Maya warrior panel. Photograph by Linda Schele © David Schele. Image courtesy of Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

For rulers in pre-modern states, marrying the right wife was often a path to military victory. In a paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, SFI External Professor Paula Sabloff looked at the Aztec, Babylonia, Late Shang China, Old Kingdom Egypt, Protohistoric Hawai’i, Inca Empire, Late Classic Maya, and Postclassic Zapotec states to uncover the strategies their rulers used to win wars – or at least, reduce the risk of losing them.

“This is about how we look at war and how we fight wars,” Sabloff says. “Archaeologists tend to look at war from the perspective of organizing for war, where rulers of chiefdoms built social networks that propelled their societies to become state-level societies. I'm looking at it from the perspective of risk reduction. When people go to war, they don't want to lose. Warfare meant high risk for these rulers. Negative outcomes ranged from loss of power and destruction of their kingdoms to captivity and even their death — in battle or as sacrifices. So what did these rulers do to avoid losing?”

Sabloff found that, with remarkable consistency, marriage alliances helped pre-modern rulers form networks of military support. By giving and receiving royal wives, rulers sustained patron-client relations — contracts of obligation between unequal parties — that might have been established through conquest or other means. 

Wife-receivers became long-term clients to the wife-givers. As clients, they owed their patrons military aid such as warriors, troops, equipment, food, and shelter — support that gave them a distinct advantage over their enemies. And because patron-client contracts extended over the life of the marriage (and sometimes beyond), patrons were assured of the long-term military support they needed to amass power.

“As all these societies emerged from chiefdoms to states,”  Sabloff notes, “I found that they developed the same behavior patterns — here, marriage patterns — in response to the same challenge of risk reduction. Why, I cannot say.”

Sabloff’s current research takes this concept to the next level, with a focus on royal women. “Queens and princesses were pawns in marriage, but after that, they had significant political agency,” she explains. “In Babylonia, one king sent his daughters off with 10 servants, including a woman scribe, so these women were spying for their fathers. And in several of the cases, women often ruled while their husbands were off fighting battles.”

Read the paper in Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory (Paywall; July 15, 2017)