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Empires to Nation-States

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Framing the Issues

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How Did Kings Obtain the Right to Rule Over Their Subjects?

The rise of states and empires poses questions fundamental to social order: why should a king rule over his subjects, and why might they submit to his rule? Ancient Middle Eastern states and empires had varied “ideological strategies” that addressed these questions.

Even the first kings were seen to have a relationship with the world of the gods that set them apart from ordinary people. Egyptians considered kingship to be divine. Mesopotamian kings were, for the most part, considered to be selected by and ruling on behalf of the gods, although a few Mesopotamian kings did attempt to claim divinity. The first kings found it necessary to claim divine authority in order to establish their right to govern.

Other issues arose with the conquests of empires, when conquered groups were forced to submit to foreign rule. Empires developed varied ideological strategies in an attempt to justify these new political arrangements.

One problem was justifying conquest. Most often, rulers suggested that they had been provoked by rebellion, by failure to pay tribute, or by threat to the empire.

Another political problem was convincing people who had been incorporated into the empire that they should not rebel. Political ideology of the Assyrian empire, presented in text and most graphically in the huge carved stone reliefs that lined the walls of the palaces, emphasized the might of the Assyrian army and the threat of torture, death, and deportation that awaited any resistance or rebellion. By contrast, the Persian empire’s major sculptural program at Persepolis depicted representatives from all parts of the empire bringing gifts to the Persian king. Rather than military power, Persian imperial ideology emphasized the benefits of empire. It is certainly not the case that Assyrians were inherently bloodthirsty and Persians never engaged in warfare. Rather, they used different ideological strategies in an attempt to convince their subjects not to rebel.

Supporting Links:

Allen, Susan. “Kings and Queens of Egypt.” Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 7, 2010).

“Symposium: Religion and Power: Divine Kingship in the Ancient World and Beyond.” The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 7, 2010).

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