Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.10.05

Martin Jehne, Die römische Republik: Von der Gründung bis Caesar.   Munich:  C.H. Beck, 2006.  Pp. 128; ills. 2.  ISBN 3-406-50862-6.  €7.90.  

Reviewed by Craige Champion, Syracuse University (
Word count: 1283 words

This concise volume is part of Beck's Wissen series of affordable monographs on various aspects of classical antiquity. Previously published volumes include Die griechische Frühzeit, Sparta, Die athenische Demokratie, Die Etrusker, Karthago, Augustus und seine Zeit, and Hannibal. Jehne's study presents a fast-paced narrative of Roman history, concentrating on political, military, and socio-economic developments. Roman cultural history receives relatively little attention. This deficiency is perhaps unavoidable, given the constraints imposed by the nature of the series -- it aims to provide brief, authoritative accounts of particular ancient history topics. Since the format does not allow for discussion of modern scholarly controversies and the book does not include notes, I shall summarize the contents and at key points provide references to some of the most important scholarly literature.

The first chapter (6-15) discusses the prehistory of the Roman Republic. Jehne (J.) stresses the difficulties of the Roman literary tradition on Rome's regal period, written down centuries after the historical events. The tradition on the expulsion of Tarquinius Superbus and the foundation of the Republic is particularly problematic. J. argues that historians should appreciate the continuities -- political terminology, magisterial insignia, ritual practices -- linking the regal to the early republican period more than they are accustomed to do, since they are under the influence of the dramatizing Roman historiographical tradition (Livy's account of the rape of Lucretia provides perhaps the most striking illustration). The emphasis on continuity as opposed to historical rupture is reflected in the chapter title, "Von der Gesellschaft ohne Staat zur Gesellschaft ohne König."1

The second chapter (16-24) summarizes the evidence for Rome's rise in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E. J. briskly narrates the stories of Rome's leadership role in rebuffing attacks of the hill peoples, tensions among Latin states arising from Rome's primacy, the beginnings of Roman colonization, the siege of Veii, and the disastrous Gallic sack of the city, which left an indelible impression on the collective Roman psyche.2 Unfortunately, J. does not discuss at any length the historiographical problems arising from Livy's narrative of both the siege of Veii and the Gallic attack for the historical reconstruction of these events. After the Roman recovery, Rome's orbit expanded dramatically with the final subjugation of the Latin states in 338 and the difficult victory over the Samnite confederation at the beginning of the third century. J. sums up the period as follows: "Roms Bündnissystem war jedoch eine reine Kriegsorganisation" (24).3

The third chapter (24-37) addresses political and socio-economic tensions within Roman society and their interrelationships with Roman war-making. Two basic ideas emerge from this discussion: (1) war served as a galvanizing agent for solidarity of the Roman political community;4 and (2) the so-called "Struggle of the Orders" must be understood in terms of the sharply divergent desires of two groups: the wealthy, landed gentry and the poor commoners within the plebeian order. Concerning the poorer plebeians, even the codification of Roman law was not a clear improvement.5 If we are to think of a winner in the "Struggle," it would have to be the elite plebeians, who obtained the consulate and ultimately, with passage of the lex Ogulnia of 300, admission to the priesthoods.6

The fourth chapter (37-56) treats the third century, with the inevitable focus on the Pyrrhic and first two Punic wars. Rome came into close contact with the Greek states in southern Italy in the opening decades of the century. Roman assistance to beleaguered Thurii in 282 aroused alarm at Tarentum.7 L. Postumius Megellus' disastrous attempt to address the Tarentine assembly in Greek leads to a brief discussion of the cultural politics of Hellenism at Rome (39).8 J. stresses the qualities of the Roman political and military organization of its allies and resultant military stamina in his account of the Pyrrhic and First Punic wars (40: "pathologischen Durchhaltevermögen"). His discussion of the outbreak of the First Punic War sidesteps the maddeningly difficult passage at Polybius 1.11.2, which has spawned a scholarly debate as to whether the Senate or comitia determined the crossing to Messana.9 The discussion of the Second Punic war is an able summary of Polybius and Livy, though J. might have given more space to the Spanish theater.10 In this section J. briefly discusses the Roman conception of provincia and the way it changed over time (49-50).11

The fifth chapter (57-71) opens with the consul P. Sulpicius Galba's attempt in 200 to persuade the people to vote for war against Macedonia. This is a fascinating moment in Roman history, as the people at first refused to vote for war, only to change its decision in a subsequent meeting. The event raises the question of the degree of control the Roman senatorial elite was able to exercise over the ostensibly free and open popular political assemblies. The traditional view was that the Roman elite exercised the "Iron Law of Oligarchy"; that there was no real popular power in Roman republican political life. In recent decades, however, a revisionist interpretation has it that the powers of the popular assemblies at Rome must be taken seriously; perhaps Polybius was right after all.12 J. clearly adheres to the traditional view (58: "die demokratischen Elemente im römischen Verfassungsleben eher unausgeprägt blieben").13 This chapter moves the narrative through the Roman wars against Macedonia to the catastrophic year 146, in which the Romans destroyed both Corinth and Carthage -- establishing themselves beyond a shadow of a doubt as Mediterranean hegemon.

The sixth and seventh chapters (71-81, 81-101) examine the political, military, social, and economic ramifications of the halt of the rapid Roman imperial expansion that had characterized the preceding period ca. 200-150. The historical narrative begins with the socio-economic impact of Aemilius Paullus' victory at Pydna and ends with the dictatorship of Sulla. Questions of persistent importance throughout this period concern the army and the land. The standard reconstruction emphasizes the large land acquisitions in Italy on the part of the Roman elite, the retreat of the small farmer to urban areas, the massive importation of slave labor, and the dwindling numbers of assidui leading to military recruitment crisis.14 These events provide the background for the Gracchan reform program. N. Rosenstein has recently challenged this entire picture, and J. alludes to the revisionist interpretation.15 As for the Gracchi themselves, J. sees them as examples, albeit extreme, of typically Roman personality politics rather than as enlightened visionaries. In any event, the aftermath of the Gracchan failure led to the rise of the warlords and the startling careers of Marius and Sulla, which J. handles well and succinctly to bring this section to a close.

The eighth and final chapter (101-123) deals with the failure of the Sullan constitution, the turbulent 70s and 60s, Pompey's career, the meteoric rise and fall of Caesar, and the final dissolution of republican government under the warlords.16 J. might have devoted some more space to the historical significance of Caesar's extension of the Roman citizenship,17 as well as his political opposition in Rome. A timeline, selected bibliography, register of persons, and two maps (the Mediterranean in the third century B.C.E.; the Roman empire at Caesar's death) round off the volume.

Throughout J.'s presentation is crisp and clear, and well informed by the most recent scholarly debates among Roman historians. It serves as a reliable and concise guide to the history of the Roman Republic. An English-language counterpart of the same quality is a desideratum.18 On second thought, this may not seem desirable to the wizened instructor of undergraduate courses in Roman history. It is difficult enough to get students to read the sources, and such a handy English-language equivalent might encourage them to forego assigned readings, relying on a single, slim book as very high quality Cliffs Notes.


1.   See T.J. Cornell, The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars, c. 1000-264 B.C. (London and New York 1995) 119-241; G. Forsythe, A Critical History of Early Rome: From Prehistory to the First Punic War (Berkeley 2006).
2.   See H. Bellen, Metus Gallicus-Metus Punicus: Zum Furchtmotiv in der römischen Republik (Wiesbaden 1985) 11-19.
3.   But in later periods there are curious periods of Roman military inactivity: J. Rich, "Fear, Greed, and Glory: The Causes of Roman War-Making in the Middle Republic," in War and Society in the Roman World, edited by J. Rich and G. Shipley (London and New York 1993) 44-55.
4.   "Dass die Spaltungen in der Bürgerschaft nicht zur Auflösung des Gemeinswesens führten, lag wesentlich an der Tatsache, dass es immer wieder etwas zu verteilen gab" (31). For the locus classicus, see D.H. Ant. Rom. 10.33.
5.   "Doch spricht manches für eine gegenteilige Deutung: Der Adel bemühte sich, durch die Kodifikation das Ensemble der eigenen Vorrechte, das im Verhaltenswandel langsam zu zerbröckeln begann, ein für alle Mal festzuschreiben" (32). Cf. W. Eder, "The Political Significance of the Codification of Law in Archaic Societies: An Unconventional Hypothesis," in Social Struggles in Archaic Rome, edited by K.A. Raaflaub (Berkeley 1986) 262-300.
6.   Cf. P.A. Brunt, Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic (London 1971) 58-59: "A new nobility arose to which only a few plebeians were admitted, and which was as dominant as the patricians had been. Its economic interests and oligarchic sentiments were no different. The order of society was basically unchanged. The old social conflicts were to reappear, but it was harder for the poor to find champions, once the political ambitions of the rich plebeians had been satisfied."
7.   See Christopher L.H. Barnes, Images and Insults: Ancient Historiography and the Outbreak of the Tarentine War (Stuttgart 2005).
8.   Postumius Megellus at Tarentum: MRR 1.189-90. I have attempted to demonstrate the complexities of this cultural politics in my Cultural Politics in Polybius's Histories (Berkeley 2004), esp. 47-63.
9.   See A.M. Eckstein, "Polybius on the Role of the Senate in the Crisis of 264 B.C.," GRBS 21 (1980) 175-90; B.D. Hoyos, "Polybius' Roman hoi polloi in 264 B.C.," LCM 9.6 (1984) 88-93.
10.   See D. Hoyos, Unplanned Wars: The Origins of the First and Second Punic Wars, 247-183 B.C. (Berlin and New York 1998); id., Hannibal's Dynasty: Power and Politics in the Western Mediterranean, 247-183 B.C. (Oxford 2005). For the Spanish theater, see J.S. Richardson, The Romans in Spain (Oxford 1998); id., Hispaniae: Spain and the Development of Roman Imperialism, 218-82 B.C., third edition (Cambridge 2004).
11.   See J.S. Richardson, "Imperium Romanum: Empire and the Language of Power," JRS 81 (1991) 1-19.
12.   See principally F. Millar in JRS 1984, 1986, and 1989; also his The Crowd in the Late Roman Republic (Ann Arbor 1998). I attempted to temper this position in my review of F. Pina Polo, Contra Arma Verbis: Der Redner vor dem Volk in der später römischen Republik (Stuttgart 1996): Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.3.36. See now R. Morstein-Marx, Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late Roman Republic (Cambridge 2004), with the insightful review of A.M. Riggsby in Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.03.10, for discussion and further references.
13.   See collected essays in Demokratie in Rom? Die Rolle des Volkes in der Politik der römischen Republik, edited by M. Jehne (Stuttgart 1995). Also K-J Hölkeskamp, Rekonstruktion einer Republik: Die politische Kultur des antiken Rom und die Forschung der letzten Jahrzehnte (Munich 2004).
14.   See, for example, K. Hopkins, Conquerors and Slaves: Sociological Studies in Roman History (Cambridge 1978) 1-98.
15.   "Der Gutsbesitz dehnte sich aus, und auch wenn wir inzwischen wissen, dass die Kleinbauern nicht überall verdrängt wurden, so ist doch klar, dass es ingesamt einen gewissen Rückgang an Bauernstellen gab" (77). N. Rosenstein, Rome at War: Farms, Families, and Death in the Middle Republic (Chapel Hill 2004).
16.   To my mind, the following English-language works are among the most useful for understanding this period: E. Badian, Roman Imperialism in the Late Republic (Oxford 1968); P.A. Brunt, The Fall of the Roman Republic and Related Essays (Oxford 1988); M. Beard and M. Crawford, Rome in the Late Republic (Ithaca 1985). E.S. Gruen, The Last Generation of the Roman Republic (Berkeley repr. 1995) provides a meticulously constructed, if highly unorthodox, reconstruction.
17.   The classic work remains A.N. Sherwin-White, The Roman Citizenship, second edition (Oxford 1973); see also R. MacMullen, Romanization in the Time of Augustus (New Haven 2000).
18.   We now have a more comprehensive study in K. Bringmann, History of the Roman Republic (Cambridge 2006).

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