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Law’s Imperialism: Conceptions of Empire in Republican Statutes

Carlos F. Noreña

Law’s Imperialism: Conceptions of Empire in Republican Statutes

This paper examines the various articulations of empire in surviving statutes (leges) from the mid- and late Republic, and argues that the language employed in these texts provides a useful, and underexplored, window onto the collective representation of Roman imperialism in the last two centuries BCE.

Because the specific terminology of the statutes (i.e., laws duly passed by the Roman assemblies) is so important for the overall argument, the paper concentrates on the texts of statutes that have been preserved epigraphically. It begins with brief surveys of Republican legislative procedure and the protocols for the drafting of the leges themselves, highlighting the increasing use of tralatician chapters and the development of institutional memory. The discussion then turns to a close reading of a selection of statutes ranging in date from the 120s to 44 BCE, with a focus on the different ways in which the outside world is imagined in these legal texts. Sometimes that world is neatly partitioned into different quasi-formal categories, as in the Lex Repetundarum of (probably) 122 BCE (RS 1 = CIL 12.583), in which the opening provision refers to “the allies, either of the Latin name or of the foreign peoples,” and to “anyone in the control, dominion, power, or friendship of the Roman People” ([--- quoi socium no]minisue Latini exterarumue nationum, quoiue in arbitratu dicione potestate amicitiau[e populi Romani], l. 1). In other texts, the outside world is more expansive. In the Lex de Prouinciis Praetoriis of c. 100 BCE (RS 12 = FIRA 9), for example, the seas are declared safe not only for citizens and Latin allies, but also for the peoples “of foreign nations” (Cnidos III, ll. 33-34); kings, too, fall within the orbit of the Roman legislative pronouncement, explicitly directed not to harbor pirates (Delphi B, ll. 8-14). And in the Lex Gabinia Calpurnia de Insula Delo of 58 BCE (RS 22 = CIL 12.2500), the conferral of tax immunity on Delos, a straightforward fiscal action, is associated with nothing less than the honor and greatness of the Roman people, the glory of the commonwealth, the enlargement of the empire, and the pacification of the world (populeique Roma[nei] dign[it]atis maiestatis[que sit republica pulce]rrume administrata imperio am[pli]ficato [p]ace per orbe[m terrarum confecta], ll. 18-20). It was a short step from such language to the characteristic bombast of Augustan imperial ideology.

The second half of the paper pursues the implications of this sort of legislative terminology. The argument builds upon recent studies of the vocabulary of imperialism at Rome (Richardson 2008; Lavan 2013), but is not intended primarily as a literary intervention. Instead, the terminological evidence from the statutes—what Lavan dismisses as “the technical discourse of the law” (40)—is mobilized to shed light upon the operations of the assemblies and the logic by which “foreign policy” decisions were made. Taking a cue from the work of Q. Skinner on the recursive relationship between public language and political action (e.g. Skinner 1974), I argue that the changing conception of empire expressed in Republican statutes, which can be seen as a form of collective and institutional knowledge (cf. Ober 2008), came to influence not only how the imperial project was perceived, but also how it was executed, and that the increasingly expansive vision of empire that can be inferred from these texts intensified and accelerated the territorial expansion of the Roman state in the late Republic. The paper concludes with a brief discussion of how insights from the field of legal sociology might advance our understanding of Roman Republican imperialism.

Session/Panel Title

Rethinking Roman Imperialism in the Middle and Late Republic (c.327 - 49 BCE)

Session/Paper Number


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