Wednesday, July 24, 2019


Emma Dench, Empire and Political Cultures in the Roman World. Key Themes in Ancient History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. xvi, 207. ISBN 9780521009010. $27.99.

Reviewed by Carlos Noreña, University of California, Berkeley (

Version at BMCR home site


This slim volume scores big on the bang-for-the-buck scale. In just over 200 pages, written in her characteristically jaunty style, Emma Dench covers a dizzying array of topics, expertly and often provocatively, not only providing the sort of high-level introductory overview for which the Key Themes series was designed, but also advancing a coherent and compelling program for how we should understand "the local experience of change attendant on empire in the Roman world" (1). Dench does not argue a concrete thesis, but do not be fooled: this is very much a thesis-driven account of cultural change—or, rather, of a particular facet of that change. The argument is mostly implicit, however, and not organized to prove a set of claims, but rather to illustrate, through example and interpretation, the significant heuristic payoff derived from granular analysis of the infinitely variable local articulations of what she calls "statehood," "peoplehood," and "grouphood" in the Roman empire (16). It is one of those very rare books that will be genuinely useful for newcomers and experts alike.

The Introduction and Epilogue together set the book in context and sketch an agenda for future work. The framing is important, and we will return to it below. The substantive core of the book is arranged in five chapters. The first, "Toward a Roman Dialect of Empire" (18-46), explores how modes of sovereignty that were marked in some way as "Roman" were conceptualized and articulated at the labile interface between Roman and non-Roman sources of power. Dench delineates a spectrum from highly charged moments of "translation" at such interfaces (for which the dissolution of the Macedonian kingdom in 167 BCE serves as a paradigmatic case, 24 ff.), through spectacle and performance contexts in which Roman symbolism (Latin, official documents, architecture, iconography, and so on) was mobilized in both pro- and (NB) anti-Roman assertions of authority (29-39), to a coalescing of what she calls the "rule-book mentality" (40), expressed, juridically, by means of town charters, magistracies, and Roman citizenship.

The second chapter, "Territory" (47-73), continues with the broad theme of Roman and non-Roman interfaces, shifting the focus from discourse to space. Dench synthesizes the latest work on roads, frontiers, provinces, borders, colonization, urbanization, and centuriation, urging us (quite rightly) not to view Roman territoriality through the prism of the modern nation-state (52). She is especially good on the transformative impact of Pompey and Caesar—both in the rise of a territorial conception of empire (54-5) and in the intensification of city-foundation (68-9)—and on how large-scale construction in frontier zones animated a resonant "fortress empire" ideology (56-62).

Material conditions and the hard edges of coercive power are addressed, respectively, in chapters three ("Wealth and Society," 74-104) and four ("Force and Violence," 105-33). Discussion begins (ch. 3) with the relationship between Roman imperialism and economic exploitation (76-87). The review of Hopkins' influential "taxes and trade" model perhaps underplays the role of monetization and the distinction between aggregate and per- capita growth, and there is not enough here on the changing personnel of the imperial extraction apparatus, especially the proliferation of financial procurators (80 ff.). Nor will all readers agree that Finley's thesis on the primitivism of the Roman economy "has been substantially upheld in recent decades" (79). There are, however, useful discussions of taxation, the census, and coinage (82-7); the material basis of political participation, especially in democratic government in the Greek East (87-95); and the specifically Roman articulation of wealth and social order (95-101). Her analysis of the Roman regulation of theater seating (96-98), which she identifies as a "first principle of the socio-specific privilege-system associated with Roman rule" (98), is outstanding. She also offers (ch. 4) an extended analysis of warfare and coercion, considering not only the "performative and spectacular uses of violence" authored by the Roman state (111), from executions and proscriptions to monuments, triumphs, and trophies (111-14), but also the operations of the Roman army and the variable impacts of soldiers on the social fabric of local communities (114-24). We are reminded throughout what it must have been like to live in this climate of imperial coercion, which could trigger hostile rejection (116), nightmares and alienation (119-20), and defiance and martyrdom (132-3).

"Time," the fifth and final substantive chapter (134-54), considers how local modes of time-reckoning, and local conceptions of both past and future time, were shaped by Roman power. Local use of calendars modeled on those specific to the city of Rome, and therefore "useless" elsewhere (Rüpke), reflects a naturalization and deep internalization of Roman norms (142-3), while the self-conscious adoption of what Dench calls "Caesar time," in the form of both imperial and consular dating schemes, reveals the extent to which the coming of Rome disrupted the rhythms of daily life (143-7). The chapter concludes with conceptions of past and future. Writing in an ethnographic tradition in which questions about peoplehood were often framed with reference to origins, Greek authors came to represent Romanness in universalizing and totalizing terms, an index of how Rome "swamps local pasts and reconfigures and underwrites peoplehood" (150). Celebrations of local pasts could always be mobilized against Rome, however, and ideas about future time were sometimes expressed in apocalyptic terms (153-4). The discussion is characteristic of the book as a whole in its sensitivity to nuance, context, and complexity.

Studies addressing the many topics covered in this book, often treated under the rubric of "Romanization," continue to proliferate, and Dench is a reliable guide to this bibliography. Indeed, the book will be an excellent first port of call for students looking to get up to speed on this material. Several features of Dench's approach set her book apart from others in this crowded field. First, she situates the Roman empire in the wider context of other ancient Mediterranean empires (with occasional glances to early China), drawing attention, for example, to other imperial rituals (31-2), economies of violence (107-110), and interventions in local time-reckoning (136), especially in the imperial systems of ancient West Asia. This contextualization is an effective safeguard against a recurrent exceptionalism in the scholarship on the Roman empire. Nor does she lose sight of the violence and domination within which processes of acculturation were always embedded. This is another important corrective, since imperial coercion, force, fear, and alienation are often underplayed (or even ignored) in cultural histories of the Roman world.

More novel and distinctive is Dench's sustained attention to the Republican period, on the one hand, and to cultural change in Italy (and not just during the Republic), on the other. As she points out, much of the most influential scholarship has focused on either the Republic or the Empire; on either Italy or the provinces; or on either Roman politics and administration or provincial cultures (9-16). She traces these stubborn dichotomies back to Mommsen (10, n. 15), and then blows them up by seamlessly weaving her discussion in and out of these conventional silos. Nor is it any surprise, given her own areas of expertise, that many of the most arresting insights in the book emerge in discussions of the Republican period (e.g., on how the Republic, as a social and political form, was related to kingship, discursively, both by antithesis and by analogy, 23-8; on the problem of territoriality in a republican empire, 52-5; on the peculiar dynamics of Roman intervention in the Greek world in the 2nd century BCE, 87-94), or in treatments of evidence for political cultures in the Italian peninsula (e.g., the Ostian monument of C. Cartilius Poplicola, the eight-time duumvir and three-time censor of Ostia, 40-3; the urban form and political organization of Roman colonies in Italy, 63-71; the well-known inscription detailing the operations of the collegium of Diana and Antinous at Lanuvium, 101-4). Dench also illuminates the provincial cultures of the imperial period, of course, but the space devoted to Italy and to the Republican period gives the book an unusual, and welcome, orientation amongst the many other studies of acculturation in the Roman world.

Where the book is very much a part of this historiographical moment, however, is in its insistence on the local, in all of its complexity and specificity, as the essential lens through which to view the making of political cultures in the Roman world. This interpretive stance is clear throughout the book, evident in Dench's treatment of this or that episode, artefact, or process, in which we are shown, again and again, the "messiness of the contexts within which Roman imperial institutions developed" (29) and the "complexity of entangled phenomena" (156). Nor is the tight focus on the local just a matter of getting things right at the level of empirical detail. What Dench really wants to draw out is local agency, not only in the day-to-day running (in effect) of the Roman empire (e.g., 34-5, 158-9), but also in the production of meaning, especially in terms of her trio of analytical categories, statehood, peoplehood, and grouphood. Only through careful attention to local structures and agencies, she argues, can we avoid "minimizing the friction, interference, mishearing, and redirection of energy that needs to be reintroduced lest the machine becomes too close to the dystopian, science-fiction vision of The Matrix" (35).

The book can be seen, then, at least in part, as a "middle-ground" account of local culture in the Roman empire (cf. 46, with n. 43, drawing on Wright's influential study of European and Native American colonial encounters in the Great Lakes region), but it is one in which cultural production and local identity operates without reference to any one, totalizing vision of Romanness.

Dench frames her account, perhaps surprisingly, through a discussion of Haverfield's Romanization of Roman Britain (four editions, 1905-23) that is largely sympathetic, and that could even be read, at a stretch, as a rehabilitation of this much criticized work, "remarkable for its sophistication" in its use of anthropology and material culture (2-4), and "ahead of its time" in its "eschewal of a top-down model of the Roman empire" (155). The crucial departure from Haverfield comes with Dench's careful segregation of things and ideas, too often conflated in The Romanization of Roman Britain, and above all with her highlighting of plurality. For whereas Haverfield's slippage from things to (a too narrow set of) ideas led to a conceptualization of "Romanization" as the "erasure of local difference" (3), Dench places local difference at the heart of her vision of political cultures in the Roman world. As she puts it, "The plural 'cultures' of my title signals the centrality of plural languages and idioms within the Roman imperial world, along with the presence of competing states and systems of authority and belief" (16). As a result there is very little in the way of "being" or "becoming" Roman here.

Empire and Political Cultures in the Roman World is bound to be very widely read and influential on the next generation of Roman cultural historians, and that bodes well for future work in this field. It may be that Dench slightly understates the degree to which most local cultures in the Roman world were broadly patterned, at least in form, from one end of the empire to the other, and the ways in which all local cultures necessarily intersected with a single, metropolitan, Roman imperial culture. But we can never understand that patterning, and that intersection, if we do not interpret these local cultures with real sensitivity to the particularities and specificities of any one time, place, experience, and subjectivity. Dench has given us an excellent tool kit to do just that.

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