On the origins of cities as offshore banking centers – chapter 3 from my Urbanization volume, Urbanization and Land Ownership in the Ancient Near East (ed. with Baruch Levine) Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum, Harvard University, 1999
The social sciences have long viewed the earliest cities as playing much the same role as they do in modern times: to serve as centers of government, and to undertake commerce and industry, reflecting the economies of scale resulting from their population growth.
Such speculations assume an almost automatic and inevitable urbanization stemming from material causes, a combination of increasing population density and new technologies (“the agricultural revolution”). To the extent that political and military dynamics are recognized, they are of a character are more familiar in classical antiquity than in Neolithic Asia Minor and Early Bronze Age and Mesopotamia where civilization’s earliest cities have been excavated. This paper therefore addresses the genesis of cities not from the vantage point of how they ended up, but rather how they began as gathering places even before they became permanently occupied year-round sites.
To be sure, not all pre-modern cities developed in the same way. Each region had its particular characteristics. But from the vantage point of our own modern civilization, the great catalytic urbanization occurred in Mesopotamia. What gave its cities their distinctive character was their commercial and industrial role. (By “industrial” I mean the specialized handicraft industries organized primarily by the large public institutions.) I conclude that the unique way in which urban functions developed in southern Mesopotamia was influenced strongly by the region’s ecological imperative to trade. There is no evidence for a comparable priority occurring in Mexico or Peru, China, the Indus Valley or Egypt.
Since third-millennium Mesopotamia, urban density has been catalyzed by the defensive military need of inhabitants to gather in walled towns. Indeed, the word “town” derives from the German Zaun (“fence”), typically referring to the walled military camps planted across Europe by the Roman emperors in standardized designs. But civilization’s first urban areas are not well characterized as such towns. Although Jericho appears to have been a walled center by about 9000 BC, its walls were not necessarily fortifications; they may well have been flood walls. In any event, when archaeologists next encounter urban sites, such as Çatal Hüyük in the sixth millennium BC, they find a cosmopolitan neutrality.
It appears that the earliest towns were sanctified from raids. Southern Mesopotamian fortifications, for instance, do not appear until relatively late, c. 2800 BC (Adams 1981). Centered on their city-temples, these public sites served bridges for diverse groups to come together to transact arms-length commerce under an umbrella of common agreed-upon rules. I therefore suggest that if we are to take our clue from classical times, the model to be examined should be amphictyonic sites such as Delphi and Delos, where diverse groups seem to have mixed freely without fear of attack.
To perform this role of neutral bridges, such sites tended not to develop at the center of their communities (i.e., “automatically” as a result of growing population density and scale), but at boundaries or natural crossroads between diverse communities. Assur, for instance, sat astride the Tigris intersecting central Mesopotamia’s major east/west trade route, and many other entrepots likewise were situated near the sea or on major transport rivers. The landlocked town of Çatal Hüyük seems to have been the center of its own regionwide trading network (see Gelb 1986:165 for some qualifications).
Being host to a diversity of groups, such towns hardly would have been centers of political control over the land. This paper therefore focuses on the public character of the earliest cities in southern Mesopotamia as gathering places and ritual centers, and hence on the shaping role played by their temple precincts and, in time, the palace.
The earliest urban sites were sanctified, commercial, peaceful, and often multiethnic
The physical orientation and cosmological symbolism of archaic cities, their streets, gates, and the architectural character of their public structures reflect their role as sanctified commercial and ritual meeting places and temple areas long before centralized warmaking, political control and taxation developed. As commercial entrepots they functioned as havens both in the sense of ports (German Hafen, as in what Karl Polanyi called “ports of trade”) and as asylums, literally havens from the surrounding land (a theme which Baruch Levine will pick up in his contribution to the present volume).
The localization of specialized meeting areas for ritual and exchange may be found as early as the Ice Age, and later in sacred groves and seasonal gathering spots. These sites were occasional rather than year‑round settlements. It therefore is appropriate to view them as social constructs independent of their scale, performing urban functions long before they came to grow substantially in size and attract year-round settled populations.
Temples and their precincts comprised the earliest city centers. Set corporately apart from the community at large to serve as self-supporting households of the city god and/or ruler, they were larger, more specialized and more internally hierarchic than personal households. They also included many dependents whose families on the land were unable to care for them, e.g., the blind and infirm, war widows and orphans, and others who could not function in normal family contexts. Placed in the institutional households that served as the ultimate sanctuaries, these individuals were put to work in handicraft workshops or other public professions (e.g., the blind musicians) in an early form of welfare/workfare.
It appears that archaic populations felt that the best way to keep handicraft production and exchange in line with traditional social values was to organize such activity under the aegis of temples, or at least to establish a strong temple interface as a kind of “chamber of commerce.” Public ritual and welfare functions already existed as the germ out of which this economic role would flower. As gathering places, temples became natural administrative vehicles for sponsoring trade. In retrospect it seems quite natural that the temple’s ritual functions broadened in time to include the role of sponsoring markets. Populations attending sacred ceremonies engaged in trade and exchange, much as they did at the fairs of medieval Europe. Out of this commerce developed temple sponsorship of standardized weights and measures, contractual law and the regularization and enforcement of trade obligations.
Much like the ancient cities of refuge (such as that to which Cain withdrew in Genesis 4, and which Numbers 35 and Joshua 20 describe as being established throughout Israel), temples served as sanctuaries for fugitives from the retaliatory fury of local feud justice. They also served as sanctuaries to store the savings of their communities ‑‑ gold and silver, seeds, tools and other sanctified assets deemed free from attack by neighboring communities that shared a common religious belief that such seizure would be sacriligious.
If the earliest urban zones are to be viewed as regimes, the archaic concept of regime was not our modern idea. The word is semantically related to regulate, and also reflects the idea of regularity, connoting the spirit of equity and even-handedness which is called for in arms‑length dealings and the adjudication of disputes. The underlying spirit is one of standardization. Weights and measures are regularized, as are contractual commercial dealings generally. Parties are treated equally and symmetrically rather than dominated, and relations are formalized so as to minimize dispute.
To implement their regulatory functions, temples (and later the palaces) developed specialized bodies of law, beginning with rulings and prices governing their own sphere of activities. At first they regulated the services that they performed directly — marriage and burial ceremonies, handicraft production via public guilds, and the prices and interest rates that merchants, public collectors and other professionals could charge, especially in serving as intermediaries between public institutions, local and foreign communities. The resulting regime was essentially urban, but was not necessarily one of political control or “the state.”
Bronze Age public utilities were not yet organs of government
In viewing cities as evolving first and foremost out of ritual and related sanctified functions, I have no intention of reviving ideas from the 1920s and ’30s about the so‑called temple‑state. Temples did not even have the power to tax (although they charged user fees, sharecropping rent and interest). In any event there was little private surplus to tax, a fact that obliged Bronze Age public institutions to be self-supporting and indeed, to act as entrepreneurs. Temples housed the workshops where most export textiles were woven (in contrast to the homespun for subsistence use). They were endowed with resources to support their community’s dependent labor to weave textiles and undertake other export production. Toward this end, much of the community’s land was set aside for use by the temples to support their nonagricultural labor force and official staff. Additional lands were held by the temples (and in time the palaces) on which to graze their herds, above all the sheep whose wool was woven by public dependents into the textiles exported for the raw materials not found in the Mesopotamian alluvium.
It was from this commercial production and export trade that southern Mesopotamia’s pioneering economic innovations derived. It was the temples that organized trade and acted as embassies in founding foreign trade colonies, sponsoring these embassies as temple cults for merchants operating abroad. The temples thus provided an umbrella for commercial arrangements among disparate peoples, in large part precisely because their sacred status enabled them to serve as forums to settle debts and disputes between local residents and foreign merchants. In sum, temples were administrative nodes governing external contacts.
While social organization on the land remained kinship‑based, that of the cities became part of a higher and more cosmopolitan social ordering. Neolithic urban sites, for instance, seem to have begun as publically demarcated spaces cut out from the surrounding land to provide evenhanded arms-length commercial contacts. This is something quite different from what occurred in classical antiquity. Instead of Bronze Age Mesopotamian cities beginning as private agglomerations which in time developed more public characteristics, their evolution moved in just the reverse direction. The trade and handicraft production formerly set aside in the public institutions were shifted into the personal households of chieftains, military headmen and other well-placed families as handicraft production typically was conducted from the aristocratic households based on the land. Meanwhile, the classical city became more a center of government than of industry. The modern type of state developed out of the communal sector as a whole rather than out of the temples as a corporately distinct public sector.
Eight characteristics of archaic Near Eastern urbanization
This paper makes eight points with regard to archaic urbanization.
(1) Cities were not an automatic byproduct of population pressures sprawling inward from the land, but were a planned and structured response to the need to conduct external relations, above all trade. Southern Mesopotamia’s city-temples organized commerce in ways intended to minimize conflicts, or at least to resolve them in mutually agreed-on ways. Urban development thus may be attributed largely to heterogeneous groups coming together to engage in commerce and communal rituals.
(2) Early southern Mesopotamian cities took their character from their temples, which played a major role in this trade. Prior to the Bronze Age these temples served as ritual centers and gathering places, and their commercial functions evolved out of this role. The largest example in the fourth millennium was Uruk and its sacred Eanna district.
(3) Though textile weaving, pottery work, metalworking and other crafts began early, they were first systematically organized under public‑sector aegis in the temples rather than being left to individual families to develop for their own profit. Temples thus became the first corporate entrepreneurs. They organized craft workshops employing the community’s dependent population, consisting not of a “class” (e.g. of wage-laborers) but of “unfortunates” (Babylonian mushkenu) — individuals who could not make a go of things in their traditional family context on the land. The blind and infirm, war widows and orphans were put to work at whatever tasks they might be able to perform, supplemented by other outsiders such as slaves and war captives. (See Gelb 1965 and 1972, and also Kramer and Meier 1984 for the Sumerian epic in which Enki specifies public-sector tasks for each type of misfit.)
(4) The evolving structure and organization of Near Eastern cities reflects shifts in the character of the public sector from sacred rituals to a growing commercial and handicraft role (via temples), to more worldly military concerns as the palace became increasingly important after 2800 BC.
(5) This secularization was followed by a privatization of real estate, starting with townhouses for the merchants and collectors who interfaced between the private/communal sector and the large public institutions. These houses occupied the city area which originally was the public space. The character of classical antiquity’s cities was much further privatized as towns became economic areas whose commerce passed into the hands of individual households (the classical Greek oikos) rather than being centralized in the temples, palaces or other public institutions.
(6) Only as cities became domiciles for the population at large (rather than public areas) did the state develop as modern writers define it. Whereas temples had been organized as autonomous corporate entities, military organization involved all society. Palace or aristocratic rule became predominantly military, posing for the first time the possibility of a truly general society-wide law. The land’s oral common law adopted the forms which public law had innovated — inscription on stone or wood, publically displayed.
(7) Archaeologists find that secularization, an increasingly military focus of social organization and the privatization of economic life went hand in hand with a trend toward smaller economic units. The scale of industry became smaller, as did that of cities.
(8) Geographically, the militarization of antiquity led to empire building. Whereas no Sumerian city was able to hold the “kingship of Sumer” in the third millennium, things changed in classical Mediterranean antiquity. Imperial Athens and Sparta, followed by Rome, extended the scale of the political and urban unit beyond merely local scope. As recipients of tribute they built up grandiose public structures, as well as imperial bureaucracies.
Looking at the broad sweep of antiquity from the Early Bronze Age through the imperial Roman climax, one sees the function of capital cities shifting from amphictyonic or other ritual centers to political capitals. At the end of this process Rome emerged as a capital quite different from archaic towns. It was simultaneously a military, governing and industrial center. This combination did not occur under the sponsorship of public temples, whose social functions became much more limited than had been the case in Bronze Age Mesopotamia. Nonetheless, capitals still sought to retain the cosmological idea of cities as centers of order such as had inspired the earliest temple‑centered sites.
The idea of order was made more difficult by wealthy families asserting their economic interests at the expense of society at large. They in fact made public order impossible after the fourth century AD. Roman society polarized economically, cannibalizing its internal market and becoming deurbanized. Economic life reverted to self‑ sufficient agriculture, with complex organization surviving mainly on the monastic estates in the countryside.
Temple forerunners of cities
‑‑ their public character and ritual permanence
The origin of urban forms reflects above all that of the temples which served as the focal point of the earliest gathering sites. The germs of this process are found already in the Ice Age. It therefore is appropriate to begin the discussion with the extent to which Ice Age, Neolithic and Early Bronze Age ritual sites share the characteristics that urban historians subsequently have associated with cities.
It may seem unusual to begin the history of urbanization in the Ice Age, but this is a logical corollary of viewing cities as originating simultaneously in sacred cosmological functions ‑‑ ordering their communities, supporting astronomical observers who helped administer the festival calendar, and sponsoring festivals of social cohesion ‑‑ while also organizing external relations (trade and war) with the objective of preventing external trade and warfare from deranging the ordered proportions that governed domestic social life.
Organizational structures are more important than physical scale in tracing these proto-urban dynamics. I therefore begin by reviewing the Marxist anthropologist V. Gordon Childe’s 1950 discussion of ten common features of urbanization, to show how these characteristics are found in ritual sites prior to the Bronze Age emergence of formal cities. Childe’s criteria of urban development apply equally well to pre‑urban sacred sites and their temples because trade and exchange long remained ritual or “public” functions during the neolithic and Bronze Age Near East. It was out of these public functions, above all the economic role of temples in this region, that the first cities emerged.
Anthropologists recognize seven primary urban sites. Following the three great Bronze Age civilizations in the third millennium BC ‑‑ Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Indus valley ‑‑ are the North China plain, the Maya and Central Mexican cities, the pre‑Incan Andes, and Nigeria’s coastal Yoruba territory. Tracing the urban forms for each of these seven regions back to their beginnings, Dennis Wheatley (1971:9, 225) observes that “we arrive not at a settlement that is dominated by commercial relations, a primordial market, or at one that is focused on a citadel, an archetypal fortress, but rather at a ceremonial complex. . . . The predominantly religious focus to the schedule of social activities associated with them leaves no room to doubt that we are dealing primarily with centers of ritual and ceremonial. . . . Beginning as little more than tribal shrines . . . these centers were elaborated into complexes of public ceremonial structures . . . including assemblages of such architectural items as pyramids, platform mounds, temples, palaces, terraces, staircases, courts, and stelae. Operationally they were instruments for the creation of political, social, economic, and sacred space, at the same time as they were symbols of cosmic, social and moral order.” The first urban sites were thus predominantly public areas, consisting above all of temples.
Functionally speaking, the localization of specialized ritual exchange centers is found already in the European Ice Age, between 30,000 and 10,000 BC, thousands of years before hunting and gathering bands settled down to cultivate the land on a year‑round basis. By the Early Bronze Age for all practical purposes the temples (and in time the palace) were the city.
Public officials and merchants built, bought and sold townhouses primarily to interface with these public institutions ‑‑ to trade their workshop wares abroad, to collect barley-rents and to sell them barley, and to interact in related ways with the temples and palaces. Thus, if urban areas were islands in predominantly agrarian societies, they were public‑sector islands. Many preurban traditions remained to shape their urban cosmologys. It was these traditions that helped them provide a forum for diverse groups to come together at these sites — civilization’s earliest organized interactions among “outsiders.”
In setting the materialistic “objective” tone for most modern discussions in his above-mentioned 1950 article, Childe described “the urban revolution” as having occurred c. 3500-3000 BC, contemporary with the origins of writing. Not concerning himself with the cosmological aspects of archaic cities, he focused on their overt physical characteristics and material economic conditions. Using this approach, he found towns to be more or less automatic results of the agricultural revolution that began around 9000 BC. The cultivation of crops and domestication of animals enabled enough surplus food, oil and wool to be produced to support a permanent superstructure of handicraft, mercantile and administrative occupations.
This labor was concentrated in urban complexes, especially in the temples and palaces that served as households of their local city‑deities. Childe did not elaborate on the paramount role of temples in structuring the cosmological ordering of society — the order that formed the context for civilization’s first urbanization — but upon examination, the ten characteristics he listed as constituting the urban revolution all describe temples so well that the temple focus of cities should have been readily apparent.
Childe found the most obvious characteristic of cities to be their size: “relatively large numbers of people in a restricted area.” Their scale had to be large enough to support the second key urban feature: a specialized division of labor. This was associated with a third characteristic: social stratification, replete with hierarchies of authority, going hand in hand with fourth characteristic: centralization of the economic surplus. This often was achieved by imposing taxes and tribute, and by a fifth urban feature: foreign trade, mainly in luxuries for the emerging stratum of wealthy landholders, merchants, officials and warriors.
A sixth urban feature was the shift of political representation away from kinship ties to local territorial districts. Voting in the communal assemblies was done by neighborhood or ward (e.g., the Athenian deme), rather than by the clan membership that defined preurban communities.
A seventh urban characteristic was monumental public architecture. Writing (an eighth feature) was needed to coordinate record‑keeping, production and contracts, and promoted a ninth feature: development of the exact sciences, beginning with astronomy and mathematics, and flowering into physics and engineering. Childe held the tenth urban characteristic to be naturalistic art, especially portraiture to reflect the vanity of the emerging bourgeoisie.
Childe presented this list of urban characteristics as relatively late phenomena, more descriptive of the first millennium BC than the fourth or third millennia. His list says nothing explicitly about archaic cities being centered around temples, nor did he emphasize their multiethnic, often multilingual character.
What therefore remains to be done is to trace these urban characteristics further back in time. To incorporate them into a longer sweep of prehistory, we may best think of them as traditions of social intercourse rather than of cities as such. Most helpful is the idea of civitas denoting the social and civil structures that varied from one society to the next, rather than what the Romans called urbs (the root of English urban), connoting cities primarily in their physically extensive dimension.
Being a materialist (and indeed a technological determinist) and seeking universals, Childe viewed cities as developing automatically as a byproduct of growing population density, specialization of labor and the social stratification that came with a managerial class. From his perspective cosmological considerations and the early catalytic role of temples seemed merely an incidental superstructure to this basic foundation. His approach led him not to remark on the degree to which his ten urban characteristics all are found in preurban ritual contexts. It therefore is relevant to review the temple antecedents which were the germs out of which increasingly secularized private‑sector urban structures flowered.
Even before the development of towns (and indeed, before agriculture), public traditions must have provided a foundation for group behavior by establishing ‑‑ and indeed, sanctifying ‑‑ its rules. It therefore is appropriate to review how Childe’s ten urban criteria reflect this public cosmology and its ritual functions.
1. Concentrations of people first occurred at ritual sites. Only if we assume that the earliest gatherings of people must have been year‑round does it follow that urban forms could not have developed prior to the agricultural revolution. Seasonal gathering sites existed already in paleolithic times. The idea of sanctifying their ground must have survived to play a germinal role in patterning more permanent cities.
There is no indication that archaic rulers or the augurs who functioned as early city planners thought of urban entities primarily in terms of size. Bronze Age cities appeared to their contemporaries primarily as sacred temple and palace enclaves serving public functions. The Sumerian language used the word uru (Akkadian alu) to express the idea of village, town and city without regard to size. For instance, in the time of Gilgamesh, c. 2600 BC, Uruk had fifty thousand inhabitants and spread over 400 hectares, extending a further 15 kilometers beyond the city walls. This made it the largest city prior to Republican Rome (Adams 1969 and 1981:85). Yet Oppenheim (1965:115) points out that what seems to have been the key to it and other Mesopotamian cities was neither their size nor their walls, but the fact that they were situated on a water course. This was essential for to the trade in which every Mesopotamian city needed to engage.
Rulers were called en or lugal regardless of whether they ruled large cities or were chieftains of small tribal bands (Hallo 1991). Throughout the Bronze Age we find rulers of small towns communicating with more important rulers on the basis of equality, exchanging gifts seemingly without regard for the relative weight of their realms. Function rather than scale was thus the essential feature. (For instance, all of the Indus civilization’s excavated settlements, from small villages to towns, exhibit a similar physical profile [Miller 1985 and Morris 1979:14].)
2. Specialization of labor is documented most extensively in Mesopotamia’s temple and palace workshops. Families living on the land always have had to be relatively self‑sufficient. Rural families throughout most of history have grown their own food, made their own clothes and built their own homes and furnishings. Craft specialization has been carried to the furthest degree in cities.
When this specialization was first being formalized at the outset of the Bronze Age, the temples took the lead in organizing handicraft workshops. Gelb (1965 and 1972) has shown how widespread has been the idea of setting aside a dependent specialized nonagricultural population in public institutions, especially to weave textiles. Ancient Mesopotamia (like India and Incan Peru) established public weaving workshops staffed with dependent labor, largely that of women and children.
The laws of Hammurapi (§274) c. 1750 BC list seal cutters, jewelers and metalsmiths, carpenters and house builders, leather workers, reed workers, washer/fullers, felt makers and doctors as public professions. Throughout the Bronze Age most specialized professions seem to have been organized as public guilds.
Largely in response to the central producion of exports in exchange for foreign raw materials, Mesopotamia’s temples and palaces developed on a larger scale than did the households of chieftains and headmen in the less centralized periphery, including the Mediterranean lands where such workshops were located mainly on private landed estates (as they were in medieval Europe). Urban industry thus was characteristically a public phenomenon.
3. Social stratification began in the public temples and palaces. Indeed, the word hierarchy derives from Greek hiero (sacred). Babylonian social stratification and wealth stemmed largely from economic status gained by interfacing as official or quasi‑official tamkarum merchants, royal collectors or other temple and palace administrators (Yoffee 1988 and 1981). Profit-seeking activities spread from the large public institutions to the rest of society as ritual and administrative functions provided the major opportunities for wealth-seeking in socially acceptable ways.
4. Concentration of the economic surplus was first achieved in the temple sector. Temple workshops were set corporately apart from their communities, endowed with their own land, dependent labor, herds of animals and stores of precious metal to support their handicraft activities and generate commercial surpluses. Many temple and palace lands were farmed by community members on a sharecropping basis, typically for a third of the crop or some other fixed proportion. Indeed, as history’s first documented landlords, the temples earned the first known land‑rent. Administrators were assigned such usufructs to provide food for their support, and may have exchanged some of this barley-revenue for luxuries (Ellis 1976 and Archi 1984). The resulting “redistributive” system of production and consumption preceded market trade and pricing by thousands of years. Also, as business corporations (in contrast to family partnerships), temples appear to have earned interest.
In short, profit‑accumulating enterprise was public long before being privatized. This explains why the first economic accounting and the organization of large-scale handicraft industry appears first in public, often sacred contexts. Temples systematized profit‑seeking in ways that only gradually became acceptable for private individuals acting on their own. (Wealthy individuals were expected to use their resources openhandedly or consume them in conspicuous displays such as burials or marriage feasts.) Indeed, the temples’ entrepreneurial functions emerged out of their sacred status “above” the community’s families at large, most of whom still functioned on a subsistence basis after taking into account their luxury spending.
The first organized surplus‑yielding property thus was public rather than private (see Hudson and Levine 1996). Unlike the case with communal lands held by the population at large, temple and palace properties were not periodically redivided among community members. They were marked by boundary stones inscribed with cosmological symbolism of their permanent and irreversible alienation from their former communal‑sector owners, e.g. as on the stele of Manishtushu c. 2200 BC. (Gelb, Steinkeller and Whiting 1989-91 provide a survey.) No such markers have survived for individually allotted lands from this period, suggesting that any such markers were merely temporary, reflecting their land tenure.
5. Temple production played a central role in foreign trade. In setting up trading posts or colonies to obtain foreign metal, stone and even hardwood, merchants acted in association with their home‑city temples to establish local branches as a kind of trade association (for example, the Assyrian trade colony of Kanesh in Asia Minor. See Leemans 1950 and 1960, Oppenheim 1965, Larsen 1976 and Archi 1984, as well as Hudson 1992). Mesopotamia’s temple workshops seem to have consigned their luxury textiles and other goods to merchants, and many temple professions dealt with imported materials.
The Uruk expansion c. 3500 BC appears to have been organized by the temples, planting colonies and trade missions westward across Syria to Asia Minor, southwest to Egypt, and eastward across the Iranian plateau (Algaze 1989 and Kohl 198-). Likewise in archaic Greece, the Delphi temple played a major role in planning and allocating trade outposts and colonies. Organization of foreign trade via temple outposts lasted throughout classical antiquity even in free‑enterprise zones such as Delos.
6. The urban shift away from family‑oriented to territorial space began with temple cults. Individuals were initiated into corporate groupings that replaced their biological families. Paternal authority and family structures were transposed onto the public plane in the form of temple and palace households, cults and professional guilds.
Over a century ago the American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society (1878) placed civilization’s urban watershed in the sixth century BC. He focused on the reforms of Cleisthenes in Athens (509/07) and Servius in Rome (537) as replacing the clannish family contexts, based on rural landholding, with neighborhood political units. Toynbee (1913) followed with a similar analysis for Sparta’s changes in the seventh century BC. Subsequent archaeologists have established that cities were organized on a district or “ward” basis thousands of years earlier. Already in Bronze Age Mesopotamia and Egypt each local area took responsibility for maintaining its irrigation dikes and canals.
Assyriologists have noted that early Mesopotamian rulers downplayed their family identity by representing their lineage as deriving from the city‑temple deities. Sargon of Akkad, often taken as a prototype for the myth of the birth of royal heroes (including Moses and Romulus) emphasized his “public family.” In any event archaic clan groupings seem to have been relatively open to newcomers. There is little Bronze Age evidence for closed aristocracies of the sort found in classical antiquity. Mesopotamia seems to have remained open and ethnically mixed for thousands of years, and the Sumerians probably incorporated strangers as freely as did medieval Irish feins and many modern tribal communities.
Clan lineages seem to have consolidated themselves (along with their property ownership) more readily in the periphery. Mycenaean chieftains built up unprecedented economic power by adopting the organizational and accounting techniques of Near Eastern enterprise. After 1200 BC warlord aristocracies parceled out Greek lands among their own closed ranks. When cities developed anew in the classical epoch, they once again administered themselves on the district basis described by Morgan.
7. Writing originated as a public‑sector function. Record-keeping served as a centralized control and scheduling device long before writing became a vehicle for personal self‑expression, literature or abstract philosophy. The earliest notations and cylinder seals were developed to hold temple administrators accountable for their receipt and disbursement of rations and other resources. By the middle of the third millennium, written accounts were being used to schedule product flows. The other great inspiration for symbolic notation and counting was calendar‑keeping, also a priestly task.
8. Monumental architecture likewise originated in the public sector. The temple was the archaic skyscraper as well as the social and economic center of Bronze Age cities. Long before Near Eastern families adopted stone construction for their own homes, it symbolized the permanency of public institutions. The earliest stone architecture seems to have been used for public buildings, legal stelae and boundary stones in Mesopotamia, as well as for tombs in Egypt and other regions (Raglan 1964:175-80). In Egypt and elsewhere, monumental stone architecture was used for funerary structures, which had a public character. The significance of their astronomical alignment and mathematical symbolism reflects the attempt to imbue public buildings with “natural order” (and the spirits of the dead with “eternity” as reflected in the symmetrical motions of the heavens).
In sum, public buildings of stone reflected the eternal cosmos in an epoch when private residences were made of much less permanent mud bricks and reeds. And as noted above, the use of stone boundary markers rather than wooden or clay ones indicated that alienations of land to the public sector (usually to the palace) were irreversible, in contrast to communal land tenure.
With regard to the urban characteristics of monumental architecture, and also what Childe describes as naturalistic art, it may be relevant to note that sculptural aesthetics, public art and urban cosmology dovetailed neatly with each other in a line that can be traced back to a common origin in temple architecture. Snodgrass (1980:179ff.) points out that the carving of statues presupposed a marble industry, which derived first and foremost from architectural demand, above all for building sanctuaries and temples. During the flowering of Greek city-states in 650‑575 BC, “statues were still often produced by men whose professional training had been as masons or quarrymen.” The Attic marble statues whose production flourished after 600 BC found their epitome in dedications to sanctuaries and grave monuments (ibid., 145f.).*
*Snodgrass (1980:179) adds that although the Athenian statues of standing male figures (kouroi) seem at first glance to be a naturalistic rendering, their typical pose actually “is an unnatural one, both feet being flat on the ground even though the position of the legs is for walking.” He explains this pose as probably being designed “to require the minimum modification of a tall, prism‑shaped block of about 6 feet by 1 foot by 1 1/2 feet . . . equivalent to two small building blocks superimposed on end.” The front, profile and back views could be drawn on the appropriate faces of the block, and carving would then follow the outline. Indeed, “‘pre‑carved’ kouros statues either in situ at a quarry, or nearby,” have been found (ibid.:143). This standardization of design was made all the easier by virtue of the fact that “accepted ratios existed for the various measurements.”
9. The formalization of arithmeticized, observational predictive sciences also were developed in a public context, often to aid in rituals. Archaic counting apparently derived from calendar‑making, as did astronomy and other predictive sciences, along with astrology and the taking of auguries. Such forecasting was used for public functions long before diffusing to the population at large.
Of a more practical calendrical nature were Mesopotamia’s sexagesimal fractions and higher mathematics, developed in the third millennium. The 360‑day administrative year helped provision the public labor force on a regular monthly basis. Large‑number computation was used to schedule the rations and manpower needed to dig canals and similar engineering projects. The 360-day calendar also provided a modular format for the circular geometry to divide the ecliptic and zodiac, and hence to predict celestial cycles. In sum, Bronze Age mathematical, astronomical and related knowledge was ritualistic as well as being used for public enterprise long before classical antiquity applied it to more secular tasks.
10. The first representational art is found in ritual contexts. One cannot say that the phenomenon of “naturalistic” art is specifically urban. Long before settled agriculture supported year‑round urbanization, the remarkably naturalistic imagery of the European Ice Age had depicted the seasonal behavior and appearance of animals and fish, including the moulting of pelage, the growth and shedding of antlers and the appearance of spring vegetation. Reviewing over twenty thousand years of Ice Age art and iconography, Marshack (1972, 1975) gives persuasive reasons for regarding much of that imagery as being referential in its seasonal contexts, probably because it was produced for seasonal ritual and mythic purposes.
What Childe seems to term naturalistic art is simply that which lacks the traditional dimension of symbolic cognitive meaning. But classical portraiture and statuary only gradually dispensed with the iconographic formalities traditionally used to indicate status. Although much Bronze Age statuary and portraiture appears naturalistic at first glance, the proportions of the head to the body and other ratios reflect a sexagesimal arithmetic in Mesopotamia and decimalized proportions in Egypt and Greece (Azarpay 1990). Even rulers such as Gudea, whom one would expect to be pioneers of individualistic rendering, were regressed into a set of standardized features (Winter 1989). Such symbolic and mathematized idealizations are the opposite of naturalism.
To sum up, all ten of Childe’s urban characteristics turn out to be grounded in preurban ritual activities that long retained a public character, above all those associated with Bronze Age temples, their communal storage facilities, handicraft workshops and sponsorship of the festivals that were the focal point of the archaic calendar. As a Marxist, Childe might have emphasized how cities, like every social organism, evolved in the womb of their predecessor. Instead, he focused on cities simply as material consequences of a technological revolution, without tracing their genesis as sacred ritual sites.
No doubt if we could travel back in time to ask a Bronze Age Mesopotamian, Egyptian or Canaanite about how to go about founding a town, or even to ask a classical Greek or Roman augur who knew the proper rites, we would hear little about Childe’s materialist criteria for cities. There was no archaic or classical discussion of population pressure and democratic density, except to condemn it as a symptom of decay. There was no discussion of how the division of labor led to social stratification or to lower costs (and hence higher economic competitiveness), but only to higher‑quality output (Lowry 1987:68ff. and Finley 1974). Nor did ancient writers discuss the urban character of writing and public architecture, science, engineering and the secularization of art. As for the idea that cities tended automatically to grow larger and more complex over time, it took many centuries for classical Greece and Rome to achieve anywhere near the degree of specialization found earlier in Bronze Age Mesopotamia, and their industry was never as large‑scale.
Even as cities became more secular in classical times, their administrative focus remained shaped to a large extent by sacred rituals. Town planners were augurs, more concerned with reading omens than with the more pragmatic aspects of city planning. In an epoch when medicine was ritualistic and doctors often were in the character of shamans, the idea of promoting health was to perform proper rituals at the city’s foundation rather than to place cities on slopes for good drainage. (This is why it was considered auspicious to build Rome around the mosquito‑ridden Forum.) Material considerations were incorporated to the extent that they could be reconciled with the guiding social cosmology.
Entrepot Cities as enclaves from the laws of their lands rather than centers of law and power
The heterogeneous and multiethnic character of Near Eastern cities reflected their function as enclaves from the law of the land, e.g. as free trade areas or cities of refuge. In this respect the most archaic urban sites were specialized islands — ritual centers, trading entrepots, and occasionally (but relatively late) imperial capitals and military outposts such as those of Sargon and his Akkadians. What is not found among early Near Eastern cities is the general-purpose polis of classical antiquity, whose citizen‑landholders made laws covering their community at large and carried on industry through their own households rather than via corporately distinct public institutions.
Many millennia were required before a common body of law came to govern the city and the land, temples and palaces in a single code. Polis-type cities and their law codes combining hitherto separate public and private, sacred and secular functions were relatively late. And when such cities arose, in classical times, they had become much more genetically closed than was the case in archaic towns.
Having summarized these various characteristics of the earliest urban sites, we are now in a position to turn to one of the most economically important types of archaic city: the trade entrepot. Beginning with Çatal Hüyük in Asia Minor c. 5500 BC, the earliest cities were multiethnic entrepots. They might range in size from a trading post (French pôt) to a full-fledged port city. Such commercial centers would have had to provide equal treatment for all parties, reinforced by the usual array of rituals. In any event, such towns were different in principle from centers of political government or military power representing one territory’s interests as distinct from those of other such groupings.
Near Eastern cities were centered around temples which gave them a sacred status as well as serving as commercial administrators. Rather than being controlled by any one tribe, family or locality (at least “in the beginning”), these temples were endowed by diverse parties as autonomous institutions to serve broad community-wide interests. This public status explains why the earliest towns were militarily stable despite their lack of fortifications. Their cosmopolitan, often multiethnic character made their urban religion “higher” and more comprehensive than life on the land.
An important characteristic of entrepot cities was that they were founded at the external margin rather than in the center of their communities. The fact that they often were on water-courses or similar natural points of confluence reflects the fact that one of their major purposes was to deal with outsiders, above all through trade.
Throughout the ancient world we find similar entrepot areas built up on offshore islands wherever these are conveniently at hand. Such islands had the advantage of having deeper harbors than were available onshore, but there also was a political reason to prefer them. Islands kept foreign mercantile contact out of local communities. This made them a path of least resistance as neutral commercial entrepots, facilitating arms‑length contacts.
Egypt, for instance, restricted foreign contacts to the Delta region where the Nile emptied into the Mediterranean. The Etruscans confined their foreign commerce with the Phoenicians and Greeks in the eighth and seventh centuries BC to the island of Ischia/Pithekoussai, which became a base for the Corinthians and other merchants to deal with the Italian mainland. Cornwall’s tin was exported via the Scilly Isles. The north Germans may have conducted the Baltic amber trade by way of the offshore (sacred?) island of Helgoland. Athens traded via its Piraeus port area.
Muhly (1973:227) notes the significance of island entrepots: “The early Greek commercial settlements in the west were made not on the mainland but on small offshore islands, such as Ischia, in the Baby of Naples, and Ortygia, just off Syracuse. The early Phoenician settlements in the west followed the same pattern, as shown by the settlements at Motya, off the western tip of Sicily, and at Gadir, in Cadiz Bay.” Rhys Carpenter (1966:206f.) has attributed this to the fear felt by seaborne traders of “mainland native treachery,” so as to be safe from land attacks. Perhaps the harbors also were secured from piracy.
Other such islands include the Scilly Isles off the coast of Cornwall, and the Bahrain islands, as well as Ru’ush eg-Gibal in the Gulf of Oman. Muhly adds (1973:399) that Fagerlie (1967) discusses the offshore islands of Øland and Gotland in northern Europe’s amber trade. Homer’s Odyssey has the Phaecians trade from an offshore island. (Note Hong Kong’s role in today’s world.)
This long historical tradition stands behind today’s offshore enclaves. They were stateless in the sense of lying outside the jurisdiction and control of any single territorial government. They often were islands, figuratively if not literally, and many were situated at key transport junctions. (We find this same idea in the karum areas where trade was conducted, even in inland colonies such as karum Kanesh to handle the Assyrian trade in Asia Minor. Larsen 1976 provides details.)
A characteristic of such sites was their exemption from control by any single regional or kinship‑based grouping. Their inhabitants were treated equally (at least in principle), regardless of their private status. In the third and second millennia we find such cities marked by kudurru stones attesting to their exemption from tribute and quasi-taxes, something like Germany’s medieval free cities.
The multiethnic character of southern Mesopotamian cities (and others as well) led them to formalize rituals of social integration to create a synthetic affinity. Urban cults were structured to resemble the family ‑‑ a public family or corporate body with its own foundation story such as that of Abraham of Ur for the Jews, or heroic myths for Greek cities. Over these families stood the temples, “households of the gods,” whose patron deities were manifestations of a common prototype and given local genealogies.
Commercial contacts led to cultural interchange and new cultural forms. Residents of gateway centers staged pageants to celebrate and cement their association. Olympia, Delphi, Nemia and the Corinthian Isthmus staged pan‑Hellenic games as friendly competitions to help integrate the Greeks (Raschke 1988). Such festivities have provided occasions for trade throughout much of history. Their public ceremonial character enabled them to provide an umbrella of peace over a market for commercial wares.
Cities of refuge
The first city that appears in the Bible (Genesis 4) is not a commercial port, administrative capital or military outpost, but the city of refuge located “east of Eden . . . in the land of Nod,” to which Adam’s son Cain withdrew after he killed his brother Abel. This city evidently was already established and populated, but we are not told by whom.
Such cities of refuge are found not only in the Old Testament but also in Native American communities at the time of their first contact with white men, suggesting a nearly universal response to the problem of what to do with public offenders. Throughout history, exile has been a widespread punishment for manslaughter and other capital crimes, including treason. The exile is obliged to leave his native community on pain of death, liable to retaliation by the victim’s family taking revenge. Sanctuaries for such fugitives must have been well peopled, for an early myth says that Romulus helped populate Rome by founding an asylum for them.
The Israelites are said to have created twelve cities of refuge, one for each tribal region. Genesis 9 stipulates that “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” Exodus 21 qualifies this by adding that as long as there was no deliberate murder with premeditated guile, “if he does not do it intentionally, but God lets it happen, he is to flee to a place I will designate.” Numbers 35 reports that the Lord commanded Moses to “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, select some towns to be your cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone accidentally may flee. They will be places of refuge from the avenger, so that a person accused of murder may not die before he stands trial before the assembly.” Six towns were thus appointed, to be overseen by Levite priests. More details are provided by Joshua 20, a veritable manual for how to inaugurate a city or new society:
The Lord said to Joshua: “Tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge, as I instructed you through Moses, so that anyone who kills a person accidentally and unintentionally may flee there and find protection from the blood‑avenger.
When he flees to one of these cities, he is to stand in the entrance of the city gate and state his case before the elders of that city. Then they are to admit him into their city and give him a place to live with them. If the blood‑avenger pursues him, they must not surrender the one accused, because he killed his neighbor unintentionally and without malice aforethought. He is to stay in that city until he has stood trial before the assembly land until the death of the high priest who is serving at that time. Then he may go back to his own home in the town from which he fled.”
Such cities are assumed to have been placed on hills, mountains or other prominent spots plainly marked, as described in Deuteronomy 19, but Levine (this volume) finds them to be temples in the city itself. In any event, each year public workers are reported to have been sent to repair the roads leading to them, and to maintain signposts guiding manslayers. Such cities were to be of ready access, situated “in the midst of the land” rather than in remote corners, so that they could be reached by a single day’s journey. Presumably they were emptied in the general amnesties which find their roots at least as early as the Babylonian misharum Clean Slates and Egyptian sed festivals early in the second millennium.
Archaic cities as gateways
Entrepots throughout history have been multiethnic, attracting merchants and travelers from all over. The logic of their social relations has dictated that when disputes arise, they should be settled by administrative bodies or juries composed of all parties. To establish a standard of behavior (and of pricing, responsibility and liability) these public areas developed their own rules, which seem to be the first to be written down. The most characteristic applications of early public law pertained to exchange and contact among alien‑equals, and between the public professions and the communal/private sector. As noted above, such laws were distinct from the common law of the land, which took the form of oral traditions.
A variety of languages often is spoken in entrepots, just as they are in modern Hong Kong with its Chinese and English, Panama with its Spanish and English, and Lebanon with its Arabic and French. As historians of writing and the alphabet have described, Mesopotamian scribes developed phonetic symbols to transcribe the sounds of alien names and towns to render them from one language to another. This is what inspired the transition from word‑signs to syllabic cuneiform in multilingual Sumer. The urban tradition of writing thus may be attributed to the multiethnic commercial character of archaic cities, and their need for record-keeping to seal contracts and treaties, and to keep accounts.
Some parallels between archaic entrepots and modern offshore banking centers
A discussion of the origins of urbanization may provide some insight into the character of modern social problems by highlighting the long historical dynamic at work. Indeed, it may not be out of place here to point out that anti‑states are well known in the modern world, above all in what the U.S. Federal Reserve Board classifies as eleven offshore banking centers. Five such enclaves are in the Caribbean: Panama, the Netherlands Antilles (Curacao), Bermuda, the Bahamas and the British West Indies (Cayman Islands). Three enclaves ‑‑ Hong Kong, Macao and Singapore ‑‑ were founded to conduct the China trade. The remaining three are Liberia, Lebanon, and Bahrain at the mouth of the Persian Gulf ‑‑ the island which Bronze Age Sumerians called Dilmun when they used it to trade with the Indus valley and the Iranian shore.
Nothing would seem more modern than these offshore banking centers. They are the brainchildren of lawyers and accountants in the 1960s seeking to weave loopholes into the social fabric — to provide curtains of secrecy (“privacy”) to avoid or evade taxes, and to serve as havens for ill‑gotten earnings as well as to facilitate legitimate commerce.
Whereas modern nation‑states enact laws and impose taxes, such enclaves help individuals evade such regulations. And whereas nation‑states have armies, these centers are the furthest thing from being military powers. They are antibodies to nationhood, yet more may be learned about Ice Age, neolithic and even Bronze Age public sites by looking at these modern enclaves than by examining classical city‑states such as Athens and Rome.
A clue to the character of today’s commercial enclaves and their Bronze Age forerunners is their lack of political autonomy. Instead of being politically independent, the modern offshore banking centers and free trade zones are small former colonies, e.g. the Caribbean islands as well as Chinese entrepots. The Grand Cayman Island was a Jamaican dependency until 1959, when it chose to revert to its former status as a British crown colony so as to benefit from what remained of imperial commercial preferences. Liberia and Panama are U.S. dependencies lacking even their own currency system. (Both use the U.S. dollar.) Hong Kong did not gain title to its own land until Britain’s leases expired in 1997. Panama is not scheduled to gain control of its canal until 1999. In sum, whereas political theorists define the first characteristic of modern states (and implicitly their capital cities) as being their ability to enact and enforce laws, offshore banking centers are of no political significance. In the sense of being sanctuaries from national taxes and law authorities, such enclaves are in some ways akin to the biblical cities of refuge. If they are not sanctuaries for lawbreakers personally, they at least provide havens for their bank accounts and corporate shells.
Like most archaic entrepot‑cities, modern offshore banking centers are situated at convenient points of commercial interface between regions, typically on islands or key transport navels such as the Panamanian isthmus. They are separated as free ports politically, if not physically, from their surrounding political entities. They often are centers of travel and tourism (“business meetings”), and for gambling. In antiquity they typically were centers for sacred festivals or games such as were held at Delphi, Nemia, the Corinthian Isthmus or Olympia (whence our modern Olympic games originated in a sacred context).
Although Delphi and Olympus were landlocked (as was Çatal Hüyük), they were centrally located for their local regions. They served as religious and cultural centers, whose festivals and games could be conveniently attended by the Hellenic population at large. Even visitors who were citizens of mutually belligerent city‑states enjoyed sacred protection against attack. Of course, today’s enclaves no longer claim sacred status, except for the Vatican and its Institute for Religious Works promoting money-laundering functions (Yallop 1984:92ff.). Their commercial focus has become divorced from the religious setting associated with international commerce down through medieval Europe with its great fairs.
Such enclaves rarely have armies of their own, yet they are militarily safe. Thanks to their unique apolitical status, and indeed to their ultimate dependence on larger powers, their neighbors have little motive to attack them and every reason to use them as business channels and even for government transactions such as arms dealing, money laundering and related activities not deemed proper behavior at home. The resulting commerce thrives free of regulations and taxes, conducted in militarily safe environments without the cost of having to support standing armies, and hence less need to levy taxes for this purpose, or to monetize national war debts.
To create such enclaves has been an objective of mercantile capital through the ages. It patronizes the world’s politically weakest areas as long as they do not do what real governments do: regulate their economies. This search for “neutral territory” expressed itself already in the chalcolithic epoch, many millennia before private enterprise developed as we know it. The result of this impetus is that neolithic towns such as Çatal Hüyük, Mesopotamian temple cities such as Nippur, island entrepots such as Dilmun, the Egyptian Delta area, Ischia/Pithekoussai, and the biblical cities of refuge share this important common denominator with today’s offshore banking centers: Rather than being centers of local governing, legal and military power, they were politically neutral sites established outside the jurisdictions of local governments.
Whether the status of these urban sites was that of sanctified commercial entrepots or amphictyonic centers, they provided a forum for rituals of social cohesion to bolster their commerce. These rituals included the exchange of goods and women (intermarriage) -‑ commerce and intercourse in their archaic sexual meaning as well as in the more modern sense.
I have cited above the archaic practice of conducting trade via island entrepots. The sacred island of Dilmun/Bahrain in the Persian Gulf represents history’s longest lasting example of such an enclave. It served as an entrepot linking Sumer and Babylonia (whose records refer prominently to the “merchants of Dilmun”) to the Indus civilization and the intervening Iranian shore.* Its status as a sacred as well as commercial center may have been promoted by the fact that its waters were a source of pearls, prized as sacred symbols of the moon (being round, pale and associated with deep water). It also seems to have served as a high‑status burial ground for prosperous individuals, or at least for parts of their bodies. (Lamberg‑Karlovsky 1982 reports that there are more fingers and other limbs than full skeletons, as the Sumerians partook piecemeal in the island’s sanctity (although some commentators believe that this may be simply the result of grave robberies through the centuries; see Moorey 1984). In any event these social and commercial virtues helped make Dilmun one of the most expensive pieces of Bronze Age real estate, not unlike modern Bahrain.
*Dilmun’s weights and meAsures were those of the Indus basin. See Zaccagnini 1986. For a bibliography see Potts, Curt Larsen, etc.
Their commercial functions were an outgrowth of their sacred status. For much the same reason that temples became the major handicraft production centers, the sacred status of such entrepots facilitated commercial development in ways that did not abuse Bronze Age sensibilities. By the same token, Bronze Age financial practices had ritualistic origins.
While structuring an economic context for large‑scale enterprise within traditional social values and order, Bronze Age institutions provided leeway so as not to stifle commercial development with overcentralized control. This may be part of the reason why trade was conducted outside the city gates. The philosophy was to create “mixed economies” in which public and private sectors each had their proper role.
Delos: A classical prototype of modern Panama
This paper began by describing civilization’s earliest cities as gateways and neutral zones. They were places where public institutions ‑‑ first the temples and later the palace ‑‑ were endowed with resources to generate economic surpluses in profit‑seeking ways not yet deemed proper for individual families. By the Hellenistic period in the second century BC, Delos exhibits the mirror image: a trading enclave enabling private individuals to escape from social rules, turning its temples into commercial embassies of the crassest sort.
During the millennium extending from about 700 BC to AD 300 the unchecked dynamics of commerce and usury, warfare and slavery polarized Greece, Italy and the Mediterranean region as a whole. From Persia to Italy, palace workshops and temple households gave way to smaller‑scale and less formal family‑based estates (oikoi) of warrior aristocracies. Most commercial wealth passed into private hands freed from the checks and balances of central overrides. This was particularly true after Alexander the Great’s empire was parcelled out among his leading generals following his death in 323 BC. The ensuing Hellenistic regimes provided a free‑for‑all for wealthy families to do virtually as they wished.
Like most other Aegean islands, Delos was dominated by Athens until one of Alexander’s generals, Ptolemy, gained control in 315 BC. Although poor in land and other natural resources, and despite the fact that its port and harbor were not very good, Delos flourished as a commercial entrepot. Its temple of Apollo had long established the island as a deposit‑banking enclave. Sacred oversight of deposits by Apollo’s attendants was of critical importance in an epoch when no such thing as national deposit insurance existed.
Matters were catalyzed when Rome threw its support behind oligarchies throughout the Aegean and Greece, achieving suzerainty over the Mediterranean in 168 BC with the battle of Pydna. Until this time Delos had been overshadowed by the neighboring island of Rhodes. The latter was an ally of Rome, but its business standards were too high to facilitate the quick killings sought by Italian speculators, and in any case Rhodians had kept non‑Greeks out of local banking and commerce. In 168 the Roman Senate undercut the island’s power by making Delos a duty‑free port.
This diverted much business away from Rhodes, and gained for Italian merchants and bankers a major foothold in the Aegean. The Delian temple and general economic administration were turned over to Rome’s ally Athens, which evacuated many Delians and replaced them with Athenians, supplemented by an influx of Italian and Levantine adventurers. These newcomers used Delos as a locus for the Aegean grain trade and the maritime lending and insurance that grew out of it.
The island’s commercial role was catalyzed in 146 BC when Rome destroyed Corinth and Carthage, and by the general breakdown of authority in the Aegean resulting from the fact that in destroying Rhodian naval power, Rome removed the single major check to piracy. Delos did not take its place in keeping Aegean commerce free from pirates. Indeed, it became their major market!
Matters were greatly aggravated after 142 BC when an ambitious military officer, Diodotus Tryphon, led a revolt to break Cilicia (in what is now southern Turkey) and neighboring Syria away from their Seleucid rulers. He organized the Cilicians into pirate fleets, and his freebooters managed to take over such government as there was in the region.
The pirates quickly monopolized the most lucrative trade of the period ‑‑ that in slaves. As Strabo (XIV.5) described matters: “Prisoners were an easy catch, and the island of Delos provided a large and wealthy market not far away, which was capable of receiving and exporting ten thousand slaves a day. Hence the proverb: ‘Merchant, sail in, unload, everything is sold.’ . . . The pirates seeing the easy gains to be made, blossomed forth in large numbers, acting simultaneously as pirates and slave traders.” They sold spoils and captives from Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt to the burgeoning southern Italian market to work as slaves on the large agricultural plantations, in handicraft workshops, or simply as household servants.
The temple of Apollo, sun-god of justice, supporting rather than curtailing the activities of the influx of pirates, merchants and usurers, provided a protective screen for the basest commercial speculations. The historian Mikhail Rostovtzeff (1941:542ff., 292) has described how “the free port of Delos [was] left completely in the hands of bankers, merchants and traders . . . While in the early days of Delos the city was an annex to the temple, now the temple became a kind of appendix to the community, bankers with the corresponding amount of labor, mostly servile.” Each of the island’s ethnic and professional groupings formed its own cult association to represent its mercantile, shipping and banking interests. From southern Italy, for instance, came the cults of Mercury and Maia, Apollo and Poseidon. A Phoenician cult was centered in a temple replete with porticoes to display its members’ merchandise (Tarn 1952:261, citing Hatzfeld, Les Trafiquants Italiens dans l’Orient hellenique).
Yves Garlan (1988:183) refers to pirate‑controlled Cilicia and its emporium on Delos as “counterstates,” and Rostovtzeff calls them “a new phenomenon among the city‑states of Greece.” Tarn (1952:264ff.) calls Delos’s relationship with the Cilician pirates an “unholy alliance . . . Delos became the greatest slave‑market yet known, and as the eastern governments began to grow weaker their subjects were drained away; Bithynia is said to have been half depopulated.” He concurs that Delos represented “a unique kind of form . . . the foreign business associations became ‘settlers,’ and in their totality constituted ‘Delos,’ seemingly without any city forms at all, but under an Athenian governor; that is, political precedents were subordinated to the requirements of trade.” Thus, just as in today’s world Panama and other offshore banking entrepots operate as the antitheses to nationhood, so in Rostovtzeff’s description “the motley population of Delos had not the slightest inclination to become a city. They were perfectly happy to live the peculiar life of a free merchant community with no civic duties to fulfill and no liturgies [taxes] to bear.”
The last thing the Delian merchant class wanted was a public authority to regulate its entrepot trade in captured cargoes, slaves or, for that matter, honest goods. “It is evident that the residents of Delos were not very much interested either in the temple or in the city,” concludes Rostovtzeff. “Delos was for them not their home but their business residence. What they cared for most was not the city or the temple but the harbors, the famous sacred harbor, and especially the three adjoining so‑called basins with their large and spacious storehouses. It is striking that while these storehouses are open to the sea there is almost no access to them from the city. This shows that very few goods stored in them ever went as far as even the marketplaces of the city. Many of them came to the harbor, spent time in the storehouses, and moved on, leaving considerable sums in the hands of the Delian brokers. In fact in the Athenian period the city of Delos was but an appendix to the harbor. So soon as the activity of the harbor stopped, the city became a heap of ruins and it was again the temple which towered over these in splendid isolation.”
This characteristic of Delos’s warehouses being only open outwards, not inland, finds a parallel in modern Panama’s Canal Zone, whose warehouses likewise are bonded and set aside from the local economy (save for the National Guard’s pilfering and shakedowns). Panama’s imports from Asia are destined for other Western Hemisphere countries rather than for local consumption. Drug and arms shipments provide another analogue to Delian contraband. Finally, Panama’s sizeable Oriental and European population working as brokers and bankers recalls the adventurers who made their way to Delos. Both that island and Panama became what are now called “dual economies”: The Delian export trade involved the native population only minimally, much as is the case in Panama and other modern enclaves.
The anti‑Roman leader Mithradates of Pontus received support from the Cilician pirates, and in turn gave his support to Delos. An uprising against Rome resulted in the massacre of Italian merchants and creditors throughout Asia Minor and Greece in 88 BC. Some 20,000 Romans and their retinues reportedly were killed on Delos and the neighboring islands. The pirates later turned on Delos and looted it. Rome retaliated, and the accession of Augustus a half‑century later finally cleared the Mediterranean of piracy and restored peace. This dried up the sources of the Delian trade in slaves and pirate contraband.
As free-enterprise havens for their respective criminal undergrounds, both the Delian and Panamanian enclaves attracted the usual riffraff. What would be needed to complete the parallel between Panama and Delos would be a massacre of Americans in the Canal Zone comparable to that of Roman tax farmers and creditors in the first century BC. Even without so grizzly a climax, an obvious parallel remains: Just as Rome finally closed down Delos, so the 1988‑89 American invasion to topple Noriega lay waste to Panama’s economy. (However, whereas Rome proceeded to clean up Mediterranean piracy as a whole, the United States has not yet sought to close down criminal‑enterprise zones in the Caribbean except for the Canal Zone.)
Summary: Near Eastern temples and their urbanizing functions
Bronze Age trade entrepots and temples were not governing centers to establish general laws and policies for their local landed communities. Even less were they in the character of military centers. They did not have taxing authority beyond their local enclave limits. (That would have smacked of imperial tribute.) Indeed, the major Mesopotamian cities were freed from such tribute in the Middle and Late Bronze Age. This freedom was marked by kudurrus (Oppenheim 1977). Nippur, for instance, was “tax-free”: Mesopotamian rulers exempted it from tribute. In this status as a “free city” we find the characteristic of modern commercial havens. No doubt this status was related to the fact that many of antiquity’s trade enclaves were established literally as islands of free enterprise.
Such cosmopolitan islands were anything but “states” as usually described by political theorists. Indeed, today’s ideas of public power are not much help in analyzing Bronze Age institutions. Conversely, by not viewing states as having a directly commercial role, modern political theorists miss the key characteristics of archaic urbanization and Bronze Age public institutions. Mesopotamian temples and palace were economic producers in an epoch when production had not yet passed into private hands.
While the temples had important worldly social functions, governing was not one of them. They were created to solve the most pressing economic problem of their time ‑‑ to undertake the commercial enterprise aimed at securing foreign raw materials. Rather than being subject to the laws of any single territory, they had their own special laws, originally limited only to their territory and governing their public functions. They made economic policy to the extent that they established prices for food and other products, rented out sharecropping lands as history’s first absentee landlords, extended credit at the first regularly attested interest rates, produced exports in their workshops, oversaw weights and measures, economic accounting, and stored seed, savings, money and economic records. Yet in performing these functions most Bronze Age cities and their temples fell short of the criteria of modern states as described by today’s political theorists: the ability to make generally binding laws, declare war and tax. The city-temples may best be thought of as public utilities. It was as such that they were accountable, whereas private partnerships were not. (Throughout antiquity the only business corporations that could be formed were for the purpose of undertaking public functions such as construction and tax farming.)
Inevitably, as towns developed into regional trade systems, their prosperity inspired local military rivalries while attracting the attention of alien raiders. Military and other secular forces played a growing role by the third millennium, and sought to legitimize themselves by adapting the traditional repertory of cosmological symbolism, public architecture and at least the outward forms of archaic ritual functions to their evolving circumstances.
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