Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.02.21 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.02.21

Bill Gladhill, Rethinking Roman Alliance: A Study in Poetics and Society.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2016.  Pp. x, 216.  ISBN 9781107069749.  $99.99.  

Reviewed by Emlen Smith, Purdue University (


Bill Gladhill’s Rethinking Roman Alliance describes its argument, in the acknowledgments, as part of the “work to be done on the Latin lexicon” (ix). Accordingly, though it deals with several different authors and issues, the book focuses quite closely on the Latin word foedus: the specific passages mentioned almost all use either the word itself or one of the words Gladhill identifies as conceptually or etymologically linked (in the minds of Roman authors) to foedus: fides, finis, amicitia, foeditas. The result is a work that successfully takes on a very broad subject, and some large and much-discussed questions in Latin literature, while maintaining a sharp focus. Gladhill argues that the idea of “alliance” is central to an understanding of much of Roman poetry and culture—indeed, “foedera could define all relationships Romans might experience” (2)—but he also insists on the specificity of the word. Wherever foedus appears—referring to anything from a marriage to a bond between atoms—it brings with it, Gladhill argues, all the associations of a formalized ritual alliance, including the definition of boundaries, the invocation of Jupiter Feretrius, and the gruesome sacrifice of a piglet. As well as providing innovative readings of particular authors, then, the book proposes a number of principles for reading foedera anywhere in Roman literature: among them, that any foedus appears as part of a world-spanning political and/or cosmological system; that the religious ritual of a foedus is a necessary part of the understanding of any Roman alliance; and that any foedus carries the threat of infecting all those involved with foulness (foeditas). Gladhill is generally convincing on all of these points, and his work, as well as providing enlightening readings of specific texts, presents a valuable new lens for understanding Latin literature.

An introduction seeks to set out Gladhill’s understanding of a foedus as “a script of alliance” (2), and to define the different subtypes of foedus. Unfortunately, the distinctions as drawn here are less clear than they will become over the course of the readings in later chapters, and Gladhill’s organization is at times confusing: when he refers, for example, to “the three overarching narrative types for foedera” (3), it is hard to tell whether he means the three “starting points” listed and numbered in the previous paragraph, or (more likely) the “[t]hree typologies” that are introduced only on the following page.

Chapter 1 looks at ancient etymologies and definitions of foedus, at historical foedera between Rome and other ancient powers, and in particular at Livy’s treatment of these. Gladhill wants us to broaden our view of foedera in two ways. First, in looking at any foedus, we should think not only of the original moment of treaty-making (which is, in any case, not a moment, but a lengthy ritual that “results in a treaty” [28]), but of a narrative that includes the treaty’s fulfillment and/or violation. Second, he would have us consider, not each foedus in isolation, but the whole body of Roman foedera. Gladhill argues, against Erich Gruen and others, that formal foedera were both numerous and important as part of Roman foreign policy in the Greek East; he does this not by focusing on the details of particular foedera (though he examines three surviving inscriptions) but by bringing out their shared characteristics and the overall “unitary and cohesive system of alliance” that emerges from these (48). The consistent placement of inscriptions both at temples in the allied cities and at the temple of Capitoline Jupiter in Rome creates a network of lines of alliance, “converging on a single hill within the walls of Rome” (49), thus establishing Rome as a center of power in the Mediterranean. These extensions of foedera in both time and space are central to Gladhill’s literary arguments in the rest of the book.

The second through fourth chapters apply Gladhill’s understanding of foedera to interpretations of Latin poetry. Chapters 2 and 3, on Lucretius and Manilius respectively, argue that the foedera naturai1 or mundi are central to each poet’s understandings of the universe and that these foedera, in both poems, draw on the religious and political significance of ritual alliances in surprising ways. Here, Gladhill’s understanding of Roman foedera as forming a unified system enriches his readings: this political system, as a model of the functioning of foedera, allows cosmological foedera to bind the universe into a coherent whole. For Lucretius, the foedera naturai both resemble and contrast with human foedera. From the perspective of any part of the universe, the foedera naturai, like other foedera, limit and mark boundaries; but from the perspective of the universe (or poem) as a whole, they embody an infinite, uniform cosmos. The awe-inspiring, infinite reach of foedera as a cosmic system serves, in part, to emphasize the limitations and impermanence created by the foedera at work in any particular context; and the religious significance of foedera is transformed, in Lucretius, into a “fully spiritual and religious” (89) wonder at the workings of nature, which confirms, rather than threatens, the poem’s Epicureanism. This understanding of foedera in the De Rerum Natura as a whole is applied to readings of the various female allegorical figures in the poem (Venus, Tellus, Natura), as well as the unusual attention Lucretius gives to the functioning of magnets and to the plague in Athens.

Manilius’ astrological foedera have an even more direct connection to human alliances: in a cosmos governed by a deity, and where constellations are frequently personified, the foedera mundi are literal political agreements, and closely connected to particular Roman alliances in the world below. Manilius’ natural order matches the political one, with God, like Rome, extending a network of alliances to make sense of the universe’s underlying chaos. As part of his argument, Gladhill argues that many of the links between constellations in the Astronomica can be mapped with surprising precision onto the history of Rome’s expanding empire.

In Chapter 4, dealing with Vergil’s Aeneid, foedera are returned to the political sphere, but with a cosmic significance inherited, in part, from Lucretius. Gladhill traces through the epic a series of foedera made and broken, simultaneously confirmed and violated by the foulness (foeditas) of human beings killed at altars. This whole pattern leads up to a careful reading of the final foedus between Trojans and Italians in Book 12. In keeping with his view of foedera as ongoing narratives, Gladhill sees this final foedus extending beyond the end of the poem: the blending of the two peoples will not be accomplished till long after Aeneas’ time, and only Aeneas’ distant descendant Augustus can finally resolve the violation of the altar. “The completion of this foedus comes through civil and social war” (159). Chapter 4 makes thoughtful use of Servius’ commentary, which provides support for the presence and significance of foedera throughout the Aeneid. It also, more than any of the other chapters, extends outside the long hexameter poetry with which Gladhill is mostly concerned: Aeneas’ alliance-affair with Dido is linked to the tradition of amorous relationships described as foedera in Catullus and the love-elegists, a tradition from which Aeneas must distance himself.

Chapter 5 deals with Lucan, and successfully brings together the themes of the book as a whole. The world of the Bellum Civile is one where, from the moment of Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon, the validity of foedera in general is threatened with destruction. The work done in the previous chapters gives us a sense of the seriousness and scope of such a threat: the continued functioning of the network of Roman foedera not only maintains Rome’s supremacy, but holds the universe together, and stretches from the period of the Civil War into the poet’s own time. This reading of Lucan is especially valuable for its insight into the role of Pompey in the poem: “Pompey is the embodiment of spatial foedera” (191), representing the tottering system that held the pre-Civil War world together, and his death is thus a cataclysm of universal significance.

Each of Gladhill’s readings is persuasive and well-argued, and this book will no doubt be valuable to scholars of Lucretius, Manilius, Vergil, and Lucan. But equally promising is the possibility of applying Gladhill’s understanding of foedera to authors and genres beyond those he specifically discusses. Much could be learned by applying the whole weight of Roman ritual alliance to, for example, the exiled Ovid’s invocation of a foedus amicitiae (Tristia 3.6.1), or Seneca’s Juno complaining that Hercules has destroyed the foedus umbrarum (Hercules Furens 49)—and no doubt such examples could be multiplied. It is to be hoped that scholars of all of Latin literature will make good use of Gladhill’s insights.

The English text of Rethinking Roman Alliance is, as far as I have found, free of significant typographical errors. However, the quotations of Latin poetry throughout the book are plagued with them. Some of these are minor (e.g., the un- metrical placing of naturai for naturae in quotations from Lucretius and Manilius on pp. 92, 93, and 101); but, troublingly, where the mis-readings do change the meaning of passages, they are often reflected in the English translations. Thus, the un-metrical conveniet (for convenit) placed at Aen. 12.184 is rendered “it will be agreed” (pp. 150 and 158, emphasis mine); a missing si at BC 3.336 puts part of a conditional’s protasis into the apodosis (p. 173); and a missing -que at BC 3.286 confuses Agamemnon with Cyrus and his Persian soldiers (p. 190). There are also mis-translations without any errors in the Latin, as that of BC 4.577-8 (p. 187), where timentur is translated as an active (“tremble in fear”) and uritur mistaken for utitur (“utilizes”). I hasten to add that none of these errors seems to seriously affect the author’s arguments; but they should have been corrected prior to publication.


1.   Gladhill uses this archaic and Lucretian form more consistently than Lucretius himself does; see the final paragraph of this review.

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