Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.01.06 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.01.06

Kit Morrell, Pompey, Cato, and the Governance of the Roman Empire.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. 309.  ISBN 9780198755142.  £65.00.  

Reviewed by Alejandro Díaz Fernández, Universidad de Málaga (


Over recent years, several books have examined the conception, development, and administration of the Roman provinces in the age of the Republic. Some examples are the works of John Richardson (Cambridge, 2008) or, more recently, Fred Drogula (Chapel Hill, 2015), as well as many other publications in different languages. Kit Morrell’s Pompey, Cato, and the Governance of the Roman Empire is not only a new step on this road to a necessary re-interpretation of the imperium Romanum and its administration, but also a thought-provoking analysis of some of the decisions adopted in Rome with regards to the provinces in the Late Republic. More concretely, the book is an approach to the doctrinal foundation of the measures introduced into the Roman system of provincial administration during the last decades of the Republic, particularly focussing on the role played in them by two remarkable actors of the period: Pompey and M. Porcius Cato. The main aim of the work is well defined in the introduction: to determine “the extent to which the Romans of the Republic were aware of the problems of their Empire”, as well as “the efforts that were made to address them”. Always paying close attention to the sources, Morrell shows that some of the most prominent members of the Roman senate, like Pompey and Cato, were concerned about the continuous problems of maladministration in the provinces and collaborated to resolve them by means of political and legal initiatives that constituted an ambitious programme of provincial reform. Pompey and Cato decided to change the traditional guidelines of Roman governance in the overseas dominions, opting for an alternative model of imperium based on the principles of philosophical trends. Besides the undeniable value of its contents, the innovative approach of the book is probably its most significant aspect, since the author proposes a fresh perspective on the policy applied by the Romans in their provinces.

Morrell divides the work into eight chapters (in addition to her conclusions, an ample bibliography, and two useful indices) from both a chronological and a thematic perspective: from Pompey’s first consulship in 70 to the role played in the provinces by the commanders appointed under the lex Pompeia in 51-50. As Morrell points out in chapter one (“Pompey and the reforms of 70”), the previous reforms toward a more tolerant policy in the provinces are palpable during Pompey’s first consulship. Decisions like the selection of the censors of 70 or the appointment of Cicero as prosecutor in Verres’ trial are interpreted as a sign of Pompey’s implication in the affairs of provincial administration and his resolute willingness to resolve habitual corruption. Cicero’s fierce offensive against Verres consequently becomes a sort of show that was not determined by his own political expectations, but particularly by his support for the Pompeian initiatives. Moreover, Pompey’s refusal of the provincial command in 70 should also be read as further evidence of his reforming attitude towards the provinces, as should many of the decisions taken by him during his extraordinary commands against the pirates and Mithridates, as we read in chapter two (“Pompey in the East”). In fact, the author leads the reader to conclude that most of the decisions taken by Pompey during his campaigns in the Mediterranean and the East were essentially determined by these principles, mostly influenced by Stoic doctrines. It is indeed interesting to see the influence of philosophical trends in some of the lenient measures adopted by Pompey as proconsul (for instance, in his treatment of the pirates). However, Morrell at times overlooks political interests and personal ambitions, thus drawing a portrait of some of the figures of the Roman politics that is perhaps a bit distant from the testimony of the sources (Morrell’s view of Pompey’s patria as an ecumenical idea is also debatable). This is probably one of the main objections that may be raised against the book: the author sometimes does not sufficiently appreciate other aspects of Roman politics when setting her arguments out. Such is the case of her interpretation of the so-called “provincialization” of Syria (pages 92-94): despite the author’s attractive proposal, to think that the annexation of Syria was the result of Pompey’s lenient attitude towards the Syrians and of his sympathies to Stoic ideas is to overlook the priorities that traditionally determined Roman policy overseas.

Chapter three (“Cato, Stoicism, and the provinces”) applies the same perspective to Cato’s political strategy towards provincial affairs, with special attention to his own intervention in Cyprus in 58 as proquaestor propraetore. Despite Stoic influence in Cato’s political career being more evident than in Pompey’s, Morrell rightly questions Cato’s traditional image as a rarefied politician and “Stoic martyr”, instead drawing a portrait of him as a practical and active reformist aware of the consequences of the reiterative abuses committed by the Romans in the provinces—hence his exemplary administration of Cyprus and his seeming image as restrained governor. However, it is difficult to determine to what extent the virtues attributed to Cato in the sources are the consequence of the latter’s willingness to create a benevolent image of himself, as also happens with the portrait created by Cicero as provincial governor in his letters.

Morrell focuses the next four chapters on some important decisions adopted in Rome in relation to provincial administration during the fifties: the passing of the so-called lex Iulia repetundarum of 59 (chapters four and five); the policy applied in the aftermath of Carrhae (chapter six); and the introduction of the lex Pompeia de provinciis in 52 (chapter seven), the last and most important step in the process of administrative reform promoted by Pompey and Cato in the years before the outbreak of the Civil War. Based again on the arguments adduced, the author suggests in chapter four that—despite the name of the law—the lex Iulia was not simply a project of Caesar’s, but the result of his political collaboration with the book’s two protagonists: Pompey and Cato. Morrell’s approach induces the reader to conclude that Pompey was the main promoter of the law from the shadows, though the author prudently admits that it is impossible to determine “how far Pompey might have helped to shape the content of the law” (page 147). In any case, Morrell’s interpretation shifts Caesar’s figure to the background while again granting all the prominence to Pompey and Cato.

Morrell also considers that, although the law was essentially heir to its predecessors, the lex Iulia was stricter and more comprehensive, since it covered not only cases of provincial extortion, but also actions of maiestas minuta. The law was not perfect, however: as the author stresses in chapter five (“The equites and the extortion law”), only senators and ex-magistrates could be accused under the lex Iulia, so equites and other members of the governor’s entourage eluded prosecution by extortion. Based on a passage from Cicero’s Pro Rabirio Postumo (Rab. Post. 13), the author nevertheless suggests that an attempt to extend the law to equites was promoted by Pompey during his second consulship with the support of Cato and some of his friends, but was ultimately rejected by a major part of the senators. It is also likely that Cato went even further in the application of the law and tried to extend its competency to cases of inappropriate intervention in foreign kingdoms, as Morrell concludes in relation to Gabinius’ and Rabirius Postumus’ trials, but, leaving aside the great influence of the equestrian class during the Late Republic, the reasons for Pompey’s failure in the senate are not made clear enough in the argument.

Chapter six (“Metus Parthicus”) is an interesting analysis of the Roman response to the defeat at Carrhae in 53 in the light of the arguments propounded in previous chapters. Morrell considers that the Romans opted for a cautious policy with regards to the Parthians after Crassus’ defeat, initially rejecting a military response; the author is probably right when doubting the Romans’ alleged indifference in the aftermath of the battle, but goes perhaps too far in her argument when alleging that the Romans tried to disown Crassus’ campaign in Syria with the aim of appeasing the Parthians. Aspects like personal interest, political rivalry or the traditional ethos of the Roman aristocracy are again missed in the argument. As in the case of Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, had the Romans won, very few would have questioned the legitimacy of Crassus’ actions. The author also overlooks the fact that a military intervention in Parthia had been planned since Aulus Gabinius’ command in Syria in 56, and it is likely that the senate supported the latter’s decision to invade Parthia in the context of the dynastic dispute between King Orodes and his brother Mithridates, as some scholars have suggested. Morrell’s idea of C. Cassius Longinus as an agent in the service of the Pompeian cause in Syria is likewise debatable: Cassius had been allotted to Crassus as quaestor by sortition, and his role as interim commander of Syria after the disaster of Carrhae was apparently motivated by his tricky position in the province rather than by any alleged political reason. Cassius’ continued presence in Syria after the defeat against the Parthians is difficult to interpret as a sign of “a less aggressive policy adopted by Rome after Carrhae” (page 184).

Nonetheless, Morrell’s proposal that Romans were more tolerant towards provincial populations after Crassus’ defeat, with the aim of avoiding the outbreak of a revolt comparable to that supported by Mithridates, is attractive, and indeed helps to contextualise better the immediate passing of the lex Pompeia de provinciis in 52. The law and its political context are comprehensively analysed in chapter seven: the lex Pompeia is presented as the most serious attempt to improve provincial administration (and to avoid corruption) introduced during the Republic, in this case by means of a method based on the dissociation of magistracy and military command and the selection of the best candidates for provincial government by the senate, as the appointment of Cicero, Thermus, and other governors of 51-50 would suggest. Morrell’s valuable analysis joins other works concerning the Pompeian law, such as the most recent by Catherine Steel (in Historia 61, 2012) or the forthcoming one by David Rafferty (Stuttgart, 2019), while providing in addition important reflections both on the political aims of the law and its immediate implications in 51-50. Her interesting assertion that the law was based on the same principle behind the allocation of the so-called ‘extraordinary commands’ of the Late Republic is a good example of this.

Almost by way of recapitulation, the last chapter (“Cato’s policy”) presents an overview of the role played by Cato in the reforms introduced by Pompey, and his influence on provincial administration during the years 51-50. According to the author, many of the virtues remarked by Cicero in his letters or attributed by the sources to governors like Thermus or Bibulus would be linked to Cato’s philosophical principles. Whether the portrait of the ideal governor drawn by Cicero’s letters should be attributed to Cato is nevertheless debatable: the virtues alleged by Cicero are essentially similar to those described by the orator in his well-known letter to Quintus during the latter’s stay in Asia as proconsul (Q. fr. 1.1) some years before the passing of the Pompeian law. What both Cicero’s letters and other sources reflect is the existence in the Late Republic of a model of provincial command that was based not just on traditional military excellence, but also on the virtues of good government; it is not, however, necessary to attribute this to Cato’s doctrines, since the model is essentially the same as that projected by Q. Mucius Scaevola during his proconsulship in Asia (c. 99-98), as Diodorus and other sources record. More probably, Cato, Cicero, and other important figures of the Late Republic exploited this model and even tried to apply it to their images as provincial governors, to the extent of rewriting the traditional concept of glory, as the author points out (pages 261-267).

We can conclude, in short, that the book provides a valuable revision of the measures introduced into the provincial administration during the last years of the Republic from an interesting ideological perspective, though a few of the arguments seem excessively risky. Some of the author’s conclusions are particularly remarkable: thus, despite the apparent negligence shown by the Romans in relation to the governance of the Empire, certain figures of the Late Republic tried to improve provincial administration and to create, in addition, an alternative model of imperialism based on the principle of socios tueri described by Cicero in leg. 3.9; namely, “to protect allies” not just from external enemies, but also from the Romans’ own government. The Republican crisis was consequently not a ‘Krise ohne Alternative’ as Christian Meier concluded (see page 272). The book also demonstrates that collaboration was not unusual between political rivals, while it shifts the prominence traditionally granted to Caesar or Cicero in the Late Republic to the figures of Pompey and Cato, perhaps somewhat excessively at times. In any case, Morrell’s proposal will convince the reader to a greater or lesser extent, but will not leave anyone indifferent, which is always very welcome in historiographical debate.

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