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READ: Authority and Control in Ancient Empires

Gods, family, and taxes: an emperor’s guide to controlling subjects and legitimizing authority.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

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By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. Why did Ashoka build and inscribe his pillars?
  2. How did ancient emperors use family as a method of control?
  3. What challenges does the author say women faced when they ruled empires?
  4. How did emperors use religion to increase their authority? Give one example.
  5. According to the author, how are rebellions like burps?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. How did rulers use different methods to legitimize and consolidate their power?
  2. The author gives only three methods for how empires increased control and authority. Can you think of some other methods they might have used?
  3. This article argues that one result of empire formation was that women (empresses) became subordinate to men (emperors). How does this support or challenge patterns of gender equality or inequality in earlier periods or other types of states?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Authority and Control in Ancient Empires

By Dennis RM Campbell
Gods, family, and taxes: an emperor’s guide to controlling subjects and legitimizing authority.
In the mid-third century BCE, after conquering most of what today is India and Pakistan, the Mauryan emperor Ashoka erected a series of public inscriptions on large pillars. With these monuments, Ashoka proclaimed his empire was one of peace and stability under Buddhism. The violence used to create the empire was in the past.
That sounds peaceful, but these texts were clearly statements of Ashoka’s absolute imperial control. He certainly never disbanded his army nor melted down their weapons. Since most of his people couldn’t read, all they saw were monuments to Ashoka’s greatness. Like all empires, Ashoka and his descendants used religion, dynastic family ties, and control of peripheries to maintain their authority and keep their people in line. And while we can’t cover all empires here, we will visit a variety of centuries and continents to see how this trend has so often occurred.
The Ashoka pillar at Lauriya-Araraj. The capital, a carved piece set atop the pillar, is missing. The pillar, which stands thirty six and a half feet high, contains six of Ashoka’s edicts (orders). By Sachin Kumar Tiwary, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Dynastic legitimacy

For an empire to work, its people must accept a family as having the legitimate right to rule.1 As power becomes associated with them, that family, or dynasty, becomes synonymous with the empire. As time passes, there is often a decline in emperors’ ability (or interest) in ruling. The dynasties are eventually seen as corrupt and unworthy of rule. As you will see below, the concept of the Mandate of Heaven was developed by the Zhou Dynasty of China (1046-226 BCE) as a way to take power and also immunize itself against accusations of corruption.
In many areas, dynasties were based on blood relations. All emperors of the Chinese Han Empire (c. 202 BCE—220 CE) were directly related to the first Han ruler, Gaozu. The Japanese emperors trace their dynasty back to Emperor Jimmu (660s BCE), although this likely represents imperial mythology. For much of the Roman Empire (60 BCE—476 CE), emperors were chosen for their leadership qualities. Yet even there, the idea of a dynasty was important. New emperors were often adopted into their predecessor’s family, creating the illusion of family ties.
The emperor Jimmu, while on an expedition, watches a sacred bird fly away. Whether legendary or a true historical figure, Japanese emperors have acknowledged him as the first of their line. Woodblock print from Ginko Adachi’s Emperor Jinmu—Stories from “Nihonki” from 1891. Public domain.

Emperors and empresses

Most empires were controlled by male emperors, and rule was passed down through the male line. In fact, the title and symbols of imperial power were perceived as masculine. The title imperator in Rome, from which we get our word “emperor,” was originally a military term held by successful generals. Symbols of power often included weapons of war.
The role of the empress was more complicated. In many instances the empress was completely subordinate to the emperor. Her primary role was to bear a son who would eventually become emperor. Because imperial rule was perceived as a man’s job, women who exerted power were often depicted negatively by historians, often quite unfairly. The Eastern Roman Empress Theodora (ca. 497-548 CE) played an important role as her husband’s adviser.
Mosaic of the Empress Theodora of the Eastern Roman Empire from the Basilica San Vitale in Ravenna. Powerful women often received terrible treatment at the hands of male commentators. Public domain.
In times of weak emperors, strong empresses influenced their husbands, often dictating policy through him. The empress Lü was married to Gaozu (256-195 BCE), first emperor of the Han. When Gaozu died and their son was too young to take over, Lü became the empress dowager, ruling for a child emperor, even though she never took the title of emperor. Something similar happened in Egypt, when Hatshepsut (1507-1458 BCE) began as a regent for the child emperor Thutmose III. By 1478 she had taken the title of king and ruled over Egypt’s new empire until her death in 1458. To rule in Egypt, Hatshepsut had to present herself as a man. In art she is shown as a male figure. Ancient graffiti near her tomb makes it clear that not everyone was happy with having a woman as emperor.

Religion and control

A common means of creating effective imperial authority is to claim support by the gods. In China, the Zhou Dynasty created the concept of a Mandate of Heaven. They used this mandate to justify seizing power from the Shang Dynasty. The mandate states that if a dynasty becomes corrupt or fails at protecting the empire then the people are allowed to overthrow it. But as long as a dynasty ruled, it was assumed that it was still legitimate, or had the “Mandate of Heaven”.
To better control their peripheries, empires brought their religion to conquered territories. The Neo-Assyrian Empire made sure the cult of their god Assur became included among the gods that the people in the peripheries worshipped. Just as Assur ruled over their gods, so too would the Assyrian emperor rule over the people. Ashoka used his Buddhism to unite the people of his empire.
Statuette of Hatshepsut as pharaoh. Note that she is depicted here as completely masculine. This includes a male skirt and the fake beard of the pharaohs. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain.
Some emperors directly involved the gods of their peripheral territories. Cyrus the Great of Persia (died 530 BCE) claimed that he was the rightful ruler of Babylon because that city’s god, Marduk, personally selected him. About a thousand years before that, the Hittites of ancient Anatolia had a more literal way of claiming godly connections by stealing conquered people’s idols2 —”goddnapping”, basically—and bringing them back to their capital city.
The process of creating religious unity was often violent. For the Romans, public worship of the gods was needed to ensure peace and stability within the empire. In times of trouble, Roman emperors would require public declarations of sacrifice to the gods. Failure would commonly result in severe punishments and persecution of minority groups, including Christians.
The Cyrus Cylinder, which was discovered at Babylon, was a piece of royal propaganda from the Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great. In it he proclaims that Marduk, god of Babylon, had personally chosen Cyrus to rescue Babylon from its corrupt king. By Mike Peel, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Death and taxes: controlling the periphery

Ensuring the loyalty of the periphery was no easy feat. Loyalty was important for two reasons: collecting taxes and preventing revolts. In addition to the taxes, an important benefit of conquering other people was being able to use them as soldiers. The only thing an empire hates more than a subject who doesn’t pay taxes is a subject who rebels. Making someone a loyal soldier was a great way to keep rebellion off their mind.
This libellus (250 CE) was a signed and countersigned document proving that a Roman citizen, here the women Aurelia Bellias and her daughter Kapinis, had made sacrifice to the gods. Failure to perform sacrifice could result in imprisonment, loss of property, and death. Public domain
Empires have used many different strategies to ensure loyalty in the periphery—some more brutal than others. The Han Empire of China created commanderies (administrative districts) to manage its peripheries. Based on a code of laws, these commanderies allowed for more efficient administration and taxation while establishing peace and order.
In its early period, the Roman Empire preferred to allow peripheral areas to be run by vassal kings. Although vassal means “subordinate”, these kings would be recognized as independent rulers, who would just happen to do whatever the Romans wanted. Eventually, the periphery of the Roman Empire was placed in the hands of bureaucrats loyal to the emperor.
As mentioned, empires love taxes and hate rebellion—but that’s like loving soda and hating burps.
In 66 CE, during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero, the First Jewish Revolt broke out. Jews in Judea were being heavily taxed by Romans. Then, after a series of abuses by Greeks living in Judea, Romans failed to stand up for the Jewish population that had been so profitable, so a series of riots broke out that soon turned into rebellion. Four years later the city of Jerusalem was taken by the Romans, resulting in perhaps nearly one million deaths. The revolt ended in 73 CE with the fall of the fortress of Masada. When the Romans finally broke into this mountaintop fortress, they found that 960 of the 967 Jews there had committed suicide.
The site of Masada in Israel. Here 967 Jewish rebels resisted the Roman army from 72-73 CE. When the Romans finally broke into the city (the ramp they created can be seen on the right of the image), they found that 960 of the rebels had committed suicide. By Andrew Shiva, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Control through toleration and violence

The Persian Emperor believed that it was his responsibility to protect his empire from chaos. He allowed peripheral states, including the Greeks, considerable freedom as long as they paid lip service3 to the emperor as provider of order. The Romans, on the other hand, controlled their peripheral people by treating them as inferiors. A few wealthy peripherals were granted citizen rights, but the majority were not so lucky. They could be punished harshly for any reason. During the reign of Caracalla (211-217 CE), citizenship was granted to all peoples within the borders of the empire. This drew even harsher lines dividing the “haves” (honestiores) on the inside and “have-nots” (humiliores) on the periphery, and the latter group was exploited and abused.


Families, gods, and force. These are time-tested methods by which empires tax and control their subjects, particularly their conquered peripheries. It’s remarkable just how well these methods have stood the test of time. Many European empires in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries still had dynastic rulers. And in those that did not (America, for example), rulers still called back to ancient symbols and traditions like the Roman Empire in order to lend legitimacy to their rule. Religious conversion played a central role in controlling British colonies. Efficient bureaucracies extracted taxes and resources from its colonies. And when this failed or local leaders resisted, there was always the British navy with its cannons.
Author bio
Dennis RM Campbell is an associate professor of History at San Francisco State University. He primarily conducts research on esoteric topics in ancient history and writes about ancient language, religions, and societies.

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