Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.08.26

Christian Rollinger, Solvendi sunt nummi: die Schuldenkultur der Späten Römischen Republik im Spiegel der Schriften Ciceros.   Berlin:  Verlag Antike, 2009.  Pp. 265.  ISBN 9783938032299.  €37.90 (pb).  

Reviewed by Richard Westall, Pontificia Università Gregoriana (

While the final lines of this review were being written, the world was being treated to images from Greece showing the social unrest that can result from an inability to resolve the problems associated with debt. Christian Rollinger has written a timely and engaging book that should be of interest not only to classicists, but also to those who wish to understand the world in which we live. This book builds upon the work of M. Ioannatou, our colleague in France who met with a premature death while preparing her book upon banking and finances as reflected in Cicero's correspondence.1 That work has not met with the recognition that it deserves, and it is to Rollinger’s credit that he has perceived just how fundamental a contribution it was. But Rollinger's especial contribution is that his book applies network analysis to the Ciceronian evidence, thereby showing how this new methodology may help to advance our understanding of ancient history. The exercise is stimulating, and readers come away with a deeper understanding of the structure of society and economy at Rome in the late Republic.

The book is divided into seven chapters, which are preceded by a preface and followed by a conclusion and valuable technical apparatus. The preface usefully sets forth the origins of this study. Chapter 1 (“Einleitung”, pp. 11-15) provides a brief overview of the whole work, setting forth what is to be examined and explaining why various themes (e.g. women's handling of money) have not been pursued. Chapter 2 (“Überblick über die verwendten Quellen”, pp. 16-22) provides a similarly brief review of the ancient sources and modern discussions of the problem of debt in the late Republic. Chapter 3 (“Tabulae Novae”, pp. 23-62) reviews the intersection of economic concerns with politics from the early 80s through the mid-50s BCE. Chapter 4 (“Curia pauperibus clausa est”, pp. 63-115) examines the ways in which senators might incur problems with debt. Chapter 5 (“Ave Caesar, lucrifacturi te salutant”, pp. 116-127) looks by contrast at the means whereby senators might improve their financial situation. Chapter 6 (“Iube sodes nummos curare”, pp. 128-190) is dedicated to the relationship between thought and action vis-à-vis the problem of debt as these issues are reflected in Cicero's writings. Chapter 7 (“Arcae nostrae confidito”, pp. 191-216) employs evidence that comes largely from the letters of Cicero to engage in analysis of the social network attested for the problem of debt as experienced by the orator and his peers. There follows a brief restatement of the findings of this study (pp. 217-223), an analytical appendix listing the relationships of debt attested for the period under study (pp. 225-238), bibliographies for ancient sources (pp. 239-242) and modern discussions (pp. 243-251), and detailed indices for individuals (pp. 253-255), subjects (pp. 256-257), and sources (pp. 258-265).

Both organization and execution are workmanlike, even if the decision to assign a sequential number to every section (from introduction to appendices) is unusual. Much familiar ground is covered in Chapters 2-6, as Rollinger draws heavily upon the work of Ioannatou and other, better known predecessors. But that is one of this book's virtues, for the style is highly readable even when a narrative in the manner of Christian Meier was not advisable. It is in Chapter 7, however, that Rollinger provides an original contribution to the subject through his attempt to apply network analysis to the Ciceronian evidence.

The premise that informs this book is not controversial, even if the application does occasionally give cause for disquiet. By their vast number and extensive detail, Cicero's letters do allow us to reconstruct in reasonably clear fashion the network of social and economic relationships centered upon one senator of the late Republic. These qualities distinguish the Ciceronian epistolographic corpus from all other contemporary sources for the late Republic and promise well for Rollinger's project. However, such a project occasions a number of questions that do not receive sufficient attention.

How typical was Cicero for his generation? Aside from the fact that Cicero's correspondence was edited for publication, there is the issue of whether what we have can be considered representative of the ordo to which Cicero belonged. If we accept the traditional claim (as Rollinger does) that the Senate numbered 600 members at the time, then Cicero represents merely 0.1667% of that venerable body. Clearly he was not on a par with Pompeius Magnus (cos. 70, 55, 52) or M. Crassus (cos. 70, 55) in terms of wealth, but was he more or less or just as wealthy as the vast majority of senators? There is no easy answer to such a question. Nevertheless, more needs to be done than the simple marshalling of our scant knowledge of individual senators' holdings in lists that at first glance look quite impressive.2 If Cicero was not typical, then of what worth is an extended social network analysis?

Equally serious is the issue of the application of synchronic analysis to diachronic evidence. The commendable project of mapping a quarter century (68-43 BCE) of human experiences and relationships threatens to run afoul of the shoals to be encountered when translating a diachronic phenomenon into a synchronic medium. Modern researchers are concerned with a specific moment in time (or a rather discrete period) as opposed to the medium range (when viewed from the Annales perspective) of the decades or an entire lifetime theoretically encompassed by correspondence. With a few rare exceptions, the friends of today are most unlikely to be those of tomorrow--whatever ethics or treaties may prescribe. Hence, the inherently intractable nature of the evidence that Rollinger finds himself compelled to utilize faute de mieux. Sophisticated though his handling of the evidence frequently is, this is a fundamental epistemological problem that needs to be addressed. How can the prospective researcher hope to reduce to some graphic scheme the complex and evolving relationship obtaining between Pompeius Magnus and M. Brutus?

Last, but not least, is the question of whether Cicero’s evidence is in itself sufficient. How safe is it to apply to one individual a method that was designed for a large statistical sample? Rollinger (p. 214) quite rightly notes that the model has weaknesses, remarking the absence of any direct line connecting C. Caesar with his own secretary Faberius. The same could readily be said of a number of other individuals who make their appearance in the correspondence of Cicero, e.g. C. Caesar and M. Caelius Rufus, C. Caesar and Pompeius Magnus, or Pompeius Magnus and Rabirius Postumus. Moreover, such an approach leads us to overlook some of the more colorful and potentially significant characters of the epoch. Thus, the eques P. Sittius slips between the cracks. Correctly identified (by name) in the tabular entry for Caelius (p. 226), this figure is not sufficiently identified when his own turn comes for an entry (p. 238) and is therefore rapidly marginalized and eliminated from the diagrams (pp. 208, 210, 211, 212, 215). Yet, a detailed letter informing us of his personal history as of the mid-50s (Cic. Fam. 5.17), his later activities in north Africa in the mid-40s, and the African possessions of Caelius' family all make interpretation of the phrase syngrapha Sittiana quite clear.3 Visual representation of the verbal evidence with the assistance of software designed to map statistical information can help the historian to discern patterns more clearly, but there can be no substitute for the painstaking work of past generations of philologists seeking to render our texts comprehensible.

Unfortunately, this book is marred by a great many signs of haste and mistakes due to the current trend of separating historical study from philological endeavor. There are misspellings and needless repetitions in the German, problems of Latin accidence, misplaced items within the bibliography, and a failure to consider adequately even some of those items listed but never cited. Hence, readers will find it asserted that Cicero labelled Marius crudelius in one of his letters to Atticus (p. 34: Cic. Att. 9.10.3). A comparative neuter adjective, the word is in fact to be construed with the interrogative pronoun quid in a question: "What was more cruel than the victory of these men (viz. Sulla, Cinna, and Marius)?" Use of the orator’s own language is commendable, but proofreaders need to do their job. Or perhaps they have disappeared with the "new economy"? To take another example chosen at random, there is reference to the lex Varia de maiestas (sic) in a sentence following one where the genitive "Roms" is employed in both attributive and predicative positions to define the "Bundesgenossen" (pp. 23-24). Such poor editing makes it difficult to justify this book's expense.

Even more serious, however, is the failure to come to grips with the fundamental problems raised by Walter Scheidel.4 Rollinger cites ancient statistics extensively and often seemingly to good effect, but never takes into account their demonstrated rhetorical nature. Expressed most crudely, the numbers that appear within our ancient sources are statistically improbable. That is no small problem for those who would use this evidence in order to arrive at quantified representations of the ancient economy.

Rollinger's acquaintance with the secondary literature regarding the sources that he employs is rather limited. Accordingly, he perpetuates some misinterpretations that have been corrected in recent decades. For example, Myles McDonnell demonstrated in 1990 that the subject of the verb at Caes. BC 1.39.3 cannot be Caesar, who would hardly have admitted in public to having bribed his soldiers, but must rather be identified as Pompeius' legate L. Afranius.5 Even where there is no urgent need for correction, reference to the modern literature would have been useful. So, for example, notice should have been taken of the useful work of Leopold Migeotte.6 Amidst the 118 documents assembled by Migeotte, 27 are concerned with Greek communities of the eastern Mediterranean during the lifetime of M. Cicero. Indeed, 8 of these documents derive specifically from the correspondence of Cicero (docs. 34, 36, 75, 99, 106, 111, 115, 116). Surely the debt incurred by Greek communities with regard to Atticus and other contemporaries is relevant to the network analysis being undertaken. Or at least such is to be inferred from Pompeius' reaction upon hearing that Caesar had loaned 50 talents to the Athenians (Cic. Att. 6.1.25). Similarly, one would have expected more use to be made of the work of Elisabeth Déniaux and Susan M. Treggiari on Cicero, his friends, and family. Finally, it would have been appropriate to consult the weighty tome of Bernhard Woytek.7

In the end, it is to be hoped that a thoroughly revised version of this work will appear in translation in a series such as that dedicated by Cambridge to themes of social history in the Graeco-Roman world.The subject is important, the book has a worthwhile contribution to make, and the author writes with verve and clarity.


1.   M. Ioannatou, Affaires d'argent dans la correspondance de Cicéron. L'aristocratie sénatoriale face à ses dettes. Paris 2006.
2.   The standard lists are provided by Schneider 1974 and Shatzman 1975, but one fundamental contribution has been overlooked: J. D'Arms, Romans on the Bay of Naples and other essays on Roman Campania. ed. F. Zevi. Bari 2003 (second edition). The prosopographical works of both Nicolet 1966-1974 and Wiseman 1971 were used, but might have provided further inspiration.
3.   Surprisingly, P. Sittius has been omitted from the prosopographic listing of Roman exiles at Kelly 2006: 161-219. For this extraordinary individual, readers will wish to consult not only the RE article and D.R. Shackleton Bailey's commentaries on Cicero's letters, but also J. Heurgon, "La lettre de Cicéron à Sittius (ad Fam. V.17)," Latomus 9 (1950) 369-377.
4.   W. Scheidel, "Finances, Figures and Fiction," CQ 46 (1996) 222-238. Indeed, in view of Scheidel's findings, "Unzuverlässigkeit" would have been more opportune at p. 73 n. 293.
5.   M. McDonnell, "Borrowing to Bribe Soldiers: Caesar's De Bello Civili 1.39," Hermes 118 (1990) 55-66. Discussion is further complicated by Rollinger mistakenly citing this passage as 1.19.3.
6.   L. Migeotte, L’emprunt publique dans les cités grecques. Québec 1984.
7.   B. Woytek, Arma et Nummi. Forschungen zur römischen Finanzgeschichte und Münzprägung der Jahre 49 bis 42 v.Chr. Wien 2003.

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