ElAnt v6n1 - REVIEWS: Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire

Volume 6, Number 1
July 2001

Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire, Clifford Ando. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2000. ISBN 0-520-22067-6. Pp. xxii + 494.

Reviewed by J. B. Rives
York University, Toronto

This long and complex book is by turns exciting, stimulating, frustrating, and irritating. Ando addresses issues that are of central concern to anyone interested in the Roman empire, and provides fresh insights that constitute a significant contribution to the field. At the same time, he makes considerable demands on the reader, and in the end I felt that I had had to work much harder with rather less to show for it than I had expected.

As Ando says in his preface, this book is meant to sketch an approach to answering the question 'why did the empire last so long?' (xiii). That is to say, 'what induced the quietude and then the obedience of her subjects?', or more particularly, what were the mechanisms that allowed for Romanization, 'a process that transformed the empire from an imperium, a collection of conquered provinces, into a patria, a focus for the patriotic loyalties of its subjects' (xi)? Such questions, posed in a variety of forms, have long been a major focus of Roman historians and lie at the heart of much recent work on Romanization, imperialism, and the nature of Roman rule. Ando's answer focuses on two main elements: the figure of the emperor as a source of unity and the willingness of Rome's subjects to accept and act on its claims to rational governance. As for the first element, it was 'the position of Augustus atop the empire' that 'allowed the Mediterranean world to share a deity for the first time' (407); the varied customs and observances that make up what we call imperial cult 'continually brought the existence of both emperor and empire before the mind of the individual provincial' and so 'enabled him to see himself as a member of a larger, regularly reconstituted community' (408). As for the second element, Roman power was expressed not only through brute force, but also and more importantly through legal standards and bureaucratic norms that Roman subjects could themselves learn and exploit in various ways. Here again the pivotal figure was Augustus, who claimed that 'he himself was subject to the law, while all other agents of the government were answerable to him' and who initiated 'the extension of Roman law and its principles to the outer edges of his empire' (409). These two elements are in fact intimately interconnected, since 'the charismatic power of the imperial office guaranteed the orderly functioning of the Roman bureaucracy' while at the same time 'the continued functioning of that bureaucracy strengthened people's faith in the imperial office' (410).

Although these conclusions are not in themselves entirely novel, the mode of analysis that Ando uses to reach them is much more distinctive; it is here that his most valuable contribution lies. Ando insists that 'to answer these questions we must first understand that provincial obedience to Roman domination was an ideological construct, its realization dependent on many people's sharing a complex of beliefs that sanctioned a particularly Roman notion of social order' (5). Hence the title of the book, and hence the more particular question that Ando seeks to answer: how was this ideological construct put together? What elements constituted its structural framework? Ando develops his response in a series of ten chapters, organized into three main parts with a brief introduction and conclusion.

After the introduction, in which he sets out the main themes and provides an overview of his arguments, Ando focuses in Part One, 'Ancient and Modern Contexts', on the content and context of Roman propaganda. Its first chapter, 'Ideology in the Roman Empire', begins with a discussion of theoretical issues around the application of ideological analysis to the Roman imperial government. Following Weber, he suggests the emperor's authority was effective for different reasons among different constituencies: the senate understood it as having a rational basis, the army as having a traditional basis, and the population of the provinces as charismatic (25). The rest of the chapter is devoted to an analysis of 'the charismatic nature of the imperial office' (28), particularly in the problems of succession and legitimacy. In the second chapter, 'The Roman Achievement in Ancient Thought', Ando reviews a wide range of literary texts expressing the attitudes that people within the empire had towards Rome. He revisits several familiar themes (the benefits of the Roman peace, the extension of citizenship) to suggest that 'the identification . . . of shared interests between citizen and subject under the empire' resulted in a tendency to regard Rome as the communis patria of the world (68-9).

In the long second part, 'Consensus and Communication', which makes up half the book, Ando explores in four chapters the mechanics of how Roman ideology was spread and established among the subjects of the empire. The first chapter, 'The Communicative Actions of the Roman Government', is key. Taking his cue from the work of Habermas, Ando proposes a novel analysis of the various products of Roman rule that focuses not on their specific practical functions but on their role as communicative actions serving to integrate the inhabitants of the empire into a Roman model of history and geography. As he rightly points out, the Roman government did not generate these documents for the sake of historians, present or future. 'Rather, it sought in the first instance to justify and to contextualize the content of the document at hand: a new tax, a census, the announcement of a victory, a birth in the imperial household. Each new piece of information formed part of the larger history of the imperial commonwealth. Imperial guardianship of the empire, though expressed through specific acts of generosity or battles on particular borders, became a benefit for all through a process of universalization, while a barrage of images in everyday life endowed the residents of the empire with a shared iconographic language through which they could share their emperor. Similarly, the harmless, almost imperceptible accumulation of data in administrative texts created a sense of inevitable continuity at the heart of the empire: just as the government both distributed and honored legal documents, so each text originated with an emperor who succeeded to his predecessor's obligations even as he succeeded to his powers. Just as a historical narrative can tell the story of, and so can construct, a community, so an awareness of a shared history is constitutive of one. Within this model each document becomes a piece in a mosaic whose overall pattern did not require articulation and which, in all probability, lay just outside the conscious awareness of those whose world it circumscribed and depicted' (118).

I have quoted this passage at length because it seems to me to summarize Ando's overall approach and to highlight his most important insight: that the mass of documents that has come down to us is not merely bureaucratic bric-a-brac, but the very stuff through which Roman imperial ideology was actualized and provincial identification with Rome achieved. Ando develops this insight across a huge range of material and contexts. In the remainder of the chapter on communicative actions, he addresses various practical questions about the distribution, preservation, and availability of documents as well as their role in shaping provincials' understanding of themselves and the empire. In the second chapter, 'Consensus in Theory and Practice', he discusses the ways that emperors presented themselves in autobiographies and letters and the ways that the senate and other bodies responded with decrees, all of which worked to create 'a culture of loyalism'. The following chapter, 'The Creation of Consensus', turns from documents to actions, and presents studies of three particular practices: the offering to the emperor of aurum coronarium to celebrate notable events, the progress of emperors (and pretenders) through provinces and cities, and the practice of acclamation. In the last chapter of Part Two, 'Images of Emperor and Empire', Ando addresses the role of iconography, especially imperial portraits.

In the third part, 'From Imperium to Patria', Ando explores two contexts in which the juridical distinction between citizen and non-citizen gave way to a new sense of the empire as a community in which everyone, regardless of citizen status, had an equal share. The first chapter, 'Orbis Terrarum and Orbis Romanus', examines the gradual transformation of Roman triumphal art, particularly the use of simulacra gentium, the personifications of various peoples and regions. While these were originally used to illustrate Roman victories and so bolster the claim to rule by divine favor, they were eventually adopted by provincials themselves to depict the community of the Roman empire. It was Hadrian who incorporated this new meaning into official media such as coinage, thereby signifying a new conception of the empire on the part of its rulers. The next and last full chapter, 'The King is a Body Politick . . . for that a Body Politique Never Dieth', turns back to the figure of the emperor and his role as a focus of unity for all the inhabitants of the empire. The short conclusion, from which I have quoted above, does a good job at summing up some of the book's major themes and arguments.

Although this brief summary hardly does justice to this long and complex work, it perhaps gives some indication of its tremendous range. Ando brings into the discussion a wealth of material taken from literary, legal, epigraphic, papyrological, numismatic, and archaeological sources. Moreover, he uses his insights about the function of communicative actions and the creation of consensus to present even apparently banal items in a new and exciting light. His comment on milestones, so easy to dismiss as the dullest of inscriptions, provides a good example. 'No mere sample of milestones can do justice to the experience of walking a Roman road: a series of such inscriptions, recording the emperor who built and the emperors who repaved the road, their titulature boasting their ancestry and their conquests, constituted in itself a lesson in the history of one's empire' (322). The book is filled with observations of this sort, that encourage us to think again about the cumulative significance of items that on their own can seem trivial. The range of material that Ando discusses is matched by his chronological coverage. He covers almost the entire imperial period from Augustus to Theodosius, with plenty of incursions back to Cicero and forward to Augustine. Lastly, his familiarity with the ancient sources is matched by his familiarity with the scholarship, as suggested by his lengthy footnotes and thirty-five page bibliography.

No book is perfect, however, and this one is no exception. To me, its most obvious as well as most irritating fault lies in its presentation: this is a difficult and fatiguing book to read. There are several reasons for this. First, Ando sometimes frames his analyses at a level of abstraction that I find more confusing than enlightening. To take one example more or less at random: 'The rituals that marked passage into the Roman community are likely to have mirrored the ideological associations of the rituals through which members symbolically reenacted their commitment to that community' (338). Now with some effort I can figure this out, but having to do so makes me grumpy. There is actually much less of this type of thing than I initially feared, but it unfortunately tends to come when one is most ready for a handy map to help one navigate the masses of evidence. There is quite a bit of it in the first two chapters, for example, which did much to dampen the enthusiasm generated by the ideas presented in the first few pages. It would in fact be not at all a bad strategy to start the book by reading the conclusion. The second problem is that there are too many long stretches of primary material with too few reminders of what they are meant to illustrate. It is true that in some respects the abundance of evidence adds to the book's utility, since it can serve as a handy reference on a wide range of topics; the thorough indices facilitate its use in this way. Yet the mass of material does tend to bog down the presentation of ideas. Again and again I found myself at the end of lengthy review of evidence with only a vague sense of what it was evidence for. As a result, attempts to follow the overall movement of the argument are often noticeably, and at times I felt needlessly, laborious.

A second criticism is more substantial if less plangent. The problem that Ando sets himself is two-fold: how did the Roman rulers win the assent of their subjects, and how was the empire transformed from an imperium to a communis patria? These two questions are of course inextricably intertwined, and an answer to the one must also address the other. But it seems to me that the answers should look rather different: whereas the former could reasonably focus on the analysis of practices, the latter should highlight the diachronic dimension and trace shifts in those practices over time. It is this diachronic element that I gradually came to miss in Ando's work. This is not at all because he privileges one period over others; as I have indicated, the chronological sweep of his book is impressive. Yet he uses it most commonly to demonstrate that the same or similar operations were in effect in all periods, so that it is difficult to get a sense of how the empire in the reign of Theodosius differed from the empire in the reign of Augustus. He does indeed identify certain significant shifts, notably when Hadrian adopts the new provincial treatment of simulacra gentium to symbolize the members of the imperial community rather than the objects of Roman military success (316-20; cf. 410). Yet this particular shift stands out in his analysis precisely because so few others are noted. No doubt we are meant to understand that it was the gradual operation of the processes revealed by Ando that brought about the transformation of the empire. As he himself says in the first sentence of Part One, 'No date identifies that moment when Rome ceased to rule her subjects through coercion and began to rely on their good will; no event marked the transformation of her empire from an aggregate of ethnic groups into a communis patria' (19). Nevertheless, I would have welcomed more attention to the diachronic aspect of the issues he addresses.

Ando's synchronic approach to his subject combines with his somewhat laborious presentation to give his book a static and monolithic quality that is curiously at odds with its proclaimed interest in complex interactive processes. 'Static' is perhaps not the right word: Ando's favored themes (the charismatic authority of the emperor, the creation of consensus, the function of communicative actions) appear again and again in varying constellations, but they often seem to lead back to one another instead of working together to reach some further goal. Perhaps this reflects Althusser's paradox of ideology that Ando quotes more than once (e.g., 20), that those within it are 'always already subjects'. Perhaps my dissatisfaction arises from my own privileging of the diachronic as the chief mode of historical analysis. But whatever the reason, I often found the book almost as frustrating as enlightening.

Tastes differ, however, and the qualities of the book that I found off-putting may to other people make it all the more appealing. There is certainly little question that it represents a significant contribution to the study of the Roman empire. Ando's exploration of the ideological construct that allowed for provincial obedience to and identification with Rome is provocative and insightful, and will no doubt serve to advance debate to a new level.

by Kaavya Giridhar