States between states: The history of international political thought from the Roman empire to the early nineteenth century

Course Material 2021/22

What is the ‘political’ in the history of political thought? In his Politics, the Greek philosopher Aristotle understood the ‘politics’ of his title as those things that concern the polis, the city-state that was the central unit of political organisation in ancient Greece. ‘Politics’ covered everything from the formation of the polis and its constitution to political rescue strategies on the one hand and musical education on the other. At its base it involved a narrative about human beings forming into a political community for the sake of a good life that cannot otherwise be achieved. This narrative, in multiple permutations, has been central to the tradition of Western political thought, and its focus is primarily on human relations within one political unit, what we call ‘the state’. And yet, even in Aristotle’s Politics the polis does not exist in isolation. The lives of its citizens demand slaves, who need to be ‘hunted’ abroad. In this way, the polis must stretch out into space outside itself. And it needs goods, which means merchants living within it who are nevertheless not part of it, not citizens. In this way, the outside comes in.

The ‘global turn’ in modern political thought, just as in history more generally, is interested in both these dimensions of inside/outside: how the state extends outside itself, and how that extension impacts back on the state itself. This process stretches the concept of the ‘political’ itself as new spaces of politics open up, spaces that we might call for convenience ‘international’, but which might better be labelled ‘inter-political’. For the international is merely one, historically specific (and, for some, increasingly passé), way of constructing the space between states.

In this paper, we look historically at the different ways in which this ‘international’ political space has been constructed. We begin with the empire of ancient Rome and end with intellectual challenges to European empire in the early nineteenth century. Importantly, however, the intellectual history of the ‘international’ is not simply the intellectual history of imperial formations. As the paper shows, this dimension of the history of political thought involves all sorts of ‘inter-political’ concepts or ‘states between states’: unions, federations, confederations, composite monarchies, leagues, alliances, friendly states, hostile states, as well as new spaces of ‘inter-political’ citizenship. It introduces students to a range of exciting texts and contexts over the global longue durée. Paper 6 is designed as a paper in the history of political thought, but a paper that intersects with some of the most exciting new developments in current political thought and history more generally. It is suitable for students both with and without prior study of the history of political thought.

Page credits & information

Frontispiece of a collection of treatises on the 'empire' or imperium over the sea, published by Joachim Hagemeier in Frankfurt am Main, 1663. Amongst other works, this collection contains Hugo Grotius' seminal Mare liberum of 1609.

Section notice

This material is intended for current students but will be interesting to prospective students. It is indicative only.