Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.03.15

Jean-Michel David, La République romaine de la deuxième guerre punique à la bataille d'Actium 218-31. Crise d'une aristocratie.   Paris:  Éditions du Seuil, 2000.  Pp. 304.  ISBN 2-02-023959-0.  FF 48.00.  



Reviewed by Nathan Rosenstein, Department of History, The Ohio State University (Rosenstein.1@osu.edu)
Word count: 3175 words

This is a book for general readers. It briefly recounts the principal military and political events of the middle and late Republic and describes the period's main social, economic, and cultural developments. David has divided his book into nine chapters, the first of which examines some basic structures of Roman political culture in the late third century, explaining how these produced the high degree of cohesion within the citizen community and its aristocracy that was one of the two bases for the Republic's power in this period. The second of these is the subject of the next chapter, the Republic's control of Italy's demographic and economic wealth. The chapter also covers the events of the Hanniblic war and its effects on Roman rule in the peninsula. Chapter three discusses the impact of Hellenism at Rome and the challenges it posed for the aristocracy's cohesion and traditional means of political control. The social and economic consequences of the Republic's conquests in the second century are the subject of the following chapter, while the fifth takes up their political consequences, particularly as mainfested in the careers of the Gracchi and the rise of the populares. The age of Marius and Sulla comes next, followed by a chapter on Pompey, taking the story down to the eve of the civil war. That topic and Caesar's monarchy comprise the eighth chapter, while the ninth, surveying the events leading to Octavian's final victory, concludes the work.

Few readers of this review will be unacquainted with these topics, and few are likely to recommend a volume in French to students unless they are fortunate enough to teach where a reading knowledge of that language among undergraduates can be assumed. The chief interest of a work like this for scholars therefore will lie less in its pedagogical usefulness or in any new story it has to tell than in whether its author can offer a fresh and insightful retelling of an old one.

It is difficult for any review to do justice to the variety and complexity of topics that a work of this scope attempts to cover, particularly since, with only a little over 250 pages in which to do so, it must touch on most of them only briefly. Perhaps the best way to convey an idea of what this book is about is to begin by setting out what its author has elected to leave out. Gone is the usual discussion of the sources. Absent, too, is any extensive narrative of military or political events. These are treated summarily at best. Attention to diplomacy or foreign policy is minimal, and little is offered in the way of analysis of these events or of politics--at least in so far as the motives of individual actors and the implications of their actions are concerned. Even a formal description of the Republican constitution is lacking; the reader picks up its outlines only gradually along the way.

Instead, David's central preoccupation is political culture and cultural change, especially within the Roman aristocracy, under the impact of forces stemming from the consequences of its conquest of an empire. The book's main novelty is its attempt to link an account of the fall of the Republic and the establishment of the monarchy to changes in aristocratic ideology that altered the basis of authority and power at Rome; to the growing unification of the Mediterranean under Rome's rule, which brought new actors into an enlarged civic sphere and political arena; and to the failure of traditional frameworks of aristocratic thought and morality to find answers to the problems raised by the economic and social consequences that came with the acquisition of an empire. Solutions could only come from Hellenistic models of thought and political action, but these undercut the unity within Rome's ruling class that arose from a common stock of traditional values. The tensions this contradiction engendered thus led inevitably to the establishment of a Hellenistic type of universal monarchy that alone could impose the necessary changes in order to solve the problems.

Chapters three and four attempt to lay all this out in detail. In the first, D. claims that Rome's conquest of the Hellenistic East entailed the conquest of its political and intellectual models as well, and that the latter imposed on the Romans the obligation to surpass them or lose part of their legitimacy. However, any attempt to incorporate these Hellenistic models into Republican political culture challenged the traditional values on which aristocratic culture, and hence aristocratic cohesion, were founded. The central problem in Rome's relations with the Greeks was in D.'s view the fact that Greek political thought was intellectually dominant and threatened to impose itself on the conquerors, meaning that the Romans either had to submit to a general model of conduct in their relations with the East that they did not control or impose their own upon the Greeks and so alienate them.

But far more critical was the transformation that Hellenistic models and values wrought on Roman aristocratic culture itself. Hellenistic culture became a tool for aristocrats to celebrate their success and superiority and thereby profoundly affected the balance within a highly competitive aristocracy. These effects arose not only from the varying degrees of access to Greek culture that differing degrees of wealth and aptitude among individual aristocrats produced, but, more importantly, because Greek philosophy allowed the legitimacy of the traditional virtues that justified aristocratic superiority to be called into question. D. cites, tellingly, the embassy of the philosophers in 155 B.C., when Carneades held an audience of young aristocrats enthralled by arguing in praise of justice one day and then disparaging it the next. In doing so, D. emphasizes, he demonstrated that the truth of a proposition did not depend on the authority of the person who spoke it, since the same man had put forward contradictory but equally just cases. Such an exhibition could not but affect the definition of authority at Rome and hence that of power, since orders and law traditionally had taken their force from the qualities and superiority inherent in those who held power. Hellenistic science, philosophy, and rhetoric became henceforth indispensable to those who sought to rule at Rome.

Cato's fight against Greek culture, therefore, was a defense of the traditional values that formed the moral basis of aristocratic cohesion and superiority. But ultimately, he succeeded only in putting in place an ideal of civic equilibrium founded on a system of norms established by Romulus and his immediate successors. In so doing, he was in part responsible for the fact that no other solution to the problems of the Republic ever appeared than the restoration of a lost past or the return of a refounding monarch. Despite his efforts, senators were constrained henceforth to become rhetors, philosophers or princes if they did not want to be viewed with contempt by the Greeks, because in the new conditions created by Rome's conquests, political representations rested on a common ideological system whose ideas of power could only be Hellenistic, particularly in view of the social and economic changes those same conquests introduced, which the following chapter takes up.

This chapter surveys many of the usual topics--the influx of wealth and slaves into Italy and the Roman state's increasing role in economic developments within the Mediterranean and especially Italy through its control of vast tracts of ager publicus. Changes in industry are approached through the evidence of architectural remains and pottery. Agricultural innovation in D.'s view occurred mainly in livestock grazing and in wine production. The social changes attendant on these developments were mainly the influx of slaves, with their potential for revolt. D. is cautious in assessing their impact on free peasants. In many regions, agricultural changes made little difference in their lives, but in those areas affected by transhumance, the presence of grazers created conflicts with farmers. In areas where villas produced for the market, their presence did not necessarily displace smallholders. However, various pressures could reduce independent small farmers to the status of sharecroppers, and the general tendency was towards a weakening of traditional rural structures, as evident in a general trend towards rural depopulation and migration into towns. Gracchan legislation was, at least in part, aimed at restricting this urban growth. Despite these attempts, however, the increasing population of Rome, especially, created conditions in which violence could become an important factor in political life.

More interesting are D.'s views on the increasing integration of Italy into the wider Mediterranean world as a result of Rome's conquests. He cites the emigration of colonists overseas as well as Italian businessmen to the East where they eagerly adopted Hellenistic culture. These transplants then became the conduit through with these Hellenistic models made their way back to Latium, Campania, and Samnium, as revealed by both monumental and domestic architecture in these regions. The adoption of these models was tied to local aristocrats' changing strategies of representing their social superiority and hence to the self-promotion necessary to rise in their local civic hierarchies. Elsewhere in Italy and in parts of the West, Roman models predominated, but, since the Republic's aristocracy itself was in the process of integrating Hellenistic models into its own public images, a synthesis resulted that began to pave the way for eventual cultural unification to accompany the growing economic and political integration that the conquest had introduced. Yet as these processes enlarged the numbers of those with a stake in political events in Rome to include Italians as well as provincials, they became also the source of many of the tensions that shaped political conflicts in the second century in the Roman community.

While much of the picture that these two chapters present is provocative and, broadly speaking, correct, the book runs into problems in the narrative chapters that follow, where it is very difficult to see that this cultural transformation had much relevance to political events. Apart from the possibility that Sparta's kleroi provided the inspiration for making the allotments that Tiberius Gracchus' land law distributed inalienable, few scholars would concede that Hellenistic political philosophy played much of a role in the formulation of either his or his brother's programs. D.'s discussion of the populares is for the most part conventional; Hellenistic models play very little role here or in the dominance of the Metelli in the last decades of the century, which was founded on military glory in D.'s telling, not their command of rhetoric or dialectic. And although Marius did achieve unprecedented prestige and, briefly, dominance at Rome, D. offers little beyond his Syrian priestess and a drinking cup like Bacchus' to suggest that Hellenistic models were decisive in shaping Marius' public image. Indeed, D. fails to note that when Marius wanted to advertise his achievements, this took the form of a temple to Honos and Virtus (ILS 59), two attributes with impeccably Roman pedigrees. If he sought to identify himself with a predecessor, this was not Alexander but M. Claudius Marcellus. Likewise, it strains credulity to imagine that his command of rhetoric and political philosophy enabled Sulla to claw his way to the top at Rome, even if he did adopt the pose of Romulean refounder of the city once he got there.

More generally, while no one would deny that rhetoric became more sophisticated at Rome under the influence of Greek teachers and models during the late Republic, it is difficult to accept the implication of D.'s argument that its importance earlier was minimal because magistrates wielding their auctoritas simply instructed the citizens how to vote. Against this stands not only the career of the elder Cato, but even earlier that of L. Caecilius Metellus, cos. 251 & 247, who wished, according to his son's eulogy, primarium bellatorem esse, optimum oratorem etc. (Pliny NH 7.140). Nor, conversely, can one claim that traditional auctoritas has lost its clout even as late as 90 B.C. when a tribune of the plebs rashly prosecuted the princeps senatus M. Aemilius Scaurus. The latter famously responded: Varius Severus Sucronensis Aemilium Scaurum regia mercede corruptum imperium populi Romani prodidisse ait, Aemilius Scaurus huic se adfinem esse culpae negat; utri creditis? whereupon the jurors shouted Varius down. (Val. Max. 3.7.8 cf. Quint. Inst. 5.12.10). Indeed, given the well-known continuity of the nobilitas' hold on the consulship throughout the period this volume covers (see Badian, Chiron 20 (1990) 371-413), one would be hard pressed to find evidence to support the claim that bases of aristocratic power in the late Republic were much different than those of the late third century, which D. rightly identifies as great wealth, "symbolic capital", by which he means the perception of conformity to a higher standard of conduct and system of moral values that formed the basis for an individual's claim to high office and authority, and their wide-ranging networks of dependents.

Also troubling in a book designed to introduce readers to middle and late Republican history is the teleological cast to D.'s treatment of political events. D. has his eye firmly fixed on the eventual emergence of Augustus' monarchy out of the contradictions he sees as besetting the Republic. Hence his narrative tends simply to present a series of figures who successively approximate more and more closely the image of the first emperor. D. fails to convey any sense that the process by which the monarchy emerged was to any degree tentative or contingent. One would never know from D.'s discussion of the events surrounding Marius' sixth consulate, for example, how unstable Marius' position was at this point, or how successful the senate was at using his desire for acceptance and stature within its ranks to destroy the threat that Saturninus and Glaucia posed to its control of the res publica. Once the broad outlines of the great contradictions that led to the necessity of a monarchy have been sketched out, the petty political events which embodied them and through which they were played out become a kind of afterthought.

The crisis of the Republic, in D.s' view, gradually developed basically because the reproduction of aristocratic dominance could no longer occur. It was no longer possible for a dozen or two families to share all the dignity and magistracies among themselves and so create an equilibrium within their ranks. The enlargement of the political sphere to include all of Italy as a result of the political, social and economic integration of the empire brought about the involvement of new actors with a stake in decisions taken in Rome and the emergence of new forms of communication and actions that took their interests into account. To respond to these challenges required immense resources of wealth, clientage and glory, and only a few could make the attempt. The three most powerful men of the age, Caesar, Crassus and Pompey, had to pool their resources in order to win (210). Yet one leaves D.s' chapter on the age of Pompey with little idea of how all these developments are reflected in the specific events he narrates.

Even more disappointing is the lack of any sense of the complexity of the politics in this period. For D., the triumvirate is Caesar's creation (but cf. Dio 37.56.2, however); it dominates politics during Caesar's consulship and thereafter while the optimates must stand by watching helplessly; the death of Crassus in Parthia and Julia in childbirth bring about the inevitable confrontation of two remaining triumvirs. But no one who has studied the political events of this period can be comfortable with so one-dimensional and simplistic an analysis, much less with the possibility that this sort of interpretation will be conveyed to students or the general public. As is well-known, even if Caesar did succeed in ramming through his legislation, his methods alienated public opinion and undercut public support for his partners. The career of Clodius vividly reveals the weakness of Pompey's position in the aftermath of Caesar's consulship, and D.'s failure to offer anything like adequate analyses of his tribunate or the struggle over Cicero's return from exile seriously misleads the unsophisticated reader about the balance of forces in play at this point, even though the key study of Clodius' tribunate was written over thirty years ago (Gruen, Phoenix 20 (1966) 120-130, and see now Tatum, The Patrician Tribune). To be sure, Pompey's stature was unprecedented and his power immense, but he was scarcely so omnipotent as D.'s account would lead a reader to believe. But for the existence of a figure as talented and ruthless as Caesar to aid him, Pompey might well have gone the way of Marius as the aristocracy cut him down to size following his return from the East and reestablished an equilibrium within its ranks. Likewise to revive the old canard that a clash between Pompey and Caesar became inevitable following the deaths of Crassus and Julia is to overlook nearly thirty years of careful study of these events.

All in all, therefore, D. presents an largely conventional picture of the crisis of the Roman Republic: new conditions resulting from the second century conquests upset the equilibrium within the aristocracy and set off a ruthless struggle among them; the Gracchi introduce new forms of political competition; great military leaders emerge who monopolize all political resources and escape the control of their peers. Despite their attempts to impose constitutional settlements, however, they cannot erase their examples from the consciousness of their contemporaries, and these spawn imitators until a single figure emerges to establish a new equilibrium with himself at its apex.

Despite having many interesting and insightful things to say about political culture, D. fails to integrate them well into the political narrative to offer an innovative synthesis. But perhaps the biggest disappointment in a work that offers a cultural approach to the political history of the Roman Republic is its failure to think outside the conventional narratological box. In this regard, it is interesting to note that the volume to precede D.'s in this series, Rome avant l'impérialism by Catherine Rouveret, which is in preparation, seems to intend to take its story down only to the late fourth century or perhaps the early third. But certainly Roman imperialism began long before D's starting point of 218, as Harris showed a quarter century ago; was it so unproblematic prior to that date? Could it be that D. or his editors have fallen under the spell, ironically, of the very Catonianism D. so successfully deconstructs in his text, projecting an idealized past onto the period prior to 218, against which all change is necessarily decline? The question goes unasked, did such a golden age of perfect equilibrium exist, as D's periodization seems to imply, or does our ignorance of internal developments in the third century only make it seem so. Millar some time ago raised doubts (JRS 79 (1989) 138-150), and a truly innovative survey of middle and late Republican history might begin by questioning the convention of a neat before-and-after division at the second Punic war that our lack of Livy's second decade has long led us to take for granted.

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