The Oriental Empire

In certain suitable places in the East, e.g., Asia and North Africa, climate, geography and the inventive genius of man transformed the tribal States into city stales. But, unlike the Greek city States, these oriental city States quickly evolved empires. Such empires existed in ancieot Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and China. They arose in the river valleys of the Nile, the Tigro- Euphrates, the Ganges, and the Yang-tze, which are, therefore, called the “cradles of civilisation” Warm climate, fertile soil, abundance of water and the unbroken plains around these river-valleys enabled a powerful and aggressive tribe or city to conquer vast territories and enslave large populations and thus become an empire. ‘The city is the first condition of empire”. It became a centre of wealth and thereby a centre of power. The early empires of the world, e.g., Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian, Egyptian, Chinese, were established by peoples who had first learnt the art of city-life.

The oriental empires became different from the earlier tribal State in many ways. The tribal St^te was based on kinship relations, while the oriental empire was based on conquest and force. The tribe was organised on social equality, but the erttpire was organised on inequality of the rich and the poor, the free and the slave, the warrior nobles and the servile peasants, the priestly class and the ignorant masses.

Hie tribal chief was really the first among the equals, but the oriental king or emperor was the master of all, and was even worshipped as a god or a demi-god. The membership of the tribal State was determined by birth; but when a stranger once became a member, he enjoyed almost equal right. The membership in the empire depended on conquest, force and subjugation and did not entail any equality of right, —social, economic or political. On the contrary, rights and privileges depended upon the social status and class position of a person.

The oriental empires were land empires. Their economy was based on agriculture and slavery. The peasant is the most conservative person in the world. If not burdened with too many taxes and extortions, he would tolerate all kinds of tyranny and misrule. For him the distance between God and the king was one degree that is why the peasants of the oriental empires tolerated the despotism and tyranny of their emperors and kings. This was the secret of the stability and permanence of the ancient empires of the East.

A Theory of their origins: Karl a. Wittfogel, a German social historian, has expounded an interesting theory of the origins of the Oriental Empires, whom the two things: firstly, large work-force of free slave labourers, in order to build dams, dig canals and maintain them for irrigation and flood control purposes, and, secondly, a large ruling class of officers, supervisors, and others to manage, supervise and direct the free and slave work-force. This class consisted of both the bureaucratic managers and officers, military commanders and also the influential priests. Over and above this elite class stood the supreme ruler of emperor. That was how the small tribal kingdoms of the river valleys were transformed into the vast oriental empires, which ruled over several river valleys and their “hydraulic society”.

Though socially stable, the oriental empires were politically weak and unstable. They were governed by hereditary and despotic monarchs, who ruled a few citizens but many subjects.

The citizens were the warrior nobles and the priestly classes who possessed wealth and social and political privileges. The subjects, consisting of the peasants, had no rights and privileges. The citizens and the subjects had no political rights or liberty. They had to obey the ruler and pay taxes to him. The ruler appeared to them really as a slave-driver and a tax-collector. “Neither unity in the State nor liberty of the individual was possible under such conditions”. The despotic king or emperor, unchecked by popular will, regarded the State as his property and the people as subjects and slaves. These are some of the reasons why the oriental empires provide nothing of interest to the students of Political Science.

In spite of all their wars of conquest and expansion, they did not progress politically, socially or economically for centuries. The power of the ruler was based on the military and priestly classes. The society was divided into two classes, the slave and the free; but even the free men had not much of freedom. They were the subjects of the king, with little or no civil rights and political liberty. The authority of the ruler presented a strange picture. It was despotic and unlimited at the capital, but weak and unstable in distant provinces. Hence the provincial governors often became independent rulers themselves whenever a weak emperor came to the throne. That is why political power shifted from city to city, capital to capital and province to province, and from dynasty to dynasty. The oriental empires, therefore presented a strange mixture of strength and weakness, anarchy and order, instability and stagnation. They never developed beyond royal despotism.

Nonetheless, if we criticise the oriental empires of antiquity of their tyranny, their harshness, their social rigidity and caste system, their warlike ways their stagnation, inertia, and decadence, we must also remember some of their merits. Firstly, the autocracy of the oriental kings was limited by custom, religion and tradition. His word was not always law, for law was derived really from custom or religion.

Secondly, for all its weakness and instability, the oriental empire created conditions of peace and order over vast areas of the ancient world, in ages when mankind had not yet invented means of rapid communication and social control. It disciplined vast populations into obedience and peace. Thirdly, though politically unstable, the oriental empires created a stable society in which arts of peace and culture were greatly developed. Modern world owes much in arts, roads, culture, industry, agriculture, science and learning to the empires of the ancient East. These are also some of the reasons why this type of the State survived down to the recent times in the East.