Article by Dennis O’Neil, Palomar College 2004-2006
State level political systems first appeared in societies with large-scale intensive agriculture. They began as chiefdoms and then evolved into more centralized, authoritarian kingdoms when their populations grew into tens of thousands of people. While chiefdoms are societies in which everyone is ranked relative to the chief, states are socially stratified into largely distinct classes in terms of wealth, power, and prestige.
Around 5,500 years ago, the early kingdoms of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia (now Iraq) developed such state levels of political integration. Shortly thereafter, states evolved in the Indian subcontinent and China. By 4,500 years ago, states were developing in Mesoamerica and the central Andean mountain region of western South America. The early states in these six regions became the well known ancient civilizations.
While these six centers of early civilization had major cultural and historical differences, they created remarkably similar political solutions for dealing with the problems of feeding and controlling large complex societies. These new political systems had a pyramid of authority with a small hereditary elite class at the top headed by a king and royal family. At the bottom were the commoners who were the bulk of society. They were mostly the food producing farmers upon whom the entire society ultimately depended. In between was a small middle class consisting of two groups. First, there were professional craftsmen and traders who mainly produced or acquired luxury items for the elite. Second, there were professional bureaucrats who administered the state religion and government on a daily basis.
As independent kingdoms within each of the geographic regions of the ancient civilization competed for land, water, and other important resources, warfare became more frequent and larger in scale. Professional armies were created along with more efficient weapons. In the Old World, these included horse drawn chariots, war ships, and metal swords, arrow, and spear tips. The consequence of these wars of conquest was powerful kingdoms destroying and annexing weaker ones. Eventually the victors ruled enormous multi-city, multi-cultural, and multi-language empires with millions of people living over vast areas. These super-states required even more centralization of authority and larger permanent armies.
All of the ancient civilizations were preindustrial agricultural societies with the majority of their populations living in hamlets and small villages. Most of these essentially rural societies only had one or a few small cities of about 5,000-50,000 people. These urban areas were primarily centers for the elite ruling class along with the state government bureaucracy and the majority of the fulltime craft specialists and traders who worked for them. In addition, cities were the locations of major temples of the state religions. At the top of the religious, political, and military hierarchies were key members of the ruling elite. There was not the separation of church and state that is characteristic of the U. S. and many other large nation states today. For instance, a prince could serve as an army general, a province governor, and a head priest at the same time. This was not viewed as a conflict of interest.
Ancient states were far from being egalitarian. There were a few rich, politically powerful people and many more comparatively poor commoners who had little political influence and almost no possibility of acquiring it. As single-city kingdoms became multi-city empires with vast territories, the political systems generally became more rigid. Not uncommonly, the ruler became a god-king with absolute authority. The Pharaohs of Egypt are a prime example of this. They were thought to be not just mortals but god-kings. As living gods, their authority was absolute.
Most ancient states had slavery. The conquest of competitor states usually provided most of them. Slaves were not always at the bottom of the pyramid of power in these societies. In Egypt and Mesopotamia, women slaves were often integrated into the households of wealthy, powerful men as servants and concubines. Slave children fathered by their owner sometimes acquired freedom and far higher status, wealth, and power than that of commoners.