Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.07.56

Uwe Walter, Memoria und res publica. Zur Geschichtskultur im republikanischen Rom. Studien zur Alten Geschichte, Band 1.   Frankfurt am Main:  Verlag Antike, 2004.  Pp. 478.  ISBN 3-938032-00-6.  €49.90.  

Reviewed by Alain M. Gowing, University of Washington (
Word count: 923 words

In this important, richly detailed, and hefty book, Uwe Walter (W.) explores the nature of history in and the historical imagination of the Roman Republic. As he puts it in the foreword, his interests lie not in the nitty-gritty facts of history, but rather in how history 'got into the heads' of Republican Romans. Not res gestae or 'events', in other words, but the memoria rerum gestarum -- how those events were remembered.

Thus memoria and what it meant for the Romans furnish the point of departure for the book's initial chapter, certainly one of the most valuable -- if not the most challenging -- of the book's 10 chapters. Rightly noting the undeniable link between history and memory in Roman thought, W. makes occasional nods to the considerable body of modern work on the nature of memory and historical memory in particular, yet emphasizes the distinctive qualities of Roman Geschichtskultur, the chief subject of the book. The word defies easy translation in English, but W. defines it as the 'practical and effective articulation of historical consciousness in the life of a community' (p. 20). Under the Republic, W. suggests, the desire to 'articulate' or express its history was ubiquitous, thereby fostering a 'culture of history' that left its mark on virtually every aspect of Roman life and society. The remainder of the book demonstrates just how correct this observation is.

W. organizes the subsequent eight chapters under rubrics representative of the various means by which historical memory was preserved and handed down in Republican Rome. A summary of these will give a sense of the remarkable breadth and aim of the book: oral tradition as it would have been kept alive in education, oratory, and performance, with special attention to the nature of exempla; the Memorialpraxis of the Roman aristocracy as manifested in portraits, funeral processions, gravesite monuments, and coins; public memorials, ranging from statues to commemorative paintings, as crossroads of Geschichtskultur; real and imagined 'places of memory' (e.g., the Forum, the hut of Romulus, Veii, etc.); and non-literary texts such as the fasti or the annales maximi and their place in Geschichtskultur. In Chapter 7, at well over 100 pages the longest chapter in the book by a substantial margin, W. shifts gears a bit, focusing his attention on memoria as literary text. Each major historical writer (either in poetry or prose), from Naevius to Cn. Gellius and almost everyone in between, receives individual treatment. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the changes in historical writing that took place in the 1st century; this is explored still further in the brief Chapter 8, which focuses more specifically on the interest in 'prosopography' that developed in the late Republic, with specific emphasis on Cicero. In Chapter 9 W. returns to exempla, tracing the evolution in Roman thought of Numa Pompilius and Camillus, two especially important characters whose careers equipped the Romans with enduring if ever-shifting paradigms. The book finishes with a brief look at the Augustan period, when in W.'s view the Republican Geschichtskultur fades away.

The varied subject matter of each of these chapters is amply illustrated with examples drawn from the full spectrum of available evidence. And, as is apparent from the summary of the topics covered, W. ranges easily and confidently from literary evidence to material remains; his command of secondary scholarship is impressive, and in this respect the book will prove to be an invaluable resource. Some of the discussions -- for example, on the self-memorializing tendencies of the Claudii, historical paintings, the identity of the elusive historian Fannius, or the centrality of historical writing in Geschichtskultur (more problematic than one might imagine) -- constitute substantial and often original studies in and of themselves. Moreover, if at times the reader may feel overwhelmed by the sheer weight of detail, W. does manage to conjure as complete and compelling a picture of the 'historical culture' of the Roman Republic as one will find. While W.'s treatment of individual issues and topics covers a good deal of familiar ground, I can think of no comparable work that synthesizes and makes sense of the truly vast amount of material covered in this book. I very much regret, in fact, that Memoria und res publica appeared too late to be of any use to me as I was writing my own contribution to the phenomenon of historical memory in Roman culture (Empire and Memory. The Representation of the Roman Republic in Imperial Culture [Cambridge 2005]). Although the scope and aim of Empire and Memory are considerably different from those of Memoria und res publica, W. elucidates in expert detail precisely the sort of 'culture of history' that I argue underlies the process whereby the Principate individuated itself from the Republic as well as that process's attendant anxieties.

The high quality of this book will surprise no one familiar with W.'s previous work. Co-editor with Hans Beck of the well-received Die frühen römischen Historiker (Darmstadt 2001-04), a 2-volume update of Peter's Historicorum Romanorum Reliquiae (volume 1 is reviewed by Gary Forsythe in BMCR 2002.04.28), W. has rapidly emerged as one of the most authoritative voices in studies of Republican historical writing. Clearly the work of a tremendously gifted scholar, Memoria und res publica presents us with the first truly holistic picture of historical culture in Republican Rome. In many respects, this is without doubt one of the most significant books about the Republic to appear in recent years and should set the standard for discussions of the subject for some time to come.

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