The History of the Culture of War
War and the culture of war at the dawn of history:
Ancient Mesopotamia
5,000 years of increasing monopolization of the culture of war by the state

The History of the Culture of War

What is culture and how does it evolve?

Warfare in prehistory and its usefulness

The culture of war in prehistory

Data from prehistory before the Neolithic

Enemy images: culture or biology

War and the culture of war at the dawn of history

--Ancient Mesopotamia

--Ancient Egypt

--Ancient China

--Ancient Greece and Rome

--Ancient Crete

--Ancient Indus civilizations

--Ancient Hebrew civilization

--Ancient Central American civilization

Warfare and the origin of the State

Religion and the origin of the State

A summary of the culture of war at the dawn of history

The internal culture of war: a taboo topic

The evolution of the culture of war over the past 5,000 years: its increasing monopolization by the state

--1.Armies and armaments

--2.External conquest and exploitation: Colonialism and Neocolonialism

--3.The internal culture of war and economies based on exploitation of workers and the environment

--4.Prisons and penal systems

--5.The military-industrial complex

--6.The drugs-for-guns trade

--7.Authoritarian control

--8.Control of information

--9.Identification of an "enemy"

--10.Education for the culture of war

--11.Male domination

--12.Religion and the culture of war

--13.The arts and the culture of war



Summary of the history of the culture of war


Let's begin with the oldest civilization with writing - the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia. The chapter, "From State to Empire" in Volume II of the UNESCO history describes the rise of the state and its culture in this region. Emphasis here, as we will see with other accounts of early empires, is on the function of war to capture slaves, enlarge territory and amass wealth. The functions of war for external defense and internal control are implied but not specifically mentioned. As described here, leadership of the state originates from military leadership.

"The emergence of "city-state" ..."denotes the beginning of civilization, when the productivity of social labour reached a level at which society could use the surplus produce to maintain a considerable number of people who were not themselves engaged in productive labour, but fulfilled functions of great importance to society: as administrators, warriors, priests and the 'intelligentsia' - scholars, artists, poets and so on . . surplus product could only grow extensively through robbing neighbours, capturing slaves, enlarging one's territory and so increasing one's population, or else through unequal trade with neighboring peoples. All this could be done only through war, and war now became a constant factor in the life of society.

Imperial peace promoted trade and generally reinforced economic ties, as well as making for a syncretic, super-ethnic culture. Conversely, it was the empire that first gave rise, in addition to the already commonplace distinction between freemen and slaves or, on a broader footing, between citizens and foreigners, to a distinction among freemen in the guise of a difference between citizens and subjects, that is, between conquerors and conquered. This in turn led to the emergence and spread of ethnic warfare which was hitherto virtually unknown . . "

"As war grew in importance, the military leader increasingly came to take pride of place and the office was made permanent ... Disposing of a considerable share of the spoils of war and commanding both the temple guard and the levy of citizens, the lugal [military leader] concentrated ever greater power in his hands and increasingly pushed such traditional institutions as the council of elders and other offices to second rank. The Sumerian epic poem Gilgamesh and Agga tells how ... when the elders counseled submission, Gilgamesh turned to the assembly of the people which called for war and proclaimed Gilgamesh lugal; the war ended with the defeat of Kish. Regardless of the historical accuracy of this story, this train of events is emphatically typical of many later periods: a successful military commander, drawing on the support of the masses and flouting the traditional authorities (the council of elders areopagus or senate) seizes personal power. This is just how the tyrannies arose in Greece and the constant dictatorships, later to become the empire, in Rome."

As described in the chapter of Volume II on Mesopotamia, the emergent state had an economy based on exploitation, with slaves at the base:

"By the Early Dynastic period, the increased centralization of state power had produced a dependent labour force among temple and palace personnel, along with the slave and semi-free workers who provided services and production to the estates. Individuals of rural communities may also have been recruited for temporary labour on irrigation and construction work, and have been obliged to give tribute to the temple in the form of agricultural produce. These societies thus contained five major classes of people: nobility, among whom were counted royal administrators, merchants and priests; citizens or community members who held private property; clients of the temple or palace, like artisans who temporarily held pieces of property in exchange for craft products; semi-free labourers who received payment by subsistence rations; and slaves, prisoners of war and other indigent members of the community."

In the chapter in Volume II on Economic and Socio-Political Developments there is discussion of the evolving status of warriors and priests and how each of them serves the palace and the king, i.e. the leadership of the state:

"The centre of society and of the political structure is provided by the 'great organizations,' that is the temples and the royal palaces ... [in the shift to the late Bronze Age] the different specialized groups are mostly dependent on the palace (temples being now economic agencies subordinated to the palace). The proportion is quite different from area to area, but we may guess that 20% of the population was composed of palace dependents, classified in various groups ... The top of the social and economic ranking is occupied by warriors, scribes, priests and merchants ... .Besides the chariot warriors, the palace maintains lower-rank military personnel, mainly as guards. . . Priests are generally reduced to the rank of king's dependents "

We know something of military education in ancient Mesopotamia from the extensive library of one of its last rulers, Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC), over 20,000 cuneiform tablets of over a thousand distinct texts. Ashurbanipal describes in his own annals his education in horsemanship, hunting, chariot driving, and soldiering as well as oil divination, mathematics, reading and writing. The following quotation comes from Curtis and Andre-Salvini (2005):

"The art of master Adapa I learned - the hidden treasure of all scribal knowledge ... I mounted my horse ... I held the bow. I shot the arrow, the sign of my valour. I threw unwieldy azmaru-spears like arrows. Holding the reins like a driver I made the wheels go round. I learned to handle the aritu and heavy kababu shields like a fully-equipped bowman."

This was echoed later by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus who said, "The Persians teach their sons, between the ages of five and twenty only three things: to ride a horse, use the bow, and speak the truth."

For a more detailed description of the role of the religion and priests in support of the state and military leader, the UNESCO chapter on the Development of Religion describes how the king came to be considered as divine and sacred:

"From the beginning of the third millennium BC we find the same form of government from India to the Atlantic both among nomadic peoples and ethnic groups settled in one place: they had at their head a leader who was acknowledged to have divine powers. Historians call this sacral kingship . . "

"From the fourth millennium BC in Mesopotamia each Sumerian city-state was headed by a leader who was called lugal, 'big man', or ensi, 'prince-priest'. He was appointed by the god to rule the city and was supposed to live in his temple. Texts describe royalty as power coming from the gods, a tradition passed on to the Semites as it crops up again in Babylon and Assyria, where the kings' names had similar meanings. They derived their power from their enthronement and coronation. An extensive vocabulary referring to divine light and divine splendour was used to describe their attributes. Since the king was responsible for building temples, organizing offerings to the gods, worship, sacrifices and feasts, functionaries gradually replace him and various duties were delegated to priests."

The monumental architecture and art of ancient Mesopotamia, as described in the UNESCO History Volume 2, served to portray and aggrandize the military exploits of the leadership of the state:

"In Mesopotamia, the various arts depict the feats of the monarchs in the hunting and battle grounds. The Stela of vultures is a bas-relief of the victory of the ruler of Lagash in the twenty-ninth century BC. In another bas-relief in the palace of Nimrud, Ashurnasirpal (ninth century BC) is shown laying siege to a city. Two centuries later, and using the same technique Ashurbanipal appears in a hunting scene at his palace in Ninevah."

This description is echoed in Plates 64 and 69 in the UNESCO history, volume 2. Plate 64, the "victory stela" of Narma Sin (2254-2218 BC), shows the king standing upon his vanquished enemies. Plate 69, the so-called "Standard of Ur" (2685 BC), shows elaborate scenes on its two sides, one of peace (a banquet scene) and one of war, including four-wheeled chariots trampling the enemy, spearmen in armor, soldiers carrying axes, and prisoners of war being presented to the king. As for literature, there were important epic poems preserved as clay tablets in the ancient library of Ashurbanipal. Accounts of warfare are included, although the main themes seem instead to be more religious and philosophical, including how a good king should govern.

Considering the oral tradition of epic poetry relating to the god Marduk in ancient Mesopotamia, it is suggested in the UNESCO History section on Oral Traditions and Literature that the great Creation epic, probably written at the end of the twelfth century BC, served as a "propaganda instrument for an empire seeking to justify its political and religious expansion."

The male domination associated with the culture of war that was common in prehistory is apparently retained in early Mesopotamia. Although we find no information in Volume II of the UNESCO History, we may assume that the subservience of women in the period from 700 BC to 700 AD, as described in the following excerpt from Volume III, was also applicable to the earlier period.

"... in all ancient civilizations - women had no political rights, and nowhere were they allowed to reach a social status even remotely comparable to that of free males. Of course it made some difference whether a woman was enslaved, bought or sold on the market, or if she were the wife of a freeman or of a higher ranked member of society. But even in those cases where women enjoyed excellent material conditions in their daily life, they could only exist within the context of a patriarchal system of life. Even in the highest circles, marriage was arranged by the male members of the two families involved, and the sphere of the married woman's activities was restricted to the household. Normally women belonging to the elite groups of society were also excluded from higher education and from participation in the 'Classical cultures' as creative members of the society. In all cultures there were exceptions - women who gained prominence as artists, writers or scholars - but they mostly were treated as outsiders."

To take part in a discussion about this page, click below on the Culture of Peace Dialogues:

discussion board
World Peace through the Town Hall


1) The difference between "peace" and "culture of peace" and a brief history of the culture of war

2) The role of the individual in culture of war and culture of peace

3) Why the state cannot create a culture of peace

4) The important role of civil society in creating a culture of peace

--Peace and disarmament movements

--Ecology movement

--Movements for human rights

--Democracy movements

--Women's movement

--International understanding, tolerance and solidarity

--Movements for free flow of information

--The strengths and weaknesses of civil society

5) The basic and essential role of local government in culture of peace

--Sustainable development

--Human rights

--Democratic participation

--Women's equality


--Transparency and the free flow of information

--Education for a culture of peace

--Security and public safety

--Some ongoing initiatives

6) Assessing progress toward a culture of peace at the local level

--Culture of peace measurement at the level of the state

7) Going global: networking of city culture of peace commissions

8) The future transition of the United Nations from control by states to popular control through local governmental representatives

9) What would a culture of peace be like?