Ch. 5. The First Kings and Tribal Chieftains

Royal Conquest Dynasties

    The first kings were war leaders. In fact, pretty much all kings have been war leaders. It is one of their primary distinguishing characteristics. The normal way that a new dynasty comes to power is by defeating all of its rivals for the throne. The way it stays in power is by continuing to defeat any challengers. For the most part being a king is all about being the most successful war leader. The size of the territory that monarchs ruled depended on how much land they could conquer, which is why I call them conquest dynasties. When looking for the first king, it makes sense to go looking for the first war. 1

    Around 3300 BCE, Naqada, Hierakonpolis, and Abydos were emerging city-states in the south of Egypt. They started fighting with each other over possession of land in the Nile Valley. The rulers of Naqada defeated their opponents and gained control over Upper Egypt. They went on to take control of Lower Egypt and became the first Pharaohs about 3000 BCE. We know this because archaeologists have found the royal precinct of the Naqada cemetery and the brick-lined tombs of their kings. The Egyptian pharaohs are the first royal conquest dynasty that can be clearly identified. 2

    In Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq) we have much less data from tombs because the soil conditions were not good for preservation. In the middle Uruk period, about 3500 BCE, we find a glyptic image depicting armed men marching in file. (Earlier images of men with weapons appear to be hunting scenes.) From a century or so later we find images of captives being marched toward an imposing building or a “leader” figure. About the same time, some of the cities started building fortification walls. 3

    This certainly seems to indicate organized warfare. Were the Mesopotamian cities fighting battles with each other, which ones; who was winning; who were the leaders? We do not know. This seems rather strange. Victorious military commanders usually want everyone to know about their triumphant accomplishments. 4

    An early form of symbolic writing had already appeared in Mesopotamia. It could not yet accommodate narrative text but was widely used for economic record keeping and proof of ownership. If it could keep track of measures of grain and who owned them, it would seem like it could keep track of victories in battle and who won them. Yet, we have no such thing. Organized warfare seems to have been developing from about 3400 BCE, but we do not have hard evidence in Mesopotamia, as we do in Egypt. 5

    During the Early Dynastic period (2900-2350 BCE) Mesopotamian kings were definitely taking control of the city states. These kings probably evolved from earlier war leaders who were previously acting on behalf of the temple authorities. Some of these “generals” were able to take political control, establish royal dynasties, and fight each other to expand their territories. This is when the archaeologists start finding burned-black destruction layers as they excavate the ancient Iraqi city mounds. 6

Secular Warrior Aristocrats

    The early kings functioned as generals, but they still needed other experienced fighters as sub-commanders and lieutenants. A body of elite warriors and war leaders developed to assist the king and maintain his authority during peace or war. These elite fighters evolved into secular warrior aristocrats who usually had control over land and peasants of their own. Just like the religious aristocrats, these earls, counts, pashas, and mandarins collected food from their peasants and distributed it to specialized workers according to the traditions and customs of their locality. 7

    For thousands of years, kings and aristocrats ran the worlds governments. Historians tell us about their wars, their mistresses, and the intrigue of court life. What is seldom mentioned is that aristocrats, both warrior and religious, also administered the aristocrat-peasant food distribution system, which took the agricultural surplus produced by the peasants and distributed it to the non-food producers of the society. 8

Tribal Warrior Chieftains

    We know that during the historical period tribal people often fought wars with each other and often raided the villages and cities of the peasants and aristocrats. When did that get started? In Mesopotamia, we have little evidence for tribal war or raiding in the 4th millennium BCE, but it was definitely happening on a major scale in the 3rd millennium. We have Egyptian records that the first Pharaohs were fighting Nubians in the south by about 3000 BCE. 9

    The emergence of warfare did not lead to the development of a new primary pattern of society, but it changed both tribal and aristocrat-peasant societies, leading to important new variations. The concept of fighting and raiding spread outward in all directions, much like the diffusion of agriculture, only faster. 10

    Tribal societies needed stronger leadership to defend themselves, retain access to grazing land, and develop the ability to raid villages and cities. The men became warriors, and warrior chieftains began to dominate tribal leadership. As manliness and fighting skills became more important, the position and authority of women receded into the background. 11

Earliest Tribal Chiefdoms

    When you go back through history looking for tribal chiefdoms, both the highly militarized and the somewhat more peaceful variety, it is just amazing. There were thousands of them. They were nearly everywhere. The Kurgan people of the Eurasian steppe were warrior chiefdoms. Roman authors have left us numerous descriptions of Celtic, Germanic, Balkan, Syrian, and African chiefdoms. Chinese chronicles describe Asian chiefdoms. Many of the Hill Tribes of southern and southeastern Asia remained warrior chiefdoms into the second half of the 20th century. They were on almost every continent; Africa, North America, and South America were overrun with them. The only inhabited place where anthropologists have not identified warrior chieftains and tribal armies is Australia. 12

    We do not know when the first warrior tribal chiefdom evolved. It might have been long before the first temple-based cities. Or, it could be that once the first cities were established and became wealthy, it stimulated some tribal leaders into thinking of ways to seize some of that wealth. As far as what we can fully document, the first warrior chiefdoms and organized tribal raiding may have originated in the Nile Valley either in Upper Egypt or Nubia sometime in the 4th millennium BCE. 13

    There is evidence from graves in Varna Bulgaria that may indicate tribal chiefdoms as early as the mid 5th millennium BCE. The archeologists keep digging, and new evidence for early tribal warfare may turn up in the Balkans, the Zagros Mountains of Iran, or somewhere else. 14

The Change from Tribal Chiefdoms to Aristocrat-Peasant States

    Warrior chieftains were strong military leaders. They often had a special war-band of elite fighters, but most of the able-bodied tribesmen were also considered to be warriors. The chieftains could mobilize the labor of the tribe to build hill-forts or fortified towns. They probably organized the work force for numerous special production activities, such as weapons, armor, and ammunition. The chieftains may have also organized the production of food and used tribal sharing to ensure that everyone was fed, especially the families of their elite warriors. 15

    This is starting to sound similar to many aristocrat-peasant societies, but there were still important differences. In a tribal chiefdom most men were warriors, not peasants. There was a fairly clear distinction between the two. Peasants grew grain and were usually discouraged from carrying or training with weapons. Beyond that, chiefdoms generally did not have the literacy, urban culture, and formal administration that was highly visible in aristocratic states. 16

    After aristocrat-peasant society and warfare evolved, they spread outward through a process of diffusion. Tribal leaders became stronger and developed into chieftains. Where the environment allowed, tribal subsistence farmers developed their agricultural skills to the point where they could produce a surplus of grain and other foods. By this time, most of the tribesmen were concentrating more on farming and less on the warrior skills of hunting and raiding. As this trend continued, a corps of elite warriors emerged that began to monopolize the military function. 17

    Over time, tribal farmers became peasant farmers. Tribal chieftains became kings, and elite warriors became aristocrats. Tribal shamans were turning into priests and religious aristocrats. In the middle of this change, the society was some combination of both tribal chiefdom and aristocratic state. This process of development can be observed in the second half of first millennium CE, when the Pagan tribes of northern Europe evolved into aristocratic-peasant societies. The adoption of Christianity was also part of the process. 18