BMCR 2020.11.34

The ties that bind. Ancient politics and network research

, , , The ties that bind. Ancient politics and network research. Journal of historical network research, 4. Luxembourg: Université du Luxembourg, 2020. Pp. 356.

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

The fourth volume of the Journal of Historical Network Research, dedicated to the theories and methodologies of social network analysis (SNA) to historical research, focuses on Greco-Roman politics as a general theme.

This publication is, as stated by the editors, the first attempt in English to introduce the advantages of network analysis, with a stress on recent and ongoing network research, to a wider audience of classicists and ancient historians. The issue of politics (with all types of formal and informal relationships and further implications of a who-knows-whom modus operandi) is perhaps one of the best ways to present all the advantages and disadvantages of SNA methods of analysis because its main focus is on the various aspects of social relations between actors. The network created as a final product is graphically represented (as a sociogram), and, by means of the software used, all questions concerning the network`s structure (closeness, degree of centrality, density, reciprocity, clusters, subgroups etc.) can be quantified and expressed mathematically.

Although historical network research is a rather young methodological field, especially in ancient history (including Egyptology and Ancient Near Eastern studies), its potential, exemplified in the work published so far “promises to offer new perspectives on a research field mainly dominated by more traditional prosopographical studies and at the same time provide a powerful tool for analyzing and visualizing social and political connections in ancient societies” (p. vi).

As stated by the editors—and the reviewer would agree fully—one of the greatest advantages of network analysis is that the method is neither limited to specific epochs, nor to specific thematic questions nor to types of sources. It may be used equally in the study of the distribution of Neolithic pottery, the ancient Egyptian corpus of Amarna letters, delegates to the Berlin Conference and tweets of Donald Trump.

The ten individual studies presented in the volume, flanked by a prologue and an epilogue, are focused on various issues of ancient Greek and Roman history.

The prologue (written by Christian Rollinger) outlines the current state of the art of SNA implementation on the research topics of ancient history, and touches upon its methodological challenges and further possibilities. The collection would have benefitted from a brief overview of the Ancient Near Eastern (especially Assyriological!) and Egyptological results within the field of network analysis.

The paper of Diane Cline, “Athens as a small world,” analyses Athenian political life in the middle of the 5th century BC. The author focuses research on Pericles and marks his position within the social network of contemporary intellectuals, artists, politicians, and other important figures of the time. Cline’s study, an excellent example of how the well-known and much analyzed sources can provide us with a new set of data while implementing SNA, focuses on the network(s) which include 328 nodes (actors), and 754 edges (recognized connections). The ego-network of Socrates, of which Pericles and other prominent Athenians (Cimon, Nicias and Alcibiades) were members, is essential for the reconstruction of the social life of mid-fifth century Athens.

Christian Vogel’s study “Quintus Cicero and Roman rule – Networks between centre and periphery,” analyses Cicero’s administrative and military activities in Asia from 61 to 58 BCE and Gallia in 54 BCE. Since administrative and military duties represent, as Vogel rightly points out, different stages and situations of Roman rule over different provinces and cultures, SNA methodology was used for the analysis of Quintus Tullius Cicero’s networks in the provinces in question, exemplifying the relationship between rulers and ruled, as well as between governors (Romans) and governed peoples (more precisely the local elite). The specific topic of Vogel’s study also triggers the limitations of the SNA method. The author rightly points out that the network created presents only partial insight since it concentrates on one individual (Quintus Tullius Cicero) as a representative of Roman rule.

Informal conversations between senators during the late Roman Republic are studied by Cristina Rosillo-López (“Informal political communication and network theory in the Late Roman Republic”). The author uses network theory in order to identify communication strategies and, consequently, to mark channels of communication and circulated information, as well as to detect the role and impact of informal conversations on the political system of the late Roman Republic.

The paper of Greg Gilles, “The political, social and familial networks discerned from Cicero’s Letters during the Civil War of 49–47 BC,” maps the connections between Roman senators (on both formal and informal levels) at the time of the Civil War. It is highly interesting to consider, using social network analysis (SNA), whether familial connections or political reasons prevail in the senators´ decision to support either Pompey or Caesar.

The contribution by Wim Broekaert (“The Pompeian connection. A social network approach to elites and sub-elites in the Bay of Naples) analyses the structure and interaction of Pompeian elite and sub-elite networks, and the impact of these relationships on local politics. While analyzing the different networks in which members of the elites and sub-elites circulated, Broekaert suggests that the key to power was an individual’s ability (by power, wealth, personal contacts etc.) to reach and preserve the most prominent position in the network.

Elena Köstner’s chapter on the network of Lucius Aelius Seianus (“Genesis and Collapse of a Network: The Rise and Fall of Lucius Aelius Seianus”), one of the most prominent figures of Tiberius’ reign, shows how his personal fall (which meant not just the end of his career but also his death) disintegrated the networks he had created over the years. It affected, for example, C. Annius Pollio, C. Appius, Iunius Silanus, Mam. Aemilius Scaurus, C. Calvisius Sabinus and L. Annius Vinicianus. Relying on the data from Tacitus’ account of the persecution of Seianus’ supporters and combining them with SNA methodology Köstner is able to show not just the structure of Seianus’ ego-network, but also its change over time. This enables the discovery of different clusters and subgroups and presents a well-formed framework for the study of symmetries and asymmetries in social connections, as well as the newly created networks of survived dyads. The reviewer fully agrees with the contributor’s statement that “Social network analysis thus offers a supplementary theoretical approach which seems to be highly useful in the field of prosopographical studies” (p. 247).

Fabian Germerodt’s paper (“Networking in the early Roman empire: Pliny the younger”) reconstructs individual networks to which the senator Pliny the Younger (ca. AD 61/62 – 113/114) belonged by identifying clusters and dyads and, through Pliny’s example, also analyzes how the social networks functioned in ancient Rome.

The paper “Network management in Ostrogothic Italy. Theoderic the Great and the Refusal of Sectarian Conflict,” by Christian Nitschke, is based on the analysis of the societal structure of Ostrogothic Italy in late antiquity, focusing on prominent individuals (i.e., on the reconstructed networks). Nitschke argues that ancient societies, both on a general and an individual level, were not necessarily conscious of social / networks structures and of the effect of their own deeds.

The last essay in the book, “The ties that do not bind – Group formation, polarisation, and conflict within networks of political elites in the medieval Roman empire,” submitted by Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, is the most theoretical contribution in the volume. Preiser-Kapeller touches upon concepts and methods of network and complexity theory as well as New Institutional Economics (NIE) in order to analyze the emergence of conflicts within ruling elites in pre-modern polities. The methodologies applied enable a micro-perspective on the evolution and resilience of networks between actors within smaller groups and clusters in situations of conflict (including quantification and temporal dynamics).

The epilogue (written by Giovanni Ruffini) not only summarizes the individual case studies, but reevaluates the use of the concept of SNA methodology in ancient history, with all its advantages and disadvantages.

The reviewer herself is one of the rare Egyptologists implementing SNA methodology.[1] As with any new methodological approach, limits are very often more in focus than benefits. In the BMCR review of ‘Episcopal Networks and Authority in Late Antique Egypt’ the reviewer commented that

“Too much of this book is occupied with long, jargon-filled descriptions of network properties and software analysis. In the end, they lead nowhere. So much work with so little payoff. As so often, network analysis ends up becoming an end in itself, a scholarly conceit. It neither raises new, interesting questions nor does it answer old ones. One only needs to look at the graphs at the end of the book to see this. What are they supposed to show?”[2]

Either with SNA or with any other methodological approach, we do not always have either definite answers, or a final conclusion, but a stimulating and challenging tool for testing what we do know and what we think we know, and the volume under review is one of the best examples of what is stated here. Any individual article demonstrates the benefits of applying network analysis to ancient and medieval sources. This allows us to read these materials anew, providing a new stimulus for reconstructing and visualizing social, political, financial, and other relationships in the field of ancient history.

Summing up, the book under review is an important contribution to a promising field of network research in historiography. The work is also very important for its clear implementation of Social Network Analysis, and as such it will be very helpful especially for non-informed readers. The authors, as well as the reviewer, are aware that networks cannot be the final word. Rather, they are a challenging tool to reevaluate, or to read anew, our sources, conclusions and hypotheses.

Authors and titles

Introducing the Ties that Bind / Wim Broekaert, Elena Köstner, Christian Rollinger
Prolegomena. Problems and Perspectives of Historical Network Research and Ancient History / Christian Rollinger
Athens as a Small World / Diane Harris Cline
Quintus Cicero and Roman Rule. Networks between Centre and Periphery / Christian Vogel
Informal Political Communication and Network Theory in the Late Roman Republic / Cristina Rosillo-López
Family or Fiction? The Political, Social and Familial Networks Discerned from Cicero’s Letters during the Civil War between Caesar and Pompey / Gregory Gilles
The Pompeian Connection. A Social Network Approach to Elites and Sub-Elites in the Bay of Naples / Wim Broekaert
Genesis and Collapse of a Network. The Rise and Fall of Lucius Aelius Seianus / Elena Köstner
Networking in the Early Roman Empire: Pliny the Younger / Fabian Germerodt
Network Management in Ostrogothic Italy. Theoderic the Great and the Refusal of Sectarian Conflict / Christian Nitschke
The Ties that Do Not Bind. Group formation, polarization and conflict within networks of political elites in the medieval Roman Empire / Johannes Preiser-Kapeller
An Epilogue. Social Network Analysis and Greco-Roman Politics / Giovanni R. Ruffini


[1] Danijela Stefanović, “The Social Network(s) of the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period Treasurers: Rehuerdjersen, Siese, Ikhernefret and Senebsumai”, Journal of Egyptian History 12/2, 2020, 259–287.

[2] BMCR 2019.05.24.