The struggle for the means of reproduction

By Lorenzo

Recently read the sort of work of history I particularly enjoy–one that gets into how past societies and states actually worked. Edited by historians Walter Scheidel and Ian Morris, The Dynamics of Ancient Empires: State Power from Assyria to Byzantium has essays on the Neo-Assyrian, Achaemenid Persian, Athenian, Roman and Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) empires (the last also examines the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates), all of which can be read with profit.


In the essays, empires are examined as a manifestation of the process of state formation. An approach I am profoundly sympathetic to, since imperialism is such a common feature of state-societies. (Modern Western states may have given up territorial expansion, but not the internal colonisation of their own societies; a form of state expansionism even admitting the profound differences involved in expansion within, rather than outside, the ambit of voters.)

The essay by Ian Morris on Athens argues cogently that the Athenian “empire” was not really an empire within the meaning of the term used here (the subordination of one state or social formation to another marked by a significant level of difference) as its attempted subordination/incorporation was based on similarity (being Ionian Greeks) not dominating the different. Rather, it was a failed attempt to create a Greater Athenian State. (The Roman Republic was, by contrast, successful at creating a Greater Roman State before going on to become the greatest of ancient Empires in the Mediterranean region.) Morris regards the Athenian failure as far from inevitable–more of a near run thing. If Athens had concentrated on the weak points in Sparta’s dominion over the Peloponnesian League rather than over-reaching in taking on the third major Hellenic power (Syracuse), it may well have won the Peloponnesian War.

The essay on Rome by the late Keith Hopkins is typically revealing while the essay on the Eastern Roman Empire by John F. Haldon includes an excellent discussion of the rise and decline of the Islamic Sunni Caliphate. As all the essays are on the dynamics of the examined states, they examine their taxing-tribute structures (within the limits of available sources); the sort of basic structural issues narrative history often overlooks.

Because the essays are about the dynamics–the structures and broad policy choices–of the states being examined, there is a certain “challenge and response” feel to the essays, but that is fine. Choices and constraints is a good way to look at past and present, not the least because it avoids the hindsight inevitability which is a danger in historical analysis.

Reproductive imperialism

But what really grabbed my attention was Walter Scheidel’s concluding essay Sex and Empire: A Darwinian Perspective. A perennial criticism of evolutionary approaches to examining human affairs is a lack of a sense of the contingency of history, its specific and striking variety. In particular, a tendency to project patterns familiar to the contemporary scholar on the past or otherwise quite different societies. Not a problem in this case; Scheidel is acutely aware of the contingency of history.

Citing anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon (from here) that, as Scheidel paraphrases:

… in evolutionary time, struggles among humans were more likely over the means of reproduction than over the means of production (p.257)

Scheidel examines empire as a means for reproductive advantage. Which it was, very powerfully, as Scheidel marshals evidence for from a range of empires and states across continents and millennia: from the Incas to the Qing Empire.

Despotism as indulgence.

Despotism as indulgence.

Moreover, an empire did not have to be expansionary to garner such advantage, particularly to rulers. Indeed, for rulers particularly, despotism is enough–as in the case of North Korea (such as its Kippumjo or Joy Division), one of the despotisms examined.

Scheidel points out that the association of despotism and tyranny with sexual excess and exploitation is a literary trope that turns up in many societies. In Roman imperial history, “good” emperors respected the wives, daughters and concubines of others, “bad” emperors did not. But, beyond the literary trope Scheidel explores, we might also wonder what is cause and what is effect given the importance and difficulties of agents-of-ruler monitoring in autocratic systems. Was such restraint by “good” emperors an aid to survival and effective rule through greater commitment by subordinates who got more benefit out of their role serving restrained emperors? Conversely, did lack of such restraint by “bad” emperors made them more vulnerable to maladministration and elite conspiracies by subordinates who received less benefit from serving unrestrained emperors?

The advantages of empire also applied to subordinates of rulers and an empire did not have to be in an expansionary phase for that to be true. Scheidel cites considerable evidence that, though Roman soldiers were not permitted to marry, their much-higher-than-average standard of living translated into expanded sexual (and reproductive) advantages. As Scheidel puts it:

On a conventional estimate, the military absorbed between two-thirds and three-quarters of the imperial budget during the Principate. Thus, in what must have been the single largest transfer of resources in Western history prior to the modern period, much of the revenue extracted from a taxpayer base of maybe 60 to 70 million people was redistributed to some 350,000 to 400,000 professional soldiers (p.301).

Those transfers gave Roman soldiers incomes 9 to 12 times subsistence and around 4 to 6 times average per capita incomes. Centuries of the reproductive success of Roman soldiers likely had much to do with the “Romanisation” of the provinces.

Imperial resilience

As an aside, the notion that the Roman imperial system and economy (or any other ancient empire) required continuing expansive military aggression to survive is nonsense on stilts. They were certainly built by military aggression, and required a certain level of military effectiveness to survive but, in a world before printing and electricity, there were strong diseconomies of scale in territorial control. Which is why empires tended to be so significantly water-based–rivers, coasts, seas–or horse-based (nomad empires) or both (Iranian plateau); water and horses-across-plains greatly lowered transport and communication costs. Though, once a certain size was achieved, there could be distinct economies of scale in military protection: the Roman Empire represented a considerably lower level of military mobilisation for the Mediterranean region than when it was made up of competing states.

The success of the Roman Empire under the Republic and the Principate was based on a very lean system of imperial administration and historically unusually high levels of trade. As trade declined after the collapse of the Han dynasty, the Parthian Empire was replaced by the much more aggressive Sassanid Empire, and the imperial administration was forced to switch to far more in-kind extraction–requiring a vastly larger official apparatus–the increasing diseconomies of control and decreasing trade revenues led to the splitting of the Empire and then the collapse of the Western Empire in the C5th. But the process took two-and-a-half centuries to work its way through, and that after two-and-half centuries of substantial territorial stability.

Building something that endured.

Building something that endured.

Taking the Punic Wars as the beginning of the Rome-as-Empire, the Western Empire lasted more than twice as long as it took to build. While the Eastern Empire lasted, in one form or another, for another thousand years: about 120 years as the full Eastern Empire (up until the temporary conquests of Khosrau II and the permanent Muslim conquests); 430 years as a Balkan-Anatolian state (until the disaster at Manzikert in 1071); 130 years as an Aegean-Black Sea state until 1204; and then 250 years as a minor military power (but major cultural one).

Similarly, there is no evidence that the Achaemenid Empire was under any sort of terminal stress before being overwhelmed by the military genius of Alexander using far superior military techniques. (Seriously, what were the Persians–given their weapons and armour–supposed to do as the Macedonian phalanx ground towards them, its flanks protected by peltasts and companion cavalry?) Even using the most flexible and effective military system of the ancient world (apart from the Roman), it still took Alexander years of hard campaigning–of sieges and major set-piece battles, from the Battle of Granicus (334BC) to the Battles of Jaxartes and Gabai (329BC)–to conquer the empire.

Sexual exploitation

Given the physiology of human reproduction–particularly the length of pregnancies, infancy and vulnerable childhood–it is not surprising that polygyny is so common in human societies (not to mention primate ones). That, in polygynous societies, empire provided reproductive advantage–most obviously to imperial rulers but also to imperial elites more generally–is easy to establish. Scheidel’s analysis is striking only because this elementary advantage of empire has been so little analysed.

Scheidel’s analysis also makes obvious a major reason why household slavery was so common across societies, with remarkable little evidence that female household slaves were economically productive commensurate with their frequency. Male household slaves were, however, more likely to be economically productive. As economic historian Stefano Fenoaltea points out [pdf], male household slaves as agents makes sense in societies with limited capacity for legal agents, such as via incorporation. In Fenaoatea’s words:

… an effective substitute for the nonhuman person or the legal agent was found in the human nonperson, who was legally but his master’s instrument (p.657).

Schiedel quotes a comment by the Roman poet Horace that expresses an enduring reality of slavery:

When your organ is stiff, and a slave girl or young boy from your household is near at hand and you know you can make an immediate assault, would you sooner burst with tension? Not me. I like sex to be there and easy to get (p.296).

Scheidel quotes a range of literary evidence from slave societies ancient and modern to the same effect. I have read a great deal on the economics and history of bondage, but not much of the literary evidence, so I was unprepared to be shocked all over again about the viciousness of slavery. Scheidel uses quotes from the antebellum South to drive the point home. During his tour of Louisiana, Frederick Law Olmsted was told by a planter that:

… there is not a likely-looking black girl in this State that is not the concubine of a white man. There is not an old plantation in which the grandchildren of the owner are not whipped in the field by the overseer (p.285).

Memorialist Rebecca Latimer Felton observed that:

… the crime of that made slavery a curse, lies in the fact that unbridled lust placed the children of bad white men in slave pens, on auction blocks, and no regard was shown to parentage or parental responsibility in such matters (p.285).

But, as Scheidel points out, creating children who had not claim on your material possessions was a distinct advantage of slavery, from a (slave-owning or accessing) male reproductive point-of-view.

Historical demographer Peter Turchin argues that mass slavery has a pervasive and very long-lasting negative effect on levels of social capital in regions which experienced it. The required suppression of elementary human empathy–indeed, elementary familial empathy–under mass slavery makes his argument highly plausible.

Not least because of the effect on relations between the genders among slave owners. Felton remembered planters who:

…defied the marriage law of the state by keeping two households on the same plantation, one white and one coloured, and both women were afraid to make public outcry (p.285).

Mary Boykin Chestnut recorded in her famous diary on 14 March 1861 that:

Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and concubines; and the mulattoes one sees in every family partly resemble the white children. Any lady is ready to tell you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household but their own. Those, she seems to think, drop from the clouds (p.285).

Decades earlier, the sister of President James Madison is supposed to have observed that:

 … we southern ladies are complimented with the name of wives, but we are only mistresses of seraglios (p.285).

Scheidel’s examples from the antebellum South are so powerful because the nation-state they talk of still exists and is such a powerful and culturally familiar presence. The habits of moral exclusion–and the silences and not-hearings and not-seeings that go with it–were deeply embedded in the American South by slavery and continue to manifest to the present day.

The oddness of monogamy 

Given the dynamics of human reproduction, it is not polygyny that needs explaining, but monogamy. Or, more specifically, socially imposed monogamy. Scheidel notes that the socially imposed monogamy of Classical Greece and Rome is typically just accepted by scholars when, in fact, among the wider patterns of human societies, it was profoundly odd.

Scheidel argues that socially imposed monogamy fosters inter-male cooperation by reducing competition for mates among in-group males. Given the importance of citizen-armies in Classical Rome and Greece, there was an obvious advantage in socially imposed monogamy.

A standard for some group's convenience.

Double standards for some group’s convenience.

Though the monogamy was more for in-group females than in-group males. Wives could be guilty of adultery with any male; in-group males were guilty of adultery only with the wives of other in-group males. (Which, of course, supports the point that such monogamy was about fostering inter-male cooperation.)

So, as Scheidel makes much of, with in-group males there was a distinct difference between socially imposed monogamy and actual mating patterns. Hence the importance of concubines, mistresses, prostitutes and slaves. All ways in which imperialism could provide further reproductive opportunities; sometimes quite a way down the social scale. In Athens, for example, brothels could also produce other goods and services–‘factory’ effectively meant brothel. Scheidel provides yet another analysis of the profound connection between citizenship in Athens and Rome and mass slavery. Or, in the case of Sparta, mass serfdom.

Looking at things differently

I found Scheidel’s essay to be both striking and revealing. One that encourages one to look at events in new ways (such as to wonder about a connection between imperial sexual restraint and quality of administration).

It is outside the scope of his analysis, as all the societies he considers are patrilineal and patrilocal (a striking point in itself, even given that is much the most common combination [pdf] among human societies) but, given the dynamics of reproduction, female control of resources can change the above dynamics quite profoundly.

It also struck me–extending previous thoughts about the role of queers in providing social cohesion and other cultural services–that the sexually and gender divergent took themselves out of status competition for mates, making it much easier for them to, for example, provide mediating services.

But encouraging one to look at issues in new ways is what good analysis does. This volume in general, and Scheidel’s concluding essay in particular, does precisely that.



  1. Posted August 28, 2013 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    such as to wonder about a connection between imperial sexual restraint and quality of administration

    As in the more equitable distribution of reproductive opportunities being necessary to garner widespread support of a rules based society (at least by the in-group)? Which would seem to imply significant social regulation of sexuality is an integral part of establishing a civilized culture.

  2. Posted September 2, 2013 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Well yes, in the sense that boundaries matter. But that is a general point about social order.

  3. Posted September 2, 2013 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    I guess I was suggesting something along the lines that the saying “Bread and circuses” should possibly be extend to “Bread, circuses and babies”.

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