Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.06.05


Jane de Rose Evans, The Art of Persuasion. Political Propaganda from Aeneas to Brutus. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992. Pp. xii + 176; 56 figures. $37.50. ISBN 0-472-10282-6.


Reviewed by Bob Develin, University of Ottawa.

This is a well-produced book, with hardly any misprints. When I received it, I showed it to a couple of graduate students. One commented that the illustrations were good. And so they are, assembled at the back, clear and thus easy to use in connection with the discussion in the text. The other comment was that the table of contents looked interesting. It shows an introductory chapter on the problem of propaganda in Rome, a second on propaganda and coins, and then individual chapters on the developing propaganda use of images of Aeneas, the wolf and twins, Romulus, the forum Augustum, the Sabines and Rome, Numa and Ancus Martius, Brutus, followed by a conclusion.

A charitable review, beyond noting the adequacy of the bibliography, index of ancient citations and general index, would have stopped at this point. But it is the unfortunate responsibility of the reviewer to be honest. Seldom have I felt so in need of excuses to draw me away from reading a book, but it is not very long and it is with relief that I put fingers to keys. For a subject which promises so much, this is a dull book. While I am a great believer that in most cases simple English will suffice, that does not deny the possibility of liveliness. The one piece of amusement I derived was from a sentence which, even in a discipline renowned for the use of double negatives, deserves some sort of crown (p. 106): "Since Romulus may have only recently been named Quirinus, it may not be unlikely that the god Quirinus was still felt to have had an existence separate from the deified Romulus."

The dust jacket refers to "this important and controversial book." There is some potential controversy (the author argues, for example, that the self-promotion of the nobility in art, architecture, and coins began in the third century B.C., earlier than has been thought), but I doubt if the book lives up to its billing. While the introduction signals the sorts of material to be covered as propaganda and the conclusion summarises the findings, there is no neat encapsulation of the stages to be negotiated and their methodological justification. Perhaps the nearest indication of the evidence used and the use made of it comes in the last paragraph (p. 154):

Augustan propaganda can be seen as fulfilling the logical end of Republican propaganda. What began as a combination of state and familial advertisement, seen as far away as the François Tomb in Etruria, is visible at Rome in the Basilica Aemilia frieze, coins, and in the paintings of the Esquiline Tomb, the Tomb of the Magistrates, and the Scipio Tomb. Support from the ancient sources deepens our understanding of such propaganda and also makes clear the progress of familial claims of descent from the third century B.C. to the end of the Republic.
I wish to ensure that the criticisms which follow be read in proper perspective. Much of what worries me concerns practices which seem to be viewed with tolerance in our profession. In pleading that they should not be, I am shifting some of the blame from the author and onto those who saw the work through its formation as a doctoral dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania and then through its transformation into a book. On the one hand, we are dealing with differences in professional attitudes, where argument is possible; on the other, the concern is disturbing oversight of error.

E. begins with a consideration of types of propaganda. We could easily agree that most Roman propaganda was "vertical," which means in fact that it was aimed downwards; also that the effectiveness of propaganda depends upon repetition. One must beware, however, of assuming repetition or indeed of being persuaded in the face of evidence that it was so. Consider the following from the chapter on Aeneas (pp. 39-41). Julius Caesar stressed his descent from Venus, but he turned this to veneration (no pun -- it is E.'s word) of Aeneas, especially after Pharsalus. There is some evidence for this, but the author says "In fact, Caesar continued to stress his descent from Venus, not Aeneas;" Aeneas is on only one coin issue. This would not seem to betoken repetition, so it comes as something as a shock to read the opening words of the next paragraph: "Caesar's emphasis on Aenean propaganda...."

To return to the opening chapter, E. states the incontestible fact that we are strictly unable to judge the effectiveness of ancient propaganda. Yet the nature of the study depends upon the assumption of effectiveness, for the possibility that there was no effect might provoke the potential and uncomfortable concomitant that the aim was not to produce propaganda at all, even taking a liberal attitude to the definition of propaganda. This is not the only area where I find the author failing to deal fully with the implications of her own statements. On p. 24 she asserts the obvious truth, when it comes to associating moneyers with what is portrayed on their coins, that "the arguments based on coin types can be circular." She is, nonetheless, consciously or otherwise, able to deploy similar arguments herself. In this area, perhaps, the temptation is too great, when the only alternative may be admission of ignorance. (Parenthetically, it should also be said that circular arguments are not always wrong). < /P>

I think what I am pointing to here is a variety of scholarly incontinence, a lack of attention to the logic of stated positions. Two other varieties may be exemplified: lack of thought, both as to specifics and in terms of general organization, and special pleading. Beyond that there is just plain bad scholarship.

The book, as said, is not long. It could have been shorter in terms of its defined subject matter. E. falls into a habit common to many who use architectural and generally artistic evidence for the elucidation of other areas. She gives us descriptions which we don't really need -- or, at least, the relevance of which is not immediately apparent. For the purpose of understanding the sculpture on an altar I am given no reason why I need to know its dimensions or that it is of Luna marble (p. 116 n. 29). There are other footnotes which seem to show simply that E. wants to say something whether or not it is important for the subject. There is also an appendix to chapter 4 (pp. 75-86) called "Fig Trees and Wolves: Problems in the Topography of Rome," which, whatever its quality, does not seem to me to belong here, and on p. 115 we are invited to note something which "is technically outside the scope of this study" (which, strangely, I am not convinced it is; i.e., "that the sculptural program of the Temple of the Divine Augustus reflected Augustus' own plans"). The issue here is the perennial bugbear of excessive annotation, one of those professional matters noted above.

Things seem to go wrong again in chapter two, on use of coins. As propaganda, we are told, such things need to be manipulated by an organized group. When this group turns out to be as wide as "young members of the aristocracy," we must surely wonder. The statement at the end of the chapter as to "how tenuous is our supposition that coin types generally reflect an interest by the moneyer in promoting his family's ancestry" is evidently one to be forgotten as we proceed. The very assumption of such advertisement is an important part in the game of dating coin issues, an area of ancient studies where a capacity for self-induced confidence is an essential quality. The fact is, of course, that statements such as "most scholars agree" (e.g. p. 23 n. 26) prove nothing.

E. states (p. 5) that she will avoid discussion of literature and history-writing, for they require study in their own right. Again, there seems to be an unreasonable tolerance of such statements (associated with the genre "lack of space does not permit..."). Limitations for the purposes of a doctoral thesis are fine, but a book is a different matter. A large and thorough consideration of propaganda would include history and other literature. This may seem captious, but it becomes a problem because E. as a result adopts comfortable, but actually questionable, assumptions about the nature of written history: that in a given history particular families would be boosted (p. 6); that the historical record was wantonly manipulated (p. 25); with regard to Camillus that "much of his story was embellished by writers who wished to present Marius in the mold of a traditional hero" (p. 88 n. 4).

Historical knowledge seems shaky too. There will be surprise in reading at p. 124 n. 14 that tribuni aerarii were allowed to sit on juries through the lex Aurelia of 75 B.C., which I take to be the result of inattention, rather than a misprint; at p. 128 n. 28 we have the correct version (the lex Aurelia of 70 B.C.). On p. 39 the gentes maiores are characterized as "the six families that virtually controlled Rome in the earliest period of the Republic." We think, of course, of such things as the period of Fabian prominence, but a look at the fasti overall should give pause. Incidentally, the list on p. 112 of the "Great Men" given statues in the forum Augustum shows only the Manlii absent among the gentes maiores (absent too from the index, but so are the Valerii). Worth a comment? And finally an almost incomprehensible howler. P. 37 refers to Justin 28.6 -- so too in the index of ancient authors, but it should be 28.1.6, and Justin's work was not called Hist. Philippicae. Since the new translation of Justin is still in the works, I assume E. had to consult the Latin, but even so I cannot see how she extracted from it that the Acarnanians applied for a tax exemption from Rome in 238, claiming they had not taken part in the Trojan war. The latter claim is there, but what the Acarnanians wanted and received was a Roman embassy to warn off the Aetolians.

I have trouble with many of the conclusions reached in the treatment of the figures studied as used for propaganda. Perhaps this has something to do with the supposed controversial nature of the work. Do we really need, for example, to establish whether at any given time Romulus was used negatively, as the slayer of his brother, or positively, as the military hero? Did Augustus and his poets need to "rehabilitate" him? They could live with the two sides, as, I believe, they could with the apparent contradictions in the character of Vergil's Aeneas. I find it hard to swallow that Augustus and his cronies pushed the story of Romulus' deification to lay the ground work for Augustus' own entry among the gods (p. 100). Despite the thesis "that interest in portraying the early history of Rome was not confined to the Augustan period, but instead can be found as early as the third century B.C." (p. 134), the Augustan culmination seems sufficiently important that the chapter on the Forum Augustum could have been longer than 10 pages and reserved for the end.

There would be little point in continuing to dissect the specifics of this book. Nor will I repeat my general assessment, except to say that it is particularly disappointing in the wake of Zanker. Readers are advised to make the effort to read it quickly, but in using any of its arguments to scrutinise them very carefully both for soundness and consistency.