Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.11.33 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.11.33

Tanja Itgenshorst, Philippe Le Doze (ed.), La norme sous la république et le Haut-Empire romains: élaboration, diffusion et contournements. Scripta antiqua, 96​.   Bordeaux; Pessac:  Ausonius Éditions​, 2017.  Pp. 681.  ISBN 9782356131805.  €30.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Christopher Smith, University of St Andrews (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

One major strand in the recent study of the Roman Republican and early imperial period has been the identification of normative social behaviour, the social practices that arise from and recursively construct values within the Roman context. We see this most obviously in work on exemplarity, but it has also influenced the current trend on examining Roman emotions. It underlies much of the most interesting work on explaining the emergence and continuity of aristocratic behaviour within the context of Republican politics. I would argue that it is also the deep substrate beneath the recent boom in studies of memory and memorialization, which often turn out to be arguments for continuity across time of certain expectations, translated into the shared recollection of the past.

To a degree, this interest in normative behaviour at Rome arises from a sense that the Romans both conceptualized the past as instructive and were acutely aware of transgressive behaviour. On the first, the notion of the mos maiorum is a key indicator that what had gone before should to some extent constrain current behaviour, and the use of the concept as a bulwark against change is just one way in which we find the notion of deviance expressed and rejected.

At the same time, historians have been deeply aware of the contingent and constructed notion of norms. The tendency of some scholarship is to demonstrate that the expressed norm was in fact the exception—that mildly corrosive approach which finds in every value statement a concealment of the opposite behaviour, and in every claim for antiquity a signal that the institution or practice was of recent invention. Crudely put, did the Romans ever actually believe in what they said about themselves?

This valuable volume, which includes over thirty essays on everything from elegy to clothing and coinage to senatus consulta, does not quite get to the heart of this conundrum, and stays largely on the side of the normative. As a whole, the collection only occasionally meets the intellectual challenge and spark of the opening essay by Lundgreen and the initial brief. This is because too few of the essays theoretize the concept of the norm that they are using, and thus lay themselves open to the sort of challenge I briefly indicated above. However, all the essays are intelligent and some important—and they point in very interesting directions.

The first part includes two essays on method by Lundgreen and Bruhns that introduce critical concepts of methodology, with especial reference to Max Weber; I will return to this. David Engels offers a lively comparison of normative culture in four imperial contexts—Rome, Han China, Sasanid Iran and the Fatimid Levant. The second section focuses on ‘traditions savantes’: comedy, elegy, philosophy, historiography, oratory, ethnography, biography and artistic representation in terms of clothing. The latter is an odd inclusion in a volume almost entirely lacking reference to the material world.

The third part focuses on religion. The first essay is a four hander with an emphasis on diversity, innovation and change, stemming partly from Erfurt’s ‘Lived Religion’ school, led by Jorg Rüpke. Leppin argues for an unsuccessful philosophical concept of religious freedom and tolerance—his essay was perhaps written too late to take account of Tim Whitmarsh’s Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World.

Part Four concentrates on the role of institutions and social elites, although it would have to be said that for the most part the whole volume is based on elite discourse. Some of the most interesting essays reflect the new strength of institutional history, especially in Germany and France. Harder’s essay focuses on Scipio Aemilianus, tracing the shift from his ambiguous status in life to the clear-cut narrative created afterwards. Ganter looks at the image of the good patron, partly through the lens of Horace and Maecenas. Deniaux has a very good piece on the aediles, an understudied magistracy. She shows expectations of aedilician generosity inverted during the triumvirate, when M. Oppius was assisted in his aedileship by the citizens because his father had been ruined by the proscriptions. Wendt’s focus on the praetors as lawmakers leads him to emphasize flexibility in norms and in law; it would be interesting to expand the ways in which this dossier could contribute to the significant literature on law and normativity. Hurlet traces the development of the dual consulship through the uncertain early period before the Licinian-Sextian legislation, to the transformation under Augustus. Humm draws out the role of the censors in defining membership of appropriate parts of the Roman citizen body. He shows that one can construct a body of normative expectation by inverting the reasons for being removed or demoted, and identifies a sense of citizen equality—a geometric equality, where obligations increased with means and privilege. Baudry focuses on the number of witnesses required for writing senatus consulta, and sees the increase to seven under Augustus as reflecting a degree of formalization. This is immediately followed by Eich’s provocative question ‘wie hielt es der Kaiser mit den Normen?’ to which his answer is that the emperor almost by necessity transformed some norms and by choice interfered with others, especially relating to marriage and personal morality, but the impact may have been limited to begin with. Finally, Moatti’s excellent essay on the rhetoric around the defence of the res publica argues that the very concept of the res publica grew in definition as a more elaborate set of arguments were mounted in its defence, for instance the lex de maiestate.

Part Five introduces the question of the involvement of the people in the definition of norms, but in the end their role is limited. Lanfranchi looks at the more formal aspects of popular assemblies, and uses some evidence from the middle Republic to argue for their role in arbitration between competing aristocrats, and van Haeperen argues somewhat similarly for the role of the comitia curiata. Courier uses the episode where the people force the emperor Tiberius to return to public display a statue that he had taken for himself to suggest the power of popular disapproval. Flaig analyses Livy’s account of the speech of Sempronius Gracchus, father of the famous brothers, in 186 BC (Livy 39.41.4-5). He argues that Sempronius’ definition of the role of the tribunate and the nature of its power, intended to rein in an aggressive fellow- tribune, actually gave a justification for later tribunes to persist in their veto. Not everyone perhaps will follow Flaig’s defence of the speech as a genuine reflection of the discourse of the early second century, but it would be illuminating if it were.

Cosme and Assenmaker look at the world of the military, and both focus on change. Cosme argues that the professionalization of the army from Augustus on moved discourse on from the idea of the citizen-soldier, whilst Assenmaker notes the transformation of expectations, especially regarding booty, which came through the changing relationship of general and army during the civil wars of the first century BC.

The last section is on the dissemination of norms. Suspène makes the excellent point that coinage acts both as a normative instrument of measure and exchange and as a medium of messages. Corbier’s excellent essay on graffiti gets us closer to norms further down the social order. She finds interesting examples beyond a crude masculine world, and argues for a performative aspect and a pleasure in writing itself through the process of imitating and appropriating formal epigraphy. Itgenshorst writes on Valerius Maximus, arguing for his ambiguous approach to the Republican past. Walter admits to raising more questions than answers in his account of law and communication. His historical approach to law- making is vital to understand a hugely significant part of the interaction between people and elite at Rome, which is too often understood in terms of a system, rather than a process.

The last essay by Badel is a helpful summary but also a conversation with Lundgreen’s opening essay. Lundgreen introduces two further distinctions to assist with the heuristic problem of identifying norms: the distinction between rule and principle and between conflicting and concurrent norms. As Bruhns does in his essay, Lundgreen draws on Weber for some of his analysis of norms as conventions. Lundgreen also makes the distinction between a norm as an institutional fact and the internalization of normative behaviour, which he distinguishes as external and internal; and the nature of and response to transgression obviously varies along this opposition. The instability of the former and the unrecoverability in most instances of the latter are genuine challenges for a history of normative behaviour, but at the same time undercut the attempt to identify hard and fast laws. So Lundgreen effectively identifies a complex of not necessarily congruent attitudes and positions, expressed in various ways, though for his argument predominantly through political and legislative activity, which are normative but not unchanging.

Whilst Badel rejects Lundgreen’s suggestion that we use modern for ancient terminology, he accepts the argument, which is prevalent within the whole collection, that Roman conceptions are fluid, and the Augustan period is represented throughout as a seminal moment of radical shift. One might make two points—first that there is greater evidence available for the Augustan period than for previous or subsequent periods, and evidence from authors who by virtue of their undoubted originality were always likely to have been challenging normative behaviour. Secondly and conversely, such an observation would fit well with interpretations such as that of Andrew Wallace-Hadrill in The Roman Cultural Revolution (Cambridge, 2008), a book that included the archaeological and material evidence that is missing here.

It would seem that the Roman Republic and early empire will remain a significant site for the study of normative behaviour, transformation and transgression. However, we do need to be attentive to how we deploy such a theoretical language. First, there is a danger that we identify norms not from observation of their operation but from highly articulate and manipulative sources. In this context, we need to be especially careful of attributing deep genealogies to supposed norms, since this is precisely where we may be suspicious that contemporary interpretations overlay narrative substrates. We should also emphasize just how narrowly some of this behaviour was shared. This is a specific and sharp problem with some of the more literary genres studied here. If we are serious about the significance of norms in respect of communication, a concept we may derive from Habermas, surprisingly absent from this volume, we need to be attentive to exactly what is being communicated. Many of the supposedly normative contexts explored here are actually sites of conflict and contestation. That might not have surprised Weber, who associated normativity with authority and dominance; but it would need some work to square this body of rather individual, contingent and fluid expressions of norms with the rather more concrete ‘orders’ of the Weberian universe. At least one solution to that would be through the application of theories of habituation and the concept of field deftly deployed by Bourdieu (who does fleetingly enter the fray).

This volume therefore seems to me to deliver less than its more theoretical underpinnings might promise. Yet it has also served to nudge the door open a little further to permit a different way of talking about the late Republican and early imperial period, and there is much here to enjoy. Finally, one can only admire the evident co-operative spirit with which the project was delivered. The final essay is Ungern-Sternberg’s moving recovery of the collapse of communication between Maurice Holleaux, that determined defender of Roman indifference towards the east, and Georg Karo, an expert on the orientalising period, after the destruction of Reims Cathedral in 1914. As well as being the congenial site of this conference, Reims has also seen important moments of Franco-German reconciliation, reminders of the attention required to shore up the faltering norms of international discourse.

Table of Contents

Tanja Itgenshorst, Philippe Le Doze, Avant-propos
1. Introduction
Christoph Lundgreen, Norme, loi, règle, coutume, tradition: terminologie antique et perspectives modernes
Hinnerk Bruhns,“Normes, intérêts et visions du monde” : à propos de la normativité chez Max Weber
David Engels, Construction de normes et morphologie culturelle. Empire romain, chinois, sassanide et fatimide—une comparaison historique

2. Traditions savantes et naissance des normes
Pierre Letessier, Le jeu des normes dans la palliata: la surprise comme horizon d’attente
Philippe Le Doze, L’élégie romaine: entre subversion et normativité
Anne Gangloff, Philosophie grecque et normes du pouvoir à Rome sous les Julio-Claudiens et les Flaviens
Olivier Devillers, Écriture de l’Histoire et débat normatif. Quelques remarques
Jean-Michel David, Les jeux de la norme dans les déclamations, à la fin de la République et au début de l’Empire
Jean-Pierre Guilhembet, Le point de vue de Plutarque: les Vies de Romulus et Numa
Émilia Ndiaye, Stéréotypes ethniques et “sagesses barbares” dans l’élaboration des normes identitaires du citoyen romain: l’exemple des Gaulois
Jan Meister, Kleidung und Normativität in der römischen Elite

3. Normes et religions
Sylvia Estienne, Valentino Gasparini, Anne-Françoise Jaccottet, Jörg Rüpke, La religion romaine: une fabrique de la norme?
Hartmut Leppin, Le christianisme et la découverte de la liberté religieuse

4. Le rôle des institutions et des élites sociales dans l’élaboration de la norme
Ann-Cathrin Harders, The Exception becoming a Norm. Scipio the Younger between Tradition and Transgression
Angela Ganter, Normes et comportement: l’image du bon patron entre République et Principat
Élizabeth Deniaux, Les édiles de la fin de la République et de l’époque d’Auguste. Normes et transgressions
Christian Wendt, Legum finis: la préture comme facteur normatif à Rome
Frédéric Hurlet, La dualité du consulat à l’épreuve de la longue durée. À propos de la transgression et du contournement de la norme
Michel Humm, Les normes sociales dans la République romaine d’après le regimen morum des censeurs
Robinson Baudry, Le Sénat et la norme. Les normes relatives au choix des témoins des sénatus-consultes
Peter Eich, Wie hielt es der Kaiser mit den Normen?
Claudia Moatti, De l’exception à la norme. Quelques réflexions sur la défense de la res publica aux iie et ier siècles a.C.

5. Le rôle du peuple et de ses représentants dans l’élaboration de la norme
Thibaud Lanfranchi, Les assemblées du peuple jouèrent-elles un rôle dans l’élaboration de la norme ?
Françoise Van Haeperen, Les comices curiates, une assemblée garante de la norme ?
Egon Flaig, S’écarter de la tradition: le rôle des tribuns de la plèbe
Cyril Courrier, Le peuple de Rome et les ornamenta de la Ville: usages et normes. Le cas de la confiscation de l’Apoxyomène de Lysippe par Tibère (Pliny, Nat., 34.62)

6. L’armée et les normes
Pierre Cosme, La fabrique de la norme militaire
Pierre Assenmaker, Les grands individus dans les guerres civiles: une nouvelle architecture normative ?

7. La diffusion des normes
Arnaud Suspène, La monnaie et la norme: l’exemple de la République et du Haut-Empire romains
Mireille Corbier, Autour des graffitis dans le monde romain: normes, codes, transgressions
Tanja Itgenshorst, Au-delà d’une fabrique de la norme: l’œuvre de Valère Maxime
Uwe Walter, Legislation in the Roman Republic: Setting Rules or just Political Communication?

8. Conclusion
Christophe Badel, De la norme à la normativité
9. Épilogue: de l’amitié franco-allemande (Reims, 13-15 mars 2014)
Jürgen von Ungern-Sternberg, Un regard en arrière: Reims à l’automne 1914 et les suites
Résumés des contributions (in French, German and English).
Index des sources
Index des noms
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