State Formation

February 12, 2011

Well, I finished my first run-through of Judy Gaughan, Murder Was Not a Crime: Homicide and Power in the Roman Republic, mentioned in my post of January 15. Quite a story. It seems, according to the author’s research, that in the Roman monarchy that preceded the classic Republic, the King had a monopoly on the legitimate use of deadly force, a vitae necisque potestas, power of life and death, such as was later attributed to every paterfamilias.  She cites work by Reuven Yaron and Raymond Westbrook suggesting that the term was copied from Middle Eastern monarchies during the late, Etruscan phase of the kingdom. The succeeding Republic’s well-known abhorrence of any hint of royal restoration or revival was not just about how rulers should be chosen, but about what sort of rule should be tolerated; there was a strong resistance to allowing even elected officials ultimate power over life and death. The monarch’s  vitae necisque potestas devolved on the paterfamilias; ordinary crime was something to be dealt with within and between families; and the magistrates’ right to use force against a citizen extended only to instances threatening the republic as a whole, and was subject to the citizen’s right to appeal to an assembly of the whole citizen body.

The increasing complexity of life in the later republic – the burgeoning population, the annexation of whole territories abroad, increasing strife between social strata – put a lot of strain on this decentralized system, more and more authority had to be allowed to public officials, but down to the very end there was a widespread resistance to allowing officials the absolute right to use deadly force against citizens (the senatus consultum ultimum used in times of extreme social crisis was never totally considered legitimate) or to interfere at all in matters that we would consider “criminal,” even murder, unless there was a clear threat to public order involved. Brandishing weapons in the streets, yes, that was a public offense; conspiring against the upper classes, definitely; but someone killing another in private for private reasons was still a private matter.

There also seems to have been a high degree of informality in the system; procedures were never spelled out once and for all, it was never entirely clear for instance which of the coexistent public assemblies had jurisdiction in certain matters, once there was a consensus that an action was necessary there was some flexibility as to how it actually came about.

So: the impression I’ve always had in reading about the early republic, that the pieces of information available don’t quite add up to a complete and coherent whole, is not unjustified. I suspect the same is true of Athens, where similarly the precise form of government preceding the Cleisthenic reforms and just how it was changed has to be put together from passing references made in a later period, and I’ve never been able to get a satisfactory picture of it.

But as I was reading this I suddenly found myself thinking of the precolonial society of the Igbo,  generally described as “stateless,” and depicted by Achebe and others as based on concentric family units and with higher-level decisions taken by informal groupings of elders. Are we seeing a universal stage in the history of civilization? How much can the ethnography of West Africa and other places teach us about the distant origins of our own customs and institutions? So now I’m looking at a chapter by Robin Horton, “Stateless Societies in the History of West Africa,” in a two-volume History of West Africa edited by J. F. A. Ajayi and Michael Crowder. Will keep my loyal readers posted!

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