I wrote this paper for my history class last year and was thinking about it. It’s one of the academic papers I’m most proud of.
History shows that there are endless options for how to rule a body of people. From the Greek city-states’ democracies to the great empires of Rome and Egypt, it seems that every type of government has been tried – and most have failed. From a Western modernist’s perspective, it would be nice to believe that a democracy is the best form of government; a government in which each citizen has an equal voice promotes fairness and therefore peace. However, history has shown us that monarchs and emperors are able to provide a more rigid and straightforward rule for their citizens, lessening competition and confusion, and facilitating loyalty and consistency.
The original river valley civilizations in Mesopotamia were villages, some of which eventually came together to form bigger cities, like Uruk and Sumer.[i] Sumerians weren’t concerned with expansion, but were soon conquered by the Semites in 2331 BCE. Through the Semites, Mesopotamian culture was spread throughout the area known as the Fertile Crescent. The Semites, the people of the Akkadian empire, were led by Sargon, the world’s first emperor. Due to “geography and population” problems, the empire eventually declined, giving way to Babylon.[ii] The Babylonian empire eventually connected Mesopotamia to Syria, Palestine and the Mediterranean by establishing trade with these far-off civilizations. Hammurabi, a king of Babylon in the eighteenth century BCE, conquered Assyria, Sumer and Akkad in order to unify Mesopotamia. To strengthen his hold on the people of his kingdom, he designated Babylon as the religious center of the area by making the city’s patron god the king of all gods. Hammurabi also created the world’s first code of law. He claimed the right to do so through authority ordained by the gods, and asserted that he was “promoting the welfare of the people.”[iii] Hammurabi used his divine authority, military power, and a strict set of laws to expand his territory and to maintain control over it.
On the south side of the Mediterranean Sea, Egypt was developing a thriving society itself. Egypt was ruled by a pharaoh, a god-king who not only claimed divine right, but believed that he was a god incarnate. Therefore, to defy him was tantamount to disobeying a god. The pharaoh had no need of systematic law structure; instead he used the ma’at, a cosmic balance of morality and justice, to obtain the responsibility of governing.[iv] Through taxes and tariffs, the pharaoh worked to build his empire to be better than his predecessor’s. Egypt’s expansion started from within during the Old Kingdom, with pharaoh Narmer unifying the Upper and Lower Egypts. Typically Egypt exercised isolationism and wariness of foreigners; as a country surrounded by water it was easy to keep to itself.[v] By ignoring the world outside Egypt was able to focus on building up the empire it had at home. The New Kingdom, starting around 2180 BCE, was strong from this period of focused augmentation and prospered under the rule of a long dynasty of pharaohs. Now Egypt wanted to not only defend itself from foreign invaders, but also to conquer Palestine and Syria. This new Egypt sent officers to rule their conquered territories, and warriors came home with slaves to help build up the empire.[vi] Using military conquest and divine rule, pharaohs of the New Kingdom were able to spread their grasp up to? almost Mesopotamia, and to build a dominant kingdom next to the Nile River.
A couple of centuries later, the Minoans started to develop their civilization in Greece on Crete. According to McKay, little is known about the Minoan society other than that they were ruled by a king, and were relatively peaceful. Slowly but surely the Mycenaeans, or the original Greeks, made their way into Greece and eventually Crete, as groups under individual leadership.[vii] Before these people were unified, they were able to overpower the less-advanced natives, and eventually became kingdoms. The Mycenaean kingdoms spread out over the Aegean Sea, and the Minoans on Crete mysteriously died out.[viii] These early Greek kingdoms were ruled by “powerful chieftains” who made “all decisions of peace and war” and “could lead their followers into whatever dangers their whims might prompt them to.”[ix] These kings and kingdoms arbitrarily fought amongst themselves for the most inane of reasons, such as a goddess coming down and telling a prince he is entitled to another man’s wife, which happens in Homer’s The Iliad.[x] However, individually these city-states were formidable in their military strength and were able to equally match one another; together they would have been unstoppable. Nevertheless, strong though the Mycenaean kings may have been, separately these kingdoms were not enough to keep out foreign invaders, and this chaotic era gave way to the Greek Dark Age.[xi]
What had once been Mycenaean kingdoms evolved into city-states, or poleis, in Classical Greece.[xii] These city-states were democracies, where each citizen would vote on matters. The existence of these separate city-states facilitated egocentrism, as each city-state thought that it was better than the rest.[xiii] This inhibited the amalgamation of Greece into the powerful empire it could have been. The Greek Assembly itself inhibited any tyrants from coming to power through its annual ostracisms, where it would banish anyone thought to be a threat to the democracy.[xiv] Greece could have done well with a powerful leader to unite them and consolidate all of their resources into one body. Sparta, Athens and Thebes each continually tried to gain hegemony over the other city-states.[xv] The chaos of these haphazard and individual poleis attempting to self-govern in such proximity to others practically demands competition from them. Each city-state wanted to be the only one. But as Sparta only had an army and Athens a navy, neither was able to overpower the others. The poleis eventually came together during the Persian Wars, in order to keep from being totally taken over. Sparta and Athens were able to resist Xerxes and his army and keep their land, but that is a far cry from expansion.[xvi] Cahill claims that this democracy “worked,” but in reality it only worked in respect to enabling free thinking and new ideas. [xvii] As far as law and military, essentially self-preservation, are concerned, Greece’s methods fell short of “working.”
This became evident in 338 BCE, when Phillip II, the king of “quasi-Greek” kingdom Macedon, took control of Greece.[xviii] He was able to achieve this position easily; the Greeks invited him. Athens and Sparta essentially sat and watched as another Greek city-state seized and pillaged a sacred temple that was on their land. Thebes and other poleis called on the Macedonians to help, which Phillip II did with ease. A few years later, he fought and gained control of Greece, which fell easily to them as they could not put aside their own problems and work together. Under Phillip II’s command, the Greek city-states remained separate and were able to maintain their own customs and leaderships. [xix] Alexander the Great followed in his father’s footsteps as he conquered much of the Middle East and beyond. According to Cahill, Alexander was determined to “conquer the world” from the beginning. He started by demonstrating his power in Thebes, killing a large number of citizens of the city that rebelled against him.[xx] Like Phillip II, after taking over an area, he allowed the authority figures to stay in their positions and rule in the name of Greece. These Macedonian kings both surpassed their own titles and became emperors of much of the Mediterranean through military force and clever strategizing.
Perhaps the most legendary empire in Europe’s history is that of Rome. Rome started as a definite force of nature, with Romulus as the founder and first monarch, as story goes.[xxi] After using the Etruscans, who were already there, as a way of exposure to the outside world and support in development, these Romans drove the settlers out of the area, stating boldly from the start that they were a power to be reckoned with. Rome warred within Italy for many years, seeking alliances nearby in order to gain the manpower with which to expand. [xxii] After 390 BCE when Gaul invaded Rome, Rome knew it would not be threatened in the same way again. It took the opportunity to build up its military power, and to develop a mobile legion in order to be more flexible in battle. Using its new force, the empire began to spread out and established colonies in many other Latin cities. Much of the time Rome was willing to share full citizenship with the people in its conquered lands, or at least citizenship without the ability to vote. In addition, while still facing Roman taxes and military duties, these colonies were able to govern themselves as they pleased, for the most part. This kept the individual colonies placated, because not much changed for them other than acquiring the title of “Roman,” and they considered themselves to be allies with instead of victims of Rome’s rule. Another way in which Rome kept a firm grip on its power was the construction of roads connecting all the colonies to each other and to Rome itself. [xxiii] This enabled easy travel, and therefore an easy way to check up on problematic areas and diffuse any issues. Unfortunately, around 510 BCE, and with the help of Brutus the Liberator executing the king, these city-states developed into the Roman Republic.[xxiv]
The Republic was an innovative concept, and it would have been inspiring to other countries had it worked out in the long run. The structure of the Republic was the reason for various internal problems, like tension between the two classes, and the need to make up their law code as they went along, encountering situations they had not previously. The structure of the political system was disorganized and incredibly complex compared to the simple monarchies of the time. The Assemblies, consisting of white male citizens, voted on important matters, but the votes of the wealthy were worth more. The Senate was comprised of members of the wealthiest families to advise their superiors. Comitias were also open to all male citizens; the concilium was mostly lower-class. There was a Century Assembly and Tribal Assembly; and as if that wasn’t enough to keep track of, there were the consuls, two leaders elected to head all these bodies.[xxv] The consuls were responsible for conducting war, and as Rome was a war nation, if there was no war to be had, the consuls turned to conquest. Parenti states, “The Republic was also an empire,” in that it continued to seek expansion throughout Italy.[xxvi] Far-off Italians were considered citizens of Rome but were able to self-govern. Between the confusion of the governmental structure and the area over which Rome’s resources were spread, it is no surprise that the Republic could not sustain itself for long.
The fall of the Republic can be accredited in a large part to Julius Caesar, a consul in 59 BCE, and who led Rome’s conquest of Gaul.[xxvii] Before and during his rule, he utilized the tried and true tactic of allowing his conquered areas to self-govern, so he could keep Rome’s military forces at home instead of wasting their power controlling a people who were already controlling themselves. Caesar and Pompey’s relationship in the First Triumvirate pushed them to begin a civil war, both making bids for more power. As has been shown before, multiple leaders cannot coexist without one trying to eliminate the others and take over individually. Against Pompey, Caesar prevailed as victor, and by gradually ignoring the Senate’s influence, he took his place as the leader of Rome. Under his rule, Rome was able to set up many colonies and sent Romans to settle there.[xxviii]
Following Caesar was Augustus, his grandnephew whom he had named his heir. Augustus and Marc Antony divided Rome into two, each agreeing to rule half. Once again this delicate balance of power was sure to lose its stability, and Augustus overthrew Antony in 33 BCE.[xxix] Afterwards, Augustus was able to return to Rome and attempt to rebuild. He instated the pax Romana, a promise of peace.[xxx] Within a monarchy such an endeavor is simple: The emperor says peace, and there will be peace. For a Republic to do the same is far more complicated. There will always be someone who does not agree, and the peace proposition will have to sit through rounds of assemblies and councils before it is eventually discarded or forgotten. Following Augustus came a long line of leaders, including the “Five Good Emperors.” These emperors sustained peace in Rome and helped to turn it into a force determined to protect what it already had instead of constantly seeking more. These strong monarchs created a stable and diplomatic Rome that was never the case during the Republic.[xxxi] But then, no historian ever named anyone a “Good Consul.” The monarchy worked for Rome in that it protected the nobles’ best interest, and eliminated confusion and competition for power. Because of this the empire remained intact for the next four hundred years.[xxxii]
Throughout history, different civilizations have tried numerous forms of government. Oligarchies, monarchies, democracies – they are all apparent in Europe’s complex past. However, the societies that were able to prevail through? their struggles, and to move forward and overpower without fear of elimination, were monarchies. The simplicity and directness of a land ruled by just one person facilitates growth and solidarity. As pleasing and fair as a democracy or even a republic may sound, one needs only to check the facts to see that these forms of government were unclear, promoted internal unrest, and always eventually failed. In order to conquer the world, a single person must take charge. The other countries will be too busy debating and voting to do anything about it.
[i] The Epic of Gilgamesh.
[ii] John P. McKay et. al., Understanding Western Society: A Brief History (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012), 9-15.
[iii] McKay, 16.
[iv] McKay, 19-21.
[v] McKay, 18.
[vi] McKay, 24-26.
[vii] McKay, 56-57.
[viii] Thomas Cahill, Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter (Doubleday, 2003), 11.
[ix] Cahill, 48.
[x] Cahill, 18.
[xi] McKay, 56-57.
[xii] McKay, 59; Cahill, 116.
[xiii] Cahill, 116.
[xiv] Cahill, 119.
[xv] McKay, 81.
[xvi] McKay, 66.
[xvii] Cahill, 119.
[xviii] Cahill, 221.
[xix] McKay, 83.
[xx] Cahill, 221.
[xxi] Parenti, 45.
[xxii] McKay, 116.
[xxiii] McKay, 117.
[xxiv]Michael Parenti, The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome (New York: The New Press, 2003), 45.
[xxv] McKay, 119-120.
[xxvi] Parenti, 46.
[xxvii] Parenti, 120.
[xxviii] McKay, 133-134.
[xxix] McKay, 135.
[xxx] McKay, 140.
[xxxi] McKay, 149.
[xxxii] Parenti, 204.