Early on in The Republic, Socrates contends with Thrasymachus's argument that "justice is the interest of the stronger". Socrates gives some analogies, such as the relationship that doctors have with their patients, and captains with their sailors. In these analogies, the superior serves the interest of his or her inferiors. Eventually he rounds off by saying that rulers likewise serve the interest of their subjects, and only the interest of their subjects.

Wikipedia reproduces a definition of imperium, supposedly given by A.H.M Jones, i.e. "the power vested by the state in a person to do what he considers to be in the best interests of the state". Is this definition accurate? If so, how seriously did Romans take the idea that imperium should serve the best interest of the state, and not the man wielding it? Lastly, how much was this idea influenced by Plato's point that rulers should serve only the interest of their subjects?

I am particularly interested in this last question (although the previous ones are also necessary to reach it) as I'm curious to know how much influence Plato's thoughts on ruling had on the Romans.

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    It's worth noting that Aristotle takes this idea and runs with it in the Politics. Whether a ruler pursues the common good (koinon sympheron) or his own proper good is precisely what distinguishes good and bad regimes.
    – brianpck
    Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 20:16

1 Answer 1


Instead of answering your last and main question as stated, I will try to argue why it is not answerable. The reason is in the answer to the first question: the description is not accurate.

The word imperium has a broad range of meanings. From L&S: command, order, direction, authority, command, control, supreme power, sovereignty, sway, dominion, empire, public offices, rule, control, commander, commanding officers, generals, government…

Based on that dictionary entry, I don't see how an interpretation as narrow as the one Jones suggests could be possible. To reach that, one needs to isolate a very particular class of use cases. But the choice is arbitrary; picking one of the L&S explanations over another leads to a different interpretation of imperium. At least I am unable to tell when imperium is used as a technical political term as opposed to a common word for just about any kind of power.

I do agree that "the power vested by the state in a person to do what he considers to be in the best interests of the state" is one of the many meanings of imperium, not that it characterizes the word completely. For example, newly conquered areas were brought under the Roman imperium (Caesar, de Bello Gallico: Gallia sub populi Romani imperium redacta; Cicero, Pro Lege Manilia: hodie hanc gloriam atque hoc orbis terrae imperium teneremus), which is not a power vested by the state in an individual.

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    A statement that A. H. M. Jones was plain “not accurate” on a certain Roman matter requires much more serious elaboration than a reference to L&S, I believe. Do you maybe have more references handy? Pierre Grimal wrote about the concept of imperium at some length (not the word, which can mean many things, but the heart of the concept), in his La civilisation IIRC, in an earlier Roman period than Jones would normally be assumed to focus on, and I do not remember Grimal landing very far away from him. I need to comb through the book now, however. Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 2:46
  • @kkm I don't have more references handy (and I am currently travelling and thus less able to access some sources). I wouldn't base the criticism solely on L&S, but the quotes from Caesar and Cicero corroborate the observation that imperium can mean many kinds of power, not all covered by Jones' definition. The definition can be very accurate for a meaning of imperium, but I can't see how it could be the meaning. But as always, it is certainly possible that I am mistaken (or unable to identify the relevant use of imperium), and I would like seeing (and upvoting) other answers.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 5:43
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    In a context, the meaning can exist, and I think I understand what is the context in the question. I'll try to write an answer, but this is one of the questions that are hard to answer in the SO context (it is easier addressed in a monograph). The answer is yes, the definition is rather accurate, yes, Romans wound kill (and did many times) for it, and its origins predate Plato's lifetime. But it's hard to expose concisely. I'll try my best. Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 6:55
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    @kkm I look forward to an answer, if you so choose. If not, the comment itself is useful.
    – ktm5124
    Commented Nov 25, 2017 at 6:09
  • @ktm5124: Sorry about sitting on it for so long, but I will! Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 9:53

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