As often happens when my family sits down for a dinnertime meal, my 12-year-old, highly intelligent daughter, asks deep and profound questions that potentially stop my husband and I in our tracks. The other night was no different… the question revolved around methods of governing, economics and ultimately what exactly do the democratic and republican parties stand for? She specifically asked about communism, socialism, democracy, and capitalism. While we answered her questions it got me to thinking, especially in light of the upcoming elections, what did politics in ancient times look like? Politics in ancient times was simply defined as the art of government. However, in our modern times, politics encompasses all activities associated with the governance of a country or region.
All ancient governments were, at their core, intricately intertwined with religion. When combined with government, religion brought stability to society and country. Kings and Pharaohs were often viewed as the heads of both government and religion, with the rulers being revered alongside the divine. This sentiment would scare most of us today… the head of our government being viewed as a divine individual. As the earliest civilization developed in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia, our quest to understand ancient politics begins there.
In ancient Mesopotamia we see not only the beginnings of civilization but also government. There was no centralized government in the region. Initially, before city-states were established in the region, simple farming villages existed. In the villages, the gods were of highest importance and played a vital role in their wellbeing and safety. Naturally, the concept and role of the priest began to develop. As the villages grew the priests helped to mediate with the gods, determined the will of the gods, and guided the villages in how to appease the gods to insure stability. The priestly role naturally expanded to include politics and governing. As larger city-states were established, priests needed secular help and the rise of the dynastic king occurred. Eventually as the civilization evolved, the king also became the high priest and not only had secular governing responsibilities but also religious ones. Politics was now intimately intertwined with religion, as the king had a direct relationship with the gods and temples. Although not a true democracy, democratic elements were present and began to appear as kings relied on assemblies of men to govern. The assemblies and kings created laws to keep a peaceful and stable society. Kings in Mesopotamia generally ruled over a single city-state rather than an entire empire. The ideals of kingship were developed during this time period, with kings being viewed as shepherds to his people, a wise judge, and an all-powerful warrior. Politics in ancient Mesopotamia also included dynastic succession with sons following their fathers as rulers. One of the most famous rulers was King Hammurabi of Babylon. Hammurabi recognized that without law, governments would fail. He developed an extensive law code, known today as Hammurabi’s Law Code, which became the forerunner for most of our modern legal systems. His system of law focused on the punishment fitting the crime and is where we get the concept of “an eye for an eye.”
In ancient Egypt, politics and governing was based upon a theocratic monarchy with the Pharaoh as the central figurehead. Politics was based upon the Pharaoh’s ability to rule, which was mandated by the gods. Initially, the Pharaoh was viewed as an intermediary between the divine and humanity. However, as time went on this would change. The Pharaoh’s reign moved from being mandated by the divine to being representative of the divine. He represented the gods and their will through policy and law. As often happens in ancient cultures, eventually Pharaoh himself was elevated to divine status. The Pharaoh was compared to Horus and in many monumental inscriptions becomes unified with the god Horus during his reign.
In the Levant(modern day Jordan, Israel and a touch of Lebanon and Syria), people believed their monarchies were instituted by their gods. Politics centered around the monarch and succession was not through election but rather through dynastic blood lines. Some regions in the Levant developed political systems where kings were appointed through public acclaim. An example of this is King David. David, the enthroned King of Israel, was selected by God, successors were from his bloodline, and yet, he also had to be affirmed by public proclamation. Critics of Israelite politics point out that David is only acceptable because he is chosen by the one true God, whereas everyone else’s rulers were chosen by false gods.
Finally, even though there are many other types of politics in between, I will end with Ancient Greece, as they gave us the roots of many of our modern systems of government. Politics and the chosen means of governing differed across city-states, but their greatest gift to the world was democracy. There existed four common systems of governing. The first of course was democracy where rule is by the people with one small caveat: the people were defined as male citizens ONLY. The second was monarchy where rule occurred through an individual who has inherited the role. A rare and most famous example/exception of this is found in Macedonia where the ruler actually shared power with an assembly. The third form of government was an oligarchy with rule occurring through a select group of individuals. Oligarchy was a fairly common form of governing when democracy went awry, and political maneuvering was out of control. The final form was tyranny. This occurs when rule is by an individual who has seized power by unconstitutional means (i.e. force in many instances). This could go either way for the people, with a tyrant ruler choosing to be fair and benevolent or the tyrant could be mean and cruel. Syracuse in Sicily is a perfect example of tyranny. Dionysios and Dionysios II, successive rulers, were often viewed as fair and not evil but rather they put their self-interests above those of others. While democracy was the most common form, critics such as Thucydides and Aristophanes felt the people could easily be swayed by a good orator or demagogue (popular leader) to make informed political decisions on who should rule. Issues of governing and politics were often handled by an assembly. In Athens, an even smaller body known as the Boulé would prioritize and determine what issues went before the assembly. Essentially, those few would determine the course for all. However, the assembly could be challenged by the court system. In Sparta, a council of elders known as the Gerousia, ruled alongside of the king. Ironically, Sparta had 2 kings during several time periods, with the Gerousia attempting to balance between both. Additionally, the Greeks believed that quintessential to good politics were term limits, and prohibition of re-election. Both items we could use today. As a reminder, one vote does make a difference! Please vote on November 3!