Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.12.65

Christopher S. Mackay, The Breakdown of the Roman Republic: From Oligarchy to Empire.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2009.  Pp.  ix, 445; 38 p. of plates.  ISBN 9780521518192.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by Walter M. Roberts III, University of Vermont (

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Allowed both his target audience (the general public) and his understated goals ("I have eschewed extended argument with other interpretations of individual points in favor of giving a relatively unitary presentation of my own views") Christopher S. Mackay has written an exemplary and noteworthy account of the late Roman Republic's transition from oligarchy to empire.

The only chapter that can be judged less than a complete success is the first-- "Historical Background". There Mackay attempts in 25 pages to cover the Early and Middle Republic, to introduce to the reader the institutional and social structure of the Republican state, and to presage the tensions that led to its destruction. A novice reader might find the quick delivery of this complicated mass somewhat disorientating. However, once Mackay settles into his regular narrative pace, it is hard to imagine a clearer or steadier exposition than the one he delivers.

The formatting of the text belies the unity of Mackay's account: each chapter is divided into numerous sub-topics, each with its own heading. First glance presents a series of subject headed bullet points set in rough parataxis. Nothing could be further from the truth. Familial connections between the major players (supplied in parenthesis), institutional precedents, and judicious anticipations of subsequent developments unify the numerous subsections. But this unity does not mute the discordant clamor of the ancient sources: with a very light touch Mackay allows the shadow of their disagreements to flitter over his own unified account.

Mackay's picture of Tiberius Gracchus is markedly hostile, as prominence is given to the constitutional alarm bells sounded by Tiberius' legislative tactics. The standoff between Octavius and Tiberius is cast in terms of "Roman upper-class morality": neither man could step back from the brink without hazarding his own dignitas. Retroactive application of Julius Caesar's notorious motive to Tiberius allows Mackay to forestall any temptation to make the brothers Gracchi into the Roman equivalents of John and Robert Kennedy--reformers spurred by compassion for the masses. In this spirit Tiberius' confrontation with T. Annius Luseus--"If you harm me, and I invoke the assistance of another tribune, will you depose him?”--is recorded and interpreted with point. So too later interpretation gives constitutional point to the famous exchange between P. Mucius Scaevola and Scipio Nasica on Tiberius' final day. So Mackay reads against the grain of Plutarch, but in line with Cicero.

Mackay's handling of Gaius is similar, but less personalized. This comes as a disappointment for the reader having been told at the onset "he is the only orator before Cicero from whose speeches reasonably large excerpts are preserved." (59) A reader might have hoped for a vision into Gaius' personality. But as Mackay announced in the introduction, he is not interested in details of personal biography. He aims for the Holy Grail of late republican historiography: understanding of the "structural faults" (4) that led to the disintegration of republican governance. (Here Mackay ritualistically enunciates the modern shibboleths: moral failure is out of the question and social conflicts are insufficient to account for the political implosion.)1

In line with the first of these, Mackay later dismisses the perspective of Sallust. "In particular, he analyzes events in terms of a simplistic opposition between the self-interest of Roman politicians and the 'public good' that show little understanding of how the Roman political system actually functioned." (85) In like terms he dispenses with Sallust's charges of bribery during the war against Jugurtha: "As for the war itself, it is hard to imagine that any Roman commander would have thought any bribe more valuable than the prestige that was to be won through victory in the field." (91) Here, however, Mackay verges on what one might call 'toga blindness': "Ah, those noble Romans--no one of them would have been so craven as to accept a bribe instead of facing the risks of manly conflict! " Despite this sentimental obeisance to toga-clad nobility, Mackay's account of Marius' career and the run-up to the Social War is excellent. As is consistently the case, Mackay is deft at illustrating the importance of lesser-known figures (M. Aemilius Scaurus, Glaucia, Q. Caepio and the like).

In moving on to survey 'Roman Territorial Expansion Before the First Mithridatic War' (Chapter 8), Mackay marks his main 'structural' pre-occupation: "Soon the Roman administrative system would suffer long-term strains imposed by the strategic needs of the overseas territories controlled by the Roman People." (147)

Mackay's handling of the Sulla-Zeit is balanced and reasonable--especially in light of the recent inflation of Sulla's influence by H. I. Flower.2 Mackay's account of the 70s and 60s is efficient and incisive. Among its many highlights are his observations on Lepidus ("Although the lesson would not be grasped by everyone, the Lepidus episode showed the futility of using rural discontent to supply the means of seizing Rome by violence. Only command of properly organized military units would suffice for such purposes." (198)) Such foreshadowing goes a long way in consolidating in the reader's mind the main features of Mackay's 'structural' analysis.

It is of course from the mid 60s B.C. onwards that the narrative really gets its legs: "The contemporary evidence . . . makes the next two decades the best-known period of ancient history." (229) But this reviewer found Mackay's Julius Caesar somewhat one-dimensional (a murderous megalomaniac bent on destruction of Rome's republican institutions). Although Mackay does note that the agrarian bill of Caesar's first consulship was "far from provocative", he does not give much play to Caesar's early conciliatory gestures towards his senatorial adversaries, nor does he acknowledge what Gelzer called the "statesmanlike foresight" of measures like the lex Iulia repetundarum.3 Likewise Mackay fails to mention Caesar's effort (however self-interested) to bring transparency to official governance by regulating "that the record of the daily proceedings of the Senate and popular assemblies be regularly compiled and published".4 No. Mackay's Caesar is a hardly more than a megalomaniacal murderous thug.

The tints of his portrait become especially clear when Mackay turns to consider the proconsulship in Gaul. "Hundreds of thousands of people, if not more than a million, were killed, but because of the splendor of Caesar's fame and his undoubted literary talents posterity has paid little attention to them." (252) And although Mackay does explicitly state, "It should be noted in his defense that Caesar's actions were perhaps no more unjustified than those of many proconsuls . . . ", it is nevertheless convenient that the hammer of righteous judgment on Roman expansionism is brought most squarely to bear on Caesar's head. (Compare Cornell's more fitting global indictment in comparing Roman military activity to a 'criminal operation'.)5 So it is that Mackay indicts Caesar for his unprovoked aggression against the migrating Helvetii and the friend of the Roman People Ariovistus. Not for Mackay is the claim that Rome conquered the world through a series of defensive wars! But the hammer, as I've said, does fall particularly square on Caesar.

Mackay's portrait of the post-civil war Caesar is on par with what has proceeded. Though Mackay does make oblique reference to the moderation of Caesar's measure to alleviate indebtedness, his account of the dictator's political and social initiatives is disconcertingly brief--Colonies-Grain Dole-Legal Reforms-Calendar; and his overall judgment--"for the most part these [reforms] take the form of actions that were forced upon him by immediate circumstance, and in any case no long-term principles are evident" (306)--less than damning, since the same could be said about the emergency measures of Lincoln or FDR. Overall Mackay's characterization of Caesar should be compared with the fuller treatment of Yavetz's Julius Caesar and his Public Image. However that may be, Mackay is certainly on the mark by giving emphasis to the degree to which Julius Caesar became unbalanced by the measure of his success: the slide toward autocracy that led even his early followers to find place among his assassins.

But it is in his handling of the career of the dictator's heir, the man who would become known (and forgotten) as Augustus, that Mackay's account transcends the stars and reaches its full glory. It is simply not possible in the space allowed for this review to do justice to the manner in which Mackay articulates that career--the varied stages of its progress, evolution and its accumulative constitutional effect. Mackay's stroke of genius resides in the careful attention given to the varied "re-brandings" that facilitated his success. Mackay makes this re-branding explicit by supplying a different name for each of the three stages of the career of Julius Caesar Octavianus--referencing him as "young Caesar" from the time of the Dictator's assassination, as "Imp. Caesar" from the time of the Treaty of Misenum, and as Augustus from January of 27 B. C. (An unfortunate misprint--an inclusion of an apostrophe--mars the announcement of the intermediate state as the printed text confusingly renders the inscription Imp. Caesar Divi f. as "General Caesar's son of the deified one". (344)) Despite this infelicity, superlatives cannot do justice to the clarity and deliberateness with which Mackay recounts subtle shifts in self-representation associated with transformation of the constitution 'from Oligarchy to Empire'--the inexorable deliverance of the reins of disguised autocracy into the hands of Augustus over his five decade long career. Elemental to the success of this portrayal is an astute reading of the Res Gestae. Concentrating on that document's omissions, Mackay blueprints the concealed mechanism of Augustus' Roman revolution. As Syme himself so thunderously opined: "The two pillars of his rule, proconsular imperium and the tribunician powers, were the Revolution itself--the Army and the People. On them stood the military and monarchic demagogue."6 Mackay's account is a slow, lucid, and gripping explication of Syme's oracular pronouncement. Mackay's 'Epilogue' recounting the succession of Tiberius ("How suited these men are for slavery!") no less skillfully depicts the final shadings of autocracy's darkening hue.

Two special features distinguish Mackay's text. Firstly a series of thirty-seven numismatic plates--referred to at the apposite places in the narrative and along with Mackay's descriptive analyses. These plates provide as compelling an introduction to the numismatic treasures of Roman antiquity as one can imagine. Secondly, each chapter is concluded with a series of Questions for Study and Reflection. Though the answers to the questions are not always to be found in the preceding narrative (a virtue!) the questions provide a ready template for either a lecturer preparing his or her delivery or a grad-student preparing for his or her history exam. Aside from Mackay's target audience, I would fervently recommend his account to any graduate student seeking an entry to the field. But for omission of the later Julian-Claudians, Mackay has completely supplanted Scullard's From the Gracchi to Nero. Mackay's Suggestions for Further Reading, Ancient and Modern leaves nothing to be desired except (to this reviewer's mind) the inclusion of P. A. Brunt's Fall of the Roman Republic and Related Essays.

In his Introduction Mackay states: "The reader should be warned that there is hardly any point in the book which some scholar would not wish to dispute." (9) True though this may be to the level of scholarly controversy, exceptions to Mackay's account will say more about the proclivities of the reader than they do about the lapses of the author. Here must be mentioned Mackay's handling of Cicero. It is sad that the man who gave the distinction between the honorable and the expedient its most thorough exposition (De Officiis, Book III) is judged by Mackay as having been short on the observance of principle himself (237). All in all Mackay has produced a popular masterpiece that will please all but the most ardent admirers of Cicero and the most diehard of populares. His work deserves a place on every university and public library collection. Bravo.


1.   J. A. Crook, Andrew Lintott and Elizabeth Rawson, "Epilogue: The Fall of the Roman Republic" in The Cambridge Ancient History, Second Edition, Vol. IX (1992), 769-771.
2.   Harriet I. Flower, Roman Republics (Princeton University Press, 2010), 118-134.
3.   M. Gelzer, Caesar: Politician and Statesman (Oxford 1969), 93.
4.   Idem, 71.
5.   T. J. Cornell, The Beginnings of Rome (Routledge 1995), 367.
6.   R. Syme, The Roman Revolution (Oxford 1939), 337.

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