The details of Confucius’s life are murky, especially given the chaos surrounding the declining Zhou period in the 490s and 480s BCE. It is important to take into account the impact of interstate conflict on Confucius’s philosophical insights. A commoner who was effectively shut out of power by the three noble clans of Lu, Confucius was eventually driven out and forced to wander among the other states, due to the resentment of this traditional aristocracy. Despite the resistance of warring aristocrats, Confucius advocated a new approach to government, in which respect for the weak, poor, and defenseless would form the basis for civil society.
Victor H. Mair, Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt, and Paul R. Goldin, eds., Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005), 48–49.
The Warring States era (464 to 221 BCE) was a crucial turning point in Chinese history. During this time, the many effectively independent states into which China had become divided were at war with each other constantly. But unlike the constant warfare of the period 770 to 453 BCE, which had been aristocratic, based on extracting tribute and admissions of suzerainty, and which had involved small armies of charioteers, Warring States warfare evolved rapidly into a deadly contest of political survival. Some rulers began raising larger, infantry-based armies with which they conducted campaigns of conquest against their neighbors. To raise and support such armies, they refashioned their administrative systems and enhanced the power of kingship against their aristocracies. The fundamental outlines of the later Chinese imperial state were created during this age of military competition.
As rulers looked for every military advantage they could get, there arose a class of military experts who wrote advice on how best to use the new, larger armies in this life-or-death environment. The most famous of these many writers, Sun Tzu, is a shadowy figure about whom we know very little. He lived during the latter half of the Warring States period. Sun Tzu was a scholar of war, and he takes his place with Confucius, Lao Tzu (founder of Taoism), and Han Fei Tzu (founder of Legalism) as one of the Chinese masters. Indeed, the influence of Confucian, Taoist, and Legalist ideas can be seen in Sun Tzu’s principles of war. The scholarly nature of Sun Tzu’s work and the other Warring States military manuals is important in two ways. First, it shows that the study of warfare and its place in statecraft was taken seriously by Chinese intellectuals. But, second, the intellectualization of war fit into the anti-aristocratic, centralizing trends of Chinese states in this age. Sun Tzu and others constructed leadership—and indeed soldierly qualities—in warfare as a matter not of heroism and practical knowledge (as it had been for aristocratic-led armies earlier) but as the implementation of rational principles by a single trained expert; they saw good soldiers as obedient followers of this enlightened leadership. The implications of this model of military leadership for the structure of the state are clear.
From Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Samuel B. Griffith. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1963).
Herodotus (c. 484-c.425 B.C.E.) is generally recognized as the “Father of History.” Following the tradition of the Homeric epics, Herodotus sets out to chronicle the great and heroic deeds of men. Unlike Homer, however, Herodotus writes of the historic past in an attempt to understand the causes and origins of the war between the Greeks and Persians that culminated in the early years of his life. In this selection, Herodotus chronicles the desperate stand of the Spartans at Thermopylae, as the Greeks struggled with an overwhelmingly large Persian invasion force.
G. Rawlinson, The History of Herodotus (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1910)
The Bhagavad Gita comprises the sixth book, and is the central component, of the Mahabharata. Because it centers on the struggles between kings and princes, the Mahabharata can be read as a reflection of the ideological components of rulership in ancient India. At its center is a power struggle between the descendants of two brothers, culminating in a comprehensive war that ends in the victory of one branch of the family over the other. Elements of philosophy, religion, and moral behavior appear throughout the poem, and the concepts of dharma (natural law, correct behavior) and chaos are introduced by Krishna, the wise sage who appears at critical moments to explain the wider implications of what seems a simple battle narrative. The speakers in the following excerpt are Dhritarâshtra, a blind king in the midst of a succession crisis; Sañgaya, the visionary narrator of the battle; and Arjuna, one of the five sons of Pandu, the Pandava.
The Bhagavadgita, with the Sanatsugatiya and the Anugita, trans. Kashinath Trimbak Telang (Oxford: Clarendon, 1882), 37, 39–41, 42, 73–75, 87–88, and 91.
This collection of sayings and reports attributed to Lord Shang (d. 338 BCE) may have been compiled by later officials, but its vision of a centralized bureaucracy was emulated at many points in China’s turbulent history. The work is composed of 25 or more brief sections, some of which are lost, but the remainder address the necessity of good and competent government.
Sebastian De Grazia, ed., Masters of Chinese Political Thought: From the Beginnings to the Han Dynasty (New York: Viking. 1973), 339–343.
A later student of Confucian doctrine, Master Meng (ca. 371–289 BCE) spread the teachings of the master, while also making his own distinctive contributions. Having traveled throughout China spreading Confucian ideals, particularly as a basis for governmental practice, Mencius composed a book that was in more of a narrative form than the Analects and was supplemented by stories, parables, and debates. He often used imagery drawn from the natural world and advocated the rulers’ involvement in cultivating a “well-field” system, both literally and metaphorically.
Victor H. Mair, Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt, and Paul R. Goldin, eds., Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005), 60–61.
A diverse set of writings, the Upanishads were thought to convey secret knowledge and serve as the vedanta, or fulfillment, of the Vedic tradition. Among these documents are the Aranyakas (“forest books”), which may have been recited originally by hermits who had retreated to forests. Throughout the Upanishads one can see the full development of the principle of the joining of the individual self (atman, or “soul”) with the brahman, or “world soul”/ “soul essence.”
The Upanishads, vol. 2, trans. F. Max Müller (Oxford: Clarendon, 1884), 100–101 and 103–105.
This remarkable account of a merchant’s travels throughout Eastern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and India resulted from the singular obsession of a monk in retirement. Determined to prove that a proper understanding of earth’s geography would confirm God’s creation—and that the earth was a flat, oblong table surrounded by the ocean—the monk Cosmas reflected back on his extensive voyages, which had probably been undertaken to further a spice-import business. Cosmas commented on the trading practices of the Aksumites and on their wealthy culture, providing one of the few outsider glimpses of Aksum that are now available.
Cosmas Indicopleustes, Christianike Topographia, Book 3, trans. and ed. Christopher Haas, Villanova University; available online: http://www29.homepage.villanova.edu/christopher.haas/cosmas_indicopleustes.htm<
Cyrus the Great
Founder of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, Cyrus (Kurosh) the Great rose to the throne of a small kingdom in 559 BCE; by the time of his death in 529, he had brought virtually the entire Near East under his control. In 539, he conquered Babylon and drove out Nabonidus, the last of the Neo-Babylonian kings. However, he was hailed as a liberator by the priests of the Babylonian god Marduk, and he issued a remarkable document, guaranteeing freedom of religion to the subjects whom he had added to his empire. The text was publicized in Akkadian, an ancient Mesopotamian language, and it is preserved today on a clay cylinder, today called the Cyrus Cylinder and housed in the British Museum.
Cyrus Cylinder, trans. R. W. Rogers, http://www.kchanson.com/ANCDOCS/meso/cyrus.html.
Kautilya was a political advisor to the first Mauryan king, Chandragupta Maurya, who in c. 321 BCE. created a vast empire across northern India. Kautilya wrote this treatise to guide Chandragupta and his successors, but his text was influential on subsequent states and empires as well. In this excerpt, Kautilya describes how a village should be organized and run; it reflects the pragmatic approach Kautilya had toward politics in general. Although written later than the other material in this chapter, it is another example of the far reach of Vedic influence.
Translated by R. Shamasastry, 1915.
Over 300 poems of various lengths were anthologized and transmitted by Confucius in the early fifth century BCE. Philosophers of the Confucian school cherished the Odes and cited them frequently, and they have continued to entrance readers with their naturalistic imagery and personal voices. Only two samples are given here, but this rich tradition of poetry should be sampled at length.
The Book of Songs, transl. Arthur Waley, edited with additional translations by Joseph R. Allen (New York: Grove, 1996), 27 and 65.
Having failed to defeat the Athenians in their first attempt in 490 BCE, the Persians launched a massive invasion of the entire Greek peninsula in 480, under the leadership of Darius’s successor, Xerxes. Thirty-one Greek cities agreed to band together to resist this force of (according to Herodotus) 1,700,000 Persian soldiers, in addition to a sizeable naval contingent. Herodotus envisions a conversation between Xerxes and the Spartan defector Demaratus shortly before the first major confrontation between Persia and the Greeks at Thermopylae. In answer to the king’s question, Demaratus claims that the Greeks will prove more difficult to defeat than Xerxes expects.
Herodotus, The Histories, trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1954), 403–405.
After extensive archaeological work was done at the site of Jenné-jeno in the 1980s, researchers concluded that the city was the oldest known in sub-Saharan Africa, and that it flourished throughout the first millennium CE. It is situated on a vast low mound at the heart of the Niger Delta. The site was gradually abandoned in favor of Timbuktu during the Middle Ages.
Photo by Rob Dougall
Greek warfare in the Archaic and Classical, or Hellenic, periods (600 to 323 BCE) was not connected with large empires as Chinese, Roman, and Indian warfare came to be after 200 BCE. But Greek attitudes toward war influenced much of southwest Asia after the conquests of Alexander the Great and also influenced the Romans. Greek warfare occurred between small city-states and was conducted by hoplite phalanxes. Hoplites were infantrymen armed with bronze body armor, large shields, and spears. They were also the well-off members of the city-state, arming themselves and serving mostly out of civic duty as a militia force. They stood shoulder to shoulder with their friends and neighbors in dense blocks called phalanxes. Two phalanxes would meet on a level piece of ground, charge each other, and push until one side gave way. Such battles were brief but bloody, especially among the front ranks and during the short pursuit after one side broke and ran, and they tested the community solidarity of a city’s citizens. Hoplite warfare and its communal virtues were closely connected to the varyingly collective forms of government, from dual monarchies and limited aristocracies to broader oligarchies and even to the democracy of Athens, practiced by Greek city-states. However, the fairly elite character of those who could afford the hoplite panoply, even if they were only independent farmers, should not be forgotten.
The selection here is a poem by Tyrtaeus, a Spartan from c. 650 BCE. Sparta had the most professional and effective of all the phalanx armies, mostly because Sparta based its economy on a large population of rural slaves, called helots, who both made possible (through their agricultural production) and necessitated (by their numbers and thus the possibility of a massive revolt) Sparta’s maintenance of a full-time, professional force of soldiers. Tyrtaeus praises the virtues that made the trained Spartan phalanx such a formidable force in the Greek world.
Richmond Lattimore, Greek Lyrics, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1960): pp. 14–15.
The kings of Meroë, successors of the Nubia-descended 25th dynasty of Egypt, established their capital on the Middle Nile about 100 miles north of Khartoum, Sudan. At its height, the city was home to more than 20,000 people. Its surviving buildings have qualified it as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
©Unesco/Ron Van Oers
The Roman Empire was facing difficulty in the fourth century. Barbarian invasions by both steppe nomads and seminomadic farmers and herders from the forests of northern Europe exacerbated problems of population decline, civil war, and economic disruption. Into this situation burst the Huns, a coalition of nomadic peoples who threatened the Roman world for more than half a century. Their initial effect was to drive other peoples, such as the Goths, before them, forcing them across Roman borders. Many of these in fact took up service as allies and auxiliaries in the Roman army, but others pillaged, and Rome was forced to deal with them in various ways, from bribing them to go away to fighting them to settling them in Roman territory. The Huns therefore contributed both indirectly and directly to Roman troubles in the fourth and fifth centuries, until their last great coalition under the infamous Attila met defeat at the Battle of Chalons in 451 and the Huns disappeared from history.
Ammianus Marcellinus, the author of this account of the Huns, was an officer in the Roman army in the second half of the fourth century. He was Greek, born to noble parents between 325 and 330 in Antioch. In retirement he wrote copiously on the history and politics of the empire he knew. His Res Gestae starts in the year 96, picking up where Tacitus left off, though the first part of his history is now lost. What we have covers the years 353 to 378 and focuses on the last pagan emperor, Julian, who is something of a hero to Ammianus, himself a follower of the old cults though not a harsh critic of Christianity. Still, sections of his work decry the cultural decline he saw in Rome itself and the burdens of taxation, corruption, and military inefficiency that threatened the empire’s continued existence. He also describes the various enemies Rome faced beyond (and increasingly within) its borders, surveying parts of the world in a style that owes much more to Herodotus than to Tacitus. He witnessed the great Roman defeat at Adrianople in 378 at the hands of the Goths, where the Emperor Valens died and where Ammianus’s history ends, though his account was written more than ten years later. He died sometime after 391.
Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae 31.2 http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/ammianus/31.shtml
Asoka (304–232 BCE) was third king of the Mauryan dynasty. After taking the throne, he initially pursued the expansionist policies of his father Bindusara and his grandfather Chandragupta Maurya. The Mauryan Empire maintained a large, professional army, complete with an impressive (though militarily unreliable) corps of trained war elephants, supported by a large bureaucratic machine, much like the Han and Roman empires, and indeed the range of terrains and climates in which Mauryan armies campaigned probably exceeded those in either China or the Roman Empire. It is probably this geographic diversity, including the presence within agricultural districts of large tracts of semidesert and scrub land incapable of supporting agriculture that accounts for political division, rather than imperial unity, being the rule in India before and even after the Mauryas, by contrast certainly with China and even with Rome (especially the eastern half of the Empire) in later centuries.
It is thus especially noteworthy that, with the conquest of the kingdom of Kalinga on India’s southeastern coast, Asoka brought almost the whole of the subcontinent under Mauryan rule. But the cost of that campaign in human lives and misery led Asoka to a spiritual crisis and conversion to Buddhism. He forswore offensive warfare (but did retain his large army and the will to use it defensively when necessary) and instead committed himself and his government to spiritual conquest, the welfare of his subjects, and the promotion of dharma (sacred duty, though the term has a number of meanings in Hindu and Buddhist tradition and Asoka construed it broadly and with toleration for religious variety). Adopting the reign name Priyadarsi (“one who looks after the welfare of others”), he had stone pillars erected throughout his realms inscribed with his precepts on dharma. This selection comes from those Rock and Pillar Edicts and is more about the impact of and reaction to war than about war itself.
The Edicts of King Ashoka, trans. Ven. S. Dhammika. Copyright © 1993 Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka.
Followers of Confucius
Traditional versions of the Confucius’s life say that he was born in the sixth century B.C.E., and was an itinerant political advisor. He was, technically speaking, a failure in his lifetime, unable to find permanent employment with any one of the Zhou vassal kingdoms. Confucius is not the author of the Analects; they were gathered from his immediate followers, and read as a collection of profound musings on politics, morality, personal behavior, family, and culture.
The following excerpts give a broad overview of the basic Confucian tenets encapsulated in the Analects, including the Master’s thoughts on filial piety and the junzi, or “superior man.”
Confucius, “Selections from the Analects I,” from The Four Books. James Legge, ed. and trans. (Shanghai: The Chinese Book Company, 1930), 13, 16, 19, 33, 161-162, 245-248.
Although Han Fei-tzu (d. 233 BCE) began his studies as a Confucianist, he was a protégé of Hsun Tzu, one of Confucius’s more cynical successors. Thus Han Fei-tzu switched to Legalism, which was less concerned with theories and more concerned with the practical fundamentals of that interaction. Over time, what began as expediency became more deliberate and exhaustive in its attempts to regularize all aspects of civic behavior and thought.
Han Fei-tzu, “Selections on Legalism,” from The Four Books. James Legge, ed. and trans. (Shanghai: The Chinese Book Company, 1930), 437-442.
The third of the Mauryan kings, Ashoka ruled a vast empire throughout the Indian subcontinent in the period 273–231 BCE. His abrupt conversion to Buddhism in 260 led him to govern according to Buddhist principles—at least as he understood them. His new policies with respect to “righteous” governance were posted in a series of edicts that were engraved on rocks and pillars at strategic spots in his empire. A sample of these contains both very specific injunctions—imposed upon himself and upon his subordinates—and general principles, which could presumably be adapted to changing real-world circumstances.
Ven S. Dhammika, trans. DharmaNet, 1994, http://www.cs.colostate.edu/~malaiya/ashoka.html#PILLAR.