The ambitions of government: Territoriality and infrastructural power in ancient Rome

Presented by Clifford Ando, University of Chicago, at the Center for Historical Research, Department of History at The Ohio State University on January 31, 2014.

The last thirty years have been much fluctuation in the estimation of ancient empires as regards assessment of both their power and style of governance. Did ancient empires formulate and implement policies, or was ancient government largely reactive? Did they have the power or aspiration to penetrate deep into the territories they ruled, or were they content to rule through the cooptation of local elites and pre-existing institutions? Related inquiries have been launched into the importance of territoriality to ancient states, as well as the relationship between territoriality and imperialism: did Rome, or Persia, for that matter, recognize or materially mark firm borders of its control? Did their practice differ in regard to borders between administrative units within the empire? For that matter, when did ancient terms like imperium or provincia, "power of command" and "bailiwick," take on notions of spatial extension such that they could come to mean "empire" and "province?" These questions, which have scarcely been resolved, have taken on new urgency in light of the importance comparison has assumed in contemporary (ancient) empire studies. My paper takes its inspiration from two bodies of recent work: one recuperates the notion of infrastructural power from Michael Mann's historical sociology, to develop a framework for assessing the elaboration of state power in terms of institutions and personnel as well as materiel (cf. Bill Novak, "The Myth of the Weak American State," American Historical Review [2008]); the other poses the question of what meaning to grant to the fact that even very rudimentary ancient states (indeed, so rudimentary as to provoke the question, whether they were states at all) talked like states. That is to say, their legislation spoke as if its right of command extended uniformly through its territory and down through its population; their practice of diplomacy was conducted as if their territory ended where another's began and the line firmly known, and so forth (cf. Seth Richardson, "The presumptive state" (Past & Present [2012]). I will attempt to lay out the stakes of these debates and then discuss the case of Rome, focusing on the organization of populations in the landscape and theory and practice in its governance of non-urbanized persons.

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