Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.09.53

Margret Dissen, Römische Kollegien und deutsche Geschichtswissenschaft im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. Historia Einzelschriften 209.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2009.  Pp. 337.  ISBN 9783515093873.  €64.00.  

Reviewed by Benedikt Eckhardt, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster (

This book originated as a dissertation submitted in 2006. Contrary to what the title might suggest, it is concerned mainly with scholarly views on popular participation in Roman politics, not so much with collegia themselves. Collegia are seen as organizations of the plebs urbana, the political relevance of which has been commented upon by generations of scholars. Dissen’s aim is to demonstrate the existence of three successive paradigms of Roman historical studies in Germany. The time span of Roman history covered technically extends from 186 BCE until the time of Augustus (p. 13); however, most scholarly treatments are presented only in respect to their discussions of the role and status of collegia under Clodius and Caesar.

In the introduction (pp. 11-28), the author describes her project as a “Strukturgeschichte des historischen Denkens” (p. 19). This terminus serves to define her own approach against earlier histories of scholarship on collegia, especially that of Perry.1 Instead of focussing on ways of argumentation or drawing heavily on biographical information about the respective authors, she wants to analyze German works on associations with regard to their conception of Roman politics in general. Collegia are thus used as a window through which larger scholarly paradigms can be observed. Her underlying questions concern the function of historiography in society (it mirrors “lebensweltliche Orientierungsbedürfnisse”, p. 27), as well as the problem of advancement in historical studies. She organizes her material chronologically, but the division into three stages of development is based on content. The first phase of scholarly works starts with Mommsen and relates collegia solely to constitutional law, which is identified as the essence of “the state”. The second phase substitutes “state” for “society” and draws on sociological models; collegia are treated as embedded in the societal structures and institutions. The third phase, starting in the 1980s, incorporates insights from the cultural sciences and defines politics as communication; collegia are viewed as actively participating in the process of political communication and reproducing social order.

Discussion of the first phase (pp. 29-95) begins with Mommsen’s dissertation on collegia (1843), and incorporates discussion of the works of Liebenam, Waltzing, Ed. Meyer and M. Weber. The author observes that Mommsen’s approach is solely juridical; his history of collegia is a history of legal regulations issued by the state concerning collegia (p. 35). This state-centered perspective sees collegia from 64 BCE onwards as congregations of criminals; they served as a para-political instrument for Clodius that Caesar was right to abolish. This contrasts with Mommsen’s view on pre-civil war collegia as a legitimate expression of civic liberty. Dissen is able to show that Mommsen’s own participation in the highly politicized clubs and societies in Germany informed his treatment of Roman collegia (and especially the idea that they were originally legitimate) to some degree, but did not influence his judgments as strongly as is sometimes thought (pp. 37-40). Liebenam’s work is less focussed on constitutional law and describes collegia in relation to the individuals forming their membership; the author is certainly correct to point to the CIL as the main innovation which led to this new perspective. Her point (against Perry) that influence on scholarly opinions cannot be sought solely in external (political or cultural) developments but also in internal scholarly achievements (pp. 65-66) is evidently correct in this special case, but is hardly applicable in such a concrete manner elsewhere. Waltzing’s work had to be incorporated because of its importance although it is not German; his emphatic commitment to liberalism is referred by Dissen to Belgian politics at the turn of the century, which saw debates about the right to build voluntary associations (pp. 71-72). She sees Waltzing’s general position and method as closer to the “Annales”-school and later scholarship inspired by cultural sciences than to the state-as-politics paradigm of the 19th and early 20th century. Her treatment of Ed. Meyer (who, like Mommsen, saw collegia as groups of bandits and instruments of the real politicians) also focuses on contemporary discussions and explains his perspective on collegia as resulting from his anti-democratic political stance (pp. 82-83). Dissen concludes that the first phase of scholarly discussion of collegia was shaped by the identification of state and politics, which stood against a social history as partly prefigured by Liebenam and Waltzing.

The second phase (roughly extending from the end of World War I to the 1980s) receives the longest treatment (pp. 97-238). The author presents scholarship which takes “society” as its reference point; the studies incorporated include histories of Roman politics, social histories, and, rarely, specific works on collegia. “Plebs urbana” is used more often than “collegia”, following the terminology of the literature. The extensive treatment of Gelzer’s perspective (pp. 97-114) is justified by his importance for later developments. Although the state remains the focus of his studies on nobility, the emphasis on “real life” manifestations of hierarchies and politics leads away from Mommsen’s juridical perspective and paves the way for the later view that politics are communication. Christian Meier receives an extensive (and unusually critical) treatment (pp. 127-141); Dissen regards his reception of Gelzer as a further step into a new direction of scholarship, but laments the fact that Meier still sees the collegia as “Knüppelgarden” which are mere instruments for politicians. Géza Alföldy’s social pyramid is discussed and rejected through the approving citation of his critics (pp. 141-148). Histories of Roman constitutional law (Heuß, Kunkel, Bleicken; pp. 148-170) are followed by histories of ancient economy (pp. 170-200). Among the latter, the historiography of the Democratic Republic of Germany and its ideological presuppositions receive special attention; collegia were blamed for not having arrived at a specific “Klassenbewusstsein”. Many scholars are finally subsumed under a paragraph on the concept of masses (pp. 200-233). The author’s struggle to bring order into the massive amount of literature discussed is especially evident in this section. G. Laser’s recourse to mass psychology and his claim that the masses actively recognize leaders and convey authority to them is taken as a bridge to the scholarship of the last phase (p. 228-233).

The third phase is discussed relatively briefly (pp. 239-279), owing to the short time span covered. It contains discussions of the works of Döbler, Bendlin, Jehne and Flaig and emphasizes the trend to incorporate the symbolic dimension of politics and theoretical approaches (Weber, Foucault, Bourdieu). Dissen is rightly sceptical about Bendlin’s call for network analysis, which is difficult to accomplish given the nature of sources on the collegia (p. 255). Her very positive depiction of Flaig’s work, however, fails to ask the same question and uncritically labels his method as “objectivistic” and “positivistic” (p. 273). Just how it is possible to deduce praxeis from texts and put them into a series without giving up a critical distance to the sources is, however, the main problem posed by Flaig’s program. With the work of Flaig, the cultural turn in Roman historiography has reached its climax. Although both Jehne and Flaig have almost nothing to say on collegia, Dissen takes these works as the solution to the desiderata made out before. The state-centered perspective on Roman politics has been abandoned in favour of a perspective that sees the plebs urbana as an active participant in the political culture of Rome, not a mere instrument, with the main objective of conserving the consensus that stabilized the republic.

In general, this is a solid book about scholarship on Roman political culture. The author mainly produces summaries adapted to the general question, sometimes supplied with longer quotations. In some cases, she analyzes not only the content, but also the style of a work, the metaphors used or the presentation of the text (with or without footnotes). She incorporates contemporary reviews and other studies on the history of scholarship, as long as they have the same structural focus as her own. Thus there are very few opportunities for her to interact with Perry, but she often cites Nippel’s works on Weber and several German historians, almost always approvingly. While some authors are merely summarized, she engages critically with others, especially when there already is a debate to which she can attach herself. The attempt to view scholarly works against the background of contemporary needs for orientation is difficult to accomplish for an ancient historian. Dissen often incorporates texts from other disciplines in order to illuminate the intellectual background against which a specific author has to be analyzed. Thus, the treatment of Mommsen’s view on collegia is supplemented by a contrast with Otto von Giercke’s “Deutsches Genossenschaftsrecht” (pp. 40-43), scholarship using the designation “masses” is related to Ortega y Gasset (pp. 207-208), and Max Weber’s categories and conclusions are shown to be influential for several (and quite different) approaches. At other times, however, the incorporation of theoretical works yields no results.2

As for the general project, the focus on collegia is less fruitful than Dissen claims. In the majority of studies discussed, they are of marginal interest. She thus fills page after page without saying anything about collegia. It is telling that Ausbüttel’s monograph on collegia receives less extensive treatment (pp. 213-216) than Meier, who hardly mentions them. The treatment of G. Alföldy (pp. 141-148) dedicates one page (from the middle of 143 to the middle of 144) to Alföldy’s very few and elementary remarks on collegia and focuses instead on his model of Roman social structure and its consequent replacement by network analysis. In the cause of this treatment, A. Bendlin’s view is summarized again (p. 147, as on p. 19), although he also receives special treatment later (pp. 249-256) and yet another summary on pp. 274-275. It is clear that Bendlin’s proposal for a new theoretical background of the study of ancient voluntary associations is much more useful for the author’s purpose than those works that focus on the collegia themselves. The problems treated by scholars actually working on collegia are not identical to those of Meier, Bleicken, Flaig, or Dissen. I hold that large parts of the book could have been written without mentioning the authors’ respective positions on collegia. As a consequence, many passages are somewhat redundant. It is frustrating to some degree when the tenth scholar’s general concept of Roman politics has been carefully described and its historical and scholarly context analyzed, only to yield the result that his or her position on collegia is basically the same as that of the earlier ones. And it is not entirely persuasive that the same statement (collegia were simply instruments of politicians) is explained by recourse to so many different personal and contextual backgrounds.

The scholarly area where most work is done on collegia at the moment is probably religious history. This direction of study seeks to understand ancient “voluntary associations” as essentially one Graeco-Roman, or even Mediterranean, phenomenon; it emphasizes the aspects that Greek thiasoi and Roman collegia have in common, with a strong focus on the role of cult, and often with an interest in explaining the origins of Christianity. Dissen’s approach is fundamentally different. She does not even mention Greek thiasoi, is not interested in the religious aspects of life in collegia, and focuses solely on the city of Rome. In my view, however, this does not render her treatment untimely at all. Given this recent trend in scholarship, it is important to be aware of the fact that generations of scholars did not see these connections as in any way evident or, perhaps, plausible. Dissen’s total omission of the standard works on Greek associations is thus justifiable; it would have been interesting, however, to see her interact with the monographs written by theologians who heavily interact with the literature she discusses.3

The editing is good; there are very few typographical errors (apart from English quotations, where “its” regularly turns into German “ist” due to auto-correction). But style and grammar could have used further proof-reading.4


1.   J. S. Perry, The Roman Collegia. The Modern Evolution of an Ancient Concept (Leiden/Boston, 2006).
2.   The treatment of Döbler’s study on Politische Agitation und Öffentlichkeit in der späten Republik contains a confused page on Habermas (245), citing some banal remarks from the introductory pages of his famous 1961-book Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (knowledge of which is attributed to a schoolbook [!] by H.-J. Große Kracht, apparently due to a mistake in the footnotes).
3.   Given her restriction to German works, one should point primarily to Th. Schmeller: Hierarchie und Egalität. Eine sozialgeschichtliche Untersuchung paulinischer Gemeinden und griechisch-römischer Vereine (Stuttgart, 1995) (the first half concentrates solely on thiasoi and collegia); E. Ebel: Die Attraktivität früher christlicher Gemeinden. Die Gemeinde von Korinth im Spiegel griechisch-römischer Vereine (Tübingen, 2004) (two thirds of this book are dedicated to the cultores Dianae and Antinoi [Lanuvium] and the Iobakchoi [Athens]).
4.   Observations about the general way of writing put aside, there remains a troubling number of grammatical errors. Duplication or omission of articles and other small words are quite common. The author often builds long and complex sentences, which are at times obscure, at other times turn into anacolutha.

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