of advanced age).

Polygamy rates for men and women differ. The proportion of all married women married polygamously is usually significantly higher than the corresponding proportion of all men; at the very least, there will always be twice as many polygamously married women in a given group as there are polygamously married men. This imbalance can be illustrated with reference to a group of Australian Aborigines in which ninety-four men were monogamously married and fifty-eight (or 38.2 per cent) were polygamous. However, 170 of 264 married women lived in polygamous unions, or 64.4 per cent.51 Under these circumstances, in populations with a balanced adult sex ratio, many adult men would be deprived of spouses. Offensive warfare serves to alleviate this problem: not only may casualties skew the adult sex ratio in favor of women, but military success enables the victors to transfer additional women to their own group. Both mechanisms help reduce the social tensions arising from inequalities in access to mates and foster in-group cohesion and cooperation. Thus, imperial success that renders possible the appropriation of out-group women (either directly by capture or indirectly via the appropriation of mate-attracting resources) simultaneously favors polygyny among the male beneficiaries of this success and reinforces their imperialist motivations.

Militarily successful war for plunder and captives is a good predictor of polygyny. 1.4, the incidence of polygyny is strongly correlated with successful warfare and appropriation of resources. In principle, two basic conditions are necessary for polygyny to arise: females must be “economically defendable,” and polygyny is more feasible—and sensible in Darwinian terms—when female sexual cycles are asynchronous. Both conditions are particularly well met in highly stratifi ed human societies. Levels of polygyny vary with population size.

As a consequence, “the bigger a polygynist’s harem, the more likely he is to depend on exploitation.”73 This association between hierarchy, despotism and polygyny is very strong in a world sample of 104 politically autonomous societies studied by Betzig.

Dahomey, a powerful African empire of the nineteenth century, is in many ways a typical case.The royal harem allegedly consisted of thousands of “wives,” constantly replenished by war captives selected by the king.

In general, the reproductive hierarchy paralleled the social hierarchy: village chiefs had more wives and children than commoners.

The medieval Khmer kings were endowed with five wives and several thousand concubines, the latter subdivided into several classes. Physical attractiveness was noted as a selection criterion. Elaborate ranking systems of this kind are typical of particularly large and centralistic empires with intensive ruler worship. Under the Western Zhou dynasty in ancient China, the emperor had access to one queen, three consorts, nine wives of second rank, twenty-seven wives of third rank, and eighty-one concubines.91 The sexual purpose of this arrangement is thrown into sharp relief by the fact that the court ladies recorded the menstrual cycle of these women and scheduled their congress with the emperor.

The contemporaneous Aztec Empire generated similar modes of sexual exploitation and hierarchies of reproductive privilege. While royal harems reputedly contained thousands of women and top aristocrats accumulated hundreds of concubines, lesser nobles had to make do with correspondingly fewer consorts. Not surprisingly, several Aztec emperors were credited with more than one hundred children each.99 Provincial tributes included young women to be impregnated by elite males, and imperial revenue enabled the state to provide wet-nurses who took care of the offspring of nobles for the first five years of life.

In the Inca empire, the Inca’s women were kept in depots scattered across the country. When they reached the age of eight to ten years, large numbers of girls, known as manacona, were taken from their places of origin to live and serve in the aclla huasi, or “Houses of the Chosen Women.” They were reviewed in the capital, Cusco, and divided into various categories according to their social origins, physical attractiveness, and aptitudes. The yura aclla, blood relatives of the Inca, were consecrated to the cult of the Sun and were expected to remain chaste. The next- highest layer was made up of the huayrur aclla, the most beautiful girls, from whom the Inca selected his secondary wives. Those virgins passed their time in textile manufacturing and food processing. Once called by the king to serve their reproductive function, they worked in the palace as servants until they were allowed to return home. The paco aclla were earmarked for the chiefs whom the Inca wished to reward, while the yana aclla, lacking background or beauty, became the servants of the others.

This system is noteworthy for three reasons. First, it highlights with almost brutal clarity the direct connection between political power and reproductive privilege. Second, it illustrates the principle that the privileged sought to preserve their status for future generations while maximizing their genetic contribution to the next generation; whereas the queen, usually a close relative (sometimes even a sister) of the king, produced legitimate heirs and the children of concubines related to him up to the fourth degree enjoyed special privileges, all other concubines produced bastards who followed the status of their mothers. Thus, status privileges and hence material resources were reserved for a minority within the Inca’s offspring. And, third, the gradated redistribution of paco aclla among different strata of the elite exemplifies the need of rulers to bestow fitness benefits upon essential subordinates in accordance with their contribution to the management of the exploitative structure. 

The major complex societies of the Fertile Crescent and Iran fit the same mold.

All the major states reviewed shared cultural and legal institutions that facilitated the translation of cultural success—imperial power and wealth—into reproductive success.

Slavery was a major means of facilitating fitness transfers. Large-scale seizures of out-group women most immediately benefited the rulers.

Regardless of constraints on the number of legitimate wives, the number of slave concubines was limited only by the resources of their owner (or lessee, as in Neo-Babylonian society). From the perspective of the owner, sexual relations with slave women had the advantage of leaving the heritable estate untouched; the offspring of such unions was not normally entitled to an inheritance.

The observed association between the growth of disposable surplus among the beneficiaries of empire and the concomitant increase in reproductive opportunities is perfectly in keeping with Darwinian predictions.

Rather, they needed to seek to increase their reproductive chances by balancing the requirements of long-term fitness preservation (by means of channeling heritable resources into a small number of “legitimate” children by one or a few principal wives) with the desire to maximize “marginal reproductive success” (by accumulating concubines as/or domestic slaves).

From the onset of reasonably reliable written documentation, the citizens of Greek city-states and the Roman res publica are known to have contracted strictly monogamous marriages.

Greco-Roman monogamy was highly unusual. Greeks and Romans were not only surrounded by polygynous cultures—from the Celts, Germans, Thracians, and Macedonians to the Persians, Egyptians, and various North African peoples206—but eventually succumbed to the pressure of polygynous neighbors—the Macedonians in the case of classical Greece, the Germans in the case of the Western Roman empire, and the Arabs in the case of much of the Byzantine Empire.

Greco-Roman monogamy was highly unusual. Greeks and Romans were not only surrounded by polygynous cultures—from the Celts, Germans, Thracians, and Macedonians to the Persians, Egyptians, and various North African peoples—but eventually succumbed to the pressure of polygynous neighbors—the Macedonians in the case of classical Greece, the Germans in the case of the Western Roman empire, and the Arabs in the case of much of the Byzantine Empire.

Greece and Rome were two of the very few genuine “slave societies” in history.244 While slave ownership was disproportionately concentrated among the elites, it also spread into considerable parts of the general population. Hence, slavery served the double purpose of allowing privileged groups—the primary benefi ciaries of empire—to accumulate human resources for the exploitation of labor and sexual capacity and of enabling subordinates to participate in this process in accordance with their personal means. Since in historical times Greek and Roman slaves were usually outsiders—members of other poleis or, more commonly, non-Greeks in the case of Greece, noncitizens and, increasingly, non-Italians in the case of Rome— large-scale slave ownership was to a large extent a function of imperial success.

In historical times, Athenian citizens married monogamously. By the fifth century, monogamy had come to be considered a quintessentially Greek custom.

However, Athenian men were expected only to marry, not to mate, monogamously. Husbands were not required to be faithful to their wives. Just as in Assyria or Rome, married men were incapable of committing adultery vis-a`-vis their wives… only proper wives were ordinarily capable of producing legitimate children.

Extramarital sexual relations resulting in illegitimate offspring permitted propertied Athenian to enhance their “marginal reproductive success.” This could be achieved in any of three overlapping legally and socially condoned ways: concubinage, prostitution, and domestic slavery.

In Roman society, from the earliest recorded times, monogamy was mandatory.

Roman imperialism entailed the transfer of people and resources on a scale unprecedented in Mediterranean history. Millions of women were uprooted, enslaved, and moved, above all to Rome or to central Italy, to satisfy the demand of the slave markets. Hundreds of thousands of settlers and veterans were assigned agricultural land that had been taken away from its previous owners. During the imperial period, millions of recipients of public revenue were distributed across the empire as professional soldiers. These movements greatly enriched the ruling elite, known for concentrating in its hands ever larger amounts of cash, real estate, and slaves. The attendant inequalities in cultural success provided this elite with an enormous potential for reproductive success. Cultural institutions, primarily chattel slavery and secondarily concubinage, enabled the elite to convert this potential into tangible fitness benefits. Other segments of Roman society participated on a correspondingly smaller scale: while colonists, soldiers, and veterans had the chance to exploit their privileged access to resources at the local level for reproductive purposes, city-bound migrants gained access to extramarital sexual relations provided by prostitutes. The sexual exploitation of slaves—as concubines, domestic servants, or prostitutes—was pivotal to the transmutation of cultural into reproductive success. In turn, widespread availability of these slaves, staggered depending on status, was guaranteed by successful imperialism.

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