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The Birth of Territory

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.


“Elden’s analysis of territory is based on a close reading of a range of writings from key scholars and thinkers, as well as poets, playwrights, and religious writers where we find Shakespeare and Beowulf resting alongside Aristotle and Plato. Starting with Greek mythology and ranging through the middle ages and renaissance periods through to the early modern era, Elden draws on original writings, translations of works, and commentaries on those works. In doing so, he appears to have read just about everything! . . . This is a work of history, political science, law, and philosophy as well as a work of geography. In telling the story of territory, Elden also touches usefully on a range of other issues such as the periodization of history and the retrospective application of terms such as ‘middle ages’ and ‘renaissance.’. . . The breadth of sources and the range of ideas mean that Elden is, in many respects, following on in a similar vein to many of the writers whose work he deals with here.”

David Storey, University of Worcester | Journal of Historical Geography

“Stuart Elden discusses, both copiously and elegantly, writings from Homer to Rousseau bearing witness to how place and power can be understood. From the Iliad to the Social Contract, territory, he concludes, is best defined in terms of political technology, the latter a lens through which the term resembles a mosaic of modes of measure and control. . . . The stunning virtue of The Birth of Territory is found in its sweep and intellectual panache.”

Tom Conley, Harvard University | Imago Mundi

“A masterful and useful book.”

Gerry Kearns | Society and Space

“Stuart Elden has written a pathbreaking book on a foundational concept in modern political and geographical thought. Drawing together deep philosophical knowledge, historical understanding, and philological expertise, Elden’s pioneering investigation compels us fundamentally to rethink some of the basic assumptions regarding state space that have long underpinned modern political theory and social research. In so doing, Elden also opens up new horizons for understanding the transformed geographies of political life that are being produced under early twenty-first century conditions. A brilliant, provocative intervention.”—Neil Brenner, Harvard University

Neil Brenner, Harvard University

“This is a brilliant intellectual exegesis of the concept of territory that will be of wide interest in a range of academic fields, from international relations to historical sociology and the history of political thought.”

John Agnew, University of California, Los Angeles

“Stuart Elden’s The Birth of Territory is a wonderful achievement unmatched in previous writing on place, power, and politics. For it does nothing less than elucidate in remarkable detail a two-thousand-year history of the conditions for the very possibility of its own subject—the idea of territory itself. That is what makes it transcendental history of the first order.”

David N. Livingstone, Queen’s University Belfast

“Elden is to be commended for his keen analysis that tackles rather complex issues of meaning and translation while remaining eminently readable.”

Geographical Review

“Elden deserves every accolade he receives for a remarkable book.  That phrase might suffice for a review, but it would hide the erudition that sets his book apart. . . . This powerful book is about words used as a political technology of power.  In the discipline of geoscience itself, it is as much about the work of labels in cartography as about that of figures in political theory. . . . In addition to all the compelling analyses, Elden’s work teaches us a lesson that even now we are at a watershed of  needing a new vocabulary to address the fluid and liquid and transient movement of politics, administration, economics, and war.”

Theory, Culture & Society

“The Birth of Territory is an outstanding scholarly achievement . . . a book that already promises to become a ‘classic’ in geography, together with very few others published in the past decades. But Elden’s book is also a difficult one to position within mainstream human geography. Its genealogical engagement with multiple sources/texts in various historical and linguistic contexts is far reaching, and it has very few precedents in the discipline.”

Political Geography

“Elden’s The Birth of Territory, like his other works, is an impressive feat of erudition.”

American Historical Review

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


Association of American Geographers: Meridian Book Award

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