“Nation” and Empire as Two Trends of Political Organization in Iron Age Levant
CitationMei, Hualong. 2020. “Nation” and Empire as Two Trends of Political Organization in Iron Age Levant. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractThe subject of this dissertation is the development and characteristics of two trends in Iron Age Levantine domestic and international politics: the emergence of what may be labeled as ancient “nations” in the Levant, on the one hand, and the rise of universal empires that dominated the Levant and the wider Near East, on the other. A deeper understanding of the features and the interaction of the two political phenomena will help us make sense of their conceptual common grounds as two types of expansive, trans-regional political entities.
In order better to define the subjects of examination, I integrate theoretical considerations into the study of ancient phenomena and concepts. With regard to “nation”, which is often considered as an exclusively modern concept, I propose that one not cling to one specific definition and prioritize one particular people/polity as a classical example of a “nation”. Instead, while not dispensing entirely with the term “nation” as a referent to a socio-political entity, I suggest that we explore different degrees and kinds of influence of ethnic and cultural commonness on collective political identity within and beyond one polity’s boundaries. With regard to the universal empire, I note that imperial universalism, which views the world as a hierarchical system with the empire as the center, is sometimes ideological and rhetorical in nature, and that historical circumstances often remind the powerful universal empire of the limits of its authority.
Building upon these theoretical discussions, the subsequent sections of the dissertation should be classified as a study of important concepts illustrated by terminologies attested in different sources and languages. These terminologies include, for instance, native terms translatable as “people” and “nation” (e.g. עם and גוי in biblical and other West Semitic sources), proper nouns (e.g. the meaning and the intended extent of such terms as “Israel”, “Aram” and “Assyrian”), appellations and titles (e.g. “king” vs. the nisbe or the gentilic as a royal title in Assyrian sources), metaphorical terms (e.g. “brother” in international relations) and other phrases illustrative of the perception of one polity of another (e.g. “a large land”) and the relationship between different political actors (e.g. “to serve”, “tribute”, “bow down to the feet of...”). The terminological study is accompanied by an analysis of the textual and historical contexts.
Two major issues emerging from this collection of relevant terms and concepts, which I then examine. The first is the ancient Levantine conception of ethno-cultural commonalities as a source of political cohesion in trans-local political entities as well as the extents and limits of such culturally and ethnically derived political identity. In addition, there are the situations in which a people extends either its political authority or the influence of its cultural attributes (e.g. the “national” god) beyond the limits of its political identity. Second, with regard to the universal empire, a polity that often claims to know no limits and borders, I will investigate the awareness of its limits that was heightened as the universal empire--here the Neo-Assyrian Empire is my principal concern--came into close contact with other political actors, including those in the Levant.
The present study contributes not only to our understanding of certain key political terminologies and concepts in the Iron Age Levant and the wider ancient Near East, but also to wider debates in political science in general. The parallel study of “national” and “imperial” ideologies is particularly meaningful. In the modern context nation and empire are often viewed as two categories of political organizations that stand at two opposing ends, that is, empires subsume nations and nations grow out of and assert their own identities over against the multi-ethnic empires. But in reality, on the conceptual level nation and empire share much in common. Both national and imperial ideologies function as the ideological support to justify trans-local and trans-tribal political organization. Both national and imperial polities may exhibit the tendency to expand beyond a local political center, yet the principles by which they expand differ. While a national polity relies on the belief that people sharing common sociocultural attributes should form one political entity, an empire aims to maximize one political center’s control over resources, trade and manpower and justifies its expansion by claiming its ability to bring peace, order and prosperity to the conquered peoples. More importantly, in this study I find that, under certain circumstances, one type of polity, either the national polity or the empire, may appeal to the strategies, principles or ideologies of the other in order to justify, reinforce and adjust its own trans-local political identity, or transform itself in effect into the other. The conceptual transformation of the one to the other is closely related to the political entity’s consciousness and interpretation of “limits”, political and cultural, real and imagined. In the end, the human effort to establish and consolidate trans-regional political unity is essentially a dynamic process of setting up and tearing down limits.
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