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How Pre-modern State Rulers Used Marriage to Reduce the Risk of Losing at War: A Comparison of Eight States


Approaching warfare in pre-modern states from the perspective of risk reduction, we see that royal marriage was one strategy rulers used to reduce the probability that they would lose a war. Judicious marriage exchanges intensified and prolonged patron-client relations between rulers or between rulers and societal elites. Clientelism could affect the size and composition of their armies. The more warriors and troops one could field, the greater the chance of not losing a war (Otterbein 2004; LeBlanc 2006). Examination of eight pre-modern states suggests that their rulers used the same patterns of wife exchange even though most states developed independently. Marriage secured long-term patron-client relationships, which they used to support their military efforts. When rulers married their kin or married them to rulers outside the system (“foreigners”), they did not gain military support. Analysis of these marriage-military patterns reveals several characteristics of pre-modern states. First, marriage alliances helped rulers form networks of support that helped them win wars. Therefore, marriage—and by extension, royal women—is a key component to the study of warfare and a critical mechanism of network formation, as Blanton et al. (1996) write. Second, alliances were based on a different organizing principle from Levi-Strauss’ tribal societies, for rulers selected main wives (for themselves or their kin) based on relative rank rather than particular kinship ties. Third, marriage alliance reveals an important difference between alliance and patron-client relationships, a distinction that is often blurred in the archaeological literature.

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  1. Smith (2003a: 80–98) provides an excellent history and analysis of various terms that modify “state,” such as early and archaic states. The term “pre-modern” is used here because Protohistoric Hawai’i fits the state-level pattern but is not early in time (Hommon 1976, 2013; Kirch 2010, 2012; Sabloff and Cragg 2015).

  2. I use the term “main wife” rather than “principal wife” because rulers in Old Babylonia, Shang China and Old Kingdom Egypt had more than one main wife. Whichever main wife bore a son became the principal wife. Therefore, main wife seems more generic and accurate than principal wife.

  3. See Johnson and Earle (2000) for social organization terminology such as hunter-gatherer, pastoralist, and tribes.

  4. According to Martin and Grube (2008: 3), the term kaloomte ajaw was “restricted to only the strongest dynasties during the Classic [period] proper.” Marcus (2006: 216) and others use the title k’uhul ajaw for the paramount kings.

  5. Sometimes authors distinguish between royals—close kin to the ruler—and nobles—people whose kinship connection to the ruler is more distant. But sometimes they lump the two together. Following the lead of Patricia McAnany (personal communication, April 2016), I use nobles as a generic category for all people above the commoner class except for the ruler and his immediate family. When the literature separates the two, I follow the literature.

  6. In an exemplary chapter on marriage, Gillespie and Joyce (1997)) use the terms “wife-provider” instead of “wife-giver.” Rosemary kindly e-mailed me (May 20, 2016) that they sought to modify “the obnoxious gender/power implications” of the terms wife-giver and wife-receiver. I revert to the original terms not only because they are the ones used in Levi-Strauss (1969) but also because they seem to describe the situation of the female kin of rulers more honestly.

  7. Smith (1996: 137–138, 141, 147) distinguishes between tributary states, which paid cyclical tribute to their overlords, and client states, which protected the frontiers by housing and supplying fortresses and garrisons of Aztec soldiers.

  8. Hassig (2015: 101–102) writes that few kings had daughters of marriageable age, so they married off their brothers’ daughters.

  9. The Mexica left compliant conquered rulers in place but replaced recalcitrant rulers with their own nobles.

  10. The relationship is a bit more complicated than that. Royals selected the new ruler in council (Smith 2003b: 149; Van Zantwijk 1994: 103), and they advised him (Berdan 2014: 179). But they also received gifts and attended his feasts (Berdan 2014: 152–153).

  11. Scholars are debating the exact boundaries of the Late Shang state (see, for example, Keightley 1983: 532 and Shelach-Lavi 2015: 221).

  12. Egyptians did not specify principal wives until the Thirteenth Dynasty, i.e., well after the Old Kingdom. Before that, there could be several main wives. Whichever produced an heir became the most important woman (Roth 2009: 2).

  13. Because the origins of most main wives were not given on the stelae glyphs, we cannot be certain of the marriage exchange pattern of paramount rulers.


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The John Templeton Foundation grant to the Santa Fe Institute (“The Principles of Complexity: Revealing the Hidden Sources of Order among the Prodigies of Nature and Culture,” Grant No. 15705) supported the project initially. Thanks to researchers Robert Weiner, Kong Fai Cheong, and Jonah Nonomaque. Thanks also to citizen scientists Jeffrey Cohen, George J. Haddad, Jack M. Jackson, and Shelley Waxman. Archaeologists who checked the original data sheets, read drafts, and offered advice are Laurel Bestock, Gary Feinman, Michael Galaty, Abigail Holeman, Peter Peregrine, Patrick Kirch, Gideon Shelach-Lavi, Adam D. Smith, Michael E. Smith, Charles Stanish, Stephen Tinney, and John Ware. Jeremy Sabloff also provided sound advice on several drafts of the paper. Finally, thanks to the anonymous reviewers who helped me strengthen the paper.

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Correspondence to Paula L.W. Sabloff.

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Sabloff, P.L. How Pre-modern State Rulers Used Marriage to Reduce the Risk of Losing at War: A Comparison of Eight States. J Archaeol Method Theory 25, 426–452 (2018).

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  • Risk reduction
  • Patron-client relations
  • Alliance theory
  • Pre-modern states
  • Warfare
  • Marriage exchange