Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.11.17 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.11.17

Gregory K. Golden, Crisis Management during the Roman Republic: The Role of Political Institutions in Emergencies.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2013.  Pp. xvii, 245.  ISBN 9781107032859.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Colin Bailey, Grant MacEwan University (


Golden examines what measures were available to the Roman republic to respond to emergencies, and specifically to “military-security” crises “in which physical harm threatened the core values of the Roman state up to and including the free functioning of the governing institutions” (5). He is concerned to stress the traditions behind these responses and their fluidity, emphasizing the ability of the senate and the republic as a whole to respond differently on different occasions, within reason. He thus discusses the emergency response mechanisms of the Republic and their evolution over time.

Chapter One, “Crisis and the Sources for Crisis and Governmental Responses”, begins as it must, with a discussion of the use or overuse of the word crisis. Golden notes the frequent use of “crisis” to describe the last century of republican history and a general reluctance by scholars of this period to define the term more narrowly. For the purposes of this book, Golden defines crisis as “a situation in which a decision maker [the Roman political class] ... perceives a threat to itself or to things upon which the decision maker places very high value” (4). Golden adds that a crisis must be resolved within a limited time, if the high value item is to survive without negative impact. As Golden notes, this raises the question of whether or not the Romans themselves (and which Romans) recognized the traditional “Crisis of the Republic” as a crisis. The first chapter ends with a short discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of each of the major documentary sources for the period.

Chapter Two, “The Roman Dictator”, examines the dictatorship as the primary crisis-response mechanism of the early republic. Golden’s focus in this chapter is on the reasons for the appointment of dictators and the orders issued by them, thereby establishing the “normal” procedure, at least as later Romans saw it, for dealing with a crisis in the early republic. That procedure included a series of orders (namely the declaration of a tumultus, the iustitium edict [the cessation of public and commercial business], and an emergency levy) which also figure prominently in later response mechanisms. Golden notes the declining use of the dictatorship and, by the end of the Second Punic War, the abandonment of this office as a way of meeting a crisis. The core activities of the dictator, though, including the declaration of a tumultus and iustitium, continued to be central to the response mechanisms.

Chapters Three and Four focus on the two methods of declaring the equivalent of a modern “state of emergency”, the tumultus declaration and the iustitium edict. The tumultus was typically declared by a dictator or the Senate and recognized a “‘clear and present danger’ that was also geographically proximate to the city of Rome itself” (46). Once declared, the tumultus was typically followed by an edict of iustitium, the assumption of military dress, and a military levy of all available men without regard for exemptions. Although the sources rarely explicitly report the declaration of a tumultus, Golden identifies a number of occasions that most likely saw an official declaration on the basis of the accompanying measures (e.g., the wearing of the sagum, or reference to the tumultuarii, the emergency-levied soldiers) or echoes of the word (tumultus used in a non- technical sense, for example). The tumultus decree was effectively used for emergencies within and beyond Italy, for anticipated emergencies (such as the fear of Antiochus III's intentions in 192), for unexpected crises (such as the Ligurian tumult of 181), and for slave and allied revolts. Golden argues that the tumultus declaration was also used in response to internal threats (e.g., against Catiline), suggesting a consistency in its use throughout the republican period. The declaration of a tumultus was usually followed by the issuance of a iustitium. An edict of iustitium could be issued by a praetor or consul acting on his own authority or under the direction of the Senate independent of a tumultus declaration, as at the beginning of the Jugurthine War or in the midst of the conflict between Sulla and Marius in 88. The edict allowed the state to focus exclusively on the crisis.

Chapter Five, “The Senatus Consultum Ultimum”, discusses the s.c.u. as an emergency measure. In doing so, Golden also analyzes the history of the decree. In order to determine its role as an emergency measure, Golden reviews in some detail the ten uses of the decree, beginning with C. Gracchus in 122 and ending with Octavian in 43. From this, Golden demonstrates that the s.c.u., when passed, may have been intended to provide for political impasses caused in part by the republic’s lack of a single magistrate with power to issue unchallengeable decisions, but did not legalize a magistrate’s bypassing statuary law, whereas a declaration of tumultus did allow some circumvention of the law (the ability to ignore exemptions from military service, for example). Thus, Opimius, Cicero, and others faced challenges to actions performed under the authority, but clearly not the aegis, of the s.c.u. Because it did not grant magistrates any additional powers, liberties, or immunities in dealing with crises, the s.c.u. was “a public statement by the senate that an emergency existed” (148), but fell short of being an actual declaration of a state of emergency.

Chapter Six, “Crises Resolved by Other Means”, examines emergencies that were not or appear not to have been addressed by declarations of tumultus, the iustitium edict, or even the s.c.u. Here, Golden addresses a number of crises (such as Hannibal’s siege of Saguntum) in which the normal emergency measures would not have been of much benefit. More puzzling is the crisis triggered by Hannibal’s march on Rome in 211, which saw the investiture of former dictators, consuls and censors with imperium and a continuous sitting of the Senate - clearly emergency measures, though we have no notice that a tumultus was declared. In the case of several other threats, such as that posed by Philip V in 200 or the Cimbri and Teutones in 105, Golden argues that “the regular machinery of war” (164) were sufficient without the need for extraordinary measures, once it became clear the threat was not on Rome’s doorstep. The crisis involving the Laenates brothers (in which a consul refused to carry out the Senate's instructions) demonstrates the fundamental inability of the republic to respond to political crises: when magistrates refused to cooperate, there was no magistrate able to impose a settlement or to resolve impasses. If a consul or tribune chose to be intransigent, the senate and assembly could do little. In such “political” crises cooperation could bring an end to the crisis, but such cooperation could not always be achieved. This lack of supreme leadership contributed to the first crisis to which the crisis-management strategies of the republic were unequal, the conflict between Sulla and P. Sulpicius Rufus. In discussing this crisis and the earlier crisis provoked by Ti. Gracchus, Golden points to one of the major difficulties in this topic: our sources do not appear to be interested in asking or explaining why traditional crisis responses, or even the s.c.u., were not employed against or by Sulla in 88 BC.

Chapter Seven, “The Winter of Discontent and the Summer that Led to a Fall,” focusses on the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination. The crisis immediately following Caesar’s death was successfully met by cooperation among the major stakeholders, but that cooperation quickly broke down, leading to a second crisis and the tumultus provoked by Antony’s siege of D. Brutus at Mutina. While the tumultus declaration did facilitate an end to that crisis, Golden suggests that it also contributed to the inability of the republic to weather yet another immediate crisis (declared on May 30, 43) due to the death of both consuls, leaving the senate without magisterial guidance. Even with an s.c.u., the urban praetor proved unable to resist Octavian’s march on Rome, leaving the crisis resolved only by the demise of the libera res publica.

Chapter Eight, "The Evolution of Crisis Response During the Roman Republic," seeks to explain why the crisis-response measures failed to meet the final crises of the republic. During the third century BC, the responsibility for crisis response shifted from a strong executive, such as the dictator, towards the senate. The tribunate of Ti. Gracchus marked the beginning of increasing tensions within the ruling class as opposite sides of political disputes refused to yield. Those tensions saw the senate, led by L. Opimius, abrogate much of its role in leading crisis response to the executive with the implementation of the s.c.u. and the institutionalization of violence in order to deal with internal crises. This left those wielding executive power license to employ their armies in resolving crises and internal political impasses, a situation that would not be resolved until the emergence of the princeps who could work in the name of the senate and monopolize the use of force.

Golden demonstrates that while the republic did have a number of measures to respond to external crises, these measures were not always effective in internal political crises. The lack of any mechanism to deal with such internal crises led to the senate being overshadowed by armies when executive officers employed their soldiers to fill that institutional gap. This naturally caused a worsening of the crisis when a political “dispute pitted two holders of fundamental power against each other” (218), which could often be resolved only through the use of force.

To conclude, I will note here only three of the major strengths of the book. First, it responds to a need for greater clarity in our use of the word “crisis”, particularly when discussing the final century of the libera res publica. Second, it requires us to inquire into the Roman conception of a political crisis and distinguish it from our own. Third, Golden provides a valuable historiographical survey for each of the crises with which he deals, summarizing the scholarly position on each and identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the source material related to each. On the whole, both scholars and students will find much of value in Golden’s work.

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