Date: Wed, 22 May 1996 08:27:56 -0500
Sender: H-NET List for World History <>
From: "Patrick Manning, Northeastern University" <>
Subject: earliest evidence of social protest—request

Earliest evidence of social protest

A dialog from H-NET list, May 1996

From: Richard Robbins, SUNY at Plattsburgh

From a historical perspective, what are the earliest known instances of social protest movements? Christianity itself, of course, is one, but is there historical evidence, for example, of slave revolts in Greece, or earlier forms of religious protest? Also, what is the evidence for the earliest peasant revolts?

Date: Fri, 24 May 1996 12:04:18 -0500
From: Haines Brown, Central Connecticut State Univ.

Interesting question (what is the earliest social protest movement in history?), but I suspect needs a little qualification.

I suspect that you are interested in protest raised by popular masses against an intrenched establishment. That's what gives your question its moral edge. So what, then, are popular masses in Ancient history? I suppose that they would have to be people who are not beneficiaries of the status quo, people who do not gain status, benefits, or power from the dominant regime. I think this criterion really narrows the number of possible revolts/rebellions in antiquity.

To cite a classic example, my understanding is that while Sparticus was a slave, his followers were largely discontented citizens. The bagaudae and circumcelliones were also not the dregs of society, but members of a privileged group who were relatively underprivileged.

There are plenty of uprisings which are interesting. The sit down strike of the graveyard workers in imperial Egypt, for example. And speaking of sitdown strikes, how about Ambrose's power plays in Milan? Or, there's the uprising that brought down the Qin dynasty in China. But I don't think any of these uprisings represent people who were outside the system, however poor or exploited they may have been.

In fact, I'd suggest a VERY controversial thesis (here presented in rather categorical terms): really popular uprisings do not characterize Ancient Society, but really typify Feudal Society the world over. As a hint, I'd argue that only with Feudal Society (not defined in the usual European way), does everyone acquire some sort of social existence, if only defined in spiritual terms, and it is only when one has a social existence that one can even concieve of rebellion. By social existence what I mean is having a relation with society at large through which the person develops spiritually, materially, socially, etc.

Sorry to be such a loose cannon here.

Haines Brown

Date: Fri, 24 May 1996 12:06:44 -0500
From: John Sloan

Various forms of social—religious protest certainly far predate classical Greece, but one might point to the frequent struggles between helots and Spartiates during that period. It seems the Bible is full of accounts of such struggles. One might almost say it is mostly a record of such struggle. Certainly they occured in ancient Sumer and Assyria as well. One of the earliest in ancient Egypt was during the reign of Seth-Peribsen (Sekhemib) prior to 2700 BC and had its ideological—religious dimension in a struggle between the followers of Horus and Seth. It was also a social struggle between the inhabitants of upper and lower Egypt, the two realms that were relatively recently united.

Without going back to read the accounts again, I seem to recall that archeological interpretation of prehistoric sites in the Nile Valley includes mention of social struggle as the motivating factor for various remains so far uncovered.

Does the extirpation of Neanderthals by Cro-Magnons count?

Date: Fri, 24 May 1996 12:05:26 -0500
From: Linda Johnson, Calif. State University—Long Beach

Couldn't you say that the life of Socrates, even though it was not a movement was a protest against the lack of freedoms enjoyed by the Greeks, because of the decline of Athens as a naval power? Maybe this could teach about the present in the fact that our civil liberties are being threaten by a United States that is no longer a military power? These question need to be included in your investigation of the creation of patriarchy. Because war and the inability to defend one's nation have a male identity.

Date: Fri, 24 May 1996 14:08:35 -0500 From: Bullitt Lowry, University of North Texas

This discussion so far has focused on Eurasia. It is possible that Mesoamerica can offer some early developmental examples (if not early examples by the Eurasian dates). Scholarly opinion is a bit fickle on the subject, but some sort of rising against the aristocracy/priesthood has been proposed to explain the fall of both Teotihuacan and the Maya.

Date: Fri, 24 May 1996 15:32:19 -0500 From: Pat Manning, Northeastern University

The search for earliest evidence of social conflict may lead us to explore cases of societies not organized into states, and cases where evidence is neither written nor archaeological. Through historical linguistic reconstruction of the political tradition of Africa's equatorial forest, Jan Vansina has posited a series of social conflicts and social transformations over the last several millenia.

One case in north central Zaire about 500 years ago is recalled in oral traditions as the battle of Bolongo Itoko. In this case, the rise of patrilineal organization led to a new military organization based on spearmen. Spearmen moved south until they were halted by archery-based armies raised through a rising district-based social organization known as nkumu.

This is an example of conflict among peoples and transformations within social groupings, rather than social protest. But I offer it to suggest that the techniques of historical linguistics can be made to yield answers in the search for early social protest even in cases beyond states and without written or archaeological documentation.

Date: Mon, 27 May 1996 22:08:29 -0500
From: A. Gunder Frank, University of Amsterdam

John Sloan's reply makes sense, and I am sure that there are countless and nameless others. But I don't get Haines Brown's qualms: why should and anti-systemic movement be OUTSIDE the system? Almost by definition it is INSIDE the system if it is anti the same -- indeed or else why/how could it be anti? That is the case even if one state wants to anti/systematize another state. They then ARE in the same system. A fortiori a movement within a society/system. I wonder why Haines and I are crossing swords—or more likely bypassing each other more and more often.

Date: Wed, 29 May 1996 08:46:57 -0500
From: Haines Brown, Central Connecticut State Univ.

Sorry I did not make my point more clearly.

I was trying to suggest that, given our situation today, we tend to find conflicts between institutionalized power and people outside that institution to be of greater interest and significance than factionalism or conflicts either within the ruling institution or within the population at large. That supposition could well be wrong.

But I did not mean to imply people within and without a system (in the sense of regular causal relations). Rather, in antiquity, I suspect we could speak of the members of a political community vs. those who were not part of that community, and I wondered if there really was much conflict between the two in that era.

My basic suggestion, though, is that we start out with criteria by which to judge whether a conflict is signficant. Pick up the daily paper, and it is full of horrible conflict. Although that might be a symptom of social malaise, I doubt that the future will look back at it as historically significant.

I believe there to be several preconditions for protest.

In short, my inclination would be to limit protest to very restricted historical settings. Ancient citizen commonwealths is an obvious one, but those were rather exceptional in antiquity, limited to slave societies.

While there were certain human rights codified in law that could extend beyond an ancient political commonwealth (Augustin's laws to protect slaves. for example), I think this stretches things. More broadly, in the ancient world there were social units to which one belonged, such as tribe or familias, which implied norms, but I don't think that necessarily means you had a right to change the behavior of a pater familias or chief through protest. Participation in a social unit that protects your welbeing or interests does not necessarily mean you have a right to participate in its governance or that you should be heeded if you point out its shortcomings.

On the other hand, I think it could be argued that feudal societies in world history tended to embody social ideals, usually in the form of religion. In theory in this ideal commonwealth you could protest behavior that flaunted those ideals. Because these ideals were consciousness-raising, I believe that a typical symptom of the transition to feudalism was the appearance of endemic social protests.

Put boldly, my conclusion is that protest tends to follow upon the feudal revolution and is not typical of ancient society.

Haines Brown