Semiperipheral Development in
the Mediterranean World
Christopher Chase-Dunn, Alexis Alvarez, Hiroko Inoue Anthony Roberts, E.N. Anderson, Jesse Drucker,
Paul Peterson and Kirk Lawrence
Institute for Research on World-Systems
University of California-Riverside
Abstract: This paper presents an overview of human
sociocultural evolution in the Mediterranean world and the results of a study
of settlement and empire upsweeps in the
Meditterranean was originally composed of many small-scale interaction networks
in which small bands were interacting with their neighbors, but there was
little long-distance interaction.
Eventually two regional world-systems of interacting states emerged in
Mesopotamia and in
Originally the Egyptian and Mesopotamian state
systems were little connected, but they became linked through long-distance
trade in about 3000 BCE and they became linked by direct political/military
interaction circa 1500 BCE. That system, which we call the Central
Political/Military Network (PMN) eventually expanded and engulfed the other core
regions in South Asia, the
Our project studies upward sweeps in which
polities and settlements increased in size to a scale that is at least one
third larger than the largest earlier settlements and polities in the same
region. We review some of the world-systems literature on the
The Conceptual Framework
The comparative world-systems perspective uses world-systems, defined as important and consequential human interaction networks, to describe and explain sociocultural evolution. It compares earlier and smaller regional world-systems with later and larger continental and global world-systems in order to see the patterns of structural change. Explaining social change requires the study of interacting sets of polities rather than single polities because institutional development is importantly caused by the ways in which polities compete and cooperate with one another. And, at least since the emergence of chiefdoms, semiperipheral polities have been an important source of innovation and transformation (Chase-Dunn & Hall 1997: Ch. 5).
The idea of “semiperipheral development” means that semiperipheral polities are unusually prolific innovators and implementers of productive and organizational techniques that both facilitate success in interpolity competition and may also transform the basic logic of social reproduction. This is not to say that all semiperipheral polities produce such transformational actions, but rather that the semiperipheral location is more fertile ground for the production of innovations and (more important) novel implementations than is either the core or the periphery. This is because semiperipheral polities have access to both core and peripheral ideas and influences, and they have invested less in existing organizational forms and technologies than core polities have, so they are freer to make radical changes. They often recombine organizational elements into new configurations and seriously invest in new technologies. They usually have greater incentives to take risks than older core societies because they are in relatively marginal locations out on the edge of a region of core polities. Innovations may occur within older core polities but they are less likely to be implemented. Semiperipheral polities are more likely to put their resources behind radically new concepts. Peripheral polities have motive, but do not often have opportunity. Semiperipheral development has also been called “the advantages of backwardness” (Gershenkron 1962) and “uneven and combined development (Trotsky 1932).” Ibn Khaldun saw the phenomenon of marcher states in terms of the great ability of non-core peoples to muster social solidarity (asabiyah) between leaders and those who followed them. His explanation for semiperipheral development has been adopted and modified by Peter Turchin (2003,
paper on the
Indicators of Semiperipherality
In order to do this we need to specify what we mean by semiperipherality. This is not a simple task because the core/periphery distinction is a relational concept. In other words, what semiperipherality is depends on the larger context in which it occurs – the nature of the polities that are interacting with one another and the nature of their interactions. The most general definition of the semiperiphery is: an intermediate location in an interpolity core/periphery structure. The minimal definition of core/periphery relations is that polities with different degrees of population density and internal hierarchy and complexity are interacting with one another. This is what Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) have called “core/periphery differentiation.” The idea of “core/periphery hierarchy” is more stringent. It requires interpolity domination and exploitation. This is important for semiperipheral development because it increases the selection pressures that operate within a set of competing polities. In order to be successful semiperipheral polities must be able to withstand the efforts of core polities to exploit them.
There are four possible kinds of semiperipheries:
· regions that mix core and peripheral forms of organization;
· regions spatially located between core and peripheral regions;
· regions located between two or more competing core regions (called “contested peripheries” by Allen 1997, 2005);
· regions in which mediating activities linking core and peripheral areas take place.
In this study we will be looking for evidence that a polity that conquered other polities and was responsible for an upward sweep was semiperipheral relative to the other societies it was interacting with before it started on the road to conquest. There are many other instances of semiperipheral development in the Mediterranean region that are of interest (e.g. Allen 1997; Kardulias 1999b, 2001; Parkinson and Galaty 2007), but these will not be the main focus of this paper. We will use four main empirical indicators to determine the semiperipherality of polities that undertake empire upsweeps:
· the geographical location of the society relative to other societies that have greater or lesser amounts of population density. Is it out on the edge of a region of core polities?, and
· the relative level of development: population density, which is usually indicated by the sizes of settlements, the relative degree of complexity and hierarchy, the mode of production: e.g foraging, pastoralism, nomadism vs. sedentism, horticulture vs. agriculture, the size of irrigation systems, etc. Hunter-gatherers or pastoralists are usually peripheral to more sedentary agriculturalists; and
· the recency of the adoption of sedentism, agriculture, class formation and state formation, and
· relative ecological marginality.
The Aztecs are perhaps a proto-typical example of
a semiperipheral marcher state. They were nomadic hunter-gatherers who migrated
Another indicator of semiperipheral location is relative environmental
desirability. Core societies usually hold the best locations in terms of soil
and water. The semiperipheral marcher chiefdoms of the
Another issue is “semiperipheral to what?” A polity may have different
relationships with other polities in the same interpolity network. For example,
The alternatives to semiperipherality are coreness and peripheralness. Core states are older, more stratified, have bigger settlements, and they have had the accoutrements of civilization, such as writing, longer. Peripheral societies are nomadic hunter-gatherers or pastoralists, hill people, or desert people. If they are sedentary, their villages are small relative to the settlements of those with which they are interacting. We should anticipate that some conquest empires were formed by peripheral marcher states or by old core states that made a comeback. David Wilkinson’s (1991) survey of the core, peripheral and semiperipheral zones of thirteen interpolity systems, is helpful in suggesting criteria for designating these zones, but Wilkinson did not address the question we are asking here: were the polities that produced empire upward sweeps semiperipheral before they did this?
We should also note that some large empires have been formed by internal revolt in which a subordinate ethnic group or caste revolted and took power in an existing state and then carried out an expansion by conquest. The slave-soldiers of the Mamluk Sultanate are an obvious example, and Norman Yoffee (1991) has contended that the Akkadian empire was the result of a ethnic revolt. The point here is that this is a possible alternative to the semiperipheral marcher state route to empire upsweep.
So we anticipate that we may find four types of upsweeps:
· internal revolt, and
· core state restoration, (e.g. the Third Dynasty of Ur, a Sumerian restoration in Mesopotamia or the Ming Dynasty in China in which the Han Chinese threw out the Mongol Yuan rulers, and
· peripheral marcher states, in which a polity composed of peripheral peoples conquers the core, (e.g. the Mongol Empire) and
· semiperipheral marcher states.
Regions, Political-Military Networks and Upward Sweeps
There have been millennial trends in which polities have grown in population and territorial size and the total number of human polities has decreased as typical polities got larger. These long-term trends were due primarily to events that we call upward sweeps. All hierarchical world-systems have experienced a cycle of centralization and decentralization in which a large polity in an interpolity system emerged and then declined. This sequence of rise and fall is seen in interpolity systems composed of chiefdoms (D.G. Anderson 1994), states, empires and modern hegemons. The upward phase of such a cycle usually resulted in a polity that was nearly the same size as the one that existed at the previous peak. This we call a “normal rise.” As we have said above, an “upward sweep” (or upsweep) is an increase in the size of the largest polity in a system that is one third larger than the average of the previous three peaks. These are much less frequent (Inoue et al 2011). The idea of upsweeps can also be applied to unusually great increases in the size of the largest settlement in a region.
Our project has quantitatively identified four upsweeps in the Egyptian PMN (see Figure 4) and seven upsweeps (Figure 5) from 1500 BCE to 1990 CE that occurred in the Central PMN (Inoue et al 2011). These are the events that account for the long-term trend in which polities have become larger and more powerful. All of these were cases in which a state formed a larger empire by conquest. In order to identify the empire upsweeps we have mainly used Rein Taagepera’s (1978a,1978b,1979, 1997) estimates of the territorial sizes of the largest states and empires in five world regional PMNs and in the interpolity system that David Wilkinson (1987) has called “Central Civilization.” We also examine the upsweeps of city sizes using estimates from Tertius Chandler (1987) and George Modelski (2003).
The Mediterranean World Region
The islands of the Mediterranean
Sea, its littoral and adjacent inland regions have been an important locus of
human sociocultural evolution since hominids migrated out of
Bead-making homo sapiens
hunter-gatherers migrated out of Africa into West Asia and
About eight thousand years ago in
this same West Asian/Eastern Mediterranean context some neighbors of the
Natufian villagers living in the smaller valleys of adjacent foothills near
smaller natural stands of grain, became willing to invest their labor time in
planting, watering and weeding small fields of grain in order to augment
nature’s production scheme. This activity, horticulture, raised the
productivity of the land and enabled these former nomads to emulate the village
life of their Natufian neighbors. Thus did the “neolithic revolution” occur for
the first time on Earth. Planting and village life spread west to the valley of
the Nile and east and north to Capadoccia, the
As small-scale irrigation was
invented, larger settlements became possible and social organization became
more hierarchical in order to coordinate a more complex division of labor, to
regulate access to land and other resources, and to coordinate interpolity
trade and warfare activities. The use of copper to make sledge hammers seems to
have occurred first in the Balkans (Chernykh 1992). A two-tiered settlement
system (larger towns surrounded by smaller villages) emerged on the Susiana Plain,
and in succeeding centuries the first city-states emerged in the adjacent great
flood-plain of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers based on larger-scale
irrigation of incredibly fertile and deep soil. A similar, and also somewhat
different, transition from diversified foraging to village life and
horticulture eventually led to state-formation and monumental cities on the
Assur, the capital of the Old
Assyrian City-State, was pursuing a trading strategy on the upper
was semiperipheral because it was located far up the
Figure 1: Seven Cities with population size greater than 30,000 in 2250 BCE. Source: Wilkinson (1992)
2 (below) shows the size of the largest cities in the early Central System from
1500 BCE to 300 CE,  illustrating what we mean by cycles and upward
sweeps of city sizes. The Central System is a network of states that ally and
fight with one another. It was formed when the formerly separate Egyptian and
Mesopotamian interstate systems began to directly engage one another around
1500 CE. In Egypt Thebes declined and then
Figure 2: Early Central System Largest Cities, 1500 BCE- 300 CE (ovals show upsweeps)
Figure 3: Nine Cities larger than 25,000 in population near the Mediterranean cities in 1000 BCE,
Source: Wilkinson (1992)
In the Bronze and Iron Ages the Western
Asia/Eastern Mediterranean region was the core, while
we present the results of our examination of the territorial sizes of the
largest polities in
Figure.4. Largest states and empires in Egypt, 3200 BCE-1400 BCE (Inoue et al 2011)
The founder of the 5th
Dynasty—Userkaf—is a rather obscure figure in the region’s legend-infused
history, and thus, we avoid speculating on the origins of this ruler’s
administrative power. The advent of
the 5th dynasty was accompanied by expanding exploration in the
The consolidation campaign led by Amenemhet I
initiated the 12th Dynasty upsweep.
The purpose of the campaign was to establish a stronger administrative
control over the totality of
The origin of the Hyksos has been a disputed
issue. Historians have long followed Egyptian tradition in portraying them as barbarian
warriors with chariots who invaded and conquered
18th dynasty upsweep was brought about when Akhenaten—the “Sun God”—solidified
the Egyptian notion of monotheism as a vehicle for central authority vested in
a god-king who held measures of civic power previously shared with the
clergy. Though the traditional authority
vested in god-kings was nothing new to
Figure. 5. Largest Empires in the Central System, 1500 BCE- 1990 CE (Inoue et al 2011)
5 shows that 18th Dynasty of Egypt expanded in the period following
1500 BCE, and then there was a trough in which the largest polity in the
Central System declined and remained small for centuries. This was eventually
followed in the seventh century BCE by the upward sweep carried out by the
Neo-Assyrians, and then by the gigantic conquests of the Achaemenid Persians,
who created an empire that was larger than that produced by the immediately
following conquests of Alexander of Macedonia and that was also larger than the
The semiperipheral development hypothesis suggests that these empire upsweeps would often have been the work of semiperipheral marcher states. In order to evaluate this hypothesis we need to determine the world-system position of these conquering states before they undertook their successful ventures.
Polity upsweeps in the
Table 1 shows the polities that
count as upsweeps in the
The Neo-Assyrian Upsweep and the Origins of the Assyrians
is the name given to a polity located on the upper portion of the
There were no major powers contesting control
We have already mentioned above that the Old Assyrian City-State of Assur and its colonies had been an important early example of a semiperipheral capitalist city-state in the early second millennium BCE. Long before the Neo-Assyrian expansion the merchants of Assur spread out across the West Asian core and into the far distant peripheries, establishing residential quarters in the cities of other polities and engaging in a profitable carrying-trade using donkey caravans. They specialized in tin and copper, the raw materials from which bronze was made. Assur was semiperipheral because it was way upriver from the Mesopotamian heartland of cities and states.
The capitalist city-state phenomenon is clearly a different kind of semiperipheral development from that of the semiperipheral marcher state. These states pursued a policy of profit making rather than the acquisition of territory and the use of state power to tax and extract tribute. They emerged in the “interstices,” the spaces between the territorial states in world-economies in which wealth could be had by “buying cheap and selling dear” (merchant capitalism). One of their consequences was the expansion of trade networks because their commercial activities provided incentives for farmers and craftsmen to produce a surplus for trade with distant areas. Thus the capitalist city-states were promoters of commodification and inter-regional economic integration.
The Assyrians and the city of
Figure 6: The Neo-Assyrian Empire at its largest in 650 BCE Source: ?
The Persian Upsweep
Around the 8th century BC, a group of mounted
and armed pastoral nomads whom later became known as the Persians, migrated to
the Iranian plateau from somewhere in Central Asia (Garthwaite 2005: 16; Brosius
2006:3). Their migration route was
undoubtedly influenced by the already settled powers west of the plateau,
especially the Neo-Assyrian Empire that controlled much of
The old Persian city of
The Neo-Assyrian records indicate that the
Achaemenids were immigrants that did not settle into the region until Cyrus I
consolidated several different tribes. The Persians are said to have been
pastoral nomadic immigrants to
The immediate cause of the rise of
Now in competition with
The Axial Age produced world religions and
differentiated institutions in the three core regions of Afroeurasia – the
Eastern Mediterranean/Western Asia, South Asia and East Asia (Sanderson 2010;).
These core regions with large cities and states, though they were distant from
one another were generally not linked by direct political/military interaction. But the three core regions were increasingly
connected by long-distance trade. Eastern and Western cycles of the rise and
fall of empires came into a rough synchrony that was probably caused by the
trade linkages and the connections with the cyclical eruptions of nomadic
pastoralist confederations coming out of
The Alexandrian Empire
The Macedonian expansion did not produce an empire
that was larger than the immediately preceding
7: The rise of
The Roman Upsweep
Looking back at Figure 5 above we
see that after the Alexandrian conquests disintegrated into smaller, but still
sizeable states, a new power, the Romans, rose up on the Italian peninsula to
eventually produce an empire that was not larger than earlier ones had been,
but was centered in a new region where empires had not previously been
centered. Thus we consider the rise of
Our conclusion is that the Romans
were semiperipheral vis a vis the
neighboring Etruscans, Greeks and Carthaginians. They lived in smaller
settlements and they had less internal hierarchy. But the Roman case is interesting, because in
the more usual pattern of a semiperipheral marcher states it is the eventual
conquerors who are the recent arrivals to an older core region. In the Roman
case, the Latins were probably on the Italian peninsula before the Etruscans,
Greeks and Carthaginians appeared upon the seen. So the Romans were
peripheralized by the arrival of more “civilized” immigrants from the old
By 100 BCE the
Figure 8: Cities 30,000 or larger in the Mediterranean region in 100 BCE, Source: Wilkinson (1992)
Figure 5 above shows the trajectory of the largest empires in the Central System over the last 2000 years. Some of the empires in Figure 5 did not have their centers in the Mediterranean region (the GokTurks and the Mongols), but the Mongols extended their power to the edges of the Mediterranean region and so we will discuss them.
The Islamic Upsweep
trade routes eventually emerged across the
The peripherality of the Saudi Arabian Peninsula within the old West Asian/Eastern Mediterranean core is not in doubt. The process of the growth of trade routes and cities, and the emergence of an Arabian merchant class and the incipient processes of state formation just prior to the eruption of the new world religion support the notion that this polity upsweep was indeed the outcome of the semiperipheral marcher state.
The Mongol Upsweep
The Mongol Empire was a huge upsweep
that produced the largest single polity on Earth in terms of land area before
the advent of the
Several indicators point to the peripheral status
of the Mongolian confederation prior to the formation of the Mongolian Empire. After the death of Yesguei in 1171, the
Mongol tribal confederation disintegrated and was reduced to a fractured set of
different nomadic Mongol groups. The
unification of these tribal groups came with their consolidation under Temujin.
Prior to the political unification, the status of the Mongol people, relative
to other Central Asian societies, was primarily subordinate. The pastoral
nomads of the Central Asian steppes were dependent on the bulk and prestige
goods of the Chinese sedentary farming societies of
The ascension of Temujin to the status of Mongolian khan (Chinggis), and the reorganization of the Mongolian confederation in the direction of state-formation signified an important change in the supratribal polity system in the Central Asian steppes. According to Kradin (2007), however, based on the Secret History of the Mongols, and the analysis of Claeseen (1978 :119), the early Mongolian confederation during the reign of Chinggis Khan exhibited only some of the requisites of state formation. A class distinction between commoners and elites had not emerged (Claeseen 1978: 121). One primary indicator of semiperipherality is the recent emergence of class and state institutional forms (see Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997, Ch. 5). During the rule of Chinggis Khan’s son, Ugeidi, state development accelerated with the formation of more permanent elites (Kradin 2007).
The complete unification of the Mongolian tribes
under the leadership of Chinggis Khan in 1206, represented the early moments of
semiperipherality through the consolidation of the Inner Steppes region. This peripheral marcher polity employed the
‘outer frontier strategy’ (see: Chase-Dunn et
al 2006 and Barfield 1989), in an effort to extract surplus from the
Jurchin dynasty. Frustrated by the small
returns to the efforts to extract surplus, the Mongol confederation expanded
The Mongol upsweep also had a huge
impact on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean region and on
Cities in the Late Central System
9 shows the largest cities in the Late Central System. To the left of the vertical line are cities
that were already shown in Figure 2 above, in the Early Central System. They
are included in Figure 9 in order to see the decline of
Largest Cities in the Late
Figure 10: Mediterranean Cities Larger than 60,000 in 1500 CE, Source: Wilkinson (1992)
By 1500 CE the large cities of the Mediterranean region were once again
reflecting the resurgence of the West (see Figure 10). The fall of
The fall of the Western Roman Empire and the political involution that
was European feudalism produced a region in which autonomous capitalist
city-states could flourish once the long-distance trade with
The Mediterranean world region has played an
important role in the British upsweep because it was an important stage upon
which the French and the British fought out their struggle for hegemony. Gibraltar enabled the British navy to keep a
close eye on traffic between the Med and the
The stories of how both the
Figure 10: Mediterranean Cities Larger than 350,000 in 1900 CE, Source: Wilkinson (1992)
By 1900 the Western Mediterranean region and
Mediterranean world region was the birth place of many of the most important
institutional structures that have become taken-for-granted in the globalized
world of today. But the centers of power have moved from the
Ironically, much the Mediterranean region has
become part of a global semiperiphery. But will it once again be a source of
innovations and leading edge implementations? The movements of the Arab Spring
adapted Facebook for the purposes of
popular revolt, which has now spread back to the core and to the rest of the
world. This is a recent instance of innovative implementation from the
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Pp. 44-68 in Norman Yoffee and
George Cowgill (eds.) The Collapse of
 A PMN is a
set of polities (states) that are allying and making war with one another. We
sometimes refer to the
 We use the term evolution despite its tawdry history as a justification of imperialism, racism and gender hierarchy. We are talking about socio-cultural evolution, not biological evolution and we are well aware that teleology and progress need to be washed out of the concept of evolution before it can be scientifically useful (Sanderson 1990).
 We use the term “polity” to generally denote a spatially-bounded realm of sovereign authority such as a band, tribe, chiefdom, state or empire. The term “settlement” includes camps, hamlets, villages, towns and cities. Settlements are spatially bounded for comparative purposes as the contiguous built-up area.
 The project is the Polities and Settlements Research Working Group at the Institute for Research on World-Systems at the University of California-Riverside. The project web site is at https://irows.ucr.edu/research/citemp/citemp.html
 The five world regional PMNs we have studied are
Mesopotamia, Egypt, South Asia, East Asia and the Central PMN. This paper only
 An interpolity system is a set of interacting polities that make alliances and war with one another. In other contexts we have called this a “political-military network” to distinguish it from other interactions that typically have smaller or
larger spatial scales – bulk goods networks and prestige goods networks (Chase-Dunn and Jorgenson 2003).
 We include Mesopotamia in our spatial definition
of the Mediterranean world region because of the important role that
Mesopotamian sociocultural evolution plays in the development of human
societies that are closer to the shores of the
 Around 5600 BCE an earthen berm between the rising Mediterranean Sea and the freshwater Euxine Lake to the east, now 150 meters below the level of the Mediterranean, broke, rapidly flooding the large basin that would become the Black Sea, and displacing farmers who had occupied the shores and river valleys near the Euxine Lake (Fagan 2004:111-113).
 A complete set of David Wilkinson’s maps of the world’s largest cities is at
 The idea of the Central System is derived from
David Wilkinson’s (1987) definition of “Central Civilization.” It spatially
bounds a system in terms of a set of allying and fighting polities. The Central
System (or Political-Military Network) is the interpolity system that was
created when the Mesopotamian and Egyptian PMNs became directly connected with
one another in about 1500 BCE (see Note 13). The
Europe later became semiperipheral, developed
its own core region with the rise of
 The events that led to the rise of the 1st
Dynasty occurred in prehistory at the dawn of writing in the
 For example, Booth (2005) argues that the Hyksos
did not enter
Bourriau’s (1997) account of the transition to Hyksos rule is similar
to Booth’s. Her excavation of Memphis
does not point to a military campaign or a forced entry into Egypt by the
Hyksos, but rather debunks Manetho’s depictions of the Hyksos as roving bands
of marauders as nationalistically motivated, a tradition that has been carried
on until recent times. For Bourriau,
there is no evidence that points to the sacking of
 Neo-Assyrian is a linguistic designation, denoting the third and last period of the Assyrian dialect of Akkadian.
 The Neo-Assyrian expansion to
the west, north, and east from the Assyrian heartland was based on a desire to
reclaim territories that had been won in the Middle Assyrian period after the
demise of the Hurrian state of Mitanni/Hanigalbat in the mid-14th century.
 The exception was Alexander’s conquests in
 The co-evolution between steppe and sown polities was first analyzed by Owen Lattimore (1945) in his Inner Asian Frontier of China, still a powerful and useful analysis of the way in which the dynastic cycle of China was tied to the relationship with what we would call peripheral marcher states. More recently Thomas Barfield (1989) has added greatly to this topic and Christopher Beckwith (2009) has deepened our understanding of Central Asian culture.
 Upon being elected khan of the Mongols, Temujin only had a fraction of the tribes unified (Barfield 1989,:190). By 1204, with the defeat of Kereyid confederation, full unification was complete. Around 1206, Temujin earned the title Chinggis Khan (Barfield 1989,: 191).