Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.10.47 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.10.47

Lily Ross Taylor, The Voting Districts of the Roman Republic: The Thirty-five Urban and Rural Tribes. With updated material by Jerzy Linderski (first published 1960). Papers and monographs of the American Academy in Rome, 34.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 2013.  Pp. xviii, 403.  ISBN 9780472118694.  $70.00.  

Reviewed by Greg Pellam, California State University, Chico (

Table of Contents

In the year 323 B.C., if we are to believe Livy (8.37.8-12) and Valerius Maximus (9.10.1), a tribune by the name of M. Flavius proposed that the Tusculani should be severely punished. He accused them of having incited the people of Velitrae and Privernum to make war on Rome. When the Tusculani came to Rome with their wives and children, acting as suppliants and dressed in defendants’ garb, the Roman people took pity on them. All of the tribes voted against Flavius’ proposal except one; the Pollia voted that the men should be flogged and put to death, with the women and children sold at auction in accordance with the law of war. The Tusculani were registered in the tribus Papiria. As a result of this vote, the Papirian tribe thereafter rarely voted for a candidate who was a member of the Pollia. The members of the tribe had a long memory, too — Livy tells us that the trend continued until the last generation of the Republic.

Whether one is inclined to accept this aetiology or not, there can be little question that the rivalry was real, because it persisted well into the period when our sources would have firsthand experience of it. Taylor (p. 302 n. 3) suggests that the rivalry had probably died out even by the middle of the first century, since Cicero tell us (Planc. 19-23) that by his day the number of voters from Tusculum had declined. But we need not follow Taylor in this conclusion. That the Papirian tribe could direct its hatred toward the Pollian for so long suggests that the tribe was a powerful part of a Roman citizen’s sense of identity. To the contrary, the fact that there were so few Tusculan voters suggests that the rivalry was a tribal issue, rather than a lingering prejudice on the part of the Tusculans themselves. Such a conclusion is only bolstered by the fact that one’s tribal affiliation was an integral part of a citizen’s official name. Therefore, it is preferable to accept our sources’ indication and conclude that membership in the Papirian tribe brought with it enmity toward members of the tribus Pollia, whether one was Tusculan or not. Just as membership in the Papiria had changed, so had membership in the Pollia. Such is the nature of rivalry; it need not seem rational to the outsider.

The significance of this episode is enormous. The centrality of one’s tribal affiliation to one’s identity and even to one’s voting tendencies undermines attempts to schematize Roman politics simply. Can we expect a plebeian in the early Republic to vote in the interests of the plebs as a whole, or might tribal concerns take precedence? Is there any hope for prolonged contests between populares and optimates and the ideologies which came with them when a voter’s tribal membership could apparently trump other issues? None of this is to suggest that this one passage overwhelms all evidence of ideological concerns, social obligation, or other forms of allegiance. Rather, it is meant to emphasize both the ineffectual nature of schematic interpretations of Roman politics and the lasting and unquestionable significance of Lily Ross Taylor’s monograph on the Roman tribes.

It should not be my purpose to provide a detailed description and analysis of Taylor’s collection and deployment of evidence or of her arguments—exceptionally rigorous and largely convincing as they are—since the book has already found reviewers in such eminent authorities as Badian (JRS 52 (1962): 200-10) and Syme (Historia 13 (1964): 105-25= Roman Papers 2: 582-604). The book itself is reprinted precisely as it was originally published, without any changes or corrections to the text. The only change that was noticeable to me was that the foldout maps, which were placed in the original edition at the beginning of several chapters, have been removed and reprinted at the end of the book on two pages each. Taylor begins with two seminal chapters establishing the character of the tribes and the role of people and censors in the assignment of citizens to the tribes. Chapters 3 through 11 (part 1) comprise Taylor’s efforts to establish the geographical position of the 35 urban and rural tribes, the “official order” of the tribes, and the changes made to the tribes over time to accommodate recent conquests and the addition of new citizens. Part 2 (chapters 13-15) attempts to establish the tribes of senators in the Republic.

Professor Taylor was a unique scholar in the sense that she combined the social theory, predominant in the 20th century, of the dominance of the interests of noble families and the factions which followed them (e.g., Party Politics in the Age of Caesar Berkeley 1971) with the constitutional preoccupations of Mommsen and other scholars who followed him until sociological theories took their place (e.g., her Roman Voting Assemblies Ann Arbor 1966). The concluding chapter (16) contains a remarkable synthesis of both perspectives, offering her vision of the ways in which elite families manipulated the distribution of citizens into tribes, balancing concern for family power with public interest—or, perhaps more accurately in Taylor’s view, viewing the two priorities as indistinguishable. Finally, an appendix briefly discusses cases of communities divided into two tribes.

Linderski’s additions are appropriately brief and will prove to be invaluable to scholars as they approach the study of the tribes as constitutional and social units. In 40 pages, Linderski surveys more recent scholarship and acutely evaluates the successes and failures both of Taylor’s work and of those who have attempted to correct her.

In this review, I would like briefly to discuss some methodological concerns. It may prove useful to approach the mass of evidence compiled by Taylor and others on the nature and makeup of the tribes with new questions and presuppositions. I begin by noting the prudent approach of Taylor with regard to the development of the tribes (p. 4). She argued that, when the ancient narrative provides greater explanatory force than any modern theories, we ought to give greater weight to that ancient narrative. Scholars should first follow the ancient evidence where it leads before abandoning it in favor of alternative theories. This approach is taken above, with regard to the narrative of the Pollian and Papirian tribes. This argument follows the ancient sources and offers an interpretation which could substantially alter our understanding of the role of the tribes in Republic.

A second consideration is the nature of the tribes as source both of social identity and constitutional authority. Taylor believed that there existed during the Roman Republic two tribal assemblies: the concilium plebis, which consisted exclusively of plebeians and was originally a revolutionary institution, and the comitia tributa populi, which consisted of all citizens and was always a fully constitutional legislative and electoral body. The problem is that the latter is entirely unattested by ancient evidence. Joseph Farrell (Athenaeum 64 (1986): 407-438) has shown conclusively that references to comitia tributa and a concilium plebis refer to the same institution, concilium being used to describe the membership of the assembly (the plebs) and comitia being used to define its organizational principle (the tribes). Likewise, Develin has argued (Athenaeum 53 (1975): 302-37) convincingly that there was only one tribal assembly and that it was the plebeian assembly. Arguments in favor of the existence of a tribal assembly of the populus are limited to the belief that it would be inappropriate for an assembly to exist in which patricians would have to stand for office, but in which they would be unable to vote. But this argument is based on modern sentiment and not ancient evidence. Because Taylor assumed without question that two tribal assemblies existed, an important question was overlooked in her research. We must ask, though this is not the venue to consider the question fully, if it is true that there was only one assembly and that that assembly was plebeian, what does it tell us about the tribes and about the plebeians that the plebs and only the plebs would choose to organize itself by tribes?

At another point (p. 17), Taylor makes a similar assumption based on modern sensibilities, arguing that it was always the case that tribes would have been created and new citizens would have been distributed into those tribes in accordance with a law passed by the populus: “The tribe was a division of the people, pars populi, and the sovereign people should have authorized a new division.” The one bit of evidence we have for the early Republic (Livy 8.17.11-12), however, on the most natural reading suggests that the censors both created the tribes and divided citizens into them. A later passage from Livy (38.36.7-9) provides an instance of a law duly proposed to and passed by the assembly carried out these functions. Taylor concludes that this was always the case and that the censors in the earlier instance were acting on a law. Since both episodes were recorded by the same author, but took very different forms, we should not assume that tribes were created and citizens divided into them in accordance with a permanent constitutional principle. Rather, we should conclude that the tribes, like other Roman political institutions, were subject to constant change, with characteristics, functions, and prerogatives changing as political conflicts demand and new precedents are set. The mos maiorum was not a set of absolute and permanent principles, but a loose set of guidelines, itself subject to ever changing precedent.

These few methodological suggestions are made possible by Taylor’s remarkable achievement in this book. Her work in this area is still of vital importance to every student of the Roman Republic, and Linderski’s commentary and synthesis of new evidence will itself prove to be essential reading for anyone pursuing research on the tribes, the constitution of the Roman Republic, or any area of Roman society in the Republican period.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010