Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.07.31

J.H.C. Williams, Beyond the Rubicon: Romans and Gauls in Republican Italy. Oxford Classical Monographs.   Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 2001.  Pp. xv, 264.  ISBN 0-19-815300-7.  $65.00.  



Reviewed by Alexa Jervis, Brooklyn College, City University of New York (Ajervis@brooklyn.cuny.edu)
Word count: 1545 words

In the third Catilinarian Oration, Cicero provides a convincing piece of evidence that the gods themselves were on his side: Catiline and his supporters were betrayed by members of the most feared and hated gens known to Rome, the Gauls. These people, Cicero alleges, have never been entirely subdued and they are constantly ready to make war on Rome (3.22). The fact that Gauls acted in Rome's interests, even if they were motivated by thoughts of reward, is proof of divine intervention. In his book Beyond the Rubicon: Gauls and Romans in Republican Italy, J.H.C. Williams (W.) sheds light on how Cicero might have known that this portrait of the Gauls would be credible to his late Republican audience. W. delineates the evolution of Roman thinking about their troublesome northern neighbors and asks how the Gauls came to achieve the status of dreaded enemy. Focusing geographically on the area between the Apennines and the Alps, and temporally on the period between the conventional date of the Gallic sack of Rome in 387 BCE and the full integration of Gallia Cisalpina into Italy in 42 BCE, W. asks "how the Greeks and Romans imagined the Gauls of Italy and how [these images] affected Roman action."

W. has done an excellent job pursuing and balancing what are in fact two separate inquiries. His book does not describe and analyze Roman representation of Gauls alone, nor does it limit itself to the history and material culture of the area under consideration. The strength of Beyond the Rubicon is its investigation into how the two questions overlap: what did the Romans tell themselves about the Gauls and what were the "actual" interactions between the Roman state and Gallic tribes? W. does not treat historical and archaeological evidence as distractions irrelevant to some larger project of intuiting the Roman mind-set; nor does he treat literary texts as uncomplicated windows to historical reality. Without overreading evidence, W. makes several compelling suggestions about how Roman policies in northern Italy in the third to the first centuries were shaped by persistent narratives of early fourth century invasion and destruction.

W.'s first two chapters, "The discovery of Celtic Italy" and "Characterizing the Gauls" deal with, respectively, the lands and the inhabitants of the "Celtic West." He focuses on our two most complete texts on the subject, Polybius'Histories and Cato's Origines. These chapters provide a comprehensive review of the sources that might have been available to these writers. W. charts the interest in the geography of northern Italy and other Celtic areas in the writings of Herodotus, Ephorus, Aristotle, and Timaeus, noting that there was relatively little Hellenistic attention to Celts of Western Europe, especially as compared to the flourishing ethnographic curiosity about other areas of the known world. W. also discusses how the Romans, without their own native ethnographic tradition, represented the world that they were rapidly dominating. He examines the range of sources, including early Roman maps, triumphal inscriptions, comedic fragments, and statuary that Cato might have used in writing the Origines. Next, W. turns to Greco-Roman writings on the peoples of the Celtic west, focusing again on Polybius and Cato. He discusses the two authors' treatment of Celtic ethnogenesis, Celtic militarism, and the famed Celtic love of gold. W. posits that Cato's portrayal of the Gauls was perhaps more guardedly positive than his Greek counterpart, without Polybius' well-documented emphasis on Gallic fickleness and irrationality. Additionally, Cato's focus on the unification of the Italian peninsula led him to ascribe more importance to the Roman-Celtic wars of the third century than did Polybius, who viewed those wars as (p. 96) "neither wholly insignificant nor wholly central."

The heart of Beyond the Rubicon concerns the fourth century Gallic incursion into Italy and the subsequent sack of Rome, and the far-reaching significance of those events for Roman policy. This section of the book is the strongest, containing both very full information on the primary and secondary sources, as well as frequently compelling literary and historical analysis. W.'s third chapter, "Myth into History I: the Gallic Invasion of Italy" details the various historiographic sources that explained the Celtic presence in Italy. He begins with the differing invasion stories of, among others, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Polybius, Diodorus, and Appian. These authors all present slightly different chronologies and aitiologies to explain the appearance of the Gauls in Northern Italy, but all the sources make it clear that the relative wealth of the Italians (often the Etruscans) lured the Celts southward. But, the sources concur, the Celts were quickly overpowered by the pleasures they found there, and they were unable to set aside their naturally ferocious and chaotic character (pp. 109-110): "They are overwhelmed by an appetite for arbitrary destruction and, of course, for immediate gain in the form of plunder when faced with the achievements of civilized life... They drink the wine of Italy, but drink it to excess, often after a battle and with ruinous consequences. They occupy a plain of extraordinary wealth that had once supported a string of Etruscan cities, but spend their time in unsettled nomadism and fights over their twin prize possessions, gold and cattle." W. comments that, for these authors, Gallic migration is a mirror image of the typical Greek colonization myth: the Gauls eradicate civilization, rather than introduce it. By contrast, according to W., the accounts found in Livy and Pompeius Trogus (through Justin), present the Gauls in a somewhat more favorable light. The Celts of these authors come into Italy because of overpopulation and internal discord in the north, rather than because they have been tempted by luxurious living. While they are certainly warlike and threatening, it should be noted that Livy's Gauls establish cities rather than only destroying them. W. posits that the variations we see here arose not simply because Livy and Pompeius Trogus used different sources, but because of contemporary debates over Transpadane citizenship rights. A more positive depiction of Gauls might be a product of (p. 126) "the efforts of Transpadane intellectuals to redefine their origins." To my mind, the negative far outweighs the positive in Livy's portrayal, even if his Gauls are not the voraciously out-of-control slaves to appetite that we see elsewhere. W. himself admits that a "rather more negative reading was entirely possible" (p. 127). Nonetheless, his attempts to account for the different invasion narratives by something more than source criticism are welcome.

In his next chapter ("Myth and History II: The Sack of Rome"), W. turns his attention to the multiple narratives of the Gauls' destruction of Rome itself. He begins with a review of the sources, including our fullest account, given in Livy, as well as other versions found in Plutarch, Diodorus, Polybius, Appian, and others. He argues that Livy's emphasis on the preservation of the Capitol should be understood in large part as a result of the changing importance of the Capitol in Roman religious practice rather than simply as the product of "literary remodeling." W. then compares the narratives of the Gallic sack of Rome to the representations of the Gallic attacks on Delphi in 279, suggesting that the Romans used the parallels between themselves and the Hellenic saviors of Delphi to enhance their status as defenders of civilization, the equal of the more 'cultured' Greeks. The Romans drew on these parallels to cement contacts with the Celt-conquering Attalids and, later, with other Greek states who had ever fought Celtic tribes. The image of the Gauls as attackers of holy places, from the Capitol to the sanctuary at Delphi, allowed the Romans to present their centuries-long struggles with their northern neighbors as that of civilizers versus destructive barbarians. W. suggests that in the late Republic and beyond, the Romans associated Gallic attacks with the possibility of their city's total destruction. Thus, leaders from Marius to Caesar used Roman fear of Gauls to position themselves as saviors of the state in the mold of Camillus.

Finally ("Archaeology and History,"), W. discusses how a possible overreliance on ancient invasion narratives may have distorted the findings of modern day archaeologists. Too many modern scholars, he contends, have read the material remains in light of the literary evidence, without questioning the possible biases and inaccuracies of our sources. Thus, physical evidence such as grave remains and settlement patterns have been taken as proof of what we "know" from Polybius and Livy -- that hordes of Gauls poured over the Apennines in a single major incursion and sacked Rome. While W. does not want to jettison the chronology of Gallic migration suggested by the literary sources, he urges scholars to consider other theories that might account for the material remains.

In sum, W. provides the reader with a readable and concise history of Gallo-Roman interaction in the Republican period. Equally important is his thought-provoking discussion of the Roman tradition on their early contact with the Gauls and the far-reaching effect of that tradition on Roman policy. The book's chief (and relatively small) flaw is its exhaustiveness. While one can hardly fault an author for providing a high level of detail, his extremely thorough discussion of certain issues occasionally threatens to bury his most intriguing ideas. The book is well produced and copy-edited, but it would have benefited from better maps and an index of passages.

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