People, as the biological beings that we are, can be socially regulated by mechanisms such as taxes, property or family relationships.
This constitutes part of the social policy that the Roman government put into practice during its expansion throughout the Mediterranean, which left its mark on the eastern plateau of Spain, the historical Celt Iberian territory, as has been shown by biopolitical research that was recently carried out at la Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M).
From the archeological investigation of a small place, such as a simple home, it is possible to “obtain a social and historical reading of an entire city or a whole region,” explains Jesús Bermejo, who has carried out this analysis as a UC3M researcher; he approaches this in his latest book, Arqueología Biopolítica. La sintaxis espacial de la arquitectura doméstica romana en la Meseta oriental (Biopolitical Archeology. The spatial syntax of domestic Roman architecture in the eastern Meseta) Social regulation generated an impact on people’s daily lives, he explains. “And these people, at the same time, generated mechanisms for resistance and re-elaboration for their own benefit.”
Biopolitics, the central subject of this research, refers to the various ways in which political powers regulate the lives of people as biological beings. As living beings we are endowed a series of biological functions (sexuality, nutrition, reproduction, etc.) subject to a variety of systems of social and cultural norms. The legal and political aspects can be related, for example, to reproduction itself or to descendants, which are integral to the need for a system for the transmission and inheritance of goods in a system based on private property.
Taking as a case study the territory of the eastern Spanish plateau and the mark left by the Roman government in its expansion throughout the Mediterranean region, this research attempts to explain how, through the region’s biopolitical architecture, “the ruling powers, the political institutions and the social structures influenced the people’s daily lives,” explains Bermejo. In order to respond to these questions, the study uses comparative analysis of various types of sources (archeological, epigraphic, legal, etc.). By comparing this information, it is possible to develop a historical characterization of the impact that some of these mechanisms of social coercion had on the inhabitants of the region, as well as their implication in the different areas of everyday life.
In order to carry out this research, spatial syntax was applied and the rules of private law under the empire (private property, matrimony, inheritance, the statute of citizenship, and fiscal law) were studied; local epigraphy (the main textual source of information regarding the lives of the inhabitants of this territory) was examined. In the same way that linguistic syntax studies the order of the words in a sentence, spatial syntax is a type of architectural analysis that seeks to “study the social dynamic that underlies the spatial organization of the different rooms or areas within a building: the shapes of jails, universities, public schools, hospitals or homes are also conditioned by the social function that such buildings are meant to fulfill,” states Bermejo, who is a member of UC3M’s Cultura y Tecnología (Institute of Culture and Technology).
There are numerous and diverse reasons that the biopolitics of the era of the Roman Empire can be considered relevant to present-day society, according to this researcher. The main influences can be seen in private law: “A large part of it has been inherited from these concepts, from the legal framework developed by the Imperial Roman government. And in different aspects of how our social life is regulated, in the type of marriage, in the forms of inheritance.”
The Roman government’s biopolitical strategy of social control included not only legal mechanisms, but also government ideological and economic apparatus that, in reality, “are easier to see if we take into account the archeological register, the architecture and the material culture produced by the inhabitants of this region,” comments Bermejo, who includes these and other conclusions in his book.
The researcher comments that he finds himself at the beginning of a much more ambitious project designed to analyze the biopolitical impact of the Roman Empire on its subjects. In the coming years, he plans to systematically apply this method of research to the study of more than 2,000 cases spread throughout different areas of the Roman Mediterranean (Southern France, Germany, Italy, North Africa, etc.). “This project will allow for the creation of a ‘map’ of the impact of the apparatus of the Roman government on people’s lives on different scales: geographic, urban, social, etc.” he concludes.
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