The Birth of Territory

The Birth of Territory

by Stuart Elden

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Territory is one of the central political concepts of the modern world and, indeed, functions as the primary way the world is divided and controlled politically. Yet territory has not received the critical attention afforded to other crucial concepts such as sovereignty, rights, and justice. While territory continues to matter politically, and territorial disputes and arrangements are studied in detail, the concept of territory itself is often neglected today. Where did the idea of exclusive ownership of a portion of the earth’s surface come from, and what kinds of complexities are hidden behind that seemingly straightforward definition?             The Birth of Territory provides a detailed account of the emergence of territory within Western political thought. Looking at ancient, medieval, Renaissance, and early modern thought, Stuart Elden examines the evolution of the concept of territory from ancient Greece to the seventeenth century to determine how we arrived at our contemporary understanding. Elden addresses a range of historical, political, and literary texts and practices, as well as a number of key players—historians, poets, philosophers, theologians, and secular political theorists—and in doing so sheds new light on the way the world came to be ordered and how the earth’s surface is divided, controlled, and administered.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226041285
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/09/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 488
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Stuart Elden is professor of political theory and geography at the University of Warwick. He is the author of four books, including, most recently, Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty.

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Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-20257-0


The Polis and the Khora


Foucault warns us that genealogists will never confuse themselves with a search for origins. It is for this reason that we cannot simply find a birth of territory, a singular moment, which could be outlined and its lineages traced backward. Rather, the approach taken here is to ask questions of the texts in terms of the relations between place and power that they pose, to see how they understood things in different ways and with different vocabularies, in order to try to see where strands emerge, intertwine, run to nothing, are picked up, and transformed. So, where do we begin? With a suspicion, a doubt, a question? The intent and attempt of this project has been outlined in the introduction, but the question of beginnings remains to be resolved. It is not the intention to begin this inquiry into the state of territory with an Ur-state, an Ursprung, or a primal political leap. Instead, we join the story some way along the path, at a familiar, though less well-known than might be imagined, point, at the site of the Greek polis. Martin Bernal's important and ongoing inquiries should act as caution to see this as the root or fountain of Western culture, and earlier configurations of location and political rule should not be downplayed. But a study has to begin somewhere, and the kind of approach being offered here requires some limits of temporality, scope, and especially linguistic competence.

Greek myth is a notoriously complicated and contentious field. To cite it in support of an argument may seem tantamount to collusion with the unconfirmed. A more verifiable source is tragedy, although this too is debatable in supporting a case. But both myth and tragedy were essential to a living polis, and so are potentially valuable in recapturing the use of the term.

The myth discussed here, which is often drawn upon in tragedy, is that of autochthony, the idea that men sprang up fully formed, born of the earth. There are many variants and variant interpretations of the myth of autochthony. Loraux draws a distinction between the Platonic myth of the gêgenis, the idea that people were born (gen) of the earth (); and the autochthonous Athenian or Theban myths—from autokhthôn, born from the earth (khthôn) itself (autos) of one's homeland. These three main areas—the role of gêgenis and autochthony in Plato, Athens, and Thebes—will be the focus here, though, as shall be seen, the distinction is not quite as clear-cut as Loraux suggests.

An early version of the story, which lies behind many of the others, is found in Isocrates's Panegyricus:

We did not become dwellers in this land by expelling others, nor by finding it uninhabited, nor by coming together here as a motley horde of many races. We are a lineage so noble and pure that we have for all time continued in possession of the very land which gave us birth, since we are autochthonous, and can address our polis by the very names which apply to our nearest kin; for we alone of the Greeks have the right to call it at once fatherland, nurse and mother.

In Plato, there are a number of references to the myth of autochthony. In the little-known Menexenus, Socrates is repeating a speech of Aspasia, the mistress of Pericles. As the speech is a funeral oration, it is not difficult to detect a level of satire against Thucydides's report of Pericles's own oration, though the speech referring to autochthony is also a parody of Isocrates. According to Socrates, Aspasia suggested that Athenians were descended from men who were:

not foreigners, nor are these their sons settlers in this land, descended from strangers who came to our country from abroad. These men were autochthonous, sprung from the land itself, living and dwelling in their true fatherland, nurtured by no stepmother, as others are, but by their mother the land [khoras] where they dwell. And now in death they lie in the place proper to them, received back again by the mother who bore and nurtured them.

In the Republic, autochthony is the basis of the "noble lie" (pseudos). It is suggested that with a single noble lie, the rulers themselves, or at least the rest of the polis, can be indoctrinated. This lie, called a "Phoenician lie," which probably refers to the tale of Cadmus the Phoenician, discussed below, will be to suggest that

all the nurture and education we provided happened in a kind of dream-world; in actual fact, they were at that time being formed and nurtured deep inside the earth.... When they were finished products, the earth, their mother, sent them up above ground; and now in their policy making they must regard the country [khoras] they find themselves in as their mother and their nurse, they must defend her against invasion, and they should think of the rest of the inhabitants of the polis as their earth-born [gegenon] brothers.

The noble lie serves a key purpose: it will enable all people to claim noble origins. It makes explicit the close and organic link between the people, the land (khora), and the polis. In the Republic, Plato recognizes the important political implications this can have, even as, in the Menexenus, he satirizes the idea. It may not be true, but if it can be believed, it can have a powerful effect as a founding myth. The notion is also treated in the dialogue known as the Statesman. Statesman is a limited English equivalent of Politikos, which means "the possessor of politiké tekhné or the skill of uniting and organising a political community." Here, the visitor relates a story of a past age, in which people were born from the earth rather than from other humans. The earthborn (gêgenis) race would reform in the earth after their death and come back to life. This would be in accord with the "reversal undergone by all natural cycles." In time the earthborn race was exhausted, because every soul had fulfilled its quota of incarnations.

What is important about the use of the myth in the Statesman is that it refers back to a past age, which precedes the current one; and that all humans at that time were earthborn. The implication is that no one can claim uniqueness in being descended from these earthborn humans, because, at the same time, none and all were. As Lane puts it, "No city can claim its founders in these earthbound humans, lodged firmly in an era without politics and deprived of the sexual intercourse by which the polis is perpetuated." However, the treatment in the Statesman seems to be the exception, and in the use to which Plato envisages the myth can be put in the Republic, there is a reflection of the actual situation in Athens and Thebes. The autochthonous birth of Athenians or Thebans is enough to set them apart. Others might be initially migrant people who settled in a certain area, but the people of Athens and Thebes had a deeply rooted attachment to the soil, to the particular place. They were not just born there, but born from there. As Aristotle notes in the Rhetoric, good birth for a nation or polis is either autochthonous or at least ancient.

The story of Athens is passed down largely through mythic accounts such as those recounted by Apollodorus and is found in Herodotus's Histories, and drawn upon in Euripides's play Ion. A standard version of the story is that Erichthonios was a miraculous child born from the earth (ge), or Gaia, made fertile by Hephaistos's desire for the virgin Athena. Athena had been born from Zeus, with Hephaistos acting as a kind of midwife, splitting Zeus's head open so she could spring forth. It is unclear whether Hephaistos's desire for her was immediate or consequent; usually the story is that she went to have some armor fashioned by him. Hephaistos tried to rape her, and in so doing, he spilled semen on her leg, which she cleaned off with a piece of wool. Athena dropped the wool to the earth, and Erichthonios was born. Earth gave the child to Athena, who brought him up in her temple. Euripides says that Erichthonios was gêgenous, "born of the earth"; that Athena took him up from the earth with "virginal hands." Erichthonios's name derives from this act: erion (wool) or eris (struggle) joined with khthon (earth). He is sometimes fused with his grandson Erechtheus and their stories conflated. This gave Athenians a language for speaking about the origin of the city. For Euripides, they are the "renowned earth-born [autokhthonas] inhabitants of Athens"; for Aristophanes, "The true-born Attics are the genuine old autochthones, native children of the ground."

Erichthonios is both autochthonous and a product of a bisexual transaction. Athenians can thus claim to be the children of earth and gods, and in Homer's Iliad, Athena fostered the child born by earth. Loraux suggests that Kekrops, the first king of Athens, is a witness or even arbiter of this divine eris, but though he is the first king, it is Erichthonius who is the first Athenian. "Kekrops rules and establishes order in a barely civilised land; Erichthonios, in Herodotus, exercises a power that is already political." It is for this reason that Loraux calls Athens the "most 'political' of all the Greek poleis." She notes how this notion of autochthony functions as a civic bond, particularly in the funeral orations, of which Pericles's is only the most famous. She suggests that the funeral oration utilizes the patriotic and civic myth of autochthony in order to promote the unity of the Athenian community, and that it "is a political symbol more than a military theme." Despite the original king Kekrops, or the first Athenian Erichthonius, the loyalty of Athenians is not to either of them, but rather to the idea of autochthony.

Not all tales of founding work in this register. Coming to the site of Pharos, Alexander the Great was struck by the advantages of the location, which was a broad isthmus, between a lagoon and sea ending in a broad harbor. He decided to found a city that would bear his name: Alexandria. He wanted to mark out the outer defenses of this new polis, but had no chalk to do so. One of the men suggested that they use the barley meal from the soldiers' packs and spread it out on the ground, following Alexander's footsteps. Plutarch recounts that this was "a semi-circle, which was divided into equal segments by lines radiating from the inner arc to the circumference." In Arrian, the soothsayers suggest that this means that the town would prosper and in particular benefit from the fruits of the earth. Plutarch provides a bit more detail. He says that the king was admiring the design when suddenly flocks of all kinds of birds came from the nearby river and lagoon and ate all the meal. While Alexander was concerned about this, the diviners told him it would mean that the city would not merely have sufficient for itself but also provide for neighboring lands.

It is also in tragedy that traces of the story of the autochthonous birth of Thebes can be found. Cadmus wished to sacrifice a cow to Athena, so sent some of his companions to draw water from the spring of Aves. Most of his men were killed by a dragon or serpent that guarded the spring for Aves. The dragon itself is described as earthborn (gêgenis) by Euripides. After killing the dragon, Cadmus sacrificed the cow, and Athena commanded him to sow the dragon's teeth into the ground. Warriors, "a golden-helmeted harvest of sown-men [spartoi]," burst forth from the ground and fought one another. The story is either that they fought unprovoked, or that Cadmus threw a stone into their midst, and they fought because they blamed one another. Stories agree, however, that they fought until there were only five survivors—Echion (snake-man), Udaeus (man of the ground), Chthonius (man of the earth), Hyperenor (arrogant), and Pelorus (monster). These five found the noble house of the polis Thebes, on the land they were born from. Echion is the father of Pentheus in Euripides's Bacchae. The story follows that Cadmus had to atone to Aves for a year for the death of the dragon. In Plato's Laws, the Athenian Stranger suggests that the story of "the sowing of the teeth and the birth of armed men from them" shows a potential legislator "that the souls of the young can be persuaded of anything if they try."

Saxonhouse has noted that the theme of autochthony is useful in a number of ways. First, and as noted above, it provides a unity to the polis. Second, the boundaries of the polis are set by nature rather than human agreements. The polis is natural, rather than set in opposition to nature. Third, the land is seen to belong to the people by right, by birth. There was no need for conquest and forced movement of previous inhabitants. Playing a role similar to that social contract theory would many centuries later, the origins of a polis could be assumed to be peaceful. The consequence of this is the existing regime is the original and only one. In other words, it is not a regime that had to overthrow a previous one, but the only possible regime, thereby enhancing its legitimacy and security. However, the myth of autochthonous birth had some less desirable consequences too. One of these negatives was the obvious xenophobia toward those who were not descended in the same way and, as a partner to this, a tendency toward an aristocracy. Another is the attitude to women. The public polis is the realm of male warriors sprung from the earth. By excluding women from the birth origins of the city, their position generally tends toward marginalization. Indeed, in Athens's case, it is Athena's legitimate distaste for Hephaistos's advances that leads to birth from the earth rather than a woman. The Athenians, like Athena herself, "can be the children of fathers only." However, it is worth noting the feminine imagery of mother earth in Isocrates, as well as in Plato's Menexenus and Republic.

This theme gives a good sense of some of the issues behind the notion of the polis. The site of birth and the community of people within that site are key issues. The interplay of polis, khora, and community are central. Thebes and tragedy remain the focus as these themes are pursued through a reading of Sophocles's Antigone.


As Euben notes, "Greek tragedy was about boundaries of space, time and place, about being inside and outside." This is particularly the case in Antigone, in which the questions of burial inside or outside the polis and exile play central roles. This is a play that has been read and written about by numerous eminent thinkers, among them Aristotle, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Lacan, and, most recently, Butler. Here at least the intent is not to discuss their readings at length but to read Antigone without accepting a simplistic translation of polis as "state" or "city."

The crucial elements of the story are the following. The principal characters—both alive and dead—are members of the royal household. Oedipus had four children by his mother, Jocasta. The two sons—Eteocles and Polyneices—have been fighting over the polis of Thebes: Eteocles defending the polis, Polyneices attacking it. They meet at the seventh gate and die by each other's hand. Their maternal uncle Creon, the king of Thebes, has decreed that Polyneices should be left unburied, unmourned: "Whoever disobeys in the least will die, his doom is sealed: murder by public stoning inside the polis walls." The opening scene is a discussion between Antigone and Ismene—sisters to the brothers—about what should be done. Antigone decides to bury the corpse, alone, for Ismene declares she has no strength to "defy the people of the polis [politon]." Antigone is caught in the act, and confesses instantly when Creon questions her. Antigone refuses Ismene's attempt to share the blame, claiming, "I do not care for a loved one who loves in words alone." She is condemned to be entombed alive, ostensibly "that the polis may avoid defilement," but the denial of a death with ritual mourning and burial is a symbolic punishment for one who valued these rites so highly. Equally, though, the wish to avoid pollution seems a little inadequate given the pollution caused by Polyneices's lack of burial and Creon's disregard for it. Rather, Creon seems to have realized by this time that a public stoning—that is, not simply a stoning in public, but by the public—as originally proposed will not have the support of the community. Despite persuasion from his son, Haemon, who is to marry Antigone, Creon is unmoved, and it is only when the blind prophet Tiresias suggests the gods' disquiet that Creon relents. He realizes his neglect of sacred duty to Polyneices, whose body by this time has been ravaged by birds and dogs, and first cleans, then burns, then buries the body. He then makes for Antigone's tomb. The prophecy of Tiresias had mentioned the interment of the living in a tomb, and the denial of burial for the dead, and when the chorus had instructed Creon to follow this prophesy, they too had suggested the opposite order to what he actually does. That is, Creon is supposed to attend to Antigone first, and with speed, but his delay means that by the time he arrives at her tomb, he is too late. Antigone has hung herself, Haemon kills himself in grief, followed by Creon's wife, Eurydice. Realizing the horrific results of his actions, Creon is led from the stage.

Excerpted from THE BIRTH OF TERRITORY by STUART ELDEN. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents



Part I
1.    The Polis and the Khora
       Autochthony and the Myth of Origins
       Antigone and the Polis
       The Reforms of Kleisthenes
       Plato’s Laws
       Aristotle’s Politics
       Site and Community
2.    From Urbis to Imperium
       Caesar and the Terrain of War
       Cicero and the Res Publica
       The Historians: Sallust, Livy, Tacitus
       Augustus and Imperium
       The Limes of the Imperium

Part II
3.    The Fracturing of the West
       Augustine’s Two Cities
       Boethius and Isidore of Seville
       The Barbarian Tribes and National Histories
       Land Politics in Beowulf
4.    The Reassertion of Empire
       The Donation of Constantine
       The Accession of Charlemagne
       Cartography from Rome to Jerusalem
       The Limits of Feudalism
5.    The Pope’s Two Swords
       John of Salisbury and the Body of the Republic
       Two Swords: Spiritual and Temporal Power
       The Rediscovery of Aristotle
       Thomas Aquinas and the Civitas
6.    Challenges to the Papacy
       Unam Sanctum: Boniface VIII and Philip the Fair
       Dante: Commedia and Monarchia
       Marsilius of Padua and the Rights of the City
       William of Ockham and the Politics of Poverty

Part III
7.    The Rediscovery of Roman Law
       The Labors of Justinian and the Glossators
       Bartolus of Sassoferrato and the Territorium
       Baldus de Ubaldis and the Civitas-Populus
       Rex Imperator in Regno Suo
8.    Renaissance and Reconnaissance
       Machiavelli and Lo Stato
       The Politics of Reformation
       Bodin, République, Sovereignty
       Botero and Ragione di Stato
       King Lear: “Interest of Territory, Cares of State”
9.    The Extension of the State
       The Consolidation of the Reformation
       The Geometry of the Political
       The Divine Right of Kings: Hobbes, Filmer, and Locke
       “Master of a Territory”

Coda: Territory as a Political Technology

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