Wednesday, October 4, 2017


Clifford Ando, Seth Richardson (ed.), Ancient States and Infrastructural Power: Europe, Asia, and America. Empire and After. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. Pp. 309. ISBN 9780812249316. $69.95.

Reviewed by Marc Van De Mieroop, Columbia University (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

More than 30 years ago now, the sociologist Michael Mann formulated the idea that states throughout history possessed two kinds of power, despotic and infrastructural, and in good Weberian fashion he categorized them according to these powers being high or low: feudal and imperial states both having low infrastructural powers but respectively low and high despotic ones; bureaucratic and authoritarian states both having high infrastructural powers, but respectively low and high despotic ones.1 Revisiting the concepts later on, he defined them concisely as follows: "first, despotic power, the range of actions that the state elite is empowered to make without consultation with civil society groups; and second, infrastructural power, the capacity of the state to actually penetrate civil society and implement its actions across its territories".2 Although many rulers of the past had much despotic power, their ability to put their decrees into effect was often very limited and, conversely, today many democratic states whose despotic powers are strictly regulated have systems in place that penetrate deep into their societies' structures in order to execute governmental decisions. The claims states make in this regard are often spurious: on the one hand ancient despots who alleged they directed their subjects' every move may have had little influence outside their palace walls; on the other hand, many democracies that profess that their citizens hold great personal freedoms possess enormous infrastructural powers that affect every aspect of life on a daily basis—take, for example, the contemporary USA, whose myth of a "weak" government William J. Novak eloquently laid bare a decade ago, and that was even before we knew of NSA surveillance and the like.3

Despite the fact that Michael Mann himself used the terms despotic and infrastructural powers (albeit with little examination) when discussing the earliest empires in world history in his chronological survey of the sources of social power,4 these have remained so far unacknowledged in the study of ancient history—while the IEMP model he developed in the same book (he argued that there were four sources of social power: ideology, the economy, the military, and politics) became widely adopted in the study of ancient empires. The papers published in the volume reviewed here are, to my knowledge, the first that explicitly use Mann's terminology to address the question of how ancient states managed to effectuate their governmental decisions. They are the outcome of a workshop at the University of Chicago in 2014, the trigger of which seems to have been an article one of the organizers and volume editors, Seth Richardson, had published slightly earlier, "Early Mesopotamia: The Presumptive State"5—all authors in this volume refer to that article (full disclosure: I was the advisor of the PhD dissertation Seth Richardson submitted to Columbia University in 2002). There he pointed out that early Mesopotamian rulers often expressed wishful thinking when they claimed control over their territories and that they struggled to rally their subjects behind their cause. Although he did so without referring to Mann's concepts, it is easy to see how they provide a suitable framework for his concerns.

The contributors to this volume were asked to read both Richardson's and Mann's articles and to provide empirical examples of how their ideas applied to various ancient cultures. We read thus nine case studies that range in time from the early second millennium BC to the mid-second millennium AD. Geographically the focus is on the greater Mediterranean world: the Near East (including Iran and Byzantium), Greece, the Roman Empire, and Iberia. China and Latin America each receive one chapter only. Of course, many other states could have been considered and it would have been interesting to investigate how a change in government in a specific region affected the structures of power there, but collections of essays like this can never be exhaustive nor do they need to be. The importance of this volume is that it urges us to question how much infrastructural power ancient states had, and any scholar who in the future studies the functioning of an ancient state or empire should keep this issue in mind.

What strikes one when reading this collection of essays is how almost all the authors work hard to show that ancient states did manage to execute their decisions. Many of them maintain that modern scholars are mistaken when they argue that ancient rulers were "delusional" in respect to their assertions of power (Anthony Kaldellis provides references to such accusations made against the Byzantine empire). They grant ancient states greater abilities to control their subjects than is often acknowledged and they do so by pointing out governmental projects and practices that affected various areas of life. Clifford Ando, the other editor of the volume, writes that the early imperial Roman practice of adtributio drew non- urban populations into the urban-based state infrastructure. He also points out that the road system channeled Roman influence throughout Gaul: as is obvious when he superimposes the distribution of Latin inscriptions there onto the road map—the conclusion is somewhat self-evident, as he acknowledges. John Weisweiler describes how the late Roman empire after the mid-third century AD crisis became more despotic—with the emperor linked to the divine sphere rather than being a primus inter pares—but also acquired greater infrastructural powers through direct taxation, the compilation of laws, and a massive expansion of officialdom. Damián Fernández states that the Visigothic successor state to Rome in central Iberia (mid-6th to mid-8th centuries AD) did not lose the empire's ability to collect taxes but continued to do so using new intermediaries (bishops, local grandees, etc.). For the eastern successor to Rome, Byzantium, Anthony Kaldellis defends the ideas that the empire had great despotic powers based on an infrastructural bedrock and that its ecumenical aspirations were realistic because they applied to a limited territory only. In the case of Rome's great competitor to the east, Sasanian Iran (3rd to 7th centuries AD), Richard Payne presents an evolution from weak infrastructural power and heavy reliance on the support of an aristocracy with roots in the past to an expansion of the infrastructure through city-building and irrigation projects and a caging of the elites in a uniform imperial system. Similarly, Wang Haicheng thinks that China in the Western Zhou period (c. 1100-800 BC) had strict control over its population and land, although he acknowledges that explicit evidence for how that control was put into practice is missing and that his ideas are based on the texts inscribed for governmental elites on bronze vessels. R. Alan Covey seems to sit on the fence in his assessment of infrastructural power in the Inca state (c. 1400-1535 AD), which faced enormous challenges in its control of the population: its territory was ecologically extremely diverse and consequently incorporated people with many different lifestyles and social structures; moreover, it had no access to the tools of government common in the Old World (animals that bear riders, wheeled vehicles, coinage, and writing). On the one hand, there were areas where no state influence is visible in the archaeological record, while on the other hand, staged events in the capital Cuzco transformed kin-groups into tributary units so that the Inca ruler was able to recruit large labor forces. Covey argues that the ability to exploit existing kinship relations for the exercise of social power (rather than forcing people into a state hierarchy) made the Inca state effective, yet unusual.

The second culture in chronological order addressed in the volume, archaic Greece (800-500 BC) was also atypical for ancient times: states there had low despotic powers, but very high infrastructural ones (of course, from the point of view of its male citizens only). Emily Mackil argues that essential in their creation was the emergence of written laws that protected private property, and that private property consequently became a matter of public concern. Three aspects of infrastructural power in Michael Mann's description of it came together in archaic Greek states: property, literacy, and territoriality. The first paper in this volume, Seth Richardson's discussion of early second millennium BC Babylonia, stands out in that it focuses on the weakness of the infrastructural power of the state, but with a twist. Like Emily Mackil he discusses territoriality, law, and (indirectly) literacy; he concludes that territorial borders were vague and that royal laws like Hammurabi's had little direct impact on people's lives. The Babylonian state was weak, but so were its competitors such as local elites and tribes. The state offered an alternative to civil society and in the end may have lived up to its promise of providing public good.

Specialists of the many cultures discussed in this volume can probably take issue with details of the argumentations presented here, but the book's overall mission is accomplished. Any future consideration of ancient state power should ask how effectively it was realized, and this volume has convinced me that Michael Mann's model provides a very useful structure with which to do so.

Table of Contents

Clifford Ando, "Introduction: States and State Power in Antiquity", p. 1
Seth Richardson, "Before Things Worked: A "Low-Power" Model of Early Mesopotamia", p. 17
Emily Mackil, "Property Claims and State Formation in the Archaic Greek World", p. 63
Wang Haicheng, "Western Zhou Despotism", p. 91
Clifford Ando, "The Ambitions of Government: Territoriality and Infrastructural Power in Ancient Rome", p. 115
John Weisweiler, "Populist Despotism and Infrastructural Power in the Later Roman Empire", p. 149
Richard Payne, "Territorializing Iran in Late Antiquity: Autocracy, Aristocracy and the Infrastructure of Empire", p. 179
R. Alan Covey, "Kinship and the Performance of Inca Despotic and Infrastructural Power", p. 218
Damián Fernández, "Statehood, Taxation, and State Infrastructural Power in Visigothic Iberia", p. 243
Anthony Kaldellis, "Did the Byzantine Empire Have "Ecumenical" or "Universal" Aspirations?", p. 272


1.   Michael Mann, "The Autonomous Power of the State: Its Origins, Mechanisms, and Results," Archives européennes de sociologie 25 (2) 1984: 185-213.
2.   Michael Mann, "Infrastructural Power Revisited," Studies in Comparative International Development 43 2008: 355. In this article, Mann revised his designations of the states somewhat, replacing bureaucratic with democratic and authoritarian with single-party.
3.   William J. Novak, "The Myth of the "Weak" American State," The American Historical Review 113 (3) 2008: 752-772.
4.   Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power. Volume I: A History of Power from the Beginning to A.D. 1750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1986: 169-170.
5.   Past and Present 215 2012: 3-49.

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