Ideologies of Surveillance in Ancient China and Rome

Project: Research project

Project Details


“Ideologies of Surveillance in Ancient China and Rome” proposes to investigate the theories behind population enumeration and surveillance in the ancient world. The project will be primarily concerned with the early China, from the Warring States through Han periods (5th century BCE – 2nd century CE), though it will also make comparisons with the Roman Republic and early Roman empire (6th century BCE – 2nd century CE). The project will discuss theorizations of population surveillance in early China and Rome, and, through a case study, how these theories were practically impelemented. This discussion will engage with theories of historical and contemporary surveillance. The project contends that, despite the limited technological capabilities of ancient states, they nevertheless attempted to monitor and regulate the behaviour of their subjects.

The ancient states implemented practices to enumerate their populations, to make records of their property and dependents, and to assess their liability for taxation, as well as labour and/or military service. In early China, this registration was performed both by officials who were required to annually update the lists of subjects, and by the people themselves, who were legally required to report any changes to their status, such as a birth or death in the family. In Rome, citizens were likewise required to report themselves, their dependents, and their property every five years to the censors. While there are few extant records of these census exercises, evidence suggests that both states were gathering large amounts of data on their population. These systems of population registration were not merely for statistical purposes, nor simply to evaluate the tax and military/labour liabilities of the subject body. Rather, these practices of registration were also closely connected to practices of behaviour modification: the “linked liability” lian zuo 連坐 system in China, and the censors’ duty to regulate the morals of the population (regimen morum) in Rome.

While surveillance is generally considered to be a modern phenomenon, reliant on modern technologies, “Ideologies of Surveillance in Ancient China and Rome” argues that there was a surveillance mentality in the ancient world, which sought to monitor and regulate the population, despite the lack of advanced technologies. In so doing, the project seeks to connect the ancient world to later histories of surveillance, and to the field of contemporary surveillance studies. By examining surveillance practices and theories in societies lacking modern technology, we can understand some of the principles that underlie contemporary surveillance
Effective start/end date1/01/23 → …


Explore the research topics touched on by this project. These labels are generated based on the underlying awards/grants. Together they form a unique fingerprint.