When an army feeds its horses with grain, and kills its cattle for food, and when the men do not hang the cooking pots over the camp fire, you may know that they are determined to fight to the death. Sun  Tzu, The Art of War.

War. Possibly the Alpha and Omega of Human history. But what, as the Edwin Starr song asks, is it good for? The answer is, of course “Nothing!”  And yes, war does indeed suck most heinously. But war has always done things, had, in other words, a function, unpleasant as it may be to admit this, and tempting as it is to simply see it as stupid and destructive.

What I want to put out here, in brief, is the idea that war created states. The unintended consequence of this was that peace often ensued, often for long periods. There is a debate currently underway in the historiosphere about whether civilization–that is to say “state societies”– is more violent that hunter-gatherer society. The argument rests on the idea that states actually create the basis for peace, the state itself having a monopoly on violence. When war then happens among states, it is often cataclysmic, and thousands, or millions, are killed. But the peace that followed often lasted for decades.

This did not happen among hunter-gatherers. However, in hunter-gatherer societies war was also endemic, but looked very different. Violent conflict — if you don’t want to call it war–was frequent, maybe even constant. The death toll was small, but relative to population it was very significant. This constant trickle of death was a tit-for-tat status quo in which no killing went unpunished and we see echoes of it today with so-called Vendettas among “tribal” Mafias.

What does war do, then? Looking historically, its possible to see how struggles between states tended to create larger states, as one took over the other. Pointless and destructive as war was, it often resulted in long stretches of peace, such as the Pax Romana, created by Rome taking over all of its neighbors by the first century A.D, that is to say most of the first emperor, Augustus,’ reign.   Or the Pax Mongolica–again, created by the Mongols dastardly rampages initiated by Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century, which created the largest contiguous empire in history, in addition to the largest free-trade zone.

Perhaps the poster child in the argument is Warring States China (475-221 BCE). China itself is the largest and longest-lived state in the world. First unified under the Qin, from which China derived its name, the geographical region it encompassed had until 221 BCE been ruled by multiple warring states. This process of war whittled the number of states down to one, from seven.

Before this archeologists estimate that China in the second millennium BCE had thousands of polities.  Only one process drove this “unification” from many polities to one China: War.  This is why both the written records (books like Sun Tzu’s the Art of War, and the books of the Han court historian Sima Qiam), and the archeological record are all about war.

War historian Azar Gat talks of the constancy of war in the Shang Dynasty (c.1500 BCE): “Waged against rebellious vassals, other states that were emerging the Shang’s periphery, and tribal neighbors, warfare was a constant state occupation.”

Not much had changed a few hundred years later under the Zhou: Says Francis Fukuyama in his Origins of Political Order:  “War was without question the single most important driver of state formation during China’s Eastern Zhou Dynasty.”

The process of “state formation” continued after the Zhou, through the “Spring and Autumn Period,” (770-475 BCE). Over some 300 years there were only an estimated 38 years of peace. Over 1000 separate wars were fought in this period.  If subsequent years saw fewer wars it was only because there were fewer adversaries to fight them.  However, if the frequency of wars declined, their intensity increased: One historian reported that 245,000 soldiers died in one day in 293 BCE, and 450,000 in 260.

Such incredible war mongering required money, lots of it, and this meant…taxes. Bureaucracy in other words was a direct creation of warfare.

So go the written sources. Exhibit A on the archeological front, however, would probably be the Terra Cotta Army, approximately 8000 life size clay soldiers, long with chariots and horses, buried with Shi Huangdi, the Qin’s first emperor.   The dead were believed to need the things they needed in this life, and an army was top of the list.

Once China had been unified (by war) it became surprisingly peaceful. Subsequent to defeating its last enemies, the Qin dynasty dismantled its last fortification, confiscated all weapons in the empire–except those of its own army–and cast them into a series of giant statues, erected across the empire (none of them remaining today, sadly).

What happened next is what always happens: A unified state means the focus of war turns towards other states.

Thus, in China at least, the story of state creation.


II. Egypt

War is the father of all, king of all. Some it makes gods, some it makes men, some slaves, some free. Heraclitus.


The Narmer Palette is carved from a single piece of schist dated to around 3200 BCE. It tells the tale, in picture and hieroglyph, of the military conquest by King Narmer of Lower Egypt.

On one side of the Palette a man stands, legs apart, with a mace above his head in one hand. His other hand holds the hair of a kneeling captive. The kneeling man’s name is inscribed above his head indicating he is somebody. His captor is therefore more powerful.

On the reverse side is Narmer, again.  He is barefoot, indicating he is on sacred ground. He stands next to 10 decapitated bodies, their heads placed between their legs.

While it is possible that Upper and Lower Egypt came together peacefully, the evidence contradicts this idea.

In the 1970s the sociologist Robert Carneiro wrote about how polities made war in what he called a “push” scenario.  In such scenarios, unwilling participants were forced to join or die.  “Given the universal disinclination of human groups to relinquish their sovereignty, the surmounting of village authority could not have occurred peacefully or voluntarily. It could–and did–occur by force of arms.”

Anthropologist Elman Service offered a rebuttal to Carneiro. He suggested that some polities did indeed fold their sovereignty into another’s for mutual benefit.  But apart from big exceptions like the EU–which came after two world wars–there seems to be less evidence for the Service model. The reality seems to be that unity has usually followed the Narmer path.

The Narmer Palette is not considered an historical document, more a mythological or propagandist one. However, the unification almost certainly occurred under conditions of violence–war–as is so often the case when polities consolidate.

What were the consequences to Egypt? First of all, the country’s boundaries remained essentially unchanged until the present. The Old Kingdom alone lasted a millennium (3100-2100 BCE), and was surprisingly peaceful.  Forty administrative districts (nomes) preserved the outlines of the former chiefdoms conquered to create the state. To be fair, Egypt’s geography is somewhat unique, isolated as it is by desert to the South and West and by sea to the North and East.  Other cultural, economic and social consolidations followed unification, which bound the state together, as historian Azar Gat describes: “Once unified, internal peace was maintained diverse religious traditions were no doubt standardized and incorporated. A state language was imposed. Royal administration, taxation, economy, justice, and military systems were set up and monumental state construction, etc., evolved rapidly.” This reads almost exactly like the script of Reg’s meeting in the Life of Brian, source of the famous question, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

War, in other words, created the cultural and economic entity we know as Ancient Egypt, out of a multiplicity of competitive and smaller chiefdoms–as in ancient China. Once created, the entity endured. What would have been the fate of all those polities and people inside them, in the absence of a unification event?


III.  Ancient Greece


Greece presents a somewhat different picture from ancient China or Egypt. For its Archaic and Ancient periods (by the second century BCE most of Mainland Greece had become a province of Rome) Greece was divided into warring city-states.

Perhaps no better illustration of this exists than the Illiad. One of the very first poems–or narratives–in human history, and one of a handful of foundational texts in Western Civilization, Homer’s Poem is above all a war story.

Ultimately Homer’s world is largely unknowable, his words (if he was even one individual, and not a compilation of traditional stories) were passed down orally, from prehistory, that murkiness that existed before writing.

However we do know certain things about it–mostly from archeology. The story of the Archaic Period of Greek civilization (c.3000-1200 BCE) is discernible in the ruins of Minoan culture, at Knossos, on the island of Crete and on the mainland at Mycenae.

By around 1450 BCE the Mycenaeans had taken over operations at Knossos, and from here they traded throughout the Mediterranean. Their military adventures in Asia Minor probably form the raw materials of Homer’s literary career, in particular the siege of Troy. The rich archeological record from this period gives us a picture of a society of overwhelmingly military specialists. Graves have more weapons than a gangster’s shoe locker. The skeletons therein show multiple wounds, many healed, suggesting that their bodies experienced long fighting careers.  Among the weapons were multiple double-edged swords–the double edge makes it less likely that they were used to peel vegetables or whittle wood.

But for  all its prevalence, the warfare they engaged in was probably that of the small-scale raid, the tit-for-tat attack of neighbors and former trading partners.

It is no surprise that warfare was largely responsible for the creation of city states.  Such polities  always appeared in the absence of a larger state (see Mesopotamia, or Mesoamerica) and probably in order to defend themselves from each other. There were over 1000 such city states in Ancient Greece, over 30 in Mesopotamia, and dozens in the Valley of Mexico in the Classic Mayan period.  As anthropologist Robin Wright puts it: “If two nearby societies are in contact for any length of time, they will either trade or fight.”  Both happened in extremes in Greece, and this led to certain developments. One was the building of cities with walls. Big walls. These were not built to keep people in. Just as Donald Trump wants to build his to keep people out, the Greeks needed masonry to dissuade would-be invaders. Thus one major purpose of cities.

The trade which went hand in hand with raid led to Greeks spreading their ideas and culture far and wide. But it was ultimately the military and administrative legacy of Alexander the Great which spread Hellenistic culture as far as India.  Alexander founded dozens of cities and named them after himself (the most famous of course being Alexandria in Egypt). Alexander died in 323 BCE.

But before and apart from Alexander’s war-related legacy, we should consider the case of Athens, and in particular its naval history. The classicist John R. Hale argues that it was the Athenians’ creation and operation of a world-class navy which ultimately constructed and underpinned its democracy.  The pressures of competition–war to you and me–persuaded them to build a navy and staff it with citizens–crew vested, in other words, in the interests of the state most directly.

Athens had long had silver mines at Laurion, south of the city. These had been in production for generations, on a small scale. But in 483 BCE they hit a massive vein. Thermistokles argued against divvying it up among the citizens, and instead he proposed the building of a large navy. Not just any navy, however. The Athenians innovated in ship design, adding a massive bronze-encased battering ram on the bow of their triremes, thus turning the ship itself into a weapon (heretofore ships had come alongside each other and duked it out in hand-to-hand combat).

When the Persians invaded Greece in 480, as Thermistokles knew they would, they initially defeated the Greeks at Thermopylae (under Sparta’s King Leonidas–you’ve seen the movie…) Then the Persian navy, large, unwieldy and disunited, was drawn into the straits of Salamis, where the smaller Greek fleet destroyed it.

This is a much larger discussion of course, but for our purposes here, suffice it to say that the defeat of the Persians at the hands of the Athenian navy led to a golden era for Athens, in which naval supremacy, far-flung trade and democratic revolution went hand in hand.

While the basis for Athens’ democracy had been laid before the events of the Persian war, largely by the reforms of Cliesthenes (d.492 BCE) the pressures of external invasion created further impetus for democratic revolution in Athens, one could argue. Ultimately, however, Athens suffered from what many scholars considered imperial overreach in the years following the Persian defeat. The Greek penchant for in-fighting led to the Peloponnesian Wars (461-404 BCE) which left Sparta on top, until it was beset by new hostile alliances.

To what end, all this fighting amongst Greeks? The Greeks talked about pleonexia (“wanting more”), a kind of Hobbesian drive to aquire–land, women, booty–not unlike the Vikings.  As cities grew, the rivalries that were formerly expressed by small raids, took on larger proportions and wars became quests for total annihilation,affecting the honor of entire cities, not just aristocratic warlords.

But in keeping with our series on War–see previous posts–we should ask how did warfare create larger polities, as it did in Mesopotamia and China? The Greek profile is more similar to that of the Maya, where larger polities had trouble developing. The difference here is largely one of geography. While the Maya had thick impassable jungle, and limited navigable rivers to contend with, the Greeks lived in areas best traveled by sea, the mountains rendering terrestrial travel difficult. That is why Athens developed a large and far-flung naval empire, until Alexander reached mainland Asia Minor and was able to use the lay of the contiguous land to extend his rule almost endlessly and create the Hellenistic world. Ultimately, then, war in Ancient Greece did not created a larger state as it did in our other places of interest. But it did create highly-articulated city states and in this petrie dishes of social experimentation, internal strife was reduced, while, just as in larger states, violence was projected outward.




About the Author
Adrian Cole studied Arabic at Exeter University in the UK, Alexandria, Egypt and Harvard University. He is now a freelance writer, living on an island in Casco Bay, Maine, with his wife and children. His book The Thinking Past was published by Oxford University Press in 2014.
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