Like Homer’s proto-Greek city-state encamped along the shores of Troy, political actors are operating in more than one time and space, making their actions difficult to assess on a single political continuum. The political bargains forged in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire and the dominance of European ideas and institutions that pervaded the region through most of the twentieth century have given way to a transitional period that defies—like Homer’s Greek encampment—a single branding.
Just as we can see in the Greek encampment the seeds of the developed polis so too we can look now for the ideas and institutions that could emerge from the current conflicts to forge new social compacts. Like the Greeks on the shores of Troy, the Middle East’s inhabitants today represent the messy beginning of a political process whose future is potentially visible in the contours of the present. We need to look for it with the aid of a conceptual framework for politics that comes from the archaic age of Greece and the literary imagination of Homer. The past, present and future are again all in play.
ANCIENT ATHENS, like the Arab world of today, faced the daunting task of forging a social compact on more than just dominant family groups. The Athenian solution was equivalent to an ambitious redistricting program that created ten new tribes, each of which drew members from the city of Athens, coastal areas and the rural interior. Politics was no longer tied to dominant local families from one geographic region. Instead, newly diverse tribes had to forge a common set of interests when each new tribe’s constituent members were drawn from different regions. The unifying political idea of Athenian citizenship emerged from the creation of inclusive political institutions that transcended narrow allegiances.
The reforms in Athens provide a conceptual framework for thinking about how states in the Middle East—especially the secular nationalist regimes that have lost their social compacts—can bind in a single state disparate religious and ethnic groups by creating a political identity that is larger than the sum of its parts. The Athenian political project helped create what in modern times we would recognize as an Athenian nationalism—an identity which all Athenian citizens would accept and accord preeminent political allegiance. The analytic challenge for observers of the contemporary Middle East is to identify how—in a political environment that looks backward and forward simultaneously—states can establish reforms to bind fragmented political communities into stable, well-functioning states.
The Athenian tragic poet Aeschylus helps us answer the contemporary political challenge of establishing the primacy of law. In a trilogy of tragic plays—the Oresteia—first performed in Athens in 458 BC, Aeschylus demonstrates the role of law as a conceptual tool we can use for thinking about the political challenges of the contemporary Middle East. The Oresteia tells the story of a cycle of bloody vengeance in the Bronze Age house of Atreus. The clear message from Aeschylus is that the rule of law justly administered by the state is the only way to escape the cycle of retributive bloodletting that has plagued the house of Atreus. The play is an allegory of political development that helped inform Athenians attempting to steer their polity from class conflicts and the rule of tyrants to a partially democratic order under the rule of law.
The Oresteia’s emphatic call for the rule of law is a reminder of the fundamental political and societal challenges facing much of the contemporary Middle East. The failure of social compacts has led to a cycle of bloodletting between a range of protagonists in a lawless environment. The region is awash in armed combatants professing a range of tribal, political, ethnic and sectarian loyalties. Within the failed secular nationalist republics, reestablishing the rule of law with some degree of popular legitimacy is the beginning of binding disparate communities under a new social compact and channeling their rivalries into durable institutions.
The rule of law will be necessary for any stable outcomes in the region, and a clear focus on the sources of law and how much democratic power will determine how those laws will be administered will be part of ending the costly conflicts plaguing the region. The project of establishing the supremacy of the rule of law will face resistance in the region’s Arab monarchies, in Iran, and perhaps in Turkey and Egypt, where new modes of authoritarian leadership are becoming entrenched. Nonetheless, the ancient Aeschylean insight that law is the road to civilized life is worth remembering in the political landscape of the Middle East. In a region of centrifugal political forces that struggles for an idea around which competing parties might agree, the primacy of the rule of law could serve as such an organizing principle. Aeschylus is ancient but he is also highly relevant to the ways we ought to conceive of the region’s contemporary political challenges.
In harnessing Homer and Aeschylus to conceptualize the political landscape of the contemporary Middle East, one might be accused of committing the error—political and intellectual—of imposing Eurocentric frameworks on the region’s troubles. Yet the work of scholars since the late nineteenth century in deciphering texts in Akkadian, Hittite and other ancient Near Eastern languages has demonstrated that the literatures of the ancient Near East have strong parallels with Greek epic and other Greek literary forms. These parallels, alongside the demonstrated trade linkages and transportation corridors between West Asia and the Greek world, raise the possibility that the ancient Greeks absorbed substantial influences from ancient Near Eastern literature.
Allowing insights from the ancient world to inform our analysis is to recognize the mixing of ideas in ancient international literary currents from the Near East and not to imply or assert the primacy of the Greek corpus over the Near East’s own traditions. Homer and Aeschylus offer useful conceptual frameworks for the contemporary Middle East because they permit us to think beyond our traditional analytic frameworks. They are among the authors who may have been overlooked in most contemporary analysis of the region because of their association with the Western literary tradition and because of a reluctance to open the door more broadly to a renewed study of the ancient world and its relevance to the modern Middle East.
A FINAL conceptual challenge associated with the forging of new social compacts will be how to think about the region’s political geography—again, ancient perspectives can inform our analysis. The quest for new social compacts will not only entail the multilayered political process that the Greek encampment in the Iliad invites us to contemplate, the redistricting methods of Athens to build a wider political identity, or the pursuit of the rule of law that Aeschylus exhorts. The renewal of social compacts will also require a reckoning with the underlying geographic boundaries of the Middle East and the patterns of settlement and political community that have attended these divisions since antiquity. This ancient physical map helps us understand the constituent parts of any political order. Where rivers flow, where rain falls, where mountains rise and where deserts divide influence early settlement and subsequent national identity and will, in turn, affect the renewal of social compacts.
The major geographic nodes of the region—the Anatolian Plateau, the Nile Basin, the upper and lower Tigris-Euphrates Basin, the Iranian Plateau and the eastern Mediterranean, repeatedly gave rise to distinct ancient civilizations. These civilizations established spheres of influence, national identities and strategic priorities which serve as precedents that modern successor states and non-state actors can seek to revive. Historic memory is not necessarily the cause of these actions and geography is not destiny—environmental conditions are not deterministic as proposed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by strategists such as Alfred T. Mahan and Halford Mackinder. Nonetheless, the study of the region’s ancient civilizations invites consideration of how the past can influence the strategic choices that the region’s contemporary actors face and encourages analytic thinking that goes beyond the mostly ahistorical methods that shape current Western perceptions of the region. If there is a reasonable chance that the region’s key players care about the past when they act, it is reasonable to ask what that past might mean to them.
Ancient geography echoes loudly into the region’s contemporary political and territorial challenges because the distribution of combatants—state and non-state—after nearly a decade of civil conflicts across the Middle East, corresponds roughly to the region’s underlying geographic divisions and ancient settlement patterns. In Libya, the main political and military divisions today between Tripoli and Benghazi are the same divisions that separated Phoenician and Greek colonies in antiquity. One can conceive of modern Libya in many ways but not without recognizing these enduring geographic antecedents. In Yemen, failing modern borders have again sifted into ancient underlying geographic zones with combatants in the highlands, including Sanaa, often contesting with rivals in and from the desert coastal areas, including Aden.
In Syria, similar ancient geographic divisions are now resurgent with the regime holding the eastern Mediterranean highlands—the traditional locus of urban centers, rainfed agriculture and maritime trade routes to Europe—while Damascus has struggled to reassert itself in the upper Tigris-Euphrates basin. Also known as the grasslands of the Jazirah, the upper Tigris-Euphrates has long acted as a separate zone wedged between the Anatolian plateau, the eastern Mediterranean highlands and the lower Tigris-Euphrates Basin. This remote area—where states have always struggled to assert their writ—became the brief redoubt of a self-declared Caliphate in 2014. One can speculate whether the ambitions of the attempted Caliphate drew inspiration from the Neo-Assyrian empire of the seventh century BC which managed to rule most of the Middle East from the same remote area.