Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.04.24
Umberto Laffi, Colonie e municipi nello stato romano. Storia e Letteratura, Raccolta di Studi e Testi 239. Roma: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 2007. Pp. 278. ISBN 978-88-8498-350-3. €38.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Roman Roth, University of Cambridge (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Word count: 1297 words
With Colonie e municipi nello stato romano Laffi offers the reader a collection of his own articles on the subjects of Roman colonies and municipia, which were first published in various journals and edited volumes between 2001 and 2004. Although the discussion touches upon the subject of Roman colonies in the provinces of the Empire, the main focus of the collected essays is on the situation in Italy during the Republic and Principate. The emphasis of Laffi's work lies on the constitutional and administrative structures of different types of urban settlements, drawing primarily on epigraphic, literary and numismatic sources, and ranges from individual case studies to more synthetic discussions. As is inevitably the case with such collections, there is a degree of overlap between several of the contributions (see also below). However, this should not detract from the overall coherent account of the place of coloniae and municipia in the constitutional and, by extension, cultural history of Rome, which this book succeeds in giving
The essays are arranged in three sections: 'Studi di carattere generale', 'Colonie' and 'Municipi', followed by exhaustive indices. Of the five papers collected in the general section, three in particular provide the thematic and conceptual nuts and bolts of the volume. The first, 'La colonizzazione romana nell'età della repubblica' (15-37) is a superbly written and wide ranging tour de force through the history of Republican colonisation. In the concluding statement to this paper Laffi writes that '[i]l fenomeno colonario costituisce una costante nella storia di Roma repubblicana'. This, in many ways, sums up the raison d'être of the volume: namely, to analyse the cultural roots and the evolution of how this 'colonial phenomenon' was institutionalised, as well as the changing political circumstances in which this happened--down to the point by which 'colonia' had become to designate a particular form of settled community without necessarily involving the movement of people. 'La struttura costituzionale nei municipi e nelle colonie romane. Magistrati, decurioni, popolo' (49-81) considers this institutional evolution from the specific point of view of the personnel involved in the running of 'colonia' and 'municipia'. As a cautionary tale regarding the difficulties involved in understanding the competences of such magistrates, Laffi offers a new analysis of a well-known passage in Livy (XXIII, 4, 2-3), which has usually been treated as evidence for the judicial roles of the 'meddix tuticus' ever since Mommsen first interpreted it in such a way. By contrast, Laffi suggests--convincingly in my view--that what the passage really means is that the Capuan senators ought to be acting as judges, a duty which, by 217 BC, they had begun to neglect (50-52)--a statement, the advocatus diaboli might add, which might tell us at least as much about Livy's view of events nearer his own time as it does about third-century Capua. While there were rules regarding the type of government in 'coloniae' and 'municipia'--the 'duovirate' and the 'quattuorvirate' respectively--Laffi points to a number of significant exceptions to this rule, in Italy as well as in Spain and Asia, although it is not always possible to explain what led to them. In some cases, at least, former 'municipia' that had turned into 'coloniae' seem to have retained (at least for a while) quattuorviral governments. In the case of a number of 'municipia' that had existed before the Social War, traditional magistracies (or, at any rate, perceived as such) were retained, about the functions of which we usually know next to nothing. While showing certain trends towards standardisation, therefore, local government in Italy (and beyond) during the late Republic is just as much characterised by institutional flexibility, variation and, if not tradition, then at least traditionalism.
These observations tie in with Laffi's next chapter on the establishment of the Augustan regions in Italy (81-118). Laffi's emphasis on the distinction between constitutional ('posizione costituzionale') and administrative ('posizione del governo') aspects of the position of Italy under the early Principate seems to be important here. While, as Laffi rightly points out, his constitutional position(s) would have given Augustus free reign to impose on Italy whatever governmental structures he wished, he deliberately chose to leave the administration to local magistrates. As Laffi and others before him have pointed out, this may indeed have been a show of the Princeps'respect for local traditions and faith in the loyalty of the inhabitants of his 'tota Italia'. The establishment of the 'regiones' does not contradict this attitude: this system may not only reflect Italian traditionalism, as well as, in some cases such as southern central Italy, regional identities that had more recently developed independently of historical regions such as Samnium, which no longer represented culturally unified areas and were therefore fragmented by the regional structure. More provocatively, perhaps, Laffi suggests that Augustus' regions did not have any administrative function whatsoever, a position which Laffi compares to that of the 'Regioni' of the modern Italian state until 1970, and which subsequently changed under Augustus' successors.
The second and third sections of the book are given to case studies that reinforce the more observations made in the general part. Laffi emphasises the individual treatment each case merits and, as part of this, also demonstrates the importance of detailed source criticism to emphasise the point that the structures of urban settlements in Italy and the Empire is much less of a foregone conclusion than might sometimes be assumed. These case studies address the nature of certain magistracies (chapter 6), the usefulness (or not) of nomenclature to establish typologies of colonies (chapter 7), as well as the constitution of specific 'coloniae' and 'municipia' (chapters 8 -10) on the basis of detailed studies of the relevant inscriptions.
'Colonie e municipi nello stato romano' thus provides a wide-ranging (yet largely coherent) treatment of a subject, which no Historian of Roman Italy should ignore. Indeed, the book has important contributions to make to the current and lively debate about colonisation and urbanism in the ancient Mediterranean.1 The subject of the book is, of course, a complex one and may at first appear daunting to those who approach colonisation primarily from culture-historical and archaeological points of view. However, Laffi's highly readable account, especially in the three principal chapters identified here, not only gives the less specialised reader an accessible introduction to the main debates as well as some of the principal sources, but also provides food for thought with regard to what may be a point of wider interest to those interested in the nature of Greek and Roman colonisation: namely the long-standing, constantly evolving and even experimental efforts of the Roman state to find appropriate ways of dealing with the omnipresent phenomenon of human mobility in the ancient Mediterranean (and its implications for settlement structures) at an institutional level.
The volume can thus be highly recommended to a wider readership of Roman Historians and Archaeologists. Owing to its very nature as a collection of essays by one scholar, there is a degree of overlap between some of the papers. Only in one case, however, has this led to the superfluous repetition of material and, indeed, actual wording: this is chapter 2 which merely represents a lecture-style summary (without annotation) of the argument presented in the previous chapter. By contrast, the detailed analysis of Pliny's description of the Augustan regions in chapter 5 follows on neatly from Laffi's more general treatment of the subject (chapter 4, cf. above), and shows how this kind of book can succeed at uniting separately published yet closely related pieces for the reader's benefit. The volume is immaculately produced, including a number of useful illustrations (some in colour), as well as (last but not least) a remarkably detailed set of indices. The fair price at which this book is offered makes one hope that it will find its way into many libraries and studies.
1. For recent overviews, see, for instance, G. Bradley and J.-P. Wilson, Greek and Roman Colonization. Origins, Ideologies and Interactions, Swansea 2006, as well as the forthcoming volumes published by the 'Greek Colonization and European Development' Project of the Faculty of Classics, Cambridge.