GaWC Research Bulletin 360

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Note: Research Bulletins 359 and 360 are source papers for an article published in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 36 (3), (2012), 415-447 under the title 'Extraordinary Cities: Early "City-ness" and the Origins of Agriculture and States'.


Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper.


Extraordinary Cities II: Early ‘City-ness’ and the Invention of States

P.J. Taylor *


This is the second of two papers that explore the ramifications of applying recent understandings of cities, built on the work of Jane Jacobs, to early city development. Here I go beyond Jacobs to argue that cities invented states, first in the form of city-states and then as territorial states (city-empires). The focus is on early Mesopotamian cities and two eras of development are identified: a city network period followed by a city-states period. One indicator of this division is the building of city walls in c3000-2800BC. Different forms of early governance are described for both periods: in the first the emphasis is on economic governance, in the second political governance comes to the fore. In a generic conclusion I search for similar city-based state inventions worldwide.

Introduction: continuing to take cities extremely seriously

This is the second of two papers in which I apply current ideas on the nature of cities – what I call ‘city-ness' – to primal processes in the development of human economy and society. Cities are characterised as special settlements possessing unique capacities for social communication. This city-ness is based upon a combination of cluster/agglomeration processes within cities and network/connectivity processes between cities. These processes create unprecedented communication potentials that make cosmopolitan cities the crucibles of new ideas, innovations and inventions. This is what has made the impact of cities so extraordinary today and in the past.

In the first paper I elaborated on Jacobs' (1969) controversial contention that cities (in networks) existed in Anatolia many thousands of years before Childe's (1950) ‘urban revolution' in Mesopotamia in the third and fourth millennia BC. Her concomitant, and even more controversial, thesis that agriculture was first invented in these early cities was also supported and developed. At the conclusion of the paper I suggested that the specific importance of Mesopotamia was in developing a rich sustainable agriculture that could support much larger cities than heretofore. In this paper I argue that this new and even greater level of communication potential may have been the source for the invention of states.

My basic position is identical in the two papers. I consider both agriculture and states to be such truly phenomenal inventions – world-changing processes no less – that the context of their creations has to have been equally phenomenal. City networks are the only context I know of that fit the bill. Mechanisms are suggested that require the demographic size and movement of city-ness to provide the new social worlds of intense and cosmopolitan communication in which world-changing processes are possible and through which they can be diffused.

In order to locate my argument for the invention of states in cities within the debates on how the first states were made I need to broach two issues up front. First, cities and city-states are two very different social organizations (Taylor 2008) and should be studied as such. Second, the emergence of city-states indicates political success and not the dissolution of prior larger states.

Unravelling the Conflation of City and City-State

My position that states were invented in ancient Mesopotamia is conventional in timing if not in terms of process. That is to say, it is largely understood that Mesopotamia is the locus of the first states. But therein lies a problem. Traditionally, cities and states are seen as evolving together as a single institution, hence ‘city-state'. But I am treating them as two different processes that do not necessarily run exactly in parallel. It is this that allows me to identify first cities without states to be followed by cities in states, initially one per state or city-state. Just simply identifying cities as city-states in the rise of Mesopotamian civilization is, from my perspective, to conflate two processes in a most unhelpful way.

My position mirrors that of Monica Smith (2003) who is explicit on the importance of recognizing that ‘cities do not require a state level of authority to exist and thrive' (p. 12). Therefore:

‘it is.. time for the understanding of cities to be uncoupled from the necessary presence of states. By breaking this pairing of cities and states, we allow cities to be understood on their own terms as centers of political, economic, and social organization that may be considerably more complex than the territories and regions in which they are located.' p. 13)

She traces this conflation back to Childe (1950, 12) who created a framework in which ‘theorizing about urbanism has often really been about states rather than cities'. This key point had been made much earlier by Price (1978, 175):

‘The relation between urbanism and the state, however, has been the cause of profound confusion for a variety of reasons, both scholarly and ideological. Childe's Mesopotamian data combined urbanism and the state in a single sequence and permitted the uncritical evaluation of this particular association'

Smith (2003) indicts Robert Mc Adams, the great chronicler of Mesopotamian urbanism; she points out that, paradoxically, in his classic The Evolution of Urban Society (Adams 1966) he states that, despite the book's title, his ‘central concern is the growth of the state' (p. 90; quoted in Smith (2003, 12)). Conversely Smith's argues that ‘cities in the premodern world did not require a state level of organization' (p. 15).

Figure 1: Alternative origins of states.

It is only after unravelling the city/state conflation that we can begin to see cities as sites for the invention of states (Figure 1(a)). For Yoffee (2005, 45) ‘cities were the transformative social environments in which states themselves were created' which he explains using the generic sociological concepts of differentiation and integration (pp. 32-3). The communication potential of cities create new, on-going differentiation to produce the complex city and city network. This creates a political demand for integration that invention of the state satisfies: new rule, first at the local city-state scale, and then at the non-local city-empire scale. Thus, as with the invention of agriculture, it is the creation of complex city-ness that the pivotal step in the invention of the state (Figure 1(a)). The remainder of the paper elaborates on this thesis, after we deal with the second issue.

City-States as Decay?

Although conflation of city and state is common there is another tradition that provides an evolutionary approach to the creation of states where cities are by no means pivotal. In such an approach, states are interpreted as the culmination of a sequence beginning with simple bands that evolve into more complex ‘chiefdoms'. In one example, the idea that states derive from chiefdoms is linked to settlements through a rather simplistic application of central place theory: settlement hierarchies are used to define the emergence of states (Figure 1(b)). Flannery (1998, 16) states this position succinctly:

‘chiefdoms tend to have only two or three levels [or tiers] of settlements, whereas states tended to have a hierarchy of at least four levels: cities, towns, large villages, and small villages.'

Although he qualifies this by calling it a useful ‘rule of thumb' rather than a ‘law', such an approach invites thinking about states simplistically as a set of attributes. Yoffee (2005, 34), a trenchant critic of this ‘neo-evolutionary' approach, suggests a more process-orientated method of identification:

‘The central concern in studying the evolution of the earliest states is not to identify an essentialized and reified political structure (“the state”), but to explain the mechanisms through which social units that were becoming progressively differentiated were reassembled.'

He argues that states are not the next stage after chiefs; rather he treats states as qualitatively different from chiefdoms. From our communications perspective, although both pivot steps invoke complexity in Figure 1, we can note that the commercial complexity of cities and networks is at a completely different level above the governance complexity of even the most ‘advanced' chiefdoms.

Note that the evolutionary sequence in Figure 1(b) does not lead on to city-states as four-tier urban systems, as might be expected with cities occupying the top tier. Following Marcus (1998, 92), in this diagram I specify chiefdoms evolving into larger ‘territorial states'. She disagrees with Yoffee's position and considers it to be

‘very unlikely that a pristine state could emerge as a group of “city-states”, because I see no mechanism by which a group of chiefdoms can evolve into a group of tiny statelets'.

In her argument the mechanism for city-state creation is a spatial disintegration of larger territorial states (Figure 3.1(b)). The latter result from the process of ‘competing chiefdoms' (p. 62, see also Marcus and Fienman (1998)). In other words, territorial states come before city-states. This is the complete reverse of the position I take which is closely aligned to Yoffee's position (Figure 1(a)). Thus I find Marcus's critique of Yoffee difficult to accept because, by my way of thinking, the strongest point of Yoffee's position is the specification of a differentiation/integration mechanism behind state-making. He elaborates on this as follows:

‘In the process of city-state formation, leaders of various co-resident social groups compete for power. And new arenas for competition are created to channel this struggle. Since these arenas are themselves products of urban interactions (which include new relations with a concomitantly ruralised countryside). (Therefore) the city state can be considered an “invention in itself”' (Yoffee (1997, 261).

Thus the process of state making in cities takes place in unique political arenas where ‘competition among leaders of socially differentiated and economically stratified co-resident groups' (p. 262) in ‘new struggles for power and authority' (p. 263) produces something qualitatively different from a ‘complex chiefdom'. Note that I do not dispute the fragmentation of territorial states can have occurred historically to produce city ‘statelets' but I do not accept this to be a primal process: there had to be earlier city-states to have generated the territorial state before its dissolution.

I broadly follow Yoffee's position below but with more emphasis on external relations as indicated by the need to build city walls. I harness evidence from Mesopotamian studies to put detail on to the abstraction that is Figure 1(a). This is done in three parts. First, I specify the geohistorical background of the Mesopotamian case study from which I identify two distinctive eras of development. I then, second, look in more detail at the city-ness of the initial era and, second, at the state-making process of the second era.

Geohistorical background

Table 1 shows the roster of earliest cities we will be concerned with in this section: 19 different cities from 3700 to 2000 BC in Sumer (lower Mesopotamia). The population estimates are drawn from George Modelski's (1999, 2003) work. His results are used here because Chandler's (1987) standard ‘historical census' only goes back to 2250 BC. In addition Chandler uses a 20,000 threshold for inclusion compared to Modelski's 10,000, thus missing many of the cities we will be interested in. I will use this listing to define the ‘two eras of development' I deal with in the second section below. But first I will provide a very brief city-centric resume of the history of the period.

Table 1: Estimates of Mesopotamian city populations in the third and fourth millennia BC. Source: Modelski (2003: Table 2(a) (p. 22) & Table 2(b) (p.28)).

















































































































































































































































Figures refer to populations in thousands; emboldened figures and city name indicate the largest at a given time

The Mesopotamian Storyline

I have emboldened the largest city for each data year in Table 1 and these can be used to provide an outline story of what happened in the period under discussion to serve as backcloth to more detailed discussions below.

Eridu is the only city to (just) make Modelski's threshold in 3700 BC: it is interpreted as Sumer's first city and remained important as a religious site.

Uruk appears as the largest of three cities in 3500 BC and maintains its position until 2800 BC. With a population estimate of 80,000 at its peak, it is the first great city in the world.

However, shortly afterwards, the course of the Euphrates moves eastwards from Uruk across to Umma, leading to a realignment of city development. This centres on rivalry between first, Umma and Lagash and then Umma and Girsu, the latter replacing Lagash as the main city of its kingdom. These changes and the final victory of Girsu are reflected in the movement in the leading cities from 2500 BC through to 2200 BC.

Girsu is declining at the latter date, which corresponds to the rise of the Akkad empire under the leadership of Sargon. This is generally regarded as the first territorial state (or extensive empire) (Mann 1986, chapter 5). It was based on a new capital city at Akkad but note that the latter political creation never became the leading city in population terms.

However this first empire was soon replaced by the empire of the Third Dynasty of Ur. This is based on a long established city that blossoms to become the first city in the world to reach 100,000 in 2100 BC.

But this second territorial state is again short-lived and in the final year of Table 1, there are three much smaller cities with the highest populations, two of them only appearing in the table for the first time. It is the Isin dynasty that claim Ur's inheritance but they never were able to recreate Ur's territorial state.

Instead, another era is beginning that culminates in the rise of Assyrian and Babylonian empires that begin a new story of empires larger in both historical span and geographical scope than the first states.

Interpretation as Two Eras of Development

The two eras are separated at 3000-2800 BC, the earlier one is interpreted as featuring city-ness strongly, the later one as particularly featuring state formation. The first period is pre-literate but can be reconstructed from later texts. I draw heavily on the reconstruction by Jacobsen (1970). I have found his interpretations particularly meaningful in relation to the theoretical structure I am deploying. He divides this ancient literature into myths and epics (p. 140). Myths are societal in nature through their treatment of origins with cities as gods; epics deal with later times and are concerned with the deeds of human individuals as heroes and villains. It is this distinction between two ‘historical records' that provides the basis for defining and understanding the two eras of development.

In the myths, the Sumerian ‘Eden' is not a garden but a city: Eridu is the oldest city, ‘ a holy place, the very site of creation' (Leick 2001, 2, 29). When Heaven located the city on Earth, a countryside was then created to feed the people. Thus we might note that these Sumerian Gods agrees with Jacobs, ‘cities first, agriculture second thesis'! Current archaeological findings confirm Eridu to be the oldest of Sumerian cities going back to the early fourth millennium BC period but it never grew large. However it remained important symbolically as a cult centre. In the myths, Eridu is one of five initial Sumerian cities, the others being Larak, Shuruppak, Sippar and Badtibira. These are on the southern branch of the Euphates and Eridu is the most southern city of all. The key point is that the myths identify five cities, enough to build a small but vibrant network of cities.

But what evidence is there that there was a network of cities and not just separate cities? Back to Jacobsen (1970): he describes a ‘regional' pattern of politics in the myths based upon ‘the quite unique position held by the city of Nippur and its chief god, Enlil, in Sumerian politics' (p. 139). From earliest times this city was considered the source of Sumer-wide goverance but there is no evidence that this was the result of Nippur conquering other cities. Rather it was the locale of an all-Sumer assembly convened to deal with emergencies. This was the transient meeting place for conducting trans-city business. Jacobsen concludes: ‘since its temporary and loose character precludes terms like “state” or even “nation” (we may) choose the relatively noncommittal term “Kengir League”. Jacobsen times this league of cities to coincide with our first era (p. 141). What he describes is a non-state governance process that deals with crises in an ad hoc manner providing for administrative or military leadership on a temporary basis.

This political network developed parallel to a commercial network of the early cities. Jacobsen (1970) mentions jar seals inscribed with the names of major cities:

‘Since such collective seals imply collective responsibility for the goods sent under the seal … [this is] a feature most easily understandable in terms of a league of cities such as the Kengir League' (p. 141)

In fact when we explore the pre-literate archaeological content of the period in terms of tokens, tablets and seals we find that it is economic transactions that are overwhelmingly dominant (Nissen et al. 1993). This is a form of governance primarily concerned for ‘control over economic activity' (p. 14): in our first era dominated by the city of Uruk ‘the proto-cuneiform script was almost exclusively restricted to bookkeeping; it was an “accountants script”' (p. 30). Even in early written documents there is no religious narrative or historical topics (i.e. myths or epics) (p. 21) since it is only in the third millennium BC that writing achieves ‘a degree of complexity to become a universal means of communications' (i.e. representing the human language) (p. 30). In other words, the political process developing here is city/city network governance largely for facilitating and regulating commercial practice.

Overall, there is an on-going economic administration operating alongside transient organization, including military operations. Do the sum of such guardian processes constitute a state, city-state? Certainly they are early governance processes but they have yet to take on a state form in this first era. Emberling (2003, 261) defines the position well:

"Our analytical category “the state” … had little direct reflection in the practices of early Mesopotamians, and in fact homogenizes a series of disparate political and administrative institutions.

This is an era of dynamic cities that were to become the crucible of state-making, but no more.

It is all change during the Early Dynastic I period (after 3000 BC) in a new world described by the epics:

“In the myths life was on the whole peaceful, with only an occasional serious threat of war; in the epics war is the rule, the cities are ringed with huge defensive walls, their rulers think of war and conquest only, danger of sudden attack is ever present. The risks involved in such attacks, furthermore, are real and serious. Large prosperous cities may be looted and burned and even completely destroyed; if a city yields to the attacker it may see the canal system on which it depends readjusted to favor the city of the victor and may have to send its inhabitants off year after year to do forced labor in the victor's fields or on its building projects to the detriment of its own economy. How real and constant these dangers were can be gauged from the prevalence of city walls in the epics, for no community would have accepted the enormous burden of constructing such walls were the need for them not both patent and pressing.” (Jacobsen 1970, 143)

I take the building of city walls to be a signal for the changing balance between commercial and governance practices that suggests formal state-making. Several features indicate such an interpretation of this change. First, in terms of political leadership en meaning ‘chief administrator' is replaced by lugal the military leader now translated as ‘king' to indicate permanence (p. 144). Second, assembly politics changes with decisions in the city assemblies moving away from voting to be replaced by divine favour (i.e. kings representing the relevant gods' will) (p. 145). Third, even the gods that had been relatively egalitarian in organization become increasingly hierarchical (Leick 2001, 147-8). This is state-making whereby new concerns for security are concentrated through coercion into a new institutional framework. This is dated by Jacobsen for completion in Early Dynastic II (2800 BC) as indicated by both archaeological evidence of ‘the widespread appearance of city walls' and traditional sources of epics such as the Sumerian King List (p. 147).

The most famous hero in the Sumerian Kings List is Gilgamesh the king of Uruk in Early Dynastic I. Nissen (1988) uses this example to describe the change to state formation. At the beginning of the epic poem ‘we are told how Gilgamesh had to suppress the people of Uruk in order to be able to erect the city wall' (p. 95). And what a wall it was: over nine kilometers long, seven meters high and with some 900 semicircular towers regularly set in the ramparts (Nissen, 1988, 95; Leick 2001, 56). In this new era of inter-city warfare Gilgamesh is able to overrule the city assembly and defeat the aggression of Kish (Leick 2001, 81). Uruk is no longer simply a city; it is a city-state.

In the next two sections on Mesopotamia I consider city-ness and state-formation separately. Although the former will be weighted towards the earlier era and the latter to the later era, it is important to note that I do not use a city/city-state boundary to completely separate the discussion. My argument above is based upon the balance between commercial and governance practices; commercial practices continue in city-states and governance practices were necessary before city-states. As always in my perspective, both practices are occurring simultaneously but for pedagogic reasons it is sometimes useful to deal with them separately. However in what follows I will order both arguments in a local/non-local sequence to help the reader recognise the on-going relations between the two processes.

Mesopotamian city-ness

As already indicated, central place theory is to be found in the archaeology and ancient history literature, and this has to be distinguished from city-ness in interpreting evidence. Following Taylor et al (2010), central place theory will be equated with urban hinterlands that are essentially local, albeit at different hierarchical levels. This is called ‘town-ness'. In contrast, the external urban relations within city-ness are more ‘horizontal: the network/connectivity process is about trade between cities and is essentially non-local.

In searching out the making of new social spaces that are city-ness and town-ness, we are looking for local commerce and non-local commerce. Yoffee (2005, 35) expresses this as the two sources of economic power he identifies in early civilizations: subsistence and storage of surpluses, and mercantile activity. The first derives from the countryside, from a city's hinterland. Yoffee describes this in a very Jacobsean manner: ‘the urban implosion was accompanied by an equally important creation of the countryside' (p. 60). This entailed ‘first depopulation of the rural and then its reconstruction: new villages, towns and hamlets arose in the backdraft of urbanization' (p. 60). This is clearly an example of the creation of town-ness. At the same time ‘long-distance, regular networks of exchange' are important not just because of the direct acquisition of wealth thus obtained, but also because this new wealth is separate from the moral economy of the local (p. 35). This is clearly the making of the process of city-ness. However, Algaze (2006b, 15-6) complains that trade has been generally neglected in interpreting early Mesopotamian development. He argues that the evidence for its importance is clear in both the textual and archaeological record and, in addition, the fragility of the main commodity flows – textiles and wood – will mean that they are under-represented in these records. Furthermore he shows trade to be more than just a consequence of urbanization; his work requires particular scrutiny.

Algaze on City-ness

Guillermo Algaze (2006b) draws explicitly on Jacobs (1969) to understand what he terms ‘the Sumerian take-off'. Although he does not use the term city-ness, a key feature of his work is that he treats production and exchange together and thereby links internal complexity of cities to their external connectedness. Thus he incorporates the environmental advantages of southern Mesopotamia (irrigation agriculture) with transport advantages of the vast dendritic network for movement of commodities, information, and for hinterland canals.

The ‘urban take-off' (p. 12) is described as a process of cumulative multiplier effects drawing on Myrdal (1957), Pred (1966), Jacobs (1969) and Krugman (1995). The most important process derives from the latter two: import replacement. This requires a size of settlement that can sustain economic expansion; this can certainly be placed below the 10,000 entry qualification for Table 1. Thus Algaze is able to push back the beginning of a dynamic urban network even to the late fifth and early fourth millennia. Here he identifies ‘by far the most important case of import substitution processes': the adoption of wool-bearing sheep from the surrounding highlands' (p. 14). Initially imported from the latter regions, by the second half of the fourth millennium a new wool textiles industry using local wool was central to the urban economy. With access to a wide range of dyes and with larger pools of labour, the growth of this industry provided for new forward and backward linkages. Algaze describes this as a ‘textbook case' of multiplier effects (p. 15); it is worth quoting this process in full:

‘(Forward linkages) are provided by the fulling of semi-finished woven textiles with oils and alkali and the dyeing of fulled cloth. Both these practices …require a substantial input of value-added labor and new resources… Examples of backward linkages, in turn, are provided by a variety of labor-intensive activities that contributed necessary inputs to the weaving establishments but largely took place away from them. Minimally, these included pasturing the sheep, washing, plucking and/or shearing, combing, and spinning the wool, separating the wool by quality, and delivering it … No less important … this would have required scores of bureaucrats to record, store, and redistribute the output, and also to supervise the housing of the laborers and the distribution of subsistence rations'. (p. 15)

In Jacobs' terms this is economic expansion in action in early Sumerian cities.

Dynamic cities encompass multiple economic expansion processes and this was the case in Sumer. Although originally cities were differentiated by different economic niches relating to the resource base they exploited, with success came ‘competitive emulation' (Algaze 2006b, 13). This replacement of imports from nearby places reduced regional specialization in Sumer but in the process set up a growth spurt due to new productive capacities being developed. It was at this stage, in the Late Uruk, that longer distance trade came to prominence as exchanges between Sumer cities decreased. This ‘foreign' trade exploited the immense water transport advantages of Sumer and, in addition, coincided with the domestication of the donkey facilitating overland trade (p. 13). The resulting input replacement was now metal-based: from buying fully finished products from metal producing areas like Iran and Anatolia, Sumer cities created new metal processing industries that relied ‘on imports of only lightly processed ores and of semi-processed ingots of smelted copper' (p. 13).

This is a cumulative process of city development throughout the Uruk period and has numerous implications in terms of on-going innovation and emulation (Algaze 2006b, 20), an increasingly complex division of labour (p. 20-1), and the ‘multiplication of interactions' (p. 21), which are the communication potentials discussed in the introduction. This is a network world of cities with people, commodities, ideas and knowledge circulating within and between cities.

Evidence from the Great Innovation of Writing

The great innovation of Sumer cities was the invention of writing. We have previously noted how preliterate accountancy mechanism were developed through the Uruk period and writing ‘appeared for the first time in the Late Uruk period' (Nissen et al, 1993, 19). As previously noted these were largely about economic administration and therefore supplemented earlier accountancy practices rather than supplant or transcend them (p. 21). The important point from a city perspective is that this development consolidated a large category of new work – scribes – in a new archetypal urban profession. This was the first ‘knowledge industry', what Algaze (2006b), 23) calls ‘technologies of the intellect'. Nissen and his colleagues find it ‘difficult to conceive how the application and maintenance of administrative structures were possible without an orderly transmission of expertise and experience' (p. 105). In other words scribes must have obtained ‘training' within a community of scribes. This is the context for ‘experiments … to achieve more efficient methods of control': writing will likely have been a result of such experimentation (p.105). Thus literacy derives from what it is cities do so well, in the first known vibrant network of cities.

The scribes were not the only new addition in the making of an increasingly complex division of labour and their work records this. Among the few non-economic texts there are ‘lexical lists' that order items in logical lists. The most famous is the ‘Titles and Professions List' that mixes status positions with economic roles: ‘an orderly progression (of) titles, professional names and functional designations'. The best preserved tablet is from the middle of the third millennium BC, but this is copy of a well known text that goes back to the late Uruk period (Nissen et al. 1993, 110). Since copied over a period of 800 years, the assumption is that it was used as for scribal training (p. 106, 111). It is noteworthy that the first rank, although subsequently translated in later languages as ‘king', in the original Sumerian it designates the leading administrator; the Sumerian word for king lugal is not used (p. 111). At the second level there are functional leaders with responsibilities for administrative areas such as justice/law, the city, the troops, the plow, and of barley (p. 106, 111; Nissen 1986, 329). Next come other high ranks: high priests, ‘chairman of the assembly', advisors (‘wise men'), ambassadors, and other court and assembly officials. The remainder consist of lower-ranking priests, gardeners, cooks and craftsmen such as copper-smiths, jewellers, potters and bakers (Nissen 1986, 329; Nissen et al. 1993, 111). One interpretation is that the text describes an initial Uruk complex division of labour. But it is very hierarchical, putting all work practices in their ranked place. As such it is a simplification, a classic political state document (Smith 1998) that is still deemed to have some relevance in the later world of city-states. The fact that it lasts so long does indicate that it is used by state officials to simplify, and make sense of, what were highly complex social entities, the cities. However, if the text were still an accurate description of the division of labour in the mid-third millennium this would indicate a sclerotic stagnation, which we know not to be the case (Table 1).

Finally, what of the relations between these Sumerian cities and other regions? As would be expected from the previous discussion, connections to other regions were much more than just trade relations as illustrated by a record of Uruk artefacts. In an earlier work, Algaze (2006a) has interpreted Uruk's non-Sumer relations as a ‘Uruk world-system' with Sumer as the core. This leaves the other regions as periphery; indicated by the presence of Uruk trading posts and enclaves in non-Sumerian cities in upper Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Iran. Clearly this is using the dendritic transport potential of Sumer to link northwards, up the rivers and further into the highland sources of raw materials. A key point of this research is that it is not describing a ‘Uruk empire'; these were only dense trading links. Algaze refers to the Uruk expansion as an ‘informal empire' in the ‘Uruk world-system' (pp. 110-5), a process whereby regions are brought into a sphere of influence without the costs of military conquest.1 And, of course this how it must have been, given the ‘two eras' argument developed above. Economic power was strongly harnessed in the Uruk period but governance processes were not yet developed to support non-local warfare and conquest. For this states were necessary.

Mesopotamian state formation

The city-ness process in Mesopotamia was immensely successful from an economic perspective and culminated in Uruk reaching a demographic size of some 80,000 people (Table 1). But this commercial success was running ahead of governance capacities. In the governance process that leads to state formation I have previously suggested that the building of defensive city walls is a local indicator that state-ness has been achieved – the ‘state' has arrived on the historical scene. Of course, this idea must be linked to how we define the state. In his discussion of city-states, Yoffee (2005, 45) notes that definitions in the literature are not clear on whether or not they were independent political entities. In the argument developed here I treat city-states as first having internal autonomy, with some also having independence from external political control. And it is this relation to the outside world that the building of walls signifies. It is a basic simplification of urban space into an inside and an outside to augment defence capabilities.


The basic assumption of this simple division of space of the walled city is that the inside is peaceful and the outside is the source of danger. But the inside - the city – is not in any way an oasis of calm; it has had to be pacified before the building of walls can be contemplated. In fact the bringing together of large numbers of people in a dense space is not only a generator of innovation, it is also a recipe for social conflict as previously noted. The governance processes that developed with the rise of cities are primarily about solving the inevitable problems consequent upon expanding social relations in a confined space. The graduation of these processes to state formation implies a degree of success in the spiritual and administrative mechanisms to produce an ‘us and them' political frame with just ‘us' inside the wall, or brought inside when militarily necessary. In Yoffee's (2005, 61)) words: ‘the identities of people as citizens and their participation in local networks of … political interactions were redefined in cities'. Thus are Sumerian cities transformed into city-states.

Jacobsen (1970, 143-4) uses epic texts to suggest how this change from city to city-state may have come about. As previously described, the separate administrative and military leaderships of Uruk cities were appointed initially for dealing with specific emergencies. Jacobsen argues that there would have been ‘inherent tendencies' for office-holders to try and extend their authority beyond the duration of an emergency (p. 143). When in the epics sporadic war converts to a permanent condition then ‘the officer who was dealing with it could not but become permanent with it' (p. 144). Thus arises a ‘king' whose personal military followers become a regular standing army; his household locale becomes a ‘palace'. In this way cities become garrisoned and walled; hence ‘the close connection between Gilgamesh and the building of the city wall of Uruk in the Gilgamesh Epic' (p. 144). This interpretation equates with Webb's (1975) notion of a ‘conditional state' (p. 164) wherein the conditionality of leadership has to be overcome to create a state (p. 165). He argues that:

Although … states have been seen as already present in … Uruk Mesopotamia, it would seem most appropriate to regard this kind of social control as having indeed been only conditional in nature until reliance on force attained a prominence unmistakedly equal to that typical of essentially all known states' (p. 165)

Although I do not like the concept of ‘conditional state' because of its automatic evolutionary implication, the outcome with its association between state and coercion is, of course, classically Weberian in nature (Weber 1978). Webb (1975) defines very well the process I am describing.

Webb (1975, pp. 184-94) also considers the reason for the increased conflict that enable state formation. He is sympathetic to Carneiro's (1970, 1978) ‘circumscription hypothesis' that evokes an environmental causation: limited agricultural land (e.g. contained in a valley or lake basin) creates a situation where warfare cannot be resolved by movement of the defeated group to new land. The losers have nowhere to retreat to and therefore become slaves in an enhanced social stratification that culminates in a state. Webb (1975, 190) considers this argument to be lacking in consideration of trade and its contribution to creating more complex societies. This brings cities into the equation; cities consist of massive investment in social capital (flows/networks) and physical capital (place/territory) that are developed ‘constricted spaces'. City dwellers have nowhere to retreat except behind their walls: the building of walls says that ‘we are not leaving'. This is a city circumscription hypothesis of state-making.2

City-states combine commercial and governance processes with the latter in the ascendency. The question arises as to how sustainable such a commercial/governance relation can, and has, been. When expansion of commercial practices grows the city it thereby becomes an inviting target, a place of rich pickings for outside or inside military predators. Thus the city network phase without states is ultimately unsustainable: success creates the conditions requiring change in order to survive. Enter the city-state. New success in this sphere, expansion of governance practices, growing the city's territory (hinterland), threatens other cities and their territories. Thus the city-state as a political structure also creates new conditions leading to another round of needing to change to survive. Enter the territorial state or city-empire, a successful city-state that has conquered other city-states and relegated them to provincial status. The story of city-empire is the stuff of the epics.

But let's start with the initial competitive phase of multiple city-states. Nissen (1988, 131-3) provides an interesting example of the competition between city-states in third millennium Mesopotamia. Drawing ‘spheres of influence' around the main cities he shows that initially they were far enough apart not to encroach on each other's territory. However in the early third century BC, when the route of the Euphrates changed to the advantage of the small settlement of Umma, this grew into a new city. It reached a point where it encroached on a neighbouring city-state of Lagash and its major city Girsu. This produced a conflict zone between the cities over water usage and canals (p. 135). We only know of this conflict, which became seemingly perennial, because it features prominently in texts of the Early Dynasty III (p 135; Jacobsen 1970, 151), but Nissen (1970, 135) argues that it represents a new norm for what he calls ‘the period of rival states' from 2800 to 2350 BC (see Table 3.2).

From the epics we get records of rulers, conflicts and successions. Interpretations of these show fluctuating fortunes with different Sumer city-states rising to regional leadership followed by a return to squabbling city-states until another hero-king raises his city to overlordship. Although lacking continuity, the common title taken by those achieving the latter is ‘King of Kish' irrespective of their own home city. This is a curious title because the city of Kish is not in Sumer but is located on the Euphrates to the north. Nissen (1988, 144-5) suggests that the city of Kish held a strategic riverine position relative to all Sumer and therefore its kingship meant countrywide control. However, it is not known whether the title merely represented ‘power to raid and to exact tribute unopposed' or whether it was a more solid political structure (Jacobsen 1970, 153). Jacobsen notes that one such ‘king' adjudicated in the long running dispute between Umma and Lagash/Girsa (p. 153) suggesting real jurisdiction.

From City-State to City-Empire

However the ‘kings of Kish' are interesting because their conquests revealed the need for new political mechanisms that were required for the establishment of a multi-city territorial state. This was the conversion of defeated city-states into new imperial provinces:

‘As soon as a polity was enlarged beyond the boundaries of one city-state, “branch offices” were needed. Each previous independent state constituted a convenient province, which could be accurately delimitated territorially, on the basis of the previous boundaries of the separate city-states.' (Postgate 1992, 151)

But this process was fraught with difficulties as the fragile Kish kingships were merely local city-state rulers confronted by the pitfalls of non-local governance. The result of conquest was a centre/non-centre dichotomy. The king represented the centre's rule across the territory but he is opposed by the particularities of other cities and their special gods. And the latter had to be respected. The solution of treating the non-centre as ‘provinces' is a new administrative invention. According to Nissen (1988) this political innovation was not made until the end of the third millennium BC in what he calls the ‘period of the first territorial states' from 2350 to 2000 BC.

In fact, the new administrative mechanisms were developed twice to produce city-empires that had dynastic reproduction of several generations. As in our storyline above, first, Sargon of Akkad famously produced the first ‘world empire'. His origins are obscure but he signalled a break from the past by centering his rule on a new city, Akkad. This city became the base of a ‘centralized administration and communication system' (Nissen 1988, 167). His new rule used ‘governors' from Akkad to rule conquered cities that were garrisoned by Akkad soldiers and whose walls were destroyed indicating not just removal of defence but also elimination of their separate statehood (p. 168; Jacobsen 1970, 154). The Akkad dynasty lasted five rulers covering nearly 200 years before succumbing to outside invasion. Sumer was not then unified again until the ‘Third Dynasty of Ur' that had five rulers lasting for 109 years. Jacobsen (1970, 155) argues that it was this empire that solved the problem of continual non-local rebellion by instituting a senior administrative elite, answerable to the king, and who could be moved from post to post to reduce growth of local ties (Nissen 1988, 194). A key feature was that military affairs were kept separate from the civil administration (Postgate 1992, 152). This is a state bureaucracy treating the former city-states of Sumer as simple provinces. Thus was born the territorial state, a city-empire where rival cities are reduced to provinces.

Once this territorial state formation is completed Sumer's relations with other regions change dramatically. In the cities era of Uruk, we found that trading led to an ‘informal empire' of enclaves and trading posts as the means of projecting the economic power of Sumer's great cities (Algaze 2006a). But states project political power through coercion or the threat thereof to create formal empires, lands of conquest. Sargon attempted to extend his empire far beyond Sumer north into today's Syria and Anatolia but outer areas were not always meant to be permanent possessions, they could represent just a buffer zone (Nissen 1988, 168). The Third Dynasty of Ur empire was at least as large as the Akkadian empire and in this case appeared to be more strategic by including regions to the east to protect the eastern flank from threats from peoples of the north-east mountains (p. 196). Further, the north-west was protected by the erection of the ‘Martu wall' as a sort of city-state protection mechanism writ large. It was the over-running of this wall that mark the end of the great empire of Ur.

Generic conclusion

As in the first paper, although the text is largely a regional case study, the empirics are intended for theoretical illustration. The key argument, encapsulated in Figure 1(a), is intended as a general statement about the rise of states deriving from the communication model of city development. Hence this is a second generic conclusion linking the detail learned from the case study to a wider range of known examples. The comparisons here are with other regions in which the development of primal ‘civilizations' has been identified. My main source for this exercise is a quartet of books consisting of 68 chapters that between them provide a reasonably balanced world-wide assessment of the development of cities and states (Feinman and Marcus's (1997); Hansen's (2000; plus supplement (2002)); Nichols and Charlton's (1998); Smith's (2003)). Using these sources I search out indications of early cities transmuting into city-states and the territorial states (empires) as in Figure 1(a). The results of this exercise are shown for the six main ‘civilization' regions in Table 2. This shows that I can find interesting evidence for support my generic argument for all cases. But this is by no means clear-cut; there are. of course, debates about the interpretation of the evidence. I will conclude by focussing on just three cases, Egypt, China and Mesoamerica, where the interpretation I support in Table 2 is probably a minority position.

Table 2: Cities and city-states in main ‘civilization' zones.








Upper Egypt

Hierakonpolis, Nagada and Abydos as early cities and incipient city- states

Yoffee (2005)

Indus valley


Across the region

5 major cities: as well as Mohenjo-dara and Harappa, two more ‘extremely large cities have been found, Ganweriwala and Rakhiggarhi, plus the port city of Dholavira. Both early cities and multiple state formation

Chakrabarti (2000); Kenoyer (1997); Possehl 2003



Erlitou culture (possible first dynasty of Xia) and Shang empire

Using Modelski estimates there are sizeable Chinese cities going back to at least 1800BC and at least 5 over 10,000 in 1400BC

Lewis (2000); Modelski (2002)

West Africa


Guinea and Sahel (riverine)


Hausaland city-states (1450-1804)based on seven original cities: Kano, Katsina, Zaria, Biram, Daura, Rano and Gobir – wall-building c.1500;

Fante city-state federation from 15 th century

Griffeth (2000); Kea (2000); McIntoch and McIntoch (2003); Peel (2000)


550BC-AD250 to conquest

Pre-Maya to Aztec

Initial large pre-Mayan cities and then Mayan city-states but no territorial empires. Aztec empire with former city-states as provinces

Charlton and Nichols 1997); Grube (2000); Houston et al 2003); Smith 2000); Webster 1997

‘Greater' Peru

AD1 to conquest

Coastal and Andes

Coastal cities (from Moche culture (AD1)), eliminated by Inka empire as ‘anti-urban' and moving to economic oblivion irrespective of the conquest

Attarian (2003); Kolata (1997); Moore (2003); Wilson (1997

According to Wenke (1997, 27), it has become a cliché to refer to Egypt as a ‘civilization without cities'. Thus Egypt would seem to constitute one of the severest challenges to the framework developed in this paper. Wenke (1997, 45) understands the importance of cities as creative places but argues that Egypt developed without such city-ness:

‘the early Egyptian state was able to do everything necessary for an advanced preindustrial civilization without large, functionally differentiated communities, simply by linking, via the Nile and an elaborate bureaucracy, the many functional elements one might find in a single Mesopotamian city-state. In Egypt these elements were distributed throughout the Nile Valley and Delta.'

In other words, economic development was by the state rather than by commercial elites (p. 44). Further, ‘government policy appears not to have favored cities, notably by relying on an estate-based system of redistribution' (p. 256). And yet Egyptian cities do feature in Modelski's demographic survey of ancient cities, not as plentiful as in Mesopotamia but also not insignificant. Therefore I follow Yoffee's (2005, pp. 46-8) position that first, there is reasonable evidence for early cities as described in Table 1 wherein city-states and then the larger territorial state were invented. He argues that the difference with other regions of civilization is not the lack of cities but the fact that they did not play a major part in governance because the large ‘linear' territorial framework of the state ‘made urbanism a part of the trends towards territorial unification rather than a factor opposing such trends, as was the case elsewhere' (p. 48). But the inventions are the same in arriving at this unusual situation.

The other two cases, China and Mesoamerica, are very different in many respects but they share one intriguing feature in their debates over the origins of cities and states. In both cases there are strong arguments for the reverse of the process argued above with states preceding cities. And in both cases promoters of this orthodoxy have been accused of ideological distortions in their interpretations. Thus in China although ‘the Spring-and-Autumn period (711-481 BC) was the age of the city-state in China' (Lewis 2000, 359) ‘it left surprisingly little trace in later history' (p. 372). For Robin Yates (1997) this neglect of cities and city-states in Chinese history is a historiographical artefact. Basically he argues that both Marxists and traditional Chinese scholars have been searching for suitable imperial antecedents in the pre-empire period (before 221 BC) and, for both searches, neither cities nor city-states were of any relevance or interest. Similarly, but for different reasons, Western scholars traditionally argue that the Maya did not have either cities or states' (Pyburn 2000, 155-6). But Pyburn treats this negative thinking as an example of treating the Maya as a simple and ‘exoticized other' (p. 156). She challenges a set of unexamined assumptions ‘head on', including one that is particularly pertinent to the argument developed in this paper: ‘Most reconstruction of ancient Maya civilization begin with the assumption that individual communities were economically self-sufficient' (p. 156). This ‘othering' negates the complexity of Maya political economy but Pyburn notes with approval that ‘the possibility of complex intersite relations of both an economic and political nature has begun to be suggested by some authors for some ancient Maya cities.' She argues explicitly that ‘local subsistence patterns and population densities are a product of intersite political economy as much as local resource availability' (p 156-7). From my perspective she is discovering city-ness and state formation.

And so my pair of papers has come full circle. In the first paper I began by setting out a city-centric position to counter state-centric social science thinking but we should not think that state-biases in our thinking is restricted to current situations. In history, and in the various ‘ancient' histories I have dealt with, there always remains a strong tendency for scholars to ‘read back into the past the conditions and practices of their own day' (Yates 1997, 75). Of course I have delved into histories where the amount of evidence varies but is never as complete as we would want. This provides for a lot of leeway in interpretation. Hence the importance of the theoretical perspective that engages with the evidence. I consider my communication model of city-ness to provide a powerful lens through which to view what we know about the times and places where cities and states were entering the world stage. In debates on these topics I expect contrary arguments to feature a model equally or more powerful in the processes and mechanisms generated. But for now I merely repeat, all cities are so extraordinary they contain the capacity to invent both agriculture and states.


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* Peter J Taylor, Department of Geography Loughborough University, Lougborough, UK, email:

1. For a contrary position that does not contradict the non-military nature of the relations, see Stein (1999).

2. In contrast, other early spatial arguments on state formation neglect or ignore cities. For instance, Colin Renfrew's (1975) widely used concept of ‘early state modules' suggests the obverse of what I am arguing on cities and states. As well as its evolutionary overtones, he develops his argument from central place theory. This means, from my perspective, that he is building his ideas on town-ness (hinterlands) rather than on city-ness (networks). Curiously Renfrew seems to be attracted to central place theory because it does not involve ‘analysis of “cities” ‘ (p. 12) – central places can be just places of exchange with little or even no permanent population.


Edited and posted on the web on 17th August 2010

Note: This Research Bulletin and RB 359 are source papers for an article published in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 36 (3), (2012), 415-447