Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.05.34

Jesper Carlsen, The Rise and Fall of a Roman Noble Family. The Domitii Ahenobarbi 196 BC-AD 68.   Odense:  University Press of Southern Denmark, 2006.  Pp. 259.  ISBN 87-7838-996-8.  DKK278.00.  



Reviewed by Robin Seager, University of Liverpool (rseager@liv.ac.uk)
Word count: 1452 words

An introduction examines the legend which accounts for the origin of the name Ahenobarbus, contrasting its limited application (the cognomen of one branch of the gens) with more ambitious claims to divine or Trojan origins. The problems caused by largely hostile sources are noted, as is the extreme difficulty of identifying members of the family on monuments: there is no certain portrait of any Ahenobarbus apart from Nero. A somewhat grandiose aim is stated: to produce a 'synthesis of the political, social and economic history of the Roman empire from 200 BC to AD 70', and it is admitted that 'some repetitions between the different chapters are inevitable', as proves indeed to be the case.

Those chapters treat what (little) is known of the family under various headings. The first and most substantial, 'Persons', offers biographies of all members of whom anything can be said. 'Property' examines the evidence for the family's houses and estates in Rome, Italy and the provinces and its sources of income. 'Political Practice' considers elections and magistracies, factions, political trials and propaganda; 'Religion', priesthoods and dedications. 'Social Life' covers marriages, children, education, friends and clients. A brief summary of 'Conclusions' is followed by two useful appendices of inscriptions featuring family members. There are numerous useful illustrations of coins, inscriptions and monuments, also various plans and maps.

'Persons' opens with just criticism of the deficiencies of Suetonius' account of the family, the chief purpose of which is to provide a prehistory of Nero's supposedly hereditary vices. Individual biographies are marked by extreme caution, for instance on the role of Cn., cos. 192, in the battle of Magnesia, and the so-called Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus in connection with Cn., cos. 122. Under Cn., cos. 96, C. supports 118 for the foundation of Narbo, but more might have been said about its purpose and its possible relation to similar foundations of C. Gracchus. Nor is this man's tribunate placed in the context of the flurry of popular legislation that preceded the eruption onto the scene of Saturninus. C. is again justifiably cautious on relations between the Domitii and the Metelli. The conclusion that Cn.'s early career was chiefly devoted to the pursuit of his own and his family's interests is true, if hardly surprising. The 'Marian' Cn., ob. 82, is identified as son of either Cn., cos. 96, or L., cos. 94, and elder brother of the best-attested republican member of the family, L., cos. 54. The account of this man might have been usefully expanded at more than one point. C. does not consider why he was so important to Cicero's election campaign, nor is there any real attempt to explain what Domitius and Ap. Claudius were up to in the notorious bribery scandal of 54. On the fall of Corfinium C. rightly refuses to put all the blame on Domitius, but does not bring out the extent of Pompey's secretiveness in his dealings with Domitius and other republican commanders or the reasons for it.

As for the Ahenobarbi of the triumvirate and principate, C. assumes that Cn., cos. 32, was not yet a senator at the time of Caesar's assassination. Later he was a leading figure in the resistance to monarchy, especially after the deaths of Brutus and Cassius, though he distanced himself from Sex. Pompeius. His eventual commitment to Antony was undermined by his hostility to Cleopatra, whose growing influence led to his change of sides before Actium. C. is right to say that there is no point in speculating how he might have got on with Octavian had he lived, and to reject rash attempts to link the Cartoceto bronzes with this or any other Ahenobarbus. He is also justified in insisting that L., cos. 16, husband of Antonia Maior, was a major figure in the Augustan aristocracy, the holder of important commands, especially during Tiberius' absence on Rhodes. He then vanishes from the record till his reappearance as executor of Augustus' will, but C. is reluctant on that account to call him an enemy of Tiberius. It might be fairer and more prudent to say that he can hardly have been a friend. C. is also inclined to see Suetonius' hostile portrayal as exaggerated. It is true that there is nothing similar in Tacitus, but Suetonius is very specific in his charges. But all in all this Domitius is, as C. says, a paradigm of rapid and successful adjustment to the new order. On Cn., cos. AD 32, C. offers no opinion as to whether he is the Cn. Domitius of Suet. Nero 5.1, but speculates that the late flowering of his career was due to idleness rather than any political cause, though he may have been out of favour during the supremacy of Sejanus. He notes the sharp contrast between Suetonius' critical picture and the positive judgement of Velleius, but deems it 'impossible to be sure' which (if either) is correct. To penetrate beneath the stereotypes of both Nero's aunts is hard, but C. rightly insists that Domitia Lepida's trial was political, and assumes, reasonably enough, that Domitia was not murdered by Nero but died a natural death. Nero himself is treated in detail only up to his accession, but C. notes that in the later part of his reign he tended to stress his birth ancestry as against his place in the imperial house.

The chapter on 'Property' includes much material of doubtful relevance en route to largely negative conclusions: very little is known of the location of the estates in Italy or the houses in Rome of the Ahenobarbi or other senatorial families, though the Ahenobarbi had land in the territory of Cosa. The offer made by L., cos. 54, at Corfinium shows that their overall holdings must have been very substantial. Even less can be said with any confidence about the family's properties in the provinces or the sources of their income.

'Political Practice' takes many pages to reach the predictable result that there is virtually no information on the family's strategies for attaining political office. Of L., cos. 54, it is said that he opposed the predominance of any individual or small group. One might wonder whether this were so if the small group included himself. C. remarks that his importance, despite his youth, to Cicero's campaign for the consulship proves his influence, but there is no discussion of why he was so important or whether he delivered. (On which matters, cf. LCM 1, 1976, 46.) After a rather pointless treatment of the Commentariolum Petitionis another long discussion, this time on factions, again leads to only general, negative and hardly novel conclusions: 'it is impossible to classify the Domitii Ahenobarbi unambiguously as friends or enemies of important political groups'. On trials C. rightly sees the motives for the prosecution of M. Scaurus by Cn., cos. 96 as essentially personal. The sections on propaganda and clientela are again extremely cautious.

Under 'Religion' C. examines the priesthoods held by Ahenobarbi and concludes, despite the notorious failure of L., cos. 54, to secure an augurate in 50, that the family was more concerned with the pontificate. Under the principate it was also associated with the Arvales. Dedications by Ahenobarbi show no particular link with the Dioscuri, but in the late republic they display some interest in Neptune. The only guaranteed altar set up by a member of the family is that on the Elbe.

'Social Life' summarises what little is known of the family's marriages and rightly stresses that the claim that it produced only one child per generation is exaggerated.

The 'Conclusions' rehearse the prosopographical facts and repeat that the family's policy was one of opposition to the concentration of power in the hands of one man or a small group and might be defined as conservative in the sense of dedicated to the defence of the existing political system and traditional norms and values. Nevertheless the later Ahenobarbi showed resilience and ability to adapt to changing times according to the recipe formulated by Tac. Ann. 1.2. C. once more claims that the cruelty, arrogance and lust attributed to the family, as well as the interest in horse-racing and charioteering, may be invented or at least exaggerated to prepare the ground for Nero. Yet such traits and interests may in fact pass from generation to generation.

At the end of the day one is left wondering whether such an enterprise was not predestined to failure by the paucity and unreliability of the evidence, which simply does not allow us to get far beyond the type of purely factual information to be found, for instance, in encyclopedia articles on the individual members of the Domitii Ahenobarbi (or indeed of almost any other senatorial family).

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