BMCR 2001.01.15

The Roman Middle Republic: Politics, Religion, and Historiography c. 400-133 B.C

, The Roman middle republic : politics, religion, and historiography : c. 400-133 B.C. : papers from a conference at the Institutum Romanum Finlandiae, September 11-12, 1998. Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae, vol. 23. Rome: Institutum Romanum Finlandiae, 2000. viii, 310 pages : illustrations, map ; 27 cm.. ISBN 9525323005

1 Responses

Although it has become a topos to criticize the publication of conference proceedings for their lack of cohesion, the frequency of such criticism makes it no less valid. The volume under review, though presenting several important papers, suffers from this problem, as even a glance at the title makes evident. Not only does the volume try to treat three disparate subject areas, but it has an expansive chronological notion of the Middle Republic. While scholars can and should continue to debate the periodization of Roman history and resist restrictions imposed by artificial boundaries, in this instance the chronological limits are deeply problematic for the issues concerning politics, religion and historiography in the first half of the fourth century are dramatically different from those in the middle of the second century.

A glance at the titles of the papers listed above will underline the difficulties. The collection includes articles by T.J. Cornell and M. Humm on political reforms of the early fourth century but also by J.C Saint-Hilaire on citizenship issues of the early second century; it is difficult to find common ground between these areas. The papers on historiography are even more diverse; we not only have G. Forsythe on the Roman historians of the second century and R. Ridley on an Augustan historian describing the late third/early second century but also C. Bruun on M. Furius Camillus and early Roman historiography. These articles in particular lack points of contact past the common subject matter; rather each is naturally engaged in a broader project of the author, and, while those projects may prove quite fruitful judging from the portion published here, the short space given them in this volume deprives them and the volume of coherence.

The lack of focus in this collection is compounded by the fact that few of the authors attempt to cross boundaries and treat more than one topic area in their work. In fairness I should say that several of these articles are indeed excellent, but for those like myself who are trying to draw connections between politics, religion, and historiography, this volume is bound to be disappointing.

Given these constrictions I have chosen to concentrate on articles that do draw connections across the boundaries and that engage with other authors presented in this collection. The choice may be idiosyncratic, but I hope that the listing of papers above will provide a sufficient sense of the contents of this volume for those who want to investigate further. A good place to start is with the discussions by Christer Bruun and by T.P. Wiseman; given that both suggest that stage plays may have played a significant role in the shaping of Roman traditions, one wishes these articles were placed closer together in this volume. For Wiseman, this is a position he has advocated for several years now,1 and here he applies himself to the Roman god Liber to demonstrate how the history of that god in Rome can reflect changes in Roman ideology. Utilizing scenes, especially erotic ones, from Praenestine cistae of the fourth and third centuries, Wiseman argues that these represent not mythological scenes with Liber but staged versions of those myths. On the basis of this evidence Wiseman would not only move the origins of Greek influence on Roman drama back significantly, but, given a long-standing connection between Liber and the plebs and libertas, he would see actions regulating cultic practices of Liber and associated figures as having ideological significance. Indeed, Wiseman is most convincing in the assertion that a whole series of these actions from the mid-third century through the time of Augustus, including the Bacchic repression and the establishment or repression of various ludi, had political overtones. The value of the cistae lies especially in giving greater definition to Liber as significant in his own right and not simply a member of the triad with Ceres and Libera, but Wiseman may be exaggerating the role of the male god at the expense of Ceres when he suggests that the connection between Liber and libertas may extend back to the foundation of the Republic.

Bruun’s concern lies more with historiography than with religion, but he too emphasizes the role of stage plays in the shaping of Roman tradition. Bruun suggests that in M. Furius Camillus Roman historiography shaped a tradition around the Italic figure Marce Camitlnas, depicted in the Francois tomb in Vulci. This figure became grafted onto a successful Roman politician of the early fourth century, perhaps L. Furius Medullinus, who is mentioned prominently in the Fasti but virtually ignored by Livy. The figure was then shaped further both by Furian family traditions and by dramatic performances. Such dramas have clearly left their imprint on Livy’s narrative with the dramatic entrance of Camillus at the critical moment, and Livy himself may have been aware of their influence (see Livy 5.21.9). Interestingly, Bruun takes his argument one step further, arguing that it may be a mark of Livy’s shortcomings as a writer that he made such a “lifeless” figure out of a character from the stage. This paper is well argued and contributes greatly to the discussion of the possible links between drama and history in Rome.

Another set of papers deals with the political structure of the Roman state in the late fourth and early third century. T.J. Cornell enters into the debate on the nature and composition of the Senate during this early period. Arguing against the traditional view, Cornell takes the notice in Festus on the lex Ovinia to mean that the Senate in the early Republic might change composition every year and that it was precisely this law that shifted the balance of power away from the consuls or military tribunes and towards the Senate as a corporate body. Cornell also dates the law to c.340 rather than 312 and draws attention to the strengthening of the position of the Senate just as Rome achieved political domination in Italy. The Senate was thus freed from the control of the consuls and grew over time in both numbers and prestige into the dominant body with which we are all familiar.

M. Humm focuses on the tribal reforms, whereby citizenship began to depend on the inscription of an individual into a tribe rather than into the curia. For Humm this reform of Appius Claudius is intimately connected with the reform of the calendar and the nundinal rhythm established by Cn. Flavius. A reform of both time and space was necessary to alter the power structure as Rome expanded in Italy and as merchants began to play a more significant role in the economic life of the city.

Finally, K. Sandberg focuses on the mechanics of passing legislation in Rome and points out the methodological problems of relying on late Republican evidence to describe the Middle Republic. He argues that the evidence actually shows that even before the lex Hortensia civil legislation in the Middle Republic was regularly enacted through the tribunes. As Sandberg notes, such an understanding need not fundamentally alter our notion of how the Republic operated at this time, but rather it underscores the Polybian observation of the necessary interdependence between the Senate, the magistrates and the plebs. Taken together, these articles present a picture of the Roman political system as much less static than is often assumed, a system that changed in response to the changes in Rome’s military and economic position. Such a re-evaluation is most welcome and should lead to a better understanding not just of the Middle Republic and the Struggle of the Orders, but also of the subsequent history of the Late Republic.

Perhaps the most interesting and most controversial of the articles is M. Torelli’s interpretation of an inscription uncovered in an underground complex at Caere in 1983. The inscription is quoted in his title, and much of Torelli’s argument depends on his suggestion that the inscription refers to a prefect rather than to a praetor as proposed by M. Cristofani in the original publication.2 Torelli argues that a praetor would not be the appropriate magistrate for Caere when the city was annexed in the year 273; in the Roman system a prefecture would be much more appropriate, and, while the scanty literary sources do not use this word, the inscription should be taken as a reference to this new situation. Torelli then utilizes the evidence of the inscription’s find-spot to develop his argument: the underground chamber seems to have had religious significance that might be connected to the mundus at Rome as well as to the Lares, and the use of these religious connections may have been part of the Roman system for incorporating Etruscan cities; the installation of a mundus may have been a means of “refounding” the city as part of the Roman state. The connections Torelli makes are quite complex—I have read the article three times and I am still not sure I have followed all of them—but this one short inscription clearly provides us with some of our best evidence for how the Romans managed to consolidate their grasp on Italy, and the prominence of religion in that accomplishment should by now occasion little surprise.

Of the remaining articles, several deserve at least a few words of summary. F. Coarelli also treats the issue of Romanization and religion, using an inscription from the lucus Pisaurensis, dated by him to before the Hannibalic War, to suggest that this may have been a conciliabulum of viritane colonists rather than a colonia civium Romanorum. J. C. Saint-Hilaire contributes to our understanding of the citizenship difficulties of the early second century by suggesting that the word libertini may refer to those new to Roman citizenship and not merely to sons of freedmen; her analysis, however, is vitiated by an excessive dependence on the factional model for Roman politics at this time. And J. Vaahtera offers a strong criticism of Polybius for his refusal to acknowledge the importance of religion to the Romans except in the few short and well-known words of Book VI, hence his failure to accurately explain the rise of Rome to his readers. While the discussion of Polybius’ treatment of Roman religion is sound, to this reader these omissions do not seem to justify the harsh conclusions to which Vaahtera arrives.

In summation, a number of the articles in this collection should prove to have a significant impact on our approach to the Roman political system of the third and second centuries and on our approach to the issue of the Romanization of Italy during this same time. But this is a collection from which to pick and choose: a deeper understanding of many of these issues will have to await the publication of larger projects by some of the scholars represented here.


1. See especially Roman Drama and Roman History, University of Exeter Press, (1998).

2. M. Cristofani, “C. Genucio Clepsina pretore a Caere” in A. Emiliozzi Morandi and A.M. Sgubini Moretti (eds.) Archeologia nella Tuscia II, Rome, 1988.