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CJ-ONLINE  January 2010

CJ-ONLINE January 2010

Subject:

CJ Online 2010.01.04 RICHARDSON, The Language of Empire

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The Language of Empire: Rome and the Idea of Empire from the Third Century
BC to the Second Century AD. By JOHN RICHARDSON. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2008. Pp. viii + 220. Cloth, $90.00. ISBN
978–0–521–81501–7.

Order this text for $81.17 from Amazon.com
using this link and benefit CAMWS and the Classical Journal:

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This and previously published CJ Online reviews are at
http://classicaljournal.org/reviews.php


CJ Online 2010.01.04

John Richardson (R.) has long been interested in the rise of the Roman
Empire and has examined the topic in several well-known books and articles.
[[1]] In The Language of Empire, he approaches the subject from a new
perspective by undertaking a linguistic study of the Roman concept of
empire, using electronic databases, search engines and spreadsheets to help
compile his data. [[2]] Beginning with the question, “What did the Romans
think they were doing when they created the Roman Empire?” (p. vii), R.
attempts to reconstruct the Roman definition and understanding of
“empire” by studying the evolution of the Latin terms imperium and
provincia from the Republican period into the High Empire. He examines the
use of these terms in Latin literature (and some inscriptions) and attempts
to decipher the meaning of each passage to identify when the words gained
new meanings for the Romans. Using this data, he argues that there is no
evidence that the Romans conceived of their empire as a geographic
possession until the reign of Augustus. Rather, during the second (and most
of the first) century BC imperium and provincia referred to the exercise of
power, and only with the establishment of emperors did these terms evolve
to signify a single, geographic entity controlled and possessed by the
Romans: the imperium Romanum.

The Language of Empire is not merely a word study; R.’s analysis of Roman
word-use makes a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate on the nature
of Roman imperialism. This debate has been dominated by the opposing models
of Theodor Mommsen—who believed that Roman imperialism was fundamentally
defensive and that Rome unintentionally acquired its empire through wars
fought in defense of its own (or its allies’) interests—and of William
Harris, who argued that Republican Rome was inherently aggressive and
warlike, and that it intentionally acquired an empire through expansionary
conquest. [[3]] While R. does not attempt to disprove either position
directly, his book provides an alternate approach by suggesting that
imperialism should be studied as an evolving idea, and that there was not
one Roman imperialism but a series of them (p. 192). Thus Romans in the
Republic understood imperium fundamentally in terms of power, and their
“empire” as “control of what others did” (p. 62). In the final
decades of the Republic, however, the meaning of imperium expanded to
encompass the sense “the power of the Roman people” (p. 115), and by
the end of Augustus’ principate it acquired the new notion “the power
of the imperial house to control the whole Roman world and of the entity
that is so controlled, that is the Roman Empire” (p. 135). Put another
way, R. argues that a senator in the Republic would have considered Roman
expansion “the growth of Roman power and control of others, rather than
of territory which was called ‘Roman,’” whereas a senator in the High
Empire would have had “no doubt that Trajan had increased the land area
of the Roman Empire when Arabia was brought under the forma provinciae”
(p. 192). Roman imperialism thus evolved and changed over time, and this
change is visible in the Roman language.

R. divides his argument into six chapters, the first of which, “Ideas of
Empire,” is really an introduction that lays out his argument that
Rome’s attitude towards its empire evolved from the abstract notion of
“power” to the concrete idea of territorial possession (p. 9). Chapters
2–5 comprise the core of the book, providing a chronological discussion
of the evolution of the terms imperium and provincia that—R.
maintains—demonstrates the changing Roman conception of “empire.”
Chapter 2, “The beginnings: Hannibal to Sulla,” argues that the primary
definitions of imperium and provincia in the second century (down to Sulla)
were “magisterial power” and “the task or responsibility of a
magistrate,” respectively (p. 61), and asserts that neither term carried
the notion of territorial possession. Chapter 3, “Cicero’s empire:
imperium populi Romani,” argues that the fundamental meanings of imperium
and provincia remained unchanged in the Late Republic, although both terms
were used in a new way to express the idea of a “state” (p. 71):
imperium was used in reference to the power of the Roman people (p. 79),
while provincia could signify “an entity for the government of an
empire” (p. 115). Despite this change, neither word represented a
territorial conception of the Roman Empire (pp. 115–16). Chapter 4,
“The Augustan empire: imperium Romanum,” argues that the military and
political changes brought about by Augustus—in particular the emperor’s
preeminent control of imperium and provinciae—caused a fundamental shift
in the meaning of imperium to signify a real, territorial empire based on
control of geographic units called provinciae. Henceforth, the Roman Empire
was conceived as a territorial entity (p. 145). Chapter 5, “After
Augustus,” demonstrates that the new, Augustan meanings of imperium and
provincia continued into the High Empire, while Chapter 6, “Conclusion:
imperial presuppositions and patterns of empire” reiterates the thesis
that Rome’s acquisition of its empire evolved from a
“power-by-conquest” model to one of “power-as-possession” (p. 193).
Three appendices close the book: two are analyses of the uses of imperium
and provincia in Cicero and Livy, while a third discusses the use of these
terms in legal writers.

Although R. has done a good job working with his data and he builds a
convincing argument, some historians may be suspicious of his use of
statistics, since data of this sort can seem more conclusive than they are.
For example, R. finds that the predominant meaning of imperium in
Cicero’s works (52.48% of all usages) is “the power of magistrates and
promagistrates” (pp. 66–7)—but what does “power” mean in these
cases? Does it literally mean a consul’s legal use of his official
imperium, or could it refer to the social and political influence powerful
magistrates wield beyond their legal authority? Is it correct to assume
that imperium consulis always has the same sense, or might it—like “the
power of the presidency”—contain multiple meanings? If the latter,
R.’s statistics might stand in need of adjustment. Likewise, the limited
number and variety of sources from the second century makes it difficult to
state definitively that imperium did not carry a territorial sense at that
time, especially since R. notes (pp. 49, 54) that imperium had a range of
meanings, and at least one early occurrence seems to flirt with the notion
of geography (Plaut. Cist. 235: at enim ne tu exponas pugno os metuo in
imperio meo, “but indeed I am afraid that you will lay out my face with
your fist in my own domain”). Another potential challenge is the narrow
focus on imperium and provincia. While these were doubtless fundamental
concepts in Rome’s language of empire, other terms such as orbis terrarum
were used by the Romans to describe geography and must be taken account of.

In several places R. supplements his linguistic data with non-linguistic
material to strengthen his argument. For example, he begins his second
chapter with an extensive examination of Livy’s account of the second
century BC in order to establish the basic operation and meaning of
imperium and provincia during that period, and he uses discussions of
Cato’s mission to Cyprus and Pompey’s settlement of the East to
illustrate the changing concept of provincia in the Late Republic. At
times, these historical events provide better evidence for R.’s argument
than the linguistic material that lies at the heart of The Language of
Empire. For example, while the Late Republican linguistic evidence
indicates that the term provincia was slowly acquiring the new sense of a
geographically defined “territory” that belonged to the Roman people,
this development is demonstrated more clearly and effectively by Pompey’s
creation of Syria as a permanent Roman province in 63 BC (pp. 111–14).
Likewise, the historical facts of Augustus’ rearrangement of Rome’s
system of government, military command and provincial governance are far
more copious and definitive than the few linguistic references to totum
imperium populi Romani or to imperium Romanum during his reign (pp.
135–45). The book thus seems at times to wander from the “language”
of empire to focus instead on the events that demonstrate the evolution of
empire.

Despite these cautions, The Language of Empire is a fine book with much to
offer historians and philologists alike. R.’s discussion of Cicero’s
language is especially rich and deserving of attention for its careful,
nuanced analysis of the orator’s use of the terms imperium and provincia.
While the nature of the arguments and evidence employed makes the book more
appropriate for professional scholars, the general reader will find it
accessible, engaging and useful for understanding the growth of the Roman
Empire. The production and the quality of the editing are very high,
although the font and line spacing of the main text are strangely large. R.
continues to be an authority on the development of the Roman Empire, and
this book is sure to become a standard, oft-cited text.

FRED K. DROGULA
Providence College

[[1]] J. Richardson, “Polybius’ view of the Roman empire,” PBSR 47
(1979) 1–11; Hispaniae: Spain and the Development of Roman Imperialism
218–82 BC (Cambridge, 1986); “Imperium Romanum: empire and the language
of power,” JRS 81 (1991) 1–9; The Romans in Spain (Oxford, 1996);
Appian: the Wars of the Romans in Iberia (Warminster, 2000).

[[2]] For R.’s methods and early results, see his “Indexing Roman
imperialism,” The Indexer 24 (2005) 138–40.

[[3]] Th. Mommsen, Römische Geschichte, Vol. I (Berlin, 1912) 699, and
W.V. Harris, War and Imperialism in Republican Rome 327–70 BC (Oxford,
1979).


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