Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Edge of the (Civilizable) World

Clifford Ando, in discussing center-periphery relations in ancient Rome, notes that the geography of the empire was difficult to conceptualize. Although vast, the territory of the empire did not encompass the entirety of the world, which princeps since Augustus had claimed to have conquered.

Mapping the empire challenged official ideology. It was moreover problematic because the princeps claimed to have created peace in the world, when actually he had "relegat[ed] warfare to its borders."

However, a perception emerged of an empire that created a uniform area of peace and good administration, and in which the areas outside the empire were not worth conquering. The nations outside the empire lived in less accommodating environments, and the landscapes that they inhabited conditioned them for barbarism. Adminsitration and civilization could define the entire world by establishing dichotomies between the two spaces: peaceful/anarchic, civilized/barbaric.
Late in the reign of Augustus, Ovid thanked Fama for bringing him word of the victories of Germanicus: "By thy evidence I learned that recently countless races assembled to see their leader's face; and Rome, which embraces the measureless world within her vast walls, scarce had room for her guests." At a concrete level Ovid referred only to the city of Rome, whose population would witness the triumph of Germanicus; at an abstract level, Rome here stands for her "measureless" empire, whose "world" she somehow manages to fix within the circuit of a wall.

The poets Manilius and Lucan used orbis frequently with this meaning. They, however, attached the adjective "Roman" to it, in order to designate that portion of the globe occupied by the empire. But the phrase orbis Romanus did more than substitute for imperium Romanum. The latter indicated the sphere of Roman political power. Orbis Romanus did, too, by labeling that sphere the world.

From the middle of the first century prose authors began to adopt this usage. They often spoke not of "the Roman world," but of "our world." Strabo displayed a similar understanding of the function of knowledge: the purpose of geographical inquiry was, for him, the pursuit of honest and efficient government. "Scholars in our day cannot speak of anything beyond Ierne, which lies just north of Britain. It is home to complete savages who lead a miserable existence because of the cold. I therefore believe that the northern boundary of the world should be placed there." Strabo has done more than label accurate knowledge of Britain and Ireland unnecessary; he has placed them beyond the limits of the world.

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