Sometime in the mid-seventh century BCE, a new king of the Assyrian Empire, Ashurbanipal, ascended to the throne. In celebrating this absolute ruler of an empire well-known for its brutality, Ashubanipal’s Coronation Hymn called for justice and harmony for commoners and elites alike: “May the Lesser speak and the Greater listen! May the Greater speak and the Lesser listen! May concord and peace be established in Assyria!”
A few centuries later, in 416 BCE, the Athenians, well-known for founding the most radical democratic government known to that date in recorded history, subjugated the small island nation of Melos in the Aegean Sea with this cold, hard logic: “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they must.”
Power is organized and manifested in myriad ways in human history: sociologist Michael Mann, in a four-volume study beginning in 1986 entitled The Sources of Social Power, articulated four major sources of social power: ideological, economic, military, and political. These sources of power operated in intricate and overlapping networks concentrated and dispersed throughout any given society. As human groups scaled up in complexity, these power networks became increasingly organized, developing into the world’s first state-level societies by the late fourth millennium BCE in the Fertile Crescent. The first empires followed in the third and second millennia in this region, and even bigger empires arose in the Mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds in the first millennia BCE and CE. Throughout this long history, cities and city-states – at times fiercely independent, at other times banded together into larger leagues and even empires themselves – played no small part in the configuration of these power networks.
How did cities, states, and empires in these regions organize and make use of these various forms of power, and how do we study these power networks? How and why could Ashurbanipal, an autocratic ruler, publicly celebrate justice for all people, noble and poor, while the egalitarian-minded Athenians could so ruthlessly subjugate a fellow independent city-state? Is there a logic to human power, and by extension to states and empires, that we can uncover through analyzing long-term history?
Rationale for the Course:
In this course, we are studying some of the oldest states and empires in human history through their literary and material culture. Building off of a foundation in anthropological and sociological theories of power, state, and empire formation, students have the opportunity to practice working with a variety of primary sources and to experiment in applying theory to data to articulate the workings of power in human history.
Furthermore, in tandem with developing more traditional academic skills in analysis, research, and discussion, students are also practicing working with a variety of digital and multimedia tools and writing styles to present their work to broad audiences. This website is a testament to their hard work and research. Moreover, this exploration of power is meant not only to augment our knowledge of past societies, but to make sense of our current experiences with power in a world that is changing more quickly than our notions of it. After all, as Ian Morris stated in his book, Why the West Rules. . . For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future: “wherever we look people – in large groups – are all very much the same.” (p. 559 and passim)
Some of the books we will be using (click slider to peruse):