Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.06.35

Hans Beck, Karriere und Hierarchie: die römische Aristokratie und die Anfänge des cursus honorum in der mittleren Republik. Klio. Beiträge zur Alten Geschichte. Beihefte. Neue Folge, Bd. 10.   Berlin:  Akademie Verlag, 2005.  Pp. 452.  ISBN 3-05-004154-4.  €69.80.  

Reviewed by James Thorne, University of Manchester (
Word count: 2045 words

The cursus honorum (which does not appear as a technical term before Cicero) was legally regulated in 180 BC by the lex Villia Annalis. But it had a long prior development: all its elements existed in some form for centuries, during which time they had each changed somewhat in their individual attributes, and thus in their relationship to each other. In this substantial and thought-provoking study, B. charts the evolution of the cursus, focussing particularly on the period from the end of the Samnite Wars to the passing of the lex Villia. Inextricably linked was the development of the Roman 'aristocracy' itself, and this provides the other twin theme of this book: B. concludes that a hierarchisation of the honores went hand in hand with the development of strata within the elite. For this reason such a hierarchisation might even have been resisted in the period immediately after the Licinian-Sextian laws, when a turbulent, rather than stratified, order was in the interests of plebeians trying to establish their place.

The themes are investigated in two very distinct ways: the first (slightly less than) half of the book discusses the nature of the elite and of electoral politics, and examines the individual magistracies one by one, before going on to deal with changing practices in iteration and prorogation; the first half closes with a major section looking for statistical trends revealed by the consular fasti in the period 290-180. The second half comprises the lives of ten outstanding individuals, from Ap. Claudius Caecus down to T. Quinctius Flamininus, and thus covers a slightly more extended period.

Membership of the 'aristocracy' was not directly heritable (hence my scare-quotes, which the reader can henceforth assume), but was defined by office-holding. Nonetheless, because the symbolic capital gained by gaining and holding office does seem to have been heritable (B. rightly adduces Polyb. 6.53-54, on the pompa funebris here), the maximus honos was not very infrequently passed from father to son, or, missing a generation, from grandfather to grandson.

Symbolic capital was clearly important; B. does not, however, successfully isolate it from other potential causes of electoral success. Identifying 16 occasions where an individual won the consulship within one or two years of a close relative also doing so (the gens Atilia did this serially, totting up 4 consulships from 258 to 254), he argues that the later members must have benefited from their forerunner's prestige. But to what extent, if at all? There is the danger of post hoc, propter hoc here. It is possible that, e.g., Cn. Servilius Caepio's consulship (253 BC) helped P. Servilius Geminus to win the consulship for the following year, but it is not demonstrated that both consulships did not follow independently of each other from an antecedent that was common to both. Plenty of possible antecedents can be imagined, including wealth, strength in numbers, and skilful alliance-making. The importance of the last factor is something that would be supported by the pairs of patrician and plebeian families which seem to have prospered together, identified by B. later on, such as, for instance, the Otacilii and Valerii (127).

Perhaps the most interesting, but also the most obviously problematic part of the book is B.'s statistical study of the consular fasti from 290-180 BC. He sets out to answer the following questions: how large was the circle of gentes from which the incumbents of the consulship were recruited, and in this manner defined, or rather reconfirmed, their membership of the nobility? What were the arithmetical chances for the ascent of 'new men'? Was the consulate really transferable from one generation to the next in certain segments of the aristocracy, and if so, under what conditions?

He divides this chronological span into five periods of roughly 20 years each: (1) before the First Punic War, (2) the First Punic War, (3) the inter-war period, (4) the Second Punic War, and (5) the post-war period down to 180. He then defines three categories of consul: those with a consular father or grandfather (category Α); those with a consul in their gens at any prior point, 'the wider aristocracy' (category Β); and 'newcomers' (consciously and very sensibly avoiding 'new man' with its Ciceronian associations), those with no consular heritage at all (category Γ). B. represents these with special symbols, but for typographic reasons I shall here refer to them as Α, Β, and Γ respectively.

Some interesting trends appear. One is the relative opening out of the patrician consulships during the period of the two Punic Wars. The great families, the Cornelii, Fabii, Valerii, Aemilii and patrician Claudii, held in B.'s five successive periods 77, 66, 82, 66, and 71 per cent of the consulships for which they were eligible -- note the depression in their fortunes when Rome was at war with Carthage (periods 2 and 4). Another trend is the fluctuating frequency of consuls from category Α: holding by period 40, 29, 54, 66 and 45 per cent of the posts. It is notable that in the period of their zenith -- the Second Punic War -- not one newcomer held the office after C. Flaminius in 217 and C. Varro in 216. This could be a result of a flight to conservatism in the face of the Hannibalic invasion -- cf. the atavistic religious responses of the time. Or it could be, as B. suggests, more closely connected with Flaminius' and Varro's responsibility for the disasters of Trasimene and Cannae. If the latter, it would seem to show how very contingent factors could deeply impact the eligibility of whole swathes of aristocrats for the highest office.

B.'s assessment of the success of newcomers (category Γ) across his whole period raises a methodological question which does not invalidate the work, but suggests some re-evaluation may be necessary. The newcomers occupied in the five successive periods 38, 28, 25, 8, and 24 per cent of the consulships: a pattern of asymptotic decline excepting the already-mentioned 'hole' of the Second Punic War. But wait: whilst assignment of an individual to category Α is by a criterion constant across time, the criterion which assigns a given consul to category Β actually becomes more generous as time progresses (markedly for plebeians in this period): for example, a plebeian consul in 277 only had ninety years of posterity in which to have had a consular antecedent to qualify for the category, whereas a plebeian consul of 187 had one-hundred and eighty years. This necessarily affects category Γ, which is negatively defined as anyone not in Α or Β.

To what extent the decline in newcomers over periods 1-4 is simply down to these factors, rather than a 'progressing exclusivity' (405), unfortunately my arithmetic is too poor to discern, but it would be interesting to see B. refine his findings along these lines. Certainly it makes the resurgence of newcomers in the first two decades of the second century, which he does highlight, even more striking.

Because 'the statistical evaluation has shown that at all times in the middle Republic there was a significant percentage of new men', B. concludes that the divide between the aristocracy and the rest of the population was not fixed. However, the appearance of a plebeian consul from a new gens from time to time is not open to this interpretation only. Consider the following hypothesis: thirty-seven families monopolise the highest honour (in reality, this was the total number of plebeian gentes holding consulships 290-180), but they are all of equal status to each other, and have an equal chance of getting a member elected. The soonest that they could possibly all have held office once is the thirty-sixth year, but this is in fact extremely unlikely, because it would mean each gens coming out of the hat once, and once only. The chance of any given family out of thirty-seven being missed for n years is easily calculated: (36/37)n. Thus, under the hypothesised conditions, each family would have a 26% chance of not producing a consul until the fiftieth year, and a 2.8% (one thirty-sixth) chance for the one-hundred-and-thirtieth year. Thus newcomers may not represent families on the rise, but rather families in a static status-relation to each other waiting their turn, and with some of them invisible as a result. This wider group may have formed a closed circle: from the statistical evidence there is no way of knowing.

Furthermore, any given family out of the hypothetical equal thirty-six would have a 12% chance of gaining two consulships during one of B.'s 25-year long sample periods. It is therefore open to some question whether such an 'achievement' is a useful marker of an inner circle of families.

B. is happy to admit that the chronological span of the second half of the book is not entirely the same as the first half. He chooses ten great men, each of whom fulfilled at least two of these three criteria: they had outstanding military achievements; they were key to the development of the aristocratic career; and/or they have come to occupy a special place in the Roman literary tradition. In B.'s view, discussion of these figures complements the earlier statistical approach, because they are men about whose lives we know a fair amount -- with due caution to the mythology that grew up about them.

Appius Claudius Caecus, 'the first live personality in Roman history', was no outsider. Rather, B. concludes, his apparently radical reforms were intended to target concrete problems in Roman society, in line with the interests of the aristocracy. His near contemporary, M'. Curius Dentatus, was the son of an Italian municipium. At the time of the formation of the middle Republican aristocracy, he showed what a sheer trajectory a career could exceptionally take when a talented man had the cooperation of circles within the established elite. C. Fabricius' burial within the pomerium was an exceptional honour which shows a status not evidenced in more conventional ways: his two consulships and his two triumphs were on a par with half a dozen other commanders of the Pyrrhic War.

That C. Duilius, who triumphed from the naval battle of Mylae, never held another command is indicative of the rarity of iteration in the 250s, rather than a decline in his fortunes. Meanwhile, the plebeian gens Atilia was unquestionably the most successful of the First Punic War, with six consulships, a proconsulship, a dictatorship, at least one praetorship and two triumphs. For B., the careers of M. Atilius Regulus and A. Atilius Caiatinus demonstrate well the importance of outstanding achievement in rapidly and comprehensively establishing a family in the competition for honores.

C. Flaminius was no 'democrat'. But, B. argues, the career of a dramatic social climber was inherently more likely to be built on radical measures than that of a man from an established circle. Thus his initiation of the land distributions in Gaul is no coincidence.

In dealing with Q. Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, B. stresses the gulf separating the dictator as exemplum and the actual historical figure. His career shows the extent to which customary 'rules' could be stretched and suspended in the emergency of the Hannibalic war in the half-century before the lex Villia. In the same circumstances of crisis, M. Claudius Marcellus was able to carve out an illustrious career, even if it may have started late. This was a career more exclusively based on military prowess and his consular commands than most: at his funeral Marcellus' son could not claim that his father had been censor, dictator and did not even suggest that he had been a good speaker.

The decades following the Second Punic War form the countdown to the lex Villia. It is in this context that the idea of a 'fall of the Scipios' must be seriously questioned. During this period there was a serious attempt to re-regularise the consulship after the special appointments of the war against Hannibal, and this accounts for the restriction of posts. T. Quinctius Flamininus' career illustrates the same dynamic: from an illustrious family, and of proven competence in a long propraetorian command in the Second Punic War, Flamininus was nonetheless very uncertain of his prorogation for 197. Even the most able and ambitious men would now only get one bite of the cherry.

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