Comparative State Formation: The Later Roman Empire in the Wider World
Abstract and Keywords
The later Roman Empire is often perceived as simply one part of a wider cultural and geographical milieu. Much attention has been focused on either Rome's immediate geographical neighbors--barbarians in the North and West, the peoples of the Caucasus region, the Parthian or Sasanian realm to the East, the steppes to the North, stretching away across to China, or the Arabian peninsula and the Red Sea and Gulf territories, with their mercantile and political associations with east Africa or with the Indian Ocean and beyond. Rarely is the Roman state placed within a wider world of political systems. This article demonstrates how looking at the Roman state from such a comparative perspective provides insights into the dynamics of Roman state power.
When in the year 589 c.e. Wen-Ti, the founder of the short-lived Sui dynasty, invaded and defeated the armies of the southern Ch’en, he brought China under unified rule again for the first time since the breakdown of Han rule in the late second century. In the course of his rule, he dealt effectively with the threat posed by the nomadic peoples to the north, most particularly the great T’u-chüeh (Turk) empire, partly by promoting factional strife among the eastern T’u-chüeh, partly by encouraging the ruler of the western Turks, Ta T’eou (Turkish Tarduš; Tardou [Τάρδου] in the Greek sources), in his efforts to secure his own rule.1 In so doing, of course, Chinese diplomacy met eastern Roman diplomacy (although commercial and cultural contacts were much older, and the arrival of Nestorian churchmen at the T’ang court during the 630s would be the first direct cultural contacts we know of since the reign of Leo I),2 for it was only twenty years earlier that Byzantium had begun regular contact with the Turkish court over the question of the Avars and over the role of the Sasanian court in central Asian affairs, a contact that seems to have been maintained regularly thereafter. Two great empires, one of which, the Roman, had suffered the permanent loss of its western lands over a century earlier (even if under (p. 1112) Justinian some of these territories were recovered), the other of which was to remain united, under the T’ang dynasty, from 618 until the early tenth century, thus touched, as it were, in Central Asia. Yet the contact took place at a time when China was on the road to a dramatic recovery of its political and military fortunes, whereas for the hard-pressed eastern Roman state, the problems posed by various “barbarians” in the Balkans, the threat from Sasanian Iran, and, in the 630s, the Arab Islamic invasions, were to end once and for all any idea of a united Roman world stretching from the Atlantic to the Syrian desert and from the North Sea to the High Atlas.
We have long grown accustomed to understanding the late ancient world, and in particular the world of the later Roman empire, as only one element of a more complex and varied cultural and geographical setting. More often than not, though, we look at this broader context as just that, the “setting,” and pay lip service to its existence and the connections between people in the Roman world and these other regions, and the emphasis is generally on either the immediate geographical neighbors of Rome—barbarians in the north and west, the peoples of the Caucasus region, the Parthian or Sasanian realm to the east, the steppes to the north, stretching away across to China, or the Arabian peninsula and the Red Sea and Gulf territories, with their mercantile and sometimes political associations with east Africa or with the Indian Ocean and beyond. We rarely place the Roman state as such—as a political, cultural, and economic system—in such a context, however, which means that while comparisons with its nearer neighbors are not unusual, its place in a wider world of political systems is neglected. Yet looking at the Roman state from such a comparative perspective can be enlightening, not only from the point of view of the dynamics of Roman state power but also in respect of how best to think about states and other political-cultural forms in a premodern world.3 We shall return to this theme later.
Context and Environment
The question of the nature, constitution, and dynamics of states and empires has been at the forefront of much comparativist and specialist discussion. In a recent contribution, empires have been described very straightforwardly as the effects of the imposition of political sovereignty by one polity over others, however achieved, and the key marker of an “imperial” state was thus the degree of “foreignness” perceived to exist between rulers and ruled, conquerors and conquered.4 In the simplest terms, then, the study of empires becomes the study of the subordination of one “state” or social formation by another and of the extent to which the conquerors are successful in converting these peripheral zones into a part of their original state, both ideologically and in terms of fiscal, (p. 1113) military, and administrative structures. In some respects, this overlaps with the issue of the nature of the “segmentary” state, intended to suggest a multicentered, confederated political structure in which ideological elements and consensus play as great a role as centrally exercised coercive power.5 Although many early states functioned on the basis of a series of concentric zones of power distribution, focused around a political core, we might reasonably describe empires on the same lines, in which case the issue of their success and longevity will revolve around the same key questions: to what extent are empires of conquest able to impose upon the conquered lands and cultures their own ideological/cultural values, patterns of administration, and elite formation and thereby create out of a range of different sociocultural formations a more or less homogeneous set of political values and ideological identities? Of all the ancient empires that arose in the western Eurasian world, the Roman state, and its medieval Byzantine successor in the east Mediterranean basin, was perhaps the most successful in this respect. In the East, the various ancient and early medieval Chinese states, in particular the earlier and later Han states and the T’ang empire, achieved similar rates of successful integration.
While some empires about which historians are informed evolved through strategic alliances based on kinship or inheritance through gift or marriage, the majority of those political formations we conventionally label as empires were the direct result of military conquest. Four key questions attract our interest: how did they come into being? How did they survive? What was the structure of power relations that facilitated this (or not)? What was their economic basis in respect of both the production, distribution, and consumption of wealth, on the one hand, and in respect of the expansion of the basis upon which wealth could be generated—whether quantitative (territorial expansion, for example) or qualitative (changing technologies of production, expanding trade, or shifting the structures of capital investment)?
The later Roman empire was, in many respects, already an ancient and very mature political system, the result of a continuous process of evolution from the first century b.c.e., as the political system and the economic structures of the circum-Mediterranean world adjusted to shifts and changes in its conditions of existence. The last two or three generations of historians have been, on the whole, less concerned with the question why it “fell” than with that of how it worked. In recent years, however, the issues of change and transformation have been brought back into the limelight, partly a reflection of an accumulation of more accessible archaeological data, partly on account of a revival of metatheoretical interest in comparative world systems and long-term social evolution.6 In particular, setting the Roman state against other comparable state systems in the late ancient or early medieval worlds has forced historians to consider a range of issues outside the immediate confines of local social, political, economic, and cultural history.
Demography and related issues play an important role here. It has been argued, for example, on the basis of admittedly problematic statistical evidence, (p. 1114) that western Eurasia was more heavily affected by epidemics (and invasions) than China in the late ancient and early medieval period.7 But while attempts to relate the collapse of late Roman state forms in the West to population decline and concurrent dislocations caused by epidemic disease or other environmental crises are currently experiencing a revival,8 they remain at the least ambiguous in their implications.9 Archaeological survey work makes it clear that (with the exception of southwest Asia) population in western Eurasia was considerably lower in the seventh century c.e. than it had been in the second century c.e. In contrast, conditions in China differed significantly from those in the West. There does appear to have been some fairly marked decline across the period from the middle of the third century c.e. into the early sixth century. But its extent cannot be measured, partly because dramatic fluctuations in Chinese census results seem to reflect the ability of the states in question to control and tax their populations (rather than the size of the population itself). On the other hand, the Sui state counted roughly the same number of people and households in 609 c.e. as the Han government had registered in the mid-second century c.e., indicating that by the later sixth century overall population densities were back at the levels of the later Han period.10 But that population loss in the West should be understood as a principal factor in the weakening of state institutions and the failure of the state seems dubious—to take but one example, the Achaemenid empire covered an area almost as large as that of the Roman empire but controlled a far smaller population—and demographic conditions in themselves seem to be a poor indicator of the feasibility of an extensive state system.
In this respect, our view of and approach to the issue of catastrophic events such as outbreaks of plague become important. For example, we still do not know enough about the effects of the sixth-century pandemic and its regional incidence to understand just how significant it was for the demographic or economic and social impact on the western Eurasian world. Definitive evidence from DNA analysis has shown, for example, that it was caused by an exceptionally virulent and lethal biovar of Yersinia pestis, the bubonic plague. It was significantly different from that which caused the plague narrated by Thucydides; it was indeed an entirely new pathogen for the populations of the empire in 541, a fact that would have rendered it particularly virulent. It is possible that the sixth-century plague had a more dramatic impact on populations than is generally thought, even if several scholars have been right to emphasize that the archaeological data suggest a highly regionalized pattern.11
The interpretation of this sort of environmental evidence is clearly fraught with difficulties and pitfalls, and much of it can be made only with difficulty to match cycles of political or economic growth and decline. This does not mean there is no connection, only that the connections are likely to be complex, multistranded, and indirect. While the plague fits in with some aspects of change in the sixth century, there has as yet been no clear evidence of an obvious causal association between environment and socioeconomic change. Climate has (p. 1115) remained, within certain margins, relatively constant across the late ancient and medieval periods. Minor fluctuations, when combined with natural events such as earthquakes, man-made phenomena such as warfare, and catastrophes such as pandemic disease, could have dramatic short- to medium-term results for populations, settlement patterns, land use, resource extraction and consumption, and political systems.12 From the second century b.c.e. into the second century c.e., the climate was relatively warmer and milder than in the preceding period and constituted a “climatic optimum” that favored the expansion of agriculture. This expansion is reflected in the so-called Beyşehir Occupation Phase in the southern Balkans and southwestern Turkey, for example.13 By about 500 c.e., the climatic situation was changing, with colder and wetter conditions persisting up to the mid-ninth century. But within this broad pattern, there were also microclimatic shifts: stable isotope analysis from lake beds in the Levant and Asia Minor suggest that from about 300 c.e. until about 450, conditions were slightly dryer and warmer than in the preceding centuries (tree-ring analysis also suggests that drought was frequent between the 420s and 480s in several regions of the Levant).14 In the course of the later fifth century, the climate became cooler and wetter, until a period of very gradual warming and desiccation began in the seventh century. Precipitation levels declined, affecting, in particular, highland zones. At the same time, the evidence suggests that during the fifth century the level of the Mediterranean began to rise, although the impact of this, which reflects a global phenomenon, remains unclear.15
Such microclimatic fluctuations are important because climate change does not affect all areas in the same way. The textual evidence assembled for the late antique period, as well as the paleoclimatological evidence, suggests marked regional variations across quite short periods of fifty or a hundred years, with droughts alternating with extremely cold and wet conditions, bringing serious difficulties for irrigated lands on the one hand and for marginal dry-farming zones on the other. In regions such as the Mediterranean coastal plains, where the prevailing winds are westerly, a warmer climate brings less rainfall and desertification of arid marginal regions, whereas in more continental zones, such as the Iranian plateau and the drainage areas of the Caspian, rainfall increases. A colder climate brings more rainfall in the former regions—thus exerting pressure on hydrological systems in general—whereas in the continental zones, such as the Anatolian or Iranian plateaux, it brings less precipitation and thus desiccation. Evidence from the Susiana plain suggests that the period of about 500 to 650 c.e. was relatively dry, for example.16 Intermediate zones—such as the Mesopotamian lowlands—are affected according to their position in relation to prevailing winds, rain- and highland-shadow, and distance from the sea. Climate change tends to show up first in marginal zones and in temperate or humid regions later.
We are not yet in a position to judge the impact of these shifts on either land use or the social and economic history of the regions concerned.17 But it is clear (p. 1116) that they have played a role and cannot be written out of the causal relationships that determined the pattern of historical change in the late ancient world. It is also likely that they have rendered the human environment of the later fifth to seventh centuries more challenging in many areas, and the economy of existence more fragile. For the eastern provinces of the later Roman empire, it would seem that after a period of demographic expansion and intensification of agriculture lasting into the sixth century, a slow decline and retrenchment seems to set in from sometime around about 540 to 550 in some areas, from the early or middle years of the seventh century in others. In certain Anatolian provinces, some marginal lands were abandoned, soil erosion increased where agriculture receded, the colder climate generated increasing water volume in rivers and watercourses, and this contributed to alluviation and flooding in more exposed areas. Yet, while there is some support for an overall reduction in agrarian activity around the early 540s, as reflected in the carbon dioxide content of polar ice cores, the sources of this change cannot be geographically fixed, and the pattern does not seem to be repeated in Syria and Palestine—the settlement at Nessana in the Negev, for example, flourished well into the later seventh century on the basis of its irrigation agriculture.18 In other regions, an overall reduction in population and thus in the rate of exploitation of natural resources such as forests is shown by an increased variation in woodland flora over the same period. It is important to bear in mind the very different effects such shifts had on different regions, and we must not assume that similar outcomes were exhibited in Anatolia, the Balkans, the Iranian plateau, Mesopotamia, or the north Syrian uplands, each subject to its own particular microclimatic system.19 How far all this affected the state’s fiscal base in the East and the degree to which it affected western European politics and society remains both unclear and debated.
Similar considerations apply to a range of other phenomena that had different effects on society, economy, and therefore politics. The trajectory of Mediterranean economic development from well before the Principate onward demonstrates how the Roman sphere of economic activity was but one part of a much wider set of relationships stretching across into Asia, connections that also had a causal role, even if that is as yet only dimly understood. Sea-borne commerce and trade massively expanded from the later third century b.c.e. and began to fall off during the later second and into the third century c.e.—a pattern that bears only a very indirect relation either to the political configuration or the fiscal demands of the developing Roman state. Late republican and early imperial levels of pollution generated by metal extraction and working (as evidenced (p. 1117) in Greenland ice cores) reached a peak not to be attained until the modern period, falling off rapidly after the second century. Patterns of building activity based on accurately dated wood remains from parts of Germany show a peak in the first and early second centuries c.e., a dramatic decline thereafter, and a limited recovery in the fourth century.20 Evidence for diet—and, in particular, the wider access to meat that skeletal and other material seems to suggest for the western provinces during the period of the early Principate in western and northwestern Europe—suggests again very dramatic improvements in standards of living and diet, followed by an equally dramatic reduction in the later second century, with a minor recovery in the fourth century. Whether the Antonine plague can be made responsible for some or all of these changes at this time is not an issue that can be pursued here, although comparative work on the effects of the pandemics of the second and sixth centuries remains to be done. It is significant that comparable demographic collapse is not evident from the Chinese records of the later Han, whereas some aspects of climate change that, it has been argued, had adverse effects in western Eurasia had positive results in China. In either case, we are faced here with issues of global or near-global significance, where the fate of the western Eurasian late ancient world is but one part of a bigger picture that historians need to bear in mind when drawing conclusions about their own particular area.21
The erosion of central state power in terms of control of surplus and surplus extraction must always have multiple causes. The collapse of fiscal control and the ability of a central regime to extract revenues sufficient to maintain it independent of provincial elites, indeed, to disempower such elites, is a key element in such a process. While the reasons underlying this erosive process remain debated, recent work has done much to establish a model for the late Roman world, although at the same time, more sharply defined concepts of “decline” have reappeared in some of the literature, partly reflecting a response to the notions of gradual cultural and social transformation that have become typical of much of the literature of the late antique period. A persuasive case has been made that the strong and (relatively) centralized late Roman state (which could register and tax a civilian population in order to support a substantial standing army) suffered especially from the perceived vested interests of provincial elites, who in effect by the later fourth century were beginning to starve the state of the resources it needed to survive, at least in the West.22 This process generated in its turn the relatively weak successor states that sprang up on western Roman territory, polities whose rulers gradually lost the ability to tax or where, as in some regions such as Britain, the institutions of the state disappeared altogether. The rulers of states that maintained registration, taxation, and centrally controlled military forces (in this case, the eastern Roman empire or the early caliphate) continued to enjoy greater autonomy from elite interests, while the elites themselves depended to a significant extent on the state for positions, income, and status.23 In contrast, the elites of weak states relied on the resources they themselves controlled and concomitantly enjoyed greater (p. 1118) independence of the ruler, while the power and authority of the latter depended largely on cooperation or forms of collaboration that depended heavily on ideological structures, since they lacked centralized resource control and coercive capacities. Local elites rather than state rulers dominated and at the same time, since there was only limited transregional economic integration (which had been characteristic of the strong Roman state), could be less wealthy, and these conditions further contributed to the erosion of interregional exchange. Fiscal decline, together with the high degree of regionalization of political and military power, made it more difficult to maintain state capabilities (especially in the military sphere) and, combined with the curtailment of economic activity, meant that the potential for the reestablishment of any sort of stable empirewide core was very limited.
The apparent paradox in this is that it seems to have been the reestablishment of a stable monetary system and of an effective and more centralized fiscal apparatus under Constantine I that encouraged closer ties of regional elites to the imperial system at all levels. Political stability coupled with state demands led to the recovery of trans-Mediterranean commerce after the relative breakdown of the later third century. Henceforward, as has been argued by Wickham, it was the state and its fiscal apparatus that acted to facilitate and stimulate this recovery, clearly demonstrated in the archaeological and written record. While it may not have been the Roman state alone that generated the vast commercialized market system of Late Antiquity, it did act as an agent for stability and market expansion. As the system became progressively independent of the conditions that created it, these fiscal mechanisms remained key inflecting factors with specific consequences. When they eventually broke down or were weakened or suborned by local elites, fragmentation of the empirewide economy and its elite was a necessary consequence for several sectors, even if not all, of the economy.
On this model, regardless of whether fiscal centralization was a key element in the establishment of empire,24 it was certainly a key factor in the breakdown of the late Roman imperial system. And although it is difficult to generate a model that is universally applicable in all its details from this specific historical instance (for example, in late ancient and medieval India, local elites generally continued to derive substantial incomes from commercial exchange, usually managed and dominated by merchant lineages—the existence of a strong centralizing political authority seems to have added only marginal advantages), the case of the conquest of the southern Ch’en state by the Sui ruler in the 580s c.e. does appear to reinforce the idea that central fiscal control and a centrally managed military and administrative apparatus confer decided advantages in most circumstances. Recent work on the history of the main northern “successor states” in fifth- and sixth-century c.e. China brings out the gradual reestablishment of centrally managed taxation and military organization and the ability of rulers to limit elite autonomy, permitting an increase in the mobilization of resources for military purposes that eventually resulted in imperial reunification.25 While the evidence from state censuses is problematic, (p. 1119) it is nevertheless clear that the breakdown of Han power and ideological authority led to a radical reduction in the state’s ability to raise taxes. By the later sixth century c.e., the successor states of Northern Ch’i and Northern Zhou appear to have massively increased their ability to count and control households and thus resources, and within twenty years of the Sui conquest of the Ch’en state in the south, this had risen even more dramatically.26 In stark contrast, the extant census figures for the southern successor states are consistently low, and it seems that the southern successor state was unable to tax more than a small proportion of the actual households and potential taxpayers. Distribution maps showing the geographical spread of the census population in 140 and 609 c.e. indicate that even by the Sui period the government had not been able to restore Han standards of registration in the southern provinces.27 The relatively small size of the military forces reportedly marshaled by southern regimes, compared with some of the centralizing northern states, reinforces this impression. The main problem in the south lay in the fact that more or less autonomous elites dominated rural populations and resources,28 elites who could successfully compete with central authorities for surplus and control of other forms of resource in labor power and skills, so that southern states came to rely on tolls and commercial taxes generated by the dynamic economies of coastal provinces in particular—an economic dynamism that foreshadowed later growth in the T’ang and Song periods.29 Such income was further supplemented by fees and “gifts” extorted by provincial officials and shared with the central government, so that in the southern state of Ch’en, a combination of elite resistance to census and registration and its commercial dynamism promoted a dependency on the latter, which was in the short term easier and cheaper to exploit than regular taxation. The whole encouraged an equilibrium between elite demands, which dominated the agrarian surplus, and state demands, which targeted indirect taxes on commercial activity and the extraction of tribute through fees and the activities of tax and contract farmers outside the political center. This was a balance that could sustain the state and ensure equilibrium between central and elite power, but it proved inadequate in direct competition with the more centralized Sui state, with its greater potential for resource concentration and management.
The period we now by common agreement all refer to as Late Antiquity stretches from the third or fourth/fifth centuries to the seventh or eighth, depending on who is writing about what. As we have seen, Late Antiquity is not just the Roman world, and as the essays in this book make clear, it was an immensely complex period, with enormously significant changes and transformations (p. 1120) proceeding at every level of social and political life. While inevitably the Roman world receives most attention from those whose prime focus is on the West, even the most Romanocentric accounts need to be set in their broader context. This is especially the case for the history and evolution of the Roman state and its successors.
One of the more obvious issues arising from any such comparison is the question of the degree to which states repeatedly arise within a particular territory and the reasons for the maintenance, or regular reassertion, of empire or at least of political unity across such wider territories. China, in spite of its frequent periods of disunity—in territorial blocs that in the south certainly and in the north frequently reflected geographical and environmental conditions—has tended from the first Ch’in emperor in the later third century b.c.e. toward political unification, even if it was regularly contested and often difficult to achieve. This tendency reflects a number of factors, but geography is certainly a key element, a geography that from the beginning favored the evolution of cultural phenotypes bound to and contributing to the reproduction of specific cultural, economic, and social forms, which in turn tended to make the promotion of political unity a norm to be achieved. The same points can be made for other regions in which stable cultural forms have evolved, especially those with a favorable ratio between the length of frontiers and surface area, where the core territory is relatively well shielded by geographical features such as mountains, desert, or seas. Such features all confer certain key advantages or at least promote certain types of social-cultural-political development and identity. “China” as a geographical zone is demarcated by the Tibetan plateau to the west, by the Tarim basin and the Tian Shan and Altai Mountains to the northwest, and by the Mongolian steppe and related mountains to the north and northeast (see fig. 5.1). In spite of the vast differences in climate and geography within this macroregion, these major features separate it very clearly from the regions beyond. By the same token, Iran is demarcated in the east by the Makran desert and mountains and the mountains of Afghanistan, in the north by the Caspian Sea and the steppe and desert of the Karakum, and in the west by the fertile lands of Iraq, although Iraq and Iran have historically generally formed a unity, since beyond Iraq the great Syrian desert has always marked another clear geopolitical divide. In the same way, Syria and Egypt, with the outlying lands westward along the North African coast, have generally been associated politically; both the struggle over Syria between Egypt and the Hittite kingdom in the second and first millennium b.c.e., as well as the tendency for Egypt-based Islamic dynasties to move north and east—the Tulunids in the ninth century, the Fatimids in the tenth, the Mamluks in the thirteenth—testify to this. Asia Minor, similarly clearly marked off by the Taurus, Anti-Taurus, and Caucasus ranges, likewise forms a geographical entity that has often reflected political separateness. This is not to suggest that such divisions cannot be overcome or are the sole determinants—the example of the Achaemenid empire is a case in point. But each of these areas has generated distinctive cultural and political types, and (p. 1121) they have repeatedly fallen together in particular political formations. They represent, so to speak, relative geopolitical constants.
The Roman empire contrasts very clearly with this pattern, so much so, indeed, that it ought to be seen as an exception, a historical aberration, and analyzed from that perspective. Perhaps its geographical openness played a much greater role than is often assumed, for more than anywhere in the extended western Eurasian world, the absence of any major obstacle in its northern regions—in the form of mountain ranges or deserts—rendered it more vulnerable and exposed to population movements. Its origins lie in very particular Mediterranean circumstances, and its fragmentation is in many respects far easier to explain. Certainly its eastern successor, the medieval Byzantine state, constitutes (more or less) a natural geopolitical entity, since in terms of the regions around them, both Asia Minor and the southern Balkans form a geographical continuum.30 In thinking about states and how they evolve and develop, we need to pay attention to these admittedly crude geophysical aspects. Geographical features alone are unlikely to account for divergent trends in the strength of state systems, as opposed to their size or the tendency for specific zones to favor their formation. Yet without our sliding into a geographical determinism, it does seem clear that some, at least, of the political fate of state systems should be anchored in their physical context and the cultural phenotypes these contexts have generated.31
States and the Later Roman State: Current Debates and Approaches
So far, then, we have considered the Roman state in a broad context, but we have taken several concepts for granted, and it is important to think a little about the technical or theoretical implications of the vocabulary we use in discussion. For example, the term state is often seen as problematic, because it reflects too much of the modern understanding of the concept. Yet it seems otherwise rather difficult to describe the set of institutions, system of government and administration, and ideology of political systems such as the Roman empire without recourse to it. Historians and sociologists have produced a wide range of definitions, each reflecting the particular intellectual and political backgrounds of those who have worked on the problem. As a descriptive starting point, we may begin with the general definition that has been evolved by recent commentators, notably Skalnik and Claessen, Krader, and, most recently, Mann.32 This posits that “the state” represents a set of institutions and personnel, concentrated spatially at a single point, and exerting authority over a territorially distinct area. As Mann notes,33 this description combines both institutional and functional elements, pertaining to the appearance of the state’s (p. 1122) apparatuses, as well as to their functions and effects. But in addition, we may qualify the definition by adding that the central point at which state power is nominally located may be mobile; that authority is in principle normative and binding and usually enshrined in legal and juridical prescription and practice, yet relies ultimately on coercion; and that the effectiveness of such authority depends upon a series of contextual factors: geographical extent, institutional forms through which power is actually exercised (for example, through a centralized and supervised central bureaucracy or through a dispersed provincial ruling elite). And while, with Radcliffe-Brown, we can agree that the state is the product of social and economic relations and must, therefore, not be reified or personified in the process of analysis, it is important to stress that the state possesses an identity as a field of action, as a role-constituting site of power and practices that can be independent, under certain preconditions, of the economic and political interests of whose who dominate it. As a general point, this consideration has been expressed frequently in historical and sociological literature in recent years, although it has not always been put into practice in the actual examination and interpretation of ancient and medieval state formations.34
At one extreme of social-political organization, the term state can refer to a relatively short-lived grouping of tribal or clan communities united under a warlord or chieftain who is endowed with both symbolic and military authority—in anthropological terms, a “Big-man” confederacy. Such “states” rarely survive for long, however, and are sometimes referred to as protostates, since they have not yet attained a degree of institutional permanence. Examples would include the majority of the “nomad empires” that arose on the Eurasian steppe zone from the beginning of the first millennium b.c.e. and periodically reappeared until the seventeenth century c.e., with the possible exception—although the point is certainly debatable—of the postconquest Mongol “empire” in the early thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.35 Their problematic nature as states will become evident in the following discussion, so it seems on the whole simpler and less misleading to refer to them as chieftaincies, confederacies, or some such term more expressive of their ephemeral nature and absence of infrastructural continuity or permanence. At the other extreme, we find more or less territorially unified political entities, with a “center” (which may be peripatetic) from which a ruler or ruling group exercises political authority and that maintains its existence successfully over several generations; a key element in the formation and degree of permanence of such formations is that the authority of the ruler or ruling group is recognized as both legitimate and exclusive. In this respect, the ideological aspect is absolutely fundamental to state building, again as we will see later. One approach to these issues36 (rooted in both Weberian and Marxian approaches) distinguishes a number of evolutionary tracks that may or may not lead from one to another but in which the degree of social stratification, social division of labor, and development of contradictory relations of production play a fundamental role. These are articulated together to form modes of the distribution of power, in which the forms of economic, ideological, and coercive (p. 1123) power, distributed among differently located roles, give each social structure its particular form and content.37 In their turn, the combining and recombining of such different elements can generate various forms of political structure, ultimately leading to the creation of states. In the earliest stages of social-political evolution, there are social formations with either “dissipated power” or “shared power”—in social-anthropological terms, small societies characterized by segmentary lineage organization (that is, where “stratification” exists as a vertical line between kin groups and attributed functions within the society, rather than horizontally between groups with different economic power), such as hunter-gatherer groups. Second, there are semistates, usually temporary extensions of the power of a single chieftain as a result of warfare or internal conflict. Third, involving a greater elaboration of both coercion and more explicitly political ideology, there are protostates that develop “from the existence of specialised political roles which fall short of an effective monopoly of the means of coercion to the existence of potentially permanent institutions of government properly so-called.” A final track is represented by full-fledged states with the sort of political and institutional potential described already.38
More permanent state formations of this type were generally territorially demarcated (even if lands and frontiers were ill defined or fluctuating, reflecting the process of formation through amalgamation, conquest, inheritance, and so forth) and controlled—at least in their early phases of development—by centralized governing or ruling establishments of some sort, which usually possessed the coercive power to assert their authority over the territories they claim, even if only on an occasional “punitive” basis. How exactly such central authorities achieved these ends varied enormously from state to state and society to society. In all premodern states, there have been gaps in the extent of state authority—border or mountainous regions, for example, difficult to access and untouched by state supervision; or “tribal” groups nominally owing allegiance and occupying territory claimed by the state, but not always easily brought under the state’s authority or control (such as the Isaurians at times in Anatolia or the Daylamites of the Elburz region in Iran).39 In areas where geography favors a tribal pastoral and/or nomadic economy, the latter frequently formed important elements in the armies of conquest states, certainly in the initial stages of their evolution. Because of the mobility of such people, their internal social cohesion and self-sufficiency, and the fact that their wealth is generally easily moved away from the reach of state officials, they are both able and sometimes inclined to resist any central authority that does not directly favor their own interests. Local elites may likewise have presented difficulties, even if ideologically committed to the existence of a particular state. By the same token, the relative patchiness of central control may represent a point on the line from local to supralocal state to empire (and back again), as with Assyrian control over neighboring territories in the early period of expansion (ninth century b.c.e.). Ideological power can overcome this at certain times but by itself generally remains a short-term means of cementing such power relationships.40 The (p. 1124) very different configuration of power relationships within three late ancient/early medieval states, for example—late Rome/early Byzantium, Sasanian Iran, and the early Umayyad caliphate—provides striking examples of the ways in which these features combined.
States, Legitimation, and Politics
Another central aspect of state formation is the generation of fairly complex ideological and legitimating systems, on the one hand, and at the same time more impersonalized and institutionalized modes of surplus extraction, on the other, than protostates or clan or tribal groupings are capable of developing. Administration based on kinship and lineage relationships and the exploitation of kin-based modes of subordination tend in the more successful and enduring states to be replaced by non-kinship-based bureaucratic or administrative systems (although kin and lineage are rarely entirely absent—again the Assyrian example, on the one hand, with provincial governors appointed from among the ruling families, and that of the later Byzantine empire, with its close familial networks, provide useful but very different illustrations). In most examples, a bureaucratic-administrative structure of some sort confers a clear advantage and appears to be a necessity if the political system is to retain its nontribal existence and cohesion. This point was made already by the Muslim philosopher and political analyst Ibn Khaldun, for example, who saw this process as generally following the initial formation of a supratribal political entity from tribal elements under a chieftain of some sort, in which a crucial role was played by religion as a unifying element providing a new, suprakinship set of relationships, identities, and loyalties. While Ibn Khaldun was clearly working on the basis of his knowledge of the evolution of Islamic states, his main point remains valid for any state-formative process.41
An obvious reason for preferring a relatively open-ended account of state formation and characteristics is that the formation of a state is never a single event and only rarely a set of closely compressed events, but rather a longer term evolutionary process in which social praxis and economic relationships respond to changing conditions through what has been referred to as “competitive selection” of practices; where social and cultural praxis fail to respond adequately to shifts in their conditions of existence, the state fails to develop further and succumbs. There are many different shades of “stateness,” both in respect of the degree of actual physical control and in the degree of ideological integration of the varying and often antagonistic elements occupying the territory claimed by a given central authority. Some historical states have been represented by claims to legitimacy based on a consensus agreed among various powerful elements, but where the actual ruler has little or no power of coercion, and have survived (p. 1125) generally for only a relatively short time. Those state elites who have military coercion at their disposal, at least in the early stages of their development, may remain relatively isolated from the social structures they live off, surviving only as long as they can coerce or persuade support and resources. Others may move toward establishing a permanent and self-regenerating body of administrators that draws its recruits from either specific groups within the state (tribal groups, for example), from particular family dynasties, or from those of a particular social or cultural background (which includes the establishment of slave bureaucracies and armies, deracinated from their original social and cultural context and dependent entirely on the system to which they owe their position). They tend thus to evolve institutional structures—fiscal systems, military organizations, and so forth—that establish their own sets of roles and discourses, divorced from the daily practices of ordinary society. The state becomes a specialist and dominant set of institutions that may even undertake the creation ab initio of its own administrative personnel and that can survive only by maintaining control over the appropriation and distribution of surplus wealth these specialized personnel administer.42 This certainly became the case in Rome and Byzantium and—to a different degree—in the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, for example. And it seems also that this deracination or distancing of administrative apparatus from a social base, as well as from the kinship ties of the royal household, represents a developmental shift, a process of maturation, as we follow the evolution of state formation through time. Whereas the Assyrian and Achaemenid empires recruited their administrative infrastructure from the elite families of the center and provinces, bound together through kinship ties or vested interests shared with the ruling dynasty and its kin, developed bureaucratic systems, such as came to typify Rome and the Chinese Han state, recruited their personnel from a wider social range and depended upon more broadly available literary and educational possibilities. Of course, the picture is in all cases uneven and patchy, and this simplification does a certain amount of injustice to the historical cases we know about.
A particularly important aspect is represented by the potential for state formations to reproduce themselves, in contrast to the potential of a particular dynasty with its retinues based upon personal loyalties and notions of honor, obligation, and reciprocity, to maintain itself in power over a number of generations. The evolution of a bureaucratic elite with a sense of its own function within the state/society (even if this elite remains closely tied to a particular social stratum, such as the slave administrators of the imperial household in first-century imperial Rome or the royal household in Sasanian Iran), which identifies with a particular set of ideological and symbolic narratives, and which can recruit and train its personnel into the institutional roles and behavioral patterns relevant to the maintenance and even expansion of these structures, is a crucial factor. The relative success of the first Islamic caliphates, the Roman and Byzantine empires, or the Chinese and Ottoman states, in their different forms over time in this regard, to name just a few examples, provides good (p. 1126) illustrations of the ways in which some political formations evolved stable yet flexible structures sufficient to permit their survival over a long period regardless of often major shifts in dynastic arrangements and the nature of the central authority itself. The failures of the early Frankish kingdoms illustrate the fate of political formations that failed to generate such structures.
The case of ancient Athens may be used as an illustration. In spite of its success in mobilizing a vast resource catchment area, in the form of allies and dependent cities and territories, Athens remained remarkably jealous of its rights of citizenship, although this by no means reflected an impermeable system. But the failure to expand citizenship, on the one hand, and to create identities between center and periphery, on the other (with notable exceptions—Samos, for example, toward the end of the Peloponnesian war), reflected the failure to evolve a broader tax base within the core territories. Athens was thus always parasitical in respect of its allied and subordinate territories, and this deprived it of the sort of structural flexibility that would have permitted it to survive the crisis of 405–404 and the defeat at Aegospotami.43 Just as, in some states, problems of both regional and lineage identities (however spurious or artificial the latter may usually in fact have been) dramatically vitiated attempts by a central authority, even when supported by elements of a permanent civil or military bureaucracy, to maintain itself as an effective power with real coercive potential over more than a few generations, so the failure to generate common identities within Athenian tributary territories vitiated Athenian strength at precisely the point at which it was most severely challenged. The maintenance of ideological legitimacy and hegemony must accompany the maintenance of appropriate coercive potential in situations during which external pressures build up, and the combination must be seen as a central element in considering the reasons for the long-term survival of a particular state system. The relatively short life span of the Athenian empire must owe something to these systemic weaknesses. In contrast, the neo-Assyrian state of the tenth to eighth centuries b.c.e. does appear to have been able to maintain an administrative apparatus, which, although dependent upon a social and ethnic identity with the palace, was founded upon a combination of taxation and tribute raising (and associated bureaucratic skills). This was in turn integrated into a system of vassalage and dependency upon both the royal dynasty and the cult of Assur, which was quite deliberately introduced into the pantheon of conquered peoples.44
The Sasanian state offers a good example of a remarkably successful dynasty in which ideological legitimacy and a bureaucratic administrative structure were successfully combined to hold powerful centrifugal tendencies and the competition of several equally powerful clans in check for some four centuries. The power of the Sasanian royal house depended very largely on two interlinked factors: an ideological commitment by a powerful group of regional clan or dynastic chiefs (the Sasanian “aristocracy,” from whom the royal house was itself drawn) to the legitimacy of the dominant dynasty (which claimed also a certain politico-religious authority sanctioned both by a claim to ancient (p. 1127) lineage and military leadership) and the maintenance of a degree of equilibrium between the interests of the ruling house and those of the aristocracy, which supported the claims to legitimate power and accepted royal authority only as long as Sasanian rule did not challenge their own interests, whether ideological, political, or economic.45 Dynastic rivalries, and questions of honor, shame, and competition were inevitably also integral elements in this picture. The Abbasid Caliphate itself (750–1258) can be understood from this perspective, for already by the later ninth century the central power was heavily compromised by the growing autonomy of provincial governors and by generals commanding armies in the central lands. It could be argued that only the need to attain ideological legitimacy within Islam held the wider polity together, and successful religious-ideological opposition in Africa, Egypt, and the Arabian peninsula threatened even this.
Medieval Indian states exemplify some elements of the relationship between the success or failure of a state center to survive over a longer or shorter period, the networks of power between other actual or potential centers of social power (spatially or socially) and the rulers and their dependent elite, and control over the appropriation and distribution of resources, whether economic or ideological. It is clear from a cursory comparison of a number of ancient and medieval state formations that a central authority can survive for substantial periods simply through the manipulation of key ideological and symbolic elements in the cultural system of the social formation as a whole. South Indian temple culture and the attendant state structures, particularly as exemplified in the Chola empire, offer good illustrations. The Chola empire also illustrates the central importance of legitimation within symbolic terms of reference—within the symbolic universe of a given cultural formation—and of the social/cultural groups that are generally responsible for their maintenance, whether priestly groups, official churches, cult organizations, or aristocratic elites endowed with particular symbolic authority.46 This is especially relevant when we consider that states may have an ideological life that is not necessarily tied to their actual political and institutional efficacy or power. Political ideologies and belief systems, once in existence, are sometimes quite able to adapt and survive in conditions that have evolved well away from those within which they were originally engendered, provided the contradictions between the two are not too extreme or insurmountable in terms of social praxis and psychology.
Those that respond to long-term functional needs in human society provide the best examples and include religious systems in particular, such as Hinduism, Islam, or Christianity—systems that do, to a greater or lesser degree, free themselves in certain respects from both the political and the social and economic conditions that produced them (although they may at the same time constrain the direction of socioeconomic evolution within those societies). But “political” ideologies, too, can be extremely flexible. They may provide a rationale for conflict where no visible or obvious reason in terms of competition for material resources exists, for example. And they can also be (p. 1128) extremely powerful. Many states were, in effect, little more than territories under the nominal authority of a ruler, but in which actual power was exercised by a tribe-, clan-, or family-based socioeconomic elite. The position of such an elite might originally have depended upon the central ruler and/or the conditions in which the state came into being (by conquest, for example), but, because of their actual control over resources and other historical conditions, they became in practice independent of the center. Yet in such cases, we find that the very idea of a centralized kingdom or state and the residual power of concepts such as honor or loyalty to a particular dynastic succession or set of constitutional arrangements were enough to maintain at least a fictional unity of identity. The later history of the Byzantine state from the thirteenth century to its final extinction in 1453 exemplifies this particular type of development. The Assyrian empire in the later ninth and first half of the eighth centuries b.c.e. survived partly at least, it appears, because of the strength of these symbolic and ideological relationships, in spite of political strife at the center and the loss of certain more distant western territories.
Ideological Integration and Ritual Penetration
These points suggest that a crucial element in the longer term success of a state formation is that of the degree of consensus and reciprocity (between its own demands and structures, those of social elites, and those of the populations from which it draws its resources) upon which the state is built or upon which it comes to depend. This is not to revive a “consensus” theory of state formation, but rather to stress the significance in the structuring of political relations of power and resource distribution of rules, “law,” and forms of normative behavioral patterns. This differed enormously between different historical cases. Some survived only by virtue of their ability to coerce submission and the extraction of surplus wealth on a more or less continuous basis. But over the longer term, this has not been a particularly effective way of evolving or maintaining state power. A good example is provided by the development from republic to empire in the case of Rome, in which a conquest state was able to evolve an ideological hegemony, which in turn generated a consensual identity with the conceptual world delivered by the Roman conquerors, stimulated by the deliberate erasure of preexisting political structures in many—although by no means all—the conquered territories.47 Although most states first evolved in the context of an imbalance between military coercion and cooperative participation, those that have been most successful have usually generated increasingly complex relationships of reciprocity, consensus, and interdependence with other elements of the social formations upon which they draw (but which, it must not be (p. 1129) forgotten, they also influence), in particular with leading elements of conquered groups or previous political formations, whether these are tribal and clan leaders, merchant elites, or aristocracies. Many states, established after a relatively brief period of military expansion and conquest, came to rest very heavily on such structures, and the Indian examples mentioned already provide a good illustration of such systems. Equally, the Merovingian kingdom during the sixth and seventh centuries depended very heavily on the support and goodwill of the preexisting Gallo-Roman elite and the episcopal establishment (the two were anyway very closely integrated), especially in its southern regions,48 while the caliphate during the later seventh and well into the ninth century relied on the complicity of non-Muslim (or only slowly Islamizing) local elites in both the former Roman provinces, as well as in Iran and Iraq, for the management of their fiscal affairs at grassroots level.49
Ideological integration has been a major feature of most major recent state formations. In the western tradition, this has generally been seen as a secondary aspect of state formation, a reflection, perhaps, of the dominance of military institutions and coercion in the political history of the western Eurasian world. In fact, comparison with different types of states suggests that this prioritization may be misplaced.50 In the pre-Islamic Indian subcontinent, political power rested on the exploitation of a core region, the source of immediate royal income, while the areas farthest away from the center of military and political coercion were attached primarily through occasional military expeditions and by connections of a ritual nature. Royal rituals were centered on key religious centers and temples, through whose religious-ideological authority the rulers reinforced their legitimacy and claims to overlordship, and in return for which they undertook to support such institutions through a variety of endowments, regular gifts in cash and in kind, grants of labor services, and so on. It was through their involvement in such rituals that members of dominant social groups could be incorporated within what was in practice a network of royal and spiritual patronage. At the same time, the rituals legitimated more localized authority and power, so that the system as a whole provided a rationale for the prevailing political institutions and social-economic relations.51
The political relationships that are represented by those of ancient and early medieval Indian polities, such as the Mauryan empire from the late fourth to early second century b.c.e., or the empire of the Guptas (c. 320–540 c.e.), in which religious/priestly elites and temple economies play such an important role, have been described by the concept “ritual polity”52 or as the “intense ritual penetration of everyday life” in cultural systems that broadly share the same basic tenets (in cases where markedly different belief systems exist within the framework established by a state and not shared by the political elite, of course, such relationships may only operate to a limited degree, or not at all). One of the most prominent features of the ideological underpinnings of such systems, in particular from the time of the Gupta state, was the emphasis placed on social order (dharma), which it was the king’s or ruler’s duty to protect; while (p. 1130) it cannot be said that this was the main reason for the lack of emphasis on large state building in India, it played a significant role. There is also a danger in modern conceptualization of this notion of turning a specifically structured system of social praxis, which reflects and maintains also a given symbolic universe, into an idealist notion of theocratic, “Asiatic” stability, in which the rise and fall of states and power elites is determined by “religion” and in which economic relationships are created by the demands of religious observance and beliefs or perceptions. In fact, it is clear that rulers were generally quite aware of the process of religious-political manipulation necessary to the maintenance of their power, especially of the need to maintain control over resources in order to invest in this ritual system on a grand scale in order to continually legitimate their position. More significantly, it is clear that when we examine a number of ancient state formations more closely, this ritual incorporative facet and the ways in which cultic systems function at both the political and economic levels to bind a wider territory together were widespread and represented in practice one of the commonest means of empire building—whether we are concerned with the Babylonian, Assyrian, or later states and empires. In the case of both ancient Assyrian and Achaemenid Persian kingdoms, for example, the rulers of both empires became actively involved in the dominant cults of conquered territories, which were then assimilated into a broader network of divine relationships, participation in which guaranteed both continuing divine support and therefore political and institutional stability. The same might be said, in a different degree according to region, for pre-Christian Rome.
Such “ritual” consists not simply in ideas or attitudes. Ritual practice was itself constitutive of, and reproduced by, social praxis and represented in consequence an aspect of the social relations of production, that is, the sets of socioeconomic relations that enabled the social formation to reproduce itself. It is less the fact that such interactional networks existed that is important, than the role they played, for they functioned as networks of distribution and redistribution of surplus wealth—through a priestly caste or ruling elite, for example—organized in favor of a particular religious center (such as a temple or similar locus of the divine) at a given moment. The fact that many rulers derived their original status from an ancestral role as chief priest or similar, on the one hand, and that much of the political expansion of ancient states was legitimated by appealing to the claims to overlordship of a particular divinity, on the other hand, is indicative of how usual this actually was.
Indeed, the “ritual penetration” of a society as represented by specific sets of social practices, which are themselves the expression of the structure of social relations of production (expressed through a given religious and symbolic vocabulary), is common to all premodern (or precapitalist) social formations, but in different degrees. In some societies, they have come to be the dominant expression of relations of production, since as Godelier has pointed out, each social-cultural formation represents and practices (p. 1131) economic relations in different forms, the location and origins of which must be the subject of specific empirical analysis.53 In each case, the combination of a specific political universe, ecological context, kinship structure, and religious configuration promoted the varying role and position of such ritual, transactional networks. Their importance was enhanced or diminished by the structure of political demands of state centers and rulers in respect of control over surplus distribution. In pre-Islamic central India, the incorporation of social praxis into a temple-oriented system of redistribution of surplus wealth and political legitimacy, combined with the particular, highly fragmented character of the political geography of the region, meant that the process of state formation was always inscribed within such relationships and the structures they generated, producing a highly inflected set of political-religious relationships in which legitimacy depended to a very great extent on consensual acceptance. The situation was not so different in ancient Assyria and Babylon.
But in the case of Indian states, there is an additional factor to be taken into account. The ideological structures of Hinduism, and its contingent social practices, which came to mark every aspect of social and political life across the whole subcontinent, tended under certain conditions to render the functions normally assumed and required of any state structure, especially those of maintaining order and internal cohesion, dangerously redundant. If we assume that states provide both centralized authority and, more important, normative rules for legal, social, and economic relationships, then it becomes clear that in the Hindu context, these characteristics of state organization are already present in the internal order of religious and social life—the lineage structures and caste attributions alone provide for much of this.54 A similar case could, in fact, be made for certain forms of Islam, given the permeative strength of Sharī‘a as a guide to day-to-day patterns of behavior down to the humblest levels of household existence; in a few cases within Christianity—more especially, in certain post-Reformation movements—one could draw similar conclusions about the interface among state structures (and their functions), law, and normative social behavior. It would be interesting to examine some of the ancient state formations about which we have evidence in an attempt to see whether similar relationships did, or could, prevail or whether, as argued by Mann, it is only the most recent salvationist or soteriological systems that can achieve these results.55 In the case of China, for example, the longevity of Confucian prominence and its penetration into society seems to be due to the fact that the Confucian-Legalist system that was characteristic of the state from the early Han period welded political and ideological power together, so that even in a situation of fragmented state authority, as long as no competing ideology could better legitimize the state and as long as Confucian scholars survived as a social-cultural group, new rulers inevitably came to rely on imperial Confucianism for legitimization and on Confucian scholars—who were at once both priests and bureaucrats—to manage the fiscal and institutional structures (p. 1132) through which the country was governed, which in turn reinforced notions of imperial unity and promoted the reproduction of key administrative-cultural practices.56
Of course, the power-relations in any culture are legitimated through systems of belief, ideologies in which the “necessary” duty of individuals, states, communities to defend their beliefs, values, and identities and to promote the variety of associated activities are represented through culturally-specific ideas and concepts. Similar forms of ritual penetration can be seen in the Islamic world or in Christendom as in India or China. In the case of both Christianity and Islam, one aspect of ritual incorporation—that is to say, conversion—served as a fundamental tool of political integration and domination, while the religious systems established both the framework for social praxis as well as the thought-world within which it was conceived and apprehended. The observance of specific modes of behavior in social intercourse determined the degree to which an individual was identified as a member of a community or group (or not), while medieval Christian and Muslim rulers had to be seen to reinforce and re-affirm their particular symbolic universe through ritualized expressions of faith and the redistribution of considerable amounts of surplus wealth through certain ideologically legitimating ritual actions, such as through endowing or supporting religious foundations. In the late Roman world, the complex ceremonial of the imperial palace, the detailed hierarchy of ranks and offices, and the daily acting-out of rituals designed expressly to recall and to imitate the harmony and peace of the heavenly order were all fundamental expressions of the symbolic order. The close relationship between the emperor and the Church, and the supervision by the Church of popular beliefs and, increasingly, of kinship arrangements, for example, embodied an impressive ideological and symbolic system of legitimation. But it did not itself express also, or serve as, a key institution of surplus distribution necessary to the economic survival of the state institution. Yet religious ideology as social praxis directly affected relations between individuals and the Church, as well as between the latter and rulers. A key strand in late Roman imperial ideology was that of imperial universalism, embodied in its Christian form from the later fourth century c.e. and marked by both exclusivism and an increasing intolerance towards competing belief-systems. By the middle and later years of the sixth century this imperialism identified the imperium Romanum with “orthodox” Christianity, equated with the civilized, God-protected empire of the Christian Romans. In the following period, especially from the ninth century onwards, imperialism through territorial expansion was accompanied by a growing emphasis on imperialism as the spiritual conquest of the world through mission, conversion, and the establishment of an orthodox Christian oikoumene under imperial leadership, although this motif was present in Justinian’s time also.57 The Church represented one of the most powerful ideological (p. 1133) and economic institutions of the late Roman and Byzantine world. Through its formal teaching and theology it came to be presented by the clergy and the literate and learned minority as the single correct form of belief—orthodoxy—even though its first centuries were marked by a series of intellectual and political clashes over the definitions at issue.58
An important characteristic of the late Roman Church was the close political-ideological relationship it held with the secular power, embodied by the emperor. The development in the course of the fourth century of an imperial Christian ideological system rooted in both Romano-Hellenistic political concepts and Christian theology established an unbreakable association, which was thereafter to set limits to, yet also to legitimate, the actions of emperor and patriarch. In its most abstract form it was understood as a relationship of mutual dependence, but the duty of the secular ruler was both to defend “correct belief” (orthodoxia) as well as to protect the interests of the Church—in the form of the honor and respect accorded the priestly office—which catered for the spiritual needs of the Christian flock. Accordingly it was understood that the health of the state was assured only when the traditions of orthodox belief (as derived from the Apostles and the Fathers of the Church) were faithfully practiced and handed down. This utopian expression of harmony and order—which the earthly kingdom was meant to strive to achieve, in imitation of Heaven—was reflected in imperial religious and secular politics, and in the ways in which the emperors understood their practical role in respect of the Church, especially with regard to the convening of ecclesiastical councils and the incorporation of the principles embodied in these ideas in imperial legislation.59
Now patterns of investment of wealth directly reflected what people believed about their world—whether they invested in civic infrastructure and amenities, as in the Hellenistic and Roman world up to the third century; whether they invested in church- or temple-building or the endowment of religious foundations, artwork and decoration, or charity; or whether they invested in court offices, tax-farms or commercial ventures, or a combination of all of these, all reflect prevailing values and assumptions about what was important in their world. Religious belief can be seen directly to affect patterns of wealth investment and, in consequence, the ways in which elites, for example, appropriate and consume wealth, as well as the ways in which political regimes are able to maintain themselves, or not. If we want to understand, causally, changes in such phenomena, we need to take beliefs and the framework they set seriously into consideration as one key element in the notion of change, otherwise we end up merely describing them and seeing them as epiphenomena with no causal value. Indeed, since beliefs certainly had an impact at times on political action and thus, indirectly, on economic relationships, it seems obvious that if we want to understand the processes of change, we need to build beliefs and their contingent social effects into our model of causal relationships.
(p. 1134) Power and the Politics of Resource Distribution
State centers that are unable to maintain control and participation in the process of primary surplus distribution (through direct taxation, for example, or the ability always to coerce militarily) must attempt to survive by promoting their interests through alternative, secondary means of surplus redistribution. Such means include both the “devolution” of military and other authority, for example, to the level of the fief or an equivalent institution, as in western Europe during the period from the sixth to the eleventh century. They include also networks of redistribution reinforced and operated through primarily religious structures.
Of course, both Islamic and Christian rulers in East and West legitimated the extraction and distribution of surplus—which is to say, in effect, the continued existence of their respective states—through political theologies, ideological narratives that highlighted the necessary duty of the state and its rulers to defend the faith and to promote the variety of associated activities this entailed. At the same time, they had to be seen to reinforce and reaffirm their particular symbolic universe through ritualized expressions of faith and the redistribution of considerable amounts of surplus wealth to religious foundations of various types or through certain ideologically legitimating ritual actions. In the Byzantine world, for example, the complex ceremonial of the imperial palace, the close relationship between the emperor (with the state) and the church, and the supervision by the church of popular beliefs and kinship structures created an impressive ideological and symbolic system of legitimation, a system whose origins can be followed from the reign of Constantine I through that of Justinian and beyond. Yet, in this particular case, in contrast with the south Indian examples, it did not itself express also, or serve as, a key institution of surplus distribution necessary to the economic survival of the state institution. Similar networks can be seen in the Islamic world, in western Christendom, and in the Chinese empire. And in the case of both Christianity and Islam, ritual incorporation (that is to say, conversion) served as a fundamental tool of political integration and domination. The “segmentary” states of South and Central America provide closer parallels to the south Indian case, for here temple-centered redistribution of surplus and tribute was a crucial means through which surplus appropriation and political authority were maintained.60
The structure of the power relations that dominate within state apparatuses and between them and the broader social formation are another important facet of the ways in which states function and how they evolve. How independent of society were state functionaries, individually or as a group? How limited were state apparatuses by the social and economic relationships that dominated a given society? Was the state, as a set of institutions, dependent upon a social and economic elite or “ruling class,” upon an alliance of tribal lineages and (p. 1135) identities (which may or may not have had any historical substance), or upon some combination of these?61 To what extent did emergent states incorporate existing elites? The relationships between these considerations and the origins of a given state system, on the one hand, and the appropriation, allocation, and distribution or redistribution of resources, on the other, constitute a series of focal issues.
These considerations are important because the state, while it provides a framework for, or sets limits to, the development of certain social and economic relationships, through its need to establish and then maintain a regular and predictable structure of surplus extraction, also enables or facilitates the evolution of new practices and relationships. This is as true of relations of dependence between groups and between individuals as it is of relationships between sets of institutions and the practices through which they are lived out and reproduced. A clear example of this can be seen in the way in which the east Roman/Byzantine state transferred the focus of its attention in fiscal matters away from urban centers to village communities during the course of the seventh and eighth centuries, thereby radically altering the ways in which social relationships between landlords and tenants, on the one hand, and among peasant producers, the state, and towns, on the other, functioned.62 Similar examples exist in the cases of the Ottoman and Mughal states. In the Ottoman case, the growth during the seventeenth century of a local nobility, together with the garrisoning of imperial salaried troops and Janissaries in the provinces on a permanent basis, radically altered the relationship between central government and regions (generally seen as to the disadvantage of the former), yet such changes were made possible precisely because of the state’s perceived fiscal and military requirements.63
The state thus established or generated spaces in which new developments could take place. The role of tax farmers provides an interesting case, since their activities both involved the extraction of surplus and acted as a stimulus to changed patterns of investment or consumption of wealth, to changed structures of money use on the part of both producers and state administrations, and so on. In some cases, the existence of a central fiscal administration may have given hitherto unimportant local leaders—village headmen, small-scale local landlords—a more significant role in the process of surplus appropriation and accumulation, leading to shifts in the political order of power at the local level and ultimately reacting back on the state itself. This might lead to a consideration of how the role of village elites or rural social rank attributions could have an influence on the ways a state or its regional predecessors and successors could organize, just as the existence of centralized state apparatuses and their demands for surplus in turn affected the ways in which these local relationships worked, opening up new social space within which they could evolve.64 And this leads in turn to a consideration of how such elements form part of a social totality, especially in the context of both local and international pools of influence—the concentric, (p. 1136) overlapping, and reciprocally (but unevenly) influencing relationships that cross the boundaries of social formations.65
As was implied in the first part of this chapter, one important aspect of any discussion on states and their histories must be the differential processes of evolution reflected in their age or maturity. “Mature” states confront very different problems from “young” states. The degree to which their various institutional and ideological systems become well established, entrenched, and embedded into the basic fabric of the social formations that support them must play an important role. In newly formed conquest states, the conquerors are rarely integrated into the wider structure of social and economic relationships: they remain, often for some considerable time, in effect, parasitic consumers of wealth extracted by force, or the threat of force, alone. In other cases, while this may once have been the case, centuries of “state embedding” have occurred, so that the state elite, its apparatuses, and its ideology are inextricably interwoven into the social fabric of society at large. The later Roman state and the Sasanian empire would seem to represent such formations. Looking at traits such as the way in which the economic relationship between center and elites evolved across the medium and longer term is just one way of expanding the basis for comparative discussion about states, because it enables us to construct models of state formations or social-economic systems that can then help in asking questions about other cultural and social systems and states. It encourages us to look behind the institutional and political forms that each society presents through its particular symbolic universe and to locate explanations of change that incorporate both the general (or systemic) and the particular (or culture-specific).
Finally, broader issues of power must play a role in any discussion of the ways state systems function, whether as political or sociocultural entities or both. Conflict is an unavoidable aspect of human history, perhaps given more emphasis than we always appreciate in many of our literary sources because conflict is frequently what interested the contemporary historians, chroniclers, and other commentators. Conflict at court, disagreements and tensions or conflict between emperors and patriarchs, conflict between elite families and clans, conflict between individuals before a court, conflict between provincial commanders and their armies, all conflict revolved around a struggle for power and influence, whether at court and over policy, over economic resources in the provinces, or over imperial religious policy and the perceptions ordinary people had about it. Power must therefore occupy an important role in much of the discussion, and definitions of power, or how the notion might best be conceptualized, are therefore of central importance. Power has two aspects—the ways in which it could be wielded and the ways in which it was represented and portrayed by those who wielded it or wished to give that impression. In much contemporary social history debate, power is generally understood as social power, as a generalized means to specific ends. Power is thus control over various types of resources (wealth, people, knowledge) and can thus be exercised (p. 1137) at a variety of levels—from the most personal (of the individual over other individuals) to the most public (of political-military power over armies, food supplies, and so on).
In one sense, therefore, power is the political and psychological expression of economic dominance (since resources are, in the end, an essentially economic category). Yet this is an element that may not always be obvious to the modern commentator or be clearly conceptualized as such by those who wield it: social relationships are generally represented in an ideological form that has no obvious single economic point of reference. Power is a product of the combination and articulation of human psychology, cultural forms, and economic context. And while it may be exercised in relative autonomy from other structures in respect of its immediate effects, it does not spring out of nothing. Power, coercion, and ideology are forms or expressions of praxis, that is to say, of the socially determined way people in different contexts in a culture do things. They are modes through which particular sets of relationships can be maintained and reproduced. Power is central to social theory, but the struggle for, attainment, and exercise of power are about resources, and while it must by definition be understood as a reflection of the economics of society, it must also be seen as something that can be realized or implemented at the level of cultural and psychological resources.66 In this context, we may bear in mind the extension of postcolonial theory to the premodern empires and to the study of subaltern and subordinated cultures, which have largely remained invisible in the historiographical record, even if efforts are being made to address the issue through a range of new approaches that recenter cultural or sociocultural elements that have been marginalized in the debate, ranging from ethnic and linguistic identities to gender or to belief systems written out of the picture as “heresies.”67 Postprocessual archaeology is but one bundle of such approaches, but they have an impact also on literature, the study of buildings, and the use of private and public space in ancient and medieval urban environments, as well as on studies of visual and representational culture.68 By the same token, the application of complexity theory in the study of state systems will certainly open up significant new avenues of approach and generate new questions, even if this has barely begun to occur, and especially since the issue of the appropriateness of some uses of complexity theory remains at issue, since this is a highly contested and much-debated issue in current discussions within the humanities.69 Subordination and oppression are as much a key element in state formation and evolution as political and fiscal administration, military organization, or the structure of social and religious elites, and all are about power and how it is achieved, maintained, reproduced, or denied. Since much of the history of the late antique world revolves around issues of access to and exercise of social power, in one form or another,70 this must be understood as a central feature of any effort to describe and to understand the period as a whole.
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(6) . See, for example, Sanderson 1995; 1999; Mann 1986a; Runciman 1989. Most recently on Rome and China see the essays in Scheidel 2009; and the short comparative survey in Burbank and Cooper 2010, 23–59.
(48) . See especially the valuable discussion of Wood 1979; and Heinzelmann 1975; Lewis 1976. Bishops represented a very important focus of spiritual power and authority, backed by sometimes quite extensive ecclesiastical revenues, quite independent of the royal and lay establishment. By the middle of the seventh century, the blending of Frankish and Gallo-Roman elites meant that the episcopate was more closely connected, through kinship, to the secular elites of the Merovingian kingdom.
(60) . For “ritual penetration,” see Mann 1986a, 361; but against his argument that only the major world-salvationist-religious systems offered such possibilities, see Wickham 1988, esp. 68–72. For the function of “ritual enclosure” in pre-Columbian South American cultures, see Marcus 1976; 1984.
(65) . For the “overlapping” character of socioeconomic and cultural structures, and the ways in which such reciprocal influences are hierarchized according to the relative strengths of the state, social, or cultural forms, see Rowlands 1987, 1–11; Hedeager 1987. On relations of dependence and their structural significance in the dynamic of a social formation, see also Manzano Moreno 1998 esp. 906–913.
(68) . The issue has polarized but also focused discussion: see Kabir and Williams 2005, for example; for a critical perspective, Parry 2004 or Bartolovitch and Lazarus 2002; and for the burgeoning literature, Riemenschneider et al. 2004. On “postprocessual archaeology,” see Shanks and Tilley 1987; Hodder 1992; Tilley 1993.
(69) . Some social theorists and social historians, following recent work in literary theory, have begun to exploit the potential of approaches drawn from “complexity theory”—the science of “nonlinear dynamics”—drawn in their turn from mathematics (for example, chaos theory), computer science, and the physical sciences. Complexity theory challenges the principles of linear explanation and causation. It places emphasis instead on the randomness of causation, in which the interplay of multiple human actors with one another, within behavior-determining social and institutional contexts, and with the physical environment, generates “emergent” social praxis. Societies—and state systems, therefore—may thus be seen as complex adaptive systems, and emphasis is placed on the unpredictability of possible outcomes (or, in historical terms, of knowing all the causal elements leading to a particular outcome). While there has been some misuse or misconstrual of the original mathematical and computer science notions, this nevertheless does serve to emphasize the causal pluralism of social interaction and warns against simplistic linearity in historical explanation. For some perspectives on aspects of the appropriation of complexity theory by literary and social theorists, see Bricmont and Sokal 1998 (a strongly critical appraisal); Plotnisky 2002 (critical of Bricmont and Sokal). For general introductions, see Lewin 1999; Byrne 1998.