Kingship: Kingship in the Ancient Mediterranean World

views updated


It is important to underline that the concept of "oriental despotism" deriving from the Bible is an ethnocentric concept that must be left aside. The general features of the Near Eastern kingships show a steady and strict bond with the cosmic order, just as the gods wanted it to be and to be maintained. The sovereign, thereforefar from giving way to his whimsconstantly had to conform his behavior to superior heavenly principles.

A second point has to be highlighted: our knowledge of the forms of kingship in the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean depends almost exclusively on written sources; if these are lacking, our research is forcefully limited. The oldest epigraphs appear around 3100 bce in the town of Uruk, in lower Mesopotamia, when the phenomenon of the birth of the first cities was culminating. Unfortunately, these give no insight into the kind of government ruling the society at that time. After a short period, writing also appeared in Egypt (c. 3000 bce). It is a common opinion that Mesopotamian influence played a major role in the birth of writing in Egypt, which is probably true, but the hieroglyphic system has distinct and different features from the Mesopotamian cuneiform. In Mesopotamia a certain number of archives and libraries throw light on its institutions, but there is a grave lack of continuity and homogeneous information. Even more sporadic are the written sources from the Syro-Palestinian area where, before the first millennium bce, we find only the great archive of Ebla (twenty-fourth century bce), Mari (from the same period to the eighteenth century bce), and Ugarit and Emar (Late Bronze Age). Anatolia, as well, has provided scattered bits of information; one has the documents of the Assyrian traders of the beginning of the second millennium and, afterwards, the archives and library of Hattushash-Bogazköy up to about 1200 bce. Recent discoveries have added minor archives, although these, too, contain material restricted to the same time span. The first millennium is not very well documented by the Hittite hieroglyphic inscriptions (from the Hittite period to the eighth century bce) nor by the epigraphs written in the local languages and writings. Ancient Iran is almost completely undocumented (with the remarkable exception of the Avesta, writtenterminus ante quem before the fifth century bce), in spite of the epigraphic heritage of the so-called proto-Elamic and Elamic, which are both very limited. It is unnecessary here to list all classical sources in Greek and Latin; one must mention however that for various reasons, both the Linear B for Greece and the heritage of the Etruscan and Italic epigraphs provide insufficient information. As can be seen, extremely widespread areas and long periods are completely obscure or inadequately documented by the sources. This situation greatly limits our present possibilities of knowledge.


According to the present state of knowledge, the most ancient form of kingship is connected to the birth of an urban society in the Low Mesopotamia toward the end of the fourth millennium bce. A rich stock of technical experience from the Chalcolithic era, certain favorable ecological and climatic changes, and an increase in population contributed to the birth of the first city, Uruk (perhaps an analogous yet independent process started in High Mesopotamia). This process was connoted by the creation of a bureaucratic apparatus and by the hierarchical partition of depersonalized work. However, it is not possible to obtain any direct information about the form of government of this society. Notwithstanding the privileged condition afforded by the great amount of written documents discovered, it is yet not possibledue to the characteristics of the texts themselvesto adequately answer any questions on fundamental topics related to Mesopotamian kingship.

The whole Mesopotamian civilization constantly strove to conform human society to the model offered by the divine world. In the pantheon, below the remote heaven god An was Enlil (Lord Wind), who, as the only one who could touch the unreachable sky of his father, An, played a very forceful role on earth. Enlil was the king of all gods, and they would travel to his see, his temple in Nippur, to draw from him his superior divine power. Under his rule, the demiurge god, Enki, ascribed specific tasks to every single divinity, each of whom had his see in a particular city. Enlil (named "the trader" for his mediating function) constituted the paradigm of kingship: from their various sees and tasks the gods were unified under his authority and, through him, could reachalbeit in an indirect waythe summit of the sky. In the same way, the king, being the vertex of society, acted as the point of contact between the latter and the world of the gods. Wolfgang Heimpel presented a theory (1992), based on consistent clues, about the passage from a form of a kingship, which was temporally limited and elective (by means of oracles, related to the royal title en ), to a dynastic form, legitimized by royal birth (related to the royal title lugal). Sumerian literature explicitly states that kingship, besides being of divine origin because it descends from the heaven of the gods, makes possible civilization, the acme of which resided in worship (the relationship with the gods) and justice (the preservation of the order the gods wanted). Humanity, being the consignee of such an important gift, must certainly play a central role in the universe.

Various anthropogonic myths tell how humans were created from the gods in order to relieve the inferior divinities from the trouble of running the cosmos. The human task, therefore, is a task of divine level, and it was with this aim that man had been brought into being by mixing clay with the flesh and blood of a killed god. The sovereign is, therefore, he who leads society towards the realization of the divine design, which is made known to him by means of divinatory practices: according to one tradition, the primeval sovereigns were the keepers of the divinatory science (Lambert, 1967). In relation to the gods, the king is thus the vertex of humanity. The reign is therefore thought of as an ordered area (cosmos), departing from a "center"the point where the horizontal surface of the world of men meets the vertical axis elevating to the heaven of the gods; it is this connection that defends the reign (i.e., cosmos) against the unruliness of chaos. The breaking of this axis causes the collapse of the kingdom's defenses, thereby allowing the devastating forces of chaos to rush in. As is unequivocally clear, this "center" is represented on a social level by the temple (the see of the city-god) and by the king. In this context the king is seen as the steward of the god housed in the temple. It is the god who is the veritable owner of the kingdom. Thus, the building of his temple is the culminating point of the king's activity, and the king demonstrates in this way that he has achieved the god Enki/Ea's knowledge (Matthiae, 1994) after having first established justice, enlarged the cosmos or contained chaos (all errands exalting his solar character).

Although these ideas have remained the same for more than three thousand years, it is understandable that their forms in history changed with the times. The spatial representation of the king as the center of his kingdom shifted onto a time level when large kingdoms of nomadic origin took form in Mesopotamia (the comparison with the biblical patriarchs is immediate [Hallo, 1970]). Their legitimation stemmed from the long list of their nomadic ancestry, whereas in the Sumerian world it was the town, as the see of the god and thus the point of contact between the divine and human spheres, which legitimized the king's position. The dynastic tallies listing the nomadic ancestors corresponded to the "Sumerian King List," a long text arranged as a sequence of cities. This catalog, which begins with the words "When kingship descended from heaven," listscity by citythe kings who ruled them. It begins with the mythical kings who lived before the Flood and reigned for thousands of years each; then the list continues on until historical times. According to the organization of the list, only one city at time was dominant in Mesopotamia (which is surely historically incorrect). The end of a certain city's dominion is marked by the entry of the sum of the years of reign of its single kings and with the sentence "its (of that city) kingship was carried to (name of another city)." As Claus Wilcke (1989) demonstrated, the series of the dominant cities follows a predetermined order, which is regularly repeateda further element indicating a function unconnected with the recording of historical events. In fact, this list was probably composed during the dynasties of Ur III (21122004 bce) and Isin (20171794 bce), and its compilation aimed at legitimizing those dynasties.

The contact between the king and the divine took on peculiar forms, such as the Holy Wedding (hieros gamos ) when the king, playing the god Dumuzi, married the goddess Inanna in order to attract divine benevolence down onto his reign. Another form was the divination of the king. Both forms are found in the second half of the third millennium until the second half of the second: they overlapped but were not directly connected and were extinguished during the Old Babylonian period (twentiethsixteenth century bce). The king was legitimized politically by his birth, but from a religious point of view, it was necessary that he have a divine rebirth (probably through a royal initiation) from which he appeared to have been generated by particular divinities (Sjöberg, 1972). It must be stressed, however, that even those sovereigns who were divinized while yet living and whose images were worshipped after their deaths were never considered to be living divinities, such as the Egyptian pharaohs, and their conduct was constantly and exclusively guided by the oracles.

In Assyria in the earliest period, before Shamshi-Adad I's reign (1812-1780 bce), the king appeared as the executor of the citizen's assembly; he did not have the title king, which belonged to the city-god Ashur, but rather that of his vicar, a title also connected to sacerdotal functions. It was only when Assyria began an expansionistic policy that this frame was changed and became definitiveafter discontinuous events, under King Tukulti-Ninurta I (second half of the thirteenth century bce), until the end of the empire (612610 bce). The earliest phase of this transformation, due to Shamshi-Adad I, saw the introduction of the idea of legitimation by means of the list of ancestors, as happened in Babylonia (king Ammi-saduqa: 16461626 bce). A further form of legitimatingnot excluding the preceding onesis given by the divinity's choice by means of divination. This may have been the condition that allowed Asarhaddon (680669 bce) to ascend the throne (Asarhaddon was the youngest son of king Sennacherib and was chosen by his father to succeed to the throne on grounds of many oracular responses; as a matter of fact it was his mother who managed to have his son chosen instead of his elder brothers, sons of other wives and concubines of the king), or that endorsed the result of a conjure, taken as an ordeal, as in the case of Nabonedo (555539 bce) (Nabonedo was a usurper who took power illegally, delcaring himself the legitimate successor because astrological and oneiromantic omina decreed he had to be the heir of the previous kings). In other very numerous occurrences the gods' choice blended royal descent with gods' will, for the dynasty itself was but a manifestation of the latter.


The peculiar feature of the Egyptian king, the pharaoh, consisted in his being the image of the supreme sun god of the Egyptians, Re-Atum, who wanted him as his successor in the world of the living so that he could maintain worship and justice between humans (as did his Mesopotamian counterpart). However, the Egyptians had a more complex idea of their sovereign's function than the Mesopotamians had: they saw in him one who would fulfil the concept of maat, thereby annihilating isfet at the same time. The word maat conveys the idea of an all-pervading cosmic order: it is the principle according to which the universe had been created. The world lost touch with this principle, and therefore no longer corresponded to its original state of order. The opposite of maat, isfet (defect) conveys the sense of disorder that comes into being wherever and whenever the relationship with the creator principle is lost: illness, crime, misery, war, lieseverything, in short, that makes historyare all episodes of isfet. The pharaoh, helped by the two cosmic forces sia (knowledge) and hu (word), can restore the primeval "wealth" that conforms to maat. He is, consequently, one of the three poles of a triad formed with the god and the maat. When he identifies himself with the latter, he becomes "one body with the god," and his will cannot but be good. From a cosmological point of view, after the divine world had been set apart from the human world, only the god of the air, Shu, the prototype of kingship, could make possible a form of communication between the worlds, while at the same time keeping the heaven of the creator Sun-god and the other gods at a distance. (It must be noted that the Sumerian king of the gods, Enlilwhose name means "Lord Wind"played an analogous role of separation and connection.) Indeed, kingship finds its raison d'être in this detachment, for it is the king who must guarantee the continuity of the relationship with the now-distant gods. Jan Assmann (1990) points out the analogy with the Christian church, whose very existence was made necessary by the distance between man and Christ's coming. It thus becomes clear why Egypt did not leave any codices or collections of laws: every single pharaoh was the only one to determine justice, because it was he who made the realization of maat possible. As the opponent of isfet, the pharaoh was also the defender of the poor.

The pharaoh was at the center of other binary systems, even if on completely different levels. Every king, at the moment he assumed his power, thereby also renewed the unification between High and Low Egypt (the diversity of which is expressed even in their names, Shema and Mehu, which respectively referred to the gods Horus and Seth). The opposition of the two gods, which is the basis of the Egyptian kingship, is not merely geographic, but also corresponds to the opposition between order and chaos, right and violence. Horus must prevail over the wild Seth by taming him into a form of unity in a continuously repeated dynamic process. For this reason, the pharaoh wore the crowns of both High and Low Egypt; as king of High Egypt he was named njswt, and as king of Low Egypt, bjt. At the sides of his throne the images of the gods Horus and Seth held the hieroglyph meaning "to unify."

The pharaoh was thought to be destined to join the sun god after his death, when "his divine body coalesces with its sire." In each kingly succession, indeed, there was a reenactment of the mythical struggle between the god Osiris (son of Geb, the earth god, and Nut, the sky goddess)the first king and Nile god, god of cereals, and lord of the deadand his brother and murderer, Seth, followed by the revenge taken on Seth by Osiris's son and successor, the young god Horus. Even until much later times, the destructiveness of Seth was a fundamental power in the creation of the universe, because only by its working alongside order was the birth of the cosmos possible. In the end, as the direct heir of Osiris, and therefore of Geb, Shu, and Ra, Horus himself assurged to the undivided power. So, in Egyptian religious thought, Horus was the living pharaoh, and Osiris was his dead predecessor.

Kings, "souls," and ancestors

The superiority of the monarchs was expressed not only by their connection or identification with deities: the king was also superior to his subjects because his ka (vital force, a spiritual twin that lives on after the death of the physical body) was different from that of commoners. The pharaoh's ka was shown on monuments in the shape of the monarch's identical twin; as the king's protector in death, it announced the arrival of the dead monarch to the gods in heaven, and it was identified (Frankfort, 1948) with the placenta enwrapping the newborn king. One of the standards that accompanied the king during festivals and processions probably represented the royal placenta, and may have been the image of the king's ka.

Other standards accompanying the king represented his ancestral spirits (in Egyptian, ba ), whose functions were to give life to the pharaoh, thus protecting the land, and, after his death, to prepare his ascent to the heavens. The standards thus played an important part in kingly rituals. The fact that they were classified in two subgroups, the souls of Pe and the souls of Nekhen, may point to an early artificial combination of two series of kingly ancestors, from southern and northern Egypt, respectively. Pe was an ancient town of the Delta, and Nekhen was one of the South. In a certain way both towns represent the two original distinct political units of the period before the unification.

Kingly rituals

The main rituals of the Egyptian state were kingly rituals sanctioning the various aspects of the royal succession, a delicate mechanism that ensured the continuity of the social order. The death of the old king was followed by a period during which the new pharaoh assumed power, visited sanctuaries throughout Egypt, and issued his protocols, while his father's body and funerary temple were prepared for the burial rites. During this period, the ka s rested.

On the day of the royal funerary ritual, a series of litanies, spells, and incantations were probably recited, insisting on the identification of the dead pharaoh with Osiris (and of the pharoah's son with Horus), and on the dead monarch's glorious survival in heaven, where he was embraced by the god Atum or received by the souls of Pe and Nekhen. The king was buried as an embalmed mummy in his funerary abode, and was symbolically located in the regions where his life continued (the netherworld, the west, and the north near the circumpolar stars). While the dead king ruled as Osiris among the dead, his son ruled on earth, in perfect continuity.

The day after the celebration of the dead king's heavenly survival, the coronation of the new pharaoh took place. It was usually made to coincide with the New Year's Day or with some other important beginning in nature's cycle. The ritual involved cultic practices in the dual shrines of the royal ancestral spirits of Pe and Nekhen, and it culminated in the placing of the two crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt on the pharaoh's head. A further important kingly ritual was the Sed festival, which took place once or several times during a pharaoh's reign. This renewal of the kingly power was held on the anniversary of the pharoah's coronation. It included a procession; the offering of gifts to the gods; pledges of loyalty by the king; visits to shrines; the dedication of a field to the gods by the pharaoh, who twice ran across it in the four directions of the compass, first as king of Upper, then Lower Egypt; and the shooting of arrows by the king in these four directions, symbolically winning him control of the whole universe.

Syria and Palestine, Including Israel

In spite of the great efforts of specialized scholars (including Giovanni Pettinato and Pelio Fronzaroli), it is still impossible to outline a reliable picture of kingship in Ebla (about 70 kilometers south of Aleppo; mid-third millennium bce). Through the nomenclature it is evident that the Eblaite queen had a particular role, but the mechanism of the institution is far from clear. In Mari (medium Euphrates; early second millennium bce), the two concepts of the holiness of the king and of the king's role in assuring justice became intermingled and formed one inseparable idea. (This passedthrough the mediation of the Bibleinto the Christian concept of kingship.) The king was anointed (a habit alien to Mesopotamia, yet documented in Ebla, where it was not restricted to sovereigns alone), and by means of this rite, his state was changed and he consequently acquired major authority. The practice of anointing was directly related to the main function of the king, namely that of "king of justice," "the good shepherd" who protects the weak. This idea of justice, therefore, went beyond the boundaries of the law and centered on the king's personal subjective beliefs, which determined the king's interference and were completely unrelated to the kind of justice that the judges were expected to apply. According to the law, the weak might be in the wrong, but the sovereign would protect them. Another peculiar feature that is also found in the Bible was the use of the donkey as the proper mount for the legitimate king. In contrast to the horse, which was used in war and thus conveyed an idea of violence, the donkey became the symbol of the triumphant peace, which the king was seen to have realized through his submission to the gods (Lafont, 1998, pp. 161166).

In the Ugaritic texts (late second millennium bce), however, we find an important trait of kingship ideology in Bronze Age Syria: the cult of the dead kings, which apparently began at the time of the Amorite dynasties. In Ugarit the royal ancestors, the most ancient of which were probably mythical, called rapium ("healers, saviors"; compare with the biblical refaʿim ), were worshipped with offerings and periodic rites.

In the first millennium bce, traces of both the Phoenician and Aramean kingship ideology are attested to by alphabetic inscriptions. The godlike qualities of monarchs were sometimes indicated, but the main aspects of kingship were the ruler's upholding of justice and peace and his role as a servant of the gods. They repaid him by giving peace and abundance to his kingdom. One Aramaic inscription, however, seems to present the king as enjoying a special existence ("drinking" with the storm god) after his death.

The Israelite monarchy in the Bible was not devoid of such "sacral" traits, and specific ritual aspects such as royal anointing and royal burial rites are described in the biblical texts with some precision. Yet, the Bible presents the kings as mere servants of the heavenly king and sole true god, Yahweh, and it denies them any superhuman powers or destiny. Moreover, kingship is presented as a foreign institution adopted by the Israelites, and most Israelite kings are depicted as unfaithful to the national deity, whereas the prophets of Yahweh play an important role in condemning monarchs on behalf of their god, and sometimes in anointing new and more pious kings to replace them. In the exilic and postexilic texts, many aspects of the Near Eastern kingship ideology (but not the divine nature of monarchs) seem to have converged in the eschatological expectations of the Israelites, who had no kings of their own, but awaited the return of a descendant of the Davidic dynasty. In this sense, the roots of Jewish and Christian messianism must be sought in the kingship ideology of the ancient Near East.

Hittite Kingship

By far the most important form of writing used in Anatolia was the cuneiform script imported from Mesopotamia (naturally, also ideograms and standard forms of handwriting were used). Thus, even if one knows that the Hittite word for king is hashshu- (this term, though infrequent, is written in the cuneiform Hittite texts), one does not know for certain whether the Sumerian and Akkadian terms (respectively lugal and sharru, both used as ideograms, even if written in cuneiform) for the title of sovereign corresponded exactly to the local usage. This problem was already evident at the time of the paleo-Assyrian colonies (beginning of the second millennium bce). In texts, the Hittite sovereigns used the ideogram LUGAL ("king" in Sumerian) not only for themselves but also for the sovereigns for neighboring states. In Late Bronze Age politics the title LUGAL.GAL (Sumerian for "great king") was used to refer to the sovereigns of Egypt and Babylonia as well as to the Hittite king himself, to distinguish them from sovereigns of politically less important states. In this period the Hittite king was referred to with the epithet "my sun" (shamshi in Akkadian script), which was perhaps of Egyptian derivation or an elaboration of Mesopotamian elements. The characteristic title, however, was tabarna, derived from the name of the first great Hittite king, Labarna (a process analogous to Latin "Cæsar," t and l refer to intermediate sounds); the feminine form, tawananna, referred to the king mother, to whom special cultural functions were given. The significance given to divine support was a characteristic of the Hittite monarchy, which was taken to extremes by Hattushili III (12751260 bce) to legitimate his coup d'état. Numerous have been found that bear oracles for the interpretation of divine will and thus provide clues to the reasons that determined unfavorable political events. After the king's death a complex ritual based on the cremation of his body took place, and food was ritually offered to the dead monarch. When the texts refer to a king's death, they speak of his "becoming a god." These elements cannot, however, be taken to indicate the divinization of the sovereign during his lifetime, although this did happento an extentlater, from the middle of the thirteenth century bce onwards, in the major celebration of monarchy from Hattushili III until the fall of the empire.


From the nomadic life in a semidesertic land, the tribes of the Persians and the Medes becamein a relatively short period of timethe conquerors of great kingdoms, the capitals of which were fully developed cities. This rather sudden change bore important consequences. In order to control their new acquisitions, the Achaemenid kings incorporated the royal ideology of the defeated people into their own one. In the extension of their wide empire, therefore, the Achaemenids everywhere impersonated the legitimate successors of the former dynasties, but it was the conquest of Babylon (539 bce) that determined this political choice. The basic concepts of the Achaemenid kingship are traced back to the ideology of the Assyrian-Babylonian monarchy rather than to the Indo-European political institutions, as Gnoli demonstrated. This borrowing however, was tempered by the peculiar feature of the Zoroastrian thought that patently differentiated it from the other religious worlds of the ancient Near Eastthe dualistic opposition between Ohrmazd-Ahuramazda and Ahreman. This opposition mirrored a deeper cosmological level than the idea of contrast between chaos and order in Mesopotamian thought. The expected conclusive victory of Ohrmazd, with the final annihilation of Ahreman, is a unique component in all the Ancient Near East. The forms of kingship, from that of the Achaemenids to that of the Sasanians, are all determined by this fundamental idea of rigid dualism, which Pettazzoni (1920) drew nearer to monotheistic than to polytheistic religionsthis is not a paradox. It was then inconceivable that a sovereign appears as a god. The Greeks, for their convenience, translated with the same term, theos, both the Iranian words bay and yazad, but only the former (which also means "[divine] distributor") actually referred to the king; the latter term was limited to the divinities only. Bay was a king's title because of his role in the first line against the forces of evil, not because of his divinization. The king, indeed, played a key role in creation, in which the battle between Ohrmazd and Ahreman is fought. For this reason an initiatory rite, perhaps based on the mystical union with the deceased ancestors, became necessary in the enthroning process during the Achaemenid period, and some buildings in Pasargade and Naqsh-i Rustam may have been mainly destined for that function. In the Sasanian period, on the other hand, the king assumed those astral traits, which made him a "cosmocrator." Indeed, like the stars, the king was endowed with xwarrah (roughly translated as "brightness, glory," also to vital energy), and because his "form" is an image of the gods, this makes his xwarrah similar to theirs as well. In any case, alive or dead, the Iranian king never became a god, even if while living he assumed some distinctive traits which were to make him different from all other men, and notwithstanding the fact that he was a living image of the gods (although he never identified himself with them). He was allowed to enjoy "rightness" in the netherworld for his right behavior while living, as could any other person who had done the same.

Greece and Hellenism

Four very different forms of kingship succeeded in ancient Greece: the Mycenaean, the Homeric, the archaic and the classical, and the Hellenistic. Little is known about kingship in Crete in Minoan times (c. 2500c. 1500 bce), and in Greece and Crete in Mycenaean times (c. 1600c. 1100 bce), because the relevant texts have either not yet been translated (the Minoan Linear A inscriptions) or are concerned mainly with problems of administration (the Mycenaean Linear B texts, in a language that is an ancestor of ancient Greek). Archaeology and the study of the Egyptian texts (where the Cretans were named Keftiu ) provide evidence of the regular relationshipwhich was not limited to tradethat flourished from the third millennium bce between the Aegean civilizations and Egypt and Syria (city of Biblos).

Minoan and Mycenaean kingship

These relations had an incisive influence on the Aegean world as well as on the institution of the Mycenaean kingship, about which limited information exists. As for the Minoan kingship, it could be of some interest that the sovereigns were embalmed with the oil of Syrian firs. The lack of royal tombs in Crete before the Santorini eruption (c. 1530 bce) and the uncertain destination of the "palaces" (perhaps only cultic places) demonstrate against a possible divine or divinely inspired kingship (on which, see Marinatos, 1995), which was introduced only later, after that disaster (Driessen, 2003).

The Mycenaean kingship covered both political and religious spheres. The king (wanax) was an overlord who ruled over the local kings (whose title was the archaic form of basiléus ). His kingdom never reached an extent comparable to that of the Near Eastern empires, even if it was formed on their model. Besides civil functions, the administrative records in Linear B show that the king had at least partial control of the cultic organization. It is unclear whether this twofold role is related to the Indo-European heritage (see Dumézil, 1977). The term wanax disappeared with the fall of the Mycenaean civilization. When indeed this state system collapsed around 1100 bce, many other aspects of that cultural tradition, including writing, were lost.

Homeric kingship

Kingship, as it was represented in the Homeric world, seems to have kept few traits of continuity with what is known of the Mycenaean civilization. It has to be stressed that since the depiction of the social and political institutions is always coherent in both the Homeric poems (the Iliad and the Odyssey ), it is evident that in the age of their composition, the eighth century bce, these institutions still existed. The poet described them in a slightly more archaic way as they actually were (Carlier, 1996, p. 294). The king is named basileus an approximate translation of the Greek term, which must be understood as "king of a community," not of a state; the word is also employed to indicate the chief of an aristocratic oikos ("household, manor"). The royal power seemed to have been related to the power of a clan, and the king himself rather resembled a pater familias. The mechanisms of the succession are obscure, but a conflict between the aristocracy and the royal family, willing to affirm the dynastic principle, is evident. The king therefore appears to have been a primus inter pares ; a vague hint of the wanax is kept in Agamemnon's attribute "anax andron. " Carlier compares wanax to Imperial Latin dominus, "lord" (1996, p. 268).

Kingship is an expression of strength. M. I. Finley (1956) mentions the term iphi ("with strength") in theorizing why Odysseus's father, Laertes, was not the king in the twenty-year absence of his son because, being an aged person, he was not strong enough to assure his rule, and his family, in which the young Telemachus was the only man, could not guarantee it. It is also not clear why marriage to Penelope would have legitimated the new king, chosen among her suitors (in the same way, the usurper Aegistus, in Argos, married Agamemnon's wife). Power is personal, and supported by the family. Central to this system was the oikos, an almost self-sufficient productive unit where relatives assembled, hetairoi ("comrades") rallied to war campaigns, and different classes of servants and helpers set to everyday tasks. The king summoned an assembly of the citizens, but it was merely a consultative organ, and decision making was held firmly in the king's own hands. The social pattern of the organization of power may be defined thus: the assembly listens, the elders propose, the king disposes. In particular circumstances such as warfare and journeys, the king might celebrate sacrifices to the gods, as had the Mycenaean wanax. The king was always at the head of his army, which he personally led in war, and the aristocracy would lend him their men as warriors (all the heroes of the Homeric poems are aristocrats, if not kings). In conclusion, it may be safely stated that the Homeric king enjoyed geras ("privilege" and "honor," which is also expressed by time ) that made him owner of the temenos, a plot of particularly fertile land (also, shrines of the gods); as a leader, he had to show both metis ("prudence") and valor. In every circumstance, he had to demonstrate that he deserved his time.

Kingship in the poleis and Spartan diarchy

After many centuries, a profound social transformation led to the birth of a new organization, the typically Greek polis, or city-state. Although kingdoms survived in the periphery of the new Greek world, the polis was a structure that had no place for monarchies of the type discussed above, although some kingly functions were inherited by magistrates, and there is even evidence of restricted forms of kingship (e.g., the Spartan diarchy). The diarchy was more a concurrent lifetime leadership of two strategoi ("strategists," a sort of magistrates) than a true form of kingship, notwithstanding its hereditary characteristic. It was this feature that qualified the two kings of Sparta with respect to their magical and religious functions, based on the reference of the divine couple of twins, the Dioscuri (Carlier, 1984, pp. 296301). The system was very stable, and it lasted for about five centuries.

The same religious concerns are to be found in the Athenian monarchy. Both the king (basileus ) and, when monarchy disappeared, the magistrate (also called basileus ) were active characters in the rites of the city cults, which included the hierogamic ceremony symbolizing the union of the city (represented by the queen) with the god Dionysos.

The monarchical tendencies of some rulers (tu-rannoi) of cities in the seventh to fourth centuries bce were exceptional and short-lived, though they arose again and again, especially in the colonial worlds of Sicily and Asia Minor. It was only when the polis system declined and the peripheral Macedonian dynasty gained control over Greece and later conquered the Iranian Empire that the Greek-speaking world had to come to terms with the power of the Macedonian kings (basileis), while most cities maintained, at least formally, their traditional regimes.

After the death of Alexander the Great of Macedonia (323 bce), his empire was divided among his successors. The Near East of the Hellenistic age became a series of monarchies headed by kings of Macedonian descent. These kingdoms were ruled, and profoundly influenced culturally, by an elite of Greek soldiers and administrators. Hellenistic kingship ideology, like Hellenistic culture in general, was a combination of Greek (Macedonian) and traditional Near Eastern traits. Kings were believed to be descendants of divine ancestors (through Alexander), godlikein some cases, divinein life, and surviving as gods after their death. The court etiquette and the rituals of kingship, so far as can be ascertained, were derived mainly from the Iranian, Egyptian, and other Near Eastern traditions.


In modern times some progress in the research on the mechanism on the Etruscan kingship was achieved by integrating the scarce data from the written Etruscan sources (because of their celebrative character, most of the funerary epigraphs are of little relevance in this kind of inquiry) with the comparison of the data related to the earliest Roman history and of the archaeological documentation. Apart from the Greek metropolises of the south (Magna Gaecia ) of a clearly foreign tradition, the development of urban civilization in Italy can be ascribed to the Etruscans. Etruscan urbanization grew through subsequent phases, each of which produced its relative form of government. In the first phase villages merged, under the stimulus of their aristocracies, into a single unit of superior order, thus beginning the growth of metropolises (from the ninth to the sixth centuries bce). The city was ruled by a king (lucumo ) whose institutional features are unfortunately obscure. A lictor preceding him, his gold crown, his ivory throne, his sceptre surmounted by an eagle, and his purple toga and mantle were all signs of his rank. The ceremony of the triumph, in which the king personified a deity, together with the ludi and other insignias of regal power, was probably introduced in Rome by the Etruscan dynasty of the Tarquini.

The assembly of the twelve lucumones of the Etruscan dodecapolis was held near the Fanum Voltumnae (the temple of the protector god, or genius, of Etruriadeus Etruriae princeps ), most probably located near present-day Orvieto. There a magistrate was elected whose functions were superior to the particularism of the single polis and who was, therefore, preceded by twelve lictors as a sign of his position. The subsequent progression of the mercantile middle class led to seigniories similar to Greek "tyrannies." Toward the end of the sixth century and during all of the fifth century bce, republican oligarchies took control; besides an ordo principum (probably analogous to the Roman senate), one or more likely more zilath / zilach (praetor ) were ruling. The dodecapolis league was active in the republican period as well, and elected the zilath mechl rasnal (i.e., the praetor Etruriae).


The mythology regarding the foundation of Rome gives expression to different phases of the beginnings of the city and of its primitive kingship. Romulus, who founded the city of Rome on the Palatine hill and whose name the city therefore bears, was a foreign kingan Alban from a region about 40 kilometers to the south. The phrase populus Romanus Quiritesque (the Roman people and the Quirites) thus indicates the superimposition of Rome on the inhabitants of the proto-urban settlements of the other nearby hills, specifically the Quirites, who had the system of the curiae (the curia was a division of the three original Romulean tribes, Ramnes, Tites and Luceres, and was the basic element of the assembly, comitia curiata ), which Romulus's reign centralized into a unique political formation. On the one hand, the murder and dismemberment of Romulus by the senators, each of whom carried home limbs of his body, represents the transformation of Romulus into Quirinus, the god of the Quirites, but on the other hand, it also expresses the return of the power to the curiae, who will choose the new king. This system was in use up until the reign of Tarquinius Priscus (Carandini, 2002, pp. 197207). With this latest king the Etruscan influence became very incisive, and it continued to be decisive until the fall of the monarchy. The forms of cult changed dramatically; amongst other innovations, the triumphus, originally a theophany in which the god Jupiter appears to guarantee an incipient welfare, was introduced. Though often changed in its constitutive traits, celebration of the triumphus was to last in the Roman tradition (Versnel, 1970).

From the sixth century bce, Rome was a republic headed by an aristocracy of senatores and governed by elected magistrates. Indeed, the antimonarchic ideology of ancient Rome was such that whenafter the Roman conquest of most of the Mediterranean worldthe crisis of the republican state led to the rise of a new form of monarchy, the rulers did not take on the traditional title of Indo-European origin, rex (king), but were called imperator, a word denoting the triumphing war leader of republican times. The Roman Empire lasted from the first century bce to the late fifth century ce, and the ideology of rulership changed profoundly during its history. Its original traits included the cult of the emperor's genius (personality, double) and the deification of the dead emperor through a complex ritual involving cremation and the flight of his spirit to the heavens in the form of an eagle flying from the funeral pyre. But these soon gave wayfirst in the eastern provinces and then in the entire imperial territoryto other forms of ruler worship, such as the identification of the emperor with mythical figures or gods, which were often directly imported by monarchs from the local cultures of their provincial homelands.

The emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity in the late fourth century was the starting point of a further profound transformation in the imperial ideology. Obviously, the new Christian rulers could not be considered divine, yet many aspects of the system of beliefs, rituals, and etiquette typical of the imperial monarchy were adapted to the new religious context. According to the Triakontaeterikos, a treatise on imperial power by the Christian writer Eusebius of Caesarea (fourth century), the whole cosmos is a monarchic state (basileia, monarchia) ruled by the Christian God, and it is the emperor's task to imitate the divine monarch. The final result of the process of ideological transformation that began with Constantine was the ideology of the Christian ruler. This was the basis of Byzantine kingship ideology, and it later joined with other (mainly Celtic and Germanic) traditions to form medieval theories of kingship.

See Also

Dumuzi; Twins; Utu.


The bibliography on this subject is huge, and it is not always easy to select from it without omitting important contributions. On the sacral kingship of the ancient Near East, one should see the following.

General Studies

Gadd, Cyrill J. Ideas of Divine Rule in the Ancient Near East. Oxford, 1948.

Frankfort, Henri. Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society and Nature. 1948; reprint, Chicago, 1978.


Finkelstein, Jacob J. "The Antidiluvian Kings: A University of California Tablet." Journal of Cuneiform Studies 17 (1963): 3951.

Hallo, William W. "Antediluvian Cities." Journal of Cuneiform Studies 23 (1970): 5767.

Heimpel, Wolfgang. "Herrentum und Königtum im vor- und frühgeschichtlichen Alten Orient." Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 82 (1992): 421.

Labat, René. Le caractère religieux de la royauté assyro-babylo-nienne. Paris, 1939.

Lambert, W. G. "Enmeduranki and Related Matters." Journal of Cuneiform Studies 21 (1967): 126138.

Lambert, Wilfred G. "The Seed of Kingship." In Le palais et la royauté, Comtes rendues de la Réncontre d'Assyriologie Internationale 19 (1971), pp. 427440. Paris, 1974.

Matthiae, P. Il sovrano e l'opera. Rome and Bari, Italy, 1994.

Michalowski, Piotr. "History as CharterSome Observations on the Sumerian King List." Journal of the American Oriental Society 103 (1983): 237224.

Seux, J.-M. "Königtum." In Reallexicon der Assyriologie, vol. 6, edited by Otto Dietrich Edzard, pp. 140173. Berlin and New York, 1983.

Sjöberg, Ake. "Die göttliche Abstammung der sumerisch-babylonischen Herrscher." Orientalia Suecana 21 (1972): 87112.

Wilcke, Claus. "Genealogical and Geographical Thought in the Sumerian King List." In DUMU E2-DUB-BA: Studies in Honor of Å Sjöberg, edited by E. Leichty, et al., pp. 557569. Philadelphia, 1989.


Assmann, Jan. Maat: Gerechtigkeit und Unsterblickeit im alten Ägypten. Munich, 1990.

Assmann, Jan. Herrschaft und Heil. Politische Theologie in Altägypten, Israel, und Europa. Munich and Vienna, 2000.

Frankfort, Henri. Ancient Egyptian Religion. New York, 1948.


Coppens, Joseph. Le messianisme royal. Paris, 1968.

De Fraine, Jean. L'aspect religieux de la royauté israélite. Rome, 1954.

Fronzaroli, Pelio. Archivi reali di Ebla. TestiX I. Testi rituali della regalità (Archivio L. 2769). Rome, 1993.

Lafont, S. "Le roi, le juge, et l'étranger à Mari et dans la Bible." Revue d'Assyriologie et d'Archéologie Orientale 92 (1998): 161181.

Pettinato, Giovanni. Il rituale per la successione al trono ad Ebla. Rome, 1992.

Widengren, Geo. Sakrales Königtum im Alten Testament und im Judentum. Stuttgart, Germany, 1955.


Gnoli, Gherardo. "Politica religiosa e concezione della regalità sotto gli Achemenidi." In Gururajamañjarika. Studi in onore di G. Tucci, pp. 2388. Naples, Italy, 1974.

Gnoli, Gherardo. "L'Iran tardoantico e la regalità sassanide." Mediterraneo Antico. Economie società culture 1, no. 1 (1998): 115139.

Panaino, Antonio. "The Bagan of the Fratrakas: Gods or 'Divine' Kings?" In Religiuos Themes and Texts of Pre-Islamic Iran and Cantral Asia. Studies in Honour of Prof. G. Gnoli on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday on 6th December 2002, edited by C. G. Cereti, M. Maggi, and E. Provasi, pp. 265288. Wiesbaden, Germany, 2003.

Panaino, Antonio. "Astral Characters of Kingship in the Sasanian and Byzantine Worlds." In Atti del Convegno internazionale "La Persia e Bisanzio," edited by Antonio Carile et al., pp. 555594. Rome, 2004.


Giorgieri, M., and C. Mora. Aspetti della regalità ittita nel XIII secolo a. C. Como, Italy, 1996.

Pettazzoni, Raffaele. La religione di Zarathustra nella storia religiosa dell'Iran. Bologna, Italy, 1920.

Szabó, G. "Herrscher -§ 7.1." In Reallexicon der Assyriologie IV, edited by Dietrich Otto Edzard, pp. 342345. Berlin and New York, 1975.

Van den Hout, Theo P. J. Tudhalija Kosmokrator. Gedachten over ikonografie en ideologie van een hettitische koning. Amsterdam, 1993.


Carlier, Pierre. La royauté en Grèce avant Alexandre. Strasbourg, France, 1984.

Carlier, Pierre. "La regalità: beni d'uso e beni di prestigio." In I Greci, vol. 2, edited by S. Settis, pp. 255294. Torino, Italy, 1996.

Driessen, Jan. "The Court Compounds of Minoan Crete: Royal Palaces or Ceremonial Centers?" Athena Review 3, no.3 (2003): 5761.

Dumézil, George. Les dieux souverains des Indo-Européens. Paris, 1977.

Finley, M. I. The World of Odysseus. London, 1956.

Marinatos, Nanno. "Divine Kingship in Minoan Crete." In The Role of the Ruler in the Prehistoric Aegean, Aegaeum 11, edited by P. Rehak, pp. 3748. Liège, Belgium, 1995.

Schubart, Wilhelm. Die religiöse Haltung des frühen Hellenismus. Leipzig, Germany, 1937.

West, Martin L. The East Face of Helicon. Oxford, 1997.


Cristofani, Mauro. "Società e istituzioni nell'Italia preromana." In Popoli e civiltà dell'Italia antica, vol. 7, edited by Massimo Pallottino, pp. 51112. Rome, 1978.

Staccioli, Romolo. Gli Etruschi, un popolo tra mito e realtà. Rome, 1980.

Torelli, Mario. Storia degli Etruschi. Rome and Bari, Italy, 1985.


Bickermann, Elias. J., et al., eds. Le culte des souverains dans l'Empire romain. Entretiens sur l'antiquité classique, vol. 19. Geneva, Switzerland, 1973.

Carandini, Andres. Archeologia del mito. Torino, Italy, 2002.

Cornell, T. J. The Beginnings of Rome. London and New York, 1995.

Versnel, H. S. TriumphusAn Inquiry into the Origin, Development, and Meaning of the Roman Triumph. Leiden, Netherlands, 1970.

Cristiano Grottanelli (1987)

Pietro Mander (2005)

About this article

Kingship: Kingship in the Ancient Mediterranean World

Updated About content Print Article


Kingship: Kingship in the Ancient Mediterranean World