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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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