Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.3.36

Francisco Pina Polo, Contra Arma Verbis: Der Redner vor dem Volk in der später römischen Republik, trans. E. Liess. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1996. Pp. 216. ISBN 3-515-06854-6.

Reviewed by Craige Champion, Department of Classics, Allegheny College,

"The Roman constitution was a screen and a sham." For Syme, the Roman republic was the rule of a narrow senatorial oligarchy whose power rested upon ancestral glories, landed wealth, and the political alliances of the great aristocratic houses. And until some fifteen years ago, this view of the political realities of the Roman republic, well-illustrated in the prosopographical studies of Gelzer, Münzer and Scullard, dominated the field. In the Roman republic we seemed to have a classical verification of Robert Michels' conception of the inevitable "Iron Law of Oligarchy" in political societies.1

In recent historical analyses of classical antiquity, however, there has been an increasing emphasis on popular elements in questions of politics and power. In the case of classical Athens, Josiah Ober's Mass and Elite explores the symbolic meaning of Athenian political discourse and maintains that the demos controlled Athenian political ideology. The fora for political discourse, the assembly, lawcourts, and theater, mediated the tensions between mass and elite, mixing the potentially conflicting values of egalitarianism and aristocratic elitism in order to achieve societal consensus. The Athenian democracy appropriated and transformed aristocratic values, and the populace in this face-to-face society was the locus of political power.2

We have seen a parallel movement in studies of the Roman republic, led by Fergus Millar's assault on the communis opinio on the senatorial oligarchy's stranglehold on Roman political life. Basing his arguments on Polybius' analysis of the Roman constitution and the primacy of oratorical skill in the Roman aristocrat's requisite arsenal, Millar calls for a radical reevaluation of the traditional interpretations of Roman republican politics and society. Polybius may have been right after all, and we may be able to speak legitimately of a real democratic or popular force in the Roman republican state.3

Certainly it is more difficult to make the case for genuinely democratic elements in republican Rome than in classical Athenian politics, and Pina Polo provides a good comparative analysis of the Roman republic and democratic Athens that underscores the severe restrictions on popular sovereignty in the former (8-33, esp. 8-12, 23-25). The formal structure of the Roman governmental apparatus certainly appears to have been inimical to the political expression of the popular will. Although the popular assemblies elected magistrates and theoretically decided on all important matters of legislation and foreign policy, the timocratic, hierarchical structure of the centuriate assembly (cf. Cic. Rep. 2.39-40; Liv. 1.43.11), and the fact that the plebs urbana was huddled into the four urban tribes in the tribal assembly, and therefore could not outweigh the 31 rural tribes comprising the landed elite, seem to have assured the political domination of the rich.

Recently, however, Alexander Yakobson, focusing on legislation against ambitus and the politics of largesse in the late republic, has argued that popular electoral power was greater in the centuries than most scholars have allowed. He questions the assumptions that all those registered in the first property class in the centuriate assembly were indeed wealthy and that the first voting century and the century of equites routinely voted the same way. As concerns the tribal assemblies, there is some evidence that the censors did not always thoroughly perform their task of registering every citizen who moved from the country into the city in an urban tribe. A substantial number of indigent city-dwellers still registered in their original rural tribes would be consistent with Ti. Gracchus' appeal to the urban plebs in 133 and with Dionysius of Halicarnassus' statement that the centuriate assembly was controlled by the respectable classes, whereas the tribal assemblies were composed of homeless artisans (4.16-21; 7.59; 8.6). Conversely, Cicero states that at times the rural tribes were poorly represented (Sest. 109). Ludi and munera further compromise the idea of an unshakeable oligarchical control of Roman politics: they provided outlets for the expression of popular sentiment and served as barometers of public opinion, which the governing class could not afford to ignore (cf. Cic. Sest. 106). And, of course, in the mid- and late-republic, the leges tabellariae and a swelling urban population broke down the traditional mechanisms of Roman patronage.4

Concerning legislative comitia, the cumulative effect of all of this for the picture of a viable democratic element in Roman republican politics should not be overestimated (though we should not discount the important extra-constitutional factors of violence and obstruction in legislative assemblies in the late republic, as stressed by Brunt, Lintott, Nippel and others). The popular assemblies formally were the final arbiter in important legislative matters, but there was no opportunity for extended deliberation and debate, the populace possessed only a simple yes/no vote, and there are very few instances where the people rejected a magisterial rogatio. And of these, we find that some are of the fourth century BCE and of dubious historicity, whereas the remainder involve senatorial dissension and resultant confusion in the comitia. Reviewing this evidence, Egon Flaig recently has denied that the comitia were an Entscheidungsorgan, maintaining that they are better understood as a Konsensorgan. Consequently, comitial approval of magisterial rogations constituted Konsensritual.5

Comitial elections and the well-attested frequency of electoral bribery allow greater scope for speculation on democratic forces in Roman republican political life. Yakobson has argued that largesse distributed vulgo or passim, the modest sums of some largitiones, evidence for split votes of the centuries, and a centuriate assembly based on property assessments which imperial success and resultant inflation had eroded, all suggest that in the late republic the lower orders did matter in comitial elections and that their votes were worth buying. Yet, to my mind, none of this invalidates Lintott's plausible suggestion that electoral bribery of the poor could advance the station of local leaders of tribes, collegia, pagi, or vici. And this purchased popularity could exert pressure on the local magnate to vote for the benefactor of his constituency. If this was democracy, then it was democracy of a very indirect variety.6 Moreover, the populace voted for personalities, not political platforms, and Pina Polo points out that the sociologist's necessary preconditions for social movements were absent in late republican Rome (135-136). In the public addresses which preceded popular assemblies, "democracy" lay in the political tactics of those possessing the privilege of addressing the populace, in the dynamic interrelationship between orator and audience, and in politicians' concessions to real social needs, perhaps often granted as random by-products of their drive for political ascendancy.

A central concern, therefore, in any consideration of the democratic aspects of the Roman republic must be the prominence of the orator-politician. The crucial importance of oratorical skill among the Roman elite seems to run counter to the picture of an "Iron Law of Oligarchy" in republican Rome. If the populace was little more than a weak, inarticulate and easily manipulated mass, how are we to explain the Roman aristocrat's emphasis on oratorical ability and accomplishment (cf. Quint. 2.16.8)? And here we must look beyond formal governmental structures. The orator-politician could display his skills in the criminal courts and laudationes funebres, but the contiones constituted the oratoris maxima scaena. And in this forum, where did the locus of power lie? Pina Polo's book provides an incisive analysis of these addresses to the populus and constitutes an important contribution to the broad question of "democratic Rome."

Pina Polo's project is to analyze oratory before the Roman populace as an element of political strategy as well as the means by which speeches reached the plebs and influenced popular perceptions (5). His study suggests that the contio underscored the Roman social hierarchy and the predominance of the Roman aristocracy. This predominance was reinforced by the physical space in which these addresses to the people occurred: Roman speakers, unlike their Greek counterparts, spoke from an elevated position (23-25). Popular deference to magisterial proposals was overdetermined by the speaker's auctoritas and dignitas, as well as by the magistrate's prayer before the contio, a facet of the important use of Roman religion as an aristocratic coercive tool (cf. Polyb. 6.56.6-12, and references assembled at 19 n. 51). In Rome, freedom of speech equalled the potestas contionandi, which was the preserve of the magistrate. Privati had to be invited to speak at contiones, most of these were themselves ex-magistrates, and they spoke ex inferiore loco (34-38). Public address was a privilege of the elite (although I would like to see a more in-depth discussion of the centurion Sp. Ligustinus and the contio of 171: 34-35 and n. 107, 44 n. 146). Magistrates or select privati, as public speakers, acted as liaison between Senate and people, but this information-canal, according to Pina Polo, was unidirectional, from elite to mass. The contio was a means of senatorial self-representation and reinforcement of the status quo (22).

Yet addresses to the populace constituted the most important of political arenas. Solicitation of popular good-will was an important, if indirect, means of establishing definite collective opinions which could pay rich political dividends, as in the case of Marius' opposition to Metellus and subsequent election to the consulate (44). One of Catiline's greatest disadvantages was his inability to address the populace at the critical juncture (44-48), and contiones could set public opinion for a proper iudicium publicum, as in the case of Milo (51-52). Tribunes initiated roughly fifty-percent of known contiones in the late republic (52), and the transitiones ad plebem of Clodius, Sulpicius Rufus, and P. Cornelius Dolabella attest to the power of the contio as a political weapon (55-56).

Pina Polo considers the contio as part of the significant changes resulting from the political turbulence of the late republic. This was a time of increasing specialization, but neither the legal expert nor the field commander could dispense with oratorical skill (56-64). Many Romans traveled to Greece in order to study rhetoric in this period (66 n. 8), which also witnessed the beginnings of formal Latin rhetorical instruction. This learning, according to Pina Polo, opened new avenues to political power through the iudicia publica. He views the debate on Latin rhetorical training as in part a struggle for political power: the censorial edict of 92 was an attempt to stave off the threat of the novi to wrest the res publica away from the nobilitas (65-93). This section may well prove to be the most controversial part of Pina Polo's book, and he fails to consider Gruen's very different reading of the edict of 92 as an index of the triumphant Roman assimilation of Hellenism, with little political importance.7

Clodius must serve as the model of the new politician in the last generation of the republic, and the constant which runs throughout his tribunician and aedilician activities in the 50s is his courting of the plebs urbana. In this decade the contiones reached their highest political significance (129). The use of subrostrani and susurratores and the organization of the collegia were developed and implemented for political purposes as never before, and the lex Licinia de sodaliciis of 55 attests to the efficacy of Clodius' tactics. Yet the intensity of the political mobilization of the urban populace faded after Clodius' death; in the 50s the comitia returned members of the old noble houses to the highest offices,8 and the plebs was incapable of sustained political commitment and apathetic towards the issues that mattered to the governing class, such as the campaign to restore tribunician powers in the 70s or the response to the tyrannicides (140-150).

In any event, the Roman revolution was not accomplished in the capital; the pernicious alliance of charismatic general and dependent soldier led to the end of republican government. Oratory was a weak defense against the politics of force. This historical fact is shockingly and gruesomely underscored by the image of Cicero's severed head on display on the rostra (Sen. Suas. 6.20-21; Dio, 47.8), and the orator-politician's plea, cedant arma togae (Pis. 73), was overtaken by the historical forces of the line of great warlords from Marius to Octavian. Yet even in the republic's final spasms, oratory played a key role, and Pina Polo has some good observations on the decided advantage of Octavian's presence at Rome in his struggles against Sextus Pompeius and then Antony. Through public address and a masterful propaganda campaign against Antony's character and motivation, Octavian was able to forge a solid base of support among the urban populace (162-169).

Pina Polo's book builds upon his earlier studies on civil and military contiones. The work concludes with a series of useful appendices on privati and magistrates in contiones, and it is translated from the Spanish in a crisp and straightforward German prose for this edition of the series, Heidelberger Althistorische Beiträge und Epigraphische Studien. Flaig (93 n. 45) supplements Pina Polo's bibliography with some of the earlier literature on the contio.

Contra Arma Verbis and Demokratie in Rom? should help to sharpen the focus of the fashionable debate on "democratic Rome." Mommsen saw a progressive deterioration in the Roman republic through the demise of a legitimate popular sovereignty tempered by superior ministerial authority, an increase in direct, unrestrained popular control which could be measured by the expansion of the right of provocatio, and the governing classes' reactionary measure of the senatus consultum ultimum. Although Mommsen's interpretation of Roman republican history may tell us more about nineteenth-century German liberal thought and the "liberal historiography of revolution" than it does about historical realities in the last generations of the republic, he rightly observed that the ultimate responsibility for the dissolution of republican government lay with the senatorial aristocracy.9 The plebs Romana could only follow the lead of its political leaders, and its political vision was of restricted horizons.10 Recent studies of Roman republican politics, on the other hand, have demonstrated that the model of an "Iron Law of Oligarchy" simply will not do and that we need a more nuanced approach to the potentially explosive interaction and complex political symbiosis of mass and elite in republican Rome.11 Yet notwithstanding these refinements of our understanding of Roman politics, terms such as democracy, democratic and democratization are perhaps best left out of historical analyses of the Roman republic.


1. R. Syme, The Roman Revolution2 (1952) 15. R. Michels, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, trans. E. and C. Paul (Glencoe, Ill. 1915, repr. 1949).

2. J. Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens (Princeton 1989). The classic statement remains M. I. Finley, "Athenian Demagogues," Past and Present 21 (1962) 3-24; see also P. A. Rahe, "The Primacy of Politics in Classical Greece," AHR 89 (1984) 265-293.

3. F. Millar, "The Political Character of the Classical Roman Republic, 200-151 B.C.," JRS 74 (1984) 1-19; id., "Politics, Persuasion and the People before the Social War (150-90 B.C.)," JRS 76 (1986) 1-11; id., "Political Power in Mid-Republican Rome: Curia or Comitium?," JRS 79 (1989) 138-150. See now the overview by M. Jehne in Demokratie in Rom? Die Rolle des Volkes in der Politik der römischen Republik. Historia Einzelschr. 96 (Stuttgart 1995) 1-9, and 1 n. 4 for earlier representations of a "democratic Rome."

4. For Yakobson's arguments on popular autonomy in the centuriate assembly, see "Petitio et Largitio: Popular Participation in the Centuriate Assembly of the Late Republic," JRS 82 (1992) 32-52, and 32 n. 2 for the traditional view. On the tribal assemblies, see P. A. Brunt, "The Roman Mob," Past and Present 35 (1966) 3-27, esp. 6-7. For property-owning freedmen registered in rural tribes before 169, see L. R. Taylor, Party Politics in the Age of Caesar (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1964) 54; cf. E.S. Gruen, The Last Generation of the Roman Republic (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1974) 363 and nn. 14-17. On the voting power of rural plebs, see Sall. Iug. 73.6. On changing patterns in Roman patronage in the late republic, see the succinct comments of A. Wallace-Hadrill, "Patronage in Roman Society: From Republic to Empire," in Patronage in Ancient Society, ed. A. Wallace-Hadrill (London and New York 1989) 63-87 at 69-71.

5. E. Flaig, "Entscheidung und Konsens. Zu den Feldern der politischen Kommunikation zwischen Aristokratie und Plebs," in Demokratie in Rom?, 77-127, esp. 77-84; 80-81 and n. 13 for discussion of eight instances of the plebs rejecting magisterial rogationes.

6. A. Lintott, "Electoral Bribery in the Roman Republic," JRS 80 (1990) 1-16 at 11, and Flaig, 104 n. 71; cf. Yakobson, 43: "Now it is true that popularity, as well as unpopularity, can be contagious; the attitude of the lower orders towards a candidate could 'spill over' into the higher strata and affect his standing there." See now M. Jehne, "Die Beeinflussung von Entscheidungen durch 'Bestechung': Zur Funktion des Ambitus in der römischen Republik," in Demokratie in Rom?, 51-76, who sees ambitus as a ritualized variety of conventional Roman patronage; cf. Flaig, 89-91.

7. E.S. Gruen, Studies in Greek Culture and Roman Policy (Leiden 1990) 179-192, and 184 n. 117 for other scholars who take a line similar to Pina Polo's.

8. See Gruen, 121-161, on consular elections in this period. Pina Polo, 183, for Clodius' magisterial contiones.

9. See J.F. McGlew, "Revolution and Freedom in Theodor Mommsen's Römische Geschichte," Phoenix 40 (1986) 424-445.

10. Cf. Gruen, 444: "Mobs participated as adherents of politicians, not as advocates of class interest. The plebs was divided and fragmented, not a unit."

11. P.A. Brunt, The Fall of the Roman Republic and Related Essays (Oxford 1988), is indispensable; see North's review article in JRS 79 (1989) 151-156.