Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.03.18

Klaus Bringmann, Geschichte der Römischen Republik.   Munich:  C.H. Beck, 2002.  Pp. 463.  ISBN 3-406-49292-4.  EUR 35.90.  

Reviewed by Chris Epplett, History, University of Lethbridge (
Word count: 2459 words

Klaus Bringmann's work on the history of the Roman Republic is one of a series of books on Roman history published by C.H. Beck, including, for example, Alexander Demandt's Geschichte der Spätantike. Bringmann's book is somewhat more ambitious than many other books about Republican Rome: it does not confine itself to one specific period of Republican history but aims to cover Roman history from the beginnings of the city of Rome itself to the rule of Augustus.

Bringmann's book is divided into five major sections: 'Rome and Italy', 'Rome and the Mediterranean World', 'The Crisis of the Republic and its Causes', 'The Downfall of the Republic', and 'Augustus, Conqueror and Fulfiller of the Republic'. The appendix at the end of the book contains a chronological table, 'References to Research and Scholarly Literature', an illustration and map index, and an index of places and names in the text. Given the scope of his work, Bringmann quite sensibly concentrates on one aspect of the period under discussion: political history. The author certainly does not ignore other features of the Republican period, such as social developments, but makes it quite clear in the introduction (pp. 5-6) that he will only be addressing those aspects of wider culture that are most pertinent to the political history of Republican Rome.

In the section, 'Rome and Italy' (pp. 9-82), Bringmann discusses events and developments from the foundation of Rome to the conclusion of the Samnite Wars. Included in this discussion are the development of the 'classical' Republican constitution and the emergence of the patrician/plebeian nobility in Rome. Bringmann's treatment of the foundation of Rome (pp. 9-33) covers such essential topics as: the importance of the patrician class, both before and after the fall of the monarchy, the creation of various magistracies to administer the early Republic, and the adoption by the Romans of such Greek developments as the phalanx and a written legal code (the Twelve Tables) so as to better face the various crises of the early Republic. Bringmann is not hesitant to challenge the traditional interpretation of such developments. Apart from arguing that the city of Rome was founded substantially later than the traditional date, namely in the last quarter of the seventh century BC (pp. 9-12), he also contends that the 'Struggle of the Orders' was not quite the violent class war depicted by both ancient and modern historians. Instead, Bringmann claims that the traditional view of the plebeian struggle for legal rights and political representation, as related by writers of the late Republic, was unduly influenced by the sometimes violent struggles between the senatorial and equestrian classes in the latter period (pp. 27-28).

After discussing the foundation of Rome and the establishment of the Republic, Bringmann outlines the expansion of Roman power throughout much of Italy in the fourth and early third century BC (pp. 33-56). As the author rightly states, one key factor in Rome's expansion during this period was the alliance-system that she was able to develop with other Latin and Italian communities which allowed Rome to have a tremendous manpower advantage over any current or future foes. Once again, Bringmann also offers valid criticisms of the ancient sources dealing with this period. For example, he contends that the foedus Cassianum, traditionally dated to 493 BC, must instead date to the mid-fourth century BC (pp. 37-38). In the author's view, the dominant position of Rome in relation to the communities of the Latin League, as reflected in the terms of this treaty (for example, the stipulation that Rome was to receive fully half of any booty taken from a campaign) reflects the conditions of the mid-fourth century BC, when Rome was leading Latin forces in battle, rather than the conditions of the early fifth century BC, when Rome had not so firmly established her dominance over all of Latium.

In his discussion of the early Roman Republic, Bringmann then analyzes political and social changes, largely as a result of Rome's continuing wars and expansion, from the fourth to third century BC. The military demands imposed by the Samnite Wars, for example, led Rome to adopt Samnite military methods and to attempt to mobilize as many soldiers as possible. According to Bringmann, the Romans achieved the latter by the addition of four new classes, eligible for military service, to the pre-existing 'hoplite class' in the comitia centuriata. The author includes a sound discussion of how the voting procedure of the comitia centuriata was further altered to reflect Rome's growth, as the 35 tribes of the Roman people at the mid-third century BC were incorporated into the five classes of the centuriate assembly (pp. 56-61).

Bringmann concludes his account of the early Roman Republic with a discussion of the emergence of the plebeian/patrician aristocracy at Rome, and its attendant value system (pp. 61-82). According to Bringmann, the gradual incorporation of prominent plebeians into the highest circles of the Roman aristocracy was not, as sources like Livy claim, the result of a violent plebeian struggle for legal and political rights but rather the result of Roman patricians gradually recognizing the importance of plebeians and plebeian commanders to the Roman military, and rewarding the latter for it. "Alles in allem war nicht der Konflikt, sondern die Integration der Stände das Kennzeichen des Zeitalters" (p. 81). In the author's view, the primary goal of this new Roman elite was to strive for personal honour and glory, primarily through successful military command. This value system, argues Bringmann, functioned smoothly only so long as the Romans had numerous external enemies to fight against. Because of the comparative lack of such enemies in the Late Republic, Roman leaders began fighting against each other for glory and fame, much to the detriment of the state.

In Part Two, 'Rome and the Mediterranean World' (pp. 83-154), the author gives an account of Rome's military conflicts and expansion from the war with Pyrrhus to the late second century BC. In Bringmann's view, Rome's involvement with one foreign foe almost invariably led to conflict with another, and to further Roman expansion. Throughout this discussion, Bringmann is at pains to refute the theory that Rome's expansion during this period was due to the Roman drive for territorial conquest. The author points out, for example, that Rome annexed territory in Greece and Macedonia only after her policy of indirect control proved to be a failure (pp. 134-53). According to the author, Rome's rapid expansion in the third and second centuries BC was due rather to a form of 'defensive imperialism'. Rome's main desire was to protect her newly-gained territories, which, in a form of 'domino effect', often led her to annex further territory as a means of consolidating her borders. For example, Bringmann explains Rome's annexation of Sicily at the end of the First Punic War as arising from the need for a bulwark against any future Carthaginian attacks on southern Italy, rather than a desire to seize the wealth of the island (p. 100).

In 'The Crisis of the Republic and its Causes' (pp. 155-278), Bringmann discusses the stresses on the Roman system created by Rome's conquests of the third and second centuries BC and analyzes the associated political developments from the tribunate of Tiberius Gracchus to the dictatorship of Sulla. He begins his analysis with an enumeration of the changes in Roman society and economy that resulted from prolonged contact with the Greek east. The author devotes a great deal of attention to the development of a monetary economy in Rome and its consequences (pp. 169-87). In Bringmann's view, the development of a monetary economy led to such evils as extortion and election bribery, problems which a series of second century laws was unable to overcome. Another serious problem, in the opinion of the author, even prior to the Gracchi was the strain put on Rome's military recruitment by the wars of the second century BC, as well as the related issue of land distribution (pp. 187-202). Conflicts such as the drawn-out guerilla war in Spain (154-133 BC) led to shortages in military manpower, and, partly due to the growth of large latifundia in Italy, the Roman state was finding it increasingly difficult to provide veterans with land, as it had previously done.

Bringmann next provides a thorough discussion of the reform attempts of the Gracchi, as well as the resulting violence (pp. 202-28). Perhaps the most useful part of this discussion is the author's analysis of Tiberius Gracchus' proposed land redistribution. In Bringmann's view, Tiberius Gracchus' scheme would have created only about 15,000 small-scale allotments at most and certainly would not have been enough to 'rehabilitate' the small-scale farmers of Italy or the military recruitment system of the state (pp. 206-207). In the next section, the author discusses the career of Marius, the Social War, and political events in Rome up to Sulla's dictatorship (pp. 228-64). In addition to providing a thorough account of the Jugurthine War and the conflict with the Cimbri and Teutones, Bringmann also thoroughly analyzes the political situation in Rome itself. In his view, much of the disorder of the period can be laid at the doorstep of the optimates. By undermining the reform attempts of politicians like Drusus, but at the same time failing to offer constructive reform programs of their own, the optimates were largely responsible for such disasters as the Social War. In the final section of Part Three, Bringmann analyzes the dictatorship of Sulla and the latter's attempts to secure the power of the Senate in Rome (pp. 265-78). Bringmann points out that much of Sulla's legislation, such as the enlargement of the Senate to 600 members and the restoration of the jury-courts to senators, was based upon the earlier proposed legislation of Drusus, although the measures aimed against tribunes in Sulla's legislation were certainly devised by the dictator to prevent the rise of any powerful and 'troublesome' tribunes in future.

In Part Four of his work, 'The Downfall of the Republic' (pp. 279-394), Bringmann analyzes the period from the end of Sulla's dictatorship to the aftermath of Caesar's assassination. The author begins with a thorough analysis of Pompey's rise to power in both the political and military spheres (pp. 283-310). Pompey, after restoring the powers of the tribunate in 70 BC, attempted to secure his extra-constitutional commands through the tribunes and the popular assembly, much as Marius had done. When such support was unable to secure his eastern settlement in the face of senatorial opposition, Pompey was forced to secure a political alliance with Crassus and Caesar (pp. 310-19). Bringmann next provides an analysis of Caesar's campaigns in the Gallic and civil wars (pp. 320-53). It should be noted that the author chooses to concentrate on military events before providing an analysis of Caesar's political measures as dictator rather than combining the two aspects of Caesar's career in a single section. In addition, Bringmann does not go into excessive detail concerning the actual strategy and tactics of Caesar's campaigns. The author's main intention is to discuss the motivations behind Caesar's actions and how these motivations often did not entirely coincide with Caesar's professed aims. For example, although Caesar claimed to be defending the rights of the tribunes when he crossed the Rubicon, this pretext did not stop him from raiding the Temple of Saturn in Rome for funds, despite the opposition of at least one tribune (p. 348). In the last two sections of Part Four, Bringmann discusses the various political measures enacted or planned during Caesar's dictatorship, as well as the factors leading to Caesar's assassination, and the resulting chaos thereafter (pp. 335-94). He draws a particularly good contrast between the dictatorships of Sulla and Caesar. While Sulla was forced to be ruthless because of his desire to restore the senatorial government of the Republic, Caesar was concerned only with securing his personal rule in Rome, and therefore could grant his famous clementia to former opponents whom he (sometimes erroneously) considered no longer to be a threat to his power (pp. 358-59).

Bringmann concludes his work with a discussion of the Second Triumvirate and the political system subsequently established by Augustus (pp. 395-429). The author does not offer a complete account of Augustus' reign, but rather, as the title of Part Five suggests, only a discussion of how Augustus, unlike Caesar, firmly grounded his rule in the traditions of the Republic. As Bringmann quite rightly points out, another of the main reasons for the stability of the Principate was the fact that Augustus, by creating a standing army firmly under state control and by providing ample reward for veterans, solved two of the most pressing problems that had bedeviled the Late Republic (pp. 415-19). Another key to his success, according to Bringmann, was the fact that the Augustus, like earlier Republican politicians, based the justification of his power upon his military accomplishments and his protection of traditional Roman values, a propaganda legacy passed on to his successors.

In general, Bringmann's book is an excellent study of Republican Rome. Although the scope of the work is too large to allow the author to cover every aspect of the period in equal detail, Bringmann is able to provide a relatively detailed analysis, particularly in political terms, of the Republic's rise and fall. The author makes good use of extracts from primary sources to reinforce arguments presented in the text. For example, frequent quotations from the contemporary letters of Cicero greatly add to Bringmann's discussion of the complicated politics of the Late Republic. Numerous illustrations, most notably maps and coins, also complement the text.

The aspects of the book that deserve criticism may well be due to decisions of the publisher rather than of the author. First of all, although the annotated bibliography at the end of the book is certainly useful, the omission of footnotes within the body of the text is somewhat curious. Secondly, the indices do not include a subject index, which sometimes makes it difficult to refer back to arguments within the text. Finally, although Bringmann's book is amply illustrated with maps, these are drawn from different sources and differ in quality and detail: it would have been preferable if all of the maps were uniform.

These criticisms, however, do not seriously detract from the quality of Bringmann's work. In this study, the author has shown himself to be fully conversant with both primary and secondary sources, and has succeeded in presenting a thorough analysis of the rise and fall of the Roman Republic. One particular strength of Bringmann's study is that he frequently challenges the traditional interpretation of various events or policies, thereby preventing his work from being a mere historical narrative. I would certainly recommend this work to anyone interested in the history of the Roman Republic.

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