BMCR 2001.07.04

Mos maiorum; Moribus antiquis

, , Mos maiorum: Untersuchungen zu den Formen der Identitätsstiftung und Stabilisierung in der Römischen Republik. Historia. Einzelschriften; Heft 141. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2000. 319 pages. ISBN 3515076603
, , , Moribus antiquis res stat Romana: Römische Werte und Römische Literatur im 3. und 2. Jh. v. Chr. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde; Band 134. München: Saur, 2000. 387 pages. ISBN 9783110956702

1 Responses

Both of the above volumes have their origins in colloquia sponsored by the Collaborative Research Centre 537, “Institutionalität und Geschichtlichkeit” at the Technische Universität Dresden. The mission of such centres, lavishly funded with millions of Deutschmark by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, is the pursuit of trans- (not inter-)disciplinary research: with the centre-scheme, the DFG seeks to promote agendas of enquiry that are theory-driven, address issues of a highly complex nature, and hence cannot properly be explored within the purview of one academic discipline.1

CRC 537 is a case in point: classical philologists and ancient historians have here pooled resources with other fields in the humanities and the social sciences to investigate the correlation of stability (“institutionality”) and change (“historicity”) in human societies. The classicists’ contribution to this multi-year eranos of scholarship is entitled “The Roman mos maiorum from its beginnings to the Augustan Age. Contents, Modes of Transmission, Contributions to Social Stability”, with the subsections “Public Rituals and Sociopolitical Stability” (ancient history) and “Literary Communication and the [Roman] System of Values” (classical philology).

It seems in keeping with the volumes’ institutional origins to review the essays here assembled not only as contributions to specific areas of classical scholarship; more or less explicitly, they also raise two broader questions: about the (current) limits and possibilities of dialogue between the “communities of discourse” that make up Altertumswissenschaft and the extent to which research done in our field squares with recent work in the cultural and social sciences. A seminal matter is at stake here, at least to those who think about the field in German: whether or not (or to what degree) scholarship in classics is pertinent to and compatible with the contemporary state of knowledge in related disciplines is one index of its Wissenschaftlichkeit (or lack thereof).

But enough already of preliminaries. B. Linke’s and M. Stemmler’s introduction to the mos maiorum -volume is a mixture of many excellent observations, some surprising blindspots, and a generous whiff of conceptual confusion. Consider their opening statement: in a somewhat contrived attempt to link the Roman Republic to the theme of CRC 537, the editors assert “a discrepancy” for this period between the “dramatic transformation of external parameters” (“Geschichtlichkeit”) and the “astonishing stability and longevity of the societal system” (“Institutionalität”). Presumably, they use “societal system” in the sense of “type of political order” (i.e. “Republic”), with the phrase “external parameters” (never specified in any way) covering everything else—such as Rome’s military expansion, her contact with the Greek world, the formal recognition of the knights as a social group, or political murder in the time of the Gracchae, to list some second-century events and realities indicative of significant and ongoing change in Roman society that are passed over in silence.2

None the less, they succeed in making a strong case for the need of more sophisticated conceptual tools and theoretical models for the analysis of “social stability”—partly through their stringent critique of the shortcomings of previous scholarship, partly by drawing on the insights of “political anthropology” and (mainly in-house) “institutional theory”. Linke and Stemmler ask us to juggle a set of variables that includes processes of socialization; the constitution of individual and collective identities; the symbolic dimension of human life; the gap, under constant negotiation, between legal discourse and social practice; and an entity called “political culture”, with its public rituals and performances.

This is a far cry indeed from models of analysis that tend to put the emphasis on a single, more or less monolithic factor—such as law (Mommsen), the informal power of noble families (Gelzer), or the hypostatized Values that (German) classical philologists have frequently seen fit to adduce as explanation of Roman social behavior. The editors conclude their survey of scholarship with some useful remarks on the “democracy in Rome?” debate, briefly indicating how recent critiques of the “constitutional” approach of Fergus Millar have opened up new vistas on Rome’s political culture (7-8).3 Despite the fact, then, that their own theoretical blueprint for the analysis of social phenomena is only persuasive in patches, the authors do manage to convey the sense of a promising departure.

The papers proper commence auspiciously with a truly remarkable tour de force by W. Blösel, who traces “Die Geschichte des Begriffes mos maiorum von den Anfängen bis zu Cicero”. His perspective is unusual: he is not so much interested in the content of the mos as in the identity of the maiores. In the second century, so Blösel is able to show, the term referred almost exclusively to members of individual gentes who had served as public magistrates. Not everyone will accept his suggestion that the intense way of commemorating the achievements of maiores began only towards the end of the Struggle of the Orders, when, according to Blösel, the patricians started to refer to their ancestors’ role in the administration of the state as a source of symbolic capital as yet unavailable to their plebeian rivals for honores. But Blösel is excellent on the memorial culture of the Roman nobility, building on and advancing other recent, groundbreaking work in the area.4

Particularly fetching is his analysis of the various discursive strategies by which Cato the Elder attacked the authority of commendatio maiorum, which, as homo novus, he had to do without. He eliminated their names from the historical record of the Origines; he outflanked the historical nobility ethnographically by locating the true source of Rome’s hardy customs in Sabine roots; and he abused the offspring of noble families as degenerate slackers for relying on ancestral attainments, rather than innate qualities, to advance their careers. All these notorious features of Cato’s public voice fit into a coherent programme: each tries to sap the nobility’s time-honored source of prestige of its seemingly self-evident authority. Blösel goes on to show that Cicero, with a background very similar to Cato’s, essentially picked up where Cato left off, constructing a pantheon of nobles that first and foremost belonged to the entire Roman people (rather than a single family).

R. Pfeilschifter, in “Andere Länder, andere Sitten? Mores als Argument in der republikanischen Aussenpolitik”, identifies an interesting set of questions (what role did the concept of mores play in the dealings of Romans with foreigners?; how did foreigners relate to Roman mos ?; in what ways did Romans react when confronted with foreign customs?); and he does come up with some valuable observations. In the main, however, the essay is a reckless romp through a wide range of diverse sources that moves from Caesar’s account of his dealings with the Helvetii in the Bellum Gallicum, to Greek inscriptions of senatorial decrees of the early second-century BCE, to Livy’s account of Flamininus’ “diplomatic act” in Greece, touching in passing on Vergil’s “cultural mission” statement in Aeneid 6, Cornelius Nepos’ preface to his biographies, and Cicero’s proem to the Tusculan Disputations.

This anecdotal approach yields the conclusion that “the Romans” displayed “an almost autistic attitude” towards other cultures, in contrast to the “openness” of “the Greeks” (132-3). An equally valid case could be made for it being the other way around—if one at all wished to deal in such meaningless generalizations. It is, in any event, quite remarkable to see a culture charged with autism that created, in the words of D. C. Feeney, “a national literature in the vernacular on the model of another national literature”, “an undertaking which no one in the Mediterranean had ever contemplated before, but which became a paradigm for later literary history” ( Literature and Religion in Rome 53). Ultimately, the problems of this essay can be traced to Pfeilschifter’s persistent confusion of three distinct, if related phenomena: the dynamics of intercultural encounters and the limits and possibilities of cross-cultural communication; processes of acculturation; and the (literary) representation of “the other”.

In many ways, M. Stemmler’s paper on ” Auctoritas Exempli. Zur Wechselwirkung von kanonisierten Vergangenheitsbildern und gesellschaftlicher Gegenwart in der spätrepublikanischen Rhetorik”, is a rewarding read, if one is willing to struggle through some turgid and needlessly pretentious prose and disregards the seemingly endless—and often quite arbitrary—heaps of data piled up in the footnotes (the proportion of text to references: ca. 40-60). His comparison of the Greek paradeigma with its Roman “equivalent” exemplum in ancient rhetorical theory and practice is useful: the persuasiveness of the former, so Stemmler, resides in its “logical” cohesion, whereas the latter acquires persuasive force by its appeal to the normative authority of the past. The piece also contains some good, general observations on exempla as a specific Roman way of processing historical experience, their role in public life, and their change in meaning over time.

Next comes M. Jehne’s “Jovialität und Freiheit. Zur Institutionalität der Beziehungen zwischen Ober- und Unterschichten in der römischen Republik”, easily the best, most pertinent, and rhetorically most pleasing piece in the collection. Jehne starts from the basics: body bags, viz. Rome’s extraordinary ability to finish each of its countless wars successfully, regardless of her casualty rate, which was frequently drastically high among both the common soldiers and the elite. This capacity for concerted and sustained military action was certainly not due to the Romans being a hardy race of farmer-soldiers, their fervent belief in a system of peasant values, or, for that matter, an ancient version of Verfassungspatriotismus. Rather, as Jehne makes clear, it had its roots in a specific political culture, in particular the modes of interaction between the ruling elite and the people, that generated strong feelings of community ( starke Gemeinschaftsgefühle) and a remarkable basic solidarity ( eine beachtliche Basissolidarität) (207).5

In the body of his essay, Jehne explores central aspects of the standardized forms of communication between (members of) the elite and (representatives of) the populus Romanus. Using as his point of departure Livy’s report about the consular tribune M. Postumius Regillensis (Liv. 4.49.7-50.5; 414 BCE, who, as Livy has it, was stoned by his troops because of his unfair distribution of spoils, his arrogance and his cruel disciplinary measures, Jehne develops his concept of “joviality”.6 He defines joviality as a form of interaction between socially unequal parties, in which the more powerful one refrains from bringing its dominance into play (214). The populus, so Jehne, expected “jovial” behavior on the part of the ruling elite, which thus emerges as a crucial complement to the steeply asymmetrical distribution of wealth and power that separated the Roman aristocracy from the populace. Violation of this “norm” could endanger the solidarity and obedience of the people and was symbolically branded as an infringement of the populus‘s libertas, watched over as it was by the tribunes of the people, the “guardians of joviality” (223), and ritually enacted in the assemblies (224-6).

Jehne elaborates this crucial point with reference to the speech that Livy attributes to the tribune M. Sextius, who chastizes the people in the context of the Postumius incident for electing mainly candidates from established families into the higher magistracies, despite the arrogant conduct of patrician office-holders. He argues that the “symbolic politics” of the ruling elite, i.e. their gestures of joviality and their commitment to popular libertas, was an important factor in maintaining this “Zustimmungsgehorsam” of the people, ensuring “dass das Volk normalerweise von formalen Wahlmöglichkeiten keinen Gebrauch machte, sondern den principes folgte” (224).

The above summary hardly does justice to the subtlety and complexity of Jehne’s argument. He is extraordinarily good at exploring the implicit conditions of possibility that shaped and were shaped by Roman Ereignisgeschichte, an approach that has only recently come into its own. Thus he illuminates the kind of expectations that social groups had of each other in practice (and the various ways in which the people expressed displeasure if office-holders did not meet theirs), how the Roman community used integration on the symbolic level to counterbalance “objective” inequalities, or how the senate reacted in times of escalating social conflict to preserve internal peace. In short, he offers a brilliant instance of what K.-J. Hölkeskamp has recently called a desideratum of scholarship on this period—namely, the “analysis of [the Roman Republic’s] ideological foundations, its capacity to construct and maintain a collective identity; the underlying patterns of values, convictions, expectations and rules of behaviour as well as the specific means and media of their symbolic expression, the rituals of establishing and reproducing the legitimacy of the system as such.”7

A. Goltz’s ” Maiestas sine viribus —Die Bedeutung der Lictoren für die Konfliktbewältigungsstrategien römischer Magistrate”, is an excellent continuation and addition to Linke’s paper, down to similarity of approach to the sources. Goltz takes his leave from the Volero Publilius incident in Livy 2, to explore the role of the lictors (and their fasces) for the interaction between magistrates and populace. Drawing on W. Nippel’s classic study of the police in the Roman Republic, he investigates how the curiously small number of lictors could have effectively enforced the maiestas of the senate and its magistrates. Goltz is able to illustrate that Rome’s ruling elite was acutely aware of the fact that the employment of violence in its dealings with the larger populace was counterproductive; rather, the oligarchy showed a great flexibility and willingness to compromise in situations of conflict and crisis. Like Jehne (and much other recent German scholarship on the Roman Republic), he focuses not so much on legal or constitutional “rights” but on the body of cultural knowledge that shaped and defined Roman political practice.

The final piece, by B. Linke (” Religio und Res Publica. Religiöser Glaube und gesellschaftliches Handeln im republikanischen Rom”) offers both a reconsideration of the Bacchanalian affair and a useful survey of recent groundbreaking scholarship on Roman religion (the names of John North and John Scheid figure prominently in the footnotes). Linke outlines the “articles of faith” of Rome’s civic religion, putting special emphasis on the notion that the gods are, by default as it were, benevolently disposed towards SPQR as long as all members of the community act according to a certain set of expectations; this premise, so Linke, generated a “space free of anxieties” and helped the Romans to sustain morale even in the most dire military crises. He puts it neatly: the Romans did not merely fight for military victory but against the deeply disturbing prospect of having radically to revise their view of the divine in case they lost. The cult of Bacchus, Linke argues, triggered similar anxieties, as the existence of an unauthorized social group within the Roman community, which defined itself by religious allegiances, could have been perceived as a potential threat to the cohesion of the entire socio-political system, including the place of the gods within it (in Scheid’s sense of them being “fellow citizens”). In the end, this argument is hardly convincing, in particular since Linke makes little effort to root it in our sources for the Bacchanalian affair. Still, with its synthetic summary of scholarship on state-religion, the article adds an important piece to the overall picture of Mid-Republican Rome that has emerged in the course of the volume.

Two concluding points of a more general nature: first, while the “ideal-typical” procedure that most of the contributors use to reconstruct Rome’s political culture works reasonably well for the third and second centuries, most papers are far less successful in confronting and accounting for the situation of the Late Republic: in Stemmler, one misses a discussion of the effects that civil war had on the canon of exempla and rhetorical appeals to “exemplary figures”; with regard to Jehne’s essay, one would have wished for some comments on how the emergence of a semi-professional army (and the consequent veteran problem) affected the terms of interaction in Rome; and Linke’s contribution sketches a picture of religious conformity, based on a singular occurrence, that has little relevance for the first century BCE.8 What we get, then, is a pretty static account, a snapshot as it were, of “deep structures” that shaped the political culture of the Middle Republic. On this level, the contributions are frequently excellent, but it is, as it were, only half of the equation of “stability and change”.

Secondly, it is noticeable that the majority of papers (Blösel, Jehne, Goltz, Linke) do not so much focus on specific institutions, but rather on the modes of interaction (institutionalized, to be sure) of social groups. There is a telling moment towards the end of Jehne’s essay, where he says, after extensive analysis of group behavior: “Ich will einmal versuchen, den Zusammenhang institutionentheoretisch auszudrücken” (224). This perceived need to flag allegiance to the “theoretical constitution” of CRC 537 betrays a somewhat clumsy handling of theory: it would have been far better to base the entire project explicitly on theoretical models that correspond more closely to the empirical interests of the authors. The accounts of group formation and behavior offered by systems-theory or Bourdieu’s praxeology easily subsume the theory of institutions (at least as outlined in the introduction) and, indeed, would have enabled one to predict, in general terms, to be sure, many of the best insights that the volume affords (such as the, by and large conciliatory, internal crisis-management on the part of the senatorial elite). Both of these theoretical paradigms would also have offered generous conceptual resources for the analysis of societal change.9

These criticisms notwithstanding, it should be stressed that the volume definitely succeeds in consolidating recent groundbreaking work on the political culture of Republican Rome and in opening new vistas for further research. It concludes with twenty pages of more (“Sachen”) or less (“Moderne Autoren”) useful indices.

Despite its title, Moribus antiquis res stat Romana [ sic ]. Römische Werte und römische Literatur im 3. und 2. Jh. v. Chr. is, in many ways, more suggestive of satura than epic: it is a motley volume, containing two pieces of a general nature (one on “original” Roman values, one on early Roman literature); eight “philological” contributions on specific genres, works, and authors; three on matters archaeological; and two essays on the concept and the history of mos maiorum, written, respectively, from an anthropological and legal point of view. The brief four-page preface and the absence of a conclusion reinforce a pervasive sense of the arbitrary. While the editors specify an interest in the “social function” of (literary) texts (or artifacts) as the unifying and distinctive feature of the collection, individual authors differ notably in how they put the advertised switch from “semantics” to “pragmatics” (cf. p. 8) into practice—when they do so at all. (Still, the editors are right to insist on this “Perspektivenwechsel”: in the context of CRC 537, it is the only cognitive interest with respect to literary texts that is of relevance.) As one would expect in a situation of ” quot auctores, tot doctrinae“, the quality of the contributions varies: some pieces are truly outstanding, others less so.

In the opening paper, programmatically entitled “Wertbegriff und Wertbegriffe”, A. Haltenhoff explores both the “nature” ( Wesen) of value and specific Roman values (16; cf. also 27 where the two agendas seem to blur in the aim to capture “das Wesen römischer Werte…in möglichster Ursprünglichkeit”). The paper has its moments, in particular when Haltenhoff suspends his quest for the “Wesen”, and turns his attention to the embeddedness of values “in eine konkrete Handlungssituation”: then he usefully conceives of them as the expectations a community has of individuals (or of a social group) to act in a given situation in a certain way.10

Overall, however, the argument meanders more or less inconclusively from one definition to the next: Haltenhoff samples discrete insights from economics, modern philosophy, and sociology; tries out and dismisses Stoic notions, flirts with Platonism only to reject it; and returns time and again to that long-standing, peculiarly German, discourse in Latin studies, which is centered on an idealized and idealizing conception of Römertum and Wertephilosophie. This discourse is of definite historical interest (what, for instance, did German classical scholars such as Pöschl, Oppermann and Drexler have to say about Roman values during the Third Reich? Rather a lot…); but it is of no heuristic relevance to contemporary research. Social theory has rendered this body of work, with its idle reifications and moralizing pathos, by and large redundant.

The second introductory paper (on “literature”) represents a quantum leap in sophistication, coherence, and complexity: J. Rüpke’s “Räume literarischer Kommunikation in der Formierungsphase römischer Literatur” is one of the highlights of the collection. Well known for his pioneering role in bringing up-to-date cultural and social theory to bear on classical studies, Rüpke here maps out the distinct “spaces of literary communication” that existed in Rome in the third and second centuries BCE. These he embeds within broader cultural processes (such as acculturation, increased professionalisation, and the emergence of a “literary”—in contrast to “oral”—culture).

On both the micro- and the macro-level, Rüpke works with cutting-edge theory. His notion of “spaces of literary communication” is predicated on the constructivist insight, which has yet to be fully assimilated by classical scholars, that the “meaning” of a text results from the processes of ascription that social agents perform within specific historical settings. Likewise, his conception of societal evolution marks an explicit break with the latent teleological or monocausal schemes that are the common staple of literary histories. His heuristic axioms are worth citing in full: “Der Blick darf dabei nicht teleologisch orientiert sein: Vorbereitende und parallel zur Rezeption griechischer Gattungen laufende Prozesse, die möglicherweise funktionale Äquivalente bereitstellen, müssen ebenso einbezogen werden wie entgegengesetzte Prozesse, Ablehnungen und Verzögerungen” (p. 32).

As is inevitable in a piece that combines brevity with ambition, empirical detail with theoretical scope, many of Rüpke’s arguments invite disagreement and further discussion. I limit myself to two points. First, apart from identifying the concrete social spaces within which literary communication took place, Rüpke also bundles them together in what he calls a “literarisches System”. This is misleading: the various literary practices in Mid-Republican Rome do not form a “system” in any meaningful (i.e. theoretically grounded) sense of the term. Whatever criterion one might wish to apply for identifying a system—the presence of a specific code, a visible demarcation from its environment, some type of autopoietic closure—, it does not apply to the units of communication (or the social practices) associated with literary texts in the Roman Republic. Rüpke himself makes this clear when he underscores the outright political dimension of many literary activities. I suspect that he here projects the situation of modern society (where it is possible to speak of a functionally differentiated “literary system”) onto Republican Rome, an application of systems-analysis that systems theorists themselves would not endorse.11

And secondly, Rüpke, without good reasons, joins in the recent revival of the carmina convivalia, supposedly sung by ancient Roman nobles at their banquets. Even if we grant the existence of an aristocratic song-culture in the regal period, it must have come to an end well before the third century. The meager literary evidence goes back to Cato’s Origines, in which Cato seems to have postulated such activities for the distant past. Cf. Cic. Brut. 75: “atque utinam exstarent illa carmina, quae multis saeculis ante suam aetatem in epulis esse cantitata a singulis convivis de clarorum virorum laudibus in Originibus scriptum reliquit.” At Tusc. 4. 3, Cicero adds the tidbit that Cato thought such singing to have taken place ad tibiam : most likely, Cato made all this up, using the Greek symposium as a model to assert an indigenous Roman custom in an attempt to discredit new trends in Roman society he disliked (such as the patronizing of poets).12

Next comes “Kommunikative Leistungen von Weih-, Ehren- und Grabinschriften: Wertbegriffe und Wertvorstellungen in Inschriften vorsullanischer Zeit” by P. Witzmann, who discusses how social groups and individuals at Rome (from nobles to freedmen) used inscriptions to communicate with (as well as against) each other. The argument is cautious but well balanced and makes good use of the excellent archaeological, historical, and epigraphical work done in the area by such scholars as Eck and Coarelli. Witzmann focuses in some length on the hotly contested triumph of Fulvius Nobilior de Ambracia and traces how senate and general employed a variety of means and media in their symbolic struggle over the recognition of military achievement. His essay illustrates that nobles sponsoring inscriptions were very much aware of differences in audience (Rome, Italian towns, colonies) and that they used not only their content, but also their style to make political statements. The paper ends with some remarks on the epigraphic habits of those who belonged to the lower end of the social spectrum, esp. freedmen who, while expressing their commitment to the values of the ruling elite, none the less did so on their own terms, with their own distinct emphases.

F.-H. Mutschler’s lengthy “Norm und Erinnerung: Anmerkungen zur sozialen Funktion von historischem Epos und Geschichtsschreibung im 2. Jh. v. Chr.” is for large stretches a selective paraphrase of more or less recent scholarship on early Roman epic and historiography. As such, it can make little claim on the attention of scholars.13 His section on Cato’s Origines is particularly bland. Mutschler here assures his readers that “we may confidently assume” this text to endorse Roman values, and that Cato was most likely the first Roman historian who thematized a Roman decline in morality. These are not exactly earth-shattering insights; moreover, he seems to take Cato’s laments about the deplorable state of “Roman morality” entirely at face-value. The contrast with Blösel’s fresh and subtly reasoned discussion of the same author in the mos maiorum volume (which he cites in footnote 1 only to pass over in silence from thereon) baffles. In places, Mutschler is aware of the fact that hypotheses about the efficacy of literary texts are difficult since this efficacy plays itself out “im Rahmen eines höchst komplizierten Geflechtes sehr unterschiedlicher Handlungsmotivationen” (104). But he makes no sustained effort to reconstruct this complex web. Instead, he contents himself with some vague remarks about the feeling of “pride” and the sense of “obligation” that the perusal of archaic epics and historiographical narratives must have engendered in the Roman readership.

G. Thome (” o tempora, o mores! Wertvorstellungen bei den Rednern der republikanischen Zeit”) lists passages which show that for the Roman orator of the Middle and Late Republic—regardless of our view of historical reality—the evils of the present (in particular avaritia, luxuria, and crudelitas) stand in contrast to the world of the maiores. In the conclusion, she adds a brief summary of the results of her excellent Habilitationsschrift Vorstellungen vom Bösen in der lateinischen Literatur. Begriffe, Motive, Gestalten (Stuttgart 1993). The piece has all the feel of a listlessly executed “Auftragsarbeit”, as Thome herself calls it (cf. footnote 1).

M. Peglau’s ” virtutes und vitia in der älteren republikanischen Tragödie” likewise fails to come up with any noteworthy insights. Strikingly, the conclusion of his first section, on the fabulae praetextae, i.e. that these plays glorified Roman military conquest, served H. Flower as the obvious point of departure in her groundbreaking article on the genre.14 And far from considering the message of these plays as “relatively straightforward” (as does Peglau), Flower goes on to show that this genre was most likely highly controversial, as it was deeply implicated in the struggles for power, prestige, and recognition among Rome’s leading men. Pursuit of this insight would have been of great interest for the express concerns of this volume and of CRC 537 in general. (Witzmann’s discussion of the squabbles surrounding Fulvius Nobilior’s trimph over Ambrakia could have set the stage for an analysis of the fragments surviving from Ennius’ eponymous praetexta.)

The section on “mythological tragedies” is equally disappointing. Peglau feels justified to extrapolate the “message” of tragedies performed in the second century BCE from the spin that authors of philosophical treatises and politicians of the Late Republic put on select fragments of these plays. (Cicero, to cite one of his arguments, knew Accius, Accius in turn met Pacuvius in 140 BCE, and Pacuvius was the nephew of Ennius, “womit bereits die Verbindung zu den frühen Dramen hergestellt ist” (147).) He combines this highly questionable procedure with some rather simplistic preconceptions about the efficacy of tragic performances. Thus he suggests that Pacuvius altered Sophocles’ Odysseus into a steadfast Roman vir in his Niptra because he did not wish to undermine the military virtues of the Roman people (155). Specious generalizations abound. E pluribus unum : Peglau stamps Ulixes as representative of “Greek” eloquentia in Accius’ Armorum Iudicium, a quality, which “was, at the time, not yet valued in Rome” (160). This is manifestly not the case.15

Three contributions on Roman comedy follow. First comes M. Braun’s and F.-H. Mutschler’s co-authored piece ” Plautus ludens : Zum Spiel mit “römischen Werten” im Pseudolus“. The play, so they argue, generates humor by suspending social norms and creating incongruities (the iuvenis Calidorus is willing to violate pietas towards his parents amoris causa; Ballio, the pimp, comports himself in the manner of a Roman magistrate); but no, showing such reprehensible truancy on stage most likely did not outrage the audience or endanger Roman “public morality”. Rather, the probable reaction to plot and characters was laughter and the momentary relief from the cares and anxieties of everyday life. The argument will sound familiar: it is a standard piece of Bakhtinian arithmetic, a fact not lost on the authors (cf. page 171 with fn. 5).

Braun (in ” moribus vivito antiquis! Bemerkungen zur Moral in Plautus’ Trinummus“) then takes on a recent interpretation of this play by E. Lefèvre and his students, i.e. that in the Trinummus Plautus “dared” to put on stage a caricature of Cato the Elder, which made his audience “hold its breath.” Braun has little difficulty in identifying some of the weak links in the rather fanciful series of associations on which Lefèvre builds his thesis of “Cato Uncovered”; in the end, he opts for a paraphrase of W. Ludwig as a more plausible interpretation of the play. Finally, Braun follows this up with a short piece on ” mos maiorum und humanitas bei Terenz”. He casts the playwright as a subtly ironic critic of traditional Roman severity in education and such attending notions as the auctoritas of the pater familias.16

There is nothing necessarily wrong with the overall picture of Roman new comedy that emerges in these pieces—apart from the fact that it is well known, the standard stuff of undergraduate lectures. In effect, Braun and Mutschler rehearse the orthodoxies of decades one more time. Already in 1972, Konrad Gaiser had enshrined essentially the same interpretation of Plautus and Terence, including incisive comments on the “social function” of their plays, in one of the first ANRW -volumes.17 Asking whether, in a basic sense, comic performances would have affirmed, subverted, or critiqued the “moral” bearings of “the” Roman audience has long ceased to produce compelling results. Categories such as “Roman morality”, even “the Roman audience” are reified constructs that possess little heuristic value: they are too unreflected, too ordinary, too “aggregated”.18

A sentence in Rüpke’s contribution adumbrates what future work on the perlocution of dramatic performances in Republican Rome might look like: “Die politisch relevante Kommunikation [in the Roman theater],” he says, referring to a recent article by E. Flaig, “verläuft nicht vom dramatischen Text zum Publikum, sondern zwischen den als solchen gemeinsam plazierten gesellschaftlichen Gruppen beziehungsweise deren einzelnen Angehörigen” (p. 41)—and this is the case regardless of whether or not one wishes to project the outright “politicizing” of dramatic scripts that we find in Late Republican sources back into the previous century. While a bit too radical in its discounting of the events on stage, this insight can serve as point of departure for a fresh look at the social function of the Roman theater. Such a look would involve the breaking down of “the audience” into specific social groups and individuals; the reconstruction of their understanding of the performance context, including their disposition towards other spectators, public entertainment, and the playwright (Braun and Mutschler have nothing to say about Terence’s prologues); detailed attention to the vast and complex body of cultural knowledge on which specific spectators drew in making sense of the plot and the characters (attitudes towards slaves, types of authority, actors, Greeks, specific social constellations etc.); and the use of up-to-date models of audience-response and -identification to bring these interactive factors into meaningful correlation with the action presented on stage.19

In “Die sermones des Lucilius”, Udo Scholz surveys the oeuvre of his chosen author, covering such issues as Lucilius’ social background, his use of metres, and the outlook and interests of his poetry (socio-political commentary, language usage and orthography, traditional Roman values). He concludes by saying that at the core of Lucilius’ message is the mos maiorum, conceived not as an ossified formula, but a flexible matrix of habits and values, which is of contemporary relevance and rooted in “the peasantry of Italy” (234). Scholz writes with verve and assurance; but, like other contributors, he does not adequately address the “pragmatic” dimension of his chosen author. The obligatory nod towards the “social function” of literary texts is there: the purpose of the paper, we read, is to explore “welche Mitteilungsfunktion [Lucilius’] Satirenform im Kommunikationsgefüge seiner Zeit hatte” (221). Scholz, however, never specifies what, precisely, this “Kommunikationsgefüge” consisted of. As a result, what he has to say about the “Mitteilungsfunktion” of Lucilius’ poetry is hazy and noncommittal.

He speaks of his “staatsbürgerliches Engagement” and his “politische Engagement” for Scipio and his friends (which is different). But what does “political” mean? Evidently, Lucilius’ poetry had, for all intents and purposes, no impact whatsoever on the processes of deliberation and decision-making in Rome’s public sphere. This is not to say that it was not in some sense “political”—only that Scholz’ notion of “political” is theoretically (and empirically) underdefined. Among the factors that one would need to take into consideration here are the precise location of a discourse in verse, written by a knight (financially independent, well educated, but not pursuing the cursus honorum), within Rome’s socio-political system; the changes in education from the mid third-century onwards through which interest in poetry became a vital part of Roman aristocratic culture; and the aristocratic networks of friendship (as well as their cultivation in the milieu of the villa).20 Clarification of this wider historical setting is indispensable for appraising the “political” significance of Lucilius’ poetry. Yet, like Mutschler and Braun, Scholz does not seem to perceive the need of reconstructing the conditions of possibility within which the meaning of Lucilius’ poetry unfolded.

M. Spannagel starts off the section on “Values and Visual Communication” with remarks “Zur Vergegenwärtigung abstrakter Wertbegriffe in Kult und Kunst der römischen Republik”. The aim of his “seemingly disparate survey” (the author’s own perceptive self-assessment; 266), which covers the presence of, above all, Honos, Virtus, and Pietas in Roman cults, temples, coins and the Zoilos-frieze from Karia (with very lucid illustrations in the back: see tables I-III) is to “give impulses for further work on the topic”. Apart from the occasional reference to “political proganda”, it is unclear what the paper contributes to the theme of the volume: Spannagel, like other authors, seems unwilling to go along with the advertised “Perspektivenwechsel von der Semantik zur Pragmatik” (8).

M. Sehlmeyer, “Die kommunikative Leistung römischer Ehrenstatuen” complements well the results of the mos maiorum collection, by emphasizing the significance which members of the ruling elite attributed to honorary statues as one medium of aristocratic competition. His arguments will be familiar from his Göttingen dissertation ( Stadtrömische Ehrenstatuen der Republikanischen Zeit. Historizität und Kontext von Symbolen nobilitären Standesbewusstseins (Stuttgart, 1999), reviewed in BMCR 2000.01.21), of which the present article is by and large a summary, with occasional elements of aggiornamento.

In the final archaeological paper, entitled “Das Gesicht der Aufsteiger: Römische Freigelassene und die Ideologie der Elite”, B. Borg discusses funerary reliefs of freedmen, of which we have evidence from ca. 80 BCE onwards (286, with illustration tables IV-XI). The essay makes many valuable points (and includes some very interesting Forschungskritik), but one wonders what it is doing in a volume on “Roman literature and values in the third and second centuries BCE”.

M. Bettini’s paper, the first of section III (“Zu Begriff und Geschichte des mos maiorum“), comes as a bit of a shock: it offers just the kind of theoretical reflection on basic concepts that is so sorely missing from most of the “philological” contributions. Gone are the reifications, in particular “Roman morality”: Bettini locates the origins of mores (Roman or otherwise) in contingent situations that trigger a certain disposition towards the world (a iudicium animi); if (and only if) other members of a community share this disposition, a “normative” expectation ensues: in time consensus yields consuetudo, i. e. mores, but, as Bettini stresses throughout, these mores are not only group-specific, but also in constant flux, under permanent negotiation. Here we have a concept of mores that is eminently compatible with the current state of debate in social theory.21 Bettini embeds his anthropologically oriented discussion of Roman mores in some quirky, but delightful reflections on ethnocentrism and intolerance (“an insidious evil that may also afflict people who are, in principle, open-minded”), which ranges from the consumption of coffee to Montaigne, from Herodotus to Cornelius Nepos, and ends with a stirring exhortation towards tolerance of foreign customs.

In the final paper of the collection (” ius und mos : Zum Verhältnis rechtlicher und sozialer Normen”), D. Schanbacher analyses the relationship between ius and mos, pointing out both convergences and conflicts between these two terms, mainly in treatises of Cicero and later Roman jurists. The paper deals almost exclusively with discursive phenomena; Schanbacher makes little effort to place his chosen case studies within the historical evolution of the Roman Republic (or Roman law, for that matter).

For several reasons, then, the volume as a whole does not convince:

First of all, as we have seen, quite a few contributors fail to follow through with the switch from semantics to pragmatics that the editors promise. In a sense, though, this is hardly surprising. Studying the “social function” of literary texts presents theoretical and methodological challenges that are quite distinct from those raised by traditional “philological” interests, such as textual criticism, the explication of semantics, or even literary history. A sudden retooling of this sort is not easily accomplished, and by way of critical help the editors offer rather little, apart from a binary model that has texts and artifacts either affirm or subvert norms and values (8).

This functionalism, which is peddled in the preface as a state-of-the-art Perspektivenwechsel, is itself a trifle ham-fisted.22 Contrast the opening salvo of T. Habinek in his The Politics of Latin Literature. Writing, Identity, and Empire in Ancient Rome (Princeton, 1998). Habinek also advocates a shift in emphasis from semantics to pragmatics, but realizes some of the complexities involved in carrying it out: “Instead of viewing texts as chiefly illustrative of or reactive to social, political, and economic practices, it [sc. the present study] regards literature as a medium through which competing sectors of Roman society sought to advance their interests over and against other sources of social and political authority” (3). Furthermore, (as, for instance, Blösel’s and Witzmann’s essays show) individuals or groups within the same social sector also used literary texts to engage in symbolic struggles with each other. Such struggles to some extent took place against a background of shared cultural values. This consideration alone should suffice to illustrate the inadequacies that inhere in the “either-or” alternative of affirmation/subversion that the editors offer as their one and only heuristic formula. In other words, the way in which they “frame” their research agenda seems to cripple from the outset a potentially very promising enterprise.

Finally, many authors deploy an outdated critical idiom that severely compromises the transdisciplinary value (in systems-theoretical lingo: “Anschlussfähigkeit”) of their work. Phrases such as “die geradezu klassisch gewordenen Römertugenden” (23), “neues Selbstgefühl im Inneren” (102), “römischer Sittenverfall” (108), “traditionelle römische Moral” (180), “die Aufrechterhaltung der Moral” (199), “römische Wesensart” (234), or “Orientierung an abstrakten Werten” (237) are emblematic of a rather quaint and outdated view of social agency and societal systems. Linke and Stemmler, the editors of the mos maiorum, rightly call the schemes of explanation proffered by this particular discourse “unbefriedigend” (6).

I conclude with an observation. Both editorial teams highlight and praise the profitable dialogue among ancient historians and philologists in the context of CRC 537; yet little of it manifests itself in the collections under review. Indeed, despite coming out of the same research project, pursuing similar interests with respect to the same period in Roman history, and frequently analyzing the same sources, the two volumes are a critical world apart.


1. For the DFG, see; for CRC 537,; for the concept of transdisciplinarity (in contrast to interdisciplinarity), R. Stichweh, “Differenzierung der Wissenschaft”, Zeitschrift für Soziologie 8 (1979) 82-101, here 93-4.

2. Tellingly, M. Jehne later calls the general observation that the Roman Republic did not experience any revolutionary upheavals “very superficial” (207) and underscores the need to analyse the undeniable internal stability in relation to the more or less severe social conflicts that occurred throughout this period. And there was plenty of internal change: short and to the point U. Walter, in his review of C. Bruun (ed.), The Roman Middle Republic. Politics, Religion, and Historiography c. 400-133 B.C. in HZ 271 (2000) 715: “Die ‘Mittlere Republic’ war vielmehr eine Epoche aufregender Veränderungen auch im inneren Gefüge.” For a sophisticated discussion of ongoing transformation in Roman society during the Late Republic at all levels, see A. Wallace-Hadrill, ” Mutatio morum : the idea of a cultural revolution”, in T. Habinek and A. Schiesaro (eds.), The Roman Cultural Revolution (Cambridge, 1997) 3-22 (not listed in the bibliography).

3. See, in particular, M. Jehne (ed.), Demokratie in Rom? Die Rolle des Volkes in der Politik der römischen Republik (Stuttgart, 1995) (with contributions by M. Jehne, K.-J. Hölkeskamp, and E. Flaig). F. Millar has chosen not to engage this volume in any sustained way in his recent book on The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic (Ann Arbor, 1998), an omission now partly made up for by Hölkeskamp’s review of Millar: “The Roman Republic: Government of the People, by the People, for the People?” in Scripta Classica Israelica. Yearbook of the Israel Society for the Promotion of Classical Studies 19 (2000) 203-233.

4. See, in particular, E. Flaig, “Die Pompa Funebris. Adlige Konkurrenz und annalistische Erinnerung in der Römischen Republik”, in O. G. Oexle (ed.), Memoria als Kultur (Göttingen, 1995) 115-148; H. I. Flower, Ancestor Masks and Aristocratic Power in Roman Culture (Oxford, 1996); K.-J. Hölkeskamp, ” Exempla und mos maiorum. Überlegungen zum kollektiven Gedächtnis der Nobilität”, in H.-J. Gehrke/ A. Möller (eds.), Vergangenheit und Lebenswelt. Soziale Kommunikation, Traditionsbildung und historisches Bewusstsein (Tübingen, 1996) 301-338; id., “Römische gentes und griechische Genealogien”, in G. Vogt-Spira/ B. Rommel (eds.), Rezeption und Identität. Die kulturelle Auseinandersetzung Roms mit Griechenland als europäisches Paradigma (Stuttgart, 1999) 3-21.

5. Jehne here builds on the trailblazing article by E. Flaig “Politisierte Lebensführung und ästhetische Kultur. Eine semiotische Untersuchung am römischen Adel”, in Historische Anthropologie (1993) 1, 193-217.

6. A word on his use of Livy as a “historical source” is in order: Jehne is well aware of anachronisms in Livy’s narrative, and identifies and explains them (212-3). Nonetheless, he argues, his text can be mined for useful information about the period of the Middle Republic—not so much, however, for the reconstruction of actual “historical events”, but as illustration of Rome’s political culture, with its “institutionalized” forms of interaction, which must have possessed a certain stability in time. As A. Goltz puts it in the following essay, Livy’s historical vignettes may be employed, with the appropriate caution and in conjunction with other sources, to help reconstruct the “grundlegende Vorstellungen von römischer Ordnung und römischem Sozialverhalten, die eine allgemeine Aussagekraft für die Zeit der späten und mittleren Republik beanspruchen dürfen” (239). This is a claim rife with broad ramifications that will surely engender further discussion (as well as disagreement).

7. “The Roman Republic: Government of the People, by the People, for the People?” in Scripta Classica Israelica. Yearbook of the Israel Society for the Promotion of Classical Studies 19, 2000, 203-233, here 206.

8. See now A. Bendlin, “Looking beyond the civic compromise: religious pluralism in late republican Rome”, in E. Bispham and C. Smith (eds.), Religion in Archaic and Republican Rome and Italy. Evidence and Experience (Edinburgh, 2000) 115-135.

9. Cf. e.g. H. Willke, “Zum Problem der Integration komplexer Sozialsysteme: ein theoretisches Konzept”, Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie 30 (1978) 228-252 (cf. esp. 246: “Integration ist eine Reaktion auf bestimmte Umweltbedingungen… Integration erhöht die Fähigkeit eines Systems, sich in einer komplexen und risikoreichen Umwelt seine Identität und Handlungsfähigkeit zu erhalten”; id. “Funktionen und Konstitutionsbedingungen des normativen Systems der Gruppe”, KZSS 28 (1976) 426-450 (which offers a much clearer and more complex model of social norm and deviant behavior than Linke and Stemmler do, in their attempt to rescue “individual creativity”, 11-12). For the relevance of Bourdieu to the study of Republican Rome, see most recently E. Flaig, “War die römische Volksversammlung ein Entscheidungsorgan? Institution und soziale Praxis”, in R. Blänkner and B. Jussen (eds.), Institution und Ereignis. Über historische Praktiken und Vorstellungen gesellschaftlichen Ordnens (Göttingen, 1998) 49-73, esp. section IV: “Institutionenlehre und Praxeologie” (which is cited, but not fully assimilated by the editors).

10. Cf. 25-6. Notice also his incisive remarks on the function of Roman exempla : “Der Vorbildcharakter der exempla als konkreter Instanziierungen je bestimmter virtutes liess diese nicht zuletzt zu Deutungsmustern für aktuelle Handlungssituationen werden, die durch Ausschaltung von Alternativen zur Stetigkeit traditionell verbindlicher Verhaltensformen beitrugen” (24 n. 30).

11. For systems-theoretical reflections on the modern “Literatursystem”, see e.g. H. U. Gumbrecht, “Pathologien im Literatursystem”, in D. Baecker et al. (eds.), Theorie als Passion. Niklas Luhmann zum 60. Geburtstag (Frankfurt a. M., 1987) and S. J. Schmidt, Die Selbstorganisation des Sozialsystems Literatur im 18. Jahrhundert (Frankfurt a. M., 1989).

12. Cf. N. Zorzetti, “The Carmina Convivalia“, in O. Murray (ed.), Sympotica. A Symposium on the Symposion (Oxford, 1990) 291-307, who correctly identifies Ennius as the target of Cato’s implicit polemics (294).

13. A case in point is his treatment of the likely audience of Annales Graeci —Mutschler merely repeats the engrained, though highly dubious orthodoxy that these were addressed to a Greek readership, dismissing, without cause, Rüpke’s counterargument in a footnote, and not even mentioning the long-standing claims of Frier and Gruen, who have each adduced good reasons for regarding other members of the Roman nobility as an audience of at least equal importance to an ill-defined “Greek elite”.

14. ” Fabulae Praetextae in context: when were plays on contemporary subjects performed in Republican Rome?” CQ 45 (1995) 170-90, here 171: “It is clear that these plays had a strong element of panegyric in their glorification of a central figure, whose exploits were at the same time closely linked to a glorification of the Roman cause in general.”

15. To have been optimus orator is one of the ten highest attainments of a Roman noble that Q. Caecilius Metellus adduced in the funeral oration for his father in 221 BCE: cf. Plin. N.H. 7.139-40. For the importance of speeches and speaking in Roman Republican politics, see now K.-J. Hölkeskamp, ” Oratoris maxima scaena. Reden vor dem Volk in der politischen Kultur der Republik”, in M. Jehne (ed.) Demokratie in Rom? Die Rolle des Volkes in der Politik der römischen Republik (Stuttgart, 1995) 11-49, a volume that Peglau cites in fn 38.

16. 214; one wonders whether Braun means potestas. In general, he does not distinguish sharply enough between discursive constructs and actual social practice: the large body of recent scholarship on the Roman family that has significantly modified the stereotypes on which Braun bases his argument seems lost on him. See in particular R. P. Saller, ” Patria Potestas and the Stereotype of the Roman Family”, Continuity and Change 1 (1986) 7-22, as well as his Patriarchy, property, and death in the Roman family (Cambridge, 1994) with much further bibliography.

17. See his “Zusammenfassung: Von Plautus zu Terenz” of “Zur Eigenart der römischen Komödie: Plautus und Terenz gegenüber ihren griechischen Vorbildern”, ANRW I.2, 1027-1113, here 1104-1109.

18. On reification as the antithesis of scholarship, see the definitive statement by E. Flaig, Den Kaiser herausfordern. Die Usurpation im Römischen Reich (Frankfurt/ New York, 1992) 33.

19. For an interesting attempt to combine literary and sociological perspectives in the analysis of Roman comedy, see now K. McCarthy, Slaves, Masters, and the Art of Authority in Plautine Comedy (Princeton, 2000).

20. Cf. R. Rilinger, ” Domus und res publica. Die politisch-soziale Bedeutung des aristokratischen ‘Hauses’ in der späten römischen Republik”, in A. Winterling (ed.), Zwischen “Haus” und “Staat”. Antike Höfe im Vergleich, Historische Zeitschrift, Beiheft 23 (1997). Scholz does not refer to the body of recent work in English that directly addresses the status of poets in Roman Republican society. See, in particular, P. White’s Promised Verse (Cambridge/ Mass., 1993), and, even more pertinent, E. Badian’s review article of B. R. Gold (ed.), Literary and Artistic Patronage in Ancient Rome in CP 80 (1985) 341-57.

21. Cf. N. Luhmann’s definition of norms as “kontrafaktisch stabilisierte Erwartungen”, i.e. expectations that are retained despite their frustration by reality, in “Normen in soziologischer Perspektive”, Soziale Welt 20 (1969) 28-48, here 37.

22. It bears mentioning that “functionalist” approaches to literature enjoyed their heydays in the modern philologies in the mid 1970s, when they produced a substantial body of case studies and theoretical reflection, of which the editors seem unaware. Cf. e.g. D. Schlenstedt et al. (eds.), Funktion der Literatur (Berlin, 1975); W. Vosskamp, “Gattungen als literarisch-soziale Institutionen. Zu Problemen sozial- und funktionsgeschichtlich orientierter Gattungstheorie und -historie” in W. Hinck (ed.), Textsortenlehre-Gattungsgeschichte (Heidelberg, 1977) 27-44; U. Broich et al. (eds.), Functions of Literature (Tübingen, 1984).