Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.02.05 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.02.05

Ayelet Haimson Lushkov, Magistracy and the Historiography of the Roman Republic. Politics in Prose.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2015.  Pp. xi, 201.  ISBN 9781107040908.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Ana Rodriguez Mayorgas, Complutense University of Madrid (


This book explores Roman magistracy as a source of exemplarity through a series of case studies drawn mainly from Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita. Although admitting the relevance of other institutions in the political arena of the Republic, such as the Senate or the people, Ayelet Haimson Lushkov singles out the Roman magistrates as a "useful heuristic paradigm" (4) not only for their capacity to embody the moral values and ideological principles of the Republic but also for their leading role in historical accounts. The approach of the book is more literary than historical. The author acknowledges that "literary constructions… participated in cultural discourse" (25) and, therefore, reflect historical reality, but avowedly leaves aside the political and cultural dimension of praiseworthy behaviour in Rome in order to focus mainly on the textual construction of magistracy and exemplarity. In support of her approach the author follows Jane Chaplin’s definition of exemplum as "anything that serves as a guide to conduct within the text." 1 However, the episodes examined are not taken as clear-cut paradigms of laudable actions that should simply be emulated. On the contrary, the author has surveyed a number of anecdotes and exempla of controversial interpretation, most of which raise a conflict of rights and interests in which both sides build a strong argument or simply a clear and satisfactory solution is not reached.

Chapter 1 deals with the tension between magisterial and paternal power. The case studies selected display conflicting situations in which a father must choose between his paternal feelings and responsibility or the magisterial prerogatives and duties. Four exempla are examined. In two of them the son is the magistrate, but the two cases are played out differently. In 232 BC the father of C. Flaminius, a tribune of the plebs, prevents him from passing an agrarian law before the people without senatorial support by making him descend from the rostra. In the second case, Fabius Maximus Cunctator, serving as legate of his son the consul in 213 BC, is ordered to dismount from the horse in his presence in spite of the principle of paternal superiority. In the other two exempla, the father holding the office does not hesitate to condemn his son to death for a reprehensible action, while at the same time not concealing the paternal suffering caused by the tragic ending (the cases of Brutus and Manlius Torquatus). In these representations, the clash between consular and paternal authority as portrayed in the literary tradition raises conflicting emotions and affections that allows one to distinguish Roman magistracy from any merely tyrannical exercise of power.

In chapter 2, Livy's account of the Caudine Forks in book 9 of AUC is examined as a complex narrative of consular exemplarity evolving from the initial defeat at the hands of the Samnites at Caudium to an overwhelming victory at the battle of Luceria (321-320 BC). The analysis focuses especially on Livy’s ability to narrate the whole episode starting with the incompetence of the two consuls, T. Veturius and Sp. Postumius, in performing their duty as counsellors and as leaders of the army, and ending in the election of new magistrates who bring about both military recovery and the restoration of the consular persona to its full capacities. The author thus highlights the Caudine Forks as the event in which the consular role is presented in the utmost extreme circumstances.

Chapter 3 tackles the military prowess and reputation of generals as components of the stereotypical image of the electoral candidate. In each case, the stereotype plays a different role in the episode’s plot. In the first example, Q. Fabius Maximus Cunctator (215 BC) appeals to the memory of famous Roman duellists as models for the future consul in an attempt to be re-elected and orders the vote to be retaken when the outcome is not in his favor. In the second case L. Hostilius Mancinus manages to be elected in 146 BC by affably conveying his military virtus with the aid of paintings. In the third example C. Marius advances his campaign for the consulship in 108 BC by discrediting the military performance of his own commander Q. Metellus. This third episode is told by Cicero (Off. 3.79) and Sallust (Iug. 73.3-7) from different perspectives. Whereas the former reflects on the moral dimension of the candidate’s electoral argument, the latter emphasizes the emergence of a new plebeian general opposing the old nobility. The last character contrasts with the previous ones in the unusual way of election. Appointed by his fellow soldiers in Spain, L. Marcius takes charge of the Roman army after the death of the generals P. and C. Cornelius Scipio in 211 BC, but in spite of his merits the Senate does not admit his title of propraetor because of the irregularity of the electoral procedure. The diversity on display points out the impossibility of obtaining a coherent and fixed image of the consular persona. To the contrary they evince the shifting construction of the stereotype according to the interest of every author in his narrative.

Chapter 4 examines more examples of electoral candidacies, this time in peacetime contexts.. The author’s reading of Cicero’s pro Murena, a speech in defence of L. Murena, the consul designate for 62 BC who was accused of electoral bribery, leads to the conclusion of a threefold image of the magistrate: orator, jurist and general. The next example shows the debate generated by a curule aedile, Q. Fulvius Flaccus, who fruitlessly canvases for the urban praetorship that has been vacated unexpectedly early in 184 BC. The episodes of P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus and T. Quinctius Flamininus illustrate tension between constitutional legality and the people’s wishes. The former faces the opposition of the tribunes of the plebs when seeking the curule aedileship because of his young age in 212 BC, whereas the latter encounters tribunician protests when in 199 BC he competes for the consulship without having previously held the praetorship. Finally, Q. Fabius Rullianus offers a reverse example, since in 299 BC he is made curule aedile, though he had not formally sought the office and later accepts a second consulship disregarding the law but with the overwhelming support of the tribunes and the people. Again the author of the book stresses the diversity inherent in the narratives of electoral candidacies.

The major contribution of the book is the philological commentary to the passages selected on the basis of their treatment of the relationship between exemplarity and magistracy. The author explores in detail the structure, various rhetorical figures, and elements of inter- and intratextuality used by classical authors, in order to ascertain the process by which the image of the magistrates is reflected in each text. But the particularity of the attention given to the narratives produces a kind of analytic impasse. All the chapters lead to the same conclusion: the image of the exemplary magistrate is multi-faceted and context-dependent, every narrative highlighting a particular aspect, and far from a simple reading, the texts portray complex situations where magistracy is constructed in the tension between different elements likely to collide: paternity and magisterial authority; warfare constraints and constitutional procedure, legality and popular will.

The essentially literary mode of analysis does provide insights into specific passages in Livy. It is less clear whether the totality adds up to anything. In part, one wonders whether the study would have produced different results had other set of episodes been selected, and, in fact, no explanation for the selection is provided.

Finally, the main objection to be made is that the reduced focus on the textual and literary understanding of magisterial exemplarity leaves out of the commentary any truly political and cultural dimension. In this sense, it is telling that, although the episodes range chronologically from the 5th to the 1st century BC, the historical evolution of Rome in those centuries is not taken into account in the survey. As a result, the book does not contribute to our understanding of exemplarity as a historical phenomenon in the Roman republic. The author does not follow through on some of the promises set forth in the introduction. For example, in contrast to Thomas Wiedemann’s devaluation of Livy as a political thinker,2 she sets out to show that he was "a theoretician of exemplarity" and seeks to study exemplarity as "a meta-cognitive tool that unifies political and literary theory" (p. 26). However, she does not follow up on this theoretical analysis, given that the book focuses above all on close readings of literary episodes and no actual political theory is brought into discussion. In any case, by illustrating the fluidity and complexity of the textual discourse of exemplarity and magistracy in the Roman Republic, this book will be relevant to those interested in ancient literary studies, and especially in Livy’s performance as narrator.


1.   Jane Chaplin, Livy’s Exemplary History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000): 3.
2.   Thomas Wiedemann, “Reflections of Roman Political Thought in Latin Historical Writing”, Cambrige History of Greek and Roman Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005): 523.

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