Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.06.51 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.06.51

Daniel J. Gargola, The Shape of the Roman Order: The Republic and its Spaces. Studies in the History of Greece and Rome.   Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2017.  Pp. xiv, 289.  ISBN 9781469631820.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by Karl-J. Hölkeskamp, Universität zu Köln (

This book is yet another contribution to the ongoing process of “de-modernizing” the Roman Republic.1 The author wants to overcome not only the (originally Mommsenian) Staatsrecht and Rechtsstaat paradigm and its “pervasive legalism”, but also a traditional ‘nation-state model’ underlying much modern work on “Rome’s political order, its hegemony in Italy, and the organization of its transmarine empire”, which has “frequently been conducted in terms of formal institutions and overarching structures and against the background provided by the modern state” (10-11). This background is based on a set of (at least partly implicit) assumptions, according to Gargola (7-8): nation states are characterized by, first of all, “some cultural unity of the populations” which they preside over; secondly, by administrations which “enclose territories under their control within clear boundaries”; thirdly, by “bureaucratic organizations” which ensure that “the making of decisions is highly concentrated in a capital. Fourthly, however,” “the responsibility of implementing” these decisions “is dispersed among officials who supervise defined territories, often at some distance from the center.”

As Gargola hastens to acknowledge, international research on Republican Rome, its social structure, institutional setup and particular ‘political culture’ has been moving way beyond this paradigm during the last five decades.2 Scholars have increasingly become aware of the combination of factors “which may have long impeded the formation of any overarching system of firm controls”: “poor communications, primitive transport, and uneven control over subordinated territories”—or rather, for that matter, over “subordinated communities”—as well as “the elite’s worldview, which encompassed their restricted knowledge, the traditions of their polity, and the limited nature of public institutions.” The character, the levels and degrees of formalization, systematization and ‘integration’, however, remain a matter of dispute. On the one hand, “integration outside the formal apparatus of government” by social links and marital ties between individual members and families of the Roman elite with those of Italian communities seem to have played a role, although the meagre evidence makes it difficult “to assess just how pervasive these connections actually were and how thoroughly they penetrated all parts of the peninsula.” (8-9) On the other hand, the degree and place in time of the gradual emergence of what may be called “a common political culture” or “community of interest” in the wake of a greater integration of regional elites and the Roman ruling class, imperial expansion and economic change remain a matter of dispute (9). In a particular aspect of this debate, Gargola himself maintains a clear standpoint: he takes issue with traditional positions which “view Italy of the middle Republic as a formally regulated order in which subordinated polities occupied clearly defined positions with respect to Rome”, depending on their status as citizen or Latin colony, municipium, civitas sine suffragio or ally with a foedus aequum or iniquum. It is this “depiction of Italy as a formal legal order”, which Gargola considers “necessary for viewing the Republic as a Rechtsstaat rather than a Machtstaat” and which represents “one of the most enduring representations of the republican System.” (10).

It is against this backdrop that Gargola unfolds his program of describing the Republic “as a territorial order”—or rather, a “spatial and temporal order” in the broadest possible meaning of the concept. In more concrete terms, Gargola wants to offer ‘a view from the top’, as the emphasis of his study “lies on the ruling elite’s views of their polity and its power, their personal experience while performing public functions, the kind of activities that they undertook at Rome and abroad and how they sought to regulate and describe them, and the ways they conceptualized spatial relationships over the broad range of Rome’s activities.” (2) Therefore, Gargola takes what he calls “spatial considerations”—or more precisely, the whole spectrum of methods, means and media of constructing, organizing and controlling space—“as points of entry into the ways that members of the ruling elite viewed their polity and its empire.” (3) In terms of the underlying general framework of systematic categories, Gargola not only applies the spatial divisions in the shape of dichotomies such as domi versus militiae, in(side) versus out(side), left versus right, north versus south and east versus west. Moreover, he not only looks at boundaries of all kinds, such as (unsurprisingly) the pomerium and the one-mile zone around it. He also and above all offers a careful and differentiated analysis of the construction and uses of public spaces and above all sacred structures in the complex urban topography of Rome itself as well as of the hinterland and the territories further afield: Gargola analyzes the spatial organization of Rome, Italy and the empire in terms of a hierarchy of zones in a sort of concentric circles with the urbs Roma in the focus, with a concomitant descending degree of integration and control from the city as center to the marginal periphery of the empire.

These recurrent themes and patterns permeate the concrete aspects and topics, which Gargola systematically treats in six chapters. The chapter on “representing the res publica” deals with the ways and genres in which Roman historians, antiquarians, jurists and—last but not least—priests construed the world of Rome and the origins of its institutions and cults. This largely concentrated on the city itself, even if—like the elder Cato and Cicero—these figures stressed their links to their ancestral communities outside Rome (12-43). Much of this is well-trodden ground (cf., e.g. 33; 38), but Gargola succeeds in reading relevant sources afresh in order to show that “they emphasized the city itself over the territory that it dominated, even those regions and settlements that were inhabited by Roman citizens.”(43)

The second chapter (44-82) revolves around the activities of Roman magistrates both as “public actors” in Rome as “the clear center of public life” (44, cf. 51) and as figures acting away from Rome in different official capacities (e.g. as founders of colonies, legati and commanders). Gargola emphasizes the “clear spatial implications” of different magisterial tasks and assignments as well as of the journeys from and to Rome they required (80-81). Therefore, he also looks at the function of roads and, time and again, at the elite’s conception of the ‘empire’ as “power over peoples or polities” or “a poorly defined set of subordinate communities”, and “not over territories” or “places and regions” (55, 70, 81). He further considers the concepts of imperium and provincia in general and their complex relation to the idea of (according to Gargola, rather indeterminate) “boundaries” of spaces and places in particular.

In the third chapter (83-118), Gargola looks at Italy as “an exception”, because in the third and second centuries, the Roman elite “imposed upon it a level of organization not found elsewhere” in the empire through the definition of “formal frontiers” and “a set of overarching statuses” encompassing citizens, Latins and allies (83, 118, cf. 88-95). Gargola returns to the theme of activities of magistrates and priests, treating things ranging from jurisdiction and the expiation of prodigies to census and dilectus. He shows that these activities, their intensity and frequency once again indicate “informal or implicit zones” with a decreasing degree of density from “the city and its immediate vicinity” to the limits of Italia (99, 118).

In the fourth chapter (119-153), the augurs take center stage. Gargola dissects their functions vis-à-vis Rome’s gods and their sacred spaces. He pays particular attention to the role of the augural discipline in general and the importance of (the inauguration of) templa for public activities in particular. He further emphasizes the augurs’ crucial function of ritually constructing and defining boundaries such as “the pomerium, the limits of the augural ager Romanus, and terra Italia. Once again, the most relevant activities were obviously “concentrated in and near the city” (152).

The fifth chapter (154-186) takes up the topic of templa and offers a fine analysis of their complex spatial layout. It also describes how other functionaries, magistrates and commanders with imperium created spaces as a defined ‘inside’ set against, and sharply separated from, the ‘outside’ with “clearly defined focal points or even centers.” The acts of constructing camps in the field and establishing colonies and “large-scale field systems” for settlers enabled these officials to carry out particular formal duties which would otherwise have been performed in the city (181-2, 186).

The sixth chapter (187-223) begins with a programmatic declaration: “Spatial considerations permeated Roman laws, edicts, and decrees” (187). Although Gargola repeats some of his previous arguments concerning the foundation of colonies, he has a few further interesting observations to offer. He shows in detail how “magistrates or legates defined the limit of some space and imposed rules on it” and that, in this way, “legal practice resembled augural techniques” of constructing spaces and boundaries (189). Once again, this legal practice indicates that “many measures applied only to Rome and its immediate vicinity”, simply because they regulated matters that were confined to the city itself. Generally, “the framers of these norms appear to have been more concerned with the city than with other places and with regions close to Rome than with those at a greater distance.” (190). In this context, his ‘close reading’ of thesenatus consultum de Bacchanalibus deserves special mentioning (204, 206-10).

The conclusion (224-229) offers a clear and dense summary in which Gargola rightly highlights the complex interrelation between the various aspects and different levels of Roman-style ‘spatiality’ and between the short-, middle- and long-range reach of Roman organization of supremacy, power and control.

The theoretical basis and methodological approach of this book—as in Gargola’s earlier work on the rituals, legislation and other rules concerning the ager publicus3—seem to be inspired by the so-called ‘spatial turn’. However, Gargola wisely steers clear of the sweeping claims of certain prophets of this recent turn, who declare it as the quintessential ‘master turn’ of all ‘turns’ and advocate a radically new all-embracing view of the world.4 He offers a fresh look at the political culture of the Republic based on pure and simple empirical analyses. To cut a long story short: all in all, this is a well-argued, original and, indeed, inspiring book.


1.   The term was coined by Laurens E. Tacoma, Moving Romans. Migration to Rome in the Principate, Oxford 2016, pp.1-5.
2.   Cf. Karl-J. Hölkeskamp, Reconstructing the Roman Republic. An Ancient Political Culture and Modern Research, Princeton 2010, and now the contributions in: Matthias Haake, Ann-Cathrin Harders (eds.), Politische Kultur und soziale Struktur der Römischen Republik: Bilanzen und Perspektiven, Stuttgart 2017, for a survey of modern approaches. Cf. also the contributions in Wilfried Nippel, Bernd Seidensticker (eds.), Theodor Mommsens langer Schatten. Das römische Staatsrecht als bleibende Herausforderung für die Forschung, Hildesheim etc. 2005, for modern approaches to the Rechtsstaat (or rather: Staatsrecht) paradigm.
3.   Daniel J. Gargola, Lands, Laws, and Gods: magistrates and ceremony in the regulation of public lands in Republican Rome, Chapel Hill 1995.
4.   Cf. Karl-J. Hölkeskamp, ‘Performative turn’ meets ‘spatial turn’. Prozessionen und andere Rituale in der neueren Forschung, in: Dietrich Boschung, Karl-J. Hölkeskamp, Claudia Sode (eds.), Raum und Performanz. Rituale in Residenzen von der Antike bis 1815, Stuttgart 2015, 15-74, especially pp. 33-40, with references.

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