BMCR 2004.05.11

Das Zeitbewußtsein und der Bürgerkrieg. Eine Untersuchung zur geistigen und politischen Situation im Umbruch zwischen Republik und Principat. Göttinger Forum für Altertumswissenschaft, Beihefte, Bd. 11

, Das Zeitbewusstsein und der Bürgerkrieg eine Untersuchung zur geistigen und politischen Situation im Umbruch zwischen Republik und Principat. Göttinger Forum für Altertumswissenschaft : Beihefte ; 11. Göttingen: Duehrkohp und Radicke, 2002. 334 p. ; 22 cm.. ISBN 3897442035 €42.00.

In spite of the extensive literature on the Roman Republic and the early Principate, Mäckel (M.) tries once more to reconstruct in this PhD dissertation to what extent the generations between the Caesarian civil war and the early empire experienced a change in the awareness and consciousness of their own time (ZEITBEWUSSTSEIN). She bases her study on Cicero, Vergil, Horace, and Propertius.

The book falls into six parts. The introduction sets the stage. The second chapter deals with Cicero and the bellum civile. It rehearses the history of events and leads to the correct conclusion that Cicero’s stance on the Republic underwent a profound change from the days of the civil war against Pompey through the fight against Mark Antony.

The third chapter treats the poets Vergil, Horace, and Propertius and their experience of the civil war. M. analyzes Vergil’s first Eclogue and demonstrates its main difference from Theocritus’ bucolic poetry, i.e. inserting politics into poetry. The feature all three poets have in common is that they yearned for peace, in different forms though. Vergil’s Eclogue 9 also displays criticism of contemporary circumstances. Only the fourth Eclogue manifests a certain optimism, and this is based on the hope for a new golden age. With Horace, M. starts off with an analysis of Epodes 7 and 16. Like Vergil, Horace discerns the reasons for civil war in mythology. The fratricide of Remus continues to weigh heavily on the Roman people as a curse (Epode 7). Mentally, Vergil and Horace flee from depressing reality and explain the present by resorting to mythical history. In the sphragis of his collection of poems called Monobiblos (I 21 and I 22), Propertius clearly addresses the topic of civil war and unmasks its futility without resorting to mythical topoi.

The fourth chapter puts these three authors into a larger socio-literary framework. This section offers good ideas for a sociology of Augustan literature by exploring the social preconditions of these poetic achievements. M. presents the poets in their social surroundings, especially in their relationships to Maecenas and Augustus. Their personal acquaintance with Maecenas leads to a very different tone in the later works of all three poets. Slowly the scars of the civil war were healing; the terror people had suffered gave way to a new feeling of optimism, even political confidence (p. 154). On pp. 158ff. M. discusses the problematic assumption of a closed circle of Maecenas with sound judgement. While of the three Horace is closest to Maecenas, Propertius keeps the greatest distance from this powerful man. Vergil holds an intermediate position. He always portrays Maecenas and Octavian in different spheres of life: Maecenas as private friend, Augustus as a politician who is totally dedicated to a most promising future and who is almost beyond the visible world, in a divine realm. Horace makes a similar distinction in his work, so that none of his satires makes reference to the civil war. In his ninth Epode Horace treats Maecenas and Augustus on two very different levels: whereas Maecenas is addressed as a friend, Augustus is the topic of the poem. Propertius shows us Maecenas in connection with Augustus and introduces new traits of Maecenas, his military side. In so doing Propertius moves the grand promoter of arts and literature closer to the military strongman par excellence, the princeps himself.

Chapter five is dedicated to the three poets and their presentation of the civil war. M. investigates the poets’ technique of presenting subjects and persons in those poems that were written after the literary circle of Maecenas had been founded. As far as Vergil is concerned, M. makes an important observation: while the national poet of the Romans rejected any kind of war right after 29 BCE, heroic fights become the rule again in the Aeneid.

Horace celebrates the present and with it Augustus as the imposer of law and order. The princeps is never portrayed as a protagonist in the civil war, but as its terminator. Finally, the poet extols the monarch so as to lift him into godlike spheres. In III.24, a late ode, the civil war functions only as a topos. In the carmen saeculare the civil war finds no echo whatsoever, for understandable reasons. Also in the six so-called Roman odes the civil wars are no longer mentioned. Belonging to the civil war generation Horace felt partly responsible for the atrocities committed, but in his later works he looked ahead to a new time in which a carefree youth would enjoy the fruits of peace and order. In his elegy II.1, Propertius enumerates all the battles of the civil war. After 25 BCE the civil war does not play a role any more in Propertius. Actium is gradually reinterpreted as a battle against foreign foes. While the civil war always remains a topic for Vergil, Horace and Propertius push it into the background the older they get. Nevertheless Propertius writes poems against the war later in his life (III.5; III.12).

Whereas all three poets are imbued with a strong desire for peace, they still all praise the victories of the princeps. This is not schizophrenia, as M. thinks at first (p. 281), but rather a manifestation of the typically Roman distinction between detrimental civil war and glorious war against foreign enemies.

The sixth and final chapter deals with this ambiguity and raises the question of a paradigm shift in Roman thinking that might have occurred during this era of transition. A bibliography concludes the book. Indices, esp. of the passages cited, would have been useful.

Since the contents of chapter three and five overlap, they could have constituted a single chapter. Inserting the socio-literary analysis between chapters three and five disrupts the interpretation of the texts, and therefore this analysis rather should have been placed at the beginning of the poets’ treatment in order to illuminate their historical context. M. does not make clear the differences between chapters three and five at any conspicuous point but rather chooses to scatter some hints throughout the book (98f., 138, 202ff., 205).

Fundamental problems characterize this book. We cannot rule out the possibility that the four great literary figures, Cicero, Vergil, Horace, and Propertius, wanted to grasp the atmosphere of their time and shape it in a representative way and were capable of doing so, but the question of how representative these four highly intellectual authors were should have been at least addressed. After all they came from the social elites. Several times M. transfers the opinions or utterances of these literary figures to the ZEITBEWUSSTSEIN of the broad masses (e.g. 148, 195, 233, 251, 275) without further ado. Meanwhile there is an abundance of books that investigate mass behavior during the critical transition period from the Republic to the Principate.1 Strangely enough, M. does not take advantage of these works, which have made crucial contributions to understanding the behavior of the lower classes of Roman society during this decisive period. Compared to the often fragmentary evidence available to ancient history in general, for the late Republic we have an unusually favorable situation concerning sources. The material for lower class opinion would have offered the unique chance to compare popular culture and perceptions with upper class notions of authors belonging to the leading elites. M. however is oriented around these leading literary figures in a conventional manner and draws her conclusion to the ordinary people of Rome exclusively from the views of the elite.

It is M.’s aim to trace contemporaries’ consciousness during one of world history’s most difficult phases of transition. Theoretical concepts of the collective and cultural memory, of memory cultures and of mentalities should have been applied. M., however, is meticulous in avoiding modern theory, which should have imposed itself on her subject-matter. Given the kind of topic being explored, it was a severe mistake to dismiss the entire discipline of the history of mentalities in one paragraph and a single footnote (p. 304, footnote 2). It should have been M.’s task to discuss theoretical models and to test their applicability instead of referring to Heuss’s history of ideas and then only citing a few sceptical voices. Admittedly, one does not have to embrace the highly complex notion of mentality, but ZEITBEWUSSTSEIN and especially ZEITGEIST (spirit of the time) sound very Hegelian and outdated. These metaphysical terms used to be en vogue in the German humanities of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. M. fails to give a proper definition of either of these terms and does not differentiate the terms from each other, so that they are used synonymously (e.g. p. 100, 196, 200, 312). In addition, these terms, so central to M.’s point, are quite elusive. On a purely historical level, one is also startled to read that peace and security (p. 283) reigned within the Roman Empire.

Successful in her close reading of relevant passages, M. sometimes offers sensitive interpretations and valuable insights. In the chapter on Cicero, however, it is at the reader’s discretion whether or not to go so far as to accept her postulation of a break in Cicero’s thinking (p. 63) or even the loss of his political consciousness (p. 91).2 In chapter 2.5 Cicero is contrasted to his younger contemporaries. M. postulates that the older generation, who had seen and experienced the Republic fully functioning, had more and more difficulties communicating with the younger generation, who could no longer remember the Republic. There are multiple nuances in between these two generations, which M. disentangles with great subtlety. The section on Asinius Pollio (pp. 78-81), who holds such an intermediate position, is particularly well done.

M.’s generation-gap model is stimulating but not completely convincing, for it is not applicable to every situation. In literate societies people can study and learn. It may be correct that the way records were handed down in the late Roman Republic was far more oral than that of today’s Western societies, but nevertheless, the elites at least had access to books, with which they could inform themselves about the past. It may also be correct that to the young Gaius Caesar his adoptive father was the political point of reference; it is certainly right that C. Caesar was too young to see the Republic still at work, but this does not mean that later he still had no idea of what the Republic had been about. After all we have proof that Augustus read and admired the works of Cicero (Plut. Cic. 49,3), whom he had proscribed. Augustus’s gradually emerging political propaganda and self-representation testify to a deepened understanding of the Roman Republic — its history, magistracies and traditions.

It is certainly legitimate to interpret poetry from a historical point of view, and M. is right in appreciating poetry as a historical source, because the poetic re-formulation of myths increasingly served the purpose of explaining contemporary history. But, although the author demonstrates a substantial knowledge of Augustan literature, she fails to fully appreciate the genuinely literary character of these texts.3 It is this highly complex interface between literary system and reference to reality that M. often blurs too easily. Due to a lack of familiarity with the techniques of modern literary analysis M., without hesitating, often equates the lyric I with the actual author (e.g. p. 133, 135ff., 267 with Propertius). Equally detrimental to M.’s analysis is the fact that she does not seem to realize the role character in large parts of Augustan poetry. Very often the poems under scrutiny are societal poetry. Since this form of poetry refers to certain social occasions and situations, one and the same author can change his tunes and even contradict himself from one poem to the next, a phenomenon which confuses M. and which she can hardly explain (p. 292). M. misinterprets Propertius’ praise of the withdrawal into the private sphere as a deliberate personal reaction of the poet to the civil war and a novelty in Roman self-perception. In reality, this demeanor is a pose, which for a long time had been shaped by Epicurean philosophy. Propertius’ Cynthia is a literary figure. The multiple refractions of reality, the poetological thoughts contained in this sublime poetry and the highly complicated net of intertextual cross-references are neglected by M. Of course, the chosen topic did not allow such in-depth analysis, but a greater awareness of these tricky issues could at least have been sketched.

In the sixth and final chapter M. raises the question of a paradigm shift in Roman thinking that might have occurred during this era of transition. She is right to note that in Roman militaristic tradition proving oneself on the battlefield was always held in high esteem. It is only in Tibullus and Propertius that we find an unconditional rejection of war, and then only for a short period of time. Later on, the same poets praise heroism again. On p. 293 and 301 M. finally reaches a convincing solution of the alleged contradiction: the positive assessment of war during the entire Roman Republic is put into the background for a short period of time by the war generations and their desire for peace. M.’s synthesis lies in the precise differentiation, which she correctly undertakes on the basis of Vergil, Aen. VI 835 (proice tela manu sanguis meus) and Aen. VI 851-853 (tu regere imperio populos Romane memento – hae tibi erunt artes – pacique inponere morem, parcere subiectis et debellare superbos). Civil war is terrible and has to be avoided under all circumstances; war against foreign enemies, however, is heroic and glorious. The terms war and peace do undergo a shift in meaning in this transitional period, but one does not have to see a full-scale paradigm shift, as M. does. The lines of continuity extending from the early Republic through the Principate are too clear. But now victories could be celebrated that had been won by professional soldiers and no longer by militia of Roman farmers, which had ceased to exist centuries before. Geographically and mentally one had found some distance from the wars.

The language of the book is sometimes vague, e.g. M. speaks of “the” Roman (p. 262) or of Cicero’s loss of his political consciousness (e.g. p. 91, 94, 307). It may be true that Cicero’s belief in the Republic was seriously shattered, maybe he lost this belief altogether, but he certainly never gave up his political consciousness.

In spite of the distance between this PhD dissertation and modern theories and methods, a gap which makes the thesis seem not to be on the cutting edge of today’s historical practice, the book is worthwhile reading. It offers a detailed report on the way Cicero, Vergil, Horace, and Propertius portray civil war, and in doing so it offers an introduction to the development of Cicero’s political thinking as well as to Augustan literature.


1. Wolfgang Will, Der Römische Mob. Soziale Konflikte in der Späten Republik, Darmstadt 1991; Karl-Wilhelm Weeber, Panem et Circenses. Massenunterhaltung als Politik im antiken Rom, Second edition, Mainz 1994; Francisco Pina Polo, Contra arma verbis. Der Redner vor dem Volk in der späten römischen Republik, Stuttgart 1996; Günter Laser, Populo et scaenae serviendum est. Die Bedeutung der städtischen Masse in der Späten Römischen Republik, Trier 1997; Alexander Jakobson, Elections and Electioneering in Rome. A Study in the Political System of the Late Republic, Stuttgart 1999; Henrik Mouritsen, Plebs and Politics in the Late Roman Republic, Cambridge 2001; Fergus Millar, The Crowd in Rome in the late Republic, Ann Arbor 2002.

2. Jörg Spielvogel, Amicitia und Res Publica. Ciceros Maxime während der innenpolitischen Auseinandersetzungen der Jahre 59-50 v. Chr., Stuttgart 1993 would have been relevant in the discussion on Cicero.

3. A concise introduction into current scholarly debates on Augustan literature is now offered by E. A. Schmidt, Augusteische Literatur. System in Bewegung, Heidelberg 2003.