An introduction to Agency (with a Tombstone)
Ewan again, this time musing about agency in the past and demonstrating how it is preserved within a Roman tombstone.
In reference to the field of archaeology, Joyce and Lopiparo state we must have a degree of “[s]elf-consciousness about the implications of our different theories about agency and practice”. This sentiment applies to many of us in the humanities, for whether we are conscious of it or not some degree of ‘agency theory’ — or at least a presupposition about agency — underpins much historical and archaeological research and is therefore very important to address.
Something I am going to (ever so briefly) do here with the help of a trusty Roman tombstone, providing an entry point for further reading, self-reflection and philosophical musing — after which you will soon realise, no one agrees! *sarcastic surprised noises*
Agency has been a popular topic in studies of the past, with Classical and ancient world studies being no exceptions (see Postclassicisms Collective) and the the early 2000s in particular seeing heightened engagement within archaeological scholarship.
But what does it mean? Well, interpretations vary about its nuances (as usual) but in brief ‘agency’ is the ability to act, affect and be affected by structure. More specifically, the ability to enact socially constructive, destructive and regenerative actions which affect the structures surrounding us.
In relation to our research then, agency applies to the ability for actors of the past to influence their social realties; be they a literary figure in a Greek epic or the wife of a Roman soldier in a frontier community. Archaeological material (and even literary texts) should be seen as products of agency, capturing feedback between individuals, groups, objects and structures (Gardner 2001).
Ideas concerning the ability of ‘the individual’ or ‘the group’ are by no means novel, but emerged in this form in the mid-20th (CE for my BCE readership). Particularly influential were (and are) Anthony Giddens‘ idea of structuration: ‘social actions affect structures’, and Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus: ‘actions are framed by everyday practices and informed by structure’.1
A main point of contention is the degree to which an entity has power to consciously act and affect, though there are others. For instance, there is the question of the role of objects in these socially constructive processes. I myself see objects as imbued with agency (see previous post) and I am not alone, with others examining the agency of things ranging from Medieval Japanese rice to Medieval European ‘miraculous images’.
There are various ‘stances’. You decide where you place the weight in your research.
To better illustrate lets turn to the funerary stela of Lucius Vegnonius, veteran of Legio VII (HD 058602). Found in Bijaći / Croatia and erected by his wife Tropaena Fabricia this monument preserves the interplay between various actors and structures in Roman Dalmatia during the mid-late 1st c. CE.
Here lies Lucius Vegonius, son of Lucius, a veteran of the 7th legion from the city of Florentia. Placed during her lifetime for herself and her husband by Tropaena Fabricia
Firstly, this monument is a product of the Roman military community, for the inscribed tombstone was the ‘monument of choice’ for its members in the 1st-2nd c. CE (Hope 2003). Secondly, coming from this context it is probable Lucius wanted such a monument, saving funds and making plans in his will. Thirdly (but crucially by no means finally) Tropaena dedicated and perhaps commissioned the monument.
It doesn’t stop here though: this interplay between agents (Lucius & Tropaena), objects (tombstone) and structures (community) is reciprocal. By erecting this monument Tropaena is active in the military community, continuing the tradition of monumental commemoration for servicemen and their families. Further even, this lovely tombstone will remain as a model for future community members long after Tropaena — influencing military (and local) mortuary culture for decades to come.
Agency evidently takes many forms and works in ways that we may not see at first, with our agency living on through the objects we create.
This too is just one dynamic of agency and practice preserved: we could also examine the role of Lucius & Tropaena as agents of Empire in a provincial landscape or the role of the stonemason in the monuments form and content
So with this in mind, whether an historian of Greek law or an archaeologist of early medieval burial practices, think about your ‘theory of agency’. Single it out for your readership (or yourself). Perhaps examine or muse about the various forms of agency visible in your source material, its preservation and its presentation. How do they intersect? What forces are at play? Explore the concept further perhaps and check out the papers below — there’s a little something for everyone.
- Dobres, M.-A. & J. Robb (2000) Agency in archaeology.
- Dornan, J. L. (2002) ‘Agency and Archaeology: Past, Present, and Future Directions’. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 9(4): 303-329 doi:10.1023/A:1021318432161
- Giddens, A. (1984) The constitution of society: Outline of the theory of structuration. PDF
- Hammond, P. (2021) Tragic Agency in Classical Drama from Aeschylus to Voltaire
- Postclassicisms Collective (2019) ‘Agency’. Postclassicims: 47–64. Available here.
- Jurkowlaniec, G., I. Matyjaszkiewicz & Z. Sarnecka (2017) The Agency of Things in Medieval and Early Modern Art: Materials, Power and Manipulation. Open Access. doi:10.4324/9781315166940
- Wikipedia (because Wikipedia is great)
Please get in touch if you are unable to access any of these resources.
- I’m sure social scientists would be horrified by these gross simplifications.
Ewan Coopey | PhD Candidate Macquarie University | @EuuanXCVI