Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.04.60

Rolf Rilinger, Ordo und dignitas. Beiträge zur römischen Verfassungs- und Sozialgeschichte.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2007.  Pp. 400.  ISBN 978-3-515-08609-7.  €72.00.  

Reviewed by Carlos Sánchez-Moreno Ellart, University of Valencia and CEIPAC (University of Barcelona) (,
Word count: 2384 words

This interesting book brings together eleven remarkable papers published between 1978 and 1997 by the lately deceased Rolf Rilinger (1942-2003). Now, a few years after his demise, these articles have been collected in this book--under the significant keywords of ordo und dignitas, two essential concepts in Rilinger's reconstruction of the Roman political system1--and opportunely republished by Tassilo Schmitt and Aloys Winterling as an homage to Rilinger's memory. In my opinion this compilation offers an excellent way to review the core of the author's work and at the same time his main interests, essentially law and ancient history conceived within the frame of social change. In their brief introduction the editors outline Rilinger's methodological approach, which followed and developed ideas expressed by Alfred Heuss, Joschen Bleicken, and Christian Meier. The core of the book is divided into two parts: the first includes five papers focusing on the Roman Republic (11-150); the second (153-374) joins together six articles related to the Early and the Late Empire.

The first essay (11-76), Die Ausbildung von Amtswechsel und Amtsfristen als Problem zwischen Machtbesitz und Machtgebrauch in der Mittleren Republik (342 bis 217 v. Chr) deals with the cursus honorum in the context of relations of power. Rilinger starts from Bleicken's warning that conventional views of governance in Rome do not do justice to their complexity. This fact is particularly evident in the case of the political behaviour of the Roman aristocracy because of the indissoluble link between social pre-eminence and the exercise of power. Furthermore, the key concepts of dignitas and auctoritas and their influence on the Roman constitution must be understood in the context of Roman expansion. In this way Rilinger takes into account how the expansion of Rome affected the term limits the offices of the cursus honorum and demonstrates at the same time the historicity of the limits on re-election (342 BC) as well as of the abolition of some limitations on re-election for the consulship (217 BC), known mainly from the literary sources.

The second paper (Loca intercessionis und Legalismus in der späten Republik 77-94) studies the rogatio Caecilia de Cn. Pompeio ex Asia revocando (G. Rotondi, Leges Publicae Populi Romani, Milano 1922 383) referred to by Plutarch (Cat. min. 26-29). This episode has Pompey as an indirect protagonist, through Q. Caecilius Mettelus. Essentially, Metellus moved that Pompey, who was still in Asia, be summoned with his army, in theory to bring order out of the existing anarchy, but actually in the hope that Pompey and he himself gain power. The assembly was about to vote in favour of Metellus' proposition, but Cato prevented him from reading and then from reciting its text.2 Rilinger conducts an exhaustive study of this conflict, which involves both the Senate and the tribunus and reaches a more complex explanation of the role of the latter in the Roman constitution than the quite idealized role assigned by Polybius (VI. 16.5). This episode has traditionally been a problem for understanding the scope of the intercessio and why it was not possible to invoke it in that case. Rilinger examines especially the explanations advanced by Joschen Bleicken and Christian Meier and concludes that the intercessio was not legally regulated in detail at the end of the Republic, perhaps giving priority to what Rilinger calls Verhaltennormen.

As I have stated above, the notions of ordo and dignitas are key starting points for understand Rilinger's approach, and the third article provides a succinct and clear definition of their implications (Ordo und dignitas als soziale Kategorien der römischen Republik 95-104). In this nearly programmatic contribution the author outlines the difficulties that have sprung from the translation of these terms. According to him, these terms implied the central concepts of Leistung and Rankdenken and there was a close link between them. Rilinger starts from what he calls a truism: since the 19th century scholarship has been highly indebted to the Greek translations of ordo as taxis or tagma and Senate as boule or even gerousiawhich led to conceiving the content of ordo in a way quite far from what the Romans saw in it.3 Ordo in the common meaning was used during the Republic to designate a closed group constructed according to specific criteria and gathered in a register or album based on that membership, and in the later Republic particular cases (publicans, apparitores. . .) were included under the same term, also characterized partially as closed groups. But the evolution of ordo during the Principate led to the inclusion of a list of slaves secundum ordinem et dignitatem. The author points out this particular case (D., Ulp. XVIII ad Sab.). Dignitas, on the other hand, is the main term used to express social rank, but there are also terms such as status, qualitas, gradus and many others. Since dignitas does not imply rank directly in itself, but only with reference to the rest of the system, this concept becomes a key for understanding the complexity of rank in Roman society and in the Roman constitution. After a precise analysis, Rilinger concludes that both notions are expressions of the Republic as a political and social system and that their crisis means also the crisis of that regime. One clear example of this assertion is that after Sulla's reform the Senate did not reflect the actual social reality, and that is why Pompey or Cato the Younger played roles in the society that were not equivalent to their rank within the Senate.

The fourth paper (Domus und res publica. Die politisch-soziales Bedeutung des aristokratischen Hauses in der späten römischen Republik 91-122) deals with a subject more related to constitutional consequences than one might initially think. Rilinger demonstrates that in the later Republic the political system had lost its capacity to integrate the principal patrons of the domus, as evident in the progressive separation between familia and domus, a fact that can easily be noticed through studying the architectural development of the latter. Here the author resorts, among others, to the study by R. P. Saller ("Familia, Domus, and the Roman conception of the Family", in Phoenix 38 (1984) 336ff.) and argues that the role of the paterfamilias was directly related to the house conceived as a social unity. An especially significant case is that mentioned by Cicero in Ad Familiares (6.10.2; 6.12.2; 6.13.3): Julius Caesar after his victory in the civil war established in his own house the typisch höfischer Komunikationformen (90) and that fact doubtless had some influence for the Principate and its political conception of the emperor and his family.

The last essay devoted to the Roman republic is Die Interpretation des Niedergangs der römischen Republik durch Revolution und Krise ohne Alternative (123-150). Rilinger starts from the classical book by Sir Roland Syme The Roman Revolution (Oxford 1939) and analyzes its significance for the use of concepts like crisis and revolution as standards for interpreting Roman history. As the author points out, to use these categories to judge the Roman background is at least as old as Montesquieu. In fact, Rilinger reminds us that Mommsen himself had employed those anachronistic comparisons and that makes the valuable approaches of Heuss and Meier easier to understand. The author addresses both Heuss's and Meier's interpretations of crisis and revolution, and underlines some characteristics of the change of regime, such as the transformation of the princeps from the patron and chief of the army to a military monarch. This explanation takes into account meanings of the clientela or the urban plebs that have been not fully understood.

Moderne und zeitgenössische Vorstellungen von der Gesellschaftsordnung der römischen Kaiserzeit (153-179), constitutes the sixth essay of this compilation and the first dedicated to the imperial age. Tackling the subject of social stratification, Rilinger rightly starts from the fundamental work of Geza Alföldy (Römische Sozialgeschichte, Wiesbaden 1975) since it is a key work for the study of Roman society. At the same time he clarifies some matters about Alfödy's famous Sozialpyramide (301). In scholarship it is easy to discover an imprecise use of Alfödy's terminology even among the most important exponents, especially terminology related to sociology or political science. The author rightly states that this phenomenon happens even in Mommsen, who had recourse to terms such as Kapitalismus, Proletariat or, astonishingly, to Junkertum (cf. 153 n. 5). In his analysis of Alföldy's contribution Rilinger insists on ideas that he had dealt with in the preceding articles, such as the structural analogy (176) between auctoritas and dignitas of the magistrates and the emperor with the correlative value of these concepts as applied to the paterfamilias and the patronus. To sum up, Rilinger completes the 'Sozialpyramide' proposed by Alföldy with a structural analysis that emphasizes the relationship between the political institutions and the familia and that at the same time makes possible a deeper comprehension of social change.

Zum Kaiserzeitlichen Leistungs-und Rangdenken in Staat und Kirche (181-222) starts with a quotation of John Chrysostom (ad Mathaeum 1.8) which describes heavenly society according to the model of earthly society. In the context of celestial and earthly hierarchy, the author also interprets, among other patristic sources, a significant text by Pseudo-Dionysius,4 which stresses hierarchic dependence and at the same time opens the door to an upward mobility and presupposes a particular Christian interpretation of the ordo-dignitas scheme that emphasizes the concepts of virtue, self-perfection, and promotion conceived as ascent to God.

Zeugenbeweis und Sozialstruktur in der römischen Kaiserzeit (223-232) is an article on proof and the right of the judge to decide whether testimony is reliable or not according to the social standards of a given moment. Rilinger shows how the rules for evaluating the declarations of the testimonies were more flexible than the rigid contraposition that humiliores / honestiores present, for example, in the Pauli Sententiae or the Codex Theodosianus.

Seneca und Nero (253-280) is a keen overview of the reasons that motivated the use of the image of Nero as an artist emperor in order to legitimize political power in the early Principate. This approach is quite critical of the traditional view, which constitutes almost a commonplace, that the use of the artist emperor image was a consequence of Nero's insanity. Seneca's role in this process of underlining the virtues of the prince is, as the author shows, particularly remarkable. Although during the early Principate the Leistungsethik of the Roman aristocracy was still invoked, it was in reality only a trace of the past. In the late Republic, for example, we can see in the case of Q. Caecilius Metellus (cf. Plin. Nat. Hist. VII 139-140) that auctoritas and rank in theory derived from dynamic virtues (255), but in the new regime the emperor played an ambiguous role that subverted the functionality of these concepts: on one hand he himself was integrated into the senatorial order, but on the other he dominated that order and his person is endowed with remarkable virtues. At the same time, as a result of the Marcus Antonius episode, Hellenistic monarchy was not the most suitable option to define the new model, and consequently the imperial rulers had to look for other sources of legitimacy. This situation leads the emperor to act through indirect means, i.e. by enforcing his economic and juristic position and by reserving military glory only for himself. Little by little, the ideological use by official propaganda of certain moral virtues (such as clementia, iustitia, and liberalitas) offers a way of legitimizing the regime. Rilinger explains how Seneca, not by chance an homo novus, played a remarkable role in this process.

Das politische Denken der Römer: vom Prinzipat zum Dominat (281-353) is a sharp didactic text about political theory that was originally integrated into a general handbook.5 The author starts from the Augustan age and underlines how the monarchic forms were inserted into the old constitution. Then he divides the rest of the Principate into two periods: Prinzipat und Tyrannis and Der beste Princeps. In the first section, which covers the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the author studies the problem of the legitimacy of the new regime, based in theory on the pre-eminence of the Senate and at the same time on the succession, a concept that originally belonged to private law. Rilinger stresses the political thought of Seneca and also of Petronius and Persius in this context. In the second section, the author underlines the part played by the Lex de imperio Vespasiani in the consolidation of the dynastic component of the new system and points out the political implications of authors such as Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, and Tacitus. The last section is devoted to the late Empire, and Rilinger, after evaluating the most important aspects of Diocletian?s and Constantine's reforms, comments on the political implications of authors like Eusebius of Caesarea, Julian, Symmacus and Ammianus Marcellinus. A general overview of the political thought during the Empire (in which the author insist on its lack of theoretical discussion as a principal characteristic) and about the nature of the imperial regime closes the article.

Die Interpretation des späten Imperium Romanum als Zwangsstaat (355-374) closes the selection. The term Zwangsstaat is widely used by historians, jurists, or philologists to allude to the late Empire. The author investigates in this paper its origin and points out the authors who have created and used the notion as a framework to study this period. It is significant that the origin of this concept in the field of Ancient History starts from the work of a medievalist, H. Aubin.6 According to this conception, power was concentrated among fewer people, the population became poorer and in the long term they became attached to the glebe. Commerce was clearly affected by this process, so that the economy functioned in general terms of exchange rather than with money. This conception, of late Antiquity is ideological in many respects, and has influenced social, cultural and economic analysis.

The best way of concluding this review is to thank the editors for the accurate gathering of this collection, which clearly displays the richness and the originality of Rilinger's approach to social change in Roman history. It remains to add only that the book is carefully edited and that it offers a source index and also an index of names and topics. The pagination includes both the numbers of the old contributions and that of the present book.


1.   Rilinger characterizes (95) them as "die zentralen Begriffe des römischen Leistungs- und Rangdenkens".
2.   About Metellus Nepos cf. T. R. S. Broughton, The Magistrates of the Roman Republic, Chicago 1952 (reprint 1984) II 174. About this episode (also dealt with by Cicero Pro Sex 62 and by Dio Cassius, vid. e. g. Ch. Meier, Res publica amissa, Frankfurt 1980, 270 ff., discussed by the author, and T. Duff, Plutarch's Lives. Exploring Virtue and Vice, Oxford 1999, 152 ff.
3.   cf. e.g. H. Mason, Greek Terms for Roman Institutions, Toronto 1974.
4.   Rilinger (262 ff.) quotes from G. Heil's edition (Stuttgart 1986 1-28).
5.   I. Fetscher and H. Münkler (edd.) Pipers Handbuch der politischen Ideen I, Munich 1988, 521-593.
6.   H. Aubin, "Mass und Bedeutung der römisch-germanischen Kulturzusammenhänge im Rheinland", in P. E. Hübiger (ed.), Kulturbruch oder Kulturkontinuität im Übergang von der Antike zum Mittelalter, 1921, 47 ff.

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