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Review: Maps, Lists, Money, Order and Power

Author(s): Nicholas Purcell

Source: The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 80 (1990), pp. 178-182
Published by: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies
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Accessed: 13/05/2011 14:41

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GINES DE L'EMPIRE ROMAIN. Paris: Librarie Artheme Fayard, I988. Pp. 354, 54 figs. ISBN 2-213-02020-5

This highly creative book draws into the main forum of scholarly discussion two
interrelated groups of questions which needed new investigation. How did the Romans see the
world which they conquered? What was the nature of their rule? These themes had, partly
because of their complexity and intractability, been relegated to the scholarly backstreets of
the study of the ancient geographical tradition and the epigraphy of the lower grades of
administrator. In Nicolet they have found a scholar who can fully cope with the intricacies of
the evidence, which is fully if not exhaustively set out in this work, and who is also equipped
with the vision to see how important these topics are for the central questions of Roman
history. It is, of course, to some extent a feature of the community of classical scholarship that
it has disenfranchised these studies; the debates about conceptual geography and the real
sociocultural nature of administrative structures are less unfamiliar topics in other parts of the
academic world, with which N. has done much to forge new links.
N.'s account centres on the propositions that the age of Augustus was pivotal in the
history of these subjects; and that they constituted a vital part of what was in general so
revolutionary and influential about the changes of that time. There is, however, a certain
paradox in anchoring them so firmly in a context of histoire evenementielle, since these are
topics which lend themselves to synchronic treatment. Nor does their importance to Roman
history depend on whether or not we accept N.'s view of their specially Augustan context.
What follows is an attempt to investigate some of his conclusions and to assess them to some
extent in a wider context. Disagreement with some of N.'s lines of argument does not detract
from the brilliance of a most original book on Roman history, but is intended to draw attention
to the importance of discussion of these subjects.


Alexander found the Indian philosophers in the open air in the meadow where they lived.
Their only response to the appearance of the king and his army was to stamp their feet on the
ground where they were walking. Interpreters explained to the curious Alexander that what
they meant was, 'each man possesses only so much of the earth as is beneath the soles of his
feet'. The Roman governor of the second century A.D. who wrote this anecdote approved of the
rebuke and distanced himself from a zeal for competition and conquest which he considered
infinite (Arrian, Anab. VII. I. 4-5). The question is of universal significance: when a
conqueror conquers, what does he conquer? What is the relationship between place and
The first issue is the difficulty of coping with 'place', as the gymnosophists saw. There is a
basic and psychological question: how can we conceive of space that we cannot comprehend
with our vision? Geographers and social anthropologists have devoted considerable attention
to this area, comparing the extremely varied ways of dealing with the conceptual organization
of space that can be attested in human societies. It is important to pose the question simply,
and not to jump to conclusions. N. uses and cites some of this work, especially the bits that
have been most devoted to the classical world, but explicitly prefers to them the more
traditional analyses of historical geography, disagreeing with the approach and findings of the
best application yet of this conceptual geography to the ancient world, Pietro Janni's La mappa
e ilperiplo (I984). Janni distinguished two approaches to space: space defined by the lines that
pass through it, and space defined by the voids between the lines; network versus tessellation.
He argued that in the ancient world a particular importance attached to the former, in the
shape of coastwise itineraries, Roman roads, streets in a town, and so on. Now it does not
matter so much whether the conclusion is right as whether this is the right kind of question to
be asking. As it happens, despite his doubts, N.'s arguments go far to prove the primary
importance of the line in ancient conceptualization of space: but the rejection of the type of
question asked by Janni has some disappointing conlsequences.
The ancients were well aware that knowledge is power. Arrian described what Alexander
would have wanted to go on and conquer as 'the unknown'. Romans clearly made a close
connection between cognitive processes and the acquisition of empire. Livy has his Brutus and
the young Tarquins, denizens of a small Rome, make the not very terrifying voyage to Delphi
'through lands which in that age were unknown, and seas even more so' ('per ignotas ea
tempestate terras, ignotiora maria' (I. 56. 6)). In the geographical tradition, texts like this lie
behind the terra incognita of Renaissance cartographical art, and create an insidious temptation
to connect the two worlds and transpose the concept of 'discovery' from the age of Magellan
back to that of Pytheas. N. explicitly compares the political purpose of the Braccio Nuovo in
the Vatican with that of the famous map of Agrippa, and does indeed see ancient pioneering
travellers like Hanno in the same light as the heroes of the age of the voyages of discovery. The
implication is that one age is as revolutionary as the other.
In antiquity, however, both the knowledge and the knower are importantly different. The
personal experience of an elite voyager is the main emphasis, as in Augustus' Res Gestae (the
boundaries of the Cimbri, which no Roman before that time had approached by land or sea,
26. 4; embassies from Indian kings which had not been seen before in the presence of any
Roman commander, 3I. i). The formula was laid down early: -rro7X76c7v 8'&vepcW'rcov
'1EV &aaTEc
Kai voov EyvCw,he saw the cities of many men and knew their minds (Odyssey I. 3). That is the
cognition that renders lands known in the ancient tradition, the experience that was wholly
wanting before the first pine was felled and Argo sailed and all the wretched voyagers who
came after. Alexander was Odysseus' successor, and the king's experience was crystallized as
empire by his journeying and the accounts that were written of it. In the actual journeys of
later generals like Pompey, Lucullus, Mucianus, or the vicarious experience of emperors
through their emissaries, the concern was with the individual who reached significant places
and-in the tradition which was first elaborated by Herodotus-'knew the minds' of their
inhabitants. Agrippa's map was the map of a traveller. Some claim to personal involvement
was always needed for new discovery. If the Popes who walked in the Braccio Nuovo had
sailed to the Indies, or Ferdinand and Isabella travelled under the captaincy of Columbus, the
parallel would have been closer. In the Roman world the degree of delegation was far less, the
journeyings less systematic, and the resulting information has far less claim to be either
utilitarian or practical. The voyages of the Renaissance were put to instant use to serve an
intellectual and practical agenda that derived from medieval thought and economics. The
maps and journeyings of the age of Augustus, on the other hand, were remarkable for the way
in which they subordinated geography to the mainstream tradition of literary thought,
investigating wonders to the glory of those whose experience of them magnified their position
in the world.
The view of the world which N.'s analysis shows us in the service of the principes of the
late Republic, and especially of Augustus, is actually a relatively simple one. It is based on an
Odyssean geography of routes and memorials of passage. The rivers which help define the
world, Rhine or Po, Nile or Orontes, Ocean or Danube, are routes more than moats (pace N.,
232, n. 20), whence the major significance of their confluences. On their banks the
conquering Roman leaves a mark of his passage, such as a tumulus, an altar, a lighthouse, a
statue, a trophy or a Ianus-a royal response to the broad dispositions of nature, paralleled
by similar celebrations of iuga montium, the passes over Pyrenees, Amanus or Alps which are
also part of the overall layout of the orbis terrarum. The Romans made sense of the space of
the Iberian peninsula, to give one example, by fringing it with such monuments, fixed points
de repere on major routeways. Thus an Augustan milestone describes the Roman achieve-
ment in grasping all that is between the Baetis river, which defines Baetica, and the stream of
Ocean, which bounds the world: 'from Baetis and the Ianus Augustus [at Cordoba, the
provincial capital] to the Ocean...' (ILS I02). Great rivers and high passes were miracula,
especially where crossed by Roman engineering; such focal points are important in
imagining the world-umbilical features, places where rivers plunge underground or
emerge, places where human artifice has left its mark on nature. The river Timavus in
northern Italy is of no significance which would justify its use as an important boundary
except that its natural peculiarities make it a useful indicator of the 'recesses of the Adriatic'
(cf. Strabo v. i. 9). In 'scientific' terms it is irrelevant; its function depends on the touristic
geography of the wonder-lists. Even the practical-seeming Peutinger Table, whether or not
it derives from an Agrippan prototype (N. thinks not) marks the altar in central Asia where
Alexander turned back, and in the miraculous landscape of Campania an ideogram which
seems to stand for the remarkable tunnels which M. Agrippa's architect drove through the
strange terrain of the Phlegraean Fields.
The relatively simplistic nature of the Roman practical view of the world is illustrated by
a decree about treason trials of the first century A.D. (Bruns7, 25I) which classifies Rome's
provinces into two types: transalpinae and transmarinae. The conceptual straightforwardness


of this view of the world seems to me to be more typical of Roman views of space than the
impression given by N., based, for instance, on the impressive lists of geographic details in
Augustan texts and documents. He concedes that Romans might not have been able to 'situate
exactly in space' the names of peoples and provinces that they knew (p. 36). The problem is
that even in a fully map-literate society 'situating things exactly in space' is too much to ask
for; we are all at the mercy of our conceptual geography. The long lists of places which the
Romans made represented an order of a kind-that is what lists are for-but it is at best an
order analogous to descriptions of routes, like the forty-nine obscure peoples 'from the Upper
Sea to the Lower' described on the Trophy of the Alpes Maritimae (CIL v. 78I7). Take Tribe
I9 from that list, the Rugusci. The list itself is likely to have been the best way of conceiving
that people's location. Even if RVGVSCORUM CIV was written on Agrippa's map, what did
that convey in visual, psychological or practical terms to Ovid or Livia? Nothing, apart from
the excitement of the long list, the rhetoric of obscure information, the potency of statistics,
and the wonder of the detail in which Augustus' conquest had worked and its representation in
the geographical language/imagery of the long tradition Homer-Herodotus-Eratosthenes-

In my view, therefore, by choosing not to go by the path of conceptual geography and

approach the subject from the roots upwards, and preferring to begin from the top and work
down, N. has created an exaggerated picture of the complexity and sophistication of both ancient
geography and thinking about space. Because he rightly sees a close link between talking about
places and ruling them, it follows that he is inclined pari passu to claim complexity for Roman
administration. His view 'peut nous inciter 'a nuancer fortement la vision trop "primitiviste"
qu'on veut nous presenter parfois de l'administration romaine d'epoque republicaine' (I 79, on
the Heraclea table). His quotation-marks are crucial. Let us by all means refrain from importing
to debate about Roman government the present-centred strait-jacket of the progressivist
perspective of primitivism and modernity which continues to fetter debate on the ancient
economy! There is some similarity between the two primitivisms: the Romans who lacked
double-entry book-keeping had no filing cabinets; landowners who could not compute the
return on investment for varying strategies of farming might not be expected to be able to plan
successfully the 'control of fiscal space' (N., ch. vii), or devise systems of data organization for
governmental ends. Anecdotal evidence obtrudes on both minimalist contentions-an unexpect-
edly intelligent remark about labour costs in the Elder Pliny, or a careful calculation of the cost-
effectiveness of conquering Britain in Strabo. Such passages are freaks to the minimalist, but the
basis, at the risk of being accused of the 'missing persons argument' (M. I. Finley, The Ancient
Economy2(I984), I93 f.), of reconstructions by 'modernists' of complex systems for which there
is little evidence. There is something, despite those quotation-marks, of the latter tendency in N.
But as with the conceptual geography, here too we need to start from scratch and enquire not
'how complex compared with modern bureaucracy is Augustan Rome?' but 'what is administra-
tion actually about in that far-distant context?'
Here, briefly, the answer that seems least objectionable is that it is about the rhetoric of
the display of wealth. Not about mere cash: it is hard to do justice in translation to the
epistemological grandeur of Xo6yosor ratio; and the rationes orbis terrarum have a more
splendid ring than 'the accounts of the world'. The Res Gestae et Impensae (as they should
properly be called), the Arausio cadasters, set up in a public room in the Forum of the colonia,
Agrippa's map of the tributary world, later celebrations in detail of number and generosity like
the Veleia tablet: all these are documents for public consumption, consumption which does
not depend on the ability to retrieve meaningful information from the record, any more than
anyone ever wanted to find out from the La Turbie monument whether Augustus had
conquered the Rugusci or not. The effect of the Vietnam Memorial in Arlington Cemetery
does not depend on its bureaucratic usefulness as a list of the casualties. This rhetoric of
power, the detailed statement of what you have-or of what you have given up-whether in
money, property, or the great demographic resource, is in a tradition which goes back to the
Achaemenids and beyond. The elaboration of the listing may become greater or lesser, and the
resources which it covers may vary, but the technique and its purposes do not.
Now N. talks-to give one instance-of the voirie of Rome, of its visible presence on the
great Marble Plan (I73), of its cadastral and administrative role (I74-7). This seems familiar,
since the modern western city is in important ways-communications, addresses, mapping,
infrastructure-defined by streets. That is not inevitable. Other ancient cities were divided by
the crossroads, or into blocks, in which the emphasis was on the nodes or the spaces in the
conceptual space, rather than on the lines. True to type, the Romans did emphasize the lines,
as they also did, I would argue, in the networks of centuriated land in the countryside.
Certainly in the city the cadaster is in the background. The city is organized as a series of
frontages; staircases are marked because they are the access points to upstairs interiors; the city
described on this map is a sort of periplous of public space, a voyage along the streets like the
famous passage of the Elder Pliny's praise of Rome where he uses the rhetoric of number to
estimate the sum total of the distances from the centre to each of the gates of the city. The
distances marked on the new pre-Severan fragment of the Marble Plan are not (pace N.) the
dimensions of the frontages but those between the giant cippi which demarcated the boundary-
line of the public land on the banks of the Tiber. This line did not bound the subdivisions of
the city (tessellation in Rome, of vici or regiones,is weak and the boundaries, as far as we know,
unmarked), but the great physical feature of the site of Rome, the feared but defining river
Tiber. Again, this is not primarily 'practical', but concerned with the visibility of the state's
organizing power. Spectacular intervention in symbolically influential areas was the principal
function of the curae which were set up in the Augustan and Tiberian principates; if they
regulated the day-to-day business of aqueducts or riverbank, that was a by-product. They
were, after all, set up not to get jobs done but so that more people should have a go at the
affairs of the Res Publica (Suetonius, Aug. 37).

If the rhetoric of space and its resources used by Augustus was the main ingredient in the
apparent changes of the time, what is left of the revolution proposed by N.? It certainly does
not seem, after all, to be in technique. The chronological specificity of his account seems in the
end unconvincing, since his own examples and explanations have ranged freely across classical
antiquity; the emphasis on the Augustan period is sometimes the result of tenuous argument,
and where it is not, the spotlight of the source tradition may be obscuring the parallel
phenomena of the earlier and the later periods. I remain to be convinced that either
geographical thought or the inner nature of administration went through spectacular change
between 40 B.C. and A.D. 20. The recent publication of the Lex portorii provinciae Asiae of
A.D. 62 (H. Engelmann and D. Knibbe, 'Das Zollgesetz der Provinz Asia', Epigr. Anat. I4
(I989)), which shows how the law in force in this crucial section of the rationes imperii under
Nero was still basically one passed before 72 B.C. (albeit with a few Augustan footnotes),
has rather neatly illustrated that belief in overarching continuity.
What L'invention du monde actually seems to prove beyond doubt is L'invention de Rome.
Turning the argument upside-down, I think that the abundant evidence collected by N. shows
us not Augustus using his power at Rome to transform geographical and administrative science,
but Augustus skilfully deploying the armoury of ancient administrative and descriptive
literature to establish Rome as the capital of the world (which N. too sees as one of his objectives,
207). Augustus put Rome on the map; he did not need to invent the map in order to do so.
In this context, the argument of Pietro Janni turns out to have been prophetic. The
line-the route of communication-is indeed central to Augustus' geography and its adminis-
trative use. The Italian regiones were based on the great radial roads which, right at the
beginning of his principate, Augustus had had repaired 'quo undique facilius urbs adiretur'
(Suetonius, Aug. 30). And of Augustus' innovations, perhaps the greatest, though scarcely
touched on by N., was the system of vehicula which guaranteed the communications which
were the heart of Augustus' empire-giving it shape, carrying the information which was
marshalled to display that shape, and above all collecting the resources-money, goods and
people-which it was the function of empire in antiquity to deploy. Discovery, exploration
and new knowledge consisted in the progressive extension of this ease of movement, and the
new worlds of this age would be revealed not by scientific enquiry but by the inevitable
expansion of unrestricted travel, ending the immemorial trauma of Jason and Odysseus:
quaelibet altum cumba pererrat;
terminus omnis motus, et urbes
muros terra posuere nova
nil qua fuerat sede reliquit
pervius orbis...
venient annis saecula seris
quibus Oceanus vincula rerum
laxet et ingens pateat tellus
Tethysque novos detegat orbes
nec sit terris Ultima Thule
(Seneca, Medea 368-72, 375-9 Zwierlein)

(any little boat can sail the deep; every boundary is removed and in a new land cities have
abandoned their walls. A world made accessible has left nothing in the place in which it was...
centuries will come, as the long years pass, in which Ocean may relax the bonds of the world,
great earth lie open, the sea reveal new worlds, and there will be no longer a Furthest Thule in
the lands.)
St John's College, Oxford