Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.11.23

Roberta Stewart, Public Office in Early Rome. Ritual Procedure and Political Practice.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 1998.  Pp. 255.  ISBN 0-472-10785-2.  $44.50.  

Reviewed by Peter Cohee, Ohio University (
Word count: 2146 words

L. R. Taylor once called for an "investigation of the use of the lot in Roman politics," adding "[a]nother subject that needs further study is the relation of the lot to religion."1 Except for N. Rosenstein's recent article,2 Roman religious and constitutional history has lacked any such study. Roberta Stewart has now largely satisfied the deficiency. Her thesis is that ritual public sortilege -- an auspice of divine permission -- was not 'merely' ceremonial but was indeed instrumental in the historical articulation of Republican magistracies cum imperio. An examination of sortition therefore helps us understand how the offices of the military tribunes consulari potestate, consuls, and praetors acquired authority and definition at critical points from the fifth through the third centuries B.C., how the ambitions of individuals and clans were subordinated to a developing idea of public duty, and how the hierarchy of Roman magistracies evolved.

S.'s work thus asserts e silentio that the prosopographical method is too narrow and too shallow. That approach tended to treat religion as insignificant in the historical course of events, and it has resulted in negative and often cynical attitudes on this subject. For example, Rosenstein holds that we look in vain for religiosity in Roman public sortition. S.'s method, directly in Taylor's tradition, is to clarify key events by the light of ritual, procedure, and terminology. It could be described in A.D. Momigliano's terms as a reintegration of antiquarianism qua sociology into the proper study of ancient history.3 S. examines how the actor (the magistrate) performs his role (the magistracy) on a stage of religious and political institutions. Individuals make sense only within limits of divine and popular legitimation, and these are finally realized for Roman higher magistrates by the public ritual of the lot. S. thereby vigorously explodes Rosenstein's argument.

S.'s book has a rigid structure: following a general Introduction, there are five chapters, each with its own introduction, three internal sections, and a conclusion; even the chapter titles have a formulaic style. Chapter One, "The Ritually Defined Allotment," establishes the necessary premise that the lot was an auspice, a permission from Iuppiter Optimus Maximus. S. follows Taylor and others in her use of Plautus as a source for terminology and procedure. Her discussion of the significance of the magistrates' drawing of lots before the Capitoline temple of Iuppiter O. M. (22-38) is an excellent addition to other recent studies of the public importance of Roman temples. In a footnote (#26) she gives a concise Forschungsbericht on the curiate law, auspices, imperium, and the procedural steps in the assumption of public office. These topics are much-disputed, and for that reason I would have liked to see S.'s own views on them presented more fully in the main body of her study. Reference to the works of Valeton and von Lübtow is curiously missing here.4 S. concludes the chapter with a lucid presentation of the lot as an augural ritual, but an error must be noted. S. mentions that Ernout derived sors from the verb sero, "to sow" (41). She then proceeds to Norden's study of the Arval Hymn, and attributes to him a like derivation -- surely a slip of the pen, for Norden discusses not sero but rather sino. Also, because S. places some weight on the evidence of Liv. 41. 18. 10 (42), mention of the textual crux would aid the interested reader.5

S. applies the augural basis and the procedure and terminology of the lot in her second chapter, "Parity of Pairs: The Reforms of 444 and 406 B.C." The focus of the first section is the tribuni militum consulari potestate in general and specifically the function of sortition in assigning responsibilities among these magistrates of equal rank but varying number. How to account for the gradual evolution from multiples of officers to pairs, and for provincial assignments among them? Electoral procedure offers no information about degrees of rank among multiples of military tribunes; their imperium and auspicia were absolute. S.'s ingenious technique is to examine cases of magistrates appointed to field and urban commands during the fifth century. From 444 to 406 a pattern emerges in which one tribune remained at Rome to manage city matters while all other tribunes shared campaign duties. After 406 joint provincial commands become the norm. Therefore, she concludes, there was a deliberate move toward a shared command for two officers at a time, and the physical, public drawing of a lot actually created this collegiality of pairs. I would have expected more comment on the original Republican dual praetorship as an antecedent, or some rebuttal of Alföldi's thesis of a primitive dual kingship. One printing correction: "in decemvirs" (57) should read, I assume, "in 451 decemvirs."

In the second section S. turns to sociological aspects of the lot, in particular, how it actually manifested public duty by subordinating the personal ambitions of patrician individuals to public ritual and leadership. The implications of her conclusion are critical to the study of Roman religion during the Republic: that its political function was to permit individuals to excel, but in ways that brought advantage and not harm to the state. Again S. attacks prosopographical theories of faction, though not expressly, by showing that random allotment of assignments distributed power across family lines and actually limited the power of clans. This theme is further developed in the third section, where S. presents evidence for the limitations that allotment imposed in the matter of the triumphs of the military tribunes consulari potestate. Again, the problem is auspical. The admission of plebeians to that office demanded definitions: who possessed auspices and in what degree, or rather, how were they shared? Who could triumph, and under what conditions? S.'s neatly articulated discussion of the spolia opima of Cossus helps to untangle the social and religious complexity of the innovative compromise of the military tribunate.

Chapter 3, "Parity of Individuals: The Reforms of 367 B.C.," concerns the relationship between the three magistrates provided for by the Licinio-Sextian rogation: two who would later be called consuls and one praetor. Our problem is how to reconcile the collegiality of the consular pair on one hand and the independent election and jurisdiction of the praetor on the other with the fact that they were all authorized iisdem auspiciis. S. relies on evidence from the lex Caecilia Didia to maintain her argument for an undifferentiated election of all three curule offices with auspicia and imperium. Her conclusion, that the single patrician praetor with independent, i.e. not collegial, authority was a means by which the patrician aristocracy recovered some of its advantage lost by the admission of plebeians to one of the two collegial offices, is magnified in her erudite discussion of the process by which the independent praetor's imperium was distinguished from that of the paired praetors by the lot and was subsequently attributed especially to urban affairs. This jurisdiction was, orginally, limited by augural and pontifical law to dealing with the Roman people in their status as citizens, within the pomerium, apart from their military status.

I had hoped that S. would introduce here an interesting possibility for she illustrated in her discussion of the military tribunate the emergent pattern of paired magistrates in field commands and a single tribune to manage city affairs. That 5th-century innovation seems to me worth considering, if not as a direct antecedent, at least as an administrative analogue to the Licinio-Sextian provision, for the the lot seems to have been the mode by which to define a new, independent urban jurisdiction in both cases.

Given what has been said about the lot as an auspice, how are we to explain what Mommsen called comparatio, an agreement between colleagues to alter provinces once assigned by lot? It was largely this problem that Rosenstein had attempted to address. S.'s answer, in her fourth chapter, is to establish a history for comparatio, and she has done us a great service thereby. Her analysis of repeated elections of consular pairs, especially patricio-plebeian colleagues, indicates that this informal agreement arose in response, first to the changing social complexion of the aristocracy, second to military emergencies of the early 3rd century, thirdly to ill-defined electoral processes at this stage. Successful colleagues thus found a way to extend their fruitful collaboration. S. demonstrates how this comparatio is then elevated as a political ideal, a representation of transcendent cooperation across family and class lines. Her discussion is very stimulating, but readers should be reminded here of an important fact about the lot as an auspice: a permission from Iuppiter O. M. is not an order; it simply means that he has no objection to a given action at a given time -- though he may of course change his mind. Magistrates once authorized are otherwise free to act as they see fit.

S.'s 5th and final chapter takes on the very difficult subject of praetores minores, that is, the increases to the praetorship c. 242 and c. 227. At issue is how the new duties were recognized by the Senate as distinctly praetorian allotments, and how an hierarchy of offices evolved. S. attacks the problem first with lexicographical methods: what is the meaning and use of peregrinus? The answer presents itself: through deditio, formal surrender, non-Romans and non-citizens were brought under Roman civic jurisdiction, especially during the first war with Carthage. With Roman expansion throughout Italy, by both colonization and conquest, the auspical limitation of ager Romanus was of necessity redefined. This in turn required new terminology and procedure by which to clarify Roman responsibility for subject peoples.

Evidence for the religious dimension of Roman advance comes from Liv. 43. 13. 6, a famous case in which the senate refused to expiate two prodigies because they had occurred on private and peregrine soil respectively. S. could have developed this further. First, a pontifical decree behind the senate's decision should be considered, for a fundamental responsibility of the pontifical college is to decide which prodigies to accept and which not. What, then, might be the sacral, and not augural issue here? Second, why were other prodigies accepted on this occasion expiated by consultation of the libri Sibyllini? Mommsen's seminal work on this case and related matters, as well as the recent study by MacBain, should have been consulted.6

Finally, S. employs what she has exposed about the meaning of peregrinus and evolving Roman attitudes toward non-Roman, non-citizen subjects to explain the gradations of imperium and auspicium involving the lesser praetors. Simply put, "conquered peregrini counted for less," thus the peregrine lot indicated a lesser responsibility to the praetor to whom it was assigned. This distinction in turn led to the later formalization of an hierarchy of Roman public offices. It is an elegant solution, and sure to incite debate.

This is an excellent, erudite book, but not an easy one, nor is it for the general reader. I mean no reproach by that. Rather, S. is to be thanked for undertaking a difficult set of problems that have long needed explanation and for opening up new grounds for exploration, instead of blowing whither the winds of academic fashion lead (as an Ovidian once seriously advised me to do) to write on a "central" (read "safe") topic. S.'s style is dissertationesque: she tells you what she is going to say, then says it, then tells you what she has said, often repeatedly. But that is easily forgiven in a dissertation book, and in truth, because her rather arcane subject requires close scrutiny, these comments return the reader to the argument's broader perspective. She has also had to create a terminology for the subject, which makes her writing at times densely fugue-like, inducing momentary vertigo: "the lot established a collegial relationship as a concrete relationship of a shared lot" (71), or "The praetorian lot emerges as a ... ritual definition ..., and the absence of a particular auspical definition underscores the ... ritual definition supplied by the lot, which ... was itself a ritual definition" (97). And there are some oddities of citation. For example, S. seems not to have consulted the first modern study of this subject, that of J. Rubino.7 True, it is old and often erroneous, but its priority should be acknowledged in a work intended for the specialist. A real puzzle is that she cites only the first (1902) edition of Wissowa's Religion und Kultus der Römer; since she can't have been unaware of the second edition of this standard reference, I wonder what her reasons were in this choice. Much of the work is speculative, evident by expressions on nearly every page such as "procedure suggests" or "terminology reflects." But S.'s control of the material, especially her historical presentation of it, solidly support her premises. She has demonstrated that ritual and terminology, being relatively conservative and permanent, are a sure track through the complex evolution of Roman public offices.


1.   Roman Voting Assemblies from the Hannibalic War to the Dictatorship of Caesar (Ann Arbor 1966) 73.
2.   "Sorting out the Lot in Republican Rome," AJP 116 (1995) 43-75.
3.   "Ancient History and the Antiquarian," Journal of the Warburg and Courtald Institutes 13 (1950) 285-315 [= Studies in Historiography, New York, 1966, 2-23], and The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography, Berkeley, 1990, esp. 54-79, "The Rise of Antiquarian Research."
4.   I. M. J. Valeton, "De modis auspicandi Romanorum," Mnemosyne 18 (1890) at 219-233, U. von Lübtow, "Die Lex Curiata de Imperio," ZSS 69 (1952) 154-171.
5.   P. Jal, ed., vol. 31, Paris, 1971, p. 152 n. 3 (following Valeton).
6.   "Epistula de Romanorum prodigiis ad Ottonem Jahnium," in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 7, Berlin, 1912, 168-174; B. MacBain, Prodigy and Expiation: A Study in Religion and Politics in Ancient Rome, Brussels, 1982.
7.   Untersuchungen über römische Verfassung und Geschichte, Cassel, 1839, esp. 13-106.

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