BMCR 2001.04.14

Von der Republik zum Prinzipat: Ursachen für den Verfassungswandel in Rom im historischen Denken der Antike (Palingenesia LXIX)

, Von der Republik zum Prinzipat : Ursachen für den Verfassungswechsel in Rom im historischen Denken der Antike. Palingenesia ; Bd. 69. Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 2000. 250 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3515076662 DM 88.00.

Sion-Jenkis (henceforth S-J in her doctoral dissertation, has produced a careful and thorough investigation of the opinions of ancient authors, in both Latin and Greek, about the reasons for the break-down of the republican system in the Roman state, and its replacement by a monarchy. In the course of her work she has also, incidentally, demonstrated that none of the ancient authors whose work she has investigated had any doubt that the ‘Augustan Principate’ was in fact a monarchy; therefore, if the republican titles and trimmings with which Augustus decorated his position were intended to disguise his powers, or to give the impression of a ‘dyarchy’, or in any other way deceive his contemporaries and posterity, they were a failure, even in his own lifetime.

S-J does not only discuss our leading historical sources, Tacitus, Dio Cassius, Livy and the ‘Periochae’ and Suetonius. She also includes lesser historical writers, such as Velleius (a very valuable source for her topic), Appian (though the chronological boundaries of his work limit his value), Diodorus Siculus and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (who both contribute more than one might expect), Josephus, and even the epitomators, Florus from the second century A.D., Aurelius Victor, Eutropius, and the ‘Epitome de Caesaribus’ from the fourth, and Orosius from the fifth; also philosophers, namely Plutarch and the younger Seneca (as well as a brief appearance by his father, the ‘rhetor’), as well as the poets, Vergil, Horace, and Lucan. Numerous other authors appear in the full and apparently reliable ‘Quellenverzeichnis’, ranging alphabetically from Ammianus Marcellinus to Zosimus, and chronologically from Herodotus (the Persian debate on constitutions, III 80-82) to Isidore of Seville.

The absentees are, therefore, all the more noticeable. The only epigraphic text discussed is Augustus’ ‘Res Gestae’—no Greek texts hailing Augustus for beginning a new age are included,1 nor are the decrees from Pisae, on the memorial honours voted at the news of the deaths of Augustus’ adopted sons, Lucius and Gaius Caesar.2 Augustus’ letter to Gaius, on his own 63rd birthday, which plainly indicates his intention to have his ‘son’ succeed to his position in the state,3 is also missing, as are all other surviving fragments of his works (Malcovati’s collection does not appear in the bibliography). The only text which actually uses the phrase restituta res publica, the so-called ‘Laudatio Turiae’,4 is also absent, as is the one explicit imperial disquisition on the Roman constitution and its changes through time, Claudius’ speech on admitting Gauls to the Senate,5 which goes into some detail on the revolution which expelled the kings and the various changes to the republican institutions, though unfortunately the section describing the regression from republic to monarchy is lost. Nor does S-J make any use of coins, though by now not only the Roman republican and imperial coinages but also the Roman provincial coinages for the period have been fully published, with exhaustive indices.6 This is therefore a purely literary study.

S-J’s procedure is systematic, but rather mechanical: she poses a series of problems,and then sees what answers her authors give. The problems include: I. 1. what terms are used for ‘Republic’ and ‘Principate’; I. 2. at what date did the change from Republic to Principate take place. II. how the authors analyse conditions in the Republic, including 1. the contrast between the aristocracy and the people; 2. the behaviour of the senatorial class and their ethical delinquencies, especially (a) greed for supreme power, and (b) the reasons for the Senate’s loss of control; 3. the allegedly disastrous influence of the masses on republican political behaviour; 4. the political activity of tribunes of the plebs and of popularis politicians, with particular reference to (a) the contribution made by so-called ‘ popularis‘ politics in the transformation of the Republic into the Principate, and (b) the transfer of the jury-courts from senatorial to equestrian control and the consequences for the viability of the Republic; 5. the change of the Roman state from city-state to world power and the excessive strain this placed on the republican institutions; and 6. a conclusion, on theories of moral decadence and mixed constitutions under the Empire. III. the Principate viewed as a monarchy and monarchy as the ideal political form, which resolved the crisis of the republican system, because of: 1. the fundamental superiority of monarchy since nature ordained monarchy as the proper mode for organising political life; 2. the practical advantages of monarchy for solving the problems which overwhelmed the republican system; 3. the importance of Octavian-Augustus for the authors’ picture of the political transformation; and 4. a summary, which includes a discussion of critical voices raised in opposition to the Principate and its rulers. Finally IV. whether the change from Republic to Principate is explained by the action of supernatural forces or as the result of historical laws, involving the authors’ statements about: 1. intervention of Gods and of Fate in the process of transformation, and 2. the development from Republic to Principate as an example of the working of historical necessity.

S-J states (p. 19, n.1) that she used the ‘CD-Roms’ of the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae and the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae in her investigation of the terminology used by her authors, and this use shows, for both good and bad. On the one hand, where she can identify a relevant concept or set of concepts in the Latin original or in Greek translation, she gives a thorough discussion of the concepts, which is not confined to citing instances, but investigating them, and showing their differing shades of meaning. For example, the first section of her second chapter (pages 65-78), on the contrast between Aristocracy and People, including social inequalities and political opposition, is very useful for the differences in the vocabulary and outlook of Plutarch, Appian and Dio, and for the attitudes of Velleius, Florus, and Tacitus, especially in the Dialogus but also in the Annals.

On the other hand, where an author expresses an idea, but uses no technical vocabulary for it, no thesaurus will provide a clue. So in the final chapter, on authors who attribute some responsibility to ‘Fate’ or ‘the Gods’ for transforming the Republic into a monarchy, S-J missed the striking instance of Plutarch, Antony 56. 3 (Loeb ed.),

ἔδει γὰρ εἰς Καίσαρα πάντα περιελθεῖν (‘it was necessary for everything to come into Caesar’s [i.e. Octavian’s] power’).

At times, too, one would have liked more analysis of the meaning and implications of the various technical terms. To take the most obvious instance, S-J seems to assume that ‘republic’ (or ‘Republik’) is a full and satisfactory translation of res publica, yet res publica literally means ‘the affair (or interest, or concern) of the people’, being the equivalent of res populi. So what is the role of the populus in the state, once the state has a monarch? What are the views of the authors, particularly the Latin authors, on this? S-J (p. 139) does quote from Florus (II 14. 4), nam aliter salvus esse non potuit, nisi confugisset ad servitutem (‘for the people could not have been safe in any other way, except by taking refuge in slavery’), but that is in the course of discussing Florus’ portrayal of Augustus. She nowhere poses the general question. Again, though she notes (e.g. 27-28) that Latin authors use libertas to describe ‘the Republic’, she does not explore the implications of the word, nor of its opposite, dominatio. If she had, she might well have been less dismissive of Mommsen’s demonstration that the rebels against Nero in A.D. 68, whose proclaimed aim was the re-establishment of the ‘Liberty of the Roman People’, intended to overthrow the monarchical system and replace it with a republic not merely replace a bad master with a better one.7

This is not a book which one would normally read right through: it is very much a reference work, and can be very useful for that. But it would be much more useful if the publishers had insisted on its having not only its ‘Index Locorum’, but also indexes of names and subjects; as it is, it is impossible to find, in any reasonable length of time, such things as the opinions of different authors on Caesar’s position in the Roman state—was he the last republican dynast, or a tyrant, or the first emperor? The information is all in the book, somewhere—if one has time to search. Similarly, the evidence for or against Eduard Meyer’s thesis ( Caesars Monarchie und das (sic) Prinzipat des Pompeius, Stuttgart 1922—not included in S-J’s bibliography), that Augustus’ real precursor was not Caesar but Pompey, is here, but not easy to find.

The bibliography fills 24 pages, so it is a surprise to find that S-J omits W.K. Lacey, Augustus and the Principate (Leeds 1996), and T.P. Wiseman, Death of an emperor (Exeter 1991). In the 1980s and 1990s, the Bristol Classical Press published several annotated editions or translations of relevant texts but failed to advertise them widely so that they were all unknown to S-J. They include Nicolaus of Damascus, Life of Augustus, translated with commentary by J. Bellemore; Plutarch, Lives of Galba and Otho, translated by D. Little, commentary by C. Ehrhardt; Suetonius, Augustus, commentary by J. Carter; Tiberius, commentary by H. Lindsay; Caligula, commentary by J. Lindsay; Claudius, commentary by J. Mottershead; Nero, commentary by B.H. Warmington; Galba, Otho and Vitellius, commentary by C. Murison.

Points of detail: 1. Factual mistakes: p. 60, Hirtius and Pansa were consuls in 43 B.C., not 42; p. 79 n. 84, M. Livius Drusus’ rival was Q. Servilius (not ‘Servius’) Caepio; p. 92. the ‘tumultuarische Unruhen’ leading to the killing of Ti. Gracchus occurred in 133, not 132 B.C.; p. 97, the agreement of Misenum, between the Triumvirs and S. Pompeius, was in 39, not 40 B.C.; p. 105 n. 268, the violence described in Plutarch Cicero 33. 3 was not caused by ‘Clodius’ Vertreibung’, but by Clodius’ opposition to Cicero’s recall from exile; p. 125 n. 389, the consul of 189 B.C. was not called ‘M’ Vulsio’, but ‘Cn. Manlius Vulso’; p. 146 n. 128, election riots during Augustus’ absence from Rome were in 22, not 27, B.C. (S-J repeats this mistake, p. 157, last line); p. 160 n. 223, it is not Augustus’ adopted sons, but his stepsons, whom Horace hymns in his fourth book of Odes; same page, text to n. 224, Propertius II 16. 42 is misunderstood, by assuming that illa (abl. sing.) agrees with arma (acc. pl.—the metre removes all possible ambiguity); p. 199 line 16, for ‘Nero’ read ‘Nerva’.

2. p. 22 n. 17, S-J quotes a sentence from Velleius (II 82. 1) which is totally incomprehensible, without indicating that Watt, in the latest Teubner edition (1988) obelises it and that none of the conjectures in his apparatus seems at all probable.

3. There are several mistakes in S-J’s German, which should not have found their way into a scholarly work (not listed here, since none affects the sense).

4. More serious is the garbling of Greek: p. 35, n. 109, for βιδουμένος read βαδιουμένου; p. 43 n. 179, end of line 2, read φέρεσθαι; p. 85 n. 105, for σωτηεριως read σωτηριως; p. 91 n. 169, semi-colons (conventionally used as question marks in printing Greek) are here used instead of raised stops; p. 117 n. 350, in the phrase (from Dio LII 16.2), ὄχλου παντοδαποῦ χωρὶς κυβερνήτου παντοδαποῦ, χωρὶς goes with the following word, not the preceding one.

5. Mistakes in Latin: p. 53 n. 249 line 4, for ordinem read ordinum; p. 132, five lines from end, read rege for reges; p. 139, last line, praesidis for praesidiis.

6. S-J has also misunderstood Dio’s Greek at Book 60. 15. 2 (p. 155 and notes 188 and 189): Camillus Scribonianus rebelled against Claudius, Dio says, because he had been suggested as emperor (obviously in the senatorial session following the assassination of Gaius), not so that he could gain ‘eine eigene Stellung als Princeps.’

7. At times S-J has not grasped the implications of the authors or passages which she cites: e.g., p. 170, in discussing Dio’s portrayal of Octavian Augustus, she does not mention either Dio’s claim that Octavian’s ‘resignation’ speech was a stage-managed fraud (53. 2.7 and 11.1) or his deliberate reporting, immediately after it, (11.5), of the vote which granted Octavian a bodyguard with double pay—the classic step taken by Greek tyrants in their rise to absolute power with popular support. Again, p. 159, though it is true that Horace ‘vermeidet [es]…in den Oden, auf die Problematik der Bürgerkriege einzugehen’, no reader should miss the connotations of II 7. 11, cum fracta virtus in the defeat of Brutus’ forces at Philippi—the forces which were the last army of the Republic (Tacitus, Ann. I 2. 1).

Gibbon wrote of Augustus, ‘The tender respect of Augustus for a free constitution which he had destroyed can only be explained by an attentive consideration of the character of that subtle tyrant. …His virtues, and even his vices, were artificial; and, according to the various dictates of his interest, he was at first the enemy, and at last the father, of the Roman world’, and added the footnote,

‘As Octavianus advanced to the banquet of the Caesars, his colour changed like that of the Camelion; pale at first, then red, afterwards black, he at last assumed the mild livery of Venus and the graces (Caesars, p. 309). This image employed by Julian, in his ingenious fiction, is just and elegant; but when he considers this change of character as real, and ascribes it to the power of philosophy, he does too much honour to philosophy, and to Octavianus.’8

Much of S-J’s work is devoted to philosophical discussion, but neither the philosophic historian nor the philosophic emperor appears in it. A pity.


1. V. Ehrenberg & A.H.M. Jones, Documents illustrating the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius (second ed., London 1955), nos. 98, 98a, both translated in D. Braund, Augustus to Nero (London 1985), nos. 122, 123.

2. Ehrenberg & Jones, nos. 68, 69, translated in Braund, nos. 62, 63.

3. Aulus Gellius 15. 7. 3 = E. Malcovati, Imperatoris Caesaris Augusti Operum Fragmenta, 5th ed. (Turin 1969), no. 22; translated in Braund, no. 59.

4. ILS 8393, col. II line 35; edition with German translation and commentary, Dieter Flach, Die sogenannte Laudatio Turiae, Darmstadt 1991.

5. E.M. Smallwood, Documents illustrating the Principates of Gaius, Claudius and Nero (Cambridge 1967), no. 369; translated in Braund, no. 570.

6. M. Crawford, Roman Republican Coinage, Cambridge 1974; The Roman Imperial Coinage vol. I, ed. H. Mattingly and E.A. Sydenham (London 1923); revised ed., by C.H.V. Sutherland and R.A.G. Carson. 1984; Roman Provincial Coinage vol. I, ed. M. Amandry, A.M. Burnett, and P.P. Ripollés, London 1992.

7. Pp. 156-157, on Th. Mommsen, ‘Der letzte Kampf der römischen Republik’, Hermes 13, 1878, 90-105, reprinted in Gesammelte Schriften IV, ed. O. Hirschfeld (Berlin 1906), 333-47. Despite S-J’s asseveration that Mommsen’s opinion ‘als widerlegt gelten kann’, it in fact cannot be refuted without first radically reforming the Latin language. See also the coins (inspired by Brutus’ famous ‘ειδ μαρ’ coin, Crawford, Roman Republican Coinage no. 508. 3), featuring LIBERTAS P R RESTITVTA, Roman Imperial Coinage vol. I (first ed.—the only one available to me), nos. 182, 9 and 10 = P.-H Martin, Die anonymen Münzen des Jahres 68 nach Christus (Mainz 1974), nos. 49, 50.

8. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapter 3.