- Roman Social Imaginaries: Language and Thought in the Contexts of Empire by Clifford Ando
This clever libellus is the publication of Professor Ando's Robson Classical Lectures, given in 2012; it offers a remarkably wide-ranging set of ideas and debates around Roman social practice, deeply and fruitfully concerned with method, and framing a sustained argument about the role of Roman law in creating imperial power, and vice versa. Ando argues that Roman law as it developed through the Republic and into the Empire was the basis for a culturally heterogenous society. He explores this argument and its implications in three areas: the nature of citizenship in chapter one ("Belonging"), abstract concepts in the Latin language (chapter two, "Cognition"), and Roman legal history and its implications for the way that Roman law framed its relationship to reality (chapter three, "The Ontology of the Social").
What makes this book particularly exciting for classicists is Ando's command of Roman legal texts and his ability to interpret them as sources which tell us meaningful things about Roman society and politics. So, for example, Ando offers a scintillating reconstruction and analysis of the account that Pomponius gave in his Encheiridion of the development of Roman law from its origins in the regal period, when the ciuitas existed but lacked statute law, through the development of civil law and the expansion of Roman power down to the imperial period. He shows how Pomponius links law to social change and sees interpretative disagreement as an integral part of legal development; these characteristics, he suggests, supported the flexibility of Roman law in acknowledging lived [End Page 284] reality, and that in turn made Roman law work in widely differing social contexts. Ando is also adroit at bringing out the significance of apparently narrow questions. The law around postliminium, the process by which those captured in war lost and could regain their Roman citizenship, reveals the capacity of Rome to separate jurisdiction from geographical contiguity; the occurrence in Hyginus of the phrase siluae glandiferae reveals not only a capacity to combine general and specific, in terms of kinds of territory, with a single classification but also a willingness to allow "acorn-bearing" to stand for economically significant fruit-bearing woods of all kinds. For Ando, one of the distinctive features of Roman law is its use of analogy, among other devices, to extend its scope from the familiar to the unfamiliar, a valuable trait for a society acquiring a geographically and socially diverse empire.
Ando's argument is undoubtedly complex and challenging, though the reader is carefully guided by numbered paragraphs and regular recapitulation. And its very qualities of abstraction set up a disconcerting disconnect between message and medium in a work whose subject is, at some level, the ways in which Roman administrators and lawyers came up with solutions to concrete problems, whether about acorns, the prosecution of adultery, or whether or not the flamen Dialis was a member of the Senate. But the rewards are great: not only a demonstration of why Roman historians should read Roman law (and what they can gain thereby) but a powerful reading of the nature of the Roman state which seeks to show how Rome sustained an extraordinarily diverse empire.