Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.02.23

Milagros Navarro Caballero, Ségolène Demougin (ed.), Elites hispaniques.   Bordeaux:  Ausonius Publications, 2001.  Pp. 297.  ISBN 2-910023-23-0.  Euro 46.  

Contributors: Alain Tranoy, Géza Alföldy, J.L. Ramírez Sádaba, Sylvie Dardaine, Patrick Le Roux, Jonathan Edmondson, Antonio Caballos Rufino, Robert Etienne, Françoise Mayet, Pierre Gros, M.L. Cancela Ramírez de Arellano, Trinidad Nogales Basarrate, Armin Stylow, Enrique Melchor Gil, Pierre Sillières, Antonio Caballos Rufino, Milagros Navarro Caballero, Françoise des Boscs-Plateaux, Sabine Lefebvre, Antonio Ferreruela Gonzalvo, J.A. Mínguez Morales, and Ségolène Demougin

Reviewed by Leonard Curchin, Department of Classical Studies, University of Waterloo (
Word count: 1853 words

If we accept the premise that the history of the Roman Empire is the history of its ruling classes, then the study of provincial elites assumes an obvious importance; and since the various geographical divisions of the empire had different traditions and conditions, each merits a detailed examination. The local elites of Italy have recently enjoyed such a treatment;1 now the elites of Spain come under the spotlight. This collection of papers, the revised proceedings of a conference held at Bordeaux in December 1998, covers a wide range of social, economic, political and cultural topics involving Spanish elites. Some of the essays consider the Iberian Peninsula as a whole; others deal with a particular province (three papers on Baetica and one on Lusitania) or a particular time period; some examine a particular social grouping (senators; elite women) or a specific city (two papers on Augusta Emerita). All the papers are written in French or Castilian. While these contributions, with their varying scope and interests, have hardly exhausted the subject of Hispanic elites, they provide a useful exposition of the status quaestionis, as well as many new insights and approaches that could profitably be applied in other regions of the empire.

Rather than attempt separate summaries and criticisms of the twenty papers in this volume (a procedure that would interest only specialists), I have structured this review around the four main themes into which the papers are divided, weaving individual papers into the discussion.

The first theme is the originality of the Hispanic elites. By this is meant (as Alföldy explains in his introduction to this section), how did the elites of Spain differ from those of other regions of the Empire, and did they have a distinct evolution? Disappointingly, the first question is really not addressed; there is no comparison of Hispanic elites with those of (say) Gaul or Africa. The contributors to this theme are content to make the unexamined assumption that Spanish notables were sui generis. However, the question of evolution elicits a stronger and differentiated response. For Tranoy, the evolution of the Hispanic elites fits neatly into the cultural context of mare nostrum: inspired by Greco-Roman models, indigenous noblemen adopted a Mediterranean lifestyle. Tracing the evolution of the elite at Augusta Emerita, Ramírez Sádaba finds a bipartite structure, embracing the senators and knights descended from the original Italian colonists as well as a "select minority" of the indigenous elite who provide some of the local magistrates and priests. One may see here a similarity with Corduba, whose foundation comprised Roman settlers and select indigenes. In Baetica, Dardaine feels that a Hispano-Roman elite did not really emerge until the concession of ius Latii by Vespasian, which allowed native elites to acquire Roman citizenship. This somewhat late start had several consequences: the paucity of Julii among the Baetican elite, the relatively small number of Baetican senatorial families (nine families, producing fewer than forty senators), and a similarly small number of equestrians (only four during the Republic, and forty in the Early Empire). Hardly any Spanish senators or equestrians are attested after the third century: is this a crisis of elites or a crisis of sources? Le Roux espouses the reviewer's contention that the cities of Spain and their elites do not "decline" in the Late Empire but disappear from view because of the dearth of literary and epigraphic sources.2 Le Roux sees this as a period of neither continuity nor decline but of adaptation. With regard to the third-century "crisis", he favours a positivist interpretation, downplaying its effects unless they are explicitly attested in Spain. This minimalist approach is a healthy antidote to the laments of widespread disaster in third-century Spain, found in some of the modern literature but unsubstantiated by ancient testimony.

Theme Two is the economic foundation of the power of the Hispanic elites. Such authorities as Finley, Rostovtzeff and Hopkins have famously argued whether elite wealth was based on agriculture or commercial interests. The debate has recently shifted from senatorial wealth to that of local elites, though frankly we have less information on the latter. Edmondson draws an important distinction between the elites of small, agriculturally based communities and those who contolled large cities engaged in overseas commerce, and between these local elites (who tended to stay at home) and the geographically mobile Spanish senators and equestrians. Focusing on Baetica, Caballos Rufino finds ample evidence for agricultural wealth, and particularly for the production of olive oil, as suggested by amphora stamps that appear to correspond to the names of known Baetican senators. Of course, the "bottling" and selling of olive oil blurs the distinction between agriculture and commerce, even if the producers were not actually involved in merchandising. Some Baetican senators also owned property in Italy, including villas at Viterbo and Tibur. The merchandising theme is resumed by Etienne and Mayet, who survey the various merchant "families" (companies) of Spain. The equestrian merchants of the Republic give way to freedman merchants in the Early Empire, dealing in such lucrative commodities as fish sauce and olive oil. In contrast to previous scholars, who treat negotiator, mercator and diffusor as equivalent terms, Etienne and Mayet use a somewhat subjective interpretation of literary and epigraphic documents to see the first as a "big businessman", the second as a downscale merchant, and the third as a supplier for the annona. This hypothesis will undoubtedly fuel further controversy among economic historians.

The conference's third theme was the transmission of Roman models. As the only western province settled by Romans and Italians in the second century BC, Spain (or at least its Mediterranean coastal zones) was strongly influenced by the ideas of the conqueror. This phenomenon manifested itself particularly in colonies implanted on native sites, such as Tarraco and Ilici. The Roman influence on native elites resulted in a penchant for euergetism and for self-advertisement, the latter conspicuous in their tomb monuments (discussed by Cancela Ramírez, with a wealth of photographs) and statuary (considered by Stylow and, in the case of Augusta Emerita, by Nogales Basarrate). As Gros points out, the recently discovered templum ordinis at Labitulosa in the Pyrenees has twenty-five statue bases honouring members of the local elite. Honorific statues erected by the ordo are commonplace in Hispano-Roman cities. Some local elites even set up statues of themselves in buildings they had donated to the city, as shown by examples from Cisimbrium and Segobriga. The elite of Lusitania developed their own iconographic tradition. At Augusta Emerita, busts of the original Italian colonists adopt the severe style, wrinkles and all, typical of Republican sculpture. In the first century AD, a greater range of portrait styles emerges, influenced in part by the idealized representations of emperors on official statues. The funerary monuments of the elite, concentrated in Baetica and eastern Tarraconensis, are of varied type (mausolea, towers, vaulted chambers), but all find parallels elsewhere in the empire. The tomb reliefs in particular have counterparts in Narbonensis.

Motives for euergetism, as Melchor Gil explains, included personal prestige, family honour, and legitimizing the aristocracy's political control over their cities. He might have added popularity, an important factor in local election of politicians. In the case of freedmen, euergetism enhanced their social status and prepared the future promotion of their sons or grandsons, who lacked the stigma of ex-slaves. Since city funds were limited, benefactions by the elite were an important contribution to monumentalization. The donors were mostly local decurions, priests, or seviri Augustales; senators and equestrians are only sporadically represented, and some of these equestrians were also decurions. Nearly a quarter of the benefactors were women. In addition to donating public buildings (such as the 65 examples known in Baetica), the elite also constructed elegant residences for themselves. Sillières examines the earliest manifestation of this trend, the Republican houses of Hellenistic-Italian tradition, found especially in the Ebro valley. These include such features as opus signinum floors, and wall paintings of the first Pompeian style. The layout and decoration of the rooms seem to show a desire for a Roman lifestyle, yet the construction technique of the houses (mud-brick on a stone foundation) continues the indigenous tradition.

The final theme is elites and power, which can be approached either vertically (in terms of social and legal hierarchies) or horizontally (regional and local differences and similarities). In this section, Lefèvre investigates the social origin of Lusitanian flamines, demonstrating inter alia that Lucceius Albinus, a senatorial friend of the younger Pliny, is descended from a Romanized indigenous family of this region. The power of Spanish senators in the period from Augustus to Trajan is studied by des Boscs-Plateaux. We learn that in the period from Augustus to Claudius, all the Spanish senators come from Baetica. There is a marked increase of senatorial admissions from Spain under Nero, perhaps through the influence of Seneca, and another increase under the Flavians. The power of these senators reaches a peak under Domitian and Trajan, when some fourteen percent of Rome's consuls are Spanish.

The most innovative paper is the important contribution by Navarro Caballero on the private and public activities of elite women in Spain. Women have been practically ignored in previous work on Hispanic elites (despite the current vogue of gender studies) and Navarro's study of nearly four hundred inscriptions involving elite women as dedicants or recipients of honours firmly establishes the female presence in Spanish public life. It is curious to discover that elite males are more often commemorated by their mothers than by their wives, whereas commemorations of women are more often set up by husbands than by fathers or sons. In any event, men are nearly always involved in these transactions, showing the strong masculinization of the female dossier and the primary function of elite women as intermediaries between their male relatives and the community. Nevertheless, women played an important role in the transmission of wealth and prestige, and epigraphy demonstrates their desire to appear in public. Benefactions (chiefly statues of deities) by women illustrate their freedom of action, despite the legal constraints of tutelage.

In all, as Demougin points out in her conclusions, the papers in this volume demonstrate three things about Hispanic elites: the precocity of their creation, the heterogeneity of their composition, and the hierarchization of their ranks and offices. They provide a useful and convenient update on what we know about the elites of Roman Spain and how they contributed to the life of the empire. There is, of course, a latent danger in concentrating on such a theme, since the elite emphasis obscures the role of the numerically superior lower classes in the development of a provincial culture.3 However, one can cover only so much in one volume, and the importance of elites in Roman Spain easily justifies this work. For scholars with an interest in either Spain or the Roman upper classes, this book is a "must". But those who study other provinces, or ancient social history generally, will also profit from the parallels and perspectives it provides and from its rich and up-to-date bibliography. It is a timely addition to the current dialogue on the role of elites in Roman provincial society.


1.   M. Cébaillac (ed.), Les élites municipales de l'Italie péninsulaire des Gracques à Néron, Rome and Naples, 1996.
2.   L.A. Curchin, The Local Magistrates of Roman Spain, Toronto, 1990, pp. 116-120.
3.   S. Alcock, "Vulgar Romanization and the Dominance of Elites", in S. Keay and N. Terrenato (ed.), Italy and the West: Comparative Issues in Romanization, Oxford, 2001, pp. 227-230.

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