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States evolved to organize large numbers of people in common endeavors. The first rulers claimed authority from the gods that people worshiped and established armies to defend their territories. As the principal units of civilization, states built cities and roads, established markets and monetary systems, conquered new lands, and waged war, all in the name of self-preservation and protecting their people.
Almost everywhere, people pay taxes and obey laws enforced by separate sovereign states. But during most of the time humans have walked the Earth states did not exist. For thousands of years, small bands of hunters and gatherers as well as the earliest food producers lived without rulers, without officials, without rents and taxes, and without the protection, costs, and services that states brought to later generations.
States arose with cities; their great advantage was that states could organize common effort among large numbers of people. This allowed states to expand their boundaries at the expense of less well-organized neighbors, until, today, only a few isolated, stateless peoples survive in places such as the interior of New Guinea, in the Amazon and Southeast Asian rainforests, and in African deserts.
Not much is known about how states began. Written records that allow historians to find out about the past were invented to keep track of tax payments, and only by degrees was writing used for other purposes. We do know that in the land of Sumer in southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), where the first cities appeared about 3500 BCE, priests were the first rulers. They claimed to serve and communicate with the gods who, they believed, controlled weather, harvests, and all other aspects of the natural and human environment. Persuading common people to secure divine protection for their harvests by giving part of their crop to the gods perhaps seemed a prudent form of insurance against disaster. But in practice it meant handing over grain, wool, and other valued goods to priests, the gods’ servants, as a tax. They used some of their tax income to feed workers who built monumental temples to house the gods and busied themselves keeping the gods happy by offering them food, drink, and every other comfort they could think of. Part of the taxes also went for the priests’ own support and for the support of those who collected grain from everyone else and kept tax records. Priests also used extra food to support male and female artisans who manufactured fine woolen cloth to clothe the gods’ images, and they traded extra cloth far and wide with outsiders, who in return supplied the temples with a great variety of precious goods for use in temple rituals.
By seeking to satisfy the gods so energetically, the priests of Sumer mobilized large-scale common effort across long distances and among different peoples. New skills multiplied, so did new ideas of how to please the gods, and soon the wealth and splendor of Sumerian temples and cities surpassed anything others could match. But conspicuous wealth quickly attracted armed raiders from afar, so priests soon began to need trained warriors, equipped with metal weapons and armor, to repel attacks successfully.
An Uneasy Alliance
After 3000 BCE, constructing massive city walls rivaled temple construction; warriors soon clashed with priests when it came to deciding what needed to be done to keep everything safe and secure. Warfare intensified over time. Sumerian cities started to form rival alliances and fight one another. By the time of Sargon of Akkad (c. 2360–2305 BCE), the first conqueror on an imperial scale, warriors had attained primacy in affairs of state, though to make their power secure, military rulers still needed priests to assure divine help. Accordingly, an uneasy alliance between soldiers and priests became characteristic of subsequent centuries of Mesopotamian statecraft and pervaded most of subsequent world history as well.
Imperial rulers had two persistent problems. One was to defend themselves against rivals to their authority, either unwilling subjects and/or neighboring states and peoples. The other was to choose capable officials to collect taxes, enforce laws, and obey instructions without arousing too much local resistance. Keeping reliable records, rewarding those who served them well, and getting rid of inefficient or disloyal subordinates was a full-time job for rulers and for the small number of high officials with whom the rulers discussed what ought to be done day after day. Collectively, rulers and the civilian and military subordinates who served them constituted an unstable array of separate rival states; and the unending tumult of domestic struggles and foreign wars that resulted constitute the backbone of traditional history.
For a long time, the mingling of military with priestly power that emerged in Mesopotamia by the time of Sargon of Akkad remained the civilized norm. To be sure, other early civilizations followed different paths toward imperial statehood, often combining military and divine authority in a single person from the start. Menes, the first Egyptian pharaoh, for example, claimed to be a living god as well as leading the army that united Egypt for the first time, and all his successors continued to claim to be gods. Likewise, Chinese emperors ruled by virtue of the Mandate of Heaven (divine justification for their rule) maintained by their personal participation in religious rituals, while they also commanded large armies, sometimes in person but more often through subordinate generals. Similarly, Japanese emperors claimed descent from the sun goddess as recently as 1945, even though through most of Japanese history local warrior chieftains and clan leaders governed Japan without much regard for reigning emperors’ wishes. In the Americas also, priestly authority seems to have been initially preeminent and then was subsequently challenged by military leaders in much the same fashion as in the Old World. But information from the Americas is very scant since readable texts are far fewer.
In some places—among Phoenicians on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea and in ancient Greece and parts of Italy, small city-states arose after about 800 BCE. They first were ruled by kings, but in many Greek cities and later in Rome, magistrates elected for a single year eventually displaced hereditary rulers. Thereafter, elected magistrates divided authority with popular assemblies of citizen-soldiers and councils of wealthier landowners in an unstable and ever-shifting fashion until the Roman Emperor Augustus united the shores of the Mediterranean into a single imperial state in 31 BCE.
The ancient Greek and Roman city-states remained exceptional inasmuch as they paid little attention to priesthoods and religion and relied on part-time citizen armies. But this departure from civilized norms changed when the Roman army became full time and professional (107 BCE) and priests gained far greater importance after the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and his successors made it the official religion of state (379 CE).
Islam reinforced the role of religion in affairs of state when the Prophet Muhammad introduced a new revelation of God’s will that claimed to correct and supersede both its Jewish and Christian predecessors. A long series of victories against the Roman and Persian empires in western Asia and throughout North Africa and Spain (634–732 CE) seemed to prove that the God Muslims, Jews, and Christians worshipped favored the Muslims. Nonetheless, Christianity survived, mainly in Europe. Missionaries spread it northward among Germanic and Slavic peoples—a process more or less completed when Lithuanian rulers accepted Roman Catholicism after 1378. Islam likewise continued to make converts on every front—northward among Turks, eastward into India and Southeast Asia, and in both eastern and western Africa. Until as late as 1669, Muslims also advanced into Europe after the Ottoman sultan Mohammed extinguished the last remnant of the Roman Empire by conquering Constantinople in 1453. Muslim- Christian rivalries still affect international affairs in our own time, and the hold of religion on human minds and feelings remains intense.
Until well after the year 1000, states everywhere were usually ruled by kings or emperors who spent most of their effort waging war and preparing to repel attacks. Enormous resources were directed toward building fortified castles and walled cities. The Romans and Chinese even tried to safeguard endangered frontiers by building walls scores and even hundreds of miles in length. Across the centuries, attack and defense alike required more and more elaborate methods and materials, and collecting enough metal and finding skilled artisans to make the best armor and weapons was always a matter of vital concern for rival states everywhere. Making more and more powerful weapons, and fortifying against them, was the most unstable aspect of technology throughout the civilized world; training soldiers to use those weapons efficiently was also important for achieving military success. The effort paid off in the sense that states spread their power over more and more of the inhabited world, even though danger from rival states remained just as great as before.
States built roads to speed marching armies on their way to battle that were also useful for commerce. They built specialized warships using pioneering new techniques in shipbuilding. Occasionally, states also sought to appease the populace of capital cities by organizing grain shipments to assure food supplies and arranging chariot races and other ceremonies for popular entertainment. But state-managed welfare services for the poor and ill—so important today— were unusual. Religious institutions did something to fill the gap, but private families and charitable neighbors were mainly responsible for whatever help needy persons received.
Money and Trade
From the start, military predominance in matters of state was affected by the persistent problem of how to gather enough raw materials and skilled artisans to make the weapons they needed. Metallic ores in particular often had to be mined and refined in remote locations and then carried to cities where artisans turned them into weapons. Rulers and soldiers could not manage this process in person. Instead they relied on traders and local suppliers, who worked for pay and profit. The invention of coined money about 550 BCE smoothed and accelerated the exchanges of goods and services involved in weapon making and enlarged the scope and reach of peaceable markets as well. In time, states found it convenient to collect taxes in cash instead of in kind, whereupon the money power exercised by bankers and merchants became great enough to affect even the mightiest of states.
Evidence of the power of money in state affairs showed up in the eastern Mediterranean coastlands and eastward to Iraq after Alexander of Macedon’s conquests (334–323 BCE) and toward the end of the Roman republic. Thereafter, market relations based on more or less voluntary buying and selling remained a powerful supplement and occasional rival to military and priestly command as a way of coordinating human labor among numerous and far-flung populations. Oddly enough, Christian monasteries and Buddhist monks played a conspicuous part in spreading habits of buying and selling more widely throughout Europe and Asia during the early middle ages when state-organized taxation diminished after the collapse of the Roman Empire and Han dynasty.
A decisive shift came after 960 CE when the Chinese government began to collect taxes in cash from ordinary peasants, compelling millions of persons in the course of the next century to find something to sell. They were able to do so since cheap and safe transportation along the rivers and canals of China made even small differences of price an effective stimulus for local, specialized production. Wealth increased, inventions proliferated, and Chinese goods and skills soon began to spread both overland across the steppes and by sea to India and the east coast of Africa. Even the remote Mediterranean became the seat of a general commercial revival when Italian merchants started to compete with Muslim traders.
As a result, enhanced money power presented states and rulers throughout Eurasia with new challenges. In China and the rest of Asia, bankers and merchants remained less powerful than military rulers and officials. But in some parts of Europe, merchants came to govern sovereign city-states, and, within those cities, market relations, sustained by a far-reaching system of water transport, met fewer obstacles than elsewhere. After 1346 the spread of gunpowder weapons— initially invented in China—made warfare more and more costly, and no single imperial state in Europe ever managed to monopolize the market for such weapons within its borders, as China did in Asia.
As a result, European kings and city-states soon found it necessary to pay money to soldiers and arms makers. When money ran short, especially in times of war, they often borrowed from bankers. Repayment was always difficult, but repudiating state debts meant higher costs next time, and states that cooperated best with bankers came to enjoy clear advantages in war. First Italy, then the Dutch, and, after 1650, the English pioneered the resulting commercialization of war in Europe, while competing European armies and navies sustained rapid and persistent technological changes that eventually gave them global superiority that became obvious by 1800.
Exploration and Conquest
World balances were deeply affected by the discovery, settlement, and exploitation of the Americas. After the first voyages to the New World, Spain, Portugal, France, and England swiftly established trans-Atlantic empires, and when imported diseases caused epidemic deaths among Amerindians, they transported millions of slaves from Africa to work on sugar plantations and perform other laborious and menial jobs. New, racially mixed populations in the Americas began to supply Europeans with silver, furs, fish, sugar, and other valued commodities, while the European imperial states fought naval wars and sent expeditionary forces to the Americas from time to time, shifting boundaries to and fro, especially in the tropical Caribbean.
After about 1750, three factors came into play that changed traditions of statecraft profoundly. One was large-scale application of inanimate forms of power— flowing water, then steam and electricity. This facilitated empire building by the industrialized nations of Europe throughout Africa and Asia so that by 1914 a handful of European states had seized control of most the Earth.
Second were political revolutions, beginning in 1776 in the Americas and then in western Europe, that engaged whole peoples in politics more actively than before. The resulting intensification of political mobilization also expanded around the Earth. As it did so, local peoples challenged and then displaced their European colonial masters so that, by the late twentieth century, the nations of Asia and Africa were again sovereign.
A third transformation was the radical expansion of state intervention in social and economic affairs. First came mass mobilizations inaugurated during the wars of the French Revolution, 1792–1815. Enormously enlarged armies required unprecedented quantities of supplies of every kind, transforming national economies more drastically then ever before.
Power and Protection
State officials expanded their reach by taking responsibility for the welfare of entire nations. Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of Germany, pioneered this breakthrough between 1883 and 1889 by introducing sickness and accident insurance and old age pensions to wean German working men away from Marxist socialism and assure their loyalty to the newly created German Empire. Other leading European countries followed suit by the time World War I ended in 1918. In 1917 Russian Communists came to power and asserted state control over all economic activity. Not long after, the United States responded to the Great Depression of 1929–1937 with social security legislation for old age and emergency relief projects to put the unemployed to work.
Ever since then public opinion in industrialized countries expected, indeed demanded, that governments intervene in more and more crisis situations— hurricanes, earthquakes, riots, wildfires, epidemics, financial crashes, and the like—to minimize losses and aid distressed populations. States that had once been ruthless tax collectors with little or no concern for the wishes and needs of the taxpayers found themselves claiming—and sometimes really trying—to protect everyone from everything that threatened them. Total success remained impossible, but organized state intervention in emergency situations often did reduce human suffering and save lives.
Yet, simultaneously, the creation of weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, chemical, and biological— equipped a few powerful states with the ability to launch attacks upon one another capable of destroying human life on a greater scale than ever before, and our encroachment on other forms of life, sustained by states and the economies that support them, threatens to upset the global ecosystem drastically, with unforeseeable consequences.
State power has not ceased to threaten as well as to protect humankind. The power to protect also gives states the power to destroy. As states use their sovereign power to protect themselves and their citizens, they remain capable of wholesale, perhaps even of global, destruction.
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