‘The Protectorate of the World’: the Problem of Just Hegemony in Roman Thought

In: Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek and Roman Political Thought
Author: Michael Hawley1
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  • 1 Bowdoin CollegeBrunswick, MEUSA
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Contemporary normative theory is understandably reluctant to consider how a hegemonic power ought to conduct itself. After all, a truly just international order, characterised by principles of freedom and equality among nations, would not include one polity so able to dominate others. The natural impulse of normative theorists then is to seek to eliminate such an imbalance. Yet, a sober assessment of political reality provides little prospect for such aspirations. The more modest alternative is to examine how hegemonic power might be wielded responsibly. For most of the history of Western political thought, the problem of just hegemony was more theoretical than real, leaving few serious philosophical precedents. Yet for Roman thinkers, of both the late Republic and the early Empire, the issue presented a real and urgent problem. In this article I explore some of the attempts of Roman philosophers and historians to grapple with the unique position of the Roman state. In many cases, their theories depend in some way on Rome’s alleged special moral or constitutional qualities – and yet, they often recognised that the realities of Rome’s use of power undermined those claims to exceptionalism. I examine the Romans’ responses to this problem as they sought to think through the moral dilemmas of their situation. In classical Roman thought, we might find an interlocutor for our own attempt to think through the ethics of superpower.

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