Whenever rulers and military classes tolerated merchants and refrained from taxing them so heavily or robbing them so often as to inhibit trade and commerce, new potentialities of economic production arising from regional specialization and economies of scale in manufacture could begin to show their capacity to increase human wealth.
There is an old joke about the standard instructions on American shampoo containers, "Lather, rinse, repeat." A man takes the directions literally and spends the rest of his life in the shower—lathering, rinsing, lathering, rinsing, lathering, rinsing.
Sometimes it seems as if ancient civilization followed similar instructions. Rise, fall, repeat. The ruler and dynasties and peoples may change, but all seem locked into the same endless cycle of conquest and expansion, fragmentation and collapse.
Ancient history thus seems like little more than a parade of strange-sounding names. There’s Uruk—not to be confused with Ur (or Ur II, or Ur III). There are Akkadians, not to mention Achaemenids. Eventually the Minoans and Mycenaeans arrive (or is it the other way around?), and then, finally, come the really familiar names: Greece and Rome.
Meanwhile, in China, there is conflict among the Ch’i, the Ch’in, the Chin, and the Ch’u (this during the late Chou). Finally the Ch’in win, and consolidate China, then quickly fall apart.
Over in the New World, civilization begins to stir long before the famous classic Mayan period. There are Olmec and Zapotec, and, by the time the Inca and Aztecs occupy center stage, we’ve also een Huastec, Mixtec, and Toltec, not to mention Chimu and Chincha and Chichimec.
It all seems a blur. But really, the problem is that it is not blurry enough. The reason that ancient history seems chaotic is that we are using a zoom lens, focusing on small regions and small time frames. If we relax our vision, and let these details go fuzzy, then a larger picture comes into focus: As the centuries fly by, civilizations may come and go, but civilization flourishes, growing in scope and complexity.
The key is to take the "history" out of ancient history. Historians tend to dwell on differences. How was ancient China different from Sumer? Why was it different? Good questions, interesting questions, questions we’ll get back to. But first let’s ask: How were early states, in the various regions where they evolved, alike? This is one way to simplify ancient history—by realizing that, fundamentally, the same thing was happening everywhere you look.
THREE PETRI DISHES
Archaeologists speak of six "pristine" civilizations—states that arose indigenously, and weren’t merely copied from a nearby civilization, or imposed on the populace by conquest. The standard six are: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Mesoamerica, South America, China, and the civilization of the Indus River valley (about which relatively little is known) in south Asia. Some scholars throw in West Africa as well.
Calling West African civilization pristine is something of an exaggeration, given earlier contact with states to the north. Then again, calling some of the standard six "pristine" states pristine is a bit of a stretch. Indus script (still undeciphered) may have been inspired by Mesopotamia, which was exchanging memes with Egypt as well. And some diffusion, however thin, probably linked South America (the Inca and their cultural ancestors) and Mesoamerica (Aztecs, Maya, and others).
Still, even after granting these early and occasionally momentous contacts, we are left with three large realms of ancient civilization, quite removed from each other: China, the Near East, and the New World. The scholarly consensus is that each developed its energy and information technologies—farming and writing—indigenously. And each then underwent its early civilizational history in essential isolation from the others.
Yet in all three cases, the same thing happened. Namely: more of the same. The trend that had gotten humanity to the verge of civilization—bands getting big enough to qualify as villages, which then got bigger and more complex and combined to form chiefdoms— continued. The chiefdoms’ villages evolved into something more like towns, which themselves then got bigger and more complex. In all three regions, loosely defined city-states—urban cores surrounded by farmlands and villages and towns—seem to have evolved (though in some places, such as Egypt and the Andes, the "city" part of the state may have been so small as to stretch the definition of the term). And these city-states merged, forming multicity states, and these multicity states grew into empires. Sure, there were setbacks aplenty—droughts, barbarian hordes, and other catalysts of epic collapse— but in the long run the setbacks proved temporary. (Indeed, the setbacks attest to ongoing progress; their increasing vastness charts the growing magnitude of the systems that are being set back.) So there you have it—ancient history in a nutshell: onward and upward, to higher levels of social complexity.
Paragraphs such as the previous one, asserting simple patterns in history, and suggesting that they reflect general laws, are a fat target for criticism. They seem, as one philosopher of history has put it, to derive a "linear law" from "the alleged trend of the historical process as a whole." And, "since the process is unique, this looks, at best, like generalizing from a single case."
But in ancient history, at least, the process is not unique. There are at least three separate cases to study—and four if you assume, as many do, minimal early contact between Mesoamerica and the Andes. Granted, if we’re going to call the patterns that these cases separately evince "laws," we should explore the mechanics of the "laws" and show why they are powerful. We’ve already done some of that, and we’ll do more. But in the meantime, let’s at least establish that in the several cases available for study, the basic pattern—deeper and vaster social complexity, more and more non-zero-sumness—indeed holds.
ONE CRADLE OF CIVILIZATION
Ancient rulers from China and the Americas could be excused for rolling over in their well-appointed graves on hearing such Eurocentric propaganda. Their civilizations had their own cradles, domestically manufactured, thank you. Still, we have to start somewhere, and Near Eastern civilization did precede the other two civilizations.
In the Mesopotamian vicinity, the story of civilization begins, as elsewhere, with farming and attendant social complexity. By 4000 B.C. there are the familiar hallmarks of chiefdoms—temples, other capital projects (irrigation systems and what appear to be a granary), and, of course, special burials for big shots, complete with precious copper and ceramic knick-knacks. The chiefdoms’ villages get bigger and bigger and at some point cross that blurry line between villages and towns.
Around 3500 B.C., though true writing had yet to appear, the stirrings of the first information revolution were evident: the cylinder seal, complex tokens, the bevel-rimmed bowl. As writing evolved, growth toward civilization was brisk. In southern Mesopotamia between 3500 B.C. and 2900 B.C., the number of villages grew from 17 to 124, the number of towns from 3 to 20. The number of "urban centers"—125 acres (50 hectares) or larger—grew from one to 20. By 2800 B.C., the city of Uruk covered 617 acres (250 hectares), and its temples, mounted on massive ziggurats, were visible from miles away. Surrounded by, and interdependent with, farming villages and towns, Uruk came to anchor an amorphous city-state. Comparable clusters evolved elsewhere in Mesopotamia.
Relations among city-states featured that double-barreled source of non-zero-sumness, Kant’s "unsocial sociability." Polities traded and fought, traded and fought, and the result was, as usual, a strong argument for political unification. The logic isn’t merely that a two-city state is stronger than its one-city enemy by virtue of size. The strength derives also from the fact that trade between its two cities can now proceed without the disruption of periodic warfare and untrammeled marauding, and without the burden of mistrust. The basic idea—creating large zones for the free play of non-zero-sumness—is akin to Elman Service’s notion of "waging peace."
But peace was often not waged peacefully. Though municipal ruler might agree on the virtues of a multicity mega-state, they rarely agreed on who the mega-ruler should be. Like chiefdoms, multicity mega-states tended to get formed with the help of aggression, or at least the threat of it.
The first large multicity state in Mesopotamia was the Akkadian empire, formed around 2350 B.C., when Sargon of Akkade conquered Sumerian cities in southern Mesopotamia. Sargon’s conquests came with a divine seal of approval; having toppled a city, he asked local priests to declare his victory the will of the Mesopotamian god Enlil. Perhaps to facilitate clear thinking on their part, he exhibited the vanquished local king in neck-stock. As a further aid to theological interpretation, Sargon installed his daughter as high priestess of the goddess Nanna at Ur, the religious capital of southern Mesopotamia. Having subdued much of the population in and around the Tigris-Euphrates valley, Sargon declared himself, a bit provincially, "King of the Four Quarters of the World."
Meanwhile Egypt, though slower than Mesopotamia to develop cities (and never as vastly urban as Mesopotamia), moved more quickly, and more enduringly, toward regional statehood. The threshold was crossed not long after the information revolution arrived. By 3100 B.C. Egyptian hieroglyphics were in use, recording ancestral lineages and property ownership. By 3000 B.C., give or take a century, Egypt was politically unified and was evincing the generic human combination of lucrative trade, warm alliance, and devastating enmity.
Egyptian pharaohs had high self-regard even by the lofty standards of ancient rulers. On an unusually consistent basis, they convinced the populace not just that they represented the will of the gods, but that they were gods—direct offspring of the Sun God Ra. The attendant subservience may partly explain the stunning embodiments of state power: the pyramids, which soaked up unimaginable labor so that pharaohs could have nice roomy tombs and spend the afterlife surrounded by hiny artifacts in garage-sale quantities. Divinity aside, the pharaohs relied heavily on a vast bureaucracy, whose detailed workings are obscure, but which certainly didn’t suffer from a shortage of titles: Overseer of Granaries, Overseer of Works, Overseer of the Treasuries, Overseer of the Scribes of the Great Records, Overseer of the Great Mansions (the courts), and so on.
ANOTHER CRADLE OF CIVILIZATION
In east Asia, farming seems to have evolved a millennium or so later than in the Middle East, but its consequences followed just as surely: bigger villages, more artifacts, more trade, vaster conflict, bigger buildings, bigger realms of political control, starker status hierarchies (jade and bronze being favored upper-class grave accoutrements). An age of chiefdoms seems to have been reached by the late fourth millennium B.C., and in the second millennium B.C. came testaments to state-level organization: writing, cities, a king who could lead 13,000 men into battle and oversee epic engineering. The fortifications surrounding one urban compound of temples and palaces would have taken 10,000 workers eighteen years to build—assuming a one-day weekend and no paid vacations. Royal graves were roomy—thirty, forty feet deep, with terracing and easy-access ramps. Kings were buried with slaves and human sacrifices (sometimes neatly decapitated) and lots of wealth. Even one king’s consort, though consigned to a modest grave, was surrounded with 468 bronze items, 775 jades, and 6,880 lovely cowrie shells.
All of this belongs to what is known as "the Shang civilization," but the suggestion of homogeneity may be misleading. Some scholars now dissent from the long-accepted Chinese view of a unified national past, and envision the Shang as much like early Mesopotamia: individual, perhaps amorphous, city-states that trade and battle, ally and fall out. There is even some question as to whether the Shang had quite reached the state level of social organization, or was more like a precocious chiefdom. Who knows? The main point is that the story in China moves in the same direction as the stories elsewhere. The Shang’s successor—the Chou, who dominated the first millennium B.C.—forged a vast state with many cities.
But control was diffuse, and Chou principalities—Ch’i, Ch’in, Chin, Ch’u, and others— finally fell into open warfare. The Ch’in eventually prevailed, carrying Asian political unity to unprecedented scope. Hence the name China.
One key to the Ch’in triumph had been non-zero-sum reforms. The Ch’in made the law firmer and fairer, less partial to the powerful. They standardized weights and measures and the writing system. Having conquered their rivals, they extended these principles across China. The nation was further bound by a single currency, lots of canals, and 4,000 miles worth of new roads (traveled by carts whose wheels were of standard, government-mandated gauge—so the ruts worn into dirt roads would be one-size-fits-all).
Shih Huang-ti, who oversaw this unification of China and is thus known as the nation’s first emperor, was by many accounts a nasty and parasitic man. He feared dissent, and reputedly burned texts that ventured beyond such kosher subjects as agricultural technique and divination. His idea of a valuable use of government worker was the crafting of 7,500 life-sized terra-cotta warriors, each unique, to accompany him to the grave.
His caprice and oppression no doubt encouraged the rebellion that followed his death. Still, his infrastructure for non-zero-sumness—all the roads and canals, and the various standards that smoothed the movement of people and goods and data—endured. This legacy would ease the still-onerous task of his successors, the Han, as they struggled to keep China politically whole.
Meanwhile, back in the Near East, more names had come and gone, and the regions they represented had continued to get bigger and bigger, if fitfully: the Assyrian empire dwarfed the Akkadian (the one that had covered the "four quarters of the world") and was in turn dwarfed by the Persian empire (and its "king of this great earth far and wide"), which was then overcome by Alexander the Great (the "son of God" and "general governor and reconciler of the world"), whose Macedonian empire would soon be overshadowed by the Roman Empire (its emperor being "the savior of all mankind").
If in 200 B.C. the Han, or the Romans, had magically gotten a peek at life in the undiscovered New World, they would have been unimpressed. A casual glance across the Americas would have suggested a hemisphere full of savages and barbarians; almost everywhere, social structure fell somewhere on the spectrum from simple band to chiefdom. But here and there, visible on close inspection, were cradles of civilization, small pockets where culture was crossing the hazy line between chiefdom and state.
As the archaeologists C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky and Jeremy Sabloff have noted, the first known city in Mesoamerica, Monte Alban (in southernmost Mexico, not far from Guatemala), is reminiscent of the first big city in Mesopotamia, Uruk. In both cases, the city-to-be was at first a mere town, outshining its neighbors in size and architecture, and dominating them politically, in the classic fashion of a chiefdom’s hub. In both cases war and trade helped drive complexity upward, and in both cases information technology and urbanization proceeded hand in hand. In Monte Alban by 300 B.C. there were calendrical notations, and glyphs used to label sculptures of dead enemies. By 200 B.C. the population had grown to 5,000, and it would eventually surpass 30,000. But Monte Alban was destined to be outclassed by Teotihuacan, a trading partner to the north that by A.D. 550, with 125,000 residents, would be one of the six largest cities in the world, unbeknownst to the other five.
Teotihuacan is not to be confused with the nearby city of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital that, when seen by Cortez in 1519, housed around 200,000 people (more than any European city) and anchored a state twice the size of Portugal. Cortez called Tenochtitlan "the most beautiful city in the world," and compared it to Venice. Built on islands in a saltwater lake, it was laced with canals and bridges and adorned with floating gardens, a zoo, and an aviary. The city’s waterborne commerce involved tens of thousands of canoes, and its central marketplace, according to Cortez, could accommodate 60,000 buyers and seller .
Of course, the Aztecs had their unpleasant side. Just ask any of the captives—hundreds each month—who, shortly before being rolled down the temple steps, would have their hearts torn out so the Sun would not lack nourishment. At the main temple in Tenochtitlan, one of Cortez’s men counted—or, at least, estimated—136,000 skulls.
Then again, human sacrifice was not uncommon in ancient civilizations, New World or Old. (Even classical Greece, that acme of early enlightenment, seems to have indulged.) And Aztec government was in other ways progressive. The commoners were well off by ancient standards, able to swap homemade wares for exotic imports. In simple adobe homes in the provinces, archaeologists have found obsidian knives, jade jewelry, bronze bells.
One reason for this affluence is that the government did a good job of breaching the trust barrier that can impede exchange. Inspectors prowled the urban markets in earch of unscrupulous commerce, ranging from false measurement to passing counterfeits (wax or dough) of the cocoa-bean quasi-currency. Aztec law, more than most ancient legal codes, seems to have treated rich and poor alike. Judges were sometimes punished—hanged, in one case—for favoring nobles at the expense of commoners. Torture wasn’t used to induce confession—a fact that, one scholar has opined, makes "the Indians appear in a better light than their European conquerers."
"Aztec" is what most people think of if they think of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica at all—a shining gem in the desert, a miraculous exception to the primitive norm of American Indian life. But Aztec civilization wasn’t really so special—just the next step in a millennia-old regional ascent whose other rungs included Teotihuacan, the Zapotec of
Monte Alban, and many others, such as Toltec, Mixtec, and Huastec. And these, in turn, all had their antecedents. The Maya, though not at first densely urban, had reached statehood around the third century B.C., a bit before the Zapotec did the same. And earlier, there were the Olmec, with their mammoth sculpted Easter-Islandesque heads and a society complex enough that their academic champions have occasionally suggested a promotion from chiefdom to state.
I could go on, naming more and more obscure Mesoamerican cultures, in a procession stretching all the way from the Aztecs back to the origins of Mesoamerican agriculture.But such charts mislead. From the days of the Olmec and early Maya, back in 1200 B.C., cultural influence was subtle and profuse, and with time it got only more so, as Mesoamerica’s population grew denser and cultural contact, via trade and war, expanded. The whole region came more and more to resemble a single social brain, testing memes and spreading the useful ones.
True, distinct polities and peoples rose and fell ad nauseam, but these seemingly pointless cycles of growth and decay added up to a larger arrow of cultural evolution. The arts of writing and agriculture and handicraft and construction and government advanced. The Aztecs, like the Romans, were administrative and engineering whizzes. They had their well-oiled bureaucracy, their bridges and their aqueducts. With the sluice gates on their ten-mile dam they controlled the level of the lake surrounding Tenochtitlan.
But the Aztecs weren’t exceptional people, and neither were the Romans. Both were just like the people who had come before them—human beings muddling through, incrementally adding to their cultural inheritance.
So too with the Inca, down in South America. In the popular mind, they get credit for the vast road network that smoothly moved goods and data, binding a sixteenth-century empire of 12 million people. But many of the roads were built by their predecessors. Construction had started by 500 B.C. under the Chavin, and the infrastructure was expanded by such societies as the coastal Moche, who reached statehood around A.D. 100. Moche roads, like Inca roads, were traveled by relay runners (who, some scholars believe, conveyed data not just orally but by symbols etched on lima beans). And, like Inca roads—and Roman roads and Chinese roads and other ancient roads—the Moche roads were used to coordinate both military and economic activities. Hence a twofer: There were enough prisoners of war to keep Moche warrior-priests busy with ritual throat-slittings, and then, when it came time to drink the blood, there were finely wrought metal goblets ordered just for the occasion.
Under various cultures—the states of Chimu and Huari, for example—the web of South American roads continued to grow, as did irrigation works. After this infrastructure had been laboriously expanded by millions of laborers over a couple of millennia, the Inca came along and said, "Why, thank you!" Conquering chiefdoms here, states there, they carried South American political unity to unprecedented extent, and by deft bureaucratic governance they held it more or less together. As proud as Sargon, and no more worldly, they called their empire Tahuantinsuyu, or "Four Quarters of the World." The new scope of political organization, by subduing the frictions of war, brought new productivity, rather as the Pax Romana had in the Old World.
Both Mesoamerica and the Andes illustrate how much you can do with limited materials. Bronze metallurgy was nascent, scarcely applied to weapons and tools. There were no chariots or wagons—indeed, there were no wheels and no horses; nature seems to have blessed the New World with few readily domesticable animals. But, regardless of natural endowment, there are always means of storing and transmitting data, and thus the means to run a bureaucracy and control a big army. Such is the power of data processing that advances on this front can almost single-handedly carry cultures over the threshold of statehood, notwithstanding stagnation in other realms.
And so great is the power of cultural evolution that such stagnation doesn’t last forever. In Mesoamerica, by Aztec times, the principle of the wheel was understood—but, in the absence of draft animals, was applied only to toys, such as red clay rolling animals. Meanwhile, down in South America, the llama had been domesticated and was used as a pack animal. If Europeans hadn’t intervened, cultural diffusion almost surely would have brought the wheel south or the llama north, and people would have put two and two together. Century by century, America’s two biggest social brains were getting bigger and heading toward merger. Indeed, there is grim evidence that filaments had begun to link north and south: The smallpox the Europeans brought to Mesoamerica reached the Andes by land—apparently killing one Inca king shortly before Pizarro arrived by sea to kill another.
With the arrival of Pizarro and Cortez and other conquistadors, the long American experiment in autonomous social evolution was over. In the Old World, by contrast, the natural expansion of early civilizations, and their ultimate interconnection, had not been short-circuited by murderous aliens. By the first century A.D., the process had reached a culmination of sorts. The tendencies that had carried China and Rome to their glory— growth in the degree and scope of social complexity—had been at work in the lands between them. Just to the east of the Roman Empire was the Parthian empire, around modern-day Iran and Iraq. East of Parthia was the Kushan empire, from modern-day Afghanistan through northern India. And to its east was the western extremity of China under the Han. Eurasia was now wall-to-wall empires. In the terminology of the historian William McNeill, the "Eurasian Ecumene" had been closed. One could travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific, one-third of the way around the world, while passing through only four polities. And commerce did so, along the Silk Road.
Commerce was of growing importance not just among states but within them. Rulers increasingly found that trying to minutely control the creation of wealth was not the way to maximize it. By the first century A.D., McNeill observes, military and political power had come to depend heavily "on materials and services upplied to the ruler by merchants who responded to pecuniary and market motives more readily and more efficiently than to bureaucratic command." Slowly and fitfully, the basic chiefdom model of top-down, state-controlled economics, which seems to have lingered into the early phase of ancient civilization, was ceding ground to the logic of the market.
What caused the shift? One good candidate is the growing practicality of decentralized data processing. A phonetic alphabet, much more user-friendly than the old ideographic scripts, evolved in the Near East during the second millennium B.C., and was transmitted widely, in part by the traders who used it. Then, during the first millennium B.C., coined money emerged and spread via the same conduit. These developments jibe nicely with McNeill’s observation that the tendency of markets to outproduce command economies "was beginning to be discovered in the second millennium B.C. and became normal and expected in the course of the next millennium."
The belt of commerce across Eurasia didn’t create deep interdependence. The Silk Road, as the name suggests, was mainly for luxury goods. But within empires, an earthier division of labor now existed. Romans got wheat from Egypt, figs and salted meat from Spain, salted fish from the Black Sea. Even if imported fish weren’t exactly daily fare for peasants, the benefits of non-zero-sumness were slowly beginning to reach below the ruling class.
So there you have it—ancient history in a nutshell: onward and upward. This sort of simple summary tends to inspire objections. Such as:
Complaint #1: What about the quirks? This view of history, intent on generalizing, ignores the fascinating and consequential differences between civilizations.
To combat this bias, to spend a topic dwelling on the common, is not to deny the differences, which are indeed large and interesting. Ancient Egypt, as we’ve seen, seems to have fused religion and government more than many other early civilizations (no mean feat). And China managed to keep an unusually large piece of turf politically unified under unusually long-lived dynasties.
It is always tempting (if you’re me, at least) to try to explain uch differences technologically. Is China’s vast unity partly due to the use of a script that—because it was largely ideographic—allowed speakers of different dialects to comprehend a single written "Chinese" language? And might the flip side of this script—the difficulty of learning it—have kept power from diffusing rapidly beyond the ruling class?
And as for the intensely divine status of Egypt’s pharaohs—well, who knows? Not even an ardent technological determinist tries to explain everything in terms of technics. The main point is that acknowledging these differences doesn’t detract from the commonalities, and in fact, in a sense, underscores them. Early China was just an unusually good example of the general rule that all early civilizations draw some unity from their information technology.
Similarly, the pharaohs’ divinity points to a general trend: church and state have grown more distinct over time, worldwide. There are today no states, not even so-called theocracies, run by people who declare themselves gods. And there are no economically advanced states in which leaders even call themselves divinely ordained. Whatever the causes of Egypt’s pure theocracy, it was a relic in the making.
Other contrasts among ancient civilizations also hint at larger patterns. Markets played a larger role among the Aztecs than among the Inca, and in Mesopotamia than in Egypt. But all of these civilizations had an economy that harnessed non-zero-sumness through capital investment and division of labor; a command economy and a market economy are two routes to this universal imperative, even if one of them had a brighter future (especially in light of coming trends in information technology).
Complaint #2: What about the Greeks? This topic, supposedly about the birth of civilization, hasn’t even mentioned classical Greece, which in many minds is synonymous with the birth of civilization. Shouldn’t we have paused for a paean to Socrates and Sophocles, Pythagoras and Archimedes?
Fine men, all of them. Smart, too. Still, from the perspective of world history, they don’t deserve to hog the spotlight. Great literature and philosophy are not western monopolies. The ethics of ancient sages in India (e.g., the Buddha) and China (Confucius) hold their own in comparison with Greek moral philosophy, and were massively consequential. And as for Pythagoras and Archimedes: far be it from me to minimize mathematics—or science or technology. But we should certainly minimize the importance of any one person in these fields, because all three are on autopilot. The bent for innovation is so deeply human that progress doesn’t depend on anyone in particular.
Pi was calculated with precision by Archimedes, but also, independently, by the Chinese. And the Pythagorean theorem, it now seems, had been grasped in ancient Mesopotamia. The concept of zero was invented not in Greece but in India—and also, independently, in Mesoamerica, by the Maya. The histories of math, science, and technology are chock-full of such independent inventions. If Pythagoras—and Archimedes and Aristotle—had died in the crib, the long-run picture in math, science, and technology would not have changed appreciably. Therefore, neither would the long-run course of cultural evolution.
None of this is to say that Greece shouldn’t hold a special place in our hearts. For one thing, the Greeks helped test a thesis that the previous topic hinted at: that, as a society’s information technologies become broadly accessible, the result can be not just economic vibrance but political freedom. The Greeks added vowels to the phonetic alphabet, carrying it to its height of accessibility. They grasped the virtues of coins and started minting their own. And to this mix of information technologies the Greeks astutely added the ingredient of trust, making it easy for private parties to strike legally binding contracts. On balance, the results of the test were encouraging. Classical Athens, in its better moments, was economically vibrant, broadly literate (by ancient standards), and democratic (ditto).
Actually, the general notion that economic decentralization disperses political power had gotten some support from earlier phases in cultural evolution, as well. The (relatively) market-oriented Aztecs had their unusually egalitarian legal code. And in (relatively) market-oriented Mesopotamia justice was sometimes administered by citizens’ assemblies.
Indeed, the written remnants of Mesopotamian civilization provide a virtual play-by-play account of how information, economics, and politics might benignly co-evolve. In the early third millennium, with writing a new and elite craft, still the province of scribes, records reflect mainly state-controlled transactions. But a millennium later, in northern Mesopotamia, a profusion of clay contracts speaks of a robust private sector, with, for example, traders sending tin and textiles to Anatolia in exchange for gold and silver. How did private citizens reach such heights? One clue may lie in the simplified, less esoteric cuneiform script used in these contracts; whereas professional scribes generally monopolized the ancient writing business, some archaeologists think these traders had broken that tradition, becoming literate themselves.
It is in this period, when the diffusion of information technology seems to have helped carry economic power well beyond the control of kings and priests, that we find evidence of something like democracy. The documents from community assemblies now show them not merely meting out justice, but assuming a deliberative, quasi-legislative function. There are even references to a "city hall."
Of course, meanwhile, elsewhere in ancient "civilization," there was tyranny aplenty, and there were ham-handed government attempts to control the economy. Still, this example from northern Mesopotamia was auspicious. If economic freedom harnesses non-zero-sumness, bringing the wealth that makes states powerful, and if economic freedom tends to entail political freedom, then history might turn out to be on the side of political freedom. After all, powerful states have a tendency to prevail over weaker ones. What’s more, maybe later information technologies would strengthen this theoretical logic behind freedom. Still, at this stage in history, we find only a glimmer of evidence for such hopes.
Complaint #3: Where’s the chaos? This picture of civilization’s ascent has been a bit selective. It’s all very well to talk about the Silk Road, or the seaborne commerce along the southern coast of Eurasia, as if such non-zero-sum sinews grow longer and stronger under divine providence. But what about all the disruptions? What about the pirates? What about the wild-eyed marauders from the primitive north who swooped down on Silk Road caravans?
First of all, travel during the first century A.D. was sufficiently civilized so that the rewards of trade warranted the risks, in the judgment of ancient traders. So non-zero-sumness did survive the parasitic assault of zero-sum ambitions. But it did more than survive; it prevailed. Disruptions of trade spurred the evolution of governance.
After all, pirates and marauders are just another form of the "trust" barrier that can block mutually fruitful exchange. They erode your faith that when you send goods eastward, silk will show up in return. And cultural evolution, given long enough, reliably devises means to breach the trust barrier, notably expanded political control. One of the early goals of Roman expansion, in the third century B.C., had been to squelch pirates, and thus defend Italian commerce, by drawing the Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic Sea into a Roman sphere of influence. And one of the ongoing rewards of subsequent expansion was to dampen such disruptions of commerce (and that other classic disruptor, war). That is one reason the Pax Romana brought new affluence. It created not just a war-free zone but a (relatively) brigand-free zone.
This pattern is hardly peculiar to Rome. In ancient times, commerce persistently ventured beyond political bounds. (When an official from Han China ventured past the western border into terra incognita, he was shocked to find, on reaching Afghanistan, Chinese goods for sale.) And political control often caught up with commerce, strengthening its logic. By making passage easier and safer and extending the reach of a uniform legal code, governance lowered both the communications and trust barriers. Indeed, it is largely the surmounting of these two barriers that separated the dominant civilizations from the rest of the pack. Ask a historian to name two things that made Rome great, that served as paragons for posterity to emulate, and there’s a fair chance you’ll hear: "Roman roads and Roman law."
Imperial expansion isn’t the only way to fight pirates. There are also international accords. And in the late Middle Ages, as we’ll see, there were private-sector solutions. But all of these fixes, as we’ll also see, amount to a kind of expanded governance. Pirates, however you handle them, are just one example of how turbulence and chaos often turn out to be harbingers of new forms of order.
And so it is today. New information technologies, bringing new kinds of international commerce, bring new kinds of disruption. A thief can sit in one nation and steal money from banks in another. The solutions to such supranational problems inherently amount to small steps in the direction of supranational governance. How far we’ll walk down that path is quite arguable, but the path’s basic direction is less so. Whenever technology has expanded the envelope of non-zero-sumness, new zero-sum threats have materialized, only to be combatted by larger governance in one sense or another.
Complaint #4: You’ve missed the point of complaint #3. Pirates and brigands are hardly the only form of chaos. What about large-scale chaos? What about decade-long droughts, and deadly plagues? And what about barbarians—not bands of highway robbers, but whole hordes of raping and pillaging brutes? After all, the Roman Empire did eventually fall before their onslaught, right? Indeed, didn’t the whole "Eurasian ecumene," the vast belt of civilization that had evolved by the first century A.D., begin to fall apart? Didn’t the Silk Road spend much of its life in tatters? In that light, what does it matter if civilizations tend to get bigger and more complex? The bigger they are, the harder they fall. The barbarians who sacked Rome don’t seem to have had as their motto "onward and upward."
Actually, that assertion is debatable, as we’ll see in the next topic.