In every good cop show or conspiracy thriller, there is always some kind of map or chart with pins and string connecting a bunch of profiles of individuals to a central theme. Normally we think of these visual representations as props in films, but the large-scale study of interconnected relationships is not just relegated to people wearing tinfoil hats. Instead, the web of interconnections that individuals have made is a legitimate realm of study called prosopography.
Prosopography is the study of historical groups through interconnection, including social, political, and familial ties. Whereas some historians look at the motivations of larger units like countries, prosopography allows for the study of niche individuals who may have played massive parts in historical changes. This approach to understanding historical decision making is a process that not only gives insight into the culture of bygone civilizations, but also the ways the individuals behaved within them. As an example, prosopography helped establish a well-known fact that Ancient Rome was not only a political unit but a collection of families that vied for control and directed the course of the republic, and later the empire. Instead of looking at the choices the government made on a legal level, a look into prosopography allowed a look into the individual relationships of senators and family members that influenced voting patterns or changes in political support. By diving down into the personal lives of these great people, answers can be found that show simplistic incentives for complex sociopolitical actions.
Next time you find yourself covering for your coworker, lobbying to get something personal achieved, or making friends who will eventually help you in the future, make sure to put it all in writing for the historians studying this time’s prosopography.