Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.02.27 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.02.27

Peter Scholz, Uwe Walter (ed.), Fragmente Römischer Memoiren. Studien zur Alten Geschichte, 18.   Heidelberg:  Verlag Antike, 2013.  Pp. 189.  ISBN 9783938032596.  €49.90.  


Reviewed by Harriet I. Flower, Princeton University (hflower@princeton.edu)

Table of Contents

This volume collects a variety of the "fragments" of Roman autobiographical writing from the republican period. Peter Scholz and Uwe Walter (with help from Christian Winkle) have built on their own extensive previous discussions of lost republican prose works to produce a volume that is a sequel to the German edition of the fragments of the Roman Historians published by Hans Beck and Uwe Walter some ten years ago (Die frühen römischen Historiker 1 and 2. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft). In the same way as its predecessors, this volume is also designed to bring the scattered quotations, references, and paraphrases that constitute our best evidence for a set of lost ancient texts to a broad(er) reading public in the German language. In this case, the sources for the autobiographical writings from the late second century BC to late first century BC are scanty but suggestive of an intense atmosphere of political debate and competition that inspired innovative self-representation on the part of leading Roman politicians. This volume meets and certainly exceeds the modest expectations set for it by its authors ("eine kleine, in erster Linie auf praktischen Nutzen hin ausgelegte Sammlung" p. 7); it represents a useful and thoughtful addition to our picture of the political and literary culture of republican Rome.

The texts in the original languages (Latin or Greek) are presented with German translation and commentary, but without a formal apparatus criticus (although textual issues are addressed in the commentary). The numbering system used for the fragments is that of Martine Chassignet's French edition (L’annalistique romaine: L’annalistique récente, l’autobiographie politique 3. Paris: les belles lettres), although the texts are not all quoted as fully as hers. This edition tends to cite less of the surrounding text and to seek out very precise contours for each "fragment". The volume has a substantial introduction to the whole genre of memoir, in addition to separate introductions to each of the eight authors. A particular high point is the extensive and very up-to-date bibliography of frequently cited works included at the beginning, with many additional items also to be found in the footnotes throughout the text. One should add A. Giardina, "Metis in Rome: a Greek Dream of Sulla," in T. C. Brennan and H. I. Flower (eds.) East and West: Papers in Ancient History Presented to Glen W. Bowersock, (Cambridge, MA, 2008) 61-83.

The ancient writers are (in chronological order by birth with the number of fragments in brackets) Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (4), Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus (2), Marcus Aemilius Scaurus (7), Publius Rutilius Rufus (12), Quintus Lutatius Catulus (3), Lucius Cornelius Sulla (23), Marcus Tullius Cicero (14), and Marcus Terentius Varro (1). 66 fragments (including both prose and poetry) are listed (of which 18 are brief references in the grammarians), as opposed to the 46 listed by Chassignet, who does not include Gracchus, Metellus, Cicero, or Varro in her edition. The time span covered is, therefore, about a century, which roughly coincides with the life span of Varro (116 to 27 BC). A concordance helps to orient the selections. This edition of republican memoirs is also deliberately designed to serve as an introduction to the works of Augustus, which included two very different kinds of autobiographical writings (a lost 13 book autobiography in Greek that ended in the early 20s BC and the Res Gestae finished near the end of his life), recently reedited in a German edition that includes other writings and speeches by the first princeps (Klaus Bringmann and Dirk Wiegandt (edds.) Augustus: Schriften, Reden und Aussprüche (Darmstadt, 2009).

Self-evident strengths of this volume include especially the general introduction to the autobiographical writings ("Ego-Texte"), which features a discussion of genre, audience, credibility, relationship to other writings by the same authors (especially speeches, letters, and historiographical texts that might treat the same material with a differing focalization), political motivation, and literary strategies. It is particularly inspiring to see equal attention paid to political questions and to issues of style and self-expression within the context of a complex milieu of literary experimentation. This discussion indicates, in a nuanced and thoughtful way, the fine line we need to walk between discussing generic expectations that are not well attested in the ancient evidence and overlooking or even denying that a group of authors, evidently well-known to each other, seem to have (at least some) shared goals and working methods.

The authors' collection of material in itself explores the boundaries of autobiography by including some letters meant to be circulated beyond their immediate addressees (e.g. Gaius Gracchus' letter to M. Pomponius about his parents and his brother Tiberius or Metellus Numidicus' letter from exile to the brothers Cn. and L. Domitius Ahenobarbus). Somewhat comparable letters had also been written earlier in the second century BC, either to foreign kings or to the senate. Yet none of these letters are really autobiographies as such. The letters attributed to Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, are not adduced here. One may note, moreover, that Metellus' letter seems to have been written at almost the exact same time as Catulus' memoir, which was described as a letter by Fronto (see further discussion in H. I. Flower, "Memory and Memoirs in Republican Rome," in K. Galinsky (ed.) Memoria Romana: Memory in Rome and Rome in Memory (Supplement to the Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, University of Michigan Press, forthcoming 2014, 27-40). More plausibly, the editors have chosen to include the fragments of Cicero's autobiographical experiments, which comprised a letter to Cn. Pompeius, two memoirs in Greek (hypomnemata), and two separate epic poems. Given how much of his work has survived, it is striking how little we have of these attempts. The single passing allusion to Varro's de vita sua in 3 books rounds out this volume.

Of equal length and impact to the general introduction is the well-researched and lively introduction to the fragments of Sulla's 22-book autobiography, published by his learned freedman Epicadus after his death in 78 BC. Using the epitaph that Sulla had written for himself (he famously claimed that no one was a greater friend or a worse enemy, Plutarch Sulla 38.5) as the key to his character, this essay explores Sulla's self-representation in terms of the tension between traditional Roman values and his personal exceptionalism, which included claims to special divine favor and charisma as a leader. The authors paint a vivid picture of Sulla's original and varied narrative, which began with an account of his ancestry, family, and childhood, and then proceeded with his public career from 108 BC to his capture of Rome late in 82 BC. They appear to accept Ernst Badian's argument that Sulla only held the dictatorship for about a year in 81, resigning before he became consul in 80. It would have been better to explain this (surely correct) reconstruction in a bit more detail, especially for the uninitiated reader.

The accepted view that Sulla did not describe his dictatorship in his narrative is clearly and forcefully represented. The effect of Sulla's memoirs is strikingly compared to that of his gilded equestrian statue next to the rostra in front of his new senate house in the forum (Velleius Paterculus 2.61.3,Appian BC 1.97, Dio 72.18.2), which is represented on Sulla's coinage (RRC 381.1a-b). However, this comparison also brings out a significant difference between the statue and the memoir. The gleaming Sulla on his golden horse was surely meant to memorialize a type of lawgiver or founder figure in the context of a renewed republican order in Rome, represented by the new, larger senate house and speaker’s platform that provided its setting. Why would he not then have planned his memoirs to explain and celebrate his dictatorship, reform program, and subsequent retirement (perhaps like Solon?)? This volume, however, lacks any discussion of what the work might have looked like if Sulla had survived to complete his literary project (almost near the end in book 22? 25 books? 30 books?), perhaps because such a question might appear outside the purview of this kind of edition.

Not everyone will agree with each argument presented here. For example, the assertion that Sulla must have worked very fast on his memoirs because he wrote his whole text in retirement near the end of his life, producing each book in less than a month (on average), must remain hypothetical. Sulla may well, in fact, have kept notes or even drafts throughout his career. He certainly had plenty of secretarial help available to him and the specific figures, dates, and other (seemingly) precise information he gives suggest the use of a variety of detailed notes made at earlier times. More could also have been done to bring out the significant impact of Sulla's writings (for all their evident partisanship), which the authors convincingly trace in the works of Cicero, Sallust, Livy, Plutarch, Pliny the Elder, Aulus Gellius, Tacitus, and Appian. The memoirs survived to be quoted by Priscian (around AD 500). Unlike the autobiographies of Scaurus, Catulus, and Rutilius, Sulla's memoirs were apparently read by many educated Romans in Cicero's day and beyond.

Indeed, it is Sulla's sprawling and unprecedented account, which we can glimpse behind the works of the authors cited above, that raises the whole issue of why and how we should identify and collect specific "fragments" in the first place. While there are more fragments from Sulla's writings than from any other author in this collection, what remains is still very little, especially in terms of direct quotation of Sulla's own words. Meanwhile, a full investigation of Sulla's memoirs requires looking at a larger context for each "fragment" cited here, within the texts of the quoting authors (in Sulla's case mostly Plutarch, but also Cicero, Gellius, Tacitus, and Priscian), as well as a consideration of the many other authors, most notably Appian and Sallust, who seem to be making extensive use of Sulla but without getting close enough to his narrative to provide us with any "fragments" or source citations.

All this having been said, Scholz and Walter (with the assistance of Winkle), have produced an elegant and useful edition of a set of fragments that are particularly elusive and hard to work with. Their commentary provides the essential information needed as background to each text. Their essays comprise both an expert synthesis of existing scholarship and nuanced suggestions about how to integrate Roman autobiographical writing within the political and literary landscape of republican Rome.

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