Ancient Israel and Ancient Greece: Religion, Politics, and Culture

By John Pairman Brown | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2

Divine Kingship, Civic Institutions, and Imperial Rule

The Mediterranean city-state was a transient political structure. Its institutions emerged under a quasi-divine king: partly as progressive limitation and dispersal of his power; partly from its own necessities, in particular his dependence on a civic militia. Its Canaanite sites, on the rain-watered periphery of the irrigated societies, Egypt and Mesopotamia, during precious centuries held out against imperial advances while they perfected their own institutions. Greek resistance kept Persian power to the eastern shore of the Aegean. But the greatest energy of the city-states went into defending themselves against others of the same kind.

Throughout Greece the independent city-state, whether fully constitutional or under a limited residual kingship, was ended by the rise of new imperial powers with a different structure—Persians and Macedonians. These were Indo-European peoples with no fixed civic base, organized as a hereditary kingship commanding a people’s army under an elite officer corps. But while taking away real independence from the old city-states, they left the formal constitutions of magistrates, senate, and assembly intact. The literary texts and cultural forms developed under freedom were preserved under a relatively benign imperial overlordship.

In Italy a single city, Rome, passing from a legendary kingship to a Greekstyle constitution, while progressively modifying but not discarding its political structures, gradually extended citizenship to the whole peninsula. Beginning in its struggle with Carthage, a wealthy naval power also able to recruit land armies, Rome further extended its power to overseas “provinces,” at first seen as conquered territory under military control, later as new areas of citizenship. As it turned to the east, the successor kingdoms of Alexander—Antigonid, Attalid, Seleucid, Ptolemaic—were no match for it; but Iran, under successive dynasties, constituted a permanent barrier.

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