Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.04.26

Marianne Coudry, Thomas Späth, L'invention des grands hommes de la Rome antique. Die Konstruktion der grossen Männer Altroms.   Actes du Colloque du Collegium Beatus Rhenanus, Augst 16-18 Septembre 1999. Paris:  de Boccard, 2001.  Pp. 492.  ISBN 2-7018-0145-1.  

Contributors: Jean-Michel David, Marie-Laure Freyburger, Marianne Coudry, Martine Chassignet, Clara Berrendonner, Annie Vigourt, Marianne Gendre, Claude Loutsch, Peter Schmidt, Jacques Poucet, Michel Humm, Jürgen von Ungern-Sternberg, Mario Torelli, Alban Baudou, Thomas Späth, Francesca Mencacci, Lorenza Mondada.

Reviewed by Peter O'Neill, Iowa State University (

The bilingual title of this collection is significant in several ways. First, the essays concern the "invention" of the great men of the Roman republican past, focusing on their fictive character rather than searching for any underlying historical reality and examining the social and cultural practices that led to their "construction" (10). But the double title also reflects the self-consciously collaborative nature of this work, the result of two groups of researchers meeting twice a year over a three year period, culminating in a colloquium in which their work was presented alongside contributions of other invited scholars, whose papers are described as operating in counterpoint to those of the "research group" (10). As Mondada says, these essays are "actes de la recherche" rather than "actes du colloque," and the ambitious nature of the project is surely to be applauded. Finally, the work's title indicates its very European character: of the nineteen essays three are in German, two in Italian and fourteen in French.

The first part of the collection focuses on the historical construction and literary articulation of particular "great men," examined in the light of a series of general problematics defined and redefined by meetings of the research group (10). The figures chosen are Coriolanus (analyzed in two articles by David and Freyburger), Camillus (Coudry), the three "aspirants to tyranny" Sp. Cassius, Sp. Maelius and Manlius Capitolinus (Chassignet), M' Curius Dentatus and C. Fabricius Luscinus (analyzed together in two articles by Berrendonner and Vigourt), and C. Duilius and M. Atilius Regulus (Gendre and Loutsch).

The editors are correct that this selection gives a nuanced approach to the formation of the tradition (10). But the group chosen is, like any such grouping, inevitably problematic. There is, for instance, at times disagreement as to exactly how Coriolanus or the aspirants relate to the category of "great men." And even a figure as colorless as Duilius poses a difficulty for those, like Mencacci, who emphasize the greatness of the great men as lying in their ethical rather than their military virtues. Mencacci admits that this emphasis does not work so well for Duilius (424), and indeed this figure is strikingly absent outside the pages explicitly devoted to him. And yet there are surely many other great men more like Duilius than, say, Regulus in the Roman tradition. The choice of figures has of course determined the nature of the whole project, and perhaps more systematic discussion of the Latin vocabulary for great men (viri illustres, summi viri, clarissimi etc.) might have helped assuage concerns about the representative nature of those discussed.

But the project of studying several representative great men in detail is worthwhile and is carried out very well. The scholars responsible for these accounts by no means follow identical approaches, and this is a strength, making for a less relentless read than might otherwise be the case. But it can also lead to frustrations, as some of the insights made concerning particular characters are not built upon by scholars discussing other figures. For instance, Coudry (73), noting the skeletal nature of her figure, Camillus, in writers of the third century AD, asks if there might not be a general effacement of Republican great men in this period and suggests that "l'oubli" of great men might be a result of the change from a competitive aristocracy to the Principate in which honors are accorded by the princeps (73-4). She points to Berrendonner's discussion of Curius and Fabricius as supporting this suggestion (n125), and Berenndonner indeed has good things to say on such matters, noting how in Seneca the virtues of great men become individual, philosophical virtues rather than civic virtues, arguing no less than that the construction of Fabricius and Curius, with their "invention" by the elder Cato and their "assassinat" by Seneca, corresponds to the rise and fall of the senatorial political system (108-109). Other scholars engage with similar issues, for instance Gendre and Loutsch who discuss Seneca and Regulus (147) and Chassignet who speaks of the "withering" of the aspirants under the Empire (93), a metaphor repeated by Coudry in the discussion at the end of Part One (190). But it would have been helpful had the research group as a whole agreed to address this issue in their surveys of particular figures (note Vigourt's interesting comment in the discussion on 190 that in the Empire emulation remained important, as Plutarch shows, for municipal aristocrats). As it is, Part One is full of stimulating suggestions about particular figures, but more of a synthesis is needed in order to feel confident about generalizing about great men (or at any rate this selection of great men) as a whole.

But in general the contributors' different approaches complement each other well. Coudry's examination of Camillus is comprehensive and stimulating, showing well the different valences of Camillus at different periods in the tradition, including some speculative but highly suggestive remarks on the "prehistory" of the figure of Camillus (50-56). Other contributors are more concise, such as Berrendonner, who, in her excellent article on Curius and Fabricius, never loses sight of the big picture. Freyburger's approach to Coriolanus is explicitly philological, examining the language used by Greek writers on this figure, while Genre and Loutsch take a more historical approach (including a long footnote on the historicity of Duilius' corvi, 133 n16). Vigourt's essay is a particularly useful statement of some of the characteristics of great men as a whole. For instance, she remarks that great men are (unlike heroes) non-exceptional and normative (albeit hors-normes) figures, often presented in association with their fellow great men (cf. Späth's similar remarks on great men as perfecting normality at 413). Those interested in great men in general will find something of interest in all these articles, and those interested in particular figures will find an excellent overview of the tradition. The individual bibliographies will prove useful. Part One ends with a rather different (contrapuntal) essay by Peter Schmidt in which he pays homage to a "scandalously" neglected work of Georg Friedrich Unger (182) and revives a suggestion that the biographies de excellentibus ducibus exterarum gentium attributed to Nepos are the work of C. Iulius Hyginus; he argues that the present corpus of Nepos is a result of a late antique compilation of Nepos' Roman lives and Hyginus' duces exteri. This, of course, has repercussions for any reconstruction of Nepos' viri illustres, but perhaps more relevant for the book at hand (and questions raised by others concerning the effacement of great men in the Empire) is Schmidt's discussion of the reception of such biographies under the Empire in the Aurelius Victor corpus and by Ampelius.

Part Two consists of essays on "les fonctions fondatrices" of the great men discussed, examining how great men are associated with political and social institutions and values. Poucet, not a member of the "group," begins this section with an attempt to outline a "typology" of the founding functions of the kings of Rome, building a model based on Livy's account which he invites others to critique and refine. Poucet sees the tradition of the Roman kings as essentially a series of variations played on a number of fixed, unchanging themes ("motifs classés"), and he has good things to say on various tendencies of this tradition, such as how certain kings attract, almost magnetically, institutions to themselves. Of course, such issues have been dealt with extensively elsewhere (not least by Poucet himself), but the precision with which Poucet approaches his task is admirable. The contrapuntal character of Poucet's essay with respect to the work of the group is very clear. In particular, he seems to push the other contributors to reflect more on the rationale behind the selection of their great men. Even though he says that he is not at the conference to solicit for the kings of Rome (217), he makes it clear that he sees "la fonction fondatrice" of the kings as more important than that of the great men studied by the group (with the possible exception of Camillus), and he somewhat teasingly speaks of "mes rois" as opposed to "vos grands hommes" (205). Poucet wants the group to ask what distinguishes their great men from the kings. After all, Romulus was placed alongside statues of the great men in the Forum of Augustus and the kings are seen as great men in the de viris illustribus (217). And we might note the rather special pleading with which Vigourt dismisses Cicero's association of Tarquinius Superbus with Sp. Maelius and Sp. Cassius (274 n14). Poucet also asks why, for example, Aeneas, and even certain emperors, are not accorded the status of great men, an obvious but important question (217 n 57; for Aeneas' importance cf. Ungern-Sternberg at 295 in his discussion of Camillus). Finally, Poucet, while himself largely putting aside historical questions in his discussion of the tradition on the kings (although he memorably refers to his position on such issues at 196 as at the very least "une forme avancée d'agnosticisme"), nevertheless makes an appeal for the importance of not neglecting the historicity of particular episodes when discussing the construction or significance of a particular figure: "J'ai malgré tout la faiblesse de croire qu'une recherche sur l'invention et l'évolution de la figure des 'grands hommes' du début de la République passerait à côté de quelque chose d'important si elle ne tentait pas aussi de préciser les réalités historiques sur lesquelles leurs figures se sont construites" (197).

Michel Humm, another invited guest, follows Poucet with an excellent piece in which he associates the emergence of the "Servian tradition" as roughly contemporaneous with the development of the Servian system, which he dates to the late fourth century: Servius, a popular and consensual figure, is established as founder of the census system in order to explain and justify political changes in Rome (240). This paper has much to offer Republican historians interested in this crucially important period, touching upon such debates as those over Appius Claudius Caecus' reform of the tribes (232-234), and in particular there are some good words on the concept of "Fortune," associated with Servius Tullius, in this period (234-237, nicely making a connection with the famous fragment of Appius Claudius' Sententiae). Attention then moves to the founding function of the great men themselves, as David shows how Coriolanus' trial and exile help explain the origin of trials carried out by tribunician initiative. In particular, David shows how Dionysius of Halicarnassus' extended account allows us to glimpse how the tradition concerning Coriolanus would have been worked out and elaborated during the period of tribunician activity from the Gracchi to Sulla. Vigourt's essay on the "aspirants to tyranny" argues that the tradition concerning these figures reflects Roman law as it was in the process of constructing itself. Bound up with their (largely mythic) story was the definition of the crime, the establishment of judicial weapons and tribunals, as well as specific punishments (284). Just as all three potential "tyrants" die through different punishments, so there was much improvisation in dealing with and punishing genuine cases of adfectatio regni in the historical period (277). She has good remarks on the function of destroying the houses of the aspirants and relates this well to Clodius' destruction of Cicero's house in 58 BCE. Finally Ungern-Sternberg writes briefly but very effectively on the development of the notion of Camillus as second founder of Rome. Oddly, there is no reference here to the Roman dating of the sack of the city (390 BCE, according to Varro) as falling exactly half way between the traditional date of the foundation (753 BCE) and the date of Augustus' restoration of the Republic (27 BCE).1

Part Three, "great men and social norms," begins with an attractive essay by Torelli which demonstrates that the family traditions of heroizing ancestors have early roots in the Etruscan and Latin cultures of central Italy. From this tradition arises the Roman/Etruscan notion of a summus vir in whom the memory and power of the family is always incarnated (309). Torelli alone of the contributors engages seriously with visual evidence and has acute and concise words to say on the rise, development and change of Roman portraiture from the mid-Republic to the Principate. His analysis of the significance of the images on the sixth century BCE lastre, which forms the heart of his argument, is very persuasive. Baudou's paper on public and private in Livy addresses issue of gender which are largely absent from the rest of the collection (note Späth 343 and n11 for "grossen Frauen"), but the conclusion arrived at, that male and female social roles are firmly inscribed before and after the moments of crisis in which Livy's narrative of the Sabine Women, Lucretia and Verginia take place, is not surprising (Baudou also discusses Veturia's intervention in the Coriolanus story). Nevertheless it is an attractive demonstration of Livy's narrative patterning and very relevant to the collection. The introduction to the essay, however, in which Baudou asks the reader to set aside any inclination to read the article through feminist or anti-feminist eyes seems odd, given the content of what follows; and Baudou's association of Livy's text with an Augustan revalorization of marriage (332) would benefit from some engagement with those who would date much of the first pentad to the late 30s BCE. In the following piece, Vigourt again returns to the adfectores regni, arguing that the three figures are related to the category of great men because they were used as "repoussoirs" by the optimates and because of the fascination which they exercised on their fellow citizens. As she nicely points out, "répulsion et séduction obéissent à des critères culturels" (333). Vigourt argues that the "aspirants" embody behavior contrary to Roman social norms. Whereas Curius' land distribution may have been "hors-norme," Cassius, in wanting to distribute land to Rome's enemies, was "a-normal," failing to respect the traditions of the city (335). Likewise, Maelius and Manlius' use of their personal fortunes was a danger to liberty, introducing disorder into a hierarchically organized society (337). And their acquisition of a large clientela, or factio, threatened discord in a society where the desire for consensus is a constant (aristocratic) norm (337). Finally in Part Three, Thomas Späth conducts a lengthy investigation, informed by narratological theories and tools, of the narrative structure of accounts of Camillus. He attempts to locate "macropropositions" in the narratives of Camillus (using Plutarch's and Livy's accounts, and making interesting observations on the difference that the genres of history and biography impose on the character discussed) and to see how these elements in the narrative reflect moral qualities and values which can be evoked by writers throughout antiquity. As Späth says, it is not the case that Camillus evokes simply pietas, but rather he evokes the pietas of the victor of Veii. Social norms in Roman culture are not abstract values but rather the behavior of concrete men of the past (386).

The final part consists of two essays. The first, by Mencacci, argues that great men appear as a result of an extension of the model of family genealogy (cf. Torelli). The patria is like a great family, a metaphoric representation deeply rooted in Roman society, and the great men of Rome are the maiores of choice for the collective patria as a whole. Mencacci's paper is full of insights, not least her observation that the familial component in the great "mancati" (such as Coriolanus, Manlius and Sp. Cassius) is unsuccessful (434-4). The final essay in the collection is that of Mondada, who presents a sampling of the results of the ethnographical observation that she carried out on working methods of the "great men" research group. This piece is interesting enough, especially in its demonstration of how scholarly concepts such as "fonction fondatrice" become established during the course of conversation and interaction, but the essay would read more pleasantly if the transcripts, recording every trace of aspiration, inflexion and every utterance of "euh," were less of a struggle to read.

Clearly the focus of this collection is on great men from the aristocratic, senatorial tradition, and the editors in their foreword make it clear that the essays deal with how a particular social group (the senatorial aristocracy) maintains a relationship with its past. Essentially, then, this book engages with questions concerning aristocratic ideology, examining how and why figures that embody aristocratic virtues and values are constructed in the Roman literary tradition. One learns much from this approach, but the overall impression given is that aristocratic social memory operates in an aristocratic vacuum. However, aristocrats were not simply trying to persuade themselves of their worthiness. They were also selling an image of themselves to the rest of the city, and this might have been made clearer had the contributors brought out more explicitly the effect of visual monuments of the great men. There were clearly competing traditions in the city as to what counted as a great man. This issue is brought up tantalizingly at several points. For instance, Späth ends his article wondering whether in Cicero's time the political and moral values for the senatorial aristocracy were different from those of the rest of the citizens and asking "Für wen waren die 'grossen Männer' gross" (387). Both David and Freyburger in their discussions on Coriolanus bring out how this ambiguous figure was used by populares as well as optimates, and in the final bilan des discussions Ungern-Sternberg asks if there was a popularis tradition having its own great men. Moreover, the editors refer to their decision to refer to "social memory" rather than "collective memory" on the grounds that they want to take account of the contemporary plurality of the memories of different social groups (9). I would have liked these important issues to have been pursued further by the contributors. Certainly, traces of the social memory of the Roman plebs can occasionally be glimpsed, for instance in the honoring and worship of figures such as the Gracchi and Gratidianus. Although this book's intention is not to examine plebeian social memory and plebeian heroes, it would nevertheless have enriched the accounts of the construction of aristocratic great men had the contributors taken into greater account the broader field in which the traditions they describe were created.

Perhaps not unrelated to this is the contributors' reluctance to engage with the "theater hypothesis" of Peter Wiseman. Several of Wiseman's articles on this topic are cited, and their "seductive" nature is acknowledged by Coudry (50 n6), and the same Wiseman volumes are described by Späth as stimulating speculation (386 n138). But even when theater is raised as a possible venue for the construction of the tradition about the great men, there is no discussion of the class antagonisms reflected in competing theatrical productions which Wiseman hypothesizes in order to make sense of competing traditions. Most striking of all is the complete absence of any reference to Wiseman's most in-depth exploration of these issues, Remus, a book that is not even cited in a discussion of how the murder of Remus is a fact which the tradition cannot ignore but which it must deal with in various ways (202 and n19). Likewise, banquet songs are occasionally brought up as among the possible venues for an aristocratic tradition of great men to develop (e.g. David 21 and Späth 343). Yet there is no reference anywhere in this collection to Zorzetti's articles on this topic (nor to his book on the Praetexta -- indeed the fabula praetexta is generally neglected by the contributors). Many scholars have expressed reservations about this work, but it is surely stimulating enough to merit some consideration given the topic at hand. Above all, Wiseman and Zorzetti give a real feeling for the culture of early Rome in which aristocratic (and plebeian) traditions developed. It is fine to disagree with them, but it is a shame to renounce all attempts to understand Roman culture holistically.2

It is true that Wiseman and Zorzetti are highly speculative, but then at many points so are the contributors, particularly when tying aspects of the tradition to particular political or historical events. On the whole, the contributors make effective cases for their claims, but disagreements on such matters are inevitable, and in some ways whether one finds particular connections convincing or not depends on one's tastes. For instance, I remain in general more persuaded by those who see the Gracchan period as decisive for the traditions concerning the "aspirants" than by Chassignet's attempt to argue that 63-44 BCE was the crucial period (89-92); and David at times seems more specific than is perhaps advisable in relating events in the tradition of Coriolanus to particular events in the period 130-80 BCE (especially at 266). On the other hand I was persuaded by Coudry's discussion of the trial of Postumius as important in the early tradition of Camillus (53) and by Gendre and Loutsch's association of the intransigence of Regulus with hostility to the treaty of Mancinus (163). But in general, those who paint with a broad brush are probably on firmer ground, and Berenndonner nicely points out that it is above all when Rome is led to redefine its identity as a city (or, perhaps one should say, when the ruling class faces a crisis of identity) that the figures of great men are put to work (109).

Overall, L'invention des grands hommes is a worthwhile, albeit idiosyncratic, collection. There are, however, many typographical errors, some rather bizarre (most notably a long repetition of the main text in a footnote at 224). The topic discussed is important and all the papers have something to offer, although it is probably true to say that few are likely to read the book from cover to cover. This reader constantly wanted more of a synthesis, but this was precisely because of the abundance of rich remarks that are constantly made about particular figures. But for anyone interested in synthesizing some of these issues, this collection is an obvious place to start. In short, historians interested in social memory and aristocratic ideology, as well as literary scholars, will find much to stimulate them in this volume.


1.   See Gary B. Miles Livy: Reconstructing Rome. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press 1995 p. 95.
2.   T.P. Wiseman Remus: a Roman Myth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1995. N. Zorzetti "The Carmina Convivialia" in O. Murray ed. Sympotica. Oxford 1990, Pp. 290-307; "Poetry and the Ancient City: the Case of Rome." Classical Journal 86 (1991) Pp. 311-327; La pretesta e il teatro latino arcaico. Naples: Liguori, 1980.

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