Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.02.18


Claude Nicolet, Space, Geography, and Politics in the Early Roman Empire. Jerome Lectures 19. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991. Pp. x + 230. ISBN 0-472-10096-3.


Reviewed by T. Corey Brennan, Bryn Mawr College.

Some of the readers of BMCR already will be acquainted with the contents of Professor N[icolet]'s book. Space, Geography, and Politics is a translation (by Hélène Leclerc) of L'Inventaire du Monde: Géographie et Politique aux Origines de L'Empire Romain (Fayard 1988); an Italian edition appeared three years ago (Laterza 1989). The French version has received several full reviews, e.g. in RPh LXI (1988) 309-314 (J. Desanges) and JRS LXXX (1990) 178-182 (N. Purcell). I therefore will not attempt to summarize in detail all of N.'s main arguments: the RPh review does that quite well.

N.'s main subjects in this book are the state of geographical knowledge in the early Principate, the use of geography for Imperial propaganda, and Augustus' methods of territorial organization. I had the good fortune to be present when N. offered his five Jerome Lectures at the American Academy in Rome in October 1987, and I was able to discuss with the author some of the issues which came up at these talks. Like this book, Nicolet's lectures were dense and stimulating. N. presented to his audience a sometimes daunting array of texts and iconographic representations for consideration, ranging from the familiar (the Res Gestae, Pliny's description of the Map of Agrippa) to passages from late treatises such as the Cosmographia of Pseudo-Aethicus. My thought at the time was that the subject matter of N.'s lectures was not uniformly conducive to oral presentation (e.g. Eratosthenes' measurement of the world by cylindrical projection). Nevertheless, N.'s introduction of complex side-issues never obscured the main lines of his argument (on which, see below). Space, Geography, and Politics reproduces rather closely the Jerome Lectures as they were delivered (or at least as I remember them being delivered). N. has added numerous detailed notes (some of which might have been appendices, e.g. p. 91 n. 17), and -- one of his trademarks -- a very full bibliography (here, consisting of over 500 items). N. also thoughtfully has translated almost all the Greek and Latin passages he discusses, which makes his work accessible to scholars in fields other than Classics.

I do not think that I am the only person who will find Space, Geography, and Politics a difficult book to study. The main shortcoming is that neither L'Inventaire du Monde nor this volume has an Index Locorum, severely limiting its accessibility and usefulness. A few problems however are specific to the English version. The present volume unfortunately has omitted the (almost necessary) 'Table des Matières' to each densely-packed chapter. The translation is sometimes over-literal, especially in the (extensive) footnotes: in several places (e.g. p. 52 n. 37) it is hard to understand N.'s point without looking at the French. The Index we do get is much less satisfactory than in the original. Only the most well-known ancient authors have been retained: to take a random example, we are on our own to find the three places where the geographer Alexander Lychnos of Ephesus comes up (pp. 64, 66, 80). Many important subject-headings also have fallen out, especially those discussed mostly in the Notes. This is a pity: to find N.'s (excellent) discussion of sun-dials, one must know enough to look under Facundus Novius (the astrologer who designed Augustus' horologium). The fifty-odd illustrations (of varying quality and relevance) are all found at the back of the volume, and are not very well integrated with the text. Though I may be mistaken, I am not sure whether all of them in fact are referred to in the text. Why is there not even a list of plates?

This is not to denigrate the actual content of Space, Geography, and Politics, which asks many important questions. N. justifiably complains that previous work in Roman administrative history has done little to delineate "the real administrative workings of so vast a territorial empire; that is, how the contacts between the administrators and the administered were organized and handled; how information necessary for decision making was gathered and circulated, and how commands or instructions reached their destination" (p. 10). N. himself does not fully address all these questions: indeed, that would be too much to expect from a book which ostensibly is the publication of a series of lectures. Nevertheless, what N. does offer in Space, Geography, and Politics is a detailed exposition of some suggestions offered nine years ago in a short article, "L'Empire romain: espace, temps et politique" (Ktèma 8 (1983) 163-173). In this piece, N. argued that the text of the Res Gestae justifies Augustus' boast in the preface, 'orbem terrarum imperio Romano subiecit'. The catalogue of Augustus' military and diplomatic successes, coupled with the list of his geographical explorations, substantiates the claim that he had extended the influence of the imperium p.R. over the known limits of the inhabited world. N. also suggested that with Augustus we can trace the emergence of "une saisie nouvelle et un contrôle statistique de l'espace physique et social, qui ont développè à leur tour les instruments documentaires d'une bureaucratie sophistiquée." N. pointed out that under Augustus we find a boom in cadastral activity; the division of Rome and Italy into (respectively) 14 and 11 administrative regiones; and, throughout the Empire, a concerted effort to collect demographic and financial information from all the territory under Roman control. In short, Augustus aimed at "maîtrise intellectuelle et statistique de l'espace physique et humaine de l'empire [et] ... maîtrise matérielle des distances." The Ktèma article served as a blueprint for what was to be N.'s 1987 Jerome Lectures, and thus the present book.

N., in the first five chapters of this book, essentially further develops an argument made almost thirty years ago by P.A. Brunt (JRS LIII (1963) 170-176 = Roman Imperial Themes (Oxford 1990) 96-109). Brunt maintained that the predictions of imperium sine fine and the like found in the Augustan poets as late as 2 BC (Ovid AA I 171ff) should not be interpreted as gross adulatio, but as accurate reflections of contemporary expectations of world conquest, not incompatible with Augustus' own. In making his case, Brunt appealed to symbols of imperialistic ambition such as the Map of Agrippa, a veritable billboard advertising Rome's progress toward world domination, set up in the Porticus Vipsania by Augustus himself sometime after 7 BC. Space, Geography, and Politics is very much concerned with symbolic representations of this type (including the Republican precedents). It also treats the surge in practical knowledge in the late Republic and early Principate which encouraged Rome's far-reaching territorial ambitions. N. describes the various media by which foreign conquests and newly-gained geographical knowledge were physically represented to the urbs (Chapters I-II; V) and the actual exploratory expeditions of the early Empire (Chapters III-IV). N. also briefly reexamines some of the poetic "predictions" of universal conquest (pp. 39, 43-45, 111, 114).

In Chapters VI-IX N. discusses the methods used by Rome to control its territory: the census, cadastral surveys, and (under Augustus) the creation of new administrative districts in Rome and Italy. N., in an interesting discussion, holds that the creation in Rome and Italy of new statistical districts, that is, numbered regiones -- "a word borrowed from the vocabulary of the geometers" -- signals a real break from the old system of tribes and centuries. In the early Principate "administration ... begins to pattern itself on space more than on people." The tribes and centuries, "which favored men instead of space, and social and legal status instead of topography", are now "reduced to a purely honorific role" (p. 202). This, it is claimed with some justice, was consequential: "the appearance of regions ... foreshadows the day -- a mere century later -- when Italy would be a mere province among others" (p. 204).

We also find around the time of Augustus' principate an important procedural change in the census. "The municipalities are carrying out their own census not only when one happens at Rome but according to their own rhythm" (p. 131), and sending a copy of their records to a central archive in Rome. This development, already adumbrated to a certain extent in the Tabula Heracleensis from Lucania (Bruns 7 18, between 81 and 45 BC), aimed to "substitute the mobility of documents for the mobility of people, [and to] decentralize the operations in order to centralize the results." N. becomes almost metaphysical at this point in his argument: "the empire could not function without a series of representations where the clear consciousness of space depended on the primacy of the document" (p. 202). I am not quite sure what this statement means (the French does not help): if N. is saying that it was impractical at this point for the vast majority of cives to come to Rome at census-time to make a declaration, as they had in the mid-Republic (Cic. Pro Caec. 99, on which see N. p. 126), I agree with him. (There are a good number of similarly abstruse statements throughout this book.)

N. states (with excessive modesty) that "an inquiry such as this at least has the advantage of forcing the historian to venture onto the less familiar grounds of related disciplines", i.e. ancient geography and the science of land-surveying. His inquiry obviously does much more. N.'s book is a most impressive piece of scholarship, gathering together much recondite and/or difficult material and forming it into a coherent whole. I found the subject matter of Chapters VI-IX particularly cheering. The administrative history of Rome, though worth studying for its own sake, is a field which tends to be undervalued and ignored, compared to political, social, military and even legal history. One reason for this is the sheer bulk and variety of evidence. Another (paradoxically) is the widespread perception that what really matters has already been done. In fact, there is need of much more work, especially the work of synthesis. Space, Geography, and Politics performs this task exceptionally well.