Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.06.38

Hans Beck, Antonio Duplá, Martin Jehne, Francisco Pina Polo (ed.), Consuls and 'Res Publica': Holding High Office in the Roman Republic.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2011.  Pp. x, 376.  ISBN 9781107001541.  $110.00.  

Reviewed by Jane W. Crawford, University of Virginia (


This important book presents papers given at an international conference on the consulship of the Roman republic held at the University of Zaragoza in September 2007. It also includes several additional contributions to fill in gaps in the chronological or thematic treatment. The book is divided into four sections: Part I, The creation of the consulship; Part II, Powers and functions of the consulship; Part III, Symbols, models, self-representation; and Part IV, Ideology, confrontation and the end of the republican consulship. Included are an extensive bibliography, an index of persons, and a subject index.

An introductory chapter by the four editors briefly reviews previous scholarship on related topics (the Roman constitution, the Roman nobility, chronology, and prosopography), while noting that unlike the other magistracies of the Roman republic, the consulship has not been the subject of a book-length study. Attributing this lack to the fact that “the consulship is a nebulous office, which makes it an elusive subject of research from the constitutional point of view” (2), they propose to study the office and its holders from a practical, rather than theoretical, viewpoint. They then present a concise and very illuminating history of the consulship from its earliest legendary foundation, the military and political ramifications of the office, and its development over five centuries of Republican government. The key to their approach is the understanding that the consulship is clearly the product of continuity and change occurring over generations; it is, like the Roman constitution, very much a “work in progress.” As such, its development reflects “the flexibility and creativity of Rome’s ruling class in the republican period” (3). The introductory remarks conclude with an overview of the chapters that follow.

Christopher Smith’s chapter, “The magistrates of the early Roman republic,” leads off Part I with an in-depth examination of the Fasti, the lists of Roman magistrates, focusing on their reliability (or lack of same) and the various ways in which and by whom they might have been manipulated, and to what end. After a careful presentation of the state of the debate and the scholarship concerning it, Smith discusses the very fragmentary and confusing evidence concerning the development of the office of consul from the earliest years of the republic, especially in the period preceding the Decemvirate. Who were the men who held magistracies, what were their titles, how were they selected, and how were the offices distributed are all questions considered deftly and thoroughly by Smith as he untangles the records left by annalists and antiquarians.

The second chapter in Part I is “The origin of the consulship in Cassius Dio’s Roman History,” by Gianpaolo Urso. Urso argues that Dio’s research methods and his use of sources (particularly Livy) call for a closer look at parts of the Roman History that concern the early decades of the Roman republic. For much of this period we are dependent on Zonaras’ epitome of Dio, but Urso shows convincingly that Zonaras reproduces Dio’s terminology exactly, and this terminology is significant in that Zonaras consistently uses singular nouns to describe the magistrates in the period 509-494 BC.. Urso goes on to explain how Dio calls the magistrates of 494 BC “praetors” (Zonaras 7.14.3), but in the text of the epitome dealing with 449 BC (7.19.1), they are referred to as “consuls.” Urso concludes with a discussion of the two colleges of Decemvirs in 451 and 450 and the issue of collegiality. The argumentation throughout is complex, but convincing, and sheds helpful light on the issue.

Alexander Bergk’s essay (Chapter 3) is on “The development of the praetorship” between 366 and 218. Bergk considers the evidence for the hierarchy of consuls over praetors, and concludes that the equality between the two in the early republic changed because of the needs of the expanding theaters of war in this period. As wars became farther away and longer lasting, it was necessary that a magistrate with imperium remain in Rome permanently. This was the praetor; the consuls were off winning fame and wealth in battle, and this resulted in inferior prestige for the praetorship, so that praetors were no longer considered colleagues of the consuls.

Chapter 4, “Consular power and the Roman constitution: the case of imperium reconsidered”, by Hans Beck, begins Part II. This paper is an enlightening discussion of the concept of imperium and its relationship to the offices endowed with it and the holders of these offices. Beck’s essay deals with changes to the number of magistrates with imperium, their competences, and the spaces in which their imperium was to be exercised. During these developments, imperium remained a critical, though flexible, concept and a major part of the “elite ideology” of the late republic.

“Consuls as curatores pacis deorum” (Chapter 5) is Francisco Pina Polo’s excellent study of the religious duties of the consuls, to whom “the maintenance of the direct relationship between the community and the gods” was assigned (97). Pina Polo explains the consuls’ role in the expiation of prodigia, the celebration of the Feriae Latinae, the sacra of Lavinium, as praesides ludorum, and the celebration of the ver sacrum. These duties have political as well as religious significance, and were necessary for the preservation of the pax deorum.

Continuing the religious theme, in Chapter 6 Francisco Marco Simón writes on “The Feriae Latinae as religious legitimation of the consuls’ imperium.” This is a very informative chapter with a thorough discussion of the ancient sources and a recapitulation of current scholarship on the important ritual of the Feriae Latinae. The cultural, political, and patriotic significance of the festival is clearly explained by Marco Simón, and by stressing its ancient origins the author shows its place in the cultural memory of the Romans.

In Chapter 7, “War, wealth and consuls,” Nathan Rosenstein turns to the more worldly sphere of consular activities, that of waging war. Rosenstein investigates two issues that are often misunderstood: the fact that there were limits on how much booty the victorious general could keep for himself, and how the spoils of war could be appropriated by the state to fund current and future wars. Rosenstein sorts out these conflicting demands and organizes his analysis of them in an informative Table (153-158) on the profits and costs of victories, 200-167 BC.

Part III opens with Karl-Joachim Hölkescamp’s fascinating chapter on “The Roman republic as theatre of power: the consuls as leading actors.” He discusses the importance of spectacle and ritual in the visual world of Rome, and the consuls’ roles in the “theatre of power.” Their inauguration, the presence or absence of their lictors, their performances before the people, their coming and going from the city—all these and more are convincingly explained and illustrated here.

Chapter 9 is Matthew Roller’s lengthy and thorough study of “The consul(ar) as exemplum: Fabius Cunctator’s paradoxical glory”. Roller discusses the “ethics of delay” (185-93), the “paradoxes of delay” (193-200), and concludes with “post, magis, nunc: Fabius revalued and exemplified.” His careful examination of the “delayer tradition” explains Fabius’ unusual approach to war and eventual elevation to exemplary status.

In Chapter 10, “The rise of the consular as a social type in the third and second centuries BC,” Martin Jehne investigates the consular’s changing and expanded role. Former consuls became full-time politicians as senatorial business increased, and it became more prestigious, as well as necessary, for consulares to actively attend to politics in Rome.

Chapter 11 takes up the activities of consulares outside of Rome, in Michael Fronda’s study of “Privata hospitia, beneficia publica? Consul(ar)s, local elite and Roman rule in Italy.” The discussion centers on “the tensions and ambiguities” between Rome and the Italian communities in the republican period” (232). Working from a political and social viewpoint, Fronda explicates changing relationships of hostility, cooperation, and reciprocity among individuals and groups; benefaction and patronage compete with subordination and disappointment among the Italian elites in the years preceding the Social Wars.

Chapter 12 opens Part IV. In “Consular appeals to the army in 88 and 87: the locus of legitimacy in late-republican Rome,” Robert Morstein-Marx deals with Sulla’s actions in 88 with respect to the state and the “distinctive political culture” surrounding the consulship (263). A close study of the chronology and the evidence of Appian (regarding Cinna’s behavior) then leads to consideration of the importance of the soldiers’ and citizens’ regard for the status of the consul and legitimacy of the consulship at this critical period. “Consulares populares” is Antonio Duplá’s study, Chapter 13. After a short but informative discussion of what popularis actually means in the context of republican Rome, Duplá briefly reviews the careers of several consulares populares (mostly based on the evidence of Cicero), from the mid-fifth century BC to Cicero himself. Although cautioning the reader against drawing too many conclusions, he argues persuasively for the presence of a “popularist” stance, supportive of the plebs and generally reformist, which led to polarization and conflict between members of the nobilitas and individual popularist leaders.

In Chapter 14, Valentina Arena also considers these issues in her study, “The consulship of 78 BC. Catulus versus Lepidus: an optimates versus populares affair.” Her approach examines biographical evidence from Cicero and Plutarch in the light of the philosophical terminology describing the two consuls and their actions. Such terminology reveals much about the emotions underlying such concepts as bonus and audax, and Arena argues that consideration of this “political language with a philosophical substrate” (317) allows a deeper understanding of the struggle between optimates and populares.

The final chapter of this wide-ranging book is Frédéric Hurlet’s contribution, “Consulship and consuls under Augustus.” Hurlet begins with a disclaimer, stating that it is logical to study the republican office of the consulship under the principate because Augustus was so careful to preserve historical continuity and republican institutions. The relationship between Augustus and the consuls, to whom he was politically superior, was maintained by not “infringing on the very foundations of consular power and prestige” (319). After discussing various historiographic approaches to this topic and clearing up some confusion about the holding of imperium militiae, Hurlet outlines the steps that Augustus took to ensure the institutional continuity of the res publica. Although some reforms of the consulship took place during the Principate, particularly in times of unrest, “no measure took away from the consuls in their capacities in any area whatsoever” (329). Hurley concludes with a discussion of the “lived reality” of the consulship under Augustus. It was still a sought-after office, the subject of fierce competition among aristocrats as it had been in the republic. Even if it had less political power after 28, the consulship’s “social prestige was maintained (or even reinforced) by Augustus” (329).

This book is a goldmine of information about the consulship from the beginning to the end of the Roman republic. The contributions are uniformly excellent, well-written, and carefully researched, with appropriate attention given to earlier scholarly opinions. Methods and viewpoints may differ, but the overall result is a volume of helpful and readable essays on an important and timely topic of great interest to Roman historians and historiographers.

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