Empires and Criminals: Can Convict Politics in the Past Shed Light on the Present?
2: Adultery Laws and Biopolitics in the Early Chinese and Roman Empires
Sunday, March 27, 2022
9:00am – 10:30am EST
Location: Conv. Center, Room 322B
Stanford University, United States
While Foucault takes biopower as an invention of the modern era, rulers of ancient empires already understood the regulation of sexuality as a significant way to establish social order and political ideology. This paper compares legal statutes and practices against illicit consensual sex in the early Roman empire and early imperial China. Both legal systems facilitated state power’s penetration into the family and perpetuated social inequalities, which included gender, status, and generational hierarchies. On the other hand, legal practices varied significantly within each empire and across empires. Several Roman elite women convicted of adultery received penalties that were congruent with or stricter than what the law required, whereas Han elites who violated adultery laws often received lighter penalties than what the legal statutes prescribed. The comparison reveals the distinct purposes and uses of adultery laws in the two empires. Roman rulers were primarily concerned with the morality, eugenics, and legitimate succession of the upper-class families in Rome. By contrast, the rulers of early imperial China issued adultery laws mainly to consolidate hierarchies among imperial subjects and to unify the empire ideologically, but in practice these statutes were frequently used as tools for political struggles, in which the criminals were accused of more than one crimes and thus punished largely according to their other crimes and their relative statuses to the offended persons. Despite these differences, adultery laws played important roles in both empires by enhancing the state’s control over the human body and the family.