Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.07.33

A. J. S. Spawforth (ed.), The Court and Court Society in Ancient Monarchies.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2007.  Pp. xiii, 358.  ISBN 9780521874489.  $115.00.  

Reviewed by Rolf Strootman, Utrecht University (
Word count: 1929 words


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

The book under review is the result of a workshop held in 2004 in Newcastle, where seven scholars met to discuss and compare seven royal courts in different cultures and periods: the Achaemenid, Argead Macedonian, and Sassanid, early and late imperial Roman, Han Chinese and New Kingdom Egyptian. What these courts have in common, is that they formed the cores (with the exception of pharaonic Egypt) of imperial states.1 The Court and Court Society in Ancient Monarchies first of all aims at analyzing the political functioning of ancient imperial courts in a comparative perspective. It is furthermore an attempt to assign to the royal court a more central place in the study of ancient states (most of which were, after all, monarchical states) by making use of recent scholarship concerning the court in the early modern period. Ever since the seminal works of Jürgen von Kruedener (1973) and notably Norbert Elias (1969),2 historians studying the cultural and political history of Europe after the Middle Ages have understood the pivotal importance of the court for the functioning of monarchical states, and the number of publications is substantial. In the study of ancient states, the court has played a far less central role.

Given the prevalence of monarchy in the political history of the Ancient World, it is remarkable that royal courts have received such limited attention. Most literature on ancient courts is concerned with the institutional and prosopographical aspects of court society, the archaeology of palaces (including ideological readings of palace architecture and iconography), or, more recently, literary patronage. Attempts at analysis are still rare and aside from the odd obligatory reference to Elias most ancient historians still study their ancient courts in vacuo.3 In the past decades, moreover, many of Elias' ideas about the court have been adjusted or even completely rejected, in particular his fundamental theory that the court was a "gilded cage" for the nobility, an instrument in the hands of the king to subjugate unruly aristocrats and so establish absolutist rule. The obligatory presence at court, the restrictions of court etiquette and the heavy burden of status expenditures, with which the ruler supposedly tied down the nobility, probably burdened the aristocrats less than the king himself, being the person of highest status. It is doubtful whether kings in the age of absolutism really controlled their courts. Rather, the court is now seen as the arena where power was (re)negotiated and not always to the king's advantage. But the notion that absolutist claims in the "official" theory of kingship do not necessarily reflect absolutist power in actuality has yet to make its imprint on the field of ancient history.

In the introduction, Spawforth demonstrates that he is well aware of new developments in court studies, taking as his point of departure Elias as well as more recent research, notably the work of Jeroen Duindam.4 Spawforth defines a royal court broadly as "both the spatial framework of the ruler's existence and also the social configuration with which he shares that space", but with the important addition that this space was essentially a place for communication and negotiation: between on the one hand the ruler (and his entourage) and on the other hand various elites within the empire, envoys of foreign powers, and -- in the Late Roman and Han empires -- the state bureaucracy. In most cases, courtiers close to the king operated as brokers. A distinction is furthermore made between an inner court and an outer court. The first consists of the royal entourage (or household) that was permanently in the king's vicinity (including attendants and royal women), the second of those who were at court occasionally, particularly for specific 'great events' such as royal weddings or religious festivals. Another sensible notion is to consider the court as simultaneously a platform for political negotiations and monarchical representation. The latter aspect is neglected by Elias but forms an intrinsic component of Kruedener's model of the court. (Kruedener emphasized in particular the significance of the court for competition between kingdoms.)

From this well-considered methodological backdrop the contributors to the workshop were asked to reflect on two main questions: "whether it was legitimate to talk of a 'court' in the specific monarchy being discussed, and how crucial the ruler's court was for understanding the machinery of power in the double sense of actual decision-making and power's 'representation'" (p. 8). Issues to be considered were i.a. if there existed some contemporary notion of 'court', how courtiers were recruited, if a division into an inner and an outer court could be discerned, how physical access to the person of the king was articulated, and what symbolic meanings of the court surface in monarchical ritual and ceremonial.

The first contribution, by Maria Brosius, deals with the court of the Persian Achaemenids, discussing as well its Elamite, Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian precedents. Drawing on Achaemenid royal inscriptions, administrative cuneiform records (in particular the Persepolis Fortification Tablets), Greek historians and archaeology, Brosius discusses various aspects of the social composition and functioning of the court within its physical surroundings (the palaces of Susa, Ekbatana and, notably, Persepolis). Although apparently it remains difficult for the modern historian to make out the actual workings of power behind the smoke screen of the Persian "theatre of power" which presents the empire as a solid and harmonious unity and the king as a lofty autocrat in full control of the recruitment of his courtiers, Brosius reaches the interesting conclusion that through the court members of non-Persian elites were integrated in the empire. Whether this only "helped maintain the stability of the empire" (p. 56) or must also be seen in the context of a power struggle between the king and his Persian nobility remains an open question.

Josef Wiesehöfer's chapter on the court in the Sassanian Empire shows a keen awareness of the theoretical aspects of the study of the court. After a short history of the Sassanian monarchy and an overview of the (unbalanced and difficult to handle) sources, Wiesehöfer, too, discusses both the social composition of the court society as well as court ceremonial. In contrast to the Achaemenid Empire, the Sassanian Empire suffers from a relative lack of interest from modern historians and hence from a lack of secondary literature. Wiesehöfer contribution provides a preliminary survey of the evidence and concludes with recommendations for further research (e.g. on the interesting possibility of a mutual influence of Iranian and Byzantine court institutions) and an appeal for more archaeological research on Sassanian palace architecture and royal representation.

Tony Spawforth discusses aspects of the court culture of Alexander the Great, about which we are relatively well-informed. Focussing on public ceremonial, Spawforth places emphasis on the court's physical environment. Given the peripatetic nature of Alexander's court, and hence the absence of a central palace, royal receptions frequently took place in feasting- and audience-tents. Central to Spawforth's discussion is Alexander's gradual adoption of aspects of Achaemenid court ceremonial as a medium to consolidate his empire, in particular to pacify the Iranian aristocracy. As regards the success of Alexander's state-building Spawforth registers a non liquet because of the king's early death, but suggests (against the common opinion that Alexander was a failed empire-builder) that he could have been as successful in this respect as "his great predecessor in Asia as imperial conqueror, Cyrus the Great", had he ruled for about twenty-seven years, too.5 The chapter is followed by a collection of ancient texts describing audience-tents of Alexander and the Achaemenids, with translation and commentary.

The Roman imperial court is covered by two chapters. Jeremy Paterson deals with the creation and evolution of an imperial court in the early Principate, showing how court society, ceremonial and palace architecture developed from Hellenistic models to an ever-changing context for the negotiation of power between the emperor and various others. The principal argument is that the nature of imperial power did not fundamentally change in the course of the first century CE (often presented as "a gradual descent into absolutism" [p. 155]), but rather that the court changed and that the emperor adjusted his position within the court accordingly. This is one of the more successful contributions. With more sources at his disposal than Brosius, Wiesehöfer or even Spawforth, as well as a growing number of modern studies, Patterson offers an insightful analysis of the functioning of the Roman court. Rowland Smith then considers the 'absolutist' court in the later Roman empire (from Diocletian to the fall of the western empire), discussing the political context, palaces, the (changing) organization and social composition of the court elite, and, most extensively, court ceremonial and protocol. While showing that the development of the late Roman court was as dynamic as the early Roman court, Smith concludes that "Christianity did not exert a significant shaping influence on the structures and ceremonial of the court" (p. 231).

The chapter by Hans van Ess on the imperial court in Han China concentrates on the function of the court as a center for the brokerage of power. A typical feature of Han government was a conspicuous separation of bureaucracy and (inner) court, the latter coinciding with the palace. Originally, the outer court of magistrates and provincial administrator was composed mainly of members of the noble households, descendant from the retinue that helped the Han to attain power, who also monopolized court offices and thus dominated the emperor. From the accession of the emperor Wu in 141 BCE an examination system for career bureaucrats developed, giving the emperor more freedom in recruiting and manipulating officials, although from this professional bureaucracy eventually an oligarchy of powerful families developed, too.

The volume ends with a chapter by Kate Spence, who considers the court in pharaonic Egypt in the late Second Millennium BCE -- a difficult task since official royal texts rarely mention individuals other than the pharaoh: "building temples, fighting wars and performing ritual were recorded as historical events but were usually presented as if kings acted in isolation" (p. 267). Spence therefore focuses on the relatively well-documented court of the reformer Akhenaten at el-Amarna. As in most other ancient monarchies, courtiers in pharaonic Egypt doubled as administrators. Since priests played a crucial role in pharaonic administration, Spence interprets Akhenaten's abolition of the powerful priesthood of Amun -- normally considered as a religious measure -- as an effort by the king to shift the balance between himself and his officials, an active reform of the administration encountered more often in Egyptian history.

Overall, this volume is a valuable and stimulating contribution to the study of ancient politics. Its most striking feature is its coherence. The contributors really took to heart the preliminaries set out in the introduction, posing similar questions to divergent historical material, and often referring in-depth to theoretical literature on courts themselves.

Table of contents:

Tony Spawforth, 'Introduction', pp. 1-16.
Maria Brosius, 'New out of old? Court and court ceremonies in Achaemenid Persia', pp. 17-57.
Josef Wiesehöfer, 'King, court and royal representation in the Sassanian empire', pp. 58-81.
Tony Spawforth, 'The court of Alexander the Great between Europe and Asia', 82-120.
Jeremy Paterson, 'Friends in high places: The creation of the court of the Roman emperor', pp. 121-56.
Rowland Smith, 'The imperial court of the late Roman empire, c. AD 300-c. AD 450', pp. 157-232.
Hans van Ess, 'The imperial court in Han China', pp. 233-66.
Kate Spence, 'Court and palace in ancient Egypt: The Amarna period and later Eighteenth Dynasty', pp. 267-328.


1.   Conspicuously absent are the empires of the Hellenistic period, the "missing link" between on the one hand the Ancient Near Eastern and Achaemenid kingdoms, and on the other hand the Roman (and Parthian) Empire. In the introduction Spawforth justifies the omission at some length. Of course his own contribution on the court of Alexander the Great is 'Hellenistic', especially since he focuses on the interplay between Macedonian and Iranian influences at the Argead court.
2.   N. Elias, Die höfische Gesellschaft. Untersuchungen zur Soziologie des Königtums und der höfischen Aristokratie (Neuwied and Berlin 1969); J. von Kruedener, Die Rolle des Hofes im Absolutismus (Stuttgart 1973).
3.   One notable exception is A. Winterling, who has worked on both early modern German courts and the court of the Roman Empire; especially relevant for the volume under review is his '"Hof": Versuch einer idealtypischen Bestimmung anhand der mittelalterlichen und neufrühzeitlichen Geschichte', in: R. Butz, J. Hirschbiegel and D. Willoweit eds., Hof und Theorie (Cologne, Weimar, Vienna 2004) 77-90.
4.   Myths of Power: Norbert Elias and the Early Modern European Court (Amsterdam 1995); Vienna and Versailles: The Courts of Europe's Dynastic Rivals, 1559-1780 (Cambridge 2003).
5.   The success that Seleukos Nikator later had in cultivating, and winning the active military support, of members of the Iranian nobility supports at least the potential viability of Alexander's Iranian policy. In particular Seleukos' marriage at Susa with the Baktrian-Iranian noblewoman Apama (at the instigation of Alexander) was most helpful in this respect; his successors continued to create bonds with Iranian royal families through dynastic marriage.

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