Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.01.59 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.01.59

Andrew B. Gallia, Remembering the Roman Republic: Culture, Politics and History under the Principate.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2012.  Pp. xiv, 319.  ISBN 9781107012608.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Sarah H. Blake, York University, Toronto (


Andrew B. Gallia’s Remembering the Roman Republic: Culture, Politics and History under the Principate is a rich and rewarding study of the dynamics of Roman public memory throughout the interconnected realms of, as promised in the subtitle, culture, politics and history. Gallia presents six case studies falling between 68 and 117 CE, each of which centres around a moment wherein the remembered meaning of the Roman Republic or of concepts associated with the Republic was in some way marshalled, mediated, manipulated or otherwise manifested by political actors. The framework within which these case studies are set is a particularly labile one; Gallia works with a broad concept of memory as a cultural and social phenomenon, as experienced and expressed both by individuals and collectives, and as instantiated through a wide range of media. Further, Gallia’s definition of memory insists on the dynamism of things remembered and on the plurality of ways to remember. The ‘Roman Republic’ under discussion here is never a fixed storehouse of information that can be accessed directly, but emerges rather as a moving target that resists singular interpretation. Hence the progressive aspect of the titular gerund Remembering is particularly apt.

The book seems at first to be travelling down well-trodden paths. It invites direct comparison, for example, with Alain Gowing’s 2005 Empire and Memory: The Representation of the Roman Republic in Imperial Culture; 1 the two books share a similar theoretical framework, each working from the touchstones of scholarship on memory such as Maurice Halbwachs’ “collective memory,” Jan Assmann’s “cultural memory”, and the work of Paul Connerton and of Fentress and Wickham on “social memory.”2 Gallia builds on foundations laid by Gowing and others in a useful way. Gallia’s book diverges from Gowing’s not only in the period covered (while Gowing looks at the Principate broadly from Tiberius to Trajan, Gallia concentrates his study on the fifty year period following the fall of Nero) but also in the openness with which memory as a structuring principle is employed. Gallia describes the nature of memory within Roman culture as ‘complex and decentralized’; he sticks to this fundamentally open definition as he explores how the ‘competing memories of the Republican past, operating in a wide range of contexts and media, helped to shape and were shaped by an ongoing process of negotiation and debate, through which the emperors and their subjects struggled to define Roman identity under the Principate’ (8). Certainly the question of memory is so vital to any study of Roman culture that multiple and increasingly sophisticated books on the topic are to be desired.

The remembered Republic that takes shape in these pages is not the well-ordered whole familiar to us from textbooks. Rather, the Republic emerges as a fragmented and evolving network of associations, with tentacles extending through multiple cultural, political and literary arenas. Some of these tentacles function as both deep roots into the past and live wires in their contemporary moment; for example, the concept of libertas. The notion of political liberty is profoundly Republican, even to the point of standing in as shorthand for the Republic itself. A central concern of the book is negotiation of the seeming paradox of libertas under the Principate. Gallia illustrates in Chapter One, ‘Freedom’, how the rebels led by Vindex and Galba in 68 CE deployed a remembered meaning of libertas rooted in moral discourse; Galba’s public commemoration of his own prestigious Republican ancestors and the staging of a metaphorical manumission for those ‘enslaved’ by Nero’s tyranny served to activate the social dimension of libertas as a moral virtue, one not necessarily incompatible with the political conditions of the Principate. Here Gallia conveys well an Imperial age sense that the Republic was both a closed chapter in history and also the continuing fount of Roman identities. The tension between the Republic as a signifier both for rupture and continuity in elite Roman identity brought out in this chapter recurs as a concern throughout the book.

This argument extends into the second chapter, ‘Rebuilding,’ which centres on Vespasian’s rebuilding of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus after its destruction in the struggles of 69 CE. Gallia underscores the gravity of the assault on Roman public memory entailed in the devastation of this quintessential Roman lieu de mémoire; he also conveys clearly the stratification of the physical and textual history of the monument though its associations with Republican triumphs over tyranny in its dedication in 509 and re-dedication after the destruction caused by Sulla in 86 BCE. Gallia’s approach is at its finest here as he invokes the multiple voices and histories constructed on this cornerstone of Roman republicanism. He balances these accounts deftly and suggests that Vespasian succeeded in redefining the meaning of his temple as a monument to Roman imperialism, thereby muting its associations with the triumph of libertas over tyranny. Gallia, working as he is with multiple ancient traditions in addition to a mass of contemporary scholarship on arguably the most central place in Roman culture, religion and history, does a fine job of elucidating the complexity of the question and, rightly, does not force any conclusion. In this sense, the author’s own approach mirrors the multifarious nature of memory’s operation: it is pervasive and yet resists capture.

The power of remembered things to resist manipulation by those in power is the subject of the next chapter, ‘Control,’ which documents Domitian’s execution of the Vestal Virgin Cornelia in 91 CE. Gallia layers the description of Cornelia’s trial in Pliny’s letter 4.11 (full-text included in an appendix), with other literary accounts of her previous trial in 83 CE, of other historical trials of Vestals, and with the topography of punishment in the city of Rome itself. As described by Pliny but elaborated by Gallia, Cornelia’s refusal to be touched as she entered the subterranean tomb recalls the long-standing sacrosanctity of the Vestal’s robe. Her gesture, working as an illustration of both her innocence and her access to the deep memory of the Vestals in the Republican city, ultimately calls into question Domitian’s exercise of total political and religious control and pretensions to the Republican-flavoured virtue of severitas.

Gallia’s next chapter, ‘Persuasion,’ invokes a kaleidoscopic vision of the role of oratory as a public practice and expression of libertas for generations of the senatorial elite. Working with Pliny’s letters and Tacitus’ Dialogus de Oratoribus and Histories, Gallia focuses on the actions and reactions of senators in response to the injustices of Domitian’s reign, as filtered through the comparable period of amnesty and commemoration of the victims of Nero’s reign, itself filtered through the remembered lives and deaths of Cicero and Cato Uticensis, as figures for the lost moral authority of Republican political oratory. This chapter conveys a very convincing sense of polyphony, both diachronic and synchronic. One thus gets a sense of the richness of the conversation among the elite so often obscured in scholarship on Imperial control of memory and discourse that focuses solely on the emperor’s actions as an individual, as Gallia does himself in the previous chapter. The conclusion here is, accordingly, less satisfying but perhaps a more authentically open: ‘the complexity of the relationship between Republican and Imperial oratory was something that every member of the Roman aristocracy had to negotiate on his own terms’ (176). Taken together, these two chapters show Gallia’s ability to adapt his method to the material under discussion.

Chapter 5, ‘Inscription,’ contrasts two men who combined public life with writing lives: Silius Italicus and Frontinus. In both the Punica and the Strategemata, these two Domitianic-era authors refer to Republican-era exempla, but ‘reflect a way of thinking about Rome’s past in which the libertas of the Republic was no longer a realistic alternative to the present system of government.’ For these men, the Republic is just one field from which to draw examples of (in this case) military heroism; Greek or even Carthaginian cultural examples are now just as relevant to Imperial-age readers. The chapter tries to show how these two texts, each with their own unique literary and political biography, yet similarly understand the past as a container of ideas which have meaning in the present, and similarly downgrade the special meaning of the Republic as an alternative to the Principate. Gallia’s conclusion is once again open, almost minimalist. The chapter – while laying out the interplay between these two disparate authors working with disparate historical examples in deeply different texts – yet finds coherence in the question of self-commemoration and the immortality sought by these authors as conductors of, among other things, the virtues of the Republican past.

Finally, in Chapter 6, ‘Restoration,’ Gallia turns to a series of coins minted under Trajan which are re-issues of Republican era coins, and which were carefully selected to highlight exempla virtutis associated with Republican era notables. He traces out how once again libertas is invoked and reworked, now in the context of commemoration, to convey the renewal of moral freedom offered by Trajan’s good government. Trajan’s coinage thus seeks a form of continuity with a certain vision of the virtues of the Republic as for the first time in a century ‘the accomplishments of people outside the imperial house are commemorated on Roman coinage’ (245), unproblematically ‘subordinated to the authority of a single, solely powerful princeps’ (246).

I have discussed each chapter in this book individually to reflect the somewhat fragmented nature of Gallia’s argument. Throughout this book, the central concept of memory is occasionally obscured as Gallia admits himself in his conclusion: “Tracing the multiple facets of Republican memory may strain the argument’s cohesiveness at points, but even that is not entirely accidental. If there is a unifying thesis for the above discussion, it is that the multiplicity of contexts in which the Republican past could be remembered contributes to the basic incoherence of ‘the Republic’ itself as an object of Roman memory” (251). The book deals with many subtopics under the umbrella of ‘Roman remembering’: the preservation of history through ritual action; the competition intrinsic to political commemoration; the unwritten history of words and images; the strata of the past made visible in Rome’s urban topography; the contemporary power of remembered trauma as it refracts through amnesty, vengeance, reparation, and memorialization; and, finally, the role of memory at the social, political and familial level in the formation of elite Roman male identity. Any one of these rich topics could have been emphasized, privileged, or individually theorized more fully, but Gallia’s approach presents these ideas swarming together, letting certain key ideas and phrases reverberate throughout. A stronger hand might have benefitted the argument in certain densely-layered sections, but the overall effect is quite pleasing, and very readable. The prose throughout is clear and jargon-free.

Certainly, individuals will find points with which to quibble across the ‘unruly mass of material’ (248) arrayed and analysed here, where depth has occasionally been sacrificed for breadth. Gallia provides the apparatus for such disagreement, however, in his meticulous footnoting and bibliography. Moreover, the strength of the book is in its inclusiveness and openness; Gallia does not close down other avenues in his interpretations but rather layers interpretations upon interpretations, making many fine and insightful observations along the way. While I do not subscribe to all of Gallia’s individual conclusions, this book should be read and admired both for taking on such a complex question with circumspection and sagacity and also for doing so with the kind of critical spirit that prefers to multiply rather than subtract and is thus infinitely more valuable.


1.   Gowing, A., Empire and Memory: The Representation of the Roman Republic in Imperial Culture (Cambridge, 2005).
2.   Halbwachs, M., Les Cadres sociaux de la mémoire (Paris, 1925); id., La Mémoire collective (Paris, 1950); Assmann, J., “Kollektives Gedächtnis und kulturelle Identität,” in Kultur und Gedächtnis, ed. J. Assmann and T. Hölscher, 9-19 (Frankfurt am Main, 1988); id., Das kulturelle Gedächtnis: Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen, 2nd ed. (Munich, 1992); Connerton, P., How Societies Remember (Cambridge, 1989); Fentress, J. and C. Wickham, Social Memory (Oxford, 1992).

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