Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.07.30

M. A. Robb, Beyond Populares and Optimates: Political Language in the Late Republic. Historia Einzelschriften 213.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010.  Pp. 225.  ISBN 9783515096430.  €56.00.  



Reviewed by Ayelet Haimson Lushkov, The University of Texas at Austin (ayelet.haimsonlushkov@mail.utexas.edu)

Table of Contents

There are few Roman historians who have not, at some point in their scholarly careers, given thought to the internal dynamics of the Roman elites. In the Late Republic in particular, these dynamics have gone by a variety of names, of which the old stalwarts factio and clientela have recently been replaced by a more fluid view of political actors and political conduct. The center of this debate, however, consists of a fundamental distinction between two kinds of politicians, and concomitantly two views of political modes: populares and optimates, assemblies and senate, individual ambition and corporate interest.

Beyond Populares and Optimates is a revision of the author’s King’s College London doctoral dissertation, in which Robb offers a more refined view of the language of Roman partisanship. The bulk of the book is taken up with an extensive survey of the terms populares and optimates (including the unusual singular form optimas) in prose texts from the late republic to the early empire, with a heavy emphasis on Cicero (the pro Sestio, as might be expected, is given a full chapter). The lexical notations themselves are collected and broken down into individuated meanings in the lengthy appendix A. Appendix B deals briefly with the legislation of C. Gracchus, whom, as Robb argues, modern scholarship has seen as both “the archetypal ‘popularis’ and the exception to the general typology” (189). A bibliography, general index and an index locorum round off the back matter.

The highlights of the book come in the lexicographical sections, in which Robb offers a series of readings tackling some of the more important instances for both populares and optimates. Especially welcome is her attention to the semantic range of the word optimas and optimates, labels which have been relatively unproblematized so far. As Robb reminds the reader throughout, populares has received the lion’s share of attention (as it does here), but optimates, too, has a wider range of reference. The singular form is especially revealing: optimas, Robb suggests, is the opposite of plebs (a fairly consistent Livian usage) rather than popularis and referred to a member of the Roman nobility – a technical matter of birth and office. Optimus quisque, on the other hand, further specifies optimates to denote not merely the total of Roman aristocracy but rather those among them who upheld certain traditional values. The best example of this approach comes in the second chapter, where Robb analyzes the famous section of pro Sestio 96-135 (though see also pp. 96-99 on the de Rep.), and shows that the optimate fundamenta Cicero sketches (which begin with cum dignitate otium and encompass the bulk of Roman institutions, but “notably exclude libertas and popular rights” (56)), do not, in fact, amount to any clear definition of a political group or programme. More distinctively, perhaps, Robb reads Cicero’s discussion against the background of his antagonism with Clodius, and argues that the description of the optimates in the pro Sestio is constructed not to define a group of people or a mode of operation, but rather to separate out the renegade Clodius (who is, on Robb’s reading, optimas but not optimus) from the crowd of good men. Valuable too is Robb’s demonstration that Cicero frequently uses the term optimates (interchangeably with boni) to refer not to any political grouping but more specifically to his own supporters, as well as, ironically, to Caesar’s. Thus optimates emerges as a rather nebulous phrase, which has strong moral overtones but whose ambiguity could also be effectively used to construct simpler dichotomies within the ruling class itself.

Popularis is, naturally, a more complicated case, though Robb’s argument essentially runs along the same lines: “while some of the examples which have been considered may seem to match modern theories about ‘popularis’ behaviour, on closer inspection many do not” (91). In this vein, she identifies various positive meanings for the word, including the refreshingly simple ‘popular,’ i.e., enjoying broad approval. More emphatically, Robb argues against the assumption that popularis necessarily implies “conflict with a senatorial majority,” and demonstrates that Cicero, at least, often uses the word to connote action which he felt to be in the public interest and therefore approved, or with which he wished to associate himself against "false" populares (as in Phil. 7.4 or De Leg. Agr. 2). Interestingly, Robb also points out that this Ciceronian tactic is applied equally before contional as well as senatorial audiences, which suggests a greater flexibility of rhetorical practice than commonly allowed. Thus, like optimates, populares too can be used to sort out various groups within the senatorial class, constructing ad hoc allegiances between speaker and audience. These results are consistent throughout Robb’s sample. Accordingly, the final chapter asks if there was any Latin word to “distinguish a certain type of politics undertaken in opposition to senatorial wishes” (146). Robb’s answer is seditiosus and seditiosi (150), and suggests that we might productively replace the dichotomy populares / optimates with seditiosi / optimates. As an advance in terminological precision, the suggestion is interesting and welcome, but it also buys into the very same binary model of two factions in active strife that Robb has tried to demolish, and it does not sufficiently account for the fact that Latin authors of the period frequently used populares when the supposedly more accurate seditiosi was available.

While the semantic analyses yield many worthwhile observations, the theoretical framework of the book is more problematic. Throughout the book, Robb’s focus is on “terminology and its application” (14), in particular the persistent understanding of populares and optimates as opposites in conflict, with popularis in particular seen as a tag for active opposition to senatorial ideals. A greater terminological precision, she suggests, might open a “new angle for tackling the problem of defining late Republican politicians as either ‘populares’ or ‘optimates’” (14). This problem, as Robb sees it, stems from the fact that while modern scholarship has consistently seen populares and optimates as mutually competitive identities, the various models proposed for understanding Roman political culture have interpreted this fundamental conflict in a myriad of ways. Chapter 1 therefore offers an historical overview of those models, from Mommsen’s political parties to the current view of Roman politics as a process- and performance-oriented culture, in which individuals determined their allegiances and indeed their votes based on ad hoc conditions. As a synthesis, the chapter is noteworthy for its welcome integration of Anglophone and continental (especially German) approaches to Roman politics (for a more detailed treatment of which, see Holkeskamp’s newly translated Reconstructing the Roman Republic). The theoretical impetus arising out of that synthesis, however, is weaker. Robb consistently argues that modern scholarship has been chasing a mirage in the opposition between populares and optimates, and that the inability of modern scholarship to settle on a single interpretation points to a fundamental misapplication of the terminology. Despite the claim, Robb’s own argumentation, although evocative of a much subtler semantic range, falls short of actually demonstrating a substantial advance. Robb seems to dismiss the considerable body of recent, discourse-based interpretations, which, broadly speaking, suggest that populares and optimates were shorthand for a set of habits, goals, and traditions, which were available for Roman politicians to adopt for themselves or attach to their supporters or to the opposition. To be fair, Robb does see her own conclusions as extending this line of interpretation, and she is right to point out that seeing the tag populares as invariably pejorative or anti-senatorial is simplistic and reductive, but one wonders if the thesis as Robb articulates it – that populares and optimates did not refer to political parties in active opposition – does more than corroborate linguistically standard assumptions in the field.

Although the scope of the project is well defined, it also suffers from a certain myopia. Robb’s sample consists primarily of Cicero, to whom three chapters are dedicated (one for the pro Sestio, one for the word populares, and one for optimates). Cicero’s contemporaries are then lumped together in a single chapter, which includes the Commentariolum, Cornelius Nepos, Sallust, Livy’s first Pentad and the periochae, as well as Velleius Paterculus and Asconius. Poetic texts are altogether lacking; Ennius’ use of the word optimates is dealt with in passing (70 n. 4, 145), while other poetic instances are generally relegated to references in the footnotes. The same is true of the fragmentary historians and orators or the later books of Livy. Even Cicero himself is unevenly treated, with the speeches in particular suffering: the Pro Sestio is amply treated, but otherwise only the de Lege Agraria, de Haruspicum Responsis, and Philippic VIII are singled out for extensive comment. The reasons for such unevenness are not always elucidated, and the reader is thus left with the feeling that Robb is focused solely on disproving the interpretation of popularis as a political tag, rather than offering a more positive account of the word’s actual usage, or asking how non-political usage might have informed or colored partisan language. A more robust theoretical background is also missing, and especially any engagement with the growing literature on the late republican interest in problems of social taxonomy and tagging (cf. e.g., Krostenko 2001), or the prevalent concern with the instability of names and labels (on which Minyard 1985 on Lucretius and the growing bibliography on Sallust are but the tip of the iceberg).

The book is therefore of limited utility. Although it makes little theoretical contribution to the field, it nevertheless stands to make small but important changes to our understanding of Roman politics. As a lexicographical survey, it provides a useful guide, and the collection of all occurrences of populares and optimates in Appendix A will be a valuable reference. Individual findings are likewise worth incorporating more fully into the scholarly conversation, and will likely help produce increasingly nuanced readings of Roman linguistic usage.

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