Throughout history, many techniques have been used for organizing society. Experimentation with different styles primarily took place in the ancient Mediterranean world. Athenian democracy, Hebrew temple state, Hellenic city-states, Hellenistic kingdoms, the Roman Republic, and the Christian Roman Empire were all major forms of governance, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. To determine which of these forms was successful, it is impotent to look at each form’s chronological development.
Hebrew State Origin
The Hebrew State began as a loose confederation of twelve tribes. A tribe’s elders ruled it, and while there was intermarriage between tribes, there was no real political connection. They shared common religion, language and culture, however they did not owe allegiance to one ruler.
The roots of the Hebrew tribes lay in myth. Jacob, a patriarch of Judaism, is said to have had twelve sons, each of whom begot a tribe of people. Taking into account the legendary characteristics of each son, each tribe had specific traits. For example, the tribe of Levy were the priests of the Jews. They owned no land, and survived on the tithes of the people. The tribe of Dan were a seafaring people; their ancestral land lay on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. These twelve groups of people were by no means one nation, they raided each other occasionally, and there were often disputes as to boundaries and land rights.
In the eleventh century B.C.E., an outside threat, eminent invasion by the Philistines, drove the Hebrews to formalize their tribal ties under one leader, Saul. With the defeat of the Philistines, Saul managed to keep control over the tribes, unifying them for his successor, the warrior-poet David. Saul and David had forged the beginnings of a kingdom that would see its true glory in the tenth century B.C.E., under David’s son Solomon.
Under Solomon, the Temple State truly emerged. Until now, there were two main reasons the Hebrews had stayed together: outside threats, and monotheistic belief in Yahweh.
Monotheism as a State
Solomon, the most powerful king of the Hebrews shared their belief in monotheism or belief in one god above all others. The Hebrews were the first people known to believe in the existence of a single, omnipotent god. Their religion was dominant in their lives, as they had rules and regulations for every conceivable situation. The Torah, their holy works, was very specific in the manner in which their lives were conducted.
With the rigidity of their religion, it was relatively easy for Solomon to secure his power base in Israel. He built a lavish central temple in his capital, Jerusalem, and secured control over the dominant class, the Levies, or priests. With the new “City of God,” Solomon ushered in a period of peace and prosperity for the kingdom of Israel.
The Fall of the Hebrew State
As is often the case when a state is control by a strong personality, the Hebrew State’s glory was short lived. With Solomon’s death, succession problems and favoritism tore the realm apart. Ten of the original twelve tribes organized their own state, called Israel. Israel fell to Assyrian invaders 200 years later. The dispersion of the tribes to various parts of the Assyrian Empire led to their assimilation. They were subsequently labeled “The Lost Tribes.”
The remaining two tribes, Judah, Solomon’s tribe, and Levy, the priests, formed the significantly smaller state of Judah. In 586 B.C.E., 386 years after the death of Solomon, Judah fell to the Chaldeans. The Chaldeans deported the Jews to Babylon, and thus the Jews lost their statehood.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Israel’s primary strength lay in her people’s religion. The monotheistic Jews were a people apart from the world. Nowhere else, at the time, did people worship a single god. They were distinct from the world, and that difference unified them. Unfortunately for the Jews, their monotheism also affected their view of government. They looked to Solomon almost as a representative of their God, with his death; they were without their real leader. While he lived the Jews were strong and prosperous; without him they were divided by petty problems.
The Hellenic City State
Greece was a region that shared similarities with the Hebrews. While the Greeks shared a religion and a language, their tribes, called city-states were even more distinct than the Hebrews. Each city-state developed its own form of government that was specialized to its region and people.
The city-state of Athens was characterized by a dependence on the sea. Athens was a merchant state, and thus its societal structure was very volatile for the era. Theoretically, anyone who could own property could be the richest person, at virtually anytime. As such property owners, or citizens (all Athenian adult males) were essentially all equal in the eyes of the government, there were no real hereditary rulers.
Athens had two major ruling bodies: the Assembly, open to all adult male citizens, and the Council of Five Hundred, chosen randomly from the body of citizens. Daily governance was in the hands of the magistrates, another groups of adult male citizens, chosen randomly. The Assembly handled all major acts of state including war, treaties and dispersal of public funds. The Council dealt with ports, military installations and other state owned properties; the Council also set the agenda for the Assembly.
Strengths and Weaknesses of Athens
The social freedom allowed by the democratic process in Athens paved the way for many great cultural advances and made Athens a very wealthy and powerful society. In theory, every citizen was equal, and had an equal say in how their government was run. In reality, a few extremely wealthy citizens essentially controlled the government. The only real effect of this was that Athens was not subject to the periodic bouts of mob rule that often characterizes democracy.
Other Hellenic States
The other city-states on the Greek peninsula are not as closely examined as Athens. Corinth, Thebes, Thespia and many others are often overlooked, due to their dwindling effects on the ancient world.
However, one city-state other than Athens does deserve some attention, Sparta.
If Athens was the major naval power of the ancient world, Sparta was its landbound counterpart. Due to the proportionally large slave population, every Spartan male was a warrior. Their life was harshly disciplined, from the very moment of birth. As soon as a Spartan was born, he was judged as to his physical perfection. If found wanting, the newborn was abandoned by his parents to die of exposure.
Two kings led Sparta. This unorthodox arrangement was due to the reality of combat. If one king died while fighting, there was still one king left. The kings’ position was very similar to that of a general. The actual governance of the land was left to roving magistrates, who acted as combination policeman and judge.
After the death of Alexander the Great, his empire was divided into three, and later four, successor dynasties. The most powerful of these was the Ptolemaic monarchy, based in Egypt. Ptolemaic Egypt was a merchant power, but due to internal revolts and would-be Seleucid conquerors, the Ptolemaic dynasty lost power by the second century B.C.E.
The Seleucid dynasty, based in Persia, emerged as the most powerful kingdom following the conquest of Phoenicia and Palestine. The Antigonid monarchy, from Macedon, took advantage of the Ptolemaic weakness to seize key Ptolemaic properties.
Strengths of the Hellenistic Kingdoms
None of the Hellenistic Kingdoms stood out as a distinctive political force. They served more as a bridge between the Greek dominated Mediterranean and the Roman dominated world. While they enjoyed significant cultural cosmopolitanism, the actual political structure of the states was uninspired and ultimately weak.
Rome’s roots lay in revolution. At the close of the sixth century B.C.E., wealthy Romans, or patriarchs, expelled the Etruscan controlled king. At first, these patricians controlled Roman government under the guise of an Assembly, a Senate, and two consuls. “The Centuriate Assembly was a popular assembly but, because of voting procedures, was controlled by the nobility.” (Perry, 119) The Assembly enacted all Roman laws. The Senate, a hereditary body, advised the Assembly, as well as apportioning public funds and dictating foreign policy.
By the close of the third century B.C.E. the commoners, or plebians, had won some measure of governmental control form the patricians. Theoretically, the plebians could check the patrician rule through there own Tribunal Assembly. Plebians could win any governmental office, intermarry with patricians, and were no longer sold into slavery to pay off debt. In aculeate, Rome was still an oligarchy, ruled by a select few of the patrician class.
Rome, led by the oligarchy, embarked on a series of conquests that led to the complete Roman domination of Italy. With a much larger land and population base, Rome became a major world power. After a series of reactive wars with the North African city-state Carthage, the Roman Republic was the greatest power in the western Mediterranean. For defensive reasons, Rome seized the Antigonid kingdom of Macedon and Greece. Eventually, Rome conquered all of the Hellenistic kingdoms in the interest of state security.
This meteoric expansion, completed around 146 B.C.E., was the ultimate downfall of the Roman Republic. Several leaders attempted to thwart the senatorial process and gain personal power for themselves, for a wide variety of reasons. Finally in 49 B.C.E., Julius Caesar was appointed dictator, or absolute ruler. Caesar began to consolidate his rule, making government less dependant on provincial governors, establishing a public works program, and assisting the poor and landless.
Strengths of the Roman Republic
The Roman Republic’s primary strength lay in its citizens. Its armies were comprised of Roman men, fighting to protect their home. Its government was Roman men who felt that they had a direct effect on everyday life. Despite the control of the oligarchy, and ultimately the dictator Caesar, Romans felt responsible for themselves and their state. The only real weakness of the Roman Republic was its inability to govern without the immediate threat of invasion. Without that threat, class divisions were felt most harshly. As long as they had a common goal, patrician and plebian could work together.
The Christian Roman Empire
The Roman Empire replaced the Roman Republic with the assassination of Julius Caesar. Caesar’s adopted nephew, Octavian became the first Roman Emperor. Octavian further solidified the centrality of Roman rule, making the emperor the focus of the government. With further expansion, however, the Empire grew much less controllable. One man in Rome could not successfully orchestrate the daily tasks of such a huge state. Provincial governors regained some element of rule, weakening the Roman state.
Christianity did not have a profound impact on the Roman rule. If anything Roman rule had a profound impact on Christianity. Christianity expanded along Roman lines of power from an upstart Jewish sect, to a world power all its own. The Empire died, but Christianity still flourishes today.
Strengths of the Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was able to rule more efficiently than the Roman republic, with only one real ruler, his word was law. The Senate remained, but purely as a figurehead position. Even as the Empire brought about stability it contributed to the dry rotting from within. The corruption that spread throughout the bureaucracy, the increasing dependence on mercenary soldiers and the rampaging hordes of barbarian tribes proved to be too much for the Empire to withstand.
Characteristics of Success
For a system of government to labeled a success, it must meet two major requirements: it must administrate its territory effectively until the accepted end of its dynasty, and it must be able to withstand more than one generation of citizens. Of the civilizations reviewed, only Athens, Sparta and Rome fit the characteristics of a successful government.