World History II

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. and Christe A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2019-20: Mondays and Wednesdays, 6:00 - 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time



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Talking about Power

Virtually every society is a society by virtue of the exercise of power. Power has variously been seen as a good thing and as a bad thing throughout the ages, and certainly if there is a common theme to the history of human beings on this planet it would be the misapplication or abuse of power: it emerges in our oldest documents and tales, and it is as fresh as today’s newspaper. Nevertheless, power is merely a heading under which we can cluster all our collective human strivings and ways of organizing and channeling human effort.

Types of power

Power can be exercised in a variety of ways and understood in an even larger variety of ways. There is probably no single exhaustive taxonomy of power available for human analysis and discussion; the Romans, however, may have come close to creating one, and in default of anything better, we will here use their general vocabulary of power as a way of identifying and describing how power operates, what its perceived sources are, and what its consequences might be.

Accordingly we will give here a handful of Latin terms that expressed different notions of power. This is not meant to be all-inclusive, and if you can perceive or describe a different kind of power, we would certainly be willing to entertain another type. However, these terms seem to provide a good initial stab in the direction of categorizing human perceptions of power — and perception of power has a great deal to do with how it operates.


If Latin had a more or less neutral word for power or capacity, this is it. It tends not to have a great many implications; neither does it have many specific applications within the specific rhetoric of political power. It is useful in describing someone’s ability to do something, or the raw physical power latent in some situation or dynamic system.


This is coercive force in practice (as opposed to potency): often the Romans applied it specifically to the use of violence. It was power operating without accountability on its own, and was usually conceived as being contrary to the interests of the state and the common good. One could in a Roman court be charged with vis as a crime.


This is the root of our word “authority”. It denotes the respect accorded to an individual or group by others, based on intrinsic virtues, abilities, or achievements. It is not transferable by any prescribed due process, nor is it bestowed by any collective official action. In a sense it is conferred, but by individuals based on their own apprehension of the person, or by groups based on collective impressions. It relates closely to the issue of consent, which we discuss below.


In contradistinction to auctoritas, imperium is duly constituted authority, especially the exercise of civic or military command; it is conferred by deliberate action through some aspect of the body politic. In Rome, imperium resided in magistrates for the term of their office; when their terms were over, they no longer held it: it had passed to someone else. Imperium could be conferred upon others or extended to secondary agents, but it could never be grasped autonomously. To do so was a violation.

Ius (Jus)

This word, linked to our word “justice”, tended to refer specifically to a right, but usually of a sort reflecting private self-determination. Like imperium, it was effectively conferred by the force of law, but in contrast, it was seldom delimited by terms and it virtually never entailed the power of command over others. Under this category one would find such things as the right to exercise suffrage, or to be married.The term is typically reserved for those rights that would apply generically to a broad segment of society.


This is in some cases a latecomer to the Latin lexicon of power; it emerges more frequently later and in the Middle Ages as a way of describing a specific power or permission conferred upon specific people by virtue of their training or abilities; these were generally not conceived as being revocable, nor did they entail any particular right of command, but would include such things as a physician’s right to practice medicine or the right of the doctor of philosophy to teach universally (licentia ubique docendi).

Consent and Resistance

Power can be and has been exercised in a variety of ways, but almost any direct application of power tends to be relatively weak and fruitless. That is, the direct application of physical force by one person to another tends to produce little more than a one to one ratio of energy expended to energy harvested. With the invention of certain kinds of modern weaponry, it is of course possible for one person to inflict a great deal of damage on many others; but while this may constitute an expression of inarticulate rage, it cannot really be categorized as power, since it does not as a rule produce a behavioral effect upon those who are subject to it. In other words, holding a gun to someone’s head is not an effective way of getting people to do things over long periods of time. Eventually the person with the gun will have to put it down, or point it at someone else, and then the first person being coerced is no longer in the gun-holder’s power.

The chief avenues of power, therefore, in whatever aspect of human society they emerge in, will be primarily linguistic, and, to a greater or lesser degree, persuasive. Accordingly, they will all engage some element of consent. We may talk about coercion exercised by one person over another, based either on terms of positive motivation and reward, or negative motivation and threat; ultimately, however, the one subject to this coercion must in practical terms agree that the benefits of obedience outweigh the benefits, however conceived, of disobedience. To extend the above comparison, when the person with the gun can put the gun down, and still have the coerced people continue to obey, then the person with the gun has extended power in a new way, and those obeying have consented that person’s rule.

To some extent, the state and virtually all of its institutions (such as money and offices) are fictions—artifacts of the human imagination. The state clearly has a certain reality, and it may exert enormous coercive and creative force, but it will continue to do so only as long as people believe in it and continue to invest it with that force. When they cease to pay it any heed, it collapses. Obviously this is not the work of an individual: it’s the collective imagination that counts. One person in a society may decide that a given state has no particular validity, but he will be carried along by the coercive force of his fellow-citizens. But as soon as enough of the population does so, the state ceases to function. It only existed because the people let it exist, and once enough people choose to disregard it, the reality of the state is altered, impaired, or ended.

Consent itself may take a variety of forms, and in many cases we might well not refer to the resulting state as coercive at all. A group of people may all willingly consent to abide by certain rules for mutual benefit and harmony. Within that structure of consent, certain people may be established as having a particular ability to resolve conflict; such an ability may be conferred and revocable, or perceived as something innate and irrevocable. All these variations constitute the complex dynamics of power within human societies and cultures. Virtually all organizations of people or associations of people, ranging from the family to the state, and from the church to an academic society, will have an internal structure of power, some of which will be explicit and some of which will be implicit. How societies analyze and balance various elements and concepts of power contribute greatly to the way in which they function.


When some larger collective of people, whether a state or free association or a natural family, chooses to articulate its rules of power and forms of acceptable and unacceptable behavior, that is the beginning of law. Law can be one of the most reviled of human inventions, and lawyers more so; nevertheless it is one of the more profound notions that have appeared in human societies of all types. Virtually no formal aggregation of people exists or can exist without some kind of rules; when this coincides with the coercive power of the state, it issues in what we call law.

Law takes a variety of forms; certainly there are within it a number of important distinctions. How different societies observe them will have a great deal to say about how the societies operate.

In the first instance, law can be understood in at least two ways. The seemingly obvious notion that law is derived from the mutual agreement of those who choose to participate in it or abide by it—that it is, therefore, a kind of compact between those individuals—is the notion of what is called positive law. Implicit in positive law is the idea that it can be both made and unmade by human interaction according to due process. An agreement once struck can be revised or revoked.

Interestingly, many early societies have proceeded on the assumption that law is something else entirely. Either the law is the product of a divine agent (as in the Jewish law given to Moses by God on Sinai) or of a single given human “lawgiver” (Moses is sometimes included in this cluster as well, though it would also include Hammurabi or Draco of Athens), or simply (as in most early Germanic tribal culture) traditional in constitution: we do it this way because we've always done it this way.

The interplay of these various notions of where law comes from can have a massive influence on where it will lead, and how it is used and handled. We will examine this in each of the cultures we study as well.