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The Narmer Palette is not considered an historical document, more a mythological or propagandist one.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?


Up Next: Ancient Greece and the problem of War.

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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