Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.02.19 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.02.19

Henriette van der Blom, Oratory and Political Career in the Late Roman Republic.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2016.  Pp. xiii, 377.  ISBN 9781107051935.  $120.00.  

Reviewed by Joanna Kenty, University of New Hampshire (


Henriette van der Blom’s new monograph is an exciting and important contribution to a new wave of scholarship on Roman oratory and rhetoric. She has gathered a trove of useful information about well-known figures of the late Republic, but much of that information will be new to her readers, who know figures like Pompey, Caesar, and Antony better as military leaders than as practitioners of oratory. Likewise, scholars familiar with these individuals have a strong sense of each man’s personality; van der Blom argues that each man in fact constructed and communicated that personality through speech above all. She therefore leads us back to the orations that helped the Roman populus to get to know each man in the first place.

In her first monograph, Cicero’s Role Models (2010, BMCR 2011.07.49), van der Blom focused on Cicero’s orations (and particularly his use of exempla). Here, she removes Cicero from the picture (insofar as that is possible in any study of the late Roman Republic) to examine oratory in the context of the careers of six of his fellow statesmen: Gaius Gracchus, Pompeius Magnus, Julius Caesar, Piso Caesoninus (cos. 58), Cato the Younger, and Marcus Antonius. Cicero, she rightly observes, exploited oratory more than any of his contemporaries in carving out a political niche for himself. He is not representative or typical, and his tendency to describe Roman politics as if his own behavior and career were normative can further distort our understanding of the world in which he operates. As a corrective, van der Blom’s selection is intended to offer a representative sample of the full spectrum of ways in which and the degree to which oratory was used as a tool in Roman public life, as opposed to other means of self-promotion (p. 9). She also seems to have chosen generally well-attested figures, even those of no more than adequate eloquence (see especially Piso), at the expense of lesser known individuals whose eloquence was more noteworthy but whose biography would necessarily be incomplete or spotty because of a lack of evidence. van der Blom offers a condensed political biography of each of these individuals in discrete chapters, focusing particularly on the important orations that each delivered in the course of his life.

Throughout these case studies, van der Blom provides clear, straightforward, and meticulous discussion of what we know about a given speech occasion, why the individual in question might have chosen to use oratory as a tool on that occasion, and what (if anything) we can reliably know about the content of what he said. van der Blom’s experience working on Catherine Steel’s Fragments of the Republican Roman Orators database, a much-needed update to Malcovati’s collection, clearly offered inspiration and facilitated the research for the monograph. van der Blom often translates fragments of orations in the course of her chapters and even extracts some speculations about the orator’s style as evident in the fragment. Much of her material derives from Plutarch’s Roman lives, and she attempts to sort fact from Plutarch’s embellishments, especially when it comes to the personality or character of each of her case study subjects. She also explores the implications of choosing to run for the tribunate and of balancing military service with political office, and notes how each man foregrounded certain features of his persona (ancestry, ideological bent, military exploits, e.g.) at the expense of others in campaigning for office. Each political biography, in her view, amounts to the sum of a sequence of conscious choices of career paths, and a series of choices about self-presentation, primarily but not exclusively through oratory. In her words, “the most important factor for political success in Rome was the willingness and ability to communicate the various elements in a politician’s public profile ... in a credible, consistent and appealing manner through a range of communicative means..., not least, public oratory” (285).

In Part I (Chapters 1-2), van der Blom offers a concise, basic introduction to oratory and Roman public life more generally, which undergraduates might find extremely helpful. She reviews the main venues of oratory (contio, senate, and courts) and the relative importance of oratory for various magistracies. She discusses the import both of the mere act of speaking and of the opportunity to communicate particular messages, which could allow the orator to publicize his ideological stance for the long term or to influence events in the short term. Those with noteworthy oratorical ability could seek out or generate occasions to display their skill and use it to achieve their goals, while others chose not to manufacture those opportunities, or deliberately avoided them, choosing to operate through other means. van der Blom’s discussion of changes in the political arena in the first century BCE, including the under-studied era of Sulla’s dictatorships and the Social Wars, is particularly useful.

The real meat of the project, however, comes in Part II with the case studies, beginning with Gaius Gracchus in Chapter 3. van der Blom’s thorough scrutiny of the sources, contexts, and historicity of our well-known portrait of Gaius Gracchus is fascinating, delving beyond the apocrypha of a semi-mythologized martyr to reveal a canny political actor of great eloquence and energy. Gracchus knew that in the arena of speech, he had an advantage over his opponents, and van der Blom shows that he consistently shifted his political battles to that arena in order to exploit his abilities. By contrast, in Chapter 4, van der Blom argues that Pompeius Magnus, while “a master of staged events and planned speeches of self-praise” (p. 123), generally turned to other means of self-fashioning and avoided giving speeches when he could. Oratory helped him to nurture and maintain his popularity, but he benefited more often from orations by other speakers than from his own speaking efforts. When he did speak, he was perceived as either diffident or evasive. Whether or not van der Blom is right to give him the benefit of the doubt in arguing that he consciously cultivated that effect,1 oratory was not one of his preferred tools. Julius Caesar, the subject of Chapter 5, falls more on Gracchus’ end of the spectrum, both in his inclination to deploy his eloquence whenever possible for political ends, and in his use of popularis political markers in his orations. His funeral speech for his aunt Julia shows a rather opportunistic exploitation of one such occasion. From his spectacular debut — prosecutions of Dolabella and Antonius Hybrida for maladministration (de pecuniis repetundis), the “springboard” referred to in the title of van der Blom’s chapter, and speeches against Sullan reforms — to his controversial consulship, Caesar’s use of the contio as a vehicle for political self-promotion is, as van der Blom shows, distinct and consistent. van der Blom emphasizes the important question of when Caesar chose to publish his speeches, and when our later sources seem to be relying on notes taken by others or on mere hearsay for their evidence of Caesar’s eloquence.

In chapter 6 we move on to Caesar’s father-in-law Piso Caesoninus, the least familiar of van der Blom’s subjects, and a politician whose speaking abilities allowed him to function adequately in public, but hardly made oratory a preferred medium. Cicero includes oratory among Piso’s many failings in his bilious In Pisonem, for instance. van der Blom’s assertion that Cicero’s scornful assessment is shown “to be misleading, even wrong” (p. 202) seems to me to be overly kind to Piso, but the discussion of his career is useful nonetheless in raising awareness of a senator like Piso, who was (after all) a consul and a prominent public figure who is usually allowed to fall into obscurity as we focus obsessively on Caesar, Pompey, and Cicero. In developing a sense of Piso’s persona, van der Blom elucidates a pattern in Piso’s oratory (such as it is) of appealing to precedent and the letter of the law, as well as principled and perhaps Epicurean insistence on not getting involved in other men’s battles. This kind of rigidity emerges much more strongly, of course, in chapter 7, in van der Blom’s profile of Cato the Younger. No Late Republican politician, as van der Blom notes, impressed his contemporaries with a stronger sense of his idiosyncratic personality, and no politician relied more on his personality for auctoritas, for Cato’s influence is quite striking given his electoral failures. Cato, like Gracchus, is often seen distorted through the lens of hero worship, but van der Blom’s portrait is detailed and careful, avoiding over-generalization or speculation. Cato was principled in the extreme, but demonstrably capable of pragmatism and occasionally guilty of nepotism. Like Piso’s Epicureanism, Cato’s Stoicism appears to have been an element that he could but did not always invoke as a driving principle of political action. A strong pattern of resistence to the “first triumvirate” emerges from the assembled testimonia, as does the proclivity to nonconformity and obstructionism for which Cato is so well known, and which, as van der Blom shows, Cato made the centerpiece of his own spectacular self-fashioning.

The monograph concludes with a chapter on Marcus Antonius, a man whose career is well known and who delivered several famous speeches of great historical import. Nevertheless, van der Blom notes, no fragments survive to confirm or refute assessments of Antonius’ oratory or Plutarch’s characterization of Antonius’ oratory as Asianist. Indeed, the lack of specific information about Antony’s speeches means that this chapter remains rather frustratingly speculative. van der Blom does make the important point, however, that Antonius’ clash with Cicero in late 44 challenged the great orator on his own turf, so to speak, and that Antony must either have chosen or been forced by circumstance to use oratory as a tool on this occasion nonetheless (p. 271).

The importance of oratory as an arena of political action in this tumultuous period thus emerges clearly. Brief mention is also made of the importance of propaganda in the triumviral period, much of which was disseminated through oratory. van der Blom occasionally remarks in the course of the book on the apparent increase in the relative importance of oratory as a component of public life in the first century BCE, as military achievements and provincial administration experienced a corresponding decline in their potential to confer prestige and influence. This comes out most prominently in van der Blom’s conclusion, in which she sets aside Cicero’s schema in the Brutus of good versus bad orators in favor of a new schema: good versus (unstudied) bad builders of public profiles. Politicians could use oratory to as great or as small an extent as they liked in creating such a public profile, and speech was hardly their only tool; in fact, van der Blom notes, this flexibility opened all kinds of possibilities for accessing political influence and made the Roman political elite rather more open to outsiders than has previously been thought by some scholars. This all bears directly on Cicero’s own career, of course: his Philippics offer our best evidence for the oratorical fray of 44-43 BCE, and more broadly, his published speeches and spectacular career spurred, if they did not initiate, the growing importance of oratory. This, however, remains unstated in van der Blom’s project, as a result of her more general goal of avoiding Cicero.

This study exposes myriad opportunities for further study, investigation, and analysis, in the best possible way. By shedding light on the speech-making activities of these prominent late Republican politicians, van der Blom has convincingly demonstrated that oratory was an essential tool for them, and has broadened our perspective on oratory in the period, far beyond a myopic spotlight on Cicero.


1.   Argued more forcefully in van der Blom’s 2011 CQ article, “Pompey in the contio.”

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