BMCR 2003.12.20

Ritualisierte Politik. Zeichen, Gesten und Herrschaft im Alten Rom. Historische Semantik Band 1

, Ritualisierte Politik : Zeichen, Gesten und Herrschaft im Alten Rom. Historische Semantik ; Bd. 1. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2003. 288 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3525367007 EUR 36.90.

Flaig’s (F.) new book represents a reworked version of most of the articles he has published over the last ten years. Although not a long book, it contains the distillation of a rich variety of ideas about the nature of Roman political culture during the Republic. F. examines Roman political institutions and behaviour in terms of semiotics and seeks, through an analysis of the semantics of ritual, the key to understanding how and why republican politics worked. F. offers his own ritual “grammar” of Roman politics. He describes his work as an attempt to apply Clifford Geertz’ maxim “Society’s forms are culture’s substance” to historiography.1 Consequently, F. offers an analysis that draws on anthropology and sociology, particularly on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, to whom his book is dedicated. In continuation of his 1992 work Den Kaiser herausfordern. Die Usurpation im römischen Reich, F. examines Roman politics in terms of a semiotics of “relationships of obedience” (Gehorsamsbeziehungen). Although there is much to disagree with in F.’s book, or at least with the way in which he has formulated his views, his work is exceedingly stimulating and thought-provoking. His is a timely contribution to the evolving international debate on the nature of Roman republican political culture.

F.’s book contains a brief methodological preface, 11 chapters, and a select bibliography. Footnotes are deliberately kept to a bare minimum and are printed as endnotes without running heads for cross-referencing with page numbers. While many readers will sympathize with F.’s decision to set himself apart from the traditional German culture of the footnote (p. 11), he has here gone to the other extreme. There is no index. There is also no summary or conclusion at the end: rather matters are deliberately left open-ended, as the last paragraph on p. 260 adumbrates: “When the owl of Minerva flies at night over a section of the rubble field of the past, no clear picture of history takes shape in her eye. What she sees reminds her least of all of the engaging sequence of vivid scenes in a colour film; rather it entices with the logical beauty of constructions in fractal geometry”.2

Chapter 1 introduces the concepts of plebeian “willingness to be led” (“Gehorsam”) and of aristocratic performance, which enabled the political elite to do the leading. According to F., the use of symbols and rituals in Roman culture is essential in explaining the influence of the political elite on the masses. This chapter analyzes the contacts between Roman patrons and clients and stresses their frequent interactions at home, in the city, and on campaign. Candidates for political office needed to be seen to be accessible and amenable (in what Martin Jehne has described as “Jovialität”).3 Close control of conspicuous consumption maintained a sense of societal cohesion and enabled competition to be focused within a well-defined political arena. F. elucidates how prestige was created and competition controlled by three vital factors: rank according to elected office, seniority, and family status.

Chapter 2 offers a reading of the Roman triumph as a vast collection of visual signs that played a vital role in Rome’s semantic system. The triumphal procession celebrated the “symbolic capital” of the general as he handed his booty over to the state in return for due recognition of his status. The triumph essentially (re)created the general as a “great man” in a canonical series of Rome’s “great men”. F. also argues that the triumph itself, as it developed in the late Republic, helped to create the overpowerful “great men” who would destroy that same Republic. This chapter also touches upon the extent of the general’s control over booty and the famous trial(s) of the Scipios in the 180s BC.

Chapter 3 analyzes the Roman funeral procession in terms of the display of the “symbolic capital” of the political families. F. stresses the central importance of the imagines (wax ancestor masks) worn by the actors in the funeral processions of magistrates. Ancestors who had held at least the office of aedile were represented. He sees them as influencing elections, as well as the more general political and social power of the families. However, his reading of the ritual, as he stresses, also leads to a marked effect of homogenizing the achievements and personality of the individual as he takes his place in a row of very similar “ancestors”. This chapter contains a very useful discussion of funeral processions in relation to marriage alliances and to adoption strategies. All the evidence adduced leads to the conclusion that some old families, such as the patrician Claudii and Cornelii, could and did appear vastly superior.

Chapter 4 about political culture and practices of commemoration also focuses on the funeral procession, this time in relation to the eulogy ( laudatio) delivered from the rostra in the Forum. The pattern of the procession, itself organized chronologically, was repeated identically in the speech. F. reads the Roman funeral as the essential locus for history in republican Rome. The funeral ritual demonstrates that memory, even in a family context, was not private. F. sees no stress on the age of the family or on any original ancestor, but rather on the aggregate of officeholders, with special emphasis on counting the consuls and censors. The funeral rituals demonstrated the basic consensus about norms and values in Roman society, as embodied most typically in the form of exempla. Such exemplarity was especially important in a society in which many adolescents had no living father to guide them. Meanwhile, the aristocratic family memory of the funeral was closely connected to senatorial historiography, but also to the collective memory of the plebs in Rome. In F.’s reading, Augustus emerges as strikingly innovative in his shaping of the funerals of the new imperial family.

Chapter 5 presents an analysis of public gestures as an especially Roman semantic system that was put to use in public meetings. Gestures such as grasping an opponent’s hand, weeping in public, or throwing off items of clothing were designed for two main purposes: to assess opinions (of the public and the opponent) and to make yielding easier for a political rival. According to this reading, moments of political division did not represent a zero-sum game. Rather, much good will could be gained by yielding to an impassioned and theatrical appeal made in public by an opponent. This chapter also touches on the various uses of mourning dress. Chapter 6 offers a closely related investigation of the way scars were displayed by Roman politicians in public at highly dramatic moments of political conflict and in ways that “persuaded” the Roman people to vote in a certain way, whether for a proposal or for a candidate.

Chapter 7 offers a brief discussion of revenge in Roman political culture. Most of the examples come from situations outside the normal operation of politics, such as in the careers of Sulla, Antony, Octavian and Germanicus. During the Republic, revenge was usually pursued in the courts rather than through the violence of vendetta.

Chapters 8, 9 and 10 all address the nature of Roman republican politics as a system based on “consensus”, here interpreted in terms of powerful aristocratic persuasion directed at the people through rituals and symbols. F. begins by examining the voting assemblies and their behaviour in passing legislation. He characterizes them not as places where decisions were made, but rather as spaces where consensus rituals were enacted.4 In other words, he sees the real political decisions as being made elsewhere and then affirmed by the community through the ritual of voting. His model posits a body of voters who do not have strong political opinions of their own and who are accustomed to take their cues from their political leaders. Their presence to vote affirms their citizenship rather than expressing their political voice. According to F., the tribunes of the plebs used the public meetings ( contiones) before the voting to gauge public opinion and to persuade the voters. As a result it was exceedingly rare and exceptional for legislation to be voted down. An examination of the voting itself reveals its many aspects as a consensus ritual, aspects that were not much affected by the eventual introduction of the secret ballot. In Chapter 9, F. offers his own “ritual grammar” of Roman politics, which further explores the political culture of the Roman voters and their failure to implement political initiatives without elite leadership. Essentially, senatorial consensus itself produced, through traditional rituals and performances, a wider consensus in a society in which ordinary people did not really expect to vote “no”. The contio was the forum for the creation of much of that societal consensus. When opposition did arise, a bill could then be withdrawn in such a way that face was saved by all. Meanwhile, a picture of Roman society emerges characterized by a network of consensus groups that communicated with each other in accepted ways to produce a broad political consensus within society as a whole. Chapter 10 in turn takes up various methods of political obstruction, most notably the veto. Obstruction is interpreted as a means for measuring preferences within a system oriented towards consensus. F. then moves on to the topic of violence in Roman politics and especially to the death of Tiberius Gracchus. Meanwhile, the plebs of the city emerge as highly conservative and traditionalist, even as they had their own politics that was separate from the formal mechanics of government and of voting. However, the first century saw a huge change in the citizen body in Rome, the rise of gang violence beginning with Saturninus, and a growing number of very poor people who tended to attach themselves to “great men”.

The last chapter is about games ( ludi) and political integration. The games also offered a highly politicized celebration of the Roman community, grounded in historical commemoration, as well as a prime space for communication between mass and elite. Politicians displayed their symbolic capital even as audiences might express their own views. The chapter ends with a discussion of gladiatorial combats from the time of the Republic to the age of Nero.

The sequence of chapters could have been organized in a more coherent way as 1, 8, 9, and 10 all address the nature of Roman politics. 2, 3, and 4 about the triumph and the funeral are completely separated from 11 about the theatre and games. Chapter 7 about revenge in Roman culture does not really fit very well with the others and contains the least material. Consequently, some episodes are treated repeatedly and sometimes inconsistently across various chapters. The triumph of L. Aemilius Paullus in 167 BC appears very differently in chapters 2 and 6. In such cases, an index would have been most useful. Similarly, examples from very different moments in republican history appear together as arguments grouped by theme in ways that can obscure individual historical and political contexts. For F. the major breaks come in 133 BC and in the 50s, when he sees the people of Rome finally questioning the leadership of the senate and the political families. As a result, short shrift is given to other moments of significant change, most notably the dictatorship of Sulla and his new constitution, itself arguably the object of much of the political conflict of the last generation of the Roman Republic. There is reason to see the political culture of the 70s BC as already significantly different from what is described by Polybius in the 150s.

Despite these reservations about a methodology that picks and chooses its examples in order to create what may emerge as an ahistorical model, F. does offer perceptive and fresh readings of individual episodes. Of particular note is his semantic analysis of the scene in which Scipio Africanus tore up the account books of his brother Lucius’ war with Antiochus III, his reexamination of the disgrace of L. Junius Silanus in 140 BC, and his account of the death of Tiberius Gracchus and the ensuing battle over his memory.

F.’s way of arguing itself tends to alienate the reader with its stridency and claim to an exclusive voice. Few of us would say that we are the only ones able to offer a cogent analysis of a topic such as the Roman funeral procession (p.52). This same stridency also obscures the many points of contact between F.’s work and that of other scholars, whether he agrees or disagrees with them. F. tends to assert rather than to argue his points, quite a few of which are overstated, either as a result of the imposition of a certain model or because of the language that he uses. Thus when he calls the gestures he analyzes “zwingende Gesten” he himself does not really mean that they literally “forced” an opponent or an audience to yield.

Many of his categorical statements could be true but are not explicitly supported by the ancient evidence. Notable examples include the following striking and speculative claims: that Roman funeral orations did not contain rhetorical climaxes; no Roman woman was ever represented by a portrait in a family tree in the atrium of a Roman house; no republican funeral procession showed the image of an ancestor who had not held office during the Republic; families all stressed the numbers and achievements of ancestors, but the age of the family or its founding figure was of only small import; and when the actors wearing the masks of the ancestors sat on their ivory chairs to hear the funeral oration delivered from the rostra they did not form an audience for those words. Since we have only very small extant fragments of Roman funeral orations, and no detailed descriptions of individual republican funerals, sweeping generalizations are bound to be problematic. At the same time, F.’s picture of an essentially undifferentiated row of “ancestors” who do not evoke vivid memories of specific individuals does not explain why and how Roman funeral spectacle functioned as the central and compelling political and cultural locus of republican history and memory. Despite juxtaposing his chapter on the triumph with the two about the funeral procession, he does not discuss the role of triumphal dress and the parading of triumphal booty at funerals. F.’s claim that it was virtually unheard of for legislation to be rejected by the voters inevitably rests on our very incomplete sources. The recovery of the rest of Livy for the second century BC might confirm such an hypothesis but it could also disprove it.

Three themes seem most important both to F.’s book and to a consideration of his subject in general: the role and culture of the plebs, the function of the contio, and the nature of political consensus in Roman society. All of these exhibit for the reader both the strengths and weaknesses of F.’s treatment. His plebs appears very differently in separate chapters. He has not resolved the tensions between his voters who have no strong preferences and an urban plebs whom he also characterizes as fiercely traditionalist, vocal at public meetings, and confident in their own collective memory and values. At the same time, both his observations and his difficulties point to the need for renewed attention to the plebs, their culture, their expectations, and their ways of expressing themselves before the last generation of the Republic.

The issue of contiones is clearly closely related to his treatment of the plebs and begs the whole question of who attended these open meetings and why. Were these crowds really exactly or even approximately the same as the ones that appeared for the actual voting? The complex voting rituals themselves, as well as the fierce competition between elite candidates at the elections, do not make it appear that the Romans necessarily saw most votes as a foregone conclusion. If theirs were indeed a system designed to use the contio to assure the eventual outcome, why did the voting procedure tend to favour voters from out of town, who were surely less likely to attend a series of contiones ? All this brings us back to the old question of who voted and why.

But the most important issue raised by F. is how to define “consensus” in a specifically Roman cultural and political context. The term “Gehorsam” (obedience) (or “Gehorsamstiefe”) is not obviously equivalent to common notions of “consensus”. If consensus is indeed to be used as a central and commonly employed term in the discussion of Roman politics, its essential meaning(s) will need to be explored and defined in detail. Similarly, the ancient evidence, especially as rehearsed by F., abounds with fascinating tensions between an elite that seems remarkably powerful through its rituals and symbols, and one whose members still need to work really hard to succeed both individually and as a group. The people of Rome appear sometimes as passive and docile, at other times as vociferous enforcers of traditional norms and values.

In conclusion, F. is always thought-provoking and never dull. His book touches on most of the central aspects of theatricality and spectacle in the culture of the Roman Republic. His basic premise is compelling: the persuasive power of elite ceremonies and rituals defined and produced social and political influence at least as much as the formal political structures and must consequently be studied in close conjunction with them. Amongst the many tools scholars use to analyze Roman culture, F. demonstrates the usefulness of anthropological and sociological methods. Roman politics can be analyzed in terms of complex communication within a system based on traditional concepts of consensus. Competition, as prescribed within well-defined areas and according to fixed rules, was itself an essential part of the very nature of Roman politics. Communication, whether in words, rituals, or gestures, simultaneously empowered and constrained both “actor” and “audience”, as each put on a “performance” for the other.


1. “Thick Description: toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture” in The Interpretation of Cultures New York, 1973, p. 28.

2. “Wenn die Eule der Minerva einen nächtlichen Ausschnitt im Trümmerfeld der Vergangenheit überfliegt, formt sich in ihrem Auge kein Abbild der Geschichte. Was sie erblickt, erinnert am wenigsten an die mitreiende Abfolge ergreifender Szenen in einem Farbfilm, sondern lockt mit der logischen Schönheit von Gebilden fraktaler Geometrie.”

3. M. Jehne, “Jovialität und Freiheit. Zur Institutionalität der Beziehungen zwischen Ober- und Unterschichten in der römischen Republik” in B. Linke and M. Stemmler (eds.) Mos Maiorum. Untersuchungen zu den Formen der Identitätsstiftung und Stabilisierung in der römischen Republik, Stuttgart, 2000, 207-35.

4. See also especially M. Jehne (ed.) Demokratie in Rom? Die Rolle des Volkes in der Politik der römischen Republik, Stuttgart, 1995.