Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.12.10

Dean Hammer, Roman Political Thought and the Modern Theoretical Imagination. Oklahoma Series in Classical Culture; v. 34.   Norman:  University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.  Pp. xiii, 358.  ISBN 9780806139272.  xiii, 358.  

Reviewed by Ayelet Haimson Lushkov, The University of Texas in Austin (
Word count: 2039 words

Roman Political Thought and the Modern Theoretical Imagination is a book with an ambitious project. It seeks to restore to the Romans if not prominence among than at least recognition as political thinkers, and it proposes to do this through a sustained exploration of Roman responses to 'political loss', which is to say, the changes and losses of personal freedom under an increasingly autocratic regime. Political thought, Hammer argues, offered Romans a chance to "reanimate one's relationship to a political world that may have been forgotten or perhaps never have been known" (8). The Roman reaction (specifically of Cicero, Livy, Tacitus, and Seneca) to this sense of loss, and the corresponding responses of modern political theorists (Arendt, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and Foucault, respectively) to those Roman thinkers constitute the meat of this volume, and according to its author, also an important, if not central, component of the legacy of Rome.

Overall, Hammer argues for the existence of a Roman "political vision organized around affective associations" (back cover), rather than "the Platonic and Aristotelian emphasis on reason in collective action" (back cover). This vision, he suggests, seeks to engage with the world as we experience it rather than some utopian conception.1 The sequence of authors Hammer presents is by and large chronological, moving from Cicero in the republic to the Augustan age with Livy and continuing through the empire with Tacitus and Seneca (those last two are, ex ordine, transposed). Each chapter also discusses a modern thinker's response to the ancient author: Arendt, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and Foucault, in that order. The sequence of ancients may seem natural, tracing as it does a development in the Roman engagement with political loss (throughout equated with, or at least generated by, the loss of liberty). But it should also raise some methodological questions. For instance, this sequence places the modern theorists very much out of chronological order, a choice that privileges the ancient experience on the one hand, but makes it rather difficult for the uninitiated to get a sense of the relationships between the modern thinkers. Is there a theoretical tradition at work here, or were these moderns selected simply for saying something germane to the classical author in question? The rationale is noticeably absent.

The first chapter seeks the root causes of the estrangement between classicists and political theorists, which Hammer attributes to a growing distance between the disciplinary interests of both groups: "[f]or political theorists, the Romans failed to inspire new ways of thinking conceptually about politics. And for classicists, theory encumbered the philological and historiographic recovery of the Roman past" (13). There follows a fascinating survey which links the demise of interest in Roman political theory to the growing prominence of law, bureaucracy and infra-structure in early modern views of Rome's legacy, defining Romans as "detailed and technical (even plodding) practioners (sic) more than as theoretical or scientific visionaries" (23). Hammer's point is instructive, not least because it throws into sharp relief some of the stereotypes that have characterized the Romans over the years. The chapter also sets up one of the book's central arguments, namely that Roman political theory derived its meaning especially from an engagement with particulars and details -- monuments, institutions, and so forth. In this light, one misses a consideration of the newly configured vision of Roman law and jurisprudence as vital components in the Roman organization of the world, as an index of social realities, or as a medium through which to define a political culture.2

In Chapter 2 Hammer seeks to read politically Cicero's Tusculan Disputations, taking his cues from Hannah Arendt's own readings of Cicero, and especially from the ideas of philosophy as animi medicina (in The Life of the Mind) and cultura animi (in Between Past and Present). Hammer suggests that the dialogue "shares with the Republic a struggle with loss, a mingling of Cicero's different experiences of political and personal agony and sorrow." (40). Of all the chapters, this is the densest. In addition to its own argument, the chapter also introduces some of the book's recurrent ideas: the guide offered by aesthetics and ethics for political participation; the idea of loss and lack as the source of political philosophy; and the focus on emotion as a means to recover political meanings. At the heart of these ideas is Arendt's suggestion that philosophy affords both a consolation and a rehabilitation of the mind, a "disposition of care" (42) towards man-made, public artifacts, such as monuments, laws, or political institutions. This interaction with the various social attributes of the political world is, as Hammer argues, what lends the Tusculans its political cast, as it tries to engage the problem of the loss of markers by which one might orient oneself in the world.

In Chapter 3, Hammer reads Machiavelli's Discorsi as a lens onto Livian political theory -- a move which accords well with the rehabilitation of Livy's historical capabilities more generally. The idea that a textual description of, or engagement with, politics serves as a remedium continues here as well, though to state that either Machiavelli or Livy wrote in the Hippocratic tradition (86) may be overstating the case. Hammer argues that "Livy's method reveals a way of thinking about politics in which political concepts become comprehensible as felt meanings" (82, emphasis original), a project of exciting the mind, in which both Livy and Machiavelli are invested. 'Felt meanings' are those created through the accumulation of experiences rather than through reasoned logic, a psychological and phenomenological effect generated especially by vision and other forms of perception. These, Hammer suggests, invoke impressions, reactions, and conclusions; they thus animate the spirit as the reader is moved by the contents of the history. This contribution to the psychology of exempla is an important one, but its frequent couching in the abstract and anachronistic terms of philosophy of mind and body/soul dualism misses an opportunity to ground the argument in Roman contexts, for instance the psychological effect generated by the shock and awe of actual political practice, especially as mediated through spectacle and the emotional states it produced.3

Chapters 4 and 5 take us further into the empire, treating Tacitus and Seneca respectively; both focus on the experience of politics under despotic rule. In Chapter 4 Hammer seeks to explain the pronounced difference Tacitus describes in political behavior under Tiberius, the compliance of the aristocracy and the people in the removal of meaning from their political life (133). Montesquieu's analysis of communal experiences, and especially his conceptualization of despotism as a slow but relentless force of entropy and enervation serves here as a key for an analysis of the Tacitean corpus as a description of a Roman despotic malaise. Adducing Celsus' De medicina as a comparandum, Hammer argues that Tacitus sees despotism as a disease of the body politic, which "isolates a person from the stable props by which one can confirm one's impressions and anticipate reactions" (179). A Roman elite characterized by pervasive enervation and political apathy accords remarkably well with Tacitus' bleak view of Rome, but perhaps this very agreement should give the reader some pause. Tacitus himself, of course, describes various attempts to stand up to the imperial regime -- Cremutius Cordus, Thrasea Paetus, and Helvidius Priscus inter alios -- and the question of how much of Tacitus' view is idiosyncratic remains largely unexamined here. One might further note that Hammer draws indiscriminately on the entire Tacitean corpus, not always with due attention to the difference, generic and otherwise, between, say, the Annales and the Agricola.

Against the stark background drawn by Tacitus, Hammer asks in his fifth chapter, how is one to orient oneself anew in a world in which the political markers cease to have stable meaning? For an answer, he looks backwards, to the practical philosophy of Seneca's Epistles, arguing that it displays the Foucauldian habit of using the "language and expectations of politics" (185) to upset one's relationship to the political world. Hammer argues that Seneca's reflection on the "experience of political life, seek[s] first to illuminate the contours of the despotic world by locating the self in this unbound landscape and then begin[s] to restore the contours of the political self" (185). A Roman man might therefore recover his sense of himself as a political actor by adopting a broader view of what constitutes the sphere of the political. Hammer touches upon some interesting questions here, but the argument shies from fleshing them out. For example, a reliance on a broader conception of politics implies the bankruptcy of the traditional realm of politics. And yet Tacitus' Agricola suggests that service and dedication allow a man to retain dignity and identity within the traditional domain of the political, even under despotism.

In general, Hammer's reading of his authors occasionally appears somewhat credulous. There is very little attempt to interrogate seriously the ancient rhetoric of decline so characteristic of all these authors and so ambiguous in a text such as Tacitus' Dialogus. Nor does Hammer separate the ancient ideology of libertas, which itself underwent a pronounced shift over time, from the modern (western) ideology of positive freedom as an amalgam of personal rights.4 The book yields, as a result, an underlying sense of discovering an objective and pessimistic truth, a more or less systemic Roman reaction to their political circumstances, which seems far too broad a brushstroke, even for the relatively limited time-span between Cicero and Nero.

Such problems may have their cause in the challenging prospect of speaking to two disciplines at once, a challenge Hammer embraces, though it sometimes leaves the reader treading familiar ground. Hammer is invested in, and forcefully argues for, a move away from the dominant Hellenism of modern political thought, by which he means the construction of utopias in the style of Plato's Republic or Laws. In this regard, at least, the project is one of reception, demonstrating the viability of a distinctive Roman political theory through the sequence of modern thinkers who have taken the Romans seriously. But recognition of Roman innovation, and a concomitant reluctance to defer to all things Greek, are the staples of today's Latinists, who may find Hammer's claims on Rome's behalf welcome but hardly revelatory. The argument for renewed attention to the intellectual culture of Rome is perhaps better directed to political theorists unfamiliar with recent trends in classics.5 Still, in its attempt to correlate ancient thought with intellectual history and to view the classics through the lens of modern political theory, this book is a useful complement to current studies of the Roman political experience, most recently Joy Connolly's The State of Speech.

Roman Political Thought will appeal to a varied selection of scholars and students, and its handy format and reasonable price will increase its accessibility.6 Ranging as it does over ten authors and many centuries, however, this is a very dense book, one especially rich in citation and survey of both ancient and modern sources. This tendency often allows for letting the authors, both ancient and modern, speak for themselves. It does, however, make for occasionally slow reading, nor are the connections between the various citations always the clearest (e.g., on p. 170, two quotations from the Agricola and the Dialogus are tied together without explanation).

But this book has many highlights too, from Hammer's fascinating survey of the bifurcation of classics and political theory in Chapter 1 through his consistent marshalling of philosophy and the emotions as important components of political experience. The interdisciplinary focus of this book is sometimes defamiliarizing, drawing attention away from the traditional concerns of classicists and into a reception-centered analysis and a broader definition of politics than students of Roman history may be accustomed to. One of Hammer's purposes in this book, however, is precisely to establish a common vocabulary by which classicists and political theorists might profitably speak to each other -- it remains to be seen whether the goal is achieved without also interrogating each department's fundamental questions and methodological approaches, but the volume will undoubtedly help point the way to rapprochement. Above all, Hammer's study reminds us of the polysemic quality of public institutions as well as the myriad ways available to Romans and their European descendants to engage with their political and intellectual traditions.


1.   Though Hammer curiously omits mention of Cic. Rep. 2 where Scipio draws an explicit distinction between Greek utopianism and his own focus on the Roman Republic.
2.   E.g., Ando, C. 2000. Imperal Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire. Berkeley; Harries, J. 2006. Cicero and the Jurists. From Citizens' Law to the Lawful State. London; Williamson, C. 2005. The Laws of the Roman People: Public Law in the Expansion and Decline of the Roman Republic". Ann Arbor.
3.   Spectacle: Feldherr, A. 1998. Spectacle and Society in Livy's History. Berkeley; Sumi, G. 2005. Ceremony and Power: Performing Politics in Rome between Republic and Empire. Ann Arbor. See also C. Barton. 2001. Roman Honor. The Fire in the Bones. Berkeley.
4.   Roller, M. 2001. Constructing Autocracy: aristocrats and emperor in Julio- Claudian Rome. Princeton; Gowing, A. 2005. Empire and Memory: The Representation of the Roman Republic in Imperial Culture. Cambridge.
5.   The bugbear of a conservative Hellenism does an injustice not only to Latinists, but also to Hellenists. Studies in Athenian rhetoric and law, including the archaic law codes found in Crete and mainland Greece, represent but a few examples of recent work that bespeaks a changing, and more complex, view of ancient politics. See, inter alia, Ostwald, M. 1986. From Popular Sovereignty to the Sovereignty of Law. Berkeley.
6.   A few errata: Caryles on p. 23 should be Carlyles; 'practioners' on the same page should be 'practitioners'; 'contrapuntal' for 'contrapunctual' on p. 36; on p. 48, 'the mind and spirit comes' should be 'the mind and spirit come'; res publicae on the same page ought to be rem publicam to agree with tuendam as in the cited passage; the translation of Tusc. 5.25.72 on p. 59 is modified, though it is not clear from what; the second triumvirate is not a "late Republican dictatorship" (99); on p. 149 the quotation mark after '...institutions' life (S 5.14)' should be closed; 'Othos' on p. 165 and 168 should be 'Otho'.

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