BMCR 2007.10.54

La circulation de l’information dans les états antiques. Ausonius Éditions, Études 14

, , , , La circulation de l'information dans les États antiques : actes de la Table ronde La circulation de l'information dans les structures de pouvoir antiques, Institut Ausonius, Pessac, 19-20 janvier 2002 .... Études / Ausonius, 14. Paris: Ausonius, 2006. 1 vol. (228 p.) : ill. ; 24 cm.. ISBN 2910023877 €35.00.

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

It is a simple and acknowledged truth that no government can operate, let alone impose its will on a population, without a steady flow of information to and from its local representatives. The nature of this information as well as its manner of transmission are a testimony to a government’s priorities and limitations, to social and intellectual structures, as well as to the available technology. La circulation de l’information dans les états antiques collects ten papers originally presented at a roundtable at the Institut Ausonius (Pessac) in 2002, which present stimulating analyses of the transmission of information within ancient administrations. Although the cases covered range from Sargon II’s Nineveh to the Constantinian Church, this volume holds together very well, and will be a welcome read for anyone interested in ancient communication, power structures or institutions.

The editors invite readers (Capdetrey’s introduction, 9) to consider this book together with another collection of papers, L’écriture publique du pouvoir, also published in this series, which examines the relationship between power and writing in societies from the ancient Near East to Ancient Régime France (BMCR 2005.09.17). Readers familiar with this former volume will find La circulation de l’information dans les états antiques more focused, more technical, and less theory-driven. It is also exclusively about the ancient world. The present studies contribute to a slowly growing corpus of new scholarship devoted to communications in ancient administrations, represented above all by the monographs of C. Nicolet, W. Eck and A. Kolb on the Roman state, as well as the two collective volumes of La mémoire perdue.1

The avowed goal of this collection is not to present the state of the research but to bring together various points of view on the internal discourse and communications of ancient states for a fruitful dialogue (13). Contributions sit well together, a tribute to the theme and to the editors, and they are well-balanced between geographical areas. While some papers are concerned with the internal discourse created by the circulation of information within administrative structures, others examine who the carriers of information were, and the ways information was archived or retrieved by administrators. All in all, the different papers have wider implications than their direct object of study and should be read together. The book is divided into a non-Roman section (“L’orient, la cité grecque et le monde hellénistique”) and a section on the Roman empire (“Rome et le monde romain”), but the integrated nature of the collection makes this division somewhat artificial. Here follows a summary of each contribution.

In a volume largely devoted to the Greco-Roman world, Villard’s piece on royal correspondence in the Neo-Assyrian kingdom seems at first to be the odd one out, yet it contributes nicely to the overall theme. Primarily because of the available evidence, Villard focuses on the different types of messages that were addressed to kings, as well as their manner of transmission. By comparing Neo-Assyrian documents with those from eighteenth-century Mari, Villard concludes that the difference between the information systems of Mari and Assyria is essentially one of scale, complexity, and reliability (the comparison between these two states so apart in time is of course fragile, but reveals many close parallels). This issue would benefit from future research, and so does Villard’s assertion that the Persian postal system is close to its Assyrian predecessor: the implications for the history of communications in the Near East are enormous. A selection of relevant documents from the British Museum’s Assyrian and Babylonian Letters and from the State Archives of Assyria completes the article, a welcome touch for the non-specialist.

C. Pébarthe and M. Faraguna offer complementary points of view on information available to those making state decisions in Greek cities. Pébarthe’s article (35-51) investigates how much economic information fifth-century Athenians possessed before taking part in debates in the assembly, and what role this information played during the debates. Arguing against the view, held by some scholars,2 that specialized orators held sway over ignorant citizens, Pébarthe claims that a significant number of citizens at the assembly were familiar with economic issues by virtue of their profession or by involvement in state affairs. Economic information circulated either orally or in written form (magistrates’ accounts, decrees proposed, etc.). Pébarthe asserts (rightly in my view) that orators had to mold their speeches to the people’s ethos, but this point deserves to be explored more fully.

Faraguna (53-71) revisits the issue of archives in Greek city-states and shows an intensification of archiving practices from archaic to Hellenistic times. Textual and epigraphic evidence points to the preservation of laws, decrees, and various judicial acts of magistrates and tribunals, from the archaic period on (59). Faraguna’s article shows that administration and bureaucracy in Greek cities was more complex than was previously thought, with the fifth century marking a significant leap in the use of written documents. Much of the evidence comes from Athens, which may be atypical, but there is enough evidence from other cities to make the case persuasive for most Greek city-states.

In the final paper on Greek cities, N. Massar (73-87) looks at Hellenistic decrees honoring individuals, transmitted from a deme to its city or between cities. Both examples underline the city’s control of public honor and public discourse. A deme that wished to honor a citizen could only get its decree legitimized by getting the assembly’s approval (78), and sometimes the city would follow with a decree of its own (76). Cities also honored foreign citizens by transmitting a decree to their home city, but this communication was often a pretext for establishing and maintaining diplomatic relations (81ff).

Both J.-M. Bertrand and L. Capdetrey discuss the circulation of documents in the Hellenistic monarchies, with a special emphasis on the Seleucid kingdom. Bertrand’s contribution (89-104) demonstrates that Josephus’ account of Antiochus IV directly addressing his local representatives in response to a request made by the Samaritans (Josephus Ant. Jud. 12.258-64) is not only genuine, but also a standard Seleucid practice. This demonstration follows, and is overshadowed by, an insightful overview of the different channels of communication between Hellenistic kings and subordinates in their administration (in effect, examples come from the Ptolemaic and Seleucid monarchies exclusively). Bertrand shows that a king could hand down his directives through regular administrative echelons, or, alternatively, that he could bypass regular channels to contact a local representative directly. Each kind of transmission legitimized the king’s order by advertising the state’s administrative structure, or inversely by putting forward the king’s personality.

Capdetrey (105-25) casts his net wider and seeks to understand the status of documents in the Seleucid administration and, by studying the circulation of documents, the state’s relationship with its territory (106). Capdetrey portrays the Seleucid administration as more similar to the Ptolemaic one than is usually thought. The documents addressed by the king to his subordinates fall into categories familiar to students of Ptolemaic Egypt; archives at all administrative levels make the Seleucid monarchy as “paperassière” as its Ptolemaic counterpart. Capdetrey’s study of the circulation of documents show orders circulating quickly between royal agents. Unfortunately, the paper suffers from addressing too many issues at once. Problems such as the royal post (115) need to be explained further, while one would feel more evidence is needed for issues such as the communication between king and governor (122).

The first Roman paper is B. Rankov’s piece on the frumentarii (129-40), which provides a useful reevaluation of the role of messengers played by various military corps, from Augustus to Diocletian. Some of the main conclusions have already been stated elsewhere.3 Arguing against the view that the frumentarii were subordinates of the emperor only, Rankov shows that they were in fact part of the provincial officia while in the provinces and part of the Castra Peregrina when at Rome. Because of this position, frumentarii formed the main line of communication between the emperor and provincial governors (138).

Moving down the administrative ladder from the imperial to the provincial level, J. Nelis-Clément and R. Haesch investigate provincial governors and procurators as information recipients. Nelis-Clément (141-60) sees the governor’s office as the main communication node between provincials and emperor. The argument is not new, but the evidence put forward is both wide-ranging and evocative. As should be expected, however, provincials occasionally sought to bypass the governor and work through representatives at Rome (147). In view of the political links between Roman patrons and provincial clients under the Republic, this is not a surprising development.

Haensch (161-76) breaks new ground by investigating how procurators gathered information in their provinces. The procurator’s instrumenta included administrative documents such as reports of delegates sent on inspection and maybe reports from publicani and city magistrates, as well as various routine documents kept in archives. Travel was another means of gathering information. Procurators’ travels are more difficult to establish than the governors’, although by Late Antiquity they seemed to have traveled regularly in their provinces (167). Collaboration between the procurator and the governor seems to have been kept to a minimum, and the former was informed of the governor’s actions through letters and by some limited exchange of personnel.

Finally, C. Sotinel (177-94) traces how the control of information in Christian Churches is indicative of power structures. Specifically, Sotinel studies the difference in communication between Churches in the pre- and post-Constantinian eras. The third century is illustrated by Cyprian’s letters alone, which reveal that communication between regional Churches was prompted above all by crises. The goal of sending information to other Christian communities was to establish unity beyond the local level in the face of challenges to authority by local Churches (183). The advent of the “imperial” Church with Constantine of course brought about a greater flow of communications, but, as Sotinel shows from studying local awareness of decisions taken at the council of Nicea, only decisions in which emperors had a vested interest were broadly advertised across the empire. Other decisions were transmitted haphazardly from bishop to bishop (190).

The volume is completed by a general bibliography, an apposite choice given the overlapping nature of some papers. Indices of primary sources, names and place-names, technical terms, and topics complete the volume.

In view of the close relationship of the papers collected in this volume, the absence of a general conclusion is to be regretted. A reader will have no difficulty discerning recurrent themes and issues throughout the book, which it would have been worthwhile to comment upon. For example, official and unofficial channels of communication were employed by individuals of different status seeking access to the Assyrian and Seleucid kings, as well as to Roman emperors. Also, it is revealing that soldiers often played the role of messengers in the monarchies covered in this volume, but are seemingly absent from the Greek city-states.

The papers presented at the 2002 roundtable seem to have been unevenly updated for this edition. Most have revised their footnotes to keep up with current research, albeit some only indicate work published by the authors themselves. Only the editors’ own papers show awareness of what other contributors to this volume have to say about the issues they cover. Finally, there are some discrepancies between the two sections of the book: whereas ancient place-names are not italicized in the first section, they are in the second (albeit irregularly), and while Rankov’s article was translated from English into French, Faraguna’s contribution was left in Italian.

These minor irritants do not diminish the overall quality of the book, nor its contribution to scholarship. It should appeal to scholars specializing in ancient communications and power structures, but will be read with profit by anyone with an interest in ancient governance. The complementary nature of the papers makes this collection a good starting point for those who want to understand how various ancient states dealt with information.

I noted two misprints: a “du” is missing on p. 109 after “la faiblesse de l’encadrement”; a parenthesis is missing before “On notera que la traduction” on p. 179.


Laurent Capdetrey: Introduction

I. L’orient, la cité grecque et le monde hellénistique

Pierre Villard: Acheminement et réception de la correspondance royale dans l’empire néo-assyrien

Christophe Pébarthe: La circulation de l’information dans la cité et l’adoption d’un décret à Athènes: le cas des décisions économiques et financières à l’époque de Périclès

Michele Faraguna: Gli archivi e la polis (problemi nuovi e vecchi alla luce di alcuni recenti documenti

Natacha Massar: La circulation des décrets dans les cités et entre cités à l’époque hellénistique

Jean-Marie Bertrand: Réflexions sur les modalités de la correspondance dans les administrations hellénistiques. La réponse donnée par Antiochos IV Épiphane à une requête des Samaritains (Flavius Josèphe, Antiquités juives 12.258-264)

Laurent Capdetrey: Pouvoir et écrit: production, reproduction et circulation des documents dans l’administration séleucide

II. Rome et le monde romain

Boris Rankov: Les Frumentarii et la circulation de l’information entre les empereurs romains et les provinces

Jocelyne Nelis-Clément: Le gouverneur et la circulation de l’information dans les provinces romaines sous le Haut-Empire

Rudolf Haensch: La gestion financière d’une province romaine: les procurateurs entre résidences fixes et voyages d’inspection

Claire Sotinel: La circulation de l’information dans les Églises.


1. C. Nicolet, L’inventaire du monde: Géographie et politique aux origines de l’Empire romain (Paris, 1998).W. Eck, Die Verwaltung des römischen Reiches in der hohen Kaiserzeit : Ausgewählte und erweiterte Beiträge 1 and 2 (Basel and Berlin, 1995 and 1997). A. Kolb, Transport und Nachrichtentransfer im römischen Reich (Berlin, 2000). La mémoire perdue I: À la recherche des archives oubliées, publiques et privées de la Rome antique (Paris, 1994). La mémoire perdue II: Recherches sur l’administration romaine (Paris, 1998).

2. L. Kallet-Marx, “Money Talks: Rhetor, Demos, and the Resources of the Athenian Empire,” in Ritual, Finance, Politics: Athenian Democratic Accounts Presented to David Lewis, ed. R. Osborne and S. Hornblower (Oxford, 1994), 227-51. J. Ober, “Public Speech and the Power of the People in Democratic Athens,” in The Athenian Revolution: Essays on Ancient Greek Democracy and Political Theory (Princeton, 1996), 18-31.

3. N.B. Rankov, ” Frumentarii, the Castra Peregrina and the provincial officia, ZPE 80 (1990), 176-82, and in N.J.E. Austin and N.B. Rankov, Exploratio: Military and Political Intelligence in the Roman World from the Second Punic War to the Battle of Adrianople (London and New York, 1995), 136ff.