BMCR 2005.03.10

Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late Roman Republic

, Mass oratory and political power in the late Roman Republic. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 1 online resource (xiv, 313 pages) : illustrations, maps. ISBN 0511184700. $75.00.

This book has been a long time in the making, but I suspect that readers will find it worth the wait.

Once upon a time, the study of Republican Roman politics was dominated (if never entirely monopolized) by what John North once called the “frozen waste” theory.1 This kind of thinking had two central tenets. First, enough voters were under the clear sway of individual aristocrats (by way, for instance, of a hereditary patron-client relationship) that ordinary citizens could essentially be factored out of discussions of politics. What mattered were the choices of their elite masters. Second, further simplification was possible, since the ruling class was divided into groups (“factions”) of fairly stable membership (even across generations) and considerable internal loyalty. Legislative and electoral votes were then decided by contingent alignments of these few factions. Policy and ideology were largely out of the picture. Over time, however, nearly all the components of this view were demolished. Some its elements were nearly pure fiction (e.g. gentes as political units); others had been misinterpreted and/or overvalued (e.g. amicitia, clientela). By the time of North’s remark (and arguably well before) the “frozen waste” theory was dead. Moreover, some of the same discussions that destroyed the old model explored themes that have gone on to be important for subsequent study: the nature of religious authority in politics, aristocratic competition, patronage in the broad sense. What remained largely lacking until quite recently was a general framework into which these lines of inquiry could be integrated.2 These began to be provided by works of the likes of Millar, Mouritsen, and Holkeskamp.3 M(orstein-Marx)’s masterful study of the late Republican contio (assembly for public address by a magistrate) brings these together at the same time as advancing many novel proposals of its own and offering a newly sophisticated analytical framework for the field. We still do not have a replacement consensus framework, but we do have two things perhaps better: a carefully assembled set of political moments that any theory must try to account for, and a much deeper understanding of some the parameters of the debate, like “democracy” or persuasion.

M.’s book is densely but very clearly written. He describes his two main themes as follows:

I shall argue that, while an emphasis on the centrality of public speech and deliberation to the political culture of the Roman Republic is fully justified…, this did not, in fact, make the system more than minimally responsive to popular needs; indeed overall, despite the ways in which the existence of this alternative, popular source of power encouraged persistent division within a competitive governing elite, the discourse of the contio strongly reinforced its hegemony and buttressed the traditional order.

On the one hand, the people cannot be simply reduced out of the equation whether through patronage or by some kind of generic political apathy. On the other hand, the complicated ways in which the popular will was articulated and translated into legislation, and the ways in which information was shared, severely limited the range of possible outcomes. In addition to the usual evidentiary problems of ancient history, there are questions M. asks (and shows need to be asked) which are hard to answer definitively even in modern societies which can be observed directly. But within those limits, this is a very powerfully argued book. Anyone working in the field will have at least to take its positions account, and most will have their minds changed on a number of points. Moreover, whatever one’s specific views, almost everyone will need to reframe positions in light of M.’s theoretical arguments. In what follows I will summarize the work in more detail, then raise a few points at which further elaboration might be helpful or on which there is a particularly interesting alternative.

The first chapter sets the stage in three fairly distinct sections. The first traces the recent history of interpretation of late Republican government (the view offered above is very close to M.’s). The second attempts to put notions like “democracy” and “persuasion” on an adequately firm theoretical footing. There is reference here to Althusser, Habermas (whose idealizations are used mainly to calibrate exactly how far the Roman situation was from them and in which directions), and a number of political scientists perhaps less famous. The central points here are to denaturalize the notion of “the will of the people” and to direct investigative focus to the nature of the communicative situation in which Roman politics was played out, with special emphasis on asymmetries of power and knowledge. This discussion is doubly valuable, both because the whole subject has really needed sustained treatment at this level and because this particular attempt seems very successful to me. The third section argues for the admissibility of evidence from published contional oratory. M. is sympathetic to recent views that Cicero’s motives for publication happened to push him towards reasonably accurate representations of the delivered speeches. More importantly for the present work, however, M. points out that he only needs those published speeches to be true to the genre, not necessarily to a specific performance, and for this there is overwhelming evidence.

The next chapter focuses primarily on the physical context of the contio, with some attention to its characteristic style of rhetoric. The meetings were typically held in the Forum; speeches were given from a highly elevated place such as the Rostra or the podium of the Temple of Castor. (Much consideration is given to archaeological evidence for the position and shape of the Rostra.) In the former case, seemingly the most common, we see a spatial division that will be important later in the book: the people are addressed by a speaker who is clearly visible, but holds a dominant position. Roughly behind him was the Curia, separated from the audience both by closure and by the interposed figure of the speaker.

The third chapter investigates popular knowledge of Roman history and politics. M. takes a very optimistic view of this both in level of detail and in time-depth. The argument is along the same general lines as Horsfall’s work on the topic, though with a more specific focus.4 M. examines on the one hand the level of knowledge required to appreciate surviving contional authority, and the sources of that information. Prominent among the latter are the speeches themselves, as well as a sea of monuments (in the root sense of the term), including coins. It must be admitted that M.’s position is at the least a reasonable one, but I am not sure that is true. First, he relies on sheer numbers to overcome the uncertainty of interpretation of individual passages (“what need one know to follow this passage?”). But it is possible that his standards for legibility are simply too high across the board, and particularly if applied to passages rather than to entire speeches. That is, should we assume that most auditors fully understood every part of a speech? There also seems to me to be a slight disjunction between the argument from direct observation and those from “sources.” Monuments will not teach you what M. wants his contional audience to know without considerable oral or written glossing. Indeed, M. likes to speak of the monuments as “cueing” memories (e.g. 89, 91), but it is not always clear then where the original information is coming from. It is interesting, though not necessarily contradictory, that M. will eventually conclude that the broad populace had little control of the political process because of their lack of certain kinds of information. The point of the demonstrations of this chapter, then, is presumably that ( contra Mouritsen) the lack of popular political influence was not the result of indifference to politics outside the highest classes.

Chapter four describes the way “the voice of the people” was articulated in responses to contiones. In the introduction M. makes a theoretical argument that such a “voice” is necessarily, at least in a part, an artifact of its solicitation, whether by pollsters or, as here, politicians. Here he provides a compelling practical illustration of that general point. First, however, he makes some observations that suggest that what happened in contiones mattered, whatever the mechanisms. Roman politicians thought popular support was a distinct and valuable resource (122). Bills which had attracted some public support were rarely, if ever, voted down (124) or vetoed (124-6). Contional audiences were often drawn from a wider portion of the population than has been argued by some (128-31). But if these relatively popular meetings were the way to legislative enactment, they were hardly a simple path. Both by design and by circumstance they will have been partially self-selecting for supporters of the presiding magistrate. A relatively small number of professional cheerleaders could direct a lot of audience response. Various rhetorical tricks could do the same. Whatever the “real” desires of individual members of the crowd, neither their combination nor their translation into legislative proposals could have had any “natural” form. Some proposals would presumably have been impossible to sell, especially by an unskilled politician, but the better one had powerful tools with which to mold a relatively plastic entity.

Even so, contiones could have been the site of a relatively democratic discourse if they, individually or severally, were directed at a variety of different political positions or even differing “views of the common good.” In chapter five, however, M. argues that there was virtually no opportunity for real debate within or even across contiones. Magistrates could and did invite speakers contrary to their own positions to speak before their contiones, but typically this was before a highly biased crowd and immediately before the vote, by which point the issue had apparently long been settled. The purpose seems to have been more to overawe opposition than to engage in real debate. Perhaps more surprisingly there is little evidence for magistrates opposed to legislation calling their own contiones to rally their side. (It might be objected that in at least two of the three cases studied — Ti. Gracchus’ legislation and Caesar’s agrarian law — the matter would “in fact” have been so popular as to deter all opposition.) Nor does the veto seem to have been much used (whether by law or custom) preemptively or, against provenly popular legislation, at all. Successful resistance to legislation seems to have taken one of two forms. The various forms of obstructionism available in the Roman system could sometimes be used to shift debate to a constitutional/procedural level where struggle might be more evenly balanced even after the substantive battle had been lost. Alternatively, a hostile magistrate could sometimes launch a direct counter-attack if he did so before a bill had gained momentum — the best known case is Cicero’s defeat of Rullus’ agrarian law. Taking that case as an example, M. argues that even though there is conflict, there is no “debate” over policy or ideology, only a struggle over the trustworthiness of individual elite political players.

This last observation is taken even further in the sixth chapter. Nearly all recorded contional speech, supporting or opposing any action, subscribes to what could be described as a “‘popularis’ ideology.” Elements of this include commitment to the welfare of the Roman people (and especially to their libertas), to their view of history (e.g. admiration of the Gracchi and hostility to Sulla), to their judgment, and a willingness to defend them from cliques of other aristocrats. M. also notes that this rhetoric is almost never anti-Senatorial as such. The Senate and magistrates, on this view, were obliged to see to the needs of the people just cited. The reframing of power as obligation makes the asymmetric distribution more palatable. It is also consistent with the personalization of failure. It is not the state, but particular individuals who fail the people, even if those individuals make up much of the present generation. M. emphasizes that this rhetoric is used not only by “faux” populares like Cicero, but also by those we would tend to regard as real populists. So even “radical” tribunes (231) urge reform and restoration, not structural changes. Would this all not have rung hollow coming from, say, Cicero, many of whose writings show not a little contempt for the opinions of the public? M. shows that Cicero in fact kept up an entirely consistent facade (if we want to call it that) in speeches before the people throughout his career.5

Such a strategy, as M. goes on to argue in chapter seven, would have been particularly useful in the information-poor environment of late Republican Rome. Genuine mass media were of course lacking, and the closest equivalent (contional oratory) had no independence from the political process. Moreover, the Senate was nearly an informational black hole. Citizens were aware that politicians’ professions of loyalty to them (or claims of an opponent’s deceit) could be fraudulent, but had no independent way to check in individual cases. This environment gives rise to a politics which favors, in phrases M. borrows from the political theorist Murray Edelman, not “solving problems” but “staging dramas of problem-solving.” The subject of these dramas, as M. himself shows throughout the book, is the character of individual politicians. The people’s heroes (i.e. any speaker) uncover the hidden bad faith of their opponents. If, then, all politicians, however we would today describe their ideologies, are playing roughly the same game, what determines who wins? Presumably general rhetorical skill is valuable — the ability to make one’s stories sound “like the truth.” For instance, one must conceal any self-interest in taking positions; making oneself a martyr for the people is so much better. Consistency in maintaining the correct public posture is also crucial. Moreover, the “posture” here is to be taken in its physical sense, as well as a more metaphorical one.6 The popular origins and reputation of the tribunate gave its incumbents an inherent advantage. Yet, interestingly, high political office was also valuable. I noted above the “obligation” of aristocrats to serve the people. This obligation is tied at the individual level to election. Magistrates owe their position to election and so are obliged to the voters. Election to a series of offices is then argued to demonstrate a cycle of debts and repayments, proving praetors and consuls to have the appropriate sense of gratitude. Hence even populares bring out all the elite auctores they can to support their positions.

To conclude, I want to say a few words about a central mechanism in the book and also about its broader context. As M. describes it, contiones built up “momentum” (124, 178) for legislation which, if not checked early on, almost inevitably led to passage. While the term is common today and thus seemingly clear, it is nonetheless still metaphorical, and we need to make sure we know how it cashes out. This is not quite explained directly, but I believe it can be reconstructed from the rest of the argument. With respect to voters, the object of the contio was to “demoraliz[e] potential voters on the other side, invigorat[e] partisans” and “impress potential sympathizers with the power of apparent social consensus, and exert the ‘bandwagon effect’ on the rest” (185). Moreover, they might be hoped to overawe rival politicians (166-7, 175). The latter seems a little more problematic to me, as M. previously showed that these politicians were well aware of the constructedness of the popular will as exhibited in contiones. Why not, then, immediately counter-attack with one’s own contiones in most cases? Mouritsen has argued, and M. (185 n. 108) agrees, that in a system where such a small fraction of the nominal electorate actually voted, the ability to mobilize relatively small numbers of voters could sway results. Without denying the ideological significance of having a supportive crowd, the practical demonstration of support may have been more important still. (Contrast the modern, screened political rally, whose force is almost solely ideological.)

It may now be worth stepping back from the specifics of the argument to the model as a whole. On the one hand, if we look at contional rhetoric, the form of politics is even more popular than is often recognized. On the other, so many kinds of views are never expressed, and so many positions are taken insincerely that almost none of the democratic potential of Rome’s political institutions is ever achieved. M. provides, at the very least, a coherent account of how such a paradoxical situation could have arisen. Still, one might want some external support for the idea that such an account could be true. Similar disputes arise in discussion of Athenian “democracy,” and in fact one could argue that the most significant (if largely indirect) critique in this book is not of Millar or Mouritsen, but of Josh Ober. But in any case the evidentiary situation in Greece is hardly sound enough to be compelling in either direction for Rome. One might then compare a modern democracy like the United States or Great Britain, as M. does most extensively at pp. 228-9. Attacks on such a large gap between the form and substance of politics were perhaps the heart of Ralph Nader’s recent presidential campaigns. His crushing defeats might be taken as proof either that he was right (but the system too strong) or that he was wrong (and simply failed in a true “marketplace of ideas”). Who is right? As far as I can tell, even in a society which we inhabit and have huge amounts of data for, answers to this question tell more about the politics of the responder than anything else. In principle, we might hope in the case of Rome to have the benefit of greater objectivity, but I am not sure that political ideology does not carry over. Now, I have largely been convinced by M., and not for the most part by having my preconceptions confirmed, but I admit that this is an area in which consensus is never likely to form. I doubt, as I suggested above, that there will ever be a single replacement for the frozen waste theory. Rather, we will (at best) have a situation very much like what exists because of recent publications such as M.’s: careful and sometimes even conclusive studies of specific aspects of politics (e.g. bribery, formalities of voting, military reputation), but at the highest level agreement only on what the main parameters are (say, the “popular”ity of public discourse and its influence on actual policy). The value of these parameters (and combinations thereof) are likely always to be a matter of lively debate.

Since, however, this is meant to be a review of a particular work, I should close on that narrower issue. M. has written an excellent book, notable for the depth both of its scholarship and of its thought. It should be read not only by all students of the late Republic or of Roman oratory, but also of ancient politics and political theory more generally.


1. “Politics and Aristocracy in the Roman Republic,” CP 85 (1990) 280.

2. An honorable exception might be the brief work of M. Beard and M. Crawford, Rome in the Late Republic: Problems and Interpretations (London 1985).

3. For instance, respectively, The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic (Ann Arbor 1998), Plebs and Politics in the late Roman Republic (Cambridge 2001), Rekonstruktionen einer Republik (Munich 2004). I choose these examples for their breadth of vision, but obviously many others from P. Brunt to A. Yakobson have done extremely valuable work in the area as well.

4. The Culture of the Roman plebs (London 2003) for the easiest way into this research.

5. It is hard to know what to make of the fact that, as M. (206 n. 10) notes, Cicero does not maintain the same facade in forensic speeches.

6. M. (270 n. 117) notes some tension between his reading and the work of Tony Corbeill on roughly the same topic. Pursuit of this point would, I suspect, be quite productive.