The state of the state

Why it matters for the ancient world

The most studied aspect of the ancient world is its political history. Whether it’s a critical narrative of Roman history or a detailed look at the structure of the polis, politics are central. But how we understand politics and its ostensibly substantive equivalent, the state, is no less subjective than any other aspect of historical analysis. However, this subjectivity is often overlooked.

Joshua R. Hall

For most readers, “the state” is almost certainly a very simple concept. Almost everyone reading this article probably lives in a modern nation-state. In our contemporary environment, the state is something substantive, it is a physical manifestation of the abstract that is a country. It is an absolute and from it emanates authority and power.

However, this is largely a nineteenth and early twentieth century perspective epitomized by Max Weber’s concept that the state is “a human community that claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (Weber 1946, p. 78).

A more complicated and nuanced approach to the state has been going on in disciplines outside of history, such as anthropology, economics, political science, and sociology. Much of this has not been adopted by scholars nor filtered into our theoretical approaches in ancient studies. To some extent, this may be because the almost endless number of studies have turned the concept into something which Michael Mann could already describe as “messy” in 1984 (Mann 1984, p. 187).

My objective in this article is to present a very brief overview of this mess and to propose a different way to think of “the state.” One essay is not a large enough space to do all of this thoroughly, though, so my full thinking on this will take the form of a series of articles here on Ancient World Magazine.

What is the state?

Most definitions of the state describe it as an entity in itself. By this, I mean that the state is something that exists in a material or otherwise substantive sense. It is the sole holder of sovereignty within a circumscribed territory, and the only entity which can legitimately exercise violence within that same area.

Or as said in more detail by the eminent scholar of city-state studies, Mogens Herman Hansen, a state is (Hansen 2000, pp. 12-14):

A centralized government in possession of the necessary means of coercion by which the legal order can be enforced in a territory over a population… [with] the politico-philosophical version of the concept [insisting] on, at least, two further defining characteristics: first, sovereignty as the basis of government, and second, that the state is more than the government of a geographically defined population: it is also an abstract juristic person, i.e. a public power above both ruler and ruled.

Although there is nuance added by various commentators, this definition fits most modern conceptualizations of the state quite well. Many variant descriptions exist, but are largely pedantic and do little to help progress our understanding of historical cultures. They exist within a scholarly discourse which aims to categorize and ascribe universalizing labels to different societies at different periods of their history. This can be seen in many works on state formation and early states (e.g. Claessen and Skalník 1978, Grinin 2003, etc.).

This is not necessarily a bad thing. There has been some interesting progress made in our understanding of antiquity through this process of categorization. For me, the notable instance of this is W. G. Runciman’s description of the “citizen state.” In his view, Greek poleis were not “city-states”, as many scholars describe them. For many commentators, a city-state follows the basic definitions of other types of states: “a centralized legitimate government in possession of the sole right to enforce a given legal order within a territory over a population” (Hansen 2000, p. 13). A city-state is differentiated by its focus on a single city within its territory. There are no other “primary centers” (major sites of habitation) within this, and the state is not actively looking to expand its territory through conquest or other means. Beyond this, though, they look like more modern states in many ways.

However, Runciman described the Greek poleis instead as “citizen-states”, which reflects the centrality of citizenship in their ideology of state (Runciman 1990). For him it was not necessarily an abstract (or even physical) set of bureaucracies and mores, but the people themselves which defined the Greek states. And I think we can see some evidence of this, such as the centrality of citizenship to Athenian identity. Even then, foreigners had a place in that society, though were not necessarily “part of the state.” This is of course contrasted with his interpretation of Rome which was much more open to incorporating others into their state. Runciman saw the latter as a more effective and powerful system than the Greek. But, even then, this is an overgeneralization when we realize that the world of the polis consisted of hundreds of different poleis and non-polis organizations.

It is this problem of generalization which makes labelling of “state” vs. “non-state” (or any other label really) problematic. Calling a certain polity a state leads to various assumptions about its functioning and power. We can see this in Runciman’s discussion above. It is also visible in Moshe Berent’s extremely important discussion of the polis as stateless society (Berent 2000). In this, he describes Greek polities as stateless societies, generally following Max Weber’s definition, “the absence of an agency or class which monopolizes the use of violence, and by the fact that the ability to use force is more or less evenly distributed among armed or potentially armed members of the community” (Berent 2000, p. 258; Berent’s views are generally considered controversial today, in part because they are tied closely to aspects of Greek warfare which have undergone considerable revision since the article was written. I will be getting into this in a later article in the series).

But, even here we are confronted by an argument that relies on “the state” being something meaningful, though one which understands that describing a community as one has some significant interpretive importance. This is true also of Berent’s detractors, such as Greg Anderson, whose interest is in seeking out the autonomous Greek state which aligns with the above brief description of what a state is (Anderson 2009).

While all of these studies do add nuance to our knowledge of Greek society, they are still limited in doing so because of the methodological roadblock that is “the state”. We even see this in archaeological analyses, such as the differentiation some make between things like “power symbols” and “prestige paraphernalia” (Fulminante 2014, p. 232). One particular stumbling block is some scholars’ search for “state development” or “state formation” within historical and archaeological records.

This type of research generally plays out in grand narratives, such as the development of the Roman Republic, and is founded on theoretical concepts of what separates a state from a non-state entity. This eschews the details of our evidence in favor of hypothesis. However well-founded, many hypotheses about the state are only applicable to individual societies with some or significant modification. Even good discussions of this kind, such as can be found in Bruce Triggers’ work (Trigger 2003, pp.104-113), prove their limitations when trying to understand the past.

Thankfully, a number of scholars have suggested that we move past somewhat rigid conceptualizations of “state” or “not state”. E. Ch. L. Van der Vliet astutely observed that “the whole process [of the development of the Roman state] should be considered in a much broader context and especially in that of the various forms and aspects of the legitimation of authority and power” (Van der Vliet 1990, p. 257).

More forcefully, Guy Bradley concluded that (Bradley 2000, p. 120):

I think we should see ancient states as dynamic entities; ‘state formation’ was in reality part of an on-going process of change… It is probably best to avoid using terminology such as ‘state formation,’ which implies an end to the process when a state has ‘formed,’ but we should instead focus on the different elements that we can discern in the process of organization itself.

In general, this is the direction I argue we must go in this article. Moving beyond taxonomic studies and breaking down the societies we are studying is both necessary and will lead to much more nuanced understanding of politics, power, and civilization more generally.

Moving forward

So how should we talk about “the state”? I make here a bold pronouncement: we shouldn’t. As an analytical tool, “the state” is more of a dead-end than the polis as described by Runciman. Instead, we need to be looking through the lens of a much less baggage-laden term: community.

By “community” I simply mean a group of people who share a space in the world. This is not necessarily circumscribed, nor is it static. A community is a continually fluctuating collection of humans who interact in various social situations. Rather than a political “state” having sovereignty here, the community is “constituted of multiple overlapping and intersecting sociospatial networks of power” (Mann 2012a, p. 1).

Rather than seeing “the state” as the primary source of authority and power, various networks of social power contribute to an individual’s power. In this, I generally follow Michael Mann’s identification of four primary sources of social power: ideological, economic, military, and political, also known as IEMP (Mann 2012a, 22-32). (There have been criticisms of his separation of military and political power, though these are not convincing to me. An important collection of studies can be found in Hall and Schroeder 2006.) In this model, we cannot simply stop at the state when discussing the functioning of a community.

While my focus here is to look beyond the state, there are other implications, including looking beyond Marx and Engel’s belief that it was economic relations that structure society (see discussion in Mann 2012b, pp. 23-43). While breaking through this particular intellectual stumbling block is not my purpose here, it will be addressed in a future article.

So where does this lead us? For some people, like G. William Domhoff, this means that “power is rooted in organizations” (Domhoff 2005). This may be helpful for modern social research, but for the study of smaller-scale societies, especially those mostly known through archaeology, I believe we must go further. We have to look at the social power and the individual. This is because organizations – or institutions – themselves are made up of individuals who exercise their agency in pursuit of personal goals. And again, the smaller nature of ancient societies amplified the importance of individuals. Anything beyond the individual is simply a construct which is founded on an inherently problematic narrative: those narratives which make organizations seem like singular entities, ranging from nation-states to kin groups.

Although this generally prevents us from discussing grand narratives discussed more below we are not necessarily limited in only examining momentary points of time. Rather, we can still talk about the functioning of power within a circumscribed period, but must shift the discussion as close to the individual as possible. This does require the concession that there was more change over time than is usually allowed for in historical analyses.

Problematic use of “the state”

Although there are countless ways to demonstrate the importance of this approach, I will briefly discuss it within the confines of my research purview: early Rome (ca. seventh to fifth centuries BC).

For a very long time, early Rome was seen as being an example of an early state in a non-technical sense. Scholars pointed to what they believed was the emergence of a “hoplite” army by at least the sixth century BC as indicating the emergence of a state. These commentators believed that it was through political coercion (via a state) that an army of this type could be fielded. The basis of this theory was blown out of the water completely with the successful dismissal of the notion of a “hoplite” army in early Rome (e.g. Rosenstein 2010; see also D’Agostino 1990, and Hall and Konijnendijk 2020).

Modern interpretations of early Rome have instead focused on the power of individual condottieri or gentes (clans) rather than a centralizing state power. Some scholars have taken a middling approach, arguing that there was a shared power dynamic in waging war between gentilitial leaders and state-based leaders (e.g. Rawlings 1999). Others have claimed that the probable existence of “private” armies (such as the Fabii fielded against Veii, Livy 2.49-50; Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 9.15) throughout much of the Archaic period precludes the possibility of a unified early Roman state (e.g. Armstrong 2016). While my above argument makes this seem less problematic, we learn less than we could by keeping this focus on the Roman state (or as Armstrong says: the states).

Implicit in these studies is that warfare, and the legitimate practice of it, is limited to the state. This is unsurprising given the centrality of legitimized violence to state theories of people like Weber (noted above), which has been promulgated through our own period in studies of state formation (e.g. Gat 2006, pp. 231-322).

However, as even Armstrong notes, there were types of state (or political) power which did not overlap with military power. And through the lens of Mann’s IEMP structure, this is expected. Military power was exercised in this period alongside other types of social power, but not to the exclusion of others.

In fact, there is good evidence that military power was only a minor part of a much more complex web of social power in Archaic Rome and central Italy. As I’ve argued elsewhere, military power was often used to generate religious power (Hall 2016a). This is true also of other aspects of social power (Hall 2016b). But, what does this mean for our understanding of early Rome in general?

Primarily, it decentralizes the place of warfare in our understanding of social power. By divorcing war from political power, and integrating both into a broader concept of social power, we are forced to create a new narrative of the period. This narrative is considerably different than the usual, and will reflect a dynamic society in which observable norms are only valid for a century or so. This allows for more nuance in our discussion and for the evidence to be seen more clearly.

Amongst all this, we must also keep in mind that social power was created to achieve something within a community. Whether we are looking at a city such as Rome, or the pan-Hellenic community of the Archaic and Classical periods, there was a “target market” for the power generated through actions. In this way we need to reevaluate the downplaying of the early Roman state in light of my earlier discussion.

Because by disregarding the concept of the “state” altogether and focusing instead on a more fluid notion of community, not only is the diffusion of military power not as significant as some scholars have stated, the actions that various individuals undertook can be understood as both self-serving and serving a social purpose. My next article in this series will address this in central Italy in the Early Iron Age more specifically.


One of the wider consequences that I hinted at above is that by viewing society as networks of social power rather than through the state paradigm is that we must discard many of our grand narratives. This is because they start to break down almost immediately when viewed through this lens. This is no less true of intellectual concepts such as state formation than it is of things like American exceptionalism.

In a world of individual agents navigating a dynamic sea of social power, there is no place for supposedly sovereign entities like “the state.” Instead we find a world of individuals making choices which impact their contemporary space of time. Historically speaking, this calls for much more precise, intimate, studies of power which eschew sweeping concepts.

Through a series of articles, I will extrapolate on these concepts, giving historical examples of how this conceptualization of power can be analyzed and the impact it can and must have to help elucidate a clearer image of the ancient world.