Why Did States and Empires Develop?
Explaining why states and empires developed when and where they did has been a goal of archaeologists and historians for decades. While we have a range of answers, there is no scholarly consensus on a single explanation for these transformations.
One consistent theme has been the importance of great leaders, an explanation favored by the ancients themselves. Thus Narmer is represented as having unified Upper and Lower Egypt to form the first Egyptian state in about 3100 BCE, Sargon of Akkad is seen to have formed the Akkadian empire by 2300, and David unified the people of Israel in about 1000. While leadership certainly played a significant role in these major changes, there were also undoubtedly great individual leaders who found themselves in circumstances that prevented them from making such momentous changes. What were the conditions or circumstances that allowed (or prevented) the rise of states and empires?
It is striking that the first states arose in areas with fertile soil and agricultural potential, like the Nile Valley or the Mesopotamian plain, but without other natural resources. Mountainous areas that were rich in stone, metals, and timber did not form a home for the earliest states and empires, although the Hittite empire of the central Anatolian plateau and the Persian empire of the Zagros Mountains developed later. Thus, geography and natural resources place some limits on the course of historical development.
The timing of these changes may also relate to changes in climate in the ancient past. The first cities and states developed as the Middle Eastern climate became drier from about 4000 to 3000 BCE. This may have caused some shortages of agricultural land and food for which one solution was concentrating population, intensifying food production, and developing ways to manage that production that included promoting an elite to a greater level of control. Other events of climate change, particularly periods of aridity at 2200 and 1200 BCE, seem to be associated with the collapse of empires in various regions.
Finally, the context for state emergence also included social relations such as competition with (and defense against) neighboring polities, each of which may have been of fundamental importance in the rise of states and empires.
“Narmer.” Wikipedia. Link to resource (accessed May 7, 2010).
“Sargon.” Wikipedia. Link to resource (accessed May 7, 2010).
“United Monarchy.” Wikipedia. Link to resource (accessed May 7, 2010).
Former Chief Curator, Oriental Institute Museum of the University of Chicago
1. What factors account for the rise of ancient empires?
2. Why are great leaders important to the success of empires?