Alliances and patron-client relationships: a fixture in both ancient and modern complex societies

patron-client relationships

Maecenas Presenting the Liberal Arts to Emperor Augustus, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Source.

Alliances and patron-client relationships have helped support states since the beginning of social complexity. In a recent Christian Science Monitor article, Seshat contributor and Santa Fe Institute external professor Paula Sabloff analyzed equal alliances and patron-client relationships. Sabloff’s research was part of a John Templeton Foundation-funded project at the Santa Fe Institute. The project examined the beginnings of state organizations in different regions of the world including Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Hawaii, and South America.

In her CS Monitor article, Sabloff explains the difference between alliances and patron-client relationships. Patron-client relationships are between unequal partners. They are often formed when a military power conquered another ruler, who became their client. The relationships were secured with gifts or a marriage between the client and a relative of the patron. When the relationship was formed, the patron would ask for support in the form of troops and provisions from the client; in return, the client retained some power and was able to draw on the resources and protection afforded by a strong patron. These relationships are present in both early states and in the 21st century.

Sabloff writes that patron-client relationships and equal alliances are especially prevalent during times of warfare.

To win a war, it helps to have three things: more troops than the enemy, intelligence about the enemy’s plans, and superior technology. Alliance-building and patron-client relations helped leaders amass more troops and often learn about the enemy’s plans – and this true whether a society is pre-industrial, industrial, or post-industrial. 

A modern example of a patron-client relationship between states cited by Sabloff is Mongolia’s client role in the U.S.’ 2003 “coalition of the willing” in the Middle East. Mongolia’s 180 troops contributed to the war in Iraq in return for (at least possible) US support of Mongolia’s interests against potential threats from her powerful neighbors Russia and China.

patron-client relationships

Mongolian soldiers in transit to Afghanistan. Source.

Patron-client relationships are also apparent in politics. Sabloff notes that the relationship between a state legislator and her electorate is also a patron-client relationship: the legislator expects votes from her electorate after supporting the ‘client’s interests by funding local projects like schools and parks. Sabloff adds that Donald Trump won the recent U.S. presidential election in part because he claimed not to be part of Washington D.C.’s patron-client system.

At Seshat, we examine patron-client relationships within a polity between elites and non-elites. We also look at state-level patron-client relationships. Does a state send tribute or mandatory payments to other states? Do they receive payments and tribute? The following codes are examples from our Roman Principate sample polity.

We will soon be able to use Seshat as a tool for analyses to better study how both patron-client relationships and equal alliances affect wider aspects of a society like social stability, inequality, and frequency of warfare. Understanding the way that these relationships operate ultimately will help us to better explain and predict the way that powerful states and political elites strengthen and spread their authority by amassing clients.




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