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The idea of provincia – then and now

July 16, 2009

I was reading The Ancient Mediterranean World: From the Stone Age to A.D. 600 (Oxford 2004), and came across an interesting passage attributed to contemporaneous historian Polybius, that Rome had accomplished the feat of “conquering the world” by 168 B.C. – the year they defeated the Macedonian king who ruled much of the Greek world until that time. What is noteworthy is the text’s description of the ancient world’s conception of “the world” as a “sphere of influence”, as opposed to only geography. For example, the Roman term provincia (the root of our modern “province”, as in territory) originally meant “a magistrate’s assigned sphere of action”, and only took on its territorial meaning later in history.

It’s a point that goes to our modern conception, a comparatively recent one, of nations. Particularly in a globalized age, Polybius’s definition of geopolitical power fits. The decline of the nation-state and the rise of networks and channels of capital flow are where lie true power. Consider the Jews – a nation in ideas and in culture, if not in territory – in a shared, imagined “homeland” on which most Jews who ever lived never set foot. What would Polybius say about our modern world? Would he grant the United States the feat that he assigned Rome? Or do we now, as then, require a classical, more nuanced conception of the global power projection through “sphere”[s] of influence”?

Polybius was a Greek historian deported to Rome from Achaea, the Greek mainland with a thousand fellow-members of the Achaean League, on suspicions of opposing Roman influence in Greece. His life then took Odyssean turn, though unlike Odysseus in Homer’s story Polybius didn’t make a heroic return homeward. He was kept with the Romans as a scribe and eventually wrote lengthy histories of the great events of the day. He purportedly managed to witness firsthand the 2nd-century Roman world’s pivotal events: the sack of Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War, and the Greeks’ defeat at Corinth (both 146 B.C.).

How Rome dealt with Enemy Entreaties During the Punic Wars

Polybius was an expansive, eloquent writer who commented on the political and military affairs of the day and perhaps because he was a foreigner, a “learned Greek”, living among the subjects of his study, he did so sharply and thoroughly, providing a fascinating picture of Rome at its pinnacle. He bore witness to the height of Roman power in the 2nd century B.C. and gives us his candid outsider’s account of a people who had triumphed over virtually the entire known world. Toward the end of a section titled “Rome and Carthage Compared” is a revealing paragraph relating a story of Rome’s negotiations with their enemy Hannibal:

(The following is an excerpt (by way of Fordham University’s Internet Ancient History Sourcebook and published online at by Paul Halsall, May 1998), from Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., The Library of Original Sources (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 166-193.

Polybius (c.200-after 118 BCE): Rome at the End of the Punic Wars, [History, Book 6]:

[I]nto this digression and making a short recital of one single action, [I] shall endeavor to demonstrate by fact as well as words what was the strength, and how great the vigor, which at that time were displayed by this republic.

When Hannibal, after the battle of Cannae, had taken prisoners eight thousand of the Romans, who were left to guard the camp; he permitted them to send a deputation to Rome, to treat of their ransom and redemption. Ten persons, the most illustrious that were among them, were appointed for this purpose: and the general, having first commanded them to swear that they would return to him again, suffered them to depart. But one of the number, as soon as they had passed the entrenchment, having said that he had forgotten something, went back into camp, took what he had left, and then continued his journey with the rest; persuading himself that by his return he had discharged his promise, and satisfied the obligation of the oath. When they arrived at Rome, they earnestly entreated the senate not to envy them the safety that was offered, but to suffer them to be restored to their families, at the price of three minae for each prisoner, which was the sum that Hannibal demanded; that they were not unworthy of this favor; that they neither had through cowardice deserted their post in battle, nor done anything that had brought dishonor upon the Roman name; but that having been left to guard the camp, they had been thrown by unavoidable necessity, after the destruction of the rest of the army, into the power of the enemy.

The Romans were at this time weakened by repeated losses; were deserted by almost every one of their allies; and seemed even to expect that Rome itself would instantly be attacked; yet when they had heard the deputies, they neither were deterred by adverse fortune from attending to what was fit and right, nor neglected any of those measures that were necessary to the public safety. But perceiving that the design of Hannibal in this proceeding was both to acquire a large supply of money and at the same time to check the ardor of his enemies in battle, by opening to their view the means of safety, even though they should be conquered, they were so far from yielding to this request, that they showed no regard either to the distressed condition of their fellow citizens, or to the services that might be expected from the prisoners: but resolved to disappoint the hopes and frustrate the intentions of this general, by rejecting all terms of ransom. They made a law also, by which it was declared that the soldiers that were left must either conquer or must die; and that no other hope of safety was reserved for them, in case that they were conquered. After this determination they dismissed the nine deputies, who, on account of their oath were, willing to return, and taking the other, who had endeavored to elude by sophistry what he had sworn, they sent him bound back to the enemy; so that Hannibal was much less filled with joy from having vanquished the Romans in the field, than he was struck with terror and astonishment at the firmness and magnanimity what appeared in their deliberations.

– d.g.w.

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