Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

The Earliest Cities Were Independent States

The earliest cities were probably independent political units of the kind the Greeks called a polis, which we awkwardly translate as “city-state.” Although this kind of polity nourished for thousands of years and gave the world many of its most creative minds, it has now almost wholly vanished.

The polis ruled enough land around it to feed its folk and, whether republic or monarchy, ran its affairs as an independent nation. Every native dweller regarded himself as a citizen of Larsa, or Tyre, or Athens, or Rome as the case might be and looked upon everyone else as a foreigner. He would fight like a fiend to defend his city but would seldom join forces with the people of another polis for defense against a common foe. Since groups of city-states were always divided among themselves by murderous hatreds, a strong outsider was likely to conquer them sooner or later, one by one.

The first cities were organized along the same lines as the peasant societies whence they had sprung. People were grouped into families, clans, and tribes, and each tribe had its own section of the city. Usually the city had a king, who might be a high priest who left the fighting to someone else or who might be a general who left religion to someone else. Or he might combine the military and religious functions.

Power shifted back and forth among the leading groups: the king and his supporters; the senate, a gathering of the heads of the richest families; the priesthood; and the assembly, a gathering of all the armed men. Poor men, women, and slaves, having neither wealth, supernatural powers, nor armed might, did not count for much. Sometimes the senate got rid of the king, or at least reduced him to purely ritual functions, and ran the resulting “republic” to suit itself.

Government was rather loose and informal. No ruler could afford to be very tyrannical, because it was too easy for his subjects to flee to a neighboring polis. The earliest kings dressed and lived much like their subjects. A visitor to a small polis was not surprised to find His Majesty thatching or painting his own palace, while the queen wove him a royal robe on her own loom and screamed at the royal children when they got out of hand.

When a polis grew large and powerful, its government usually became more autocratic and centralized. Then the king might set out to conquer his neighbors. In Iraq, for nearly 2,000 years, one ambitious king after another founded a short-lived empire. Such conquerors had an advantage peculiar to Iraq, which is mostly semi-desert and needs irrigation to flourish.

In early Sumerian times, irrigation was on a small scale; each polis dug its own canals regardless of what its neighbor was doing. When kings conquered large empires, however, they put all the canals under one management, because this was more efficient and enabled the land to support more people. This larger taxable population furnished the king with additional wealth and power and made it easier for him to extend his conquests still further. Since circumstances favored large-scale organization, as fast as one of these watershed empires fell, another arose in its place.

Great Cities of the Ancient World, Chapter 1

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