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Arabia: ancient history for troubled times

In antiquity, ‘Arabia’ covered a vast area, running from Yemen and Oman to the deserts of Syria and Iraq. Today, much of this region is gripped in political and religious turmoil that shows no signs of abating. In addition to executions, murder, and a bloody war against the security forces and other armed groups, the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) is also waging a relentless assault on the culture and heritage of Syria and Iraq. This represents a savage attempt to impose its own narrow view of history on the region, as well as to plunder artifacts for sale on the black market. But while contraband dollars support its operations, it is also the suppression of diversity that drives ISIS; the group is particularly devoted to the eradication of any inconvenient reminder of the pre-Islamic past, where communities of Jews and Christians flourished and pagan deities were worshiped. The conquering Muslim armies of the seventh and eighth centuries may have swept past the now-endangered archaeological sites of Syria and Iraq, but the Islamic State sees the destruction of such places as key to its core mission. This line of thinking explains their destruction of the Temple of Bel at Palmyra, parts of Hatra in Iraq, and countless other structures and sites. Elsewhere, the war in Yemen is causing a great amount of damage to the country. Even without war, Middle Eastern heritage finds itself in danger; in Saudi Arabia, for example, building work has claimed parts of ancient Mecca, erasing alternative narratives of the past.

Palmyra, Syria. Photo by yeowatzup, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
Palmyra, Syria. Photo by yeowatzup, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

In light of the seemingly endless attacks on culture and the loss of so many lives, it is more essential than ever to take stock of the region’s rich and varied ancient history. Framed by the vast expanse of the Roman and Persian empires, Arabia and its northern limits—Syria and Iraq—offered a land of contrasts. A traveller to Yemen would find lush mountains, rain, and farmland, but in the centre of the Peninsula and to the north, he would struggle across gravel, basalt, and sandy deserts. (To cross these areas required specialised knowledge, as a Roman military expedition to Yemen learned in 25 BCE). From the city of Zafar in Yemen to the famous emporium at Gerrha on the Gulf, and from the villages of Syria to the oases and watering holes of northern Arabia, a traveller would find a wealth of different peoples. Arabia included communities of Christians, such as those famously massacred at Najran in the sixth century CE. Pagans flourished throughout, but the Yemeni kings for much of the fourth and fifth centuries were Jews, before they adopted Christianity in the sixth. Arabia was a land where Roman and Persian agents competed for primacy in an ancient version of The Great Game, a competition spurred by the importance of the sea and land routes linking Arabia to the lands of the Mediterranean, Iran, and Central Asia. This network took Arab merchants to the Greek islands of the Aegean as well as to the Persian capital of Ctesiphon, near modern Baghdad. Trade, and the imperial ambitions of Rome and Persia, allowed religious, political, and cultural ideas to travel across the ancient Middle East. Arabia was far less of an isolated backwater than some ancient sources, fascinated with its supposed, legendary exoticism, would like their readers to believe.

Temple of Baal Shamin, Palmyra. Photo by E.jaser. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Temple of Baal Shamin, Palmyra. Photo by E.jaser. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Why does this matter today? Encouraged by the lack of international action, ISIS continues its determined effort to utterly erase the monuments of the ancient past in Syria and Iraq, whether they be Shia shrines, Christian monasteries, or pagan temples. ISIS already claims franchises in Libya and has taken responsibility for bombings in Saudi Arabia, while the climate in places such as Yemen is febrile. The war in Syria in particular has already taken a terrible toll, but the attack on heritage, deeply connected as it is to the human cost, should be recognised for what it is. If Syria was ever to be reconstituted in the future, it would be missing the cultural underpinning of much of what made the country such a rich patchwork of communities; the same fate threatens Iraq, if the government fails to tackle ISIS. But the communal history of the world suffers as well, because much connects our own understanding of the past with the history of the Middle East. And so more than ever, it is vital to appreciate what is being lost: places like Hatra and Palmyra represented everything that ISIS avows to hate—multicultural and ethnic diversity, crossroads between east and west, and places of communication and cultural transfer. Appreciating the deep and complex history of Arabia is more crucial than ever for making sense of troubled times.

Image Credit: “Temple of Bel complex in the background and the agora on left center in Palmyra, Syria” by Bernard Gagnon. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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Can you get X out of X in our Latin poetry quiz?

The shadow of the Roman poets falls right across the entire western literary tradition: from Virgil’s Aeneid, about the fall of Troy, the wooden horse, and the founding of Rome; through the great love poets, Catullus, Propertius, and Tibullus; Ovid’s Metamorphoses, treasure-house of myth for the Renaissance and Shakespeare; to Horace’s Dulce et decorum est, echoing through the twentieth century. We all take it for granted … so now’s the time to check your working knowledge.

Audentis Fortuna iuvat!

Featured image credit: ‘Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia’. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Quiz image credit: Rome: View of the Colosseum and The Arch of Constantine by Antonio Joli. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Legal order: lessons from ancient Athens

How do large-scale societies achieve cooperation? Since Thomas Hobbes’ famous work, Leviathan (1651), social scientific treatments of the problem of cooperation have assumed that living together without killing one another requires an act of depersonalization in the form of a transfer of individual powers to an all-powerful central government.

Cooperation without a third party enforcer, the theory holds, can occur, but it is most likely to succeed when groups are sufficiently small and/or sufficiently homogeneous (e.g. Ostrom, 1990; Ellickson, 1991; Bernstein, 1992; 2001; Hadfield and Weingast, 2012; 2013; 2014). Contemporary, globalized, territorially extensive nation states appear doomed to submit to national or global Leviathans (Tilly, 1992; Fukuyama, 2011; 2014; Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012; Morris, 2014).

Hobbes’ predicament, restated by his 19th century successor, Max Weber, still dominates the social sciences. Developed western governments may consider themselves beyond Hobbes’ pessimistic view of human nature and of the necessity of building a state that keeps members of the community ‘in awe.’ Yet, the notion that centralization is our best hope to avoid widespread social violence and coordination failures still informs the theory and practice of institution building in the developing world.

We take a different view. Our claim is that it may be possible to achieve economic and political development without extensive centralization, even in relatively large-scale and heterogeneous communities and that Classical Athens is a model case exemplifying this. Can Athens help us rethink the process and goals of institution building, particularly legal institutions, in modern developing countries?

Classical Athens provides a unique laboratory for studying the institutional arrangements that enabled a large-scale civilization to reject strong centralization as the guiding principle to solve the collective action problems that plague social order (Ober, 2015).

With a total population of ca. 250,000 people, and a territory of ca. 2500 km2, Athens was a bit less populous than Vanuatu and a bit smaller than Luxembourg. Yet, Athens was certainly not a community of fishermen, a group of cattle herders, or a guild. Smaller than most contemporary states, Athens was larger than most of its immediate neighbors (other Greek poleis) and its inhabitants were, on average, better off than those of most pre-modern societies. The sources suggest that the city and its harbor extension—the deme of Piraeus—were largely populated by Greeks sharing a common culture, language, and religion. Yet, we also hear of a number of non-Greek aliens and foreigners that came progressively to share the material and cultural advantages of living in a prosperous open access society (Carugati 2015; Ober 2008). Athens was not as ethnically diverse as most modern countries, but socioeconomic cleavages, rather than ethnicity, constituted a primary source of conflict (Ober, 1989).

Image credit: Parthenon: Acropolis, by Sam Valadi. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.
Image credit: Parthenon: Acropolis, by Sam Valadi. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

For roughly 200 years (ca. 508-322 BC), the ancient polis of Athens achieved exceptional levels of prosperity, order, and stability under a democratic government. Unlike modern developed democracies, Athens did not establish strongly centralized legal institutions, such as a hierarchy of authoritative formal courts, public prosecutors, expert judges and lawyers, and an organized police force. These institutions are often regarded as the sine qua non for the establishment of a robust rule of law, on which economic growth and democratic stability depend.

How, then, can we explain Athens’ success? Our paper, “Building Legal Order in Ancient Athens,” explores the role that Athens’ distinctive legal institutions played in fostering social order, democratic stability, and high and sustained economic growth.

Athenian laws and legal institutions fostered order, stability and prosperity by securing common knowledge of rules and incentivizing enforcement efforts in a decentralized system of coercion. Common knowledge and incentive-compatibility relied on widespread participation of ordinary people at all stages of the legal process – that is, in creating rules, in managing adjudication, in declaring what counts as a violation, and in enforcing the penalties for rule violation. Participation, in turn, helped the evolution of rules that benefited all, applied to all, and were consistent with longstanding community norms.

We can derive four lessons from the Athenian case: first, involve ordinary people; second, foster common knowledge about rules and classifications; third, make sure that benefits of the rules are universal among enforcers; and fourth, maintain continuity between pre-existing norms and new rules as long as needed to stabilize the acceptance of new institutions across a population.

These are not obviously easy lessons to follow in the modern world. Three main obstacles present themselves. First, maintaining the compatibility of pre-existing traditional norms with new rules in some cases (e.g., gender equality), even if only on the path to a more robust legal order where new rules can emerge, will seriously challenge today’s human rights standards. Second, the costs that participation imposes on the allocation of an individual’s limited time and resources may exceed what our poorest communities can tolerate. And third, the threat that decentralized enforcement may lead to social violence is especially worrisome in a world where the weapons are no longer just spears, clubs, and poison but extend to automatic weapons and car bombs.

Nonetheless, we think the Athenian case shows that decentralized enforcement can be consistent with social order, economic prosperity, and even an expansion of individual rights (in the mid-4th century, the Athenians extended economic and legal privileges to slaves to incentivize their economic activity, Carugati, 2015). Whether similar results can be achieved in modern developing countries remains a question that only further theoretical and empirical work can answer.

We hope to foster a new agenda that reflects seriously on alternative ways of providing critical public goods in places where centralized institutions have proven hard to implement and where the lack of reliable rule enforcement mechanisms is and remains one of the toughest obstacles to individual prosperity and well-being.

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A history of firsts [slideshow]

We live in a globalized world, but mobility is nothing new. Set on a huge continental stage, By Steppe, Desert and Ocean tells the story how human society evolved across the Eurasian continent from Europe to China. Covering over 10,000 years, from the origins of farming around 9000 BC to the expansion of the Mongols in the thirteenth century AD, it shows how humankind first started building the globalized world we know today.

In the slideshow below, take a look at some of the first developments that demonstrate the inventive and acquisitive nature of humanity.


Featured image credit: Ancient Palmyra by Barry Cunliffe. Do not use without permission.

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Art across the early Abrahamic religions

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are considered kindred religions–holding ancestral heritages and monotheistic belief in common–but there are definitive distinctions between these ‘Abrahamic’ peoples. The early exchanges of Jews, Christians, and Muslims were dominated by debates over the meanings of certain stories sacred to all three groups. In addition to the verbal tales, art played a significant role in the interpretations, often competitive, of the sacred stories they had in common. In mosaics, in stone carvings, and in paintings, we consistently encounter what artists of the three communities wished to emphasize as especially important.

All images reprinted in Shared Stories, Rival Tellings: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims by Robert Gregg.

Featured image credit: “Sarcophagus depicting Selene and Endymion.” Detail. Ca. 210 CE. Image used courtesy of the Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California. Getty Museum 76.AA8.

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