Written Law and Empire in the Ancient World: A Comparative Perspective

AHA Session 145
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Miami Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Karen Turner, Holy Cross College
The Presumptive State: Developing “Legal Voice” in Babylonia
Seth Richardson, The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago
Writing, Law, and Empire in Greece
Michael Gagarin, University of Texas at Austin
Codifying Change in Qin Imperial Ideology
P. Ernest Caldwell IV, University of Chicago
Thomas David DuBois, National University of Singapore

Session Abstract

The growing field of ‘empire studies’ has greatly benefited from recent historical scholarship that interrogates prevailing Eurocentric (more commonly Anglo-centric) perceptions and categories of empire.  Central to this scholarship are comparative assessments juxtaposing western imperial forms to non-western manifestations ranging from networks of empire in the ancient Near East to the Japanese empire of World War II.  Such comparative approaches have resulted in a considerable expansion of our understanding of the multiplicity of divergent imperial ideologies throughout history, and have also opened the path for more detailed comparative analyses of particular features of empires.  The essays on this panel contribute to this growing literature on the comparative history of empires by offering case studies focused on the use of written law as a device for constructing identities and defining communities within the differing imperial ideologies of ancient Babylonia, early China, and ancient Greece.  In most of the societies examined, the conscious use of writing as a communicative tool and as a device for manipulating and altering socio-political structures was present prior to the emergence of firmly established imperial ideologies.  Yet, the technological capacities of writing did not inevitably lead to the use of written law, but merely provided the potential for such a purpose.  Whether or not the transformative capacities are exploited depends on values ascribed to written law within an existing imperial ideology.  Therefore, these papers will consider how different polities conceptualized the role of law, especially written law, in the formation of state structures and ideologies capable of producing and maintaining empires.  In some pre-imperial societies, writing was combined with law to form promulgated codes.  The changes to conceptions of royal authority and territorial integrity brought about by this process of codification proved vital to the later development of an imperial ideology in places such as Babylonia (Richardson).  When territorial expansion prompted the need to engage and incorporate disparate cultures of newly conquered lands into an imperial structure, the possibility arose that the transformative capacities of writing, and more specifically written law, could be exploited so as to alter or disestablish pre-existing social, political, or legal structures (Caldwell).  Written law thus became an imperial tool of cultural assimilation.  Yet not all imperial ideologies required the complete displacement of preexisting socio-political institutions.  Some adopted legally pluralistic policies whereby the jurisdiction of the dominant imperial written law was limited to securing resource exploitation and tax collection, leaving large spheres of social and political interaction regulated by preexisting, and sometimes oral, indigenous legal traditions (Gagarin).  By examining the values and roles ascribed to written law within disparate the imperial ideologies, it is hoped that this panel will provoke continued interrogation of the concepts and categories of ‘empire’.

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