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Prologue

Oxford Handbooks Online

Prologue
Peter Fibiger Bang and Walter Scheidel
The Oxford Handbook of the State in the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean
Edited by Peter Fibiger Bang and Walter Scheidel

Print Publication Date: Feb 2013 Subject: Classical Studies, Greek and Roman Law, Social and
Economic History
Online Publication Date: Jan DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195188318.013.0001
2013

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter discusses the theme of this book, which is about the history of state formation in ancient
North Africa and western Eurasia. The book aims to bridge the disciplinary gap between the study of the ancient
Near East and the study of the ancient Mediterranean, exploring various factors that influenced state formation,
including ideologies, political power, cooperation, exploitation, and military power. The areas covered in this study
include Egypt, the Mesopotamian Empires, and the Anatolian States.

Keywords: state formation, ancient North Africa, ancient western Eurasia, ancient Near East, ancient Mediterranean, ideologies, political power,
exploitation, military power, cooperation

A handbook of the ancient state is the result of multiple demarcations, which require explanation. One
demarcation is in time. Our case studies begin with the earliest documented states in the Fertile Crescent. These
beginnings are inevitably obscure, and we have to allow for the possibility that the very first states may not be
known as such: What were conditions in the Nile Valley prior to the First Dynasty, and were the Sumerian city-
states of the third millennium BCE preceded by forerunners in the Levant, or by a territorial state centered on Uruk,
or by polities in nearby Khuzestan? In the absence of written records, these questions are difficult to answer with
certainty. Our endpoint is the period of transition of the fifth through eighth centuries CE, marked by the fading of
Roman and Iranian empire and the formation of Arabic and Germanic successor states. This is merely a
conventional boundary, chosen for pragmatic reasons: a more natural one, between premodern states and the
modern nation-states and their colonial empires, would have led to a very different project, and certainly to more
than one volume.

A second set of limits is imposed in space. Our project deals with the ancient states of western Eurasia and
northern Africa. This ecumene was firmly bounded by the ocean to the west and quite clearly, for our present
purposes, by stateless peripheries to the north and south. By contrast, Eurasian geography provides no similarly
convenient boundary to the east. We focus on the region that gradually came to be encompassed by a single
political-military network, a system of states that interacted regularly in a variety ways far beyond the more
ephemeral exchange of prestige goods and information that was feasible across much longer distances. Political
and military contacts between the states of the Near East and the Mediterranean and regions farther east were not
completely absent but generally remained rare: Achaemenid expansion into the Indus Valley and Alexanders (p.
4) campaign and its consequences are the main exceptions. Our geographical boundaries are at their murkiest in
Central Asia, and our selection is in the first instance governed by a desire to avoid a chain reaction. If we had
included the Kushana, coverage would have had to be extended into the Indian subcontinent; and in that case,
only a few other states would have been rather awkwardly excluded from an otherwise fairly pan-Afroeurasian
survey. Faced with a stark choice between confining ourselves to the state system of the Fertile Crescent, with its
growing Iranian and Mediterranean extensions, and covering all of Afroeurasia, constraints of space favor the more

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Prologue

limited version. A companion volume on much of Asia is therefore a desideratum.

Our third kind of demarcation concerns the level of resolution. This volume is not intended as an encyclopedic
compendium of all states that are known to have existed in the area and period under review. The quality of the
historical record is the key criterion: While we are aware of Elam and Urartu, of Phrygia and Lydia, of Armenia and
the Bosporan Kingdom, or of Meroe and Himyar, lines must be drawn. We also refrain from including entities whose
state-ness is uncertain, such as the Celtic polities of pre-Roman Gaul.

These demarcations leave us with eighteen historical chapters, many of them devoted to several states or to a
particular type of state, some to a single case, and a few covering different phases of the same system (Rome).
These surveys are not only meant to provide important information but also to support cross-cultural and
comparative perspectives. In order to ensure the consistency required for this purpose, emphasis is put on a
series of key issues: the political system; the organization of military power; mechanisms of cooperation, coercion,
and resource extraction; means of arbitration and rule enforcement; economic activities; belief systems; systems
of communication and representation; state identity; and the end or transformations of these states. At the same
time, the uneven quality of the evidence and diverse scholarly preferences necessitate a measure of flexibility that
serves to enrich the resulting accounts.

Our main objectives are to bridge the disciplinary gap between the study of the ancient Near East and the study of
the ancient Mediterranean, and to provide a resource that is accessible, useful, and of interest not only to students
and specialists of ancient history but also to historians of other periods as well as anthropologists, historical
sociologists, and political scientists. To further these goals, we include an introductory chapter that seeks to
convey a sense of the wide range of approaches to the study of the early state and not least to relate these to the
discourse on state formation in general that has developed in the last decades. This latter literature has to a very
large extent been dominated by what we might term the European experience, from the Middle Ages onward. With
this volume, we hope to widen the analytical horizon and call attention to the preceding ancient experience of
several millennia of state formation and its potential for refining and nuancing the existing body of theory in the
field.

Peter Fibiger Bang


Peter Fibiger Bang is Associate Professor of History at the University of Copenhagen. He works on the comparative economic history
and political economy of early empires.

Walter Scheidel
Walter Scheidel, Dickason Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University.

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE (www.oxfordhandbooks.com). (c) Oxford University Press, 2015. All Rights
Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford
Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).
Subscriber: Stanford University; date: 12 October 2015