BMCR 2017.09.50

Cosmopolitanism and Empire: Universal Rulers, Local Elites, and Cultural Integration in the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean. Oxford studies in early empires​

, , , Cosmopolitanism and Empire: Universal Rulers, Local Elites, and Cultural Integration in the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean. Oxford studies in early empires​. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. xi, 282. ISBN 9780190465667. $85.00.

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

Cosmopolitanism and Empire is a book of immense analytic depth and vision. The merits of its individual contributions play a key role. Yet, the book is more than the sum of its parts. Devoted to comparative and integrative approaches, its contributions are in a constant close dialogue with one another. One cannot complain of any lack of cohesion.

The book’s internal dialectic yields an unexpected dividend. It highlights how the intimacies of cosmopolitanism and empire in antiquity have bearing on today’s world. Since 1945, appeals to transnational principles of arbitration, ethics, and multiculturalism have taken many forms. But while being egalitarian and principled in avowed intent, these too have arguably been driven by social inequities (international and intra-national), the demands of capitalism and its elite interests, and thinly veiled imperialisms. So ancient cosmopolitanism may have something to teach us about our current global situation. Nowadays scholars of antiquity are often questioned on the relevance of their disciplines. Cosmopolitanism and Empire provides a compelling response.

In the introductory chapter, the editors highlight the book’s focus on the cultural practices that enabled “states and their ruling elites to manage cultural difference.” They identify as “cosmopolitan” the “people or polities who freely cross cultural boundaries” so that an imperial elite can mesh within states defined by internal heterogeneity (2). They offer four general conclusions (3-7). First, cosmopolitan practices and interactions were essential (though not exclusively so) for imperial cohesion. Second, elite integration operated through the formation of common cultures (assimilation) or the management of differences within a shared normative framework (subordination) by imperial authorities, usually in some combination. Third, cosmopolitanism never entirely effaced local differences despite its ecumenical message. Fourth, integrative approaches highlight how empires could interact or borrow institutions, ideas, or practices from one another. While summarizing the individual contributions, the editors thereafter describe how assimilation or subordination characterized various ancient empires, including some that are not treated in their own separate chapters here.

Yet as mentioned, the editors have their sights on the current global context, too. Cosmopolitan thinking is not value neutral (7-9). Anchored in ancient Greek premises of beliefs and practices that all humans could share, it governed Kant’s vision of peaceful interactions among modern states. It has also become a staple of post-war thinking after the nationalist catastrophes of the 20 th century. But it is not beyond critique. Arguably reflecting a western vision of humanity, its premises have served national (and even imperial) interests or capitalist, moneyed expectations (also noted at Ando, 174; Bang, 232-33 and 237-38). So the intervention of ancient historians is warranted. Though they too have often celebrated cosmopolitanism without analyzing it, they still can communicate the profound historical ties that have bound cross-cultural interactions, ecumenical visions, and the maintenance of empires (9-10). Cosmopolitanism is not always what it seems.

This brings us to the individual contributions, and the disparities of power through which ancient cosmopolitanism did its imperial work. Seth Richardson details how the Assyrian empire, which set so many imperial precedents, never fashioned a truly cosmopolitan elite. Instead of crafting a strong sense of shared identity, local elites (if we can call them that, detailed on 37-54) competed ruthlessly for legitimizing “confidence” from their king (54-62). But too much compliance could undermine their local authority too, and Assyrian rulers only recognized later in the empire, if at all, that the local credibility of elites was contingent on their appearance of non-collusion (59 and 62-64).

Kathryn Stevens and Johannes Haubold focus attention on local elites, especially Babylonians, in the Seleucid empire. Stevens draws comparisons between Akkadian texts of priests at Uruk (71-77) and Greek inscriptions from Lindos and Halicarnassus in Asia Minor (77-82). These documents reflect how Greek and Babylonian elites emphasized enduring local particularity under the umbrella of empire, both past and present. Intriguingly, Seleucid kings and predominantly Greek administrators supported and even invested materially in such local self-perceptions in ways that promoted interaction between the royal dynasty and diverse subordinate communities and complicit elites (82-88). Local elites thus embodied the normative framework of the Seleucid empire, but did not have a shared identity.

Haubold treats the 3 rd -century priest Berossus and his history of Babylon (the fragmentary Babyloniaca). Berossus composed the work in Greek in order to situate his priestly colleagues (apparently with limited success) in the “dominant discourse of Greek cosmopolitan elites” (93). But he also depicted the “friends” of past Babylonian kings as aiding them in governance, or otherwise undermining it, while the elites at Babylon conferred royal legitimacy and maintained stability for their kings there (93-98). Intriguingly, Seleucid kings shared in this vision, and so Antiochus III participated in sacred rites at Babylon in 187 BCE, where he was gifted with the cloak of Nebuchadnezzar II (98-100).

Christelle Fischer-Bovet tackles the Ptolemaic empire and the translocal culture of its imperial elite. Greek and Egyptian elites engaged in consistent patterns of local accommodation by worshipping royal figures and commemorating them with honorific inscriptions or sacerdotal stelai (108-112). By the later third century BCE, synods of Egyptians priest drawn from various places produced trilingual decrees and celebrated religious festivals for the ruling dynasty in ways that often adapted current Greek practices (112-24). The Ptolemaic imperial elite and its translocal expressions of loyalty thus involved Egyptian participation and compensated for various enduring differences between Greeks and Egyptians.

Tamara Chin shows that Greek and Roman appeals to the κοσμοπολίτης, πολίτης τοῦ κόσμου, and civis mundi often had an imperial bent. While Diogenes (according to Roman–era sources) called himself κοσμοπολίτης to pit himself against the political order, he did not situate the concept within a discrete philosophical system. For Philo, any Jew who followed the law of Moses, the law of the universe, was κοσμοπολίτης (134-37). But the formulation of the πολίτης τοῦ κόσμου and civis mundi by Stoics like Epictetus and Cicero was compatible with empire and its political subjects (137-47). The chapter closes with some intriguing parallels with Han political thought (147-51).

Myles Lavan addresses how ecumenical discourses enabled the Roman imperial elite to overcome internal differences. Amid the empire’s internal heterogeneity and distinctions of status (especially citizen- peregrinus and Italian-provincial: see 154-57), Roman imperial elites did not envision an ecumenical empire; they distinguished Romans from the provincial “allies” that they ruled (157-60). But in their letters to Greek polities, emperors borrowed ecumenical language from them (“all the cities,” “the inhabited world,” and “the whole human race”) to promote premises of a shared empire while using the rhetoric of aristocratic honor to elevate Greek elites above their communities (161-68). This discourse intersected with the other internal differences through which Romans managed their empire.

Clifford Ando directs our attention to where the histories of “republican citizenship in an imperial state” and “imperial citizenship in republican empire” (170) intersect. He in particular explores how Roman citizenship, before it had become a truly ecumenical enterprise, created a juridical class that mediated between imperial and local interests (173-74), but in different ways at different times. In the earlier stages of the Republic, Roman citizenship was less a reward than a way to define the obligations of defeated polities (176-79). By the early imperial period, it was often conferred upon municipal office holders, as local charters show. Non-citizen subjects of the empire thus selected which local elites became “Romans,” a category defined in juridical (not ethno-cultural) terms (179-84). Such Romans, constituting an office-holding elite and being complicit in empire, did the work of governing subject communities from which their citizen status now distinguished them.

John Weisweiler’s piece on the later Roman empire brings us to what the works of Lavan and Ando foreshadow: universal citizenship and an ecumenical imperial elite. Romans shifted in how they conceived of the emperor and imperial elite during the unstable third century (191). Previously municipal notables celebrated the putatively Republican credentials of Roman emperors and by implication themselves (191-94). But in the third century and thereafter, they described emperors in terms denoting absolute authority (like dominus) and framed them as divine rulers of all the earth or humanity (191-99). Meanwhile, the status and powers of the numerically enhanced senatorial elite, which now included many more notables of provincial origin, were more explicitly subordinated to the emperor’s authority. What had once been a predominately Italian senate that ruled an empire thus became an ecumenical elite subjected to emperors and celebratory of its non-Italian origins (199-207).

Richard Payne focuses on the Sasanian Persian empire, a state that framed various ethnic populations as subordinate to a Zoroastrian Iranian governing elite. But this elite also claimed universal rule (211-13) and believed that diverse peoples could help fulfill Zoroastrianism’s cosmic mission. While assembling the literature and knowledge of various peoples (213-16), the Sasanian court of the 5 th and 6 th centuries offered patronage to Christians, who aided in fiscal and diplomatic affairs. It also organized disputations among Zoroastrians and various Christian communities. The result was a fruitful (if sometimes tense) dialectic that enabled the Zoroastrian Iranian elite to claim a universal knowledge of subordinate religious beliefs that served its greater purposes (216-28). Invariably, Iranian cosmopolitanism managed difference for the notional supremacy of Zoroastrian religion.

Borrowing the title of Kant’s Zum ewigen Frieden, Peter Fibiger Bang provides closing reflections. Beginning with Kant’s vision of a global federation, he quotes the philosopher’s claim that international law among many independent states, while unstable, is preferable to domination by a single universal power and a “soulless despotism” bound to degenerate into anarchy (232).1 Despite Kant’s formulation, Bang suggests that ancient imperial cosmopolitanism matters now. Contemporary world government is an incoherent, internally contradictory, and pluralistic enterprise whose inherent problems are obscured by a lack of historical consciousness (231-33). In their own ways, the United States and Europe have articulated federalist or universalist visions whose actual implementation could be critiqued as empire and the imperial management of difference; we wait for what China, the home of many ancient imperial cosmopolitanisms, may bring (237-38). Since ancient empires had to confront the contradictory, and to reconcile the different, without any pretension of “uniformity or logical coherence” (233), they can at least help us illuminate the challenges and unanticipated paradoxes of more recent universalisms.

Errors are mostly inconsequential. I chuckled to learn that Mani was a “profit” (219). Ardashir I did not plunder Antioch in 238 CE (190), or ever. Works cited by individual contributors are often absent from the general bibliography. This is a pity, for the book engages with much relevant scholarship.

I close with a final observation. Cosmopolitanism and Empire is about how imperial cosmopolitanism works. So it fixes our gaze on when it proved effective. By design, we rarely encounter those situations when its machinery failed or yielded rebellion, civil war, fragmentation, or destabilizing elite competition (though Richardson explores the latter). Such infrequent appearances of failure are usually marginal bridges between cosmopolitan successes. For example, beyond treatments of authors (90 and 134-37), Jews are hardly mentioned. Otherwise, their contributions to cosmopolitan orders are invoked (for example Sasanian Persia, 26). But the overarching narrative omits what their revolts against Seleucid and Roman authority or the formation of rabbinic textual corpora imply about their relationship with the ecumenical cultures of imperial elites.2 So rigorous are the individual contributions, and so persuasive the overall narrative, that we easily forget how imperial cosmopolitanism could fail, inspire resistance, or supply local elites with the resources for fragmentation.

Cosmopolitanism and Empire is unavoidable reading for any scholar whose research involves an ancient imperial context. But it deserves to be part of the discussion on contemporary cosmopolitanism too.

Authors and titles

1. Cosmopolitan Politics: the Assimilation and Subordination of Elite Cultures, Myles Lavan, Richard E. Payne, and John Weisweiler. 1
2. Getting Confident: the Assyrian Development of Elite Recognition Ethics, Seth Richardson. 29
3. Empire Begins at Home: Local Elites and Imperial Ideologies in Hellenistic Greece and Babylonia, Kathryn Stevens. 65
4. Hellenism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Role of Babylonian Elites in the Seleucid Empire, Johannes Haubold. 89
5. Toward a Translocal Elite Culture in the Ptolemaic Empire, Christelle Fischer-Bovet. 103
6. What is Imperial Cosmopolitanism? Revisiting Kosmopolitēs and Mundanus, Tamara T. Chin. 129
7. “Father of the Whole Human Race”: Ecumenical Language and the Limits of Elite Integration in the Early Roman Empire, Myles Lavan. 153
8. Making Romans: Citizens, Subjects, and Subjectivity in Republican Empire, Clifford Ando. 169
9. From Empire to World-State: Ecumenical Language and Cosmopolitan Consciousness in the Later Roman Aristocracy, John Weisweiler. 187
10. Iranian Cosmopolitanism: World Religions at the Sasanian Court, Richard E. Payne. 209
11. “Zum ewigen Frieden”: Cosmopolitanism, Comparison, and Empire, Peter Fibiger Bang. 231


1. Bang’s translation is modified from German at Zum ewigen Frieden, ed. Wilhelm Herzog (Berlin: Forum-Verlag, 1917), 62.

2. At a colloquium which one of the editors and I recently attended, several scholars of Judaism posited an antagonism between rabbinic corpora and the Roman elite’s ecumenical practices. Regarding Roman Power: Imperial Rule in the Eyes of Greeks, Romans, Jews and Christians organized by Katell Berthelot and the ERC Program “Judaism and Rome” at l’École Française de Rome, May 10-12, 2017. A volume is forthcoming.