City and State in Pre-Roman Spain: The Example of Ilici

By Velasco, Juan A. Santos | Antiquity, June 1994 | Go to article overview

City and State in Pre-Roman Spain: The Example of Ilici


Velasco, Juan A. Santos, Antiquity


What is the nature of the cities and chiefdoms, the states or proto-states or would-be states that fringe the Roman Empire? Modern Spain, like other regions that were first outside and then inside Empire, shows social transformations that were as important as they are now hard to judge from enigmatic evidence.

The concepts of chiefdom, state and city have become the centre of a great historiographic debate in European and American archaeology in the last two decades, resulting from the need to describe and define the social structures and the ways power was exercised in certain proto-historical communities.

The meaning of these concepts changes from one historiographical tradition to another; even within the same tradition fairly substantial divergences can appear. For this reason, I dedicate a few lines to defining the terms used in this article.

For decades, at least in Spain, we have been accustomed to centrist-classical models, dominated by the archaic and classical city-state as a territorial and political entity, only accepting alternative forms of urban and state development in particular cases from the East or America. In Europe a clear line of demarcation followed patterns set by Greece and Rome, whose historical circumstances were firmly differentiated from other, 'barbarian' patterns that were, at best, absorbed by the imperial thrust of Rome, whose cultural superiority imposed an urban landscape on the west.

Our increasing knowledge of European pre-history is enabling us to broaden these narrow margins, to evaluate the transformations of 'barbarian' communities in European protohistory, not only from the exclusive viewpoint of the archaic and classical polis, but also by a definition of urban culture not based on that model.

In this new definition the concept of 'Transition' plays an essential role, since we find a series of socio-cultural and economic changes that, in the medium and long term, heralded the end of a village society and the genesis of urban life, accompanied by the end of tribal organization and the emergence of a class-based society and the state.

Spanish research has considered criteria such as the size of settlements, number of inhabitants, public places, writing, a money economy. All these features, from our present point of view, belong to the past; we now see the urban phenomenon as a complex process, with numerous variations in time (archaic and classical polis, Hellenistic, medieval, industrial, post-industrial city) and in place (Mediterranean or 'barbarian' Europe, Near and Far East, America). We see concepts of state and city as determined historically in different situations (see Ruiz 1986: 12) by processes of social change which took different forms depending on where and when they occurred, the different level of development of the productive forces and the various ways in which the internal contradictions of each social group were resolved, in a particular place at a particular time in history.

In the following pages, two basic criteria are distinguished for the historical-archaeological definition of the city and the state. The traditional criterion uses the classical Graeco-Italic model as a measure of urban and state development. This model, developed only in certain Mediterranean parts of Europe, is not applicable to the continent as a whole, since its consolidation was the result of the organization of a particular rather than universal model: the polis. It is based on the appearance of super-structural phenomena such as writing, citizenship, the temple, the agora, and a long etcetera. A new criterion based on socio-economic arguments relates to fundamental structure of the communities we are studying.

Socio-economic structure: criteria for defining the city and the state

These criteria of a structural nature are the economic foundations and the fabric of social relations that support the basic structure of the city and the state, and not the later epiphenomena of the political superstructure, in which they become manifest. …

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