Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.07.37

John Alexander Lobur, Consensus, Concordia, and the Formation of Roman Imperial Ideology. Studies in Classics.   New York/London:  Routledge, 2008.  Pp. xiii, 322.  ISBN 978-0-415-97788-3.  $100.00.  

Reviewed by Trevor Stacy Luke, Florida State University (
Word count: 1818 words


John Lobur's book appears in the Routledge series Studies in Classics, edited by Dirk Obbink and Andrew Dyck, "which aims to bring high-quality work by emerging scholars to the attention of a wider audience."1 Like other books in the series, it is a revised version of the author's dissertation. Lobur's discussion of the early formation of the imperial ideology of consensus at Rome complements Ando's earlier work on ideology and the ritual and communicative acts through which empire-wide consensus for Roman rule emerged.2 Lobur's work seeks to demonstrate how a Roman imperial ideology of consensus emerged organically and as a community project through the struggles of the end of the Republic and to illustrate through the works of several imperial authors how ongoing dialogues on the nature of Roman virtue and the history of the Late Republic continued to shape and legitimize the Principate.

Lobur begins his examination of early imperial ideology with a welcome discussion of the concept of ideology and its applicability to the interpretation of ancient societies.3 Lobur improves on Eich's view of Augustan ideology wherein the emperor ultimately controls the fashioning and production of his image to overwhelm viewers by its sheer preponderance.4 Following a suggestion by Syme and calling upon recent research in cognitive psychology, Lobur argues that Augustan ideology emerged in a continual negotiation of beliefs as they were inflected by "a large number of personal experiences and discourses."5 Lobur argues that Augustus out of necessity responded to this complex, ongoing evaluation of Roman beliefs and helped to tune his ideology as a participant in the broader discussion.

The first three chapters lay out the process by which Republican ideals concerning consensus were performed, memorialized, and shaped into a working ideology for the new Principate. Chapter 1 initiates the daunting task of interweaving an account of the transformation of the Republic from the Triumviral Period through the early years of Augustus' reign using texts, such as the Res Gestae, that simultaneously interpret and memorialize that history. Lobur argues effectively that consensus is the central concept that undergirds the princeps' position. Augustus' assertion of that position on both an informal and formal basis could not have worked so well had he not repeatedly performed consensus and thereby demonstrated the legitimacy that justified his supremacy. Lobur shows how this consensus was anchored in the past through exhibiting its role in early Latin epigraphy (Scipio sarcophagus, Calatinus epitaph; 32-33) and then how it was beautifully explicated as the tie that bound the many to the unus vir in Livy's historiography (33-35). While persuasive on the whole, the chapter is sometimes quite dense in ways that reflect the complexity of the problems Lobur has set out to tackle.

In Chapter 2, Lobur employs Sallust and Cicero to illustrate how both populares and optimates appealed to the concept of concordia in the shared belief that it was vital to the health and proper functioning of the state. Such an overlap in values provided suitable conditions for the emergence of consensus. Lobur's discussion of Sallust focuses primarily on how a popular clamor for power over the various organs of the state that was both comprehensive in scope and conservative in its emphasis on tradition prefigured Augustus (45-47). Lobur then argues at greater length that Cicero, representing the optimate perspective, fashioned a notion of consensus as authorizing a leader (in this case, Cicero in 63) in such a way that he might legitimately act outside the formal law and constitution (50-55). Cicero also used one-off spectacles to perform consensus and thus to evoke such authorization. Augustus was indebted to these Ciceronian precedents. Somewhat distracting is the appearance of material on the third Sibylline oracle and the Greek concept of homonoia in this and the next chapter (56, 63). This material is relevant to the argument, but it deserves a fuller treatment in its own section.

In Chapter 3, Lobur convincingly argues for the centrality of the role of the proscriptions and their memorialization in literature in molding the ideology of the Principate. The turmoil of proscriptions and the Triumviral Period also facilitated a convergence of popular and elite interests to bring about a return to order. Lobur's analysis of passages in Appian and Dio highlights the role that the proscriptions' onlookers came to play in defining the behavior that would win fides. Augustan propaganda depicts Octavian securing that trust and Antonius violating it through his cruelty (74). Augustan propaganda also appropriates the heroism of women and slaves whose exceeding loyalty won them clemency and casts Octavian as the champion of such down-trodden persons. In the latter part of the chapter, Lobur turns to another figure whom he argues Octavian used as a model: Atticus. Nepos' biography of Atticus illustrates how he bridged the chasm between opposing sides through the principle of active neutrality (i.e., support for friends on both sides of a conflict) and won respect through generous benefactions (81-89). Augustus alluded to Atticus' example in his autobiography, as can be demonstrated through its influence on Nicolaus of Damascus' biography of the princeps.

In the second half of the book (chapters 4-6), Lobur examines Velleius Paterculus, Seneca, and Valerius Maximus to elucidate the role of historiography, oratory, and exempla in participating in and shaping a cultural discussion in which the Principate seemed to answer the questions the emerging imperial ideology had helped to frame. In chapter 4, Lobur opens with a discussion of the generic characteristics of Velleius Paterculus' history, which exhibits both brevitas and festinatio to evince the historian's mastery of his material (97). Through his particular choice of material from a vast possibility of alternatives, Velleius makes a strong statement concerning what is worthy, reframes it according to imperial values, and in doing so participates in what Lobur calls the empire's new "unified political culture." This activity builds upon the precedent of Augustus' presentation of the summi viri in the Forum of Augustus. Lobur then shows how Velleius deftly depicts the rise of Tiberius as being natural and necessary for the continuation of the felicity experienced in Augustan Rome and for precluding the possibility of a return to civil war. Velleius highlights Tiberian values (moderatio, concern for the lives of the soldiers) both by demonstrating them in the person of Tiberius (102-11) and in foils from the Republican past, most notably Antonius. Republican history is thus recast in a way that serves the ideological concerns of the present.

Chapter 5 explores the practice of oratory as a means of working out and performing imperial consensus. Lobur starts his discussion by explaining the significance of oratory in the Late Republic. He then sets out Seneca's contribution to the imperial understanding of oratory's past and the values of different genres. Although less prestigious than the political dictio that typified oratorical mastery in the Late Republic, declamatio allowed a new generation of imperial orators to reimagine episodes from the past, such as the proscriptions, and thus to play their part in constructing imperial ideology. Cicero, on account of his superior style and historical relationship with Augustus and Antonius, became not only the founder of imperial eloquence, but also a useful locus for articulating the values of the new order. Lobur then demonstrates how different depictions of Cicero's death reflected a divergence of opinions that nevertheless overlapped on the issue of his surpassing significance. This phenomenon allowed a unified, but not homogeneous and hence sterile, cultural dialogue to occur.

Chapter 6 is perhaps the most effective in the book. Lobur provides a nice overview of the concept of the exemplum, pointing out its distinction from Greek moral discourse and tracing the implications of Valerius' arrangement of exempla by categories of virtue instead of according to historical or cultural context. Romans preferred the practical and intuitive value of anecdotes highlighting virtues to the abstract and analytical approach of the Greeks. Exemplarity allowed Romans to bring their values to life, or "embody" them, by imitation of the deeds of their ancestors. Valerius Maximus' strategy in the selection and arrangement of these exempla promotes Roman values in a jingoistic fashion, but at the same time opens them to imitation by all, regardless of gender, culture, or status (albeit in an expression that maintains and reinforces the Roman concept of societal order). Furthermore, the bricolage of Valerius' exempla also allows for creativity and adaptation under a mask of traditionalism, while fostering a broad consensus. In short, Valerius' project both reflects and informs first-century Rome's unique brand of imperialism in its own mechanics.

Lobur contends that by removing historical anecdotes from their context, exempla are thereby de-politicized (182). It may have also been the case that exempla, gathered in a single work and encompassing as they sometimes did conflicting political positions, demonstrated how consensus was expressed in an accord with the value of certain virtues and the importance of their imitation regardless of the political orientation of the persons depicted therein. The politics of exempla were not stripped so much as transcended, and people with diverging views could all find reflections of themselves in the past as it was (re)presented to them, even in the actions of those with whom they otherwise disagreed. In his conclusion, Lobur provides an excellent example of the fruits of this inclusiveness in Livy, who "provided models for consensus-based autocracy in the early history of Rome, but in his narrative of the late republic, his perspective was [Pompeian]" (211). This reviewer suggests that the inclusive, in addition to the a-contextual, nature of exempla, sustained the possibility of such contributions.

Lobur draws his argument to a close by advocating for the integrative approach that he has ably demonstrated in his use of a wide variety of evidences and theoretical approaches (209-10). His method was particularly effective in pursuing a thesis that sought to illustrate the manner in which diverse voices and views contributed to the emergence of an imperial ideology of consensus that Augustus was able in myriad ways to participate in as first citizen of Rome and ruler of the Roman Empire. Lobur has successfully built on the foundation laid by Ando in showing how "Romans of all ranks are allowed to be enthusiastic about the [Principate] without being cast as mere flatterers" (210) and, since the thesis carries the reader into the reign of Tiberius, it raises new questions about the first-century empire as seen through the lenses of Suetonius and Tacitus. On the whole, the thesis is argued persuasively, but this reviewer would have liked to see the overall arc of the book's argument traced more explicitly in the individual chapters. Occasionally this reader felt slightly adrift. The first three chapters, addressing the complex historical issues of the emergence of consensus ideology, were somewhat less linear, clear, and focused than the final three chapters.6 This should in no way dissuade any serious student or scholar of the Roman Empire from a profitable reading of Lobur's enlightening discussion.


1.   Moralee, J. "For Salvation's Sake." Provincial Loyalty, Personal Religion, and Epigraphic Production in the Roman and Late Antique Near East. New York and London, 2004: xv.
2.   Ando, C. Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire. Berkeley, 1999.
3.   Lobur discusses the influence of Marxist and anthropological scholarship (Geertz) on his views concerning ideology as a constructive and positive force of cultural production (2). Lobur acknowledges his particular debt to Syme, who previously suggested that ideology was not a fiction of the Principate imposed on others, but that it "reflected irrepressible elite attitudes" (3).
4.   Eich, A. "Die Idealtypen 'Propaganda' und 'Repraesentation' als heuristische Mittel bei der Bestimmung gesellschaftlicher Konvergenzen und Divergenzen von Moderne und roemischer Kaiserzeit." In: Weber, G. and M. Zimmermann, eds. Propaganda, Selbstdarstellung, Repraesentation im roemischen Kaiserreich des 1. Jhs. n. Chr. Historia Einzelschrift, 2003: 64, 68ff.
5.   Van Dijk, T. Ideology: A Multidisciplinary Approach. London, 1998: 97-8 as quoted by Lobur on p. 5. Syme, R. The Augustan Aristocracy. Oxford, 1986: 441. Jowett, G. and V. O'Donnel. Propaganda and Persuasion. Thousand Oaks, 1999: 33-34.
6.   A few typographical errors appear, and the reviewer here provides a sample: virtues is misspelled as "virutes" on p. 23. A translated quote from Sallust Cat. 13.1 on p. 46 is missing the final quotation mark. The coin pictured on p. 71, which should follow the colon at the end of the paragraph at the top of the page, has fallen to the bottom. Its description, "Figures 1," should read "Figure 1." The coin pictured on the following page also belongs on p. 71, following the appropriate reference and colon. Here the description "Figure 2 and 3" should read "Figures 2 and 3." On p. 76, Gaius Octavius is incorrectly identified as Octavian beneath the text of ILS 47 in which the former appears, although he is correctly identified as Octavian's father earlier on the same page.

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