- Ancient States and Infrastructural Power: Europe, Asia, and America ed. by Clifford Ando and Seth Richardson
This volume addresses the question of how—and how autonomously—the rulers and political elites of ancient states exercised power over the populations and territories to which they laid claim. The discussion is structured around Michael Mann's twin concepts of "infrastructural power"—the state's capacity to penetrate civil society and implement decisions—and "despotic power," which allowed its agents to act without consultation or negotiation with civil society constituencies. Premodern states are commonly considered to have been rather deficient in the first of these types of political power, and this is certainly true if conditions in more modern societies serve as our principal frame of reference. Yet, even many centuries ago, central authorities needed to be able to maintain a certain degree of control in order to sustain the force generation and extractive activities that were required for preserving their position and deterring rivals.
This collaborative project is designed to explore state capacity empirically by means of a series of historical case studies that are theoretically informed by Mann's ideal types (as well as by some cognate theorizing), which have been largely neglected by students of the ancient world. It thus seems unhelpful that readers need to make it to chapters 2 and 4 to encounter actual definitions of Mann's key concepts, which Clifford Ando's introduction curiously withholds [End Page 447] (most notably on page 9). The geographic and chronological range is impressive: while the volume concentrates on western Eurasia—with seven chapters covering the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, and Iran—one chapter each is devoted to early China and the Inca empire, an addition that is particularly welcome in view of the all-too-common exclusion of New World societies from what counts as "ancient history." Although one could always ask for more—early imperial China has much more to offer and pre-Islamic South Asia would surely have been worth a look – this is a promising start.
If there is a common theme that runs through the volume, sometimes clearly developed and sometimes more obliquely implied, it is the evolution of infrastructural power over time. Seth Richardson, building on his earlier work on what he calls the "presumptive state," stresses the weakness of centralized state power in the Old Babylonian period: notwithstanding rulers' expansive rhetoric, territory was poorly defined and formal law was of little import. Even so, exaggerated claims to power helped build up real capabilities, which gradually surfaced in subsequent stages of Mesopotamian state formation. Emily Mackil paints a more optimistic picture for archaic Greece. Drawing on evidence that is centered on the island of Crete, she argues that early written laws that often concerned themselves with private property rights served to define territoriality and played a significant role in the emergence of small polities with growing infrastructural capacity. The historical record is (even) more tenuous for Western Zhou China, where—as Wang Haicheng maintains on the basis of elite-facing commemorative inscriptions on bronze vessels—direct political control was confined to the capital regions and most territories were run by aristocratic elites to whom power had been delegated. How this affected the scope of royal powers remains unclear.
Turning to the much better documented mature Roman empire, Ando analyzes administrative attributions that drew rural communities into the institutional framework of nearby cities and imperial regulations that imposed road maintenance on local residents. These were among the mechanisms that extended the reach of the center by establishing both infrastructural and despotic power "in mutually constitutive ways" (p. 119). The evolutionary theme features very prominently in John Weisweiler's chapter in which he discusses the expansion of Roman governmental capacity in response to the shocks of the third century C.E. Marrying inclusive rhetoric with greater, if costly, penetration of civil society, a bundle of reforms amplified the despotic dimension of the emperor's persona, decentered established aristocratic elites, and drew in new constituents via fiscal, legal, and [End Page...