Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.09.20

Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp, Rekonstruktionen einer Republik.   Munich:  Oldenbourg, 2004.  Pp. 146.  ISBN 3-486-64439-4.  €34.80 (pb).  

Reviewed by Peter O'Neill, University of Exeter (
Word count: 2721 words

Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp's new book is, as one would expect from this fine scholar, a welcome contribution to the on-going debate on the political nature of the Roman Republic, a debate sparked by Fergus Millar's series of revisionist articles and publications arguing for the importance of the popular element in the Roman political system. This book aims to outline the positions advocated in this debate and to show in particular that the stance of those attacked as the "orthodoxy" is more complex than sometimes suggested. The book will, as is the explicit intention (7), stimulate further work in the field and serve as a timely check on those who are already showing signs of turning Millar's revisionist work into a new orthodoxy (cf. 16). The book is published in the supplementary series to Historische Zeitschrift, and H. hopes thereby to attract the interest of historians working on other periods but often dealing with similar questions. It is to be hoped that he is successful. It is also to be hoped that he attracts a readership beyond German-speaking historians. As H. stresses, the debate on the Roman Republic is international in nature, and yet it remains true that there has been a neglect among English speaking historians of the excellent German contributions to this discussion. Indeed, one of H.'s main points here is that English-speaking advocates of the democratic Rome theory have neglected works of seminal importance by German historians, even historians with a reputation as high as Christian Meier.

The nature of the intended audience for this book means that H. is interested in ideas and concepts. One will not find in this short book a presentation of the evidence. As a result, those not completely fluent in German will at times face a tough read, with the German language used to its unique potential for articulating abstract concepts. But the book is concisely written and the ideas are stimulating enough to encourage the reader to make the necessary effort. It is hoped, though, that H.'s audience among modern historians have sufficient background knowledge of "the facts" to follow his ideas adequately.

Chapter one presents a clear account of the importance of the debate begun by Millar's 1984 JRS essay on the political character of mid-Republican Rome. For H., this debate marked the point when, for the first time in many decades, Roman historians began turning their attention away from individual historical problems and back to the fundamental questions of Roman political history (9). H. provides a good account of Millar's critique of the orthodoxy which is traditionally traced back to the work of Münzer and Gelzer and which was consolidated by Millar's own teacher, Ronald Syme. Of course, this orthodoxy was associated with a focus on the workings of the Roman aristocracy. And the method of choice for this orthodoxy was prosopography, which, however imprecise and at times insensitively handled, nevertheless, in the hands of its best practitioners, surely shed a powerful light on relations, temporary or permanent, between the families that struggled to establish themselves or maintain their position within the Roman nobility. H. shows here that this orthodoxy, attacked by Millar (and before him by Peter Brunt), was more complex than its opponents allow, with Gelzer himself, for example, warning of the danger of over-emphasizing the importance of political factions. Indeed, Millar is accused of a lack of scholarly precision, of not engaging with the full complexity of the arguments of those attacked as the orthodoxy ("solche wissenschaftsgeschichtlichen feinheiten sind allerdings nicht Millars Sache", 15-16). It seems unlikely, of course, that Millar would have been unaware of the complexity of the scholarship. Rather, as he says explicitly in the introduction to the Crowd in Rome, he sees his role as presenting one side of the story as an impetus to debate. As such, a polemical stance and some exaggeration is in some respects the name of the game and can be justified by the vigour of the subsequent debate. Whether the same defence can be made for those who may have uncritically followed Millar is perhaps a different matter. But it is important to note that H. is not criticizing Millar here for the sake of it. He wants to show that work that has been neglected by the revisionists or dismissed uncritically as part of the orthodoxy has in fact much of value. In fact such work anticipated many of the insights made by Millar, indeed in some ways made Millar's critique of the supposedly unchallenged orthodoxy possible (16-17).

Chapters two and three can be taken together. H. begins with a highly intelligent critique of what he describes as Millar's concept of a static constitution, a view which reflects Roman History's tendency to merge Staatslehre with Staatsrechtlehre, a legacy of Mommsen which has long been critiqued and historicised (19-20). As H. notes, there is a need to go beyond Verfassungsgeschichte, with its account of magistrates, the senate and the popular assemblies. But it is exactly this outdated conception of the republican constitution which paradoxically determines Millar's radical revision of the republican political order (20). Millar's concept of the sovereignty of the people -- expressed in elections and legal assemblies -- is exactly Mommsen's theory of the citizenry as bearers of sovereign power through their role in the popular assemblies. As H. says, only against this background can Millar speak in constitutional terms and even talk of the Roman Republic in terms of democracy. H. then moves to the work of Christian Meier, especially Res publica amissa, the importance of which has, for H., been neglected (21) and which was inspired precisely from an unease with the focus on a fixed or static Roman republican constitution. Instead, Meier stressed the organic nature of the Roman constitution, which was not a stable entity but the result of long-lasting political processes. He attempted to reconstruct empirically Roman Verfassungswirklichkeit, a project of discovering the grammar of Roman politics (22). By looking at what conditions were necessary for the working of the Republic, Meier could explain the crisis that led to its fall in the disappearance of these conditions (23-24). For H., Meier's contribution is essential because of his importance in articulating theoretical terms and models which allow a more exact description of the Roman political order. This is pursued further through an examination of the work of Franz Wieacker and his stress on Roman concepts and values (auctoritas, honor, mos maiorum etc) which serve as social yardsticks of behaviour (25). For H., such work is an essential component of a structural history, which examines the social, mental and cultural factors which inform the possibility of political actions. Such a history explains more than a juristic or constitutional approach to the Republic, which fails to distinguish between symbolic and political acts and which fails to analyse adequately the field in which political activity was possible and the barriers beyond which politics could not take place (31). H. again points to the work of Meier, who showed the need to look at areas of life which were not deemed part of the political game but rather taken for granted and at the most tinkered with. The crisis of the Republic was a result of conflicts over a series of crucial political matters which led to the erosion of such fundamentals on which the political system rested and as a result led to the whole system being cast into doubt. Every attempt to deal politically with serious problems led to opposition and paralysing deadlocks which could not be resolved through traditional regularised means but only by violence (47-48).

Chapters four and five examine the Roman value system, in particular how elite values became widely accepted throughout the city state. As chapter four argues, again drawing on Meier, the Republic was able to survive so long because of a remarkable unanimity and solidarity among the aristocracy which went beyond its internal rivalries for rank and prestige (49). This led to a social consensus whose foundations were never challenged -- challenging them would have been beyond the political field. H. points to the aristocrats' identification of themselves with the State, which led to a collective morality that embraced the whole community. In order to explain the acceptance by the whole state of this aristocratic ethos, H. points to the pioneering work by German scholars in other disciplines which has helped ancient historians in recent decades to begin to carry out a Sozialgeschichte der kommunikativen Milieus (52), a symbolorientierten Sozialgeschichte (53), and also a kulturgeschichtlich begründeten Mentalitätsgechichte (53). Ancient historians, as a consequence, have attempted to decode the collective morality of the elite and of the populus Romanus, examining terms such as gravitas, existimatio and dignitas, investigations which in the past had been left to the philologists but which were now dealt with in terms of their social and cultural meaning. Again, for H., crucial advances in this area have not been taken into account by those challenging the old orthodoxy. Chapter five looks in more detail at various means through which the collective morality, and in particular collective ethical and cognitive dispositions, were formed (58). This involves a study of the symbolic, affective and aesthetic dimensions of political culture, not least civic rituals and spectacles, which helped reproduce the legitimacy of the political system (58-59). H. has brief but insightful comments on various rituals, from the spectacular rituals, such as the triumph, to more routine rituals, such as assembling in tribes and centuries to vote, which affirmed a sense of integration within the structures of the political system (61). Such rituals reflected and reproduced the institutionalised hierarchies inherent in the city state, where distinctions between senators and citizens, magistrates and assemblies, bearers of imperium auspiciaque and ordinary soldiers, formed an integral component of the collective identity of the populus Romanus (64). Equally, H. examines, or rather points to scholarship on, various symbols of power and work carried out on the Ausdrucksseite of republican political culture (65). This political culture depended, then, on the face-to-face, public nature of the state, where political, religious and civic rituals bound the urbs Roma together (70). These rituals were embedded in the topography of the city, which became a "Schau-Platz" and an "Erinnerungslandschaft" (72). Chapter six moves its attention more directly to the senatorial aristocracy. Indeed, the chapter above all asserts the existence of such an aristocracy in the face of recent attacks, which, H. feels, depend upon an undifferentiated view of the scholarly tradition since Münzer and Gelzer (73). As a result of such attacks, H. feels the need to look at Roman political culture not only from the bottom up, as Millar had insisted upon, but also from the top down. As a result, this chapter says little new, but nevertheless it is full of common sense that is worth repeating. The Roman aristocracy was never hereditary or a legally-defined order or an enclosed caste, but no-one, says H., had ever asserted this. Rather, following the creation of the plebeian-patrician aristocracy (which, of course, H. himself has done so much to illuminate) the aristocracy was competitive, open to those who attained the chief magistracies of the state. But if this aristocracy was in flux, it was nevertheless also exclusive. H. defends, against Millar, the importance of Meier's dictum: "Wer Politik trieb, gehörte zum Adel, und wer zum Adel gehörte, trieb Politik" (79). This aristocracy appropriated to itself the exclusive claim to serve the city through politics and warfare. Indeed, the only success for this aristocracy was success in war and politics, unlike in the Greek world where aristocratic status could be won through beauty or athletic competitions (80). For this aristocracy, magistracies formed the only career path, and this remained true in the Empire, when it becomes a Reichselite but no longer a ruling political class. The hierarchical arrangement of this aristocracy, for whom electoral success was always the critical factor, helps us to see the true function of the populus Romanus in the Roman political system: to grant honours to the aristocracy (82).

This role of the people is considered more closely in chapter seven, perhaps the most interesting part of the book. Drawing on the sociology of Georg Simmel, H. looks at the dynamic between the competition that was a necessary part of this hierarchical, non-hereditary aristocracy and the broad consensus that was needed for it to function effectively as a group. Competition arises when members of the aristocracy are contesting for the same prize. In these instances, the reward of the prize cannot be bestowed by the competitors or those associated with them. A third party is needed, in this case the populus Romanus. In this sense, then, competition, decided by an external party, serves as a means of unification, allowing issues which might otherwise have split the group to be resolved fairly. Consensus is needed as to the acceptable norms and rules of the game. Only if there is such an honour code can defeat, as well as victory, be accepted (90). From this perspective, then, we see the public culture of the Roman Republic, with its contiones and opportunities for aristocrats to advertise themselves to the people, in a new light. It is not indicative of a democratic political culture, as Millar suggests, but rather of the hierarchical communication (and patron-client relations are one aspect of this) which is a necessary feature of a certain type of aristocratic culture in which the people, in their institutions, play an essential role in constituting and reproducing the aristocracy as a political class (89).

In chapter eight, H., now following the sociology of Bourdieu, discusses the symbolic capital necessary for success in aristocratic competition. This capital needs to be displayed to and recognised by the people to be effective, and families which lacked it hung on to their position in the aristocracy often very precariously (103). But here also lies the nucleus of aristocratic consensus, since the symbolic capital of the individual families, acquired through competition, formed part of the greater collective tradition of the maiores, a tradition which served the Roman aristocracy well (102).

H. concludes by celebrating the modernity of Ancient History as a discipline (114). This stress (found throughout the book) is perhaps the only aspect of this work which gives cause for a slight unease. Fredric Jameson in A Singular Modernity has recently examined the current revival of discussions of modernity, pointing out that the concept has been revived at a time when alternatives to the dominant Western economic and ideological system have diminished. According to Jameson, "radical alternatives, systemic transformations, cannot be theorised by the word 'modern'" (215). H. certainly helps us understand better why the Roman aristocracy was so effective for so long. But there is, perhaps, a sense in which his work also contributes to a monolithic view of Roman political culture. It is true that the aristocratic political culture that H. so well articulates was dominant in the Republic. But there was also a radical, alternative political culture, found perhaps not in the contiones and political institutions where Millar locates it, but rather in the separatist culture and political institutions of the plebeian movement, a movement which began as a result of communication between the people that lay outside of the hierarchically and ritually organised vehicles of communication between aristocracy and people in which H. is interested. Of course, many of the achievements of the plebeian movement became assimilated within the Roman state as a result of the rise of the plebeian-patrician aristocracy. But the legacy of this movement (and its message that the aristocracy could never fully control what would count as the political field) nevertheless remained as an example of a radical alternative to the dominant political culture which H. so well outlines.

In short, this is an excellent and timely book. It is worth purchasing for the bibliography alone, which will prove to be an excellent resource for recent work on the Roman Republic and which is particularly useful thanks to its complete listing of works in German. H. has brought out very clearly the importance of the debate opened by Millar and has shown that this debate is far from over. Those who want to follow Millar, however, will now first have to engage seriously with H. and the body of work which he so intelligently articulates.

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