Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.5.5

Daniel J. Gargola, Lands, Laws, and Gods: Magistrates and Ceremony in the Regulation of Public Lands in Republican Rome. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. Pp. 270. ISBN 0-8078-2233-7.

Reviewed by Geoffrey S. Sumi, College of the Holy Cross,

Nothing elicits yawns and glassy-eyed stares from undergraduates as consistently and reliably as a lecture on agrarian reform in the Roman republic. At some level, they understand that it was important -- especially when the discussion turns to the revolutionary tribunate of Ti. Gracchus -- but yet they find it (understandably) difficult to fathom all of the social, political, legal, and economic ramifications. Now G. has given us a study which at the very least can make agrarian reform interesting, and may very well compel students of Roman history to rethink some of their basic assumptions about the nature of republican government, the importance of ceremony and ritual in shaping official actions, and the roles of individuals (i.e., magistrates) and groups (i.e., senate and Roman people) in these actions.

In this study, a revision of G.'s doctoral dissertation, G. uses the administration of agrarian legislation from enactment to implementation as a window on the governing "principles, practices, and assumptions of the republican order" (p. 2). He does this by focusing on the rites and ceremonies (religious and otherwise) that helped shape official actions. He points out that religion and politics were inextricably intertwined in Rome, to the extent that the usual distinction between "ritual" and "ceremony" as separating the sacred from the profane (modern in origin) cannot work for republican Rome (p. 5). G. does not claim to study the totality of state ritual, but (not surprisingly) focuses on those rituals that shaped, punctuated, or legitimated land reform legislation. The book is divided into two broad sections: seven chapters on the "basic principles of Roman government in action and the ways they are reflected in the implementation of each category of agrarian legislation" (p. 10), and two chapters on the agrarian reform of the late republic, beginning with Ti. Gracchus' legislation and ending with the confiscations of Octavian.

The first chapter ("The Roman Government in Action") contains a brief summary of Roman government officials, their duties, and the kinds of rituals they performed or participated in. The activities of individuals (whether magistrates, priests, or private citizens) were "compartmentalized", that is, they were "divided into categories and subcategories, each with its own sphere of action, its own procedures, and its own substantive rules" (p. 15), but G. is quick to stress that this does not mean that they were mutually exclusive; in other words, these overtly separate powers often overlapped. These "categories and subcategories," to which G. refers, were rituals, in which the actors (magistrates or priests) wore costumes symbolic of their office and their powers, made formal gestures, and uttered set formulae. The sites where magistrates performed these rituals were the civic spaces of Rome and the audience was the Roman people. Interaction between governors and governed, then, took place on a very formal level. The underlying message communicated on these occasions was the distribution of power in Roman politics; the actors in these rituals were at the center of power, the Roman people looked on from the periphery.

In Chapter 2 ("Ritual, Law, and Space") G. discusses the specific types of ceremonies and the actors involved in marking out new space or readying old space for new uses. In particular, he argues that Romans likely based the process of centuriation that was used to mark out territory for colonies and viritane land allotments on the more traditional religious ritual of augury. Augurs and land surveyors used fundamentally the same procedures, such as dividing territory into quadrants oriented toward the cardinal directions (p. 43).

Chapters 3 ("Colonial Laws, Colonial Commissioners, and Colonists") and 4 ("As if Small Images of the Roman People") discuss the rituals performed in founding a colony: the enabling legislation, election of commissioners, the selection of settlers, departure to the site, the establishment of the city and citizen body, and finally the designation of land for public and private use. G. points out that of the attested agrarian colleges (usually of three men) most were made up of consulars and praetorians (with the number of praetorians gradually increasing beginning in the second half of the 3rd century). At first glance, founding a colony does not seem like the kind of task that would attract men of such political distinction. If the colony was located in hostile territory (e.g., Aquileia), men of experience would be desirable. But this does not explain all commissions. Were there political benefits? Roman colonies offered only a few votes to be won (Latin colonies none). More attractive perhaps was the opportunity for public acclaim. The commissioners were responsible for public ceremonies both in Rome (e.g., selection of settlers) and on site (e.g., marking out the pomerium, establishing a civic order, distributing plots of land). An example that G. cites later (p. 185) could provide a case in point: M. Antonius founded the colony of Casilinum in April of 44 in order to win the support of Caesar's veterans. As G. points out, Antonius personally performed the colonial lustrum and marked out the pomerium, taking the most important rituals for himself and leaving the rest to his subordinates. He did this to enhance his image in the eyes of Caesar's soldiers at a time when he was in desperate need of military power. Politicians in the middle republic would not have had precisely the same motivations as Antony in 44 B.C., but the opportunity to parade around Rome and then out to the site of a colony with an entourage of settlers would not have been missed.

Chapter 5 ("Viritane Assignments and Agrarian Commissions") is the shortest and least satisfying of the book because there is not enough evidence upon which G. can construct his argument. "The competent magistrates ... probably led the settlers through ceremonialized occasions ..." (p. 102; my emphasis). Based on what G. has demonstrated, he is probably right, but evidence is lacking. One unanswered question is why ten men were needed for viritane assignments when only three men were sufficient for founding colonies.

Chapter 6 ("The Sale and Lease of Public Lands") covers the use of public land to produce revenue for the Roman state. G. admits that in this instance "... less dramatic ceremonies characterized the process" since there was no civic order to be established (as was the case with a colony). Still, he shows clearly that rituals informed every step from the auction of the land to the demarcation of boundaries.

In chapter 7 ("Leges de Modo Agrorum") G. discusses the laws which limited the private exploitation of public land (in particular the lex Licinia which the reform of Ti. Gracchus was intended to resurrect). These laws were enacted in the same way as other agrarian laws, but their implementation was the ongoing responsibility of certain magistrates, and this usually took the shape of sporadic prosecutions of violators. G. shows that these laws should be classed with sumptuary legislation inasmuch as they were intended to limit lavish expenditure by aristocrats. But since Romans believed that agriculture was the most suitable occupation for aristocrats, would they have regarded the exploitation of land the same as (say) lavish spending on Greek statues?

Chapters 8 ("The Gracchan Reform") and 9 ("Toward the Principate") show that Ti. Gracchus' land reform began a trend in legislation that culminated in the somewhat more bureaucratic world of the principate. These are the two best chapters. Tiberius had grander ambitions than any of his predecessors in land reform, but he did not attempt to fulfill these ambitions with entirely new laws or rituals, but rather combined old forms in new ways. In particular, his law combined elements of two types of land legislation: leges de modo agrorum and laws assigning plots of land. Tiberius' law was probably written as a lex de modo agrorum to give it broad effect (that is, it would include all types of land), but a commission was elected by the comitia tributa to oversee the enforcement (which was more similar to the foundation of a colony or viritane land allotments). G. believes that the broad powers granted to the commission -- powers usually reserved for praetors, consuls, and censors -- were a result of a second law passed only after Tiberius realized that landowners were not going to comply with his law voluntarily. Considering the outcry that arose when the law was first proposed, it is hard to believe that Tiberius could have been that naive. However, it is significant that the comitia tributa granted these extraordinary powers, since this was to become a hallmark of the late republic: the more democratic assembly took precedence over the less democratic comitia centuriata. G.'s analysis makes it possible to appreciate even more the revolutionary nature of Ti. Gracchus' tribunate.

In the final decades of the late republic land reform took its cue from the Gracchan legislation by granting greater powers to commissioners. Land was scarce, prompting colonies overseas and confiscations at home. The military dynasts of course had a role to play, and the beneficiaries of land reform tended to be veteran soldiers. The "entourage" around a commissioner apparently grew in the late republic to include praefecti, legati, and lesser officials (e.g., finitores, "surveyors," many of whom were of equestrian rank) to whom certain responsibilities were delegated. Under the Rullan land bill, for instance, each decemvir had 20 finitores who could operate under certain conditions without the presence of an elected official. The ten commissioners could act in ten separate areas with their 200 (total) subordinates there to assist them. This, so G. argues, adumbrated the more bureaucratized principate. One wonders, however, whether we might see some of these officials appearing in the middle republic, if only we had better source material. G. concludes that the process of land reform was "rationalized" in the late republic, that is, made more efficient, professional, and specialized.

This book stands as a reminder of the ceremonial nature of Roman politics, although G. misses an opportunity with this book to trace the development of some of these rituals and ceremonies in more detail. For instance, he remarks that as part of the process of rationalization in the late republic augury tended to be replaced by the reading of entrails by haruspices since magistrates were no longer always present at a site. G. concludes: "Despite their apparent conservatism, Roman religious practices did allow for adjustments." Is it possible to examine more of these "adjustments"? Can we pinpoint changes in ceremony under the Gracchi (for instance) that took place alongside the innovations in land reform legislation? However, G. is convincing in his depiction of Roman republican government as being dependent upon "rites and forms," in particular in the interactions between the governors and governed. He also demonstrates clearly the changes that took place in land reform legislation from middle to late republic which further highlight the changes in politics and government during this period. Our picture of republican government is sharper as a result. G. has given those of us who are students of republican history much to be thankful for: he has shown that it is still possible to ask new questions about politics in the Roman republic and examine old ones in a new light.