The ancient world is full of rebellion. In my patch, the Bronze Age Near East, the world was one of dominant ‘great kings’ with imperial aspirations. In the southern Mediterranean was Egypt, ancient and arrogant; in the east, Babylon and later Assyria; in the north, the Hurrian kingdom of Mitanni, which was later supplanted by the Hittite Empire. Most histories of the Bronze Age tell political and military tales of the waxing and waning of these great empires and the great campaigns of their rulers – people like Ramesses II or Šuppiluliuma I.
But these empires weren’t all there was, of course. There are other histories to be told. In my research I work on Ugarit, a small but important kingdom on what’s now the Syrian coast. It was militarily weak, but a great trading power. Like many of the small Levantine kingdoms, it found itself charting a dangerous course between the rival influences of its powerful neighbours. In the Middle Bronze Age it seems to have aligned itself with Egypt, but around the middle of the second millennium BC it made the shrewd political decision to ‘invite in’ the Hittites and become a vassal, sparing itself the punishing repercussions of being taken by force.
For the great kings of the Bronze Age, these smaller kingdoms were one of two things – vassals (either their own or someone else’s, assuming they accepted the legitimacy of the claim) or rebels. The latter was not, it is clear, a Good Thing.
These days we love rebels. At least since the twentieth century, western culture has celebrated the underdog who stands up against overwhelming power, especially when that power is grounded in tradition. People are proud to brand themselves ‘rebels’ or part of a ‘resistance’.
Often rebellion is associated with youth: we take it for granted that young people are by nature rebellious and questioning of the values and authority of their elders. Even those who seek to shut down such dissent often implicitly accept that this is part of the normal behaviour of the young. But youth – especially being teenage – is a highly culturally-constructed category. Arguably, these assumptions tell us more about our own culture than they do about human nature.
You could pick any number of examples to highlight the difference between our view of rebellion and those of antiquity, but I’m going to take Star Wars. It fits very well with the general contours of both kinds of rebellion we’ve been talking about here. Its rebels are young, heroic underdogs who are – at least in the original films – presented as unambiguously, unproblematically good. As has often been pointed out, the fact that the Death Star probably housed thousands of ordinary people – cleaners, maintenance engineers, construction workers – who’d had little say in their being there and no direct involvement in its actions – does not come up. These are not films interested in moral grey areas. The object of their rebellion is the Empire. Just that: no proper name, no ideology, no real agenda other than control. Just some second-hand Nazi imagery, overwhelming numbers, and a bunch of old white men with English accents. The Empire is huge, unspecific and totalising. It stands for all empires everywhere. In contrast the rebels are an Alliance – a diverse bunch of fighters from small systems. They have home planets with actual names: Tatooine, Alderaan, Yavin. Some of these, like Tatooine, are explicity said to be on the galactic periphery.
I think the kings of the ancient Near East might have struggled with Star Wars. They may well have appreciated its action sequences and the imagery of massed Imperial might, but the way the Rebellion is – almost without any need for justification – situated as good would have struck them as perverse, or even dangerous. The Rebellion’s eventual success is completely contrary to how things were meant to work: there are lots of rebellions in the ancient Near East, but they always fail. The heroic king with his overwhelming military might puts them down without trouble. In the Bronze Age Near East, Darth Vader would have been the hero, a powerful, legitimate, pious ruler with the ghostly, supernatural Emperor as his patron deity.
So, were there really no successful rebels in antiquity? Of course not. But history is written by the victors, and just as in our culture rebellion is seen as the natural prerogative of youth even if one disagrees with it, in the ancient Near East being a rebel smacked of illegitimacy, crime and sin. If you were a rebel and you actually won, the first thing you did was recast your uprising not as rebellion but as a divinely-backed overthrow of corrupt and illegitimate government. You became a new king, and be definition no king could be a rebel. New boss, same as the old boss. This didn’t pass entirely without comment: Sargon might have successfully overthrown the rulers of Kish and founded the Akkadian dynasty, but his subsequent rewriting of history led him to be satirised in an Old Assyrian text as ‘Sargon, Lord of the Lies’.
This antipathy towards rebellion wasn’t limited to the dominant empires. Even peripheral rulers who situated themselves as loyal vassals seem to have internalised it. King Ribaddi of Byblos in Phoenicia, wrote repeatedly to the Egyptian pharaoh of how a rebel leader in Amurru was – by persuasion or by force – encouraging local kingdoms to turn away from Egyptian vassalage and join his cause. According to Ribaddi, the message of ‘the dog Abdi-Aširta’ (a phrase Ribaddi uses often, with much the same tone Star Wars’ Imperial officers reserve for ‘Rebel scum’) is ‘kill your ruler and you will be like us and at peace’ (Amarna letter EA 74). The sense of panic in Ribaddi’s flood of letters is palpable. On the other hand, he is arguably presenting the situation in a manner he hopes the pharaoh will respond to in order to elicit the funds and Egyptian troops he wants to shore up his own, evidently precarious, position. It is striking that when Abdi-Aširta himself writes to the pharaoh, he is keen to present himself as a loyal vassal, and even goes so far as to call himself ‘a dog in the house of the king’ (EA 61), a wry reclaiming of the insult that was circulating about him, perhaps?
It’s not just states we need to think about either. One of the often overlooked aspects of Near Eastern society, now as then, is those who live outside the urban, state-run system. The Ancient world was full of nomads and tribal power structures often quite separate from the urban political hierarchies. Traditionally these ways of life have tended to be seen as antagonistic, though the boundaries between them have always been permeable and their relationship symbiotic. There is much fretting, both among ancient rulers and modern scholars, about people drifting away from the urban centres to join nomadic groups. There is a sense that living a non-sedentary lifestyle is in someway intrinsically rebellious: an act of rejection and opposition towards urban political life. Particularly notorious are the ʿApiru, the group ʿAbdi-Aširta was associated with, and also the one co-opted by Idrimi, king of Alalakh, to reclaim the throne that had been taken from his family. I’m trying to think of a good Star Wars analogy to the ʿApiru and not quite getting one. Maybe a cross between the Ewoks and Saw Gerrera’s partisans? To be honest it’s probably more accurate to look at how tribal groups have been utilised by various factions, as well as pursuing their own agendas, in the modern history of places like Afghanistan.
People often make great play about how Star Wars draws from antiquity, and especially from mythology, but its fundamental opposition – between heroic rebels and an evil Empire – is completely at odds with how these kinds of struggles were conceptualised in the ancient world. Or at least, how they were conceptualised by the kinds of people who wrote things down. We’ll never really know, of course, what the ʿApiru themselves thought about their role and their relationships with either the local urban rulers or the distant imperial authority; we’ll never know whether ʿAbdi-Aširta was motivated by a truly anti-establishment agenda – kill your ruler and be free! – or was merely trying to carve out a place for his own dynasty of kings (as indeed he did). Star Wars is rooted in a very modern conception of rebellion whose origins are to be found in the eighteenth century and the wave of successful revolutions that formed the origin-myths for modern states like France and, especially, the USA. What really set these apart from their ancient counterparts isn’t that they didn’t recreate the despotism or corruption they saw themselves as overthrowing (history tells us that isn’t the case) but that they didn’t present themselves in those terms, but continued to celebrate and valorise the idea of revolution, rebellion and the overturning of tradition. Ironically, this laid the ideological ground work for the way Revolution would become a banner for their communist enemies in the twentieth century.
So where does this all leave us? It’s no surprise that an idea like rebellion has changed over the millennia or that our culture sees it very differently than the great kings and their vassals in the ancient Near East did. But it does serve as a reminder that we should try to think beyond the narratives of the imperial cores and their propagandising kings and be mindful of the ever-shifting and rewritable foundations of legitimacy upon which they are based. Perhaps more importantly, we should seek out the histories of the marginalised, overthrown and suppressed, even if the fine details are now lost to us. The ʿApiru and the dogs (before they sold out and became kings), the conquered, the idealists and the resisters. The rebel scum.
If you found this interesting, I recommend checking out the essays in Seth Richardson (ed.)’s Rebellions and Peripheries in the Cuneiform World (2010), which inspired a lot of what I say here.
 This idea of huge, tyrannical and despotic Empire, capable of vast building projects and great large-scale efficiency, but also decadent, corrupt and incompetent on a day-to-day level, has a lot in common with traditional western representations of Near Eastern politics. The idea of ‘Oriental despotism’ was a common way of understanding them both in antiquity and more recently, and the many racist stereotypes of Orientalism have been well-documented since Edward Said’s book on the subject in the late 70s.
 Eva von Dassow, in her preface to Seth Richardson (ed.)’s Rebellions and Peripheries in the Cuneiform World, p. x.