Dave Lordan continues his series on culture, class and civilisation
About 10,000 years ago, after 3.6 million years of the Stone Age, humanity began to slowly and stutteringly transform itself. A nomadic species made up of small egalitarian groups and surviving (or not) on the given bounty of the Earth, changed into a settled, class-based, accumulative society. It was based on agricultural surpluses, and institutional hierarchies and gross inequalities were to become a permanent feature. The domestication of certain animals such as the sheep and the goat, cultivation of high-yield grains, and improvements in food storage methods, irrigation, and farming methods and technologies, gave humanity for the first time the problem of more than enough stuff to go around - surplus - and what to do with it.
Small groups, perhaps those associated with high status tribal positions such as shamans and or hunt leaders, split off from society as a whole and seized control of the agricultural surplus and of its distribution. We don’t know whether this coup against society - the first, forced division into haves and have-nots - succeeded the first time it was tried, or whether it was beaten back and had to be tried again and again over thousands of years before breaking through.
It may well have been the latter, but it seems from the simultaneous emergence of agriculture and class in several parts of the world with little or no contact with each other that the very existence of the potential for minority wealth-hoarding made such hoarding inevitable - such is the basis of the ongoing human tragedy. The so-called agricultural revolution, once established, rapidly spread and societies based on exploitation of people and nature took deep root across wide swathes of the planet.
The first truly sophisticated civilisations emerged a couple of thousand years after the agricultural revolution in high-yield river valleys in India, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China. They gave their respective hierarchies enough amassed wealth and concentrated power to rule vast areas, centred on imperial capitals such as Babylon and Thebes.
Archaeologists and anthropologists sometimes refer to these societies as 'hydraulic tyrannies', so called because the areas under cultivation, and therefore the size of potential wealth generation, were massively expanded by irrigation works, and royal prestige often depended upon how much and how well one built up such works. One of the great heroes of Chinese mythology from this time is Yu, combining the skills of an engineer and a wizard to halt and redirect the devastating annual flooding on the Yellow and Wei rivers, thus allowing settled agricultural society to prosper and expand in the Chinese heartlands.
Similarly, the ancient Egyptian macehead of the Scorpion King, roughly dated to about 3100 BC, depicts the king cutting into a ditch that is part of a grid of basin irrigation. The Sumerian God Enki was a God of water and wisdom and was reputed to have raised the City of Eridu from the surrounding watery marshes.
The new rulers needed bodies of armed men to protect their wealth, and enforce and expand their exploitative rule. They also needed to be able to offer a cosmic explanation as to why aristocracies existed and why they held privilege over all others. Warrior and priest castes thus played an essential role in the new political set-up, and their upper echelons were part of a ruling class centred round a tyrant in hereditary (often incestous) royal families who were often, as in the case of the pharaohs of the Egypt, portrayed as divine beings and unbeatable warriors carrying out the incontrovertible and irresistible will of the gods.
Within the Sumerian city of Uruk, the world’s oldest city, there was a large temple complex dedicated to Innana, the patron goddess of the city. The city-state's agricultural production would be “given” to her and stored at her temple. Harvested crops would then be processed (grain ground into flour, barley fermented into beer) and given back to the citizens of Uruk in equal share at regular intervals.
Reconstruction of the ziggurat erected by King Urnamma
The head of the temple administration, the chief priest of Innana, also served as political leader, making Uruk the first of many ancient world theocracies.
Why trade when you can loot?
With control of this surplus these rulers could therefore exercise a previously unthinkable absolute power over society as a whole - deciding who got fed and who didn’t. They could provide a salary for craftsmen, warriors, and priests, therefore expanding and maintaining a ruling class interdependent with them. They could also trade the surplus with adjacent settlements for luxury goods. But why trade and parley if you can conquer and loot? The acquisitive society is also an expansionist one, and imperialist warfare has been a constant feature ever since. The story of ancient societies around the world is that of constant warfare and the rising and falling of ever more militarist city-states and empires - bloodbaths lasting thousands of years.
Human ingenuity and creativity, the foundations of which were built up over millions of years of egalitarian hominid life, was put to work above all on the arts of war. Everyone from blacksmith to poet was engaged chiefly in the maintenance of war machines and in the service of warrior elites and warrior cultural codes:
Agamemnon the lord of men was glad as he looked at them
and in words of graciousness spoke at once to Idomeneus:
“I honour you, Idomeneus, beyond the fast-mounted
Danaans whether in battle, or in any action whatever,
whether it be at the feast, when the great men of the Argives
blend in the mixing bowl the gleaming wine of the princes . . .
Rise up then to battle, be such as you claimed in time past.”
- Iliad 4.255-60 and 264
At this time too we see the emergence of a sense of humanity and nature as enemies, and of nature as something to be conquered and controlled. Thus, the economics and ideology of planetary devastation are set in motion. One of the most widespread motifs in the art of this periods is The Master of Animals, which a King or other high official is portrayed in between two wild animals which he (or occasionally she) has brought to heel.
By way of such endlessly repeated representations of the superior humanity or semi-divinity of the rulers, the achievements of human labour and the common people come to be falsely viewed as the result of the efforts of the King alone, or of the Gods, whose avatar on earth was the King. Millennia later, this paradox of public consciousness found unequivocal expression in poetry:
Who built Thebes of the 7 gates ?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock ?
And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times ?
In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live ?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?
- Brecht, Questions From A Worker Who Reads
These were also slave societies, who looted wealth and labour-power from neighbouring societies with which they were always at war, sometimes winning, other times being defeated by a newly rising imperial power. Thus in quick succession the empires of Sumerians, Assyrians, Akkadians, and Babylonians rose and fell, each eating the other for breakfast, lunch and dinner, before being similarly eaten themselves in turn.
The fundamentals of human existence - food, shelter, protection, cohesion - were now all prerogatives and weapons of power - no longer collectively struggled for and enjoyed collectively, but fought over and accessed only in line with one’s class position.
How does culture reproduce class power?
So, what happened to art and culture generally? In the sense that we think of it, as a distinct sphere of productive activity with its own prerogatives, generating beautiful forms for the sake of contemplation and entertainment, art did not exist. The ancient Egyptian language has no word for art. Almost all art was, back then, quite useful - it served for the praise of and the reproduction of class power.
The skills and technologies needed to produce the art of the time were accessible only to skilled craftspeople, whose easy lives - relative to slaves and field-workers - were paid for by the King-God. There was no material basis for any kind of popular or oppositional art in forms that were likely to have been preserved - such things as protest songs and poems and tales that undermined or belittled the warrior class undoubtedly existed, but were firmly part of the oral tradition, which has not survived except as traces in later written traditions.
Art’s evolutionary role in forging a group identity and as the bridge between the individual and a supra-individual loyalty, does not change. But the nature of the group does change, from one which is united in a common struggle to survive, to one fragmented into classes and divided against itself, with each of the divisions having separate and competing interests. In nomadic egalitarian societies the group identity elucidated and performed by ritual and magic arts had, no matter how mystical its expression, an underlying material truth to it. Everyone was in it together. Everybody did depend upon and prosper from the efforts of everyone else. What little was held, was held in common. Now pressure arises from the minority at the top of society for the elucidation of a false consciousness around group identity that would portray social divisions as in line with a divine and unassailable cosmic order and its rulers as favoured by the Gods above all others.
Art and literature in the new dispensation become the handmaiden of ideology, chiefly through the medium of religion, and associated mythological literature. Many of the aesthetic practices built up in common over thousands of years' worth of collective ritual - techniques from music, song/poetry/chant, self-decoration, performance, dance - were appropriated by new state religions and subsumed into religious worship and observation.
This is an ‘enclosure’ of the cultural commons as unjust as later enclosures of common land. Ever since then, access to the arts and participation in the arts, literature and culture generally, have been deeply and chronically unequal. In an era when religion and politics were fundamentally complementary sets of ideas and institutions serving the same social order, the arts were the means by which this order was expressed, absorbed and reproduced in the realm of forms and ideas. For the most part, the arts did not have any separate meanings or independent existence outside of this.
One of the most important of the new Bronze Age technologies of power is writing. We know a lot about early writing thanks to fire. Writing was done by a special caste of scribes in cuneiform on clay tablets. These were stored in special rooms in palace complexes, which could contain hundreds of years’ worth of tablets. Left to their own devices, the centuries would have turned all these to dust. Thankfully, the palace complexes of the Bronze Age were prone to burning down - whether accidentally or as a result of arson or of natural disaster is a matter of debate. And in some cases, this resulted in the high temperature baking and preservation of the tablets.
Writing to account for the surplus
Writing, including all of the great written literature of the world, is actually a byproduct of accountancy, which is itself a consequence of surplus and accumulated property. Stone Age humans didn't possess much or accumulate anything much to count or keep account of. But as soon as a ruling elite seize a hold of surplus goods it becomes necessary to know exactly how much of these surplus goods they possess.
Counting beads are used for this purpose at first, turning up in all urban archaeological records from 8000BC onwards, and a simple written numbering system - scratches on clay tablets - follows soon afterwards. But as cities and empires expanded and both the number and variety of goods increase at a rapid pace, and large-scale trading relationships between cities and empires evolve, more sophisticated methods are obviously required.
Pharaohs need to know exactly what it is they are owning, buying, selling, consuming, and distributing, as well as how much. They need to know not only how many sheep they have, but also their weight and age, and their cost from a certain trader at a certain date at a certain place, and what they were sold for at a certain other place on a certain other date to a certain other trader for, so that the God-King makes a certain gross profit minus expenses of keeping them, leaving a certain net profit.
Without such detail, fraud and theft are inevitable, and accumulation and trade above a certain primitive level are impossible. Numbers alone are not capable of such detail, so a system of signs, showing ever more detail and sophistication over time - writing - is developed in order that the king or queen know the exact nature and extent of their riches.
A second advantage to writing for commanders of states and of armies is the new and vital ability to transmit precise, sealed orders and other communications, over long distances. Empire-builders needed a guaranteed method of having their dictates expressed throughout vast swathes of conquered territory, of maintaining diplomatic relations with other states, and of conducting negotiations and treaties by distance. Writing served all these novel necessities of power. An abundance of often elaborate royal seals, used to stamp official documents, testifies to the critical importance of writing to early imperialism.
A third function of the new technology of writing was the dissemination of ruling class ideology, by which I mean the set of approved narratives and sanctioned ideas that explain and justify the prevailing social order. In our day the dominant, but not exclusive, ideology of power, is, broadly speaking, a secular and deeply cynical one - capitalist realism, the notion that we have got to accept capitalism, no matter how bad it gets, because there is simply no other system for organising society. In the early days of class society, however, ideologies of power emphasised the superhuman nature of kings and the divine roots of their authority. Secular and religious worlds were intertwined. To disobey the king in any way was to draw the wrath of the gods on one, if you hadn’t been chewed up and spat out by the godlike king himself before then.
King-lists, mythological narratives, and epic poetry
Broadly speaking, three major forms of overlapping official literature emerge: chronicles in the form of king-lists, mythological narratives, and epic poetry. However, it is important to note that we do not have anything like a complete record of the written works of the Bronze and Iron Ages. Speculations are based on the available, fragmentary, if ample, evidence and subject to development and revision as new evidence arises, although the fact that writing was an elite technology used for elite purposes of mystification and domination will not alter.
Neither is it possible in the space of an essay to fully represent the riches of the literature of the ancient World. Consider, for example, that the Ancient Egyptian literary tradition lasts from around 3500 BC until around 400 AD, and included dozens of genres we do not have time to deal with here.
King-lists have the names and order of succession of monarchs, including exaggerated accounts of kingly deeds. In general, the farther back the king is in time, the more superhuman his characteristics, with godlike founding monarchs.
The lists provided legitimacy and a sense of dynastic continuity to monarchs, as well as a form of historiography which emphasised the deeds of great men in the shaping of history. Taken as a whole, a king-list provided the present monarch with a guide to the nature and role of a monarch and what needed to be emulated and achieved to go down in history as a great king. The military prowess and the mercilessness of kings, alongside the pointlessness of resisting them is often emphasised, as in this 400 year-old Babylonian account, rendered into modern English by the great socialist poet Carl Sandburg:
Mythological narratives were comprised of the various supernatural beings and their innumerable escapades, and had the overall purpose of explaining what could not then be reasonably explained about the world given the low level of scientific knowledge. Mythology is rarely internally coherent and there are often numerous contradictory elements, indicating that the myths we have been handed down were a patchwork, stitched together out of existing oral traditions stretching back thousands of years into the Stone Age. As the oral traditions were stitched together, they were reshaped to reflect the current world and worldview.
So it is not surprising that a polity like ancient Greece, made up of hundreds of quarrelling mini-states, where dynasties rapidly rose and fell and alliances were constantly shifting, produced a mythology full of fickle and callous divinities always at war with each other and always trying to catch each other out.
Epic poems are a combination and repurposing of elements of both the king-lists and the mythological narratives. Figures from an idealised aristocratic past overcome great challenges, performing incredible deeds within lengthy and exciting narratives. These stories are often presented as historical accounts, and work as a kind of moral, political and even military instruction book on how society should be run, who should rule and who submit.
Although there are numerous epic poems produced by ancient societies all over the world, The Iliad is the best known and most influential, having survived 3000 years on the library shelves of the world’s imperialist elites, in their public schools and military academies. In part 3 of this series we will examine the Iliad - a poem which Boris Johnson can perform extended quotes from in the original ancient Greek - closely as a political document and look at its enormous contribution to the ideology and practice of class power.
We can be sure that the working people of the ancient world, neurologically and emotionally similar to ourselves, felt resentment at their treatment. They occasionally rose up in both spontaneous and organized ways, eg the Spartacus rebellion in Italy and the ancient Egyptian general strike. But even these events are only recorded by members of the 1 per cent (at most) who could read and write, who are of course opposed to them, and not from the point of view of the rebels.
This is a huge problem with the historiography of the time - most of what we know about the Celts of Gaul, for example, was penned by their conqueror, Julius Caesar. However, some signs of popular life and even popular resistance survive in the literature of the ancient world. Even the Iliad contains the famous ‘Thersites’ passage, describing the first anti-war and proto-communist mutiny to appear in literature, which we will examine in detail in part 3 of this series, alongside the rebellious and anti-militarist poetry of Sappho.
In addition, the scribes of Byzantium, just like the monks of a later era, sometimes left marginal scribbled notes and verses that tell us something about popular life of the time. So let’s finish this part of the essay with an example, once again resurrected for our time by the great socialist poet Carl Sandburg.