Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.04.04

Brian W. Breed, Cynthia Damon, Andreola Rossi (ed.), Citizens of Discord: Rome and Its Civil Wars.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2010.  Pp. xiv, 333.  ISBN 9780195389579.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Charles McNelis and Josiah Osgood, Georgetown University (,


This volume gathers together eighteen papers stemming from a conference held in November of 2007 at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) and Amherst College. Approximately two-thirds are written by scholars who work primarily on Latin literary and historical texts (including the volume editors), and textual approaches dominate the collection as a whole. There is relatively little detailed historical analysis—of what caused Rome’s several violent civil wars, of how they were ended, of their relationship to one another, of their impact on most of the inhabitants of the vast Roman Empire. Rather the focus is to a large degree on how a series of authors—some quite expected (Sallust, Vergil, Propertius, Horace, Lucan), others less so (e.g., Valerius Maximus, the writer of the Historia Augusta), a few even post-antique (including Shakespeare)—confronted, or used as a theme, Rome’s civil war in their own works. Papers are grouped under four general themes (“Beginnings,” “Endings,” “Cycles,” “Aftermath,” and “Afterlife”), and the thematic Introduction by the volume editors is also quite general, giving little detailed sense of how the subject of Rome’s civil wars rose to be of such importance for Latin (and also Greek) literature. While John Henderson’s collected papers on the topic (Fighting for Rome: Poets and Caesars, History and Civil War [Cambridge, 1998]) remains a more exhilarating entrée into the topic, useful points are scattered throughout the volume. Rather than rehearse the details of each paper, we focus on several contributions that make important conceptual advances.

The first paper of the volume is a masterful treatment by T. P. Wiseman of the Romans’ own explanations for civil war. Wiseman starts with the premise that for all that the rhetoric of civil war held its roots to lie in Rome’s earliest days (e.g. Hor. Ep. 7; Verg. Georg. 1.501-2 with 2.510-12; Livy 1.6), the phenomenon of political violence culminating in Roman citizen warring citizen (i.e., bellum civile) was one that was relatively recent in Roman history. He then examines 29 passages from primarily Republican authors (e.g. Lucretius, Cicero, Varro, though Florus, Appian and Velleius Peterculus also make appearances) to illustrate that there were two modes of thought in Roman culture about the origins of these wars: the first, exemplified by authors such as Lucretius, Sallust, and Varro, underscores the role that greed in acquiring wealth and political office played in destroying the traditional values of the republic; the second, peculiar to Cicero, is that the Roman republic was always governed by the best and that the attempts to overthrow this system by people such as Tiberius Gracchus, Publius Clodius, and Julius Caesar were exceptional moments that were perpetrated by criminals. Wiseman’s examinations of individual passages are stimulating in their own right, but his overall synthesis is written with such clarity and sensibility that it should become a foundation for the study of civil war at Rome for students and critics of any level.

William Batstone’s essay on Sallust, entitled “Word at War: the Prequel,” will be required reading for those interested in Sallust, his style, and literary technique. The title of the essay openly acknowledges both its methodological borrowings and differences from John Henderson’s work on Lucan and its interest in a writer’s use of rhetoric and language as a way to undercut the meaning of words and ultimately to divide a people. Batstone’s essay, divided into four parts (the first giving a cursory overview of the idea of linguistic instability in ancient civil war narratives; the second, some specific background for Sallust’s account; the third, actual analysis of Sallust’s literary approach to civil war; the final, a useful attempt to situate Sallust’s narrative in the tradition of civil war literature at Rome), is more accessible than Henderson’s work, but will nonetheless be of most use to advanced Latin students and critics. Rhetorical figures such as katachresis, hypallage, and synkrisis are regularly invoked, and the thrust of his argument often depends upon subtle analyses of how Sallust subtly manipulates the nuances of words so as to produce a sense of verbal violence, broken rhetoric, and a resistance to clarity and beauty (see further pp. 56-7). The piece provides a deepened sense of Sallust’s artistic designs and the relationship between civil war and linguistic innovation.

Denis Feeney’s analysis of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra is an example of reception studies at its best in that his reading illuminates not only Shakespeare’s keen engagement with the ancients but also demonstrates that a close reading of the playwright may offer fresh or underappreciated insights on antiquity. Feeney, building upon the work of Philip Hardie (The Epic Successors of Virgil [Cambridge, 1993]), is interested in the idea of numerical shrinkage, that is, the diminution of a collective identity (or at least a sense of Roman identity and power that was predicated upon three to four individuals, such as the triumvirate) towards the rule of a single individual. His reading convincingly demonstrates Shakespeare’s engagement with this idea, and that point alone would be a welcome contribution. Yet Feeney also builds upon earlier work that demonstrates Shakespeare’s engagement with Appian and argues that the playwright took this idea of numerical shrinkage not from Plutarch, but indeed Appian. Feeney gestures towards Shakespeare’s intellectual context and the availability of translations, but his point is not simply to identify sources. Rather, Feeney thinks about the influence of Appian upon Shakespeare’s imagination and the creation of a civil war narrative that, unlike Plutarch’s, eschews teleology and welcomes contingency. Feeney’s paper (as he acknowledges) intriguingly dovetails with ongoing reassessment by historians of Sextus Pompeius and his struggle against Antony and Octavian, famously and influentially belittled in Ronald Syme’s Roman Revolution.1

In her highly original paper “Representations and Re-presentations of the Battle of Actium” Barbara Kellum also challenges Syme, as well as certain claims of art historian Paul Zanker, by reassessing several paintings of scenes of naval warfare from monuments associated with freedmen in Pompeii, the House of the Vettii and the famous Temple of Isis. Through careful iconographic analysis, including comparisons with other monuments (e.g., the tomb of Cartilius Poplicola from Ostia), Kellum argues that the scenes in question do indeed represent Actium and that freedmen found in Actium a way to define themselves and their success in early imperial Pompeii. Kellum replaces Zanker’s model of “passive ‘internalization’ of standardized imperial imagery” (193) with something more dynamic, while also (1) usefully highlighting the very wide range of meanings Actium took on in later years and (2) querying modern scholars’ construction of such terms as “non-elite.” This paper could be a springboard for future research while also being an excellent addition to undergraduate reading lists.

Despite the value of individual contributions, overall it seems that some opportunities were missed. The introduction seemingly attempts to provide a framework for civil war at Rome by discussing the Temple of Concord in juxtaposition with the word discordia, but the appeals to archeology and to philology do not add much to the current understanding of civil war at Rome, while at the same time a number of points may be puzzling to a non-expert (e.g., on p. 6 there is no context for the quotation from the so-called “Dirae poet,” nor an explanation of why the poet should be playing a “pipe”). Moreover, the brief gesture towards material culture only reinforces that, for the most part, the volume ignores archeological evidence, as well as detailed historical analysis. Nowhere in this book appear the Italian soldiers who actually fought Rome’s civil wars and the impressive work done on their settlement into veteran colonies, a major episode in Mediterranean history.2 Important historical topics such as the terminology of civil war are not discussed in the introduction, and historical claims are made there without sufficient support.3

The introduction also does little to situate the volume in the light of contemporary literary scholarship. An interested reader who is unfamiliar with the literature on the subject and who works through the introduction would not really gain a sense of the questions that have driven much criticism of Latin literature over the past 25 years, or how (or whether) this volume engages with that criticism. Indeed, the volume as a whole often seems to reflect its origins as a set of conference proceedings in that the engagement with bibliography is often lacking. It is also likely a function of the conference format that some papers are tangential, at best, to the theme of civil war. A good synthesis on the idea of civil war at Rome, with proper attention to the divergences between ideas and reality, remains to be written, but may be done so now with the benefit of some of the papers in this volume.4


1.   See, e.g., R. Syme, The Roman Revolution (Oxford, 1939) 228-32 and for re-assessment various papers in A. Powell and K. Welch, eds., Sextus Pompeius (London, 2002).
2.   See, e.g., L. Keppie, Colonisation and Veteran Settlement in Italy: 47-14 BC (London, 1983) and R. MacMullen, Romanization in the Time of Augustus (New Haven, 2000). No contributor (to judge by the bibliography) cites the fundamental resource for this topic, P. A. Brunt, Italian Manpower, 225 B.C.—A.D. 14 (Oxford, 1971), where in the preface one finds the arresting remark: “The society and economy of ancient Italy were moulded by war, with its concomitants of conscription, confiscations, devastations, and endemic violence” (vii).
3.   Two examples, both from page 10. First, in a discussion of the aftermath of Actium, Augustus is said to have “attempted to rewrite the story of his own civil war, casting Antony to the side and introducing Cleopatra at the center of his narrative, and he emphasized Rome’s bright new future,” the support for which is given in a footnote as “Notably, Augustus declared war against Cleopatra (Dio 50.4.4, Plu. Ant. 60.1)”—but that was in 32 BC, when Antony was still very much a subject of discussion; where, indeed, did Augustus “rewrite the story of his own civil war”? In his autobiography? Or did others do it first? Second, Octavian is said in 29 BC to have “closed the Gates of War.” The footnote is to Jupiter’s prophecy in Aeneid 1. In fact, the closing of the gates was an honor (like so many others) voted by the Senate (Dio 51.20.1-4) and apparently took place when Octavian was still away from Italy (so the fragmentary Fasti Praenestini, along with Dio, suggest).
4.   Eagerly awaited is David Armitage’s Civil War: a History in Ideas, the subject of his 2010 Wiles Lectures at Queens University, Belfast in which he brilliantly traced the influence of Roman thinking on civil war throughout the early modern period.

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