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A General Theory of Domination and Justice$

Frank Lovett

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780199579419

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199579419.001.0001

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(p.236) Appendix I

(p.236) Appendix I

A General Theory of Domination and Justice
Oxford University Press

The modern English terms “domination” and “to dominate” have their roots in Roman law. The comparatively old Latin word dominus, meaning literally “master of a house (domus),” entered into the language of law at some time after the Twelve Tables as dominium, where it eventually came to designate the important but elusive concept of ownership.1 Roughly, ownership consisted of a twofold relationship: it represented the absolute title to a thing (res) held by the property owner as against any competing claims to possession on the one hand, and the unlimited right of enjoyment held by the property owner over the thing he owned on the other.

Later in the republican period, the term acquired a more distinctly political, as opposed to narrowly legal, sense. This new sense arose quite smoothly out of the old. Like most other ancient peoples, the Romans practiced slavery and, as a matter of law, slaves were regarded as res mancipi—analogous to what we call real property or real estate. In theory then, the unlimited rights of the property holder in general included unlimited rights over his slaves in particular. The free citizens of Rome could thus be regarded—gliding over some complications—as those male heads of household (paterfamilias) who were not slaves, that is, who were not under the dominium of anyone.2 As it is sometimes put, the Romans came to regard the ideas of libertas and civitas as being equivalent.3

When the Republic came on hard times, some (presciently) feared for the loss of their traditional political freedoms if Rome were to fall under the sway of a despotic ruler. Already in the habit, perhaps, of describing free citizens as persons who were not slaves, it was natural in articulating this danger to draw the obvious analogy: if the Republic collapses, we freemen of Rome will cease to be citizens and become rather like slaves, under the dominatio (domination) or dominatus (absolute power) of a despotic ruler—a dominus (master). Cicero was among the most avid users of the concept of domination in this political sense. For example, writing of democracy, he comments

But if the people hold to their own rights, they deny that there is anything more outstanding, more free, more blessed.…[T]his commonwealth…is the only one properly so named; and so it is usual for the “concern of the people” to be liberated from the domination (dominatione) of kings and aristocrats, and not for kings or the power and wealth of an aristocracy to be sought by a free people.4

(p.237) (Note the explicit contrast of domination and liberty.) With respect to monarchy as a form of government, Cicero comments

It is…a genuinely good form of commonwealth; but it verges on the most terrible type. As soon as this king turned to a more unjust form of mastery (dominatum), he immediately became a tyrant; no animal can be imagined that is more awful or foul or more hateful to gods and men alike.5

Speaking of Caesar shortly after his assassination, Cicero comments

Why trouble to list minor crimes—forged legacies, business deals, fraudulent sales? For here you have someone who actually aspired to be absolute monarch of Rome, indeed master (dominusque) of the whole world.6

These terms were similarly used in this sense by other writers with republican sympathies. For example, Sallust puts the following in the mouth of a tribune:

Sharing as they all do the same desires, hatreds, and fears, they stick closely together; if they were honest men, you would call it friendship, but these are just a gang of criminals. If your love of liberty were as ardent as their craving for power (dominationem), the republic would surely not be violated as she now is.7

The historian Livy, narrating a Senate debate regarding some pro‐plebian reforms that took place in the early Republic, has one reformist rhetorically ask the senators:

Finally tell me this: does the ultimate power in the state belong to you or to the Roman people? When we finished with the monarchy, was it to put supreme authority (dominatio) into your hands or to bring political liberty to all alike?8

In this and other passages, Livy explicitly regards domination and liberty as opposites. Even later, in the writings of Tacitus, we find passages such as the following:

To safeguard his domination (dominationi), Augustus made his sister's son Marcellus a priest and curule aedile—in spite of his extreme youth.9

In short, by the opening of the imperial period, dominus, dominatio, and their various cognates have moved beyond the narrow domain of law into the language of general politics.

(p.238) As opposition to the imperial system faded, however, so did the negative connotation of these terms. Dominium retreated into the language of law, where it came to designate theoretically absolute ownership (dominium perfectum), one extreme end on the continuum of property rights.10 Because the Empire, in a sense, could be viewed as the property of the Emperor—in principle, he had the absolute right to interfere in any affair within his domains—dominus became a natural auxiliary title adopted by some emperors (though Augustus and Tiberius notably declined it).11 This more or less politically neutral meaning of the terms persisted through the Middle Ages and into the early modern period, especially among those working in the natural law tradition.

The term domination and its cognates seem to have entered English usage mainly along two parallel tracks during the Renaissance, in both instances probably transmitted from Latin through medieval French.12 On the one hand, the term “domination” referred to rule, sway, or control, and especially to that of a monarch over his kingdom: as in “kynges and prynces haue domynacions and lordships” (1483); or “the lordship and domination over thys yle” (1585). The associated verb “to dominate”—to rule or hold sway over—arose somewhat later, in the early seventeenth century. Henry Cockeram's English Dictionarie (1623) defines “domineere” as “to beare rule or great sway.” On the other hand, the terms “dominion” and sometimes “domination” were used interchangeably to refer to a territory under rule: Shakespeare, for example, refers to the “subiectes of his saide dominacion of Wales” in Henry VIII. A clear division of labor between the two terms “domination” and “dominion” was not standardized until the eighteenth century. John Locke, for example, sometimes uses dominion to mean domination (“slaves…are by the right of nature subjected to the absolute dominion and arbitrary power of their masters”), and domination to mean dominion (“the spreading domination of the two great empires of Peru and Mexico”).13

Although both “domination” and “to dominate” were in general English use during the seventeenth century, neither initially carried a necessary negative connotation, as can be seen from the examples earlier. The contemporary sense of the word with its negative connotations was more or less fixed by the end of the eighteenth century. Thus, John Walker's Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791) defines domination as “power, dominion; tyranny, insolent authority,” and similarly the Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language (author unknown, 1796) defines it as “power, dominion; tyranny.”


(1) See Noyes (1936, pp. 78–9) and Tucker (1985, p. 81).

(2) Among the many complications, there were also foreigners (peregrini), free persons who were not heads of household and therefore were under the potestas of a paterfamilias, emancipated former slaves (libertini), and so on. See Nicholas (1962, esp. part 2).

(3) Wirszubski (1968, pp. 1–4).

(4) De re publica, I.48, this translation Zetzel (1999, p. 21). Cf. De re publica, I.67 and Contra Verres, I.35.

(5) De re publica, II.47–48, this translation Zetzel (1999, pp. 47–8). Cf. De re publica, I.43, I.61, De officiis, II.2, and Tusculanae disputationes, V.57–8.

(6) De officiis, III.83, this translation Grant (1971, p. 191). Cf. De re publica, I.69, II.46 and Tusculanae disputationes, I.48.

(7) Bellum jugurthinum, XXXI.16, this translation Handford (1963, p. 67).

(8) Ab urbe condita, IV.5, this translation Sélincourt (1971, p. 274). Cf. Ab urbe condita, III.39, VI.18.

(9) Annales, I.3, this translation Grant (1996, p. 32). Cf. Annales, III.26, XII.4.

(10) See Tuck (1979, pp. 10–13). Note the frequent use of the term in Institutes (I.3.2, I.5.2, passim).

(11) Suetonius, De vita Caesarum, II.53, III.27.

(12) For what follows, see OED, 2nd edn, s.v. “domination,” “dominate,” and “dominion.” A third, less relevant, use emerging in the same period refers to the fourth order of angels—for example, Milton, Paradise Lost, V.601: “Here all ye Angels, Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers.” For developments outside English, not discussed here, see Richter (1995, ch. 3).

(13) Locke (1690, §85, p. 45) and Locke (1960, §105, p. 56), respectively.