Warfare, Religion, and Social Stratification: Their Influences on City-Building

by Katherine Athanasiades

            In both ancient and contemporary human societies, one can witness the cultural creations of warfare, religion, and social stratification interacting to help form and perpetuate the existence of each other.  In addition, these cultural factors have lent themselves to help produce, regulate, and justify specific technologies.  These technologies may be either destructive or beneficial to human societies economically and/or environmentally, and can have a very wide range of function.  Technologies can in turn influence warfare, religion, and social stratification so as to increase the importance of these aspects of culture in society.  In this paper, I seek to explore the relationships between warfare, religion, and social stratification, and their important influences on city-building in ancient times and today.


            As early societies began to group together and form conglomerations of people that eventually became towns and cities, they discovered a ‘need’ for warfare in order to protect and expand their territories, resources, and populations.  In the words of Ehrlich, it is important to remember that “(c)onnecting ‘genes for aggression’…to the actions of warring governments is a bit of a stretch, just as would be connecting genes for conciliations to the deployment of United Nations peacemakers (Ehrlich 260).”  Basically, Ehrlich wants us to realize that there are no “war” or “peace” genes, but that cultural micro- and macro-evolutionary conditions (that is, societal or environmental conditions) may drive a group of people to be either warring or peaceful.


            With the development of warfare came the development of religion.  A causative relationship is not necessarily implicated between warfare and religion, but it is clear that these cultural components greatly influenced, shaped, and sometimes legitimized the other.  Indeed, it can be argued that at some points in time, war and religion are not two separate entities at all, but one unit with two halves, each promoting the other (the Crusades are an excellent example of a time when religion was fused with war, and each half was inextricable from the other).  It has been proposed that religion may have arisen in response to a newfound awareness of death, as the first evidence of ritualistic activity (a mark of religion) transpired when the Neanderthals buried their dead (Ehrlich 215).  As one of the main consequences of war, especially in the past, is the death of multitudes of people, it would be reasonable to assume that with this presence of brutal death, people looked more and more to fall back on religion.  This may have been psychological, but it may also have become a cultural evolutionary trait aiding survival – as Ehrlich says, people with religion tend to be happier and healthier than those without (214).  Religion may have unconsciously become a survival mechanism, providing comfort against death as well as a justification of the dead in warfare: individuals’ spirits will move on, and they die for a worthy cause.


            Both warfare and religion help to form and sustain social stratification.  There has always been a close connection between limited resources and social conflict (Southwick 133).  This conflict can be inter-societal, as with different groups of people fighting over valuable resources, or intra-societal, as with the allotment of resources to individuals or sub-groups.  This allotment process partially resulted from war creating winners and losers, losers becoming slaves.  It allowed a hierarchy of leaders and subordinates to emerge, with leaders as the allotters (Ehrlich 239-240).  It was therefore a side effect of social stratification which in turn helped to sustain it.


            Stratification was not confined to leadership and slaves in allotting resources.  It also manifested itself in priestly and warrior classes.  Religion legitimated differences between people, sacralized different codes of conduct governing how societies and groups like warriors and priests functioned, and became a force justifying power relationships (Ehrlich 256).  Once society was realized to have the ability to function well with hierarchical social levels, these levels became an integral, deeply ingrained part of society.  They, in turn, strengthened religion and warfare by maintaining a social hierarchy that could be manipulated and utilized for the purposes of fighting or worship.  Though throughout the years these groups and levels of society have evolved differently in separate cultures, social stratification and inequalities are still ubiquitous in various forms in the world today.


            Warfare, religion, and subsequently, social stratification, have all had intense effects on the evolution of different technologies.  I am going to focus specifically on the effects they had on city-building in ancient Greek times.  These cultural factors were heavily influential in the development of ancient Greek city-building strategy, motivation, and capability.  To an extent, these cultural factors are still important in the present – however, in present times, the influence has shifted from a more direct emphasis on war and religion to a more direct emphasis on social stratification and other factors.  For example, in the present day, houses and cities can be based on sizes of populations of people in certain areas and what a person who would want to live in a place can afford to pay.  This example shows how one aspect of social stratification – wealth – can play a very important role in determining the planning of houses and cities.  In the same way, other factors historically seen as defining social stratification (e.g. race, age) can contribute to the planning of an area in ways that are either accepting or rejecting of certain socially-defined groups.


            According to Colin Chant, who discussed much of the ancient Greeks’ city-building, “urbanization is no simple, unilinear process, and …the technological activity of city-building is embedded in social, political, religious and environmental contexts peculiar to the region (Chant 48).”  He also explains that “(d)efence was a prime consideration in the foundation of Greek cities: the earliest usually centred on a rocky hill, or acropolis (Chant 60).”  This concern for defense was a priority for the Greeks, and was one of the main factors in planning layout.  Greek cities were typically set back from the sea so that they would not suffer direct sea-borne attacks (Chant 60).  The Mycenaeans were adept in the skills of building stone defensive walls that not only surrounded the city and thus protected it from attack, but also were extended to surround and protect their water supply.  Later, underground aqueducts, closed-pipe systems, and other techniques could help supply a walled city with the necessary water (Chant 72).  Many of the cities were also laid out in a gridded fashion, with roads in between blocks of residential and social areas.  This may have helped to facilitate the gathering of men when men were needed for battle. 


Though there is not much evidence that many of the earlier cities were constructed for practical and ideological reasons, later cities were certainly inspired in part by religious ideologies.  There is an obvious commitment to building sanctuaries for the deities, and plenty of building effort went to glorification of the monarch and the monarch’s afterlife (Chant 62 & 65).  Constructing other temples was also important (Chant 66).  In this way, cities were not only built with defense strategies in mind, but also with the purpose of giving people places to worship the gods.


There remains the issue of capability.  Manpower was necessary in order to develop the methods for city-building and to carry out the processes.  The ancient Greek elite became increasingly distant from base levels of action in industry and commerce.  Because of this, technologies such as craft production fell into the realm of slave and foreigner work (Chant 74).  Many mechanical devices were created, such as cranes based on the pulley and windlass, machines based on screws, springs, levers, cogs and valves, steam turbines, and suction pumps.  These machines were mainly used for inspiring religious wonder (Chant, 70 & 74-75); however, at least some machines were used to aid city-building as well (such as the crane).  Not only were the brains behind the mechanics for city-building, in this case, determined by social strata; so was the muscle – lower social strata, especially slaves, would have been the people who would have physically labored to build the cities.  In this way, social stratification played a major role in the rise of ancient Greek cities.


In conclusion, the cultural components of warfare, religion, and social stratification have not only interacted to help create and perpetuate each other, but they have also heavily influenced technologies such as city-building in ancient Greece.  Though the emphasis on the different factors changes with evolving cultural and environmental climates, they are still present to some degree in Western culture today.



Works Cited


Chant, Colin. Pre-Industrial Cities and Technology. London: Routledge, 1999.


Ehrlich, Paul. Human Natures. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2000


Southwick, Charles. Human Impacts on Planet Earth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.


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last updated 5/18/03