Ancient Near Eastern City-State Wars

Ancient Near-Eastern City-States (3200 B.C to 330 B.C.) — The Cradle of Civilization



C.C. LAMBERG-KARLOVSKY — Ph.D. — Professor at Harvard University

Dear Dr.  Kolkey;

I am in basic agreement. Wars in the ancient Near East were more often waged by individuals (heads of dynasties, tribes, etc.) for individual gain (and the gain of relatives, tribal members, etc.) then for the benefit of society.  Different dynasties, tribes, etc. all vied for power all were led by a small elite, themselves with heritable power, and fought among themselves for power, resources, status, land, water, and women.

See Power and Propaganda, edited by Mogens Troelle Larsen and Democracy’s Ancient Ancestors, by Daniel Fleming (this book on a later third millennium city state in Syria) Theytre a good starts on a common theme,




DANIEL FLEMING — Ph.D. — Professor at New York University

Hi Jonathan,

Hmm. For the ancient Near East, I’m not sure what the alternative to
“self-interested factional politics” would even be. I don’t know that this is
limited to “city-states,” which as I said, offer a limited framework for the
politics of this region in any case.

If you’d like to get a feel for what ancient Near Eastern literature can do for
you, here are a couple of ways to go at it.

Two books on society and politics are David Schloen’s “House of the Father”
(2001, Eisenbrauns), and my “Democracy’s Ancient Ancestor” (2004, Cambridge).
For texts, the most heavily documented periods are the Old Babylonian
(2000-1600) and the Neo-Assyrian (900-600). There are 4000 or so letters from a
30-year period at a place called Mari, and these give wonderful detail regarding
the political machinations of various kingdoms and groups. Wolfgang Heimpel
published a set of English translations in a book with a title I forget (2004?,
Mesopotamian Civilizations series, Eisenbrauns); and Jean-Marie Durand has a
bunch of French translations in the three volumes of his Litterature Ancienne du
Proche-Orient series, volumes 16-18 (1997-2000). For royal inscriptions, the
official version of success, look at the prologue to the Code of Hammurabi and
dip into various English translations of these texts in the “Royal Inscriptions
of Mesopotamia” (RIM) series from Toronto, especially
the Mari-period/OB ones by Douglas Frayne.

Good luck with all this, and feel free to check back in.




JACK SASSON — Ph.D. — Professor at Vanderbilt University

There is an enormous literature on war and its motivations (not always
clear-cut), from as early as the third millennium bce. I can say that
we learn about these wars largely from palace archives (including
annals), so that the reasons for any action are always self-serving,
even when kings give the gods credit for urging them on. We have them
launch wars when they are strong and when they seem weak; when they
expect a cake-walk and when they know they are opening up cans of
worms.  Additionally, we mostly have the reactions of victors to the
wars that unfolded, so it is hard to recover data from those who
prepare for the onslaught but are defeated. I can give you some biblio
here; but do look into the reference set I edited (Civilizations of
the ANE, 1995) where there are a number of relevant articles, with
modest biblios.

I myself have written on an 18c bce letter that appear to be a
declaration of war, in which a ruler berates his enemy for
untruthfulness and double-dealing before launching a war. The Hittites
(as were the Romans) were great at explaining why they went to war;
but always post facto and always give as reason the punishment of evil
(often equated with breaking oaths); but it is amazing how the result
is more wealth, land, and prestige for the winners. I have also
written on casus belli from the Mari archives. It is specialized; but
the issues are not that different elsewhere. (It is to appear in a
volume on War and Peace in the ANE).

So I am not sure that I can give you anything that does NOT support
your argument. In fact, I would be shocked that even today, with our
wealth of information, we can ever judge wars to be anything but
driven by the elites.  Still, you might want to look into cases of
insurrections, when motivations can differ; (e.g. Spartacus,
Maccabees, etc. ) Invariably, however, the insurrections that do
succeed lead to the establishment of new elites.

I am not sure I am being helpful.


PHILIP C. SCHMITZ — Ph.D. — Professor at Eastern Michigan University

Dear Professor Kolkey,

Understanding the causes of warfare has become a project of
crucial importance for the future, and I’m in sympathy with the view that (to
the best of my knowledge) you advocate, that decisions to go to war tend
historically to be short-sighted, self-serving, and ultimately


STEVEN GARFINKLE — Ph. D. — Professor at Western Washington State University

Dear Jonathan,

There is no question that we can detect the role of
self-interested parties in decision making, especially about war in the
city-states of the ancient Near East.

Some quick observations about these city-states: they were ruled, without
exception, by dynastic families in a monarchical system. Therefore, it is very
difficult to discern the kind of factional politics that we can see, for
example, among the Greek poleis. It is possible at times to see divisions within
a ruling family, but even this is often tough to find in the historical record.
Instead, what we see in abundance is the use of warfare to buttress the fortunes
of the ruling elite, and in particular, the ruling family. The rise of the
city-state in the ancient Near East is also the story of the rise of secular
political authority concentrated in the hands of the king’s household. There is
great evidence from the second half of the Third Millennium BC through the first
half of the Second Millennium BC for economic and military decisions being made
by ruling families in order to buttress/reinforce their authority. Case studies
for this kind of activity might be the kingdoms of Akkad and Ur III in the Third
Millennium, and the rise of Hammurabi of Babylon in the early Second Millennium.

You should take a look at the following:
Van De Mieroop, M. The Ancient Mesopotamian City (Oxford)
Van De Mieroop, M. King Hammurabi of Babylon (Blackwell)
Heimpel, W. Letters to the Kings of Mari (Eisenbrauns)
Chavalas, M. ed. Current Issues in the Study of the Ancient Near East (Regina)

I am not sure why your focus is so squarely on city-states, since the evidence
in the ancient Near East for the kind of activity you are looking for may be
even more apparent after the growth of the territorial state in the Second
Millennium BC, and in particular with the growth of imperial states in Assyria
and Babylon in the First Millennium BC.

See Joannès, F. The Age of Empires (Edinburgh)

Your search for a discordance between public and private reasons for going to
war is somewhat problematic for the ancient Near East. The closest you might
come is in the differences we might find between royal inscriptions and
monuments on the one hand and letters on the other. This is why I have suggested
the volume on the Mari letters. You will also find a rich corpus of both royal
inscriptions and letters from the Neo-Assyrian empire in the 8th and 7th
centuries. The problem though lies in the way in which ancient elites often
conceptualized themselves and their societies. For the most part, they did not
aim any of their public thoughts at the non-elite segments of society. The good
of the king’s household was perceived to be the good of society. Now we can
certainly question how real this was, but that does not make it less a
characteristic of their society. One place where you WILL find something akin to
what you are looking for is in the Assyrian cities of the first millennium BC.
The urban elites in these cities were able to wrest concessions from the king
and this likely hints at the real operation of factional politics that can be
observed in the historical record.




STEVEN GARFINKLE — Ph.D. — Professor at Western Washington State University (SECOND E-MAIL EXCHANGE)

Dear Jonathan,

I would agree with you, as I noted in my original response, that there is court
factionalism in the city-states of the ancient Near East, but the difficulty
will lie in finding descriptive evidence for it in the historical record.

I would also add that a very significant distinction between modern and ancient
warfare fairly generally is the direct participation of the decision makers. As
I noted in my original response, there is a significant degree of
self-interested motivation on the part of those who decided to go to war in the
ancient Near East, but it is also the case that those members of the royal
household who chose to go to war often actually did go to war. One of the
remarkable aspects of ancient warfare, from the Sumerians to the Romans, is the
high level of actual participation in warfare among the decision making elite
classes as compared to today.




DONALD REDFORD — Ph.D. — Professor at Pennsylvania State University 
Professor Kolkey:

Most certainly I can subscribe to and validate your thesis!

Some caveats(?) – from its inception Egypt (my area of expertise) was a
nation state – it has been dubbed a “civilization without cities” – ruled by
a large, extended family for 1000 years. Quite successfully Dynasties 1-6,
12 and 18-20 convinced the masses that they shared a common interest
and that they were a “chosen” people, god-ordained, and better than theitr
neighbours. Because of the country’s isolation geographically,– invaded only 4 times in 3,000 years! — Egypt could view the surrounding lands (Sudan, Libya, Palestine) simply as her sphere of influence, to be milked of resources when she pleased. Those few occasions when Egypt did go to war were presented as, and
genuinely believed to be, responses to external threats (the rise of the Kerma
kingdom in the Sudan, c. 2000 BC, the expansion of Mittani on the upper
Euphrates, c. 1500 BC, and of the Hittites in Anatolia c. 1400 BC) or pre-emptive strikes. The propaganda always pictures Pharaoh as the injured party, not wanting war, but pursuing it with vigor if necessary, and always in self defence.

A lot of work has been done on these issues by such of my colleagues as
John Baines, Bruce Trigger Ideceased), Rolf Gundlach, Nicholas Grimal and
Stuart Tyson Smith.

With all best wishes,

Donald Redford


TREVOR BRYCE — Ph.D. — Professor at University of New England, Australia

 Dear Dr Kolkey,
Thank you for letting me see your views. I’m very sorry that I can reply only briefly, but have much pressure of a book deadline at present. Basically, I don’t think you would have any difficulty in finding support for your proposition of self-interested political factions in many periods of recorded history, and in a number of cases a link between these and the starting of wars. The reasons for the outbreak and conduct of the Peloponnesian War in Greek world, as recorded primarily by Thucydides might prove a fruitful field for your investigations. Examples from the Near Eastern World come less readily to mind, but you might for a starting point look at A. J. Spalinger’s book ‘War in Ancient Egypt’ (Blackwell)
With best wishes for your project,
Trevor Bryce


AAGE WESTENHOLZ — M.A. — Professor at Copenhagen University

Dear Mr. Kolkey,

         Take it that you are interested in internal factional politics within any given city-state.  I know of no evidence for such phenomena from third millennium Mesopotamia; but the Amarna letters testify rather clearly to the presence of pro-Egyptian and anti-Egyptian parties within the city of Byblos and other Levantine cities during the middle of the second millennium.  Similarly, the Neo-Assyrian royal inscriptions describe vividly that in the Babylonian cities of the first millennium, there were people who put their money on the Assyrians, while others followed the rebels (notably Marduk-apal-iddina, who must have been a phenomenal politician).  Of course, the Assyrians described the rebels as “sinners”, which indeed they were, insofar as they violated sworn treaties.  The general tendency seems to be that, when you have several competing influences from the outside, the result is disagreement within the city on which magnet is the stronger.
        But all this is outside my field of expertise.  I suggest that, at least for the Neo-Assyrian documentation, you ask my colleague Gojko Barjamovic (e-mail:  He has devoted quite some time to the internal structure of the Babylonian cities in the first millennium.  He may even suggest some pertinent literature.

        If you object that first-millennium Babylonia was not a city-state culture, you would be right, but only up to a point.  Each city was in large measure a self-governing unit in a dialectal relationship with  the ruling king, Babylonian or Assyrian.

        I hope that this does not disappoint you too much.


INGOLF THUESEN — Ph.D. — Professor at Copenhagen University

Dear Dr. Kolkey,

You are right in assuming that we do not have detailed historical data
concerning warfare and even political structures of Ancient Syria. It is
also my experience that when it comes to describing wars, the sources
are highly biased. The Kadesh war between Egypt and the Hittites in 1275
BC are claimed to be won by both sides.

You are perhaps better off looking into the Sumerian city-states in
Mesopotamia, where there are direct evidence for conflicts on a
city-state level, e.g. the stele of Vultures which describe a war
between two city-states. A person that has been working with the
political structure of the Sumerian city-state society is Prof. Susan
Pollock, who has written substantial on the topic.

My immediate reaction to your thinking is, that our mind is very
determined by a national state mentality, which determines much of our
thinking on the past. In particular, when it comes to empire generating
societies such as the early civilizations in Mesopotamia. Conflicts in
the modern world is often based on national states, even globalized into
world wars or wart against terror. My attempt to identify city-state
structures in ancient Syria let me to the conviction that ancient Syria
and also ancient Mesopotamia basically through most of history were
city-state societies where people identified themselves with their city.
Empires were short lived, but spectacular in producing monumental
material and historic remains and in taking up space in our history
books. If we assume that city states were governed by ruling families,
dynasties, and I think this is very likely considering how contemporary
Middle east still is a kinship and tribal society, personal motives may
very well have been prime movers for the decision on when and where to
engaged in a conflict.

This is what I immediately can say, based on my research into the
city-state of Syria some years ago. Unfortunately our sources are

Best greetings

Ingolf Thuesen



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