Posts Tagged ‘‘Democracy’s Ancient Ancestors’’

The Ancestors of Democracy in Ancient Iraq?

March 14, 2015

Ancient Greece is rightly venerated as the place where western democracy began. However, Daniel E. Fleming, in a book published in 2004, suggested that the origins of western democracy may lie even further back and to the east, in ancient Mesopotamia, now modern Iraq. In his book Democracy’s Ancient Ancestors, Fleming examined 3,000 letters from the archives of the ancient city of Mari, finding in them evidence for collective leadership and early democratic ideas and vocabulary in the city’s myths and literary traditions.

I haven’t read the book, but I think I can see where Fleming is coming from. The cities of the Babylonian Empire were ruled by three different layers of government. There was the governor, appointed by the emperor; the city’s local ruler, the mayor; and the karim, or chamber of commerce. This last could be the popular assembly of a limited kind that provided the proto-democratic element in the Babylonian political system.

The Babylonians were also rather like us, in that they also expected their rulers to act in their interests, and had a cynical contempt for them when they didn’t. There’s one Babylonian story about a citizen, who gives the mayor a golden cup, expecting a suitable favour in return. When he doesn’t get it, the citizen arranges a series of four incidents, in which the mayor has the living daylights beaten out of him in consequence. Okay, so it isn’t democracy so much as a bribe, but it does show that there were limits placed on the actions of their rulers, and the citizenry considered it their right to mete out appropriate justice when their rulers didn’t govern on their behalf.

Aside from this, since Edward Said’s Orientalism, there has been a move by some historians to challenge the simplistic notion of a free, democratic West versus a despotic East. Said traced this idea back to Herodotus’ The Histories, and the Father of History’s account of the Persian War as a battle between Greek democracy and Persian absolute monarchy. Sasan Samiei, for example, in his book Ancient Persia in Western History: Hellenism and the Representation of the Achaemenid Empire , wrote a measured attack on this view, in particular examining and contrasting the works of Goethe and Gibbon.

Said’s Orientalism was an attempt to challenge what he viewed as Western imperialist attitudes towards Arabs and their cultures, attitudes, which justified American and European imperialism and domination. The same attitudes have been seen as influencing Frank Miller’s 300, about the Spartan victory over the Persians at Marathon. Clearly histories like Samiei’s are important as they challenge the assumptions about the Near East and the Arab and Iranian worlds, which see them as a terrible ‘Other’ implacably hostile to the West and democracy, and which partly justify Huntingdon’s theory of renewed ‘culture wars’ between the democratic, free West, and a despotic, Muslim East.

And I wondered if Fleming’s book also didn’t provide another key to explaining the destruction of the priceless Assyrian artefacts by Isis a few weeks. They weren’t just trying to destroy the remains of a civilisation they considered to be pre-Islamic and therefore idolatrous. They were trying to destroy the reminders that Iraq had a history and culture going back thousands of years, in which democracy, rather than the rule of force, may have played a part. This last might provide a point a rapprochement between the West and Iraqi Islam. ISIS despise the West, and would like to provoke us into further attacking Iraq and its people further, in order to create more chaos. This would, they hope, further cut the rug from under the moderates and radicalise more of the people against us. Smashing those artefacts was part of that process, in the hope it would incense the West, as well as destroy the ancient, and possibly democratic legacy, of that ancient civilisation.