BMCR 2000.04.01

The Constitution of the Roman Republic

, The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. 297. $80.00.

Andrew Lintott has taken on an ambitious task and discharged it in worthy fashion. The availability of a sensible and readable digest of Republican institutions will be widely welcomed by all students of Roman history, especially those (almost everyone) who do not have the Sitzfleisch to plow through the three volumes of Mommsen’s Staatsrecht. L., who has already contributed much to our understanding of the political, legal, and constitutional history of the Republic, has here performed a most notable service.

The book requires little justification. L. begins by invoking Polybius’ famous lines at 1.1.5, inquiring about who would be so stupid or lazy as not to want to know how and with what constitution the Romans brought the whole of the inhabited world under their sway. L. adds that no understanding of Roman politics is possible without knowing the rules of the game. And, equally important, the influence of the purportedly “mixed constitution” has held such a fascination for subsequent political theory that it is vital to distinguish the “myth” from the “reality.” L. will endeavor to extract the “reality” (p. 2). A bold undertaking.

Just how one gets at the “reality” is no easy matter. L. proposes three approaches: to analyze the workings of institutions in the later Republic where evidence is fuller and extrapolate from that testimony, to begin with the early Republic and move in systematic chronological fashion, or to adopt a theoretical framework like Polybius and analyze political behavior in that light. He claims to employ all three methodological modes (p. 7-8). As a consequence, L. produces an advance over Mommsenian methodology. Although Mommsen was fully attuned to changes in constitutional practice and political behavior over time, the systematic ordering of his material and the massive collection of testimonia for each item (far more consulted than read) leaves the impression of a static structure, reducible to fixed categories. L.’s treatment underscores the dynamic character of the constitution, the shifting relationships among its parts, and the close ties between political circumstances and institutional developments.

Adoption of three different approaches would not make for a smooth exposition. In fact, L. pays little notice to this initial blueprint in the main text. Instead, the sequence of his presentation follows no obvious pattern or patterns. He chooses to make the first full chapter the réesumé of a particular Roman year, that of 189/8, to illustrate the course of public events that might be expected in a typical twelve month period (p. 9-15). Unfortunately, there is no such thing as an altogether typical year, and the outline of political events in 189/8 prior to any discussion of the offices and institutions involved is not particularly enlightening. L. then turns to an analysis of Polybius’ conception of the constitution, followed immediately by a brief historical study of the tangled traditions on the early Republic. The logic of this sequence, insofar as there is one, will escape most readers. Four chapters follow on the various institutions of the Republic (assemblies, senate, higher magistrates, and lesser magistrates), with a separate chapter on criminal justice. Each of these moves back and forth between late Republican manifestations and evolutionary development of the institutions. A sudden shift in treatment occurs when L. recognizes the need to provide a social dimension and thus devotes a chapter to a collection of topics like aristocratic values, mutual obligations, patronage and clientage, and religion. The placement of that discussion in the midst of his constitutional chapters renders it an interruption rather than a transition. A setting near the beginning of the book would have been more appropriate. The next two chapters shift back to Polybius and the theory of the mixed constitution, adding Cicero’s reflections on the subject, and assessing the alleged balance of powers against the particulars explored earlier. This involves a certain amount of repetition and overlapping that might have been avoided with a different sort of structure. A final chapter interestingly but all too briefly highlights some of the Nachleben of the constitution in political philosophy from the Middle Ages to the Founding Fathers. All in all, a valuable contribution. but it is not always easy to find one’s way around in it. In view of the somewhat peculiar ordering of topics, a full index would have been immensely helpful. The one provided is far from full.

There is much to be praised in this book. L.’s command of the material is impressive and his judgment is consistently sound. This does not pretend to be an innovative work, but it is also no mere compendium of information. L. needs repeatedly to reconstruct the workings of institutions from fragmentary testimony, and his comments are always worth attending to. The chapter on the senate is a case in point. In discussing senatorial debates, for instance, L. rightly points out that, despite formal procedures, there was room to maneuver and wide scope for interchange in the decision-making process (p. 77-78). The balance between strict order and variations in procedure reflects the fundamentally dual character of the senate: both a consilium of the magistrates and an autonomous body (p. 82). L. shrewdly recognizes that the discretion accorded to magistrates did not come at the expense of the senate but actually contributed to its authority (p. 87). He is equally enlightening on the magistrates. The principle of collegiality is less a form of constitutional check than an insurance policy against the death or disability of a magistrate (p. 100-101). The parcelling out of provinciae was more than an administrative convenience; it served to control aristocratic rivalry (p. 101).

The thorny question of the dictator’s authority receives a plausible explanation as a matter of casuistry, not defined by statute or explicit articulation, and shaped by debates in the later Republic (p. 112). The peculiar five year term of the censors is best understood not as consequence of curtailment but as growth from small beginnings (p. 117). And criminal prosecution by tribunes was a development encouraged by the aristocracy to entrust the invidious job of indicting prominent figures to representatives of the people (p. 122, 207). L. further reminds us that numerous prosecutions in the quaestiones perpetuae of the late Republic resulted in conviction, giving the lie to the common presumption that criminal justice in that period was ineffective (p. 161). He observes that the partisan battle in the elections of 50 was the exception in a system where personal connections and obligations were the norm (p. 172-173). He negotiates his way through the mine-field of debates on patronage by affirming the ties of clientage but showing that they became increasingly complicated and overlaid by a host of other ties and associations that both expanded and restricted the free choice of the electorate (p. 180-181). As for Polybius, L. nicely notices that his analysis of the constitution is presented less as an exposition of the parts than a description of how they are perceived by an observer, thus rendering him less vulnerable to challenge (p. 191). Finally, L.’s sensible discussion of the nature and authority of the aristocracy sees it as gradually opening to outsiders but only very slowly, and as maintaining the respect of the plebs even when their loyalties were divided among individual aristocrats (p. 198-199).

These virtues also prompt a complaint. L. does not render such judgments often enough. The presentation is rigorously empirical, and he allows himself little space for reflection. Numerous places exist where L. touches on matters that go to the heart of the Roman mentality but does not elaborate upon them. So, for example, he raises and then drops the question of whether the publication of statutes in a society that was largely illiterate had a more symbolic than practical purpose (p. 3). He acknowledges at the outset that mos played a critical role in the Roman conception of constitutional practice (p. 4-7), but almost never mentions it again. He correctly observes that Polybius’ theory of the constitution owes much to his contact with Roman conceptions — without defining those conceptions (p. 24-25). The very complexity and redundancy of the popular assemblies says something significant about the way in which Romans perceived their institutions. L. notices the fact but does not inquire into its meaning (p. 61). A similar issue arises with regard to the multiplication of magistracies. L. sees this as an increasing subjection of the citizenry to government yet refrains from any interpretation of that intriguing development (p. 95). He correctly notes that the absence of a public prosecutor in Rome reflects a commitment to private and personal pursuit of recompense and helps to explain a disinclination to codify criminal law. This is a revealing window on fundamental Roman attitudes that goes unexplored (p. 148-149). Current debates over the relationship between senatorial control and popular power are glanced at only briefly. L. has useful things to say about contiones as staged debates and the senate as a forum for brokering differences among aristocrats (p. 196-197), but these comments sorely lack elaboration. The shortcomings of Roman perceptions of their constitution emerge provocatively in the discussion of Cicero’s political treatises. But how are we to understand the failure of Cicero to take the unification of Italy and the growth of empire into account? And what does it mean to say that only an anachronistic vision could be made convincing (p. 232)? The reader regularly feels the need for more ruminations.

One can take issue also with a number of details. L. seems to accept the dubious ancient notion that the Twelve Tables arose out of plebeian pressure (p. 34). He buys Cicero’s analysis of secret ballot measures as a diminution of elite influence (p. 47, 205). He acknowledges the difficulty of imagining that lengthy and complex statutes were actually read out in full to the assembly but accepts the proposition anyway (p. 64). He criticizes Mommsen’s concept of conflict between magisterial coercitio and the principle of provocatio but adopts something very much like it himself (p. 97-98). He takes as fact the fanciful tale of Naevius’ imprisonment (p. 141). His analysis of Rome’s importation of the Mater Idaea as the fruit of tension and anxiety over the Hannibal war ignores the circumstances, the most favorable for Rome since the war began (p. 188-189). To imply that legislation was influenced by voters from the countryside on the basis of two very exceptional instances is, at the least, misleading (p. 203). And it somewhat oversimplifies the complex situation of the late Republic to claim that the senate was caught between tribunician efforts to reassert the sovereignty of the assemblies and proconsuls’ exploitation of foreign affairs (p.212-213).

The book’s merits distinctly outweigh problems of structure and disagreement on details. It is a measure of L.’s achievement that the chief complaint lies in his restraint in pursuing his own insights or issuing broader conclusions. Unlike Mommsen’s imposing tomes, this work will be both consulted and read. For students of Roman social and political history, its publication is a most welcome event.