Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.04.25

Matthew Roller, Constructing Autocracy: Aristocrats and Emperors in Julio-Claudian Rome.   Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2001.  Pp. 319.  ISBN 0-691-05021-X.  

Reviewed by Ellen O'Gorman, Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Bristol (
Word count: 1852 words

Roller's book is a four-part study of the concepts and terms through which the Roman aristocracy comprehended and attempted to influence the emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The first half of the book is structured around the works of Lucan and Seneca (Roller considers these as individual engagements with the discourse of the Principate and not as representative of the discourse as a whole). The second half examines thematic strands across a wide range of texts; the themes covered are those of gift-exchange, master-slave, and paternal relations. Roller remains focussed on the Julio-Claudian emperors, although he includes also some discussion of material from the late Republic and from the Flavian regime. Indeed, it would be very difficult to discuss this subject without mentioning either Julius Caesar or Domitian.

The book as a whole is excellent, and can be recommended both for the contribution of the overall argument and for the insight of the individual readings. The four sections of the book also work well as separate units; I have already recommended the chapter on Seneca to graduate students working in this area and the chapter on gift-giving to advanced undergraduates in ancient history. Indeed, Roller's book will remain on my list of essential works for students working on the Principate and the image-building of emperors. Its value at all these levels derives from the clarity of the writing and from its contribution to our sense of how emperors appeared to be emperors. I would also recommend it for the provocative questions it has raised about the possibility of Stoicism to offer a solution to the potential irreconcilability of Principate and (aristocratic) liberty.1

By concentrating on the metaphors used to describe relations with the emperor, and by emphasizing how these metaphors are embedded in Roman society, Roller highlights the extent to which, first, the imperial image arises out of reworkings of republican self-presentation, and, secondly, how the discourse of the emperor is created though dialogue and encounter, not as a static blueprint. Thus the discourse of the emperor appears not just as a means for the aristocracy to comprehend the new regime, but as a constraint upon the emperor himself.

In the first chapter, on Lucan, Roller concentrates on traditional Roman moral values as they are grounded in the needs and judgements of the community. He thus offers a reading of the Pharsalia as a poem, that dramatizes the shift in terms like pietas and virtus from an oligarchic to an autocratic social community. In particular, Roller argues that Lucan presents no resolution of these competing evaluations of moral behavior; as a consequence, the poet implicitly presents the ideology of the Principate as simultaneously replacing and overlapping, continuing and breaking with the ethical discourse of the Republic. Roller pursues this reading through an analysis of the 'assimilating' and 'alienating' viewpoints on civil war: moments in the poem where opponents are configured as citizens or as enemies, with all the ethical dilemmas that ensue from adopting such viewpoints. The participation of the narrator in these conflicting viewpoints is also examined, and the chapter concludes with an interesting analysis of Lucan's restructuring of Caesarian ideology as the foundation of the Principate through a reading of the oaths of loyalty in the poem.

This is a provocative chapter, but I found it the least satisfactory of the four, for the following reasons. First, it seems much less carefully written than the other chapters; the notes seem repetitive2 and there are more syntax errors and infelicities of language here than in the rest of the book.3 Secondly, there is an impression here that more could be said about any of the passages discussed (especially on Cato pp. 53-4); this is in contrast to the other chapters, where Roller comes across as a highly perceptive reader. Thirdly, some points here seem at odds with the argument more generally. The chapter as a whole is probing a representation of the aristocracy in the Principate as embroiled in competing ethical discourses, the resolution to which cannot be discovered even in one's mode of dying. Yet Roller chooses on p. 52 to impose a hierarchy on these discourses, labeling one 'dominant/normative' and another 'oppositional/subversive'. This is the old 'Augustan or anti-Augustan' polarity returning, yet the assumptions it usually brings with it have no place in Roller's reading of Lucan. Thus the paragraphs here serve no purpose and merely give the impression of haste.

The chapter on Seneca implicitly extends the theme in the Lucan chapter of competing contexts for evaluating virtue. Here the Stoic view offers a way out of the oligarchic/autocratic ethical dilemma by moving away from community-oriented morality and locating both virtue and its judgement in the individual conscience. Roller pursues this through a reading of Seneca's position on gratia in the De Beneficiis, a reading which is illuminating also for the content of his third chapter. At the same time, however, external evaluation of virtue is never absent from Seneca's work, and Roller traces how the presence and representation of external evaluation reveal the embedding of Stoicism into Roman aristocratic culture. He traces this through an analysis of the exemplum virtutis in Senecan texts, in the context of the limitations for the aristocracy achieving military glory in the Principate. He concludes with a section on how Seneca copes with the idea of flattery and false value judgements; this section too resonates with the third chapter.

I found this Seneca chapter the most absorbing of the four, and it is the one to which I will probably return most frequently. Two aspects I would have liked to see expanded. First, it would be interesting to know what the arguments of this chapter would have led Roller to say about the exemplum of Cato in Lucan, which he touched on only briefly. Secondly, I would have liked to read more about the fundamental conflict between the locating of moral judgement in conscientia (whereupon its lessons die with the individual) and the reliance upon the exemplum for the teaching of ethics, which seems also to entail understanding the historical circumstances which make a particular act virtuous at a particular time.

The third chapter moves to the thematics of the imperial image and is focussed on gift-exchange as a key feature of social relations. Roller argues that the emperor's authority and dominance are constructed and shaped in part through controlling what he gives to others and what they give to him; indeed, the conditions under which 'things' are exchanged is significant in determining these relations. Roller's analysis here gains much from its flexibility. So, for example, he does not confine himself to the exchange of tangibles: the bestowal of clementia can be subject to this analysis, as can the exchange of speech. Roller himself points out (pp. 131-2) the advantages of concentrating on exchange rather than on the idea of patron-client relations. Three of the sections focus on the dinner-party as a place where physical and verbal exchange, hierarchy, and the conditions for establishing who is favoring whom can all be examined through a wide variety of texts.

The fourth chapter examines two metaphors used to describe the relations between emperor and citizen: master-slave and father-child/son. Here Roller contributes significantly to the scholarship on libertas in the Principate by arguing forcefully that the term can be conceptualized only negatively, as the absence of servitus, so that the conditions of libertas can be understood as the absence of 'the decisive... criteria... that express the conceptual core of the category of slavery' (p. 221). Roller pursued this through competing interpretations of scenes in which a ruler whips a subject, where the action of whipping can be read as an articulation either of the master-slave relationship or of the father-son relationship. Roller then moves on to a historical contextualization of how these paradigms were exploited by Romans from Caesar to Domitian. There follows an interesting section on social inversion, how the jumped-up freedmen of the Principate would be represented as a symptom of the enslavement of the aristocracy. Roller concludes with a return to Seneca and to the 'aristocracy of virtue' (Habinek's term), where the language of political slavery is employed in part to express and to point the way to a philosophical freedom available to neither plebs nor tyrant.4

In this second half of the book Roller displays his strength in providing a coherent and provocative overall argument, and also some finely detailed individual readings. I was continually impressed by his ability to pause on a passage and draw out the points relating to his argument with great sensitivity to its genre, context, and possible ironies (3.3 is an illustrative example). I found chapter four less satisfying than chapter three, for two reasons, the second of which relates to the book as a whole. The first arises from Roller's discussion of metaphor, where he draws from the work of Lakoff and Johnson and of Cooper, whence he borrows the concepts of a 'parent domain' of reference (here 'slavery') and of a 'derived domain' ('autocracy'). This sets up a one-way movement, from the domain of non-metaphorical to metaphorical reference. Yet the concept of a term belonging properly to one domain and only secondarily to another has for a long time been destabilized by even only mildly deconstructive works;5 the implication is that the domain of slavery remains untouched by the application elsewhere of 'its' terms of reference. Yet the discourse of slavery, like other discourses of traditional Roman society, can be seen as profoundly changed by the shifts in the political order as charted by Roller. While this points to an area beyond the boundaries of Roller's study, it perhaps also points to a slight tendency through the book to stabilize certain normative modes ('traditional Roman discourse') so that the complexities of the engagement between aristocracy and autocrat can be viewed against a static model.

The second problem which chapter four raised in my mind was in its conclusion. In chapter one Cato represents, briefly, a way out of the Lucanian impasse. Senecan philosophy concludes the first half of the book, and here, in 4.6, it returns to round off the second half. The structure of the book invites us to see Stoicism as offering some sort of solution or resolution to the complications of aristocratic virtue in the Principate. But, as Roller's own analysis in chapter two shows, Stoicism is far from an easy answer; one of the reasons why Cato is reworked obsessively by Roman thinkers is that neither he nor his actions are clear cut. While the pure interiority of conscientia may satisfy the individual at the moment of his death, his resurrection as an exemplum indicates that the question of living and dying virtuously under an emperor remained open for the Roman aristocracy. How satisfactory an alternative the 'aristocracy of virtue' might be is part of that question.

These objections, however, are a compliment to the stimulating character of this book. It should be read by everyone interested in the Principate, the literature of that period, ancient philosophy, ethics, social history, and political theory. I look forward to reading it again.


1.   I am not here alluding to Roller's view of libertas, which he puts persuasively in 4.2.
2.   N. 37 cf. n. 48; n. 53 cf. n. 54; end of n. 57 cf. n. 59, which seems to use the same passage to make the opposite point.
3.   Errors e.g. p 25 'Absent any other relevant information...' and p. 26 '...the word has little or not relation to be community-oriented modes of thought...' Infelicities e.g. p. 58 'bollixed up in competing, irreconcilable discourses' -- wonderfully vivid, but Irish and British readers will either laugh hysterically or be offended (I did the former).
4.   There is a difficulty in this section with Roller's conflation of 'freedom' with 'being a master' (pp. 274, 281, 285) which remained unexplained.
5.   Cf. e.g. Kennedy The Arts of Love chapter 3. Roller's use of scare quotes around 'proper' and 'literal' in his discussion of Cooper's terms (p. 217) seems to indicate his awareness of these issues.

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