Development of Hierarchical Structures: Chiefs to Emperors in History
- 0:06 Moses' Hierarchy
- 1:28 Rules of a Hierarchy
- 2:30 Aristocracy
- 3:06 Theocracy
- 4:40 Hierarchies Throughout History
Did You Know…
This lesson is part of a free course that leads to real college credit accepted by 2,900 colleges.
This lesson will explore society's need for hierarchies, as well as kinship as a basis of hierarchical structures. Various forms of hierarchy will be briefly explored and...spoiler alert...they all come back to kinship.
Meet Moses. Some of you may know him. Moses has a lot of responsibilities. He has to get about two million people from Egypt to the Promised Land. This is a daunting task. Moses must spend all day, sunup to sundown, telling people what to do - 'Set up your tents here, go look for water there, give him back his goat, no we're not there yet!'
By trying to handle everything himself, Moses will quickly work himself into an early grave. Then who will lead the Israelites? Luckily for Moses, he has a clever father-in-law, Jethro. Jethro says, 'You're going to kill yourself this way, boy. These people need you alive. You need to delegate authority. Select capable men from all the people - men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain - and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.'
Moses takes Jethro's advice. Now the leaders of tens can take care of little problems, the leaders of fifties can resolve larger problems, and so on and so forth. Now, no one bothers Moses for anything short of a disaster, and he can focus on getting his people from point A to point B.
Rules of a Hierarchy
From Moses' story we can draw a pattern for hierarchies that holds true for most of human history:
- Step 1: A person does something awesome or terrible to the people.
- Step 2: Out of love for or fear of that person, the people decide to follow him.
- Step 3: The leader realizes he cannot possibly handle everything himself.
- Step 4: He divides his responsibilities and authority among subordinates.
That is the basic goal of all hierarchies - to break up the countless responsibilities of leadership into manageable parts and to assign capable individuals to oversee those responsibilities.
Yet, this raises some important questions. How should those responsibilities be divided? More importantly, what qualifies an individual for public office? Throughout history, human beings have come up with some very different answers to these questions. The results are different sorts of hierarchies.
The most common form of hierarchy is an aristocracy. In this system, status is based on one's lineage. Important people have important children, important cousins and so on. Unimportant people have unimportant children. This may seem disgusting to our modern sensibilities, but kinship is the basis of all other hierarchies in the animal kingdom. It should not surprise us to learn that kinship played an incredibly important role throughout most of our history. In fact, there is no record of a civilization without an aristocracy before America's Declaration of Independence.
This is not to say that other systems have not been tried. The system Jethro proposed was a theocracy, a hierarchy based on religion. He specifies that the leaders should be God-fearing and honest. Yet, when we get down to the details of exactly how the Israelites were divided and how their leaders were selected, we find that it has much more to do with kinship than with holiness.
Every Israelite traces his lineage back to Abraham. Abraham had one son, Isaac. Isaac had two sons, Esau and Jacob. Jacob, who was later called Israel, had 12 sons. These 12 sons are the patriarchs of the 12 tribes into which Moses divided the children of Israel. The tribes in turn are made up of clans, or extended families, each with a male established as the head of the household. It was from these heads of household that Moses selected his leaders of tens, fifties and so on.
Thus, even in Moses' theocracy, the most basic social unit remained the family. Families were united into tribes based on kinship to a common patriarch. It is worth noting that one of those tribes, the tribe of Levi (which just happened to be Moses' tribe), just also happened to be the tribe that God selected to serve as the priestly class. They were excluded from military service and were given the first pick of everyone else's food. Sure sounds like an aristocracy to me.
Hierarchies Throughout History
Regardless of a hierarchy's structure, kinship would remain at the core of all hierarchies for the majority of human history. Medieval lords claimed kinship to kings. Ancient kings claimed kinship to gods. Some emperors even claimed to be gods themselves. Even the Athenians (enlightened inventors of democracy) divided themselves into tribes descended from a mythical common ancestor. They also reserved high offices for members of the aristocracy. The Roman Emperor Claudius might have created an imperial bureaucracy of slaves to run his empire, but that does not change the fact that Claudius inherited the title Emperor from his cousin.
Even in this age of equality, in a nation explicitly founded without an aristocracy, we still have aristocratic families - the Roosevelts, the Kennedys, the Bushes. It's actually remarkable that we consider such dynasties as aberrations; most people throughout history would have considered them only natural.
Chapters in History 101: Western Civilization I
- 1. Prehistory (9 lessons)
- 2. History of the Ancient Near East (19 lessons)
- 3. History of Ancient Greece (14 lessons)
- 4. Hellenism and the Athenian Achievement (10 lessons)
- 5. The Rise of the Roman Republic (6 lessons)
- 6. The Fall of the Roman Empire (6 lessons)
- 7. The Dark Ages (4 lessons)
- 8. The Early Middle Ages (3 lessons)
People are saying…
"This just saved me about $2,000 and 1 year of my life." — Student
"I learned in 20 minutes what it took 3 months to learn in class." — Student
"Big history at its best..." — Student
"I liked the really tight writing in presenting a capsuled rendition of such an important part of our history." — Student