Democracy and Maritime Power in the Near East, Part 1

Part 2 of this series can be found here.
Part 3 of this series can be found here.

Scholars have long noted a correlation between maritime societies and the development of open social institutions. This was first noticed by scholars in ancient Greece. Plutarch wrote that the early kings of Athens invented the myth of Athena defeating Poseidon in the contest to name the city in an attempt to “to draw the citizens away from the sea and accustom them to live not by navigation but by agriculture.” Much later, when Athens was under Spartan rule, the Thirty Tyrants tried to discourage seafaring “because they thought that maritime empire was the mother of democracy, and that oligarchy was less distasteful to tillers of the soil.”[1]

Likewise, Aristotle wrote in his discussion of political philosophy that “the naval multitude, having been the cause of the victory off Salamis and thereby of the leadership of Athens due to her power at sea, made the democracy stronger.” Sea power required lots of manpower to row triremes. If the power of the state rested on the work and valor of the majority of its people, the people would hold power in their society and not oligarchs or kings.[2]

Sea power theorists in more recent times have expanded this thesis into a broad theory of state development. In 1890, Alfred Thayer Mahan published his landmark work titled The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. Mahan argued that commerce by sea was a very efficient method of moving goods from place to place. Nations that are geographically disposed to the sea by being physically isolated from land threats, possessing good ports and easy access to important trade routes choose to pursue sea power because it is advantageous for them to do so. [3]

Mahan’s thesis has been further developed by others such as Clark Reynolds to explain changes in a society after they take to the sea. Because maritime states are geographically protected from land threats, they do not need to maintain large land armies. Instead, the navy becomes the most prestigious military service. Agriculture-based land powers typically have a large and very poor peasant class to till the fields, and have authoritarian political systems based on the need to mobilize manpower to defend against overland invasions. Maritime powers, on the other hand, have an economy primarily based on commerce and trade. This leads to the emergence of a thriving middle class which gains political power.

What’s more, commerce and trade mean that the people of a maritime state are constantly coming into contact with new ideas from all over the world. The combination of this competition of ideas and a powerful middle class leads to a society where capitalism, freedom of speech, art and innovation all thrive. As a result, maritime societies become more open and democratic than their land-based counterparts. They have a higher degree of individual freedom than their landlubbing neighbors, and citizens are more able to participate in the government.[4]

This process has been observe in a number of maritime powers throughout history. Classical Athens, the Venetian Republic, the Dutch Republic and Britain are prime examples of such societies. But does the paradigm still apply to the ancient Near East?

The Near East saw a number of civilizations arise that could be considered maritime powers. Dilmun, the Minoan civilization of Crete, the northern Syrian city-state of Ugarit, the Phoenician city-states of the Levantine coast and the maritime empire of Carthage all have the geography and the commitment to maritime commerce to be considered sea powers. But the question arises: Could any of these societies be considered democracies, or even open societies?

Let us set aside the Minoans from consideration at the moment so as to avoid being sucked into endless controversies over the nature of Minoan sea power, the nature of Minoan government, and the function of the Minoan palaces.[5]  Likewise, let us set aside Dilmun as too poorly attested to be useful for this study. This leaves us with three civilizations, all West Semitic in origin. The first of these to rise and fall was the late Bronze Age city of Ugarit.

Ugarit was founded sometime before 1800 BC, but reached the height of its prosperity in the Late Bronze Age from 1550 to 1175 BC. The city was well located for a maritime power. The city lies in modern Syria, just outside the present-day port city of Latakia.  The location sits aside several important trade routes, a north-south route running from Anatolia to Egypt and an east-west route running from Cyprus to Syria. The region has a natural harbor, which is why there is a modern port in the same place.[6] The area is a narrow coastal plain, separated from the mainland by the Jabal an-Nusayriyah mountain range.

As a result, maritime trade became the basis for the Ugaritian economy. Ugaritian traders traveled all over the eastern Mediterranean. Other groups traveled to Ugarit, with records recording visitors from cities such as Tyre, Byblos, Sidon, Beirut and Ashkelon. Ugarit was a diverse city, with a sizable indigenous Hurrian minority as well as Cypriot and Hittite communities.[7]

Despite this, Ugarit’s political structures do not seem to have been very open. Ugarit was an absolute monarchy, with hereditary succession. Ugaritian kings were aided in governing by a prefect, who conducted day to day management, and a number of overseers who worked under the prefect.[8] Kings were considered to become divine beings after they died. The power of the king was somewhat balanced by that of the queen. Ugaritian queens were often foreign born, and retained their title until their death, even if their husband died before them. As a result, queen mothers were quite powerful in Ugarit, controlling parts of the economy and wielding enormous influence over the king.[9]

Entrance to the Royal Palace at Ugarit, where political and economic power was concentrated.

Large sections of the economy of Ugarit were controlled and managed by the state. The monarchy maintained an exclusive monopoly on trade in certain high value goods such as grain, oil and copper. The royal family owned many of Ugarit’s trading ships, and had a part ownership stake in others. The monarchy was the main source of trade goods for many Ugaritian traders. The king’s palace would buy trade goods from overland routes and then sell them to sea captains for distribution overseas in return for a cut of the profits. The king also provided loans and investment for aspiring sea traders. An element of corporatism was sometimes present, as the king also helped the more wealthy and powerful Ugaritian merchants negotiate favorable trade deals with neighboring countries.[10]

So, why is it that Ugarit’s maritime society does not seem to have translated into the types of social change predicted by neo-Mahanist sea power theorists? Part of the answer may lie in a close examination of Ugarit’s political status. The city-state was never fully independent in matters of foreign policy. The city was under Egyptian influence until around 1330 BC, when it switched sides and became a Hittite client state. From then on, Ugarit’s foreign policy was primarily controlled by the Hittites. Ugaritian military forces fought as a part of the Hittite army in various campaigns.[11]

While the kings of Ugarit encouraged the development of maritime trade through investment and diplomacy, there is little evidence for the development of Ugaritian naval forces until the late 13th century. At this time, the Hittite empire was in crisis and was under attack by the Sea Peoples. Ugaritian naval forces formed a major part of the Hittite war fleet. Over 150 Ugaritian warships took part in a battle against the Sea Peoples at Alasia in the late 13th century.[12]

A diver at the Uluburun shipwreck, a 14th-century BC wreck off the southern coast of Anatolia. The ship was carrying copper ingots from Cyprus when it sank.

The Ugaritian army was made up largely of citizen soldiers called up in times of crisis, with a small corps of highly trained professional soldiers who served full time. A distinctive class of officers known as the maryannû are attested. These appear to have been professional chariot officers.[13] The Ugaritian navy pf the late 13th century was similarly organized, in that there was a class of professional captains, sailors and shipwrights who served permanently in seafaring while the ships’ crews would be rounded out with rowers and marines called up from the citizenry in times of crisis.[14]

Elisha Linder has argued that the late 13th century saw an emergence of a naval officer class equivalent to the maryannû. He argues that in order for sea captains to make such an occupation their profession, they must have received economic incentives and hereditary rights of the type given to maryannû.[15] Holding these rights and responsibilities gave them power within the state.

Would the newfound power of the Ugaritian seafarers have given them more influence in the long term, possibly including demands for the creation of a senate or council of elders to share power with the ruling monarch? There is no way of telling, because Ugarit was overwhelmed and destroyed by the Sea Peoples in 1175 BC. Its population was either slaughtered or scattered and the city was demolished and never rebuilt. Ugarit may have been on its way to becoming a sea power society, but it had not yet fully arrived at the time of its destruction. Therefore, it neither argues for or against the idea that sea power encourages open societies.

In Part 2, this series takes a look at the Phoenician city-states of Lebanon and the possible effects of sea power on their societies.
In Part 3, this series examines the maritime empire of the Phoenician colony of Carthage.

A modern museum reconstruction of the Uluburun ship along with artifacts recovered from the wreckage. This is probably our best idea of what an Ugaritian ship may have looked like. Exhibit at the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology in Bodrum, Turkey.


[1] Plutarch, Life of Themistocles, LacusCurtius, trans. by Bernadotte Perin.*.html (accessed July 4, 2011), 19.

[2] Aristotle, Politics, Perseus Digital Library, trans. by H. Rackham. (accessed July 4, 2011), 5.1034a; John R. Hale, Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy (New York: Viking, 2009), xxvii.

[3] Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 (Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1890), 29-50.

[4] Clark G. Reynolds, Navies in History (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998), 5-8; Clark G. Reynolds, Command of the Sea: The History and Strategy of Maritime Empires (New York: Morrow, 1974), 5-7.

[5] For more about this debate, see Robin Hägg and Nanno Marinatos, The Minoan Thalassocracy Myth and Reality: Proceedings of the Third International Symposium at the Swedish Institute in Athens, 31 May-5 June, 1982 (Stockholm: Svenska institutet i Athen, 1984).

[6] W.H. Van Soldt, “Ugarit: A Second Millennium Kingdom” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. II, ed. by Jack Sasson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 1258.

[7] Juan-Pablo Vita, “The Society of Ugarit,” in Handbook of Ugaritic Studies, ed. by W.G.E. Watson and N. Wyatt (Boston: Brill, 1999), 457-459.

[8] Van Soldt, “Ugarit: A Second Millennium Kingdom” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. II, 1260.

[9] Vita, “The Society of Ugarit,” in Handbook of Ugaritic Studies, 469-470.

[10] Elisha Linder, “Ugarit as a Canaanite Thalassocracy,” in Ugarit in Retrospect: 50 Years of Ugarit and Ugaritic, ed. by Gordon D. Young (Winona Lake, ID: Eisenbrauns, 1981), 33-35; Vita, “The Society of Ugarit,” in Handbook of Ugaritic Studies, 471-472.

[11] Van Soldt, “Ugarit: A Second Millennium Kingdom” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. II, 1259-1260.

[12] Vita, “The Society of Ugarit,” in Handbook of Ugaritic Studies, 497-498; Linder, “Ugarit as a Canaanite Thalassocracy,” in Ugarit in Retrospect, 38-40.

[13] Vita, “The Society of Ugarit,” in Handbook of Ugaritic Studies, 464-465.

[14] Linder, “Ugarit as a Canaanite Thalassocracy,” in Ugarit in Retrospect, 40.

[15] Ibid., 40-41.

Image Sources, Header:, National Geographic stock image (, Body of Text: Ancient World Mapping Center (,, Institute of Nautical Archaeology (, Archaeological Institute of America (

Article © Christopher Jones 2011.

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