Dialogue between Voltaire and Montesquieu, also featuring Rousseau, on the Origins of Ancient States and Progress of Civilisation

GS “Sial Mirza” Goraya
31 min readJul 22, 2023

[The scene is set in a grand hall, with Voltaire and Montesquieu seated on opposite ends of a long table, surrounded by flickering candles and ornate tapestries. A fire roars in the hearth.]

Voltaire: Ah, dear Montesquieu, how doth the evening find thee?

Montesquieu: Fairly well, my friend. And how dost thou fare?

Voltaire: Why, I am most content, for the muses have been kind to me of late.

Montesquieu: Glad am I to hear it. Pray, what is it that brings thee to my humble abode this eve?

Voltaire: I seek thy counsel on a matter that doth perplex me.

Montesquieu: Speak on, good Voltaire, and perhaps I may be of assistance.

Voltaire: ‘Tis the matter of states and civilizations. I am keen to explore the differences between the two, and why a comparative approach is necessary to understand their origins in different parts of the world.

Montesquieu: Ah, a weighty matter indeed. But why bring in the gods of Olympus and the heroes of ancient Rome and Greece?

Voltaire: Nay, I mean not to invoke their wrath, but to draw upon their wisdom and the lessons of their mythologies.

Montesquieu: Then let us begin. What sayest thou about the nature of states and civilizations?

Voltaire: Methinks a state is but a mortal thing, shaped by the whims of kings and the caprices of fate. But a civilization, ah, that is a thing of beauty and wonder, wrought by the hands of great minds and the sweat of many generations.

Montesquieu: Thou art right, Voltaire. A state may be built upon force and conquest, but a civilization is built upon ideas and innovation.

Voltaire: And yet, both are necessary for the progress of humankind. A state may provide the stability and security needed for civilization to thrive, and civilization may provide the ideas and innovations needed for the state to progress.

Montesquieu: Aye, thou hast hit upon a profound truth. The state and the civilization are like two sides of the same coin, each dependent upon the other.

Voltaire: And yet, to truly understand their origins and differences, we must look beyond our own borders and compare the experiences of different peoples and cultures.

Montesquieu: Thou art wise, Voltaire. For it is only through such a comparative approach that we can truly appreciate the diversity and richness of human experience, and learn from the lessons of history.

Voltaire: And so, let us continue our quest for knowledge and enlightenment, with hearts and minds open to the wisdom of the ancients and the insights of the modern world.

[The two great thinkers clasp hands across the table, their eyes alight with the fire of their shared passion for knowledge and truth.]

Voltaire: But tell me, Montesquieu, why has the development of archaeology been so intimately associated with the study of ancient states?

Montesquieu: It is because ancient states were the first organized political entities in human history, and archaeology seeks to uncover the material evidence of their existence.

Voltaire: Aye, that makes sense. But what of the Mediterranean Basin and the Near East? What role did they play in archaeology’s development?

Montesquieu: The Mediterranean Basin and the Near East were the cradles of civilization, where the earliest states and empires emerged. The study of their ancient ruins and artifacts provided the impetus for the development of archaeology as a scientific discipline.

Voltaire: I see. And what of the myths and legends of the ancient Greeks and Romans? Do they play any role in archaeology?

Montesquieu: Indeed they do. The myths and legends of these ancient cultures provide important clues to their social, political, and religious beliefs, and often inspire the archaeological investigations that seek to uncover their material remains.

Voltaire: Fascinating. It seems that archaeology is not just a dry scientific pursuit, but one that is intimately connected with the myths and legends of ancient cultures.

Montesquieu: Yes, indeed. And as we continue to uncover the material remains of these ancient states and civilizations, we gain a deeper understanding of the origins of human society and the political systems that have shaped our world.

Voltaire: It seems that archaeology has evolved over time, from a focus on elites to a broader study of entire communities and regions. Why do you think that shift occurred, Montesquieu?

Montesquieu: I believe that the shift towards studying common people and regional contexts was necessary for a more complete understanding of the origins and development of states. Focusing solely on elites and monumental architecture did not provide a full picture of how societies functioned.

Voltaire: That is a good point. And I understand that radiocarbon dating and other techniques have also played a significant role in archaeology’s evolution. Can you explain more about that?

Montesquieu: Certainly. With radiocarbon dating, archaeologists can create precise chronologies of cultural change that are independent of historical sources. This allows us to check the accuracy of historical sources and to understand changes over time in contexts that may not have been written about.

Voltaire: Fascinating. And I imagine these techniques have allowed archaeologists to study the ways in which states interacted with nonstate societies in frontier zones.

Montesquieu: Exactly. The relationship between states and nonstates is an important element in the development of many early states, but it is often unrecognized because we tend to focus solely on the state itself. By understanding states as interrelated systems, we can more accurately conceive of the processes that lead from less-centralized societies to states.

Voltaire: It sounds like a challenging but rewarding process. Can you describe how archaeologists go about their work?

Montesquieu: Well, it often involves moving large amounts of dirt and carefully excavating stone architecture, all while recording positions and understanding building sequences. But the key is to do all of this with a care not to destroy the site, but rather to understand it.

Voltaire: I see. It seems that archaeology is not just about discovering artifacts and ruins, but also about piecing together a comprehensive understanding of how societies functioned in the past.

Montesquieu: Indeed. And with the continued evolution of technology and techniques, I believe archaeology will only become more vital in our understanding of ancient states and civilizations.

[The scene is set in a grand hall, with tapestries adorning the walls and a large fireplace ablaze at the far end. A table is set with a variety of delicacies, and two distinguished gentlemen, Voltaire and Montesquieu, sit in high-backed chairs, sipping wine and discussing the mysteries of ancient civilizations.]

Voltaire: Ah, my dear Montesquieu, how fascinating it is to consider the great civilizations of the past. The Greeks and Romans, with their vast empires and intricate social structures.

Montesquieu: Indeed, my friend. But let us not forget the enigmatic Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük, in Anatolia.

Voltaire: Aye, Çatalhöyük, where the people lived in densely packed households, with entrances only in the roofs. A curious way to live, one must admit.

Montesquieu: But a way of life that was effective, nonetheless. The houses were the focus of extraordinary ritual activities, which provided a potent mechanism for socialization of community members.

Voltaire: Indeed, the repetition and memory making that took place in these rituals is not unlike the ancient Greek concept of mnemonics, where memory was tied to physical objects.

Montesquieu: And the idea that people were being domesticated, much like their crops and herd animals, speaks to the Enlightenment themes of progress and reason.

Voltaire: But what of the gods, Montesquieu? The Greeks and Romans believed in a pantheon of deities, each with their own sphere of influence.

Montesquieu: Indeed, Voltaire. But the absence of centralized political authority at Çatalhöyük suggests that religion played a more personal and individualized role in their lives.

Voltaire: Ah, yes. The gods of Çatalhöyük were perhaps more akin to the Roman household gods, the Lares and Penates.

Montesquieu: Aye, and the Roman concept of familia, with its emphasis on household and kinship, seems to have parallels with the community structures at Çatalhöyük.

Voltaire: Fascinating, Montesquieu. It is indeed a complex and multifaceted view of ancient life that we are uncovering.

Montesquieu: And one that challenges our assumptions about the nature of governance and social organization in ancient societies.

Voltaire: Truly, my friend. The mysteries of the past continue to inspire and intrigue us, even in this age of reason and enlightenment.

New Dawn

Voltaire: Good day, Montesquieu. I have been pondering a question regarding the development of states. Do they evolve from one form to another? And if so, do they always evolve in the same way?

Montesquieu: Ah, my friend, an interesting question indeed. It brings to mind the tales of the ancient Greeks and Romans, where the fates of states were often intertwined with the whims of the gods.

Voltaire: Yes, and it also brings to mind the theories of Darwin and Spencer on natural selection and cultural progress. The 19th-century theorists erected complex models of global, unilinear cultural evolution, where all societies could be placed at different stages along a single trajectory.

Montesquieu: But we have come to realize that these lockstep models were not realistic. Are there consistent pathways toward the state in different parts of the world?

Voltaire: The concept of chiefdoms is uncertain, especially with the degree of political and social variability among societies designated in that way. If chiefdoms vary so much, does this mean that the definition actually incorporates fundamentally different kinds of political systems that should not be lumped together?

Montesquieu: That may very well be the case. There may be wider problems with the idea of a single evolutionary trajectory from bands to states.

Voltaire: Ah, but the evolutionary schemes have been very important in archaeology for more than a century. They allow researchers to think analytically about cultural change through time and to classify myriad ancient communities into a limited number of categories.

Montesquieu: Indeed, but the earliest influential evolutionary models in anthropology were unilinear, positing a single evolutionary trajectory for all human societies, everywhere and always.

Voltaire: Yes, and these models assigned different technological, economic, social, political, and religious characteristics to each division, including savagery, barbarism, and civilization.

Montesquieu: But by the early 20th century, it was becoming obvious that these unilinear models did not accurately reflect the cultural diversity of societies across the globe.

Voltaire: And yet, the search for precise definitions for human advance and human civilization persisted. Gordon Childe developed significantly more sophisticated models for the origins of states and civilizations.

Montesquieu: Childe’s models suggest that increases in agricultural productivity through time led to food surpluses and population growth, which in turn led to the appearance of occupational specialists, who could devote themselves full-time to craft production, religious pursuits, or trade. The centralization necessary to successfully coordinate these more complex economic and social systems led to the appearance of urban centers, controlled by elites through the accumulation of tributes and taxation.

Voltaire: Ultimately leading to the appearance of states and their rulers and many of the accoutrements of states that we are familiar with: monumental architecture, writing systems, formal systems of law, military forces, and so on.

Montesquieu: However, archaeologists have criticized Childe’s models because they may not account for the details of state formation everywhere in the world. The band-tribe-chiefdom-state succession could also be seen as a unilinear evolutionary model, but it is much more general than that produced in the 19th century by Tylor and Morgan.

Voltaire: It seems that the band-tribe-chiefdom-state succession is more useful as a heuristic that aids in discussing general trends in state formation rather than a set-in-stone evolutionary sequence.

Montesquieu: Indeed, my friend. The fates of states are complex and varied, much like the myths of the ancient Greeks and Romans. But through our discussions and the enlightenment of reason, we can continue to gain a greater understanding of their trajectories of cultural development.

Scene 2

Voltaire: My dear Montesquieu, let us continue this intellectual inquiry. What are your thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary models when used to analyze the emergence of ancient states across the world?

Montesquieu: Ah, a thought-provoking question, Voltaire. One of the strengths of these models is their ability to provide a framework for understanding and classifying the cultural changes that occurred over time. They allow us to make comparisons between societies and draw insights into the factors that contributed to the emergence of ancient states.

Voltaire: Indeed, but what about the weaknesses of these models? Do they not oversimplify the complex processes that led to the rise of ancient states in different parts of the world?

Montesquieu: Yes, that is certainly a valid criticism. The models tend to present a unilinear progression towards the state, which overlooks the significant cultural and historical differences between societies. Furthermore, these models often assume that the development of states is a necessary and desirable goal for all societies, which ignores the fact that many societies have found alternative ways of organizing themselves.

Voltaire: A fascinating insight, Montesquieu. Now, let us turn our attention to the elements that V. Gordon Childe saw as central to the evolution of ancient states.

Montesquieu: Childe believed that increases in agricultural productivity were a crucial factor in the emergence of states. As food surpluses led to population growth, societies were able to support occupational specialists who could devote themselves to craft production, religious pursuits, or trade. The need for centralization to coordinate these complex economic and social systems eventually led to the appearance of urban centers controlled by elites through tributes and taxation. This, in turn, led to the emergence of states and their rulers, along with the familiar trappings of state power, such as monumental architecture, writing systems, formal systems of law, and military forces.

Voltaire: A compelling argument, Montesquieu. However, as you noted earlier, these models have their limitations, and it is important to consider alternative perspectives when analyzing the evolution of ancient states.

Scene: A garden in Athens. Voltaire and Montesquieu are strolling and admiring the flowers when they come across a group of archaeologists who are discussing the challenges of studying ancient states.

Voltaire: Good day, gentlemen. What is this fascinating discussion I overhear?

Archaeologist 1: Ah, Monsieur Voltaire, we were just discussing the difficulties of determining when a state has emerged from a nonstate ancestor using only archaeological data.

Montesquieu: Indeed, the challenge is to decide when a society has transitioned from a nonstate form of political organization to a state, especially when we don’t have written evidence.

Archaeologist 2: And even when we do have written evidence, it is often already from an existing state, not providing much insight into their development from earlier forms.

Voltaire: It seems to me that evolutionary models might be of some assistance in determining when states appear in the archaeological record.

Montesquieu: Ah, but we must be cautious in accepting such models as universally accurate. After all, the cases from which the band-tribe-chiefdom-state succession model was formulated are all recent ethnographic or historical cases.

Archaeologist 1: Indeed, and we know of relatively few cases where succession between these stages has been observed.

Voltaire: I see. This increases the risk of circular reasoning, where we may detect such cases because they are what the model tells us to expect.

Montesquieu: Precisely. We must also consider whether societies can be states without some of the characteristics that are said to define a state, such as centralized government systems, a monopoly over the legitimate use of force internally and externally, bureaucracies, and redistribution systems.

Archaeologist 2: Norman Yoffee’s rule states that “If you can argue about whether a society is a state or isn’t, then it isn’t.”

Voltaire: How interesting. And what are some of the myths that he believes are accepted uncritically by most archaeologists?

Archaeologist 1: Yoffee believes that all early states were not the same kind of thing, and that the idea that ancient states were totalitarian regimes is a myth.

Montesquieu: He also believes that the earliest states did not necessarily enclose large regions and were not always territorially integrated.

Voltaire: Fascinating. And I assume he rejects the idea of using typologies to analyze states on a ladder of progressiveness and correlating ancient types with modern societies?

Archaeologist 2: Yes, he does. Yoffee believes that there is significantly more variability in early states than can be accounted for in simple systems of cultural evolution.

Montesquieu: A wise perspective, I must say.

Voltaire: Indeed, and it reminds me of the stories from Greek and Roman mythology, where the gods and goddesses were known for their variability and unpredictability.

Archaeologist 1: Yes, and it also resonates with the themes from the literature of the Enlightenment, where reason and critical thinking are emphasized over dogmatic beliefs.

Montesquieu: Precisely. We must always be cautious in accepting theories and models without careful examination and evaluation.

Voltaire: And we must also remember that the study of ancient states is a complex and challenging field, requiring the careful analysis of multiple sources of evidence.

Archaeologist 2: Indeed, and the more we can collaborate and engage in constructive dialogue, the more progress we can make in our understanding of the origins of ancient states.

Montesquieu: Hear, hear! Let us continue this discussion and strive for greater insights and understanding.

Voltaire: Well said, my dear friend. Let us proceed with open minds and hearts, ready to explore the mysteries of the past.

2

(Enter from offsscreen while engaged in conversation)

Voltaire: Ah, an interesting question indeed! It reminds me of the Greek myth of Sisyphus, doomed to push a boulder uphill only to watch it roll back down again, repeating the task for eternity.

Montesquieu: And yet, I would argue that political evolution need not always follow a linear path. In fact, the Roman Empire serves as a prime example of a society that achieved remarkable centralization and complexity, only to see it crumble and revert to more decentralized political forms.

Voltaire: Yes, and the Enlightenment philosophers were no strangers to the idea of progress and the potential for decline. But I wonder, does this variability in political evolution challenge our ability to classify ancient societies as states or non-states?

Montesquieu: Indeed, the variability does complicate matters, but it also underscores the importance of considering each society on its own terms and examining the unique factors that contributed to its development or decline.

Voltaire: Well said, Montesquieu. And let us not forget the potential for external factors, such as conquest or trade, to play a role in shaping a society’s political evolution.

Montesquieu: Agreed, Voltaire. It is essential that we remain open to a broad range of possibilities and avoid being overly wedded to simplistic models of evolutionary progress.

Voltaire: Indeed, for as the Roman philosopher Seneca once said, “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” Let us use our time wisely and continue to explore the complexities of political evolution.

3

Scene: A lively debate between Voltaire and Montesquieu in the gardens of the Palace of Versailles, France.

Voltaire: Good sir Montesquieu, I have been reading the latest findings on the complex Neolithic cultures of Hala¿ an and Samarran in the Near East. It appears that the political authority remained local and dispersed, with little evidence of social hierarchy. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Montesquieu: Ah, my dear Voltaire, the origins of states in the Near East are indeed a fascinating subject. From the evidence presented, it seems that these cultures did not follow the usual path of political evolution, from less to more complex and centralized. Rather, they remained small chiefdoms with some degree of craft specialization and trading systems.

Voltaire: But does this not contradict the prevailing notion of progress in political development, as seen in the Greek and Roman empires?

Montesquieu: Indeed, it does. But we must not forget that the ancient Greeks and Romans were products of their own times and contexts. The Near East had its own unique social and economic conditions, which may have influenced the development of their political systems.

Voltaire: True, but I cannot help but wonder if the lack of social hierarchy in these Neolithic cultures is a result of their limited resources and technology.

Montesquieu: A valid point, my friend. But consider this: the agriculture-based economies of these cultures were able to provide small food surpluses that laid the groundwork for later experiments in social and political elaboration. This implies a certain level of sophistication in their agricultural practices.

Voltaire: I see your point. And what of the elaborate pottery styles found in the northern Tigris and Euphrates river drainages?

Montesquieu: These pottery styles suggest a degree of craft specialization and trading systems, which in turn are associated with substantial farming villages and two-tier settlement hierarchies. The political basis of these settlements remains unclear, but some archaeologists have identified the largest Hala¿ an and Samarran sites as the centers of small chiefdoms.

Voltaire: Ah, but the use of tokens as part of an inventory system implies some degree of centralized coordination of labor. Could this not be evidence of some form of political organization?

Montesquieu: Indeed it could. But we must also consider the possibility that the tokens were used simply as a means of record-keeping and not necessarily as a tool of political control. We must be cautious in drawing conclusions from the evidence presented.

Voltaire: Indeed, we must. But it is clear that the agricultural expertise of these cultures made possible all the social and political developments that would follow. And the widespread distribution of Hala¿ an pottery suggests a well-established trading network, possibly indicating the spread of a common elite aesthetic.

Montesquieu: Yes, and the use of irrigation agriculture in the Samarran culture laid the basis for an export in textiles, an important element in later Mesopotamian trading systems. The T-shaped buildings found in the larger Samarran sites may indicate a form of communal ownership of productive land.

Voltaire: Fascinating, my friend. It seems that the complex Neolithic cultures of Hala¿ an and Samarran offer us a glimpse into the diversity of human social and political organization, and the ways in which different cultures respond to their unique environments and resources.

Montesquieu: Indeed, my dear Voltaire. And it is precisely this diversity that we must celebrate and embrace, rather than imposing our own preconceptions and biases onto the study of history. For as the ancient Greeks knew well, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the complexities of human societies.

4

(Enter, while…)

Montesquieu: Ah, my dear Voltaire, I cannot agree more on the significance of ceramics in the study of the development of social and political hierarchy in the Near Eastern Neolithic. As you know, ceramics can be used to trace the spread of ideas, technologies, and people across different regions, shedding light on the complex social and economic networks of the time.

Voltaire: Indeed, Montesquieu, the study of ceramics is essential to our understanding of the past. These objects can reveal much about the economic, social, and political systems of ancient societies. And the fact that the Hala¿ an and Samarran ceramics were heavily decorated and standardized suggests that they may have been prestige items, used to signify the wealth and status of their owners.

Montesquieu: Precisely, my friend. And as for your second question, the study of cemeteries can provide us with invaluable insights into the social systems of ancient societies. By analyzing the types and styles of burial practices, we can begin to discern patterns of social differentiation, such as the emergence of a ruling class or the development of a hierarchical social structure.

Voltaire: Yes, the artifacts found in graves can also offer clues about the religious beliefs and cultural practices of the people who lived in those times. And the presence or absence of grave goods can provide evidence of wealth and status.

Montesquieu: Indeed, and let us not forget the importance of context in the study of ancient societies. By examining the relationships between different sites and artifacts, archaeologists can begin to piece together a more comprehensive picture of the social and political systems of the past.

Voltaire: Ah, my friend, how true that is. Context is everything in the study of history. Without it, we risk creating a distorted and incomplete understanding of the past.

Montesquieu: And we cannot afford to do so, for the study of the past is not only a way to understand our origins but also to inform our present and shape our future.

4

Voltaire: My dear Montesquieu, it seems we have stumbled upon a fascinating topic of discussion. Tell me, what do you make of the ‘Ubaid Mesopotamia?

Montesquieu: Ah, my friend, the ‘Ubaid tradition of southern Mesopotamia is an interesting case indeed. It is the first evidence of intensive agriculture and larger populations in the alluvial floodplains of the Tigris-Euphrates system.

Voltaire: Quite so. And what about the hierarchy and urbanism that developed in the ‘Ubaid centers like Eridu?

Montesquieu: We see evidence of specialized temple buildings, indicating the central role that religion played in the development of the Mesopotamian cities. Moreover, variation in house size and richness indicates significant differences in wealth and social status within single communities. ‘Ubaid artifacts and architecture are found over a large area of the Middle East, which may indicate the first extension of the trading networks that would become so characteristic of the succeeding Uruk period.

Voltaire: And what do you make of the controversy about where settlement in southern Mesopotamia originated: from the north or from Arabia?

Montesquieu: Historically, there has always been much debate about the origins of southern Mesopotamian settlement. Some argue it originated from the north, while others suggest it came from Arabia, where we find a whole set of ‘Ubaid sites along the Persian Gulf from Iraq to Qatar.

Voltaire: Fascinating. And what about the social organization of the ‘Ubaid communities?

Montesquieu: The earliest ‘Ubaid communities were fairly small in size, with perhaps 300–600 inhabitants and no evidence for any significant amount of internal social or economic differentiation. However, this changed quickly as irrigation of the alluvial soils of southern Mesopotamia supported significant population densities compared to areas to the north. ‘Ubaid settlement patterns display a classic two-level settlement system, with large villages of a thousand or more people surrounded by smaller hamlets.

Voltaire: And what about the role of trade and wealth differentiation in ‘Ubaid society?

Montesquieu: Archaeologists have had to rethink how these societies were deploying wealth. Trade seems important very early on and seems to precede much wealth differentiation between individuals. ‘Ubaid sites indicate some degree of social ranking, with ritual and economic authority vested in the people who occupied the large buildings and maintained the temple at the center of Eridu. However, it remains debatable whether this translated into political power, and whether that authority was vested in individuals or in elite kin groups.

Voltaire: Ah, I see. And what about the concept of chiefdoms in ‘Ubaid society?

Montesquieu: Archaeologists frequently designate ‘Ubaid towns as the seats of simple chiefdoms, although the term may obscure the complexity and variability of ‘Ubaid political organization. There is no evidence of any palaces or political authority at this point, and it remains unclear whether the authority was vested in individuals or in elite kin groups.

Voltaire: Indeed, my friend, the ‘Ubaid Mesopotamia raises many intriguing questions about the development of social and political hierarchy in ancient societies. Perhaps we shall never know the full truth, but the pursuit of knowledge and understanding is a noble endeavor nonetheless.

Montesquieu: Hark! The question before us now is how did the farming populations occupy southern Mesopotamia during the ‘Ubaid period, and what cultural significance did that occupation hold?

Voltaire: Ah, indeed, a question most intriguing. It appears that during the ‘Ubaid period, the alluvial floodplains of the southern Tigris-Euphrates system witnessed the first evidence of intensive agriculture and larger populations.

Montesquieu: Yes, and the ‘Ubaid sites, such as Eridu in southern Iraq, displayed the first signs of specialized temple buildings that would play a central role in later Mesopotamian cities.

Voltaire: It is noteworthy that variation in house size and richness indicates significant differences in wealth and social status within single communities.

Montesquieu: Aye, it seems that ‘Ubaid artifacts and architecture were found over a large area of the Middle East, from the Arabian Peninsula to southern Turkey. This may indicate the first extension of the trading networks that would become so characteristic of the succeeding Uruk period.

Voltaire: But what of evidence for social and political hierarchies during the ‘Ubaid period? And what level of political centralization seems to have existed at that time?

Montesquieu: Well, it seems that the earliest ‘Ubaid communities were fairly small in size, with perhaps 300–600 inhabitants and no evidence for any significant amount of internal social or economic differentiation.

Voltaire: However, this changed rapidly as irrigation of the alluvial soils of southern Mesopotamia supported significant population densities compared to areas to the north.

Montesquieu: Aye, and ‘Ubaid settlement patterns displayed a classic two-level settlement system, with large villages of a thousand or more people surrounded by smaller hamlets.

Voltaire: Indeed, by 4500 B.C., the ‘Ubaid settlement of Eridu had a population of approximately 5,000 people. But what of evidence for political centralization?

Montesquieu: There is remarkably little evidence for warfare on ‘Ubaid sites, and in contrast to Samarran sites to the north, none are fortified.

Voltaire: It has sometimes been assumed that ‘Ubaid sites indicate some degree of political centralization, with power radiating outward from religious authorities and mediated by an elite. But is there evidence to support this assumption?

Montesquieu: Alas, there is no evidence of any palaces or political authority at this point. At sites like Eridu and Abada, we find evidence of social ranking, but it remains debatable whether this translated into political power, and whether that authority was vested in individuals or in elite kin groups.

Voltaire: So it seems that archaeologists frequently designate ‘Ubaid towns as the seats of simple chiefdoms, although use of the term may obscure the complexity and variability of ‘Ubaid political organization.

Montesquieu: Indeed, it is a most fascinating subject, and one that warrants further exploration.

New Dawn

Voltaire: Hark! Montesquieu, what say you of the urbanism and hierarchy in the ancient land of Mesopotamia during the Uruk period?

Montesquieu: Ah, Voltaire, it is a fascinating topic indeed. During the Uruk period, small states based around real cities began to develop, first in southern Mesopotamia and then further to the north and east, on the Iranian Plateau.

Voltaire: And what of these cities, Montesquieu? Did they have rulers?

Montesquieu: Indeed, Voltaire, by 3100 B.C., the city of Uruk itself probably housed nearly 20,000 people and was ruled by a king. During this period, Uruk was one of perhaps two dozen urban centers in southern Mesopotamia.

Voltaire: Such power and wealth must have led to great economic dominance. Did the Uruk people engage in trade?

Montesquieu: They did, Voltaire. There is abundant evidence for Uruk artifacts and architecture well beyond Mesopotamia, but this seems to be largely the result of the founding of Uruk trading colonies from Turkey to western Iran. These colonies controlled trade routes for the import of raw materials into Mesopotamia and then sold high-prestige manufactured goods back to local people. This is the first case of such commercial and economic dominance known anywhere in the world.

Voltaire: But what of the social and political hierarchies during this time? Did the Uruk people have a centralized government?

Montesquieu: It is believed that an early form of Sumerian ideology was held in Uruk times, where land was the property of the gods, and the temples and priests were their representatives. Complex recording systems developed through an early form of writing, and by the end of the Uruk period, there were written references to rulers in southern Mesopotamian urban centers, which can probably best be thought of as small city-states. However, the exact level of political centralization is still a matter of debate among scholars.

Voltaire: And what of the relationship between the Uruk people and the indigenous populations?

Montesquieu: Long-distance trade was one of the most striking characteristics of the Uruk period, involving interactions with indigenous populations who often adopted elements of Uruk material culture. While some interpret these relationships in terms of modern core-periphery theory, it is important to remember that such theories were developed to explain 19th-century European-colonial relationships. We cannot simply generalize from recent capitalist systems to the societies of the 4th millennium B.C.

Voltaire: Truly, Montesquieu, the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia continue to intrigue and captivate us with their urbanism, hierarchies, and trade.

New Dawn

Voltaire: Greetings, Montesquieu, it seems we have a topic of great interest today – the civilization of Sumer and its aftermath. What say you of this ancient society?

Montesquieu: Ah, my dear Voltaire, Sumer and its city-states were indeed a fascinating subject for study. It is remarkable that despite the endemic warfare between the city-states, they managed to develop a cultural area that can be described as a civilization.

Voltaire: Yes, and it is also notable that the Mesopotamian civilization was a multiethnic, multilinguistic region. The evidence of central rule in the Early Dynastic city-states is abundant, but political organization was centered in the individual urban city-states.

Montesquieu: Quite so, Voltaire. It is intriguing that there was no wider unification across southern or central Mesopotamia beyond loose and temporary alliances. Yet, there seems to have been a good deal of agreement among the populations of these city-states about how elite rule should work and how it was justified religiously.

Voltaire: Indeed, Montesquieu. It is interesting to note the role played by the temples in Mesopotamian ideological and economic life, and the emergence of secular rule. There was massive stratification of wealth and power in these city-states, as evidenced by the display of wealth and power by the rulers and elites in their tombs.

Montesquieu: Ah, and let us not forget the phenomenon of hyperurbanism, where farmers began to abandon rural areas for cities. This was caused by warfare between city-states, which often endangered people not sheltered behind city walls.

Voltaire: Indeed, Montesquieu. It seems the Mesopotamian civilization was a complex society with many challenges and opportunities. It is intriguing to ponder how their legacy influenced later societies and civilizations.

Montesquieu: Indeed, Voltaire. We can draw on themes from Greek and Roman mythology and literature of the Enlightenment to delve deeper into this subject. But for now, let us contemplate the riches and complexities of Sumer and its aftermath.

Voltaire: Salutations, Montesquieu! What say you of the Mesopotamian civilization of the 3rd millennium B.C.?

Montesquieu: Greetings, Voltaire! It was a culture of city-states, with about a dozen major cities and many smaller ones. They were organized in a three-level hierarchy, with cities surrounded by smaller towns, which were in turn surrounded by rural hamlets.

Voltaire: Indeed, and it seems that evidence suggests cultural differences between these city-states.

Montesquieu: Yes, and yet there was a good deal of agreement among the populations about how elite rule should work and how it was justified religiously.

Voltaire: Ah, the role of religion in politics. And what of the economic system in these city-states?

Montesquieu: Temples played a central role in both ideological and economic life, but there was an emergence of secular rule.

Voltaire: A shift in power, then. And what of the phenomenon of hyperurbanism?

Montesquieu: It was an extraordinary phenomenon, where farmers began to abandon rural areas for cities. The great majority remained farmers, but they had to travel long distances each day to tend to their fields.

Voltaire: A sign of political unrest and warfare, no doubt.

Montesquieu: Indeed, it may have been caused by warfare between city-states, which often endangered people not sheltered behind city walls.

Voltaire: A fascinating period, full of change and development. It seems that the Mesopotamian civilization of the 3rd millennium B.C. was a complex and dynamic one.

[Voltaire and Rousseau meet in a tavern, Voltaire is sitting alone with a book in hand. Rousseau enters, looking tired and dusty.]

Voltaire: Good evening, Rousseau. You look like you’ve been on a long journey.

Rousseau: [sighing] Indeed, I have. I’ve been traveling through Mesopotamia, studying the ancient civilization there.

Voltaire: Mesopotamia? How fascinating. Tell me, what did you learn about the civilization of the third millennium BC?

Rousseau: [taking a seat across from Voltaire] Well, it was a culture of city-states, with about 12 major cities and many smaller ones. The people were multiethnic and multilinguistic, but there were cultural differences between the city-states.

Voltaire: [nodding] Yes, I’ve heard that before. And what about their political organization?

Rousseau: [sighing again] It was centered on the individual city-states, with no wider unification beyond loose and temporary alliances. But there was an emergence of secular rule.

Voltaire: [smiling wryly] How interesting. And what about their economic life?

Rousseau: The temples continued to play a central role, but there was evidence for massive stratification of wealth and power in the city-states.

Voltaire: [leaning in] Ah, yes, the wealthy and powerful. It seems that some things never change.

Rousseau: [looking uncomfortable] And there was one phenomenon that particularly struck me – hyperurbanism.

Voltaire: [raising an eyebrow] Hyperurbanism?

Rousseau: Yes, farmers were abandoning rural areas for the cities, and there was a great deal of social and economic stratification. It indicates that political relations during the Early Dynastic period were fragmented and often dangerous.

Voltaire: [smirking] How very enlightening. And what do you make of all this, Rousseau?

Rousseau: [defensively] I believe that it shows the corrupting influence of power and wealth, and the importance of social justice.

Voltaire: [laughing bitterly] Ah, yes, social justice. Always the noble ideal. But tell me, Rousseau, how do you reconcile that with the reality of human nature?

Rousseau: [growing angry] Human nature is not inherently corrupt. It is society that corrupts us.

Voltaire: [chuckling] How convenient. Blame society for all our ills. But I suppose that’s the difference between us, isn’t it, Rousseau? You believe in the perfectibility of man, while I believe in the flawed and imperfect nature of humanity.

Rousseau: [standing up] You mock me, Voltaire, but you cannot deny the truth of my ideals.

Voltaire: [smiling slyly] Ah, but I can deny them, Rousseau. And I do. Your ideals are nothing but empty platitudes, without any grounding in the reality of the world.

Rousseau: [storming out of the tavern] You are a cynic, Voltaire, and a corrupter of truth!

Voltaire: [calling after him] And you are a fool, Rousseau, chasing after the wind!

[Rousseau has just returned from a long journey and meets with Montesquieu in a bustling market square.]

Rousseau: [Looking around] Ah, it is good to be back in civilization once again.

Montesquieu: [Approaching] Jean-Jacques, my dear friend! How was your journey?

Rousseau: [Shaking Montesquieu’s hand] It was quite enlightening, my friend. I learned much about the interdependence between farmers and pastoralists in Mesopotamia.

Montesquieu: Ah, the ancient land of the Tigris and Euphrates. What did you discover about these societies?

Rousseau: Well, it seems that the economies and social systems of farmers and herders were closely intertwined. Pastoralists traded meat and animal products for surplus items produced by farmers, thus optimizing exploitation of different environments.

Montesquieu: Yes, it is fascinating how these seemingly different societies are so interconnected. But what about the political aspects of their relations?

Rousseau: [Pausing to think] It appears that pastoral populations often played an active, and often dominant, role in the political life of many Mesopotamian states. In fact, some pastoralists even established kingdoms in the region during a period of political fragmentation.

Montesquieu: Truly? I had not considered the impact of pastoralism on the political landscape of the region. What about their material culture? Are there any visible remains of their societies?

Rousseau: [Shaking his head] Unfortunately, pastoral populations tend not to be very visible archaeologically, given their mobility and relatively impermanent material culture. However, archaeologists have recently paid more attention to some of the peripheries of Mesopotamia, such as the Zagros Mountains of western Iran, where complex interdependencies between farmers and pastoralists evolved.

Montesquieu: [Nodding] It seems that these societies were far more complex and interconnected than we once believed. Thank you for sharing your insights with me, my friend.

Rousseau: [Smiling] And thank you for always challenging my assumptions, my dear Montesquieu. It is always a pleasure to converse with you.

[Rousseau and Montesquieu are discussing the role of pastoralists in Mesopotamia when Voltaire enters the scene.]

Voltaire: [sarcastically] Well, well, well, if it isn’t the great Rousseau and Montesquieu discussing the complexities of ancient societies. Do forgive me for interrupting your intellectual ramblings.

Rousseau: [annoyed] What brings you here, Voltaire? Have you come to mock us?

Voltaire: [smirking] No, my dear Rousseau, I simply couldn’t resist the opportunity to engage in a little debate with two of the greatest minds of our time.

Montesquieu: [politely] And what topic of debate do you propose, Voltaire?

Voltaire: [smiling] Why don’t we discuss the question of whether pastoralists can exist independently of farmers? It seems to me that these nomadic herders are entirely dependent on settled farmers for their survival.

Rousseau: [defensively] That’s not entirely true, Voltaire. Pastoralists can survive on the products of their herds for extended periods of time.

Montesquieu: [thoughtfully] But it is true that pastoralists and farmers have interdependent economic relations. Pastoralists trade meat and animal products for surplus items produced by farmers.

Voltaire: [smugly] Exactly my point. So, how would the relations between these different populations vary? And how did pastoralists seem to have interacted with ancient Mesopotamian states?

Rousseau: [impatiently] I think we’ve already covered that, Voltaire. Pastoralists played an active and often dominant role in the political life of many Mesopotamian states. They traded with farmers and were integrated into Mesopotamian communities.

Montesquieu: [nodding in agreement] And pastoralists, with their mobility and relatively impermanent material culture, tend not to be very visible archaeologically.

Voltaire: [dismissing their arguments] Ah, but what about the question of whether pastoralists can exist independently of farmers? I don’t believe you’ve fully addressed that.

Rousseau: [exasperated] We have, Voltaire. But I suppose your lack of understanding is to be expected, given your limited intellect.

Montesquieu: [trying to diffuse the tension] Gentlemen, please. Let us not resort to insults. We are all colleagues here, and we can learn from each other’s perspectives.

Voltaire: [grudgingly] I suppose you’re right, Montesquieu. Perhaps we can continue this discussion another time, when Rousseau has had a chance to travel and gain some firsthand knowledge on the subject.

Rousseau: [angrily] I have traveled extensively, Voltaire. I simply don’t see the world through your narrow, elitist lens.

Montesquieu: [sighing] Perhaps we should call it a day, gentlemen. It seems we have reached an impasse.

Voltaire: Good day, my dear Montesquieu. What is it that occupies your thoughts today?

Montesquieu: Ah, Voltaire, my dear friend. I have been pondering on the development of writing in Mesopotamia, one of the most epochal events in human history.

Voltaire: A most intriguing topic indeed. Pray tell, how did writing systems in Mesopotamia come to be?

Montesquieu: There are two schools of thought on this matter. Some believe that writing developed over a long period from record-keeping systems, while others believe that cuneiform writing was invented quickly without any earlier precursors.

Voltaire: I find it hard to believe that such a complex recording system did not play a role in the appearance of proto-cuneiform at about 3300 B.C. Furthermore, Mesopotamian civilization of the time was multiethnic and multilinguistic, and the development of cuneiform reflected that.

Montesquieu: Indeed, my friend. We cannot forget the complexity of the parallel development of proto-cuneiform and proto-Elamite. These scripts were used to record inventories, combinations of pictograms and symbols designating quantities.

Voltaire: Fascinating. And how did proto-cuneiform become a real writing system?

Montesquieu: The process seems to have occurred around 3000 B.C. during the Early Dynastic period. The transformation of signs from referring to particular things in an inventoried hierarchy to referring to more abstract ideas or sounds corresponding to meaning in spoken language was crucial. As signs began to be used in more domains of communication, their standardization became necessary.

Voltaire: Ah, the evolution of language. It never ceases to amaze me. And the use of cuneiform spread far beyond its point of origin in southern Mesopotamia and adjoining Iran.

Montesquieu: Indeed, my friend. The use of clay tablets as a writing surface ensured that a variety of different texts were preserved for archaeological interpretation.

Voltaire: Truly, the invention of writing was a great boon to the study of human affairs. I am most grateful for this enlightening discussion, Montesquieu.

Montesquieu: As am I, Voltaire. It is always a pleasure to engage in discourse with you, my dear friend.

Later

VOLTAIRE: My dear Montesquieu, I must apologize for my earlier behavior. I realize that my animosity towards Rousseau should not have interfered with our discussion on the development of writing in Mesopotamia.

MONTESQUIEU: No apologies necessary, my friend. We all have our disagreements, but we should not let them come in the way of our intellectual pursuits.

VOLTAIRE: You are too kind, Montesquieu. But I must say, I am fascinated by this topic of writing in Mesopotamia. It truly marks a turning point in human history, where our ability to record and communicate ideas became more sophisticated.

MONTESQUIEU: Indeed, the use of writing opened up new realms of human activity, from religion to diplomacy to literature. And the fact that we have these ancient texts preserved on clay tablets is a testament to their enduring importance.

VOLTAIRE: I couldn’t agree more. It’s amazing to think that these tablets have survived for thousands of years, providing us with insights into the lives and beliefs of our ancestors.

MONTESQUIEU: Yes, and it is through the study of history that we can better understand our own place in the world. That is why I believe it is so important to continue our pursuit of knowledge and understanding, even in the face of disagreements.

VOLTAIRE: Well said, Montesquieu. And with that, I hope we can put our differences aside and continue to engage in meaningful discussions like this one.

MONTESQUIEU: Agreed, my friend. (extends hand for a handshake)

From the Jourmals of Voltaire

The night is calm, and the sound of the light drizzle and soft wind outside brings a sense of tranquility. As I sit in my study, I cannot help but ponder upon the Mesopotamian writing system. Did it evolve slowly, over a period of millennia, or did it happen relatively quickly? The available evidence seems to suggest that it was a gradual process that took shape over time, beginning with simple pictographs and evolving into more complex symbols that represented abstract ideas.

But what was the primary use of the Mesopotamian writing system? From what I have gathered, it appears to have been used primarily for record-keeping, in the realms of human activity such as priests, diplomats, poets, and propagandists. The use of clay tablets as a writing surface ensured that a variety of different texts were preserved for archaeological interpretation, shedding light on the history of human affairs.

As I reflect on these matters, my thoughts wander to Rousseau. As a philosopher, I admire his work and his contributions to the field. However, as a person, I find him to be quite disagreeable. His ideas on social contracts and individual freedoms are admirable, but his stubbornness and arrogance often get in the way of any productive discourse. Nonetheless, I suppose it takes all kinds to make the world go round.

In the end, it is fascinating to consider the evolution of human communication and the role that writing has played in shaping our world. As I conclude this journal entry, I cannot help but marvel at the ingenuity of the human mind and the vast potential that lies within it. And who knows what new inventions and discoveries await us in the future? Only time will tell.

With these musings, I retire for the night, content in the knowledge that the world is full of endless possibilities.

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