Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.10.9

Gary Forsythe, The Historian L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi and the Roman Annalistic Tradition. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1994. Pp. xi + 552. ISBN 0-8191-9742-4.

Reviewed by Gary D. Farney, Bryn Mawr College/American Academy in Rome.

This monograph, representing the revised dissertation of the author, is an extensive and erudite commentary on the extant fragments of the Roman annalist L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi, consul in 133 BC,1 censor in 120. Unfortunately, only about a dozen or so of the 45 surviving fragments of this important work (to which F[orsythe] plausibly adds three more) are at all substantial in length. But, as the title suggests, F. also attempts to put Piso's Annales into a historiographic background, specifically at the head of the Roman annalistic tradition. The book is arranged into five chapters, the first two dealing with Piso's family, career, and historiographic context (53 pages), and the remaining three consisting of the commentary on the fragments themselves (355 pages!). Finally, there is an appendix with a very useful collection of the ancient testimonia of the life of Piso and the fragments themselves, accompanied by F.'s own translations of them, as well as a thorough index and extensive bibliography. The book's only introduction is in a very short "Preface and Acknowledgements" (three pages), after which F. dives right into Piso's family and life in Chapter One.

Previously, the Calpurnii Pisones of the third and second centuries had not been thoroughly studied; Münzer's RE articles on the Calpurnii, being some of his earliest ones, were unfortunately very short, and an article on the family by D.C. Earle was written with the specific purpose of working the Pisones into one of Scullard's political/familial alliances.2 F.'s history of this interesting family is much appreciated, and some highlights from his discussion follows. F. plausibly suggests that the family's Etruscan origins explain its military service in Etruria during the Hannibalic War and consequent introduction into Roman political life. He also contributes to the debate on the lex Calpurnia of 149, a law promulgated by the Annalist himself during his tribunate which in effect created Rome's first standing criminal court, charged solely with investigating charges of provincial extortion. Since Piso's law sought only simple restitution from the prosecuted, some historians have seen the measure as merely a token effort by the Roman aristocracy to police itself, and a guarantee that no one else could try to police it instead. F., however, argues that Piso knew that simple restitution was the most likely way to guarantee conviction and to get something back for the provincials. In support F. reminds us that after over a hundred years of various legislation concerning charges de repetundis that Augustus returned to simple restitution for punishment.

However, F. does leave some things about the family uninvestigated. He does not really discuss interrelations between the various, successful Calpurnii Pisones -- especially between the Annalist and his contemporary relatives, the coss. of 148, 139 and 135 -- and the other contemporary branch of the Calpurnii, the Bestiae (e.g. L. Calpurnius Bestia, cos. 112, who gets only a very short mention in a footnote [23 n. 60]). F. also does not try to explain the incredible success of the Calpurnii in the second half of the second century (i.e. five consulships between 148 and 133 after only one previous consular ancestor). Finally, it would have been useful if F. had given an account of how the Pisones fared after the great political success of the Annalist, and how his literary success may have affected his family's fortunes, if at all.

Chapter Two begins with a discussion of Piso's possible education and the intellectual climate of Rome in the second century. The (self-)characterization of the Annalist as a stern moralist (strikingly similar to Cato the Censor) becomes evident in this chapter. F. argues persuasively that Piso wrote after his censorship, so probably from 120 to 111. F. spends a great deal of this chapter (53-73) arguing reasonably (against B. Frier especially) that the Annales Maximi were used by the authors of the late 100s (and so by Piso), and thus entered into the tralatician mainstream; less convincing is his idea that the Annales Maximi themselves contained some literary embellishments (69).

One worrisome tendency first emerges in this chapter and continues into the 'Commentary' chapters. F. often tries to claim literary innovations for Piso which simply cannot be proven with our current evidence; F. himself seems aware of this pitfall, but feels it is offset by the fact that, in his opinion, modern scholarship has given too much credit to the 'Greek' history of Fabius Pictor (also extant only in fragmentary form) (x). For instance, he begins Chapter Three by trying to assign a fragment of Piso not assigned to any definite place in the history to the preface because of its moralizing tone (and perceived similarity to Sallust Iug. 2.4); from there he makes the leap that Piso invented putting the antithesis between past and present morality for Roman historiography in a preface (76ff.). To do this he must make the dubious claim that Cato only did this (where we know of) in his speeches, many of which may not have been in the Origines themselves and may not have been in his preface (ibid, and 394).3 F. also claims that Piso developed the pius Aeneas figure for the Romans (which appears in Varro later). But it is uncertain whether in the relevant passage F.'s Frag. 3 belongs to Piso at all (91ff.).

To claim many Pisonian historiographic innovations, F. must also assert that other Roman writers of the same period wrote under Piso's influence, when in fact we usually have no real idea in what sequence each author wrote. In order to say that Piso was the first to include "specific triumphal data", he has to consider C. Sempronius Tuditanus, cos. 129, to have been Piso's successor (50 and 370-71); this is assumed with no argument given. Similarly, F. is led to accept that there were two separate histories by two Fabii Pictores and that a N. Fabius Pictor (a descendant of the more famous writer of Roman history in Greek) wrote a Latin history (completely unmentioned by our sources) as well. This claim comes from the fact that there are citations attributed to a 'N. Pictor' by the ancients, always in Latin. Most modern scholars have explained these as references to a translation into Latin of the famous Pictor's work by a descendant; this, the most common interpretation of 'N. Pictor', also goes unmentioned by F. with no argument given. Rather, F assumes that 'N. Pictor the Latin Historian' is identical to the N. Pictor who was an aequalis of Ser. Fulvius Flaccus, cos. 135 (therefore of Piso himself), described as iuris et litterarum et antiquitatis bene peritus (Cic. Brut. 81) -- a likely description of a writer (or perhaps even a translator). Yet F. accepts that this man is also the monetalis of the same name who minted in the early to mid-120s (see Crawford, RRC I 291-292, #268). This cannot be right. Why doesn't F. see them as two separate men, perhaps father and son? Because he also wants N. Pictor to succeed Piso, which he can claim if this putative writer is the monetalis. If he is younger than Piso, then F. can assert that historical information which appears in 'N. Pictor' was derived from Piso. For example, in Chapter Three, F. claims that Piso invented the character Amata (well-known from the Aeneid) whose name appears in Piso fr. 6, and whom Servius also found in 'Fabius Pictor' (109ff.). Likewise, the picus Martius, which shows up when the she-wolf is suckling the twins Romulus and Remus, is found in both Piso and "Fabius Pictor". Here F concludes that either: 1) Piso and N. Pictor got it from the Annales Maximi; or 2) someone after Q. Pictor added it to the tradition (Ennius is suggested) (128ff.). The former can be eliminated (without even disparaging the existence of N. Pictor) by calling attention to a coin minted by a Sex. Pompeius (Fostlus?) in the early to mid-130s which clearly shows a picus at the Ruminal fig tree where the wolf and twins are being watched by the shepherd Faustulus (Crawford, RRC I 267-68, #235). As for 2), without the existence of N. Pictor, then the "Greek Pictor" must have been our original literary source.

These objections aside, there can be no doubting the overall achievement in the commentary chapters of this book (Chapters Three to Five). The comments on the specific fragments of Piso are exhaustive and complete; it is much more an encyclopedia than a commentary, more like 48 separate papers concerning early Roman history, often going far beyond just Piso. Some of the highlights: aetiologies of the Asylum of Romulus (132ff.), the Lacus Curtius and Lapis Niger (157ff.), the Di Novensiles (330ff.), and especially the Columna Minucia and Aequimelium (it's not from Sp. Maelius!) (304ff.); the lightning-summoning magic of Numa (197ff.); and the sons of Numa who provided geneaologies for many prestigious Roman families (203ff.). Indeed, that we have more citations about Numa from Piso than any other author may be due to his family's claim to descent from that king (184-185).

The comments on the more historical fragments also do not disappoint. F. cleverly tries to solve the notorious problem of the book-numbering of the history of Valerius Antias by emending Peter Frag.3 (from Pliny), dealing with the Caudine Forks, from libro tertio to LIII (209ff.). And one of the most useful sections of F.'s work is his very sober and clear account of the beginnings of the plebeian tribunate and patrician/plebeian status in modern scholarship (264ff.) (see especially his views on the tradition of Agrippa Menenius leading the plebs to secession on the mons sacer [281ff.]). F. thinks that Piso wrote much on the Samnite Wars, despite the few fragments we have from him on this period, though he grudgingly admits that some debt here must be owed to Fabius Pictor, whose family was directly involved in the events (esp. Fabius Rullianus in the events of 307-306). F.'s history of Roman seapower before 264 is extremely good (355ff.). F. attractively suggests that through Livy, we can see that Piso probably linked the return of Manlius Vulso from Asia in 187 with the Bacchanalian conspiracy suppressed by Sp. Postumius Albinus (385ff.). Oddly, F. sees Piso drawing on "Postumian family history" (391) and friendliness to that family rather than, more obviously, the history of A. Postumius Albinus, cos. 151 (whose history was known in the time of Cato). This perhaps reflects F.'s determination to have Piso as the discoverer of historical information rather than the recipient.

The Appendix which contains the 'Testimonia and Fragments' is excellent. One of F.'s goals was to include more of the text around the fragment than Peter included in his collection for context, and I think that this makes the collection of the fragments particularly useful. The translations provided by F. are of great use for seeing how F. interprets the ancient passages, but sometimes I found myself (inevitably) influenced by them. F uses his own numbering system for the fragments, but thankfully cites the Peter fragment numbers alongside his own. As F. admits, his appendix suffers unavoidably because it lacks a critical apparatus; as a result, Peter (at a minimum) is still needed when dealing with the actual texts.

Despite its shortcomings, this is truly a useful book, destined to be used more as a reference tool and sourcebook, perhaps, than a book one can sit down and read from start to finish. The book is much more than just about one author who only exists only in fragmentary form; it is really a collection of short essays about early Roman history and historiography. One appreciates the scope of this work even more when one considers the logistical problems in researching which the author's blindness must have caused. One can only hope that someone (with as much skill and care) will do the same thing with the other fragmentary historians of the Republic, particularly (to my mind) Licinius Macer. However, it is unlikely that anyone will have the same commitment to thoroughness in approaching these authors, unless F. does it himself.


  • [1] All dates given are BC.
  • [2] F. Münzer, RE (1897) s.v. "Calpurnius" col. 1365 and s.v. "Calpurnius Piso (57ff.)" col. 1374; D.C. Earl, "Calpurnii Pisones in the Second Century BC", Athenaeum N.S. 38 (1960) 283-298.
  • [3] Peter Frag. 119 of Cato (from Servius) clearly shows him comparing contemporary, extravagant dining habits with those of "old Romans"; F. claims that this is from a censorial speech, for no good reason I can see (394). The verb 'ait' in this citation is often used by Servius when introducing Cato's quotes from the Origines (see e.g. Peter Frag. 46, 55, 70, 80).