Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.07.73

Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp, Senatus Populusque Romanus. Die politische Kultur der Republik-Dimensionen und Deutungen.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2004.  Pp. 334.  ISBN 3-515-08594-7.  €48.00.  



Reviewed by Chris Epplett, Department of History, University of Lethbridge (christopher.epplett@uleth.ca)
Word count: 1493 words

This book offers a collection of nine previously published articles by Hölkeskamp (hereafter H.) to illustrate the debate over the 'political culture' of the Roman Republic. In H.'s view, much can be understood about the political system of Republican Rome by studying such cultural aspects as the collective memory and ideology that underlay it. In order to illustrate the progression of the scholarly debate, as well as his own conclusions on the topic, the author has left the original text of the earlier articles unaltered, with addenda for each, and, in some cases, new illustrations. The first and last articles, which originally appeared in English, have been translated into German, presumably for the sake of consistency, In addition, the articles appear to be arranged thematically (although there are no formal section headings within the book) rather than following the strict chronological sequence in which they were originally published. The only minor drawback to this arrangement, as H. himself notes in his introduction, is the periodic repetition between articles. For ease of reference, H. has included a comprehensive bibliography (pp. 281-322) and index (pp. 325-34) for all of the articles contained in the book.

It is beyond the scope of this review to treat each article in depth, but a sampling will indicate some of the main themes. A few of the articles take issue with traditional interpretations of various aspects of Roman politics and society during the Early and Middle Republic. The first article, 'War, Competition and Consensus' (pp. 11-48), contests the view that the new plebeian-patrician aristocracy in the latter 4th and early 3rd centuries BC emerged largely as a result of the old patrician aristocracy incorporating members of the plebeian elite (pp. 14-17). Instead, he argues that prominent plebeians took a much more 'proactive' role in the formation of the new senatorial aristocracy and that a number of factors contributed to their success, most notably the military victories and territorial expansion that Rome was enjoying during the period (pp. 17-19). In sum, prominent plebeians aspiring to political leadership, who, unlike the patricians, could not use their illustrious ancestry as justification, had to rely upon their individual leadership qualities, particularly in the military sphere, to justify their imperium. In H.'s view, the military success of many plebeian leaders and the new wealth and territory it brought to Rome, confirmed to many Romans that talent and proven ability in the service of the state were more important criteria for high political office than illustrious ancestry alone. Henceforth, the ideology of service for the res publica and the expected rewards (honores) for such service became integral to the ethos of the new senatorial aristocracy, plebeian and patrician alike (pp. 27-28). One of the most important reasons that the Senate grew in importance and prestige at this time was that it was composed of current and ex-magistrates who had earned such honores through their service to the state (pp. 36-38).

In his second article, 'The Emergence of the Nobility and the Change in Function of the Tribune' (pp. 49-83), the author once again challenges the traditional view by arguing that the importance of the lex Hortensia as marking the integration of the tribunate with the nobility, has been exaggerated by scholars (pp. 53-55). In H.'s view, this integration had already occurred by 287 BC, and even before this date the Senate and tribunes had occasionally worked together in passing plebiscites to satisfy mutual concerns, such as the establishment of colonies (pp. 77-78). The lex Hortensia was not passed to protect the interests of the plebeian elite, as commonly assumed, but to further the current demands of the broader plebeian population for debt reform, demands over which the tribunes and the Senate had previously been unable to reach an agreement (pp. 78-81).

A number of other articles in H.'s book are meant to illustrate the all-important role that 'collective memory' played in the political life of Rome. In his fifth article, 'Capital, Comitium and Forum: public spaces, sacred topography and landscapes of memory' (pp. 137-68), the author discusses the numerous monuments built throughout the city commemorating important events in the history (or alleged history) of Rome, thereby reinforcing the collective memory of its inhabitants. The temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, for example, was not merely important as a religious centre but also came to symbolize, through the foundation legends associated with it, the establishment of the Republic and the eternal rule vouchsafed to Rome by the gods (pp. 139-41, 145-46). H. also discusses the multitude of temples and other monuments dedicated by victorious Roman commanders in the Republican period that served to reinforce the collective heritage of the city's inhabitants (pp. 151-56). In the author's view, such monuments, evocative of Rome's past triumphs and divine destiny, played a critical role in constantly reminding Romans of their historical mission, and inspiring them to carry on that mission by equaling or surpassing the achievements of the illustrious ancestors maiores responsible for them (pp. 163-65).

H. continues his analysis of the Roman collective memory in subsequent articles. In 'Exempla and mos maiorum (pp. 169-98), he discusses the means by which the Roman collective memory was expressed, and analyzes the typical forms that historical recollection took in Roman society: the Romans were more interested in an 'anecdotal' form of history, focusing upon the deeds (res gestae and the exempla of both proper and improper behaviour provided by their ancestors, than they were in the broad continuum of historical events (pp. 176-77, pp. 180-81). Such was the prestige of the maiores and the values they stood for (e.g. the pietas of the Decii) that they not only influenced the behaviour of the Roman populace and its political leaders but also inspired the latter to emulate the achievements of their ancestors in the service of the state, in the hope of being regarded as maiores themselves by future generations (pp. 183-90). In H.'s view, the increasing political competitiveness of Roman nobles in the late Republic, with the consequent growing disregard for the collective traditions laid down by the maiores, was an important factor in the ultimate downfall of the Republic (pp. 193-95).

H. addresses one of the primary means by which ambitious aristocrats could outdo their political rivals in the eighth article of the book, Oratoris maxima scaena: speeches before the people in the political culture of the Republic" (pp. 219-54). Such speeches were an ideal means for a novus homo, such as Cato the Elder or Cicero, to gain standing through his eloquentia (pp. 229-32). In H.'s opinion, the most important venues for oratory in the Republic, more important than even the law-courts or the Senate, were the contiones (pp. 232-37). According to the author, speeches given before contiones were important not only because they allowed leaders to justify their actions, but also because they reinforced the social and political hierarchy in Rome. Although the orators on these occasions were careful to stress their shared identity with the audience, by identifying, for example, the common values and exempla bestowed upon all Romans by the maiores, they were careful at the same time to justify their claim to continued leadership by emphasizing their own auctoritas, a product of such factors as their social rank and past achievements on behalf of the state (pp. 242-54).

The final article in H.'s book, a review of Fergus Millar's The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic (pp. 257-80), can be viewed in some respects as a summation of the author's conclusions presented elsewhere. In criticizing Millar's view of the Republic as a direct democracy contingent upon the sovereignty and voting power of the Roman people (pp. 257-58), H. argues his own viewpoint, namely that the Republic was a meritocracy dependent upon the uneven social hierarchy between the ruling and the lower classes. In the author's opinion, it was this hierarchy, constantly reinforced through such means as rituals, monuments, and oratory, which ensured the continuing political dominance of the Roman nobiles. The primacy of the Roman Senate rested not upon any formal powers, but upon the auctoritas of its members (pp. 264-66).

H.'s book is a very useful contribution to the study of Roman political culture during the Republic. The different articles are well integrated, with a common bibliography and index, and the reviewer found only two minor printing errors in the entire book. The author is quite thorough in his presentation of evidence, making use of artistic as well as literary evidence where appropriate. Taken as a whole, the book successfully illustrates the evolving scholarly debate over the nature of the Republic's political culture, and the important contributions that Roman social values and ideology made to it. Of course, as the author makes clear in his selection of articles, a great deal of scholarly debate remains concerning this topic: in H.'s own words, '... we stand at the end of the beginning ...' (p. 277). Nonetheless, H.'s book is an important resource for further research.

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