More from “War in Human Civilization”, which I’m not appending to the older post since few would notice. Jane Jacobs thought cities preceded agriculture. Azar Gat strongly disagrees. Oddly enough, he acknowledges that some hunter-gatherers were sedentary, including his (oddly, since we’ve got Australia) exemplary Pacific northwesterners, whose salmon fishing also gave rise to a quasi-agricultural exploitable surplus. He doesn’t mention my intuitive argument against Jacobs, about the relative attraction of non-sedentary agriculture (slash-and-burn or “swiddening”, often discussed in James Scott’s “The Art of Not Being Governed) when there is a higher ratio of land to population (as would have been the case before the neolithic revolution) and it can be combined with hunting still fairly prevalent game animals. In Gat’s view cities were not useful economically, but provided a defense (even when unwalled) against the common primitive tactic of raiding. There is an oddly circular aspect to his argument since he says city-states arise to protect against other nearby city-states. I earlier argued against his certainty that the early city of Jericho was unique, a claim that undercuts his later argument. One plausible argument from his book I hadn’t considered before is that today’s categories of urban industrialist/artisan vs rural farmer doesn’t apply well to many ancient city-states where most of the population consisted of farmers who simply walked to their nearby fields from their home in the city daily. A quote from him below the fold.
“Why then did the peasants in these petty-polities coalesce in cities? All the city glitter could not compensate for the crowded living conditions, bad hygiene, high prevalence of epidemic disease, and hours-long walk to the fields, which were the inseparable aspects of city life. The principal motive was defence, as has been variably realized by scholars of various city-state civilizations but hardly recognized in general. City-states were so decisively and unusually urban not because of massive industrial and commercial concentration, which – as a result of the realities of food production and transportation in pre-industrial societies – existed only in a few high-profile, especially maritime, historical cases; rather, city-states were so configured because of the threat posed by the presence of other city-states only a few kilometres away. It is this that accounts for the highly conspicuous but barely noted fact that city-states nearly always appeared in a cluster of dozens and even hundreds. There were some 1,200-1,500 Greek poleis, hundreds of city-states in medieval northern Italy, 30-odd Mesopotamian city-states, and 40-50 city-states in the pre-contact Valley of Mexico.”
UPDATE: I forgot to add something that caught my eye earlier. William Weir’s “50 Battles that Changed the World” is one of the fairly small number of books I kept when I moved into a little room in Chicago. Two of the battles discussed are the early Arab victories at Yarmuk (over the eastern Romans) and Kadisiyah (over the Persians). Gat also disagrees with Weir, who may have been entirely wrong about the course of those battles and Arab tactics generally (it’s a book for laymen and doesn’t contain footnotes or citations). Weir wrote that the Arab armies depended on mounted bedouin archers who would try to harass the enemy lines to draw them out and then quickly retreat leaving their pursuers vulnerable to attack. It is mentioned that they sometimes dismounted to fight as infantry, but that is not discussed in the course of either battle. They certainly didn’t stay in one position where the enemy could get at them. Gat argues that despite the popular perception, horses were impractical in arid Arabia and camels were used for strategic (rather than tactical) mobility. He says in both battles “the invading Moslems took up strong defensive positions, where their tightly packed spearmen and shield wall repulsed and ultimately routed their enemies’ cavalry charge. His citation is to D. Hill, “The role of the camel and the horse in the early Arab conquests” from “War Technology and Society in the Middle East”, along with John Jandora’s “The March from Medina: A revisionist study of the Arab conquests”.