BMCR 2005.09.68

The Laws of the Roman People. Public Law in the Expansion and Decline of the Roman Republic

, The laws of the Roman people : public law in the expansion and decline of the Roman republic. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. 1 online resource (xxviii, 506 pages) : maps. ISBN 9780472025428 $75.00.

This ambitious book examines the rise and fall of the Republic from 350 to 44 BC by following the fate of Roman public law, specifically leges and plebiscita (x). It argues that the making of public law integrated the people, and thereby the state, into a unity, because the ritual that characterized the legislative act was a conscious and informed performance of consensus and popular sovereignty; because laws resolved issues that required communitywide agreement; because the tribal units of comitia tributa, concilium plebis, and comitia centuriata themselves functioned effectively to incorporate new citizens; and because tribes (and tribal leaders in particular) served as a crucial bridge between city and country, elite and people. Thus, “public lawmaking assemblies … provided the pivotal event in allowing the cohesion essential to the expansion and endurance of the Roman world” (433). Yet the Roman world of the late Republic also, famously, ceased to cohere: after 100 BC “the scale of Roman society” — in terms of the size of both the citizen population and its competitive, “vastly expanding” leadership — “began to overwhelm the public lawmaking process and the political system as a whole” (431). Laws and the legislative process, although politicized in this century, nonetheless continued to be seen as legitimate expressions of the people’s will even as they contributed less and less — because the composition of voting units was less and less representative — to the cohesion of society, until both were finally and fatally undermined by autocratic dictators of law like Sulla and Julius Caesar. Public laws and the legislative process were thus both active agents of successful expansion and passive tools of calamitous political decline.

This is a hugely difficult thesis for anyone to present, and in the end it is an even more difficult thesis for W(illiamson) to prove. This failure is in part a consequence of the lack of evidence just at the points where it is most needed, and in part a consequence of an argument that is just not persuasive enough: the argument is not inexorably logical, rushes where it needs to be in depth, and has not considered and ruled out alternatives in a way that would, page by page, constrain a reader’s disbelief. In part, too, the desire to make such a far-reaching argument and to cover so much ground has resulted in a book that is simply too big: a smaller page limit (and tighter editorial control) would have kept the book more firmly on course, reduced the number of anticipatory assumptions in the overall argument (e.g., 96, 110 n.28, 300 n.35), combed out sentences that repeat earlier sentences virtually word-for-word (79/86; 63/96; 212/248), and reconciled statements and arguments that make the book, at least apparently, internally contradictory. Yet despite its lack of overall persuasiveness and its apparently unfounded assertions, the book is stimulating and significant. It is tackling hugely important and difficult questions: ” … what kind of society would produce law in the particular way that the Romans did in public assemblies” (xii)? Why did laws enacted in legislative assemblies have legitimacy? And what were public laws used for, in a society that in general (and unlike ours) did not regulate itself chiefly through law? And this book also makes you think, which, frankly, not every book does: a book that founders on the shoals of its own ambitions is often extremely useful in advancing a field, for it forces its readers, in dissatisfied and reluctant resistance to the thesis presented, to come up with better answers.

The nine chapters (grouped into three Parts) are, like the overall argument, complex and interdependent, the choice and order of their topics not entirely obvious; what follows therefore tries to be a fairly full summary of arguments, topics, and evidence to be found in each, with an assessment following each set of three chapters. The Preface (vii-xx) sets the scene with the Social War of 91-89, a “civil war” that was ended for most participants by a legislative act extending citizenship to most of Rome’s former Italian allies: “how … the collective voice of the Roman people expressed in a public lawmaking assembly came to have sufficient force across Italy to help bring to an end a bitter war forms the quest of the book” (viii). Indeed, public law is the key institution through which Rome confronted “the otherwise insurmountable challenge of expansion across Italy, especially the absorption of conquered peoples” (x). Public lawmaking assemblies were central to, and an index of, the absorption of outsiders because they appear to be associated with the innumerable conflicts that expansion “must have involved,” because their end products were “so widely accepted,” and because old Romans and new citizens from all across Italy must have participated to a substantial degree, as can be “presumed” from ” … the level of participation visible in many reported law-making assemblies” (xiii). A brief summary of each chapter (xiii-xvii) then follows, along with an even briefer methodological discussion of the list of laws on which the study is based (xvii-xviii), a subject explored at greater length in Appendix A (437-44).

1. Summary and Assessment of Part I.

Part I (“Patterns and Process,” 1-128) consists of three chapters, and seeks to establish general patterns of how laws are used, presented, and brought into existence. Chapter One (“Public Law in Rome,” 3-61) asks questions about why some matters like land-distribution and damnum were handled through leges rather than senatusconsulta or magisterial edicts; why so many non-voting Italians came to Rome for Tiberius Gracchus’s legislative assembly; and why newer citizens could and did “participate as effectively as Romans” in a “complicated lawmaking session requiring a deep knowledge of the Roman way of life” (6). (Answers to these questions will appear, for the most part, in later chapters of the book, not here.) It then takes the list of (passed) leges and plebiscita and (proposed) rogationes and notes that the intensity of law-making varied dramatically over time, intensity “obviously” correlating with times of reported historical crisis (7-9); that the most common issues treated in a law-making assembly generally involved the political and social leadership of Rome (44 issues on 205 occasions), followed by citizen grants (19 in number), declarations of war (16 in number), the foundation of colonies (16 in number), and the distribution and assignment of land (15 in number), all of which can be loosely or closely associated with Roman expansion or the social upheavals that resulted therefrom (pages 9-14); that tribunes were the most frequent proposers of laws, and that more clans were represented in law-making over time, confirming “the idea of an extensive and expanding diffusion of power among Roman political leaders and elite families as we approach the end of the Republic” (16-19 at 19); and that “the largest number of public laws [half or more] were presented to or were intended for presentation to the concilium plebis” (20-3 at 21). The chapter then investigates law-making during the Second Punic War in particular, in order to determine why lawmaking was “such an appropriate avenue of response to crisis” (23-30 at 27), concluding that the issues (not just war, but “the strains of an expanding number of Romans of wealth and status,” 28-30 at 28) were ones in which it was necessary to establish “a communitywide consensus” (28). Although it is noted in the conclusion that law-making assemblies were also used for apparently trivial matters, like exempting L. Caecilius Metellus from the rule forbidding senators to enter the Senate House on a litter (33; 241 BC the necessity for consensus will be hereafter assumed by the author as driving the use of law-making assemblies. The chapter ends with nineteen different tables of public laws by subject, assembly, sponsor, etc. (34-57).

Chapter Two (“Presentation: Oratory and Law Drafts,” 62-99) studies Cicero’s de lege agraria 2-3 of early 63 BC, concluding that Cicero’s presentation of the law, although negative and quite different in approach from his de lege Manilia (77), was nonetheless paradigmatic (in tone and content) of the ways Roman public law was presented to the people. Cicero’s ingratiatingly persuasive rhetoric is revelatory not only of how the people wished to think of themselves, but of what they really did want, and of the shared beliefs of both leaders and people about “how their society ought to be ordered” (96). The speech also relied on “accepted standard[s]” (94) about what a good lawmaker should be (70) and how such a person would behave — such persons drew on the expert knowledge of the elite (71), an elite also fundamentally involved in the drafting and encouragement of specific laws in the first place (81-94) — and made the point that the process of public lawmaking was always open, for “without the full disclosure of information in public meetings, a community consensus regarding law was impossible” (74). Moreover, because law was discussed at a high level of technical detail (75-7), the de lege agraria 2 suggests that “the Roman voters’ knowledge about the technicalities of lawmaking ranged over the same ground as that of commentators” (91) and “underscores … the singularly complex understanding of the various facets of lawmaking common among the participants on all levels” (63, 96) — although in the next chapter it is noted that Cicero in de lege agraria 2 “openly dismisses the people’s capacity to understand the public law of Rome” (107). Even so, “[t]he guiding if unspoken principle of the public debate … was clearly understood by all participants in public lawmaking, namely the sovereign power of the Roman people” (96).

Chapter Three (“Legitimization: Participants and Procedures,” 100-28) studies an “elaborate, systematic, closely supervised, and rigorously open … decision-making process” that was “the product of a timeless and uniquely Roman view of popular government” (101). Yet, as the author asks, how did group (rather than one-man-one-vote) voting, with some members randomly excluded, result in legitimate law binding on the entire population? Especially since it is unlikely that many from far away, or very many at all, could or must have voted on any one occasion (101-6)? Did most simply not care? No: the “interest and involvement of the Roman people were critical,” their political vigor has been underestimated, and on law-making occasions the people could be aggressive, asserting their will by going against the wishes of the Senate (108-9 at 109); in short, they were “actively engaged” (110). A moment of supreme lack of interest in 59 BC, when not enough people turned up, is noted on the same page, but is explicable because participants in a law-making assembly were, in general, issue-specific voters (115). Even so, when a Roman stood on the voting bridge “he was first and foremost a tribesman” (113; later also at 216), and for a lawmaker the tribe was consequently the “most critical” group (116). Tribal voting, in which the majority determined the vote of the whole tribe, was one type of group voting, itself a long-standing tradition in Roman society (the concilium plebis could make laws binding on all Romans, for example); the view of the individual was subsumed in the larger will of the group without difficulty, either because groups did not disagree — because voters in a group deferred to their tribal leader, to the “first voter” in the tribe (equated with men of wealth and standing, 113), and to the will of the majority, a consequence of deeply rooted ties of respect, deference, and obligation (112) — or because a disagreement was swallowed equably (we assume), the disagreeing voter mollified by centuries of tradition; and expressions of disagreement were also minimized by attempts to keep nay-sayers and the disgruntled away from the assembly entirely (117-18). Group voting therefore worked because it always had, and (we deduce) tradition creates legitimacy, as did the formal and divinely approved procedure by which laws were passed (118-22): since, for example, the order of the tribes in voting was determined by lot, the potential exclusion of some tribes was not so much random as divinely endorsed, and conserved “an effective popular government” (121). The maintenance of all of these complicated features and requirements of law-making underscores “the extent to which the lawmaking process reflected the values and assumptions of the society at large” (123).

Crucial for the larger argument of the book are these conclusions drawn at various places in Part One: (a) that public lawmaking correlates strongly with periods of crisis; (b) that public lawmaking assemblies, a venue of last resort, in particular aim to solve problems consequent upon expansion; (c) that public lawmaking is the consequence of leaders’ attempts to articulate the will of the people, who in their contiones and assemblies enact a reciprocal relationship and a dialogue with the law sponsor (78, 94-5), and are recognized to be sovereign; and (d) that public lawmaking rests on both deep knowledge of its process and meaning on the part of all participants and deep structures of participation like group voting that are accepted as legitimate expressions of the will of the whole. Public laws are therefore the pure, uncoerced, and unencumbered will of the people. There are, to my mind, problems with each of these conclusions.

(a) The correlation with periods of crisis depends on accepting that the database of laws (Appendix C, 451-73: a very useful compilation) is chronologically representative even if admittedly incomplete, but Appendix B (445-50), supposedly devoted to proving this, instead concludes that the authors from which come three-quarters of the references to laws were “selective” and made independent decisions about which laws to include in their accounts (448). This may suggest that the reporting of laws was “unrelated to changes in the volume of reportage” (7), but does not prove overall chronological or topical representativeness. Indeed, the concurrent observation that Polybius, our major reliable narrative source for the period right before the Second Punic War, was not very interested in reporting lawmaking assemblies (448) does not restrain the author (as it should have) from referring to the period after 218 as one with more laws passed “than in any previous period” (27). If laws in the preceding period are known to go unreported, the comparison is invalid (as are other comparisons to missing data made later, like the assertion that lawmaking assemblies were used to declare war “only when public support … was in doubt:” since the list of laws is incomplete, one cannot a priori conclude that the wars not attested as voted on in an assembly were declared in some other way, and that those voted in an assembly were, consequently, special, 167). For the general observation, much of course also depends on a definition of crisis, which in its loosest application could probably apply to any decade in Roman Republican history.

(b) The decision not to include a study of the use of senatusconsulta and magisterial edicts (14-16), while understandable, weakens another conclusion, that lawmaking assembles were often venues of last resort (101; later, 175, 176, 272). We have no way of knowing whether other venues were used more or less frequently, were used earlier in the treatment of an issue, or were used differently over time. It is imaginable, for example, that issues were settled more easily by senatorial suggestion and magisterial action in an earlier period, and only as the auctoritas of the Senate waned in the late Republic were leges used to take up the slack, becoming the venue of last resort multiple times for the same issue. What does seem to be the case, from occasional statements (27, 31, 33; later, 148, 166, 167, 193, 199, 259, 262, 271-2, 274, 289, 342, 375-6, 377), is that senatusconsulta, edicts, and leges often treated the same issues; this makes it problematic to assume that public laws were somehow particularly well suited to handle or settle particular types of issues. The classification of these issues into groups and their labelling as “most critical” or “especially vexing” (4, 16) seems somewhat arbitrary anyway, in contrast to the commendable care with which the database was constructed (as explained in Appendix A): do laws about quaestiones, local jurisdiction in Italy, and prorogation all really belong in the category “issues involving leader” (Table 1.3), or if they do, isn’t this a very crude category? And isn’t the overall category to which so much legislation is deemed a precise and suitable response, “expansion” (one could just as well substitute for it “growth” or “change”) so large that it loses its explanatory value?

(c) It seems an over-simplification to claim that Roman leaders saw their primary role as discerning and articulating the will of the people, and to insist that their effectiveness as leaders depended on their ability to do so (asserted again later at 260). Cicero would tell you that he will tell the people what their will is — as he does in the de lege agraria, turning them away from a rogation W. judges to be in their best interest (375). The most successful orator-leader, in the late Republic at least, will persuade the people to recognize his best interest as their own, a principle on which Julius Caesar built his career, and Cicero too. And it is an oddly uneven dialogue in which one side can only say no, a sickly and enfeebled reciprocity in which one side can only withhold approval. If this is the people’s sovereignty — as their leaders insincerely insist it is, all the while suiting themselves to the best of their abilities — then it is an unhealthy one so distant from what we mean by the word that “sovereignty” might as well not be used.

(d) The process of participating in a lawmaking assembly was complicated, to be sure, but it is by no means clear how much knowledge was needed to do so. Law-sponsors probably did have to know something at a contio (96), even if influence mattered more than expertise (86). But why would the rest have to have “deep knowledge” (101-4)? Why couldn’t the citizen standing next to you tell you what to do in a law-making or voting assembly, why couldn’t someone alert you when your tribe or property-class was called? Why assume even a passing familiarity with greater goal, procedure, or issues under discussion, when (e.g.) highly educated faculty members regularly vote (and speak publicly) on issues of which they know nothing and for which they have done no preparation, in meetings where only one person (or none) need know Robert’s Rules of Order ? The people of Rome need not be the elite’s lapdog to have, nonetheless, a reduced rather than predominant role in their own state in the first century BC: fed only as much information as leaders wished them to have at contiones (76), subjected to the logical and emotional manipulation of great oratory (107), their acquiescence to the results of group voting assumed (and if deference in tribes is crucial here, why would deference not also inspire acquiescence to a law sponsor and his high-prestige supporters?), their control and direction in the positive exercise of their power through law-making would seem, in the end, less than their negative impact when they roared and rioted their menacing refusals. Which is still very powerful, but is not the power of the uncoerced will of the people, expressed freely and without encumbrance (73, 122).

2. Summary and Assessment of Part II.

Part II (“The Expansion of Rome,” 129-282) also consists of three chapters, which are accompanied by handsome maps and devoted to demonstrating, at length but at some distance from any point about lawmaking, Italian assimilation and the growth of the centrality of the city of Rome in the entire peninsula. Chapter Four (“The Conquest of Italy,” 131-90) looks at an absorption of Italian peoples so thorough that they were prepared to die to claim full inclusion in the Roman state, attributing this successful assimilation to “Roman settlers doing things in the usual way in a physical environment that had over time produced a level of common behavior among all inhabitants of Italy” (131). The physical environment encouraged transhumance, which drew the inhabitants of Italy (both urban and rural) into a common world and required interaction, cooperation, and mobility despite their differences (135-46) in fundamental structures of life (family, community, relationship to land). As Romans undertook a systematic process of subjugation, confiscation, and incorporation, they interrupted the old patterns of life: by seizing land as ager publicus, by centuriating and draining land, and by planting fora and colonies and encouraging conciliabula, they transformed land use (146-56); by relocating populations, controlling winter pastureland, and requiring young men to fight for Rome, they interfered with older transhumant patterns of mobility and broke down (and re-formed) existing social institutions and identities (156-66). This process was successful because its “reciprocal manner” allowed Romans and their allies “to adjust to the process within a context of beliefs and patterns of behavior that both understood” (162). Public laws in this long stretch of time concerned themselves with “issues raised by the interaction between Romans and other inhabitants of Italy during the course of Roman expansion” (166-74 at 167), especially in the regulation of access to land: here the sententia Minuciorum of 117 BC (because it mediated between Roman and Italian/transhumant conceptions of land use) and the lex agraria of 111 BC are especially significant (168-73). Because the latter concerned land in Italy and non-citizen Italians (apparently) accepted it, W. identifies it as an example of “the level of commitment of the peoples of Italy to the state created in Italy by the Romans” (174), and (therefore?) of the fact that “the broad acceptance of public lawmaking assemblies throughout conquered lands as a mediating authority … provides an index of the amalgamation of outsiders” (176). The chapter ends with two tables of laws, those relating to expansion and those relating to land.

Chapter Five (“Incorporation: Citizenship and Military Service,” 191-238) argues that the military organization and deployment of Italians alongside Romans was of major importance in making Roman citizenship “acceptable” to the Italians, as was the flexibility of tribes and centuries in integrating new citizens (192). Grants of restricted or full citizenship, a “reciprocal” solution to the problem of maintaining Roman community (200), were made and, over time, the Roman concept of citizenship also became detached from location, a startling development crucial to later Roman success (192-6). Some allies preferred to remain allies (200); the change between 381 and 90 is therefore cast as one in which Italians were assimilated and thereby made to feel that Roman citizenship is something worth having (201). Italian cities were hubs of this assimilation because local leaders here became involved in the “apparatus of Roman dominion,” specifically the administration of the Roman military draft; through this, “participation turned into commitment” and acculturation (the use of Latin, the display of common Greek cultural attributes) followed (202-3; 241). Military service itself was, however, the predominant form of attachment and the predominant avenue of assimilation, leading Italians to embrace “the Roman sense of organization, regularization, and order” and to meld with their Roman counterparts (206-12 at 211). Assimilation and acculturation are especially demonstrated by the involvement of conquered peoples in Rome’s law-making assemblies, which indicates their recognition — deep knowledge — that law-making assemblies were “the ultimate mediating authority in Roman society:” “[a]lthough Roman ius civile was by definition centered on Rome and restricted to Romans, public lawmaking sessions soon embraced Roman and non-Roman in a common effort” (204). Latins and Italians twice sent envoys to Rome with requests (once to the Senate, for a law; once to “the Romans,” for “relief”), in 177 and 172; in 149 a quaestio on the enslavement of Lusitanians was proposed, “presumbly at the request of the Lusitanians;” and in 133 Italiotai converged on Rome for the assembly in which Tiberius Gracchus’s land-law would be considered (204-5; the dispute over the interpretation of Appian’s Italiotai was buried in a much earlier note, 58 n.11). “Clearly, the conquered peoples embraced … the Roman ways of resolving division in the community through public lawmaking in Rome” (205). And, although the full citizen’s rewards and “access to resources” were clearly of interest to Italians, “the primary way to express power as a citizen was voting” (212; also 248) and this, W. implies, is what Italians wanted most. The focus thus turns to the composition of the law-making assemblies themselves (212-27). The development of tribes and centuries, briefly surveyed, displays “flexibility” (in degree of geographic specificity, monetary requirement for enrollment in a property class, and overall definition, 212-21) and also allowed the incorporation of outsiders to proceed while recognizing and maintaining their ethnic identity and local ties (226). The reforms of the centuriate assembly at the end of the third century BC reallotted or redefined the centuries into tribal units (while nonetheless maintaining the sequential voting by property rating characteristic of this assembly), which had the consequence of making clear to tribesmen how their wealthier tribesmen had voted: “[i]n summary, the voting procedure of the centuriate assembly turned at crucial moments on the tribes … [although] the reformed centuriate assembly hid the fundamental unifying role of the tribe in building the assembly” (223). This “tribal potential for cohesion” was thus “critical but submerged” in this assembly, but “more easily identifiable in the tribal assembly,” and “the steadily increasing role of the tribal assemblies,” in general but also in specific comparison to the centuriate assembly, ” … provides compelling evidence of the the weight of the tribes in Roman political life” (223-4). The uses to which law-making assemblies were put help to confirm this: despite the employment of senatusconsulta (193, 228) and magisterial edicts (228) in many of the changes to tribe, century, and citizenship numbers, the prime instrument making the incorporation of new citizens possible was the lawmaking assembly, which was also strengthened “by the expansion and invigoration of the citizen body” (228). Internal opposition to extensions of citizenship was resolved here as well (199). This chapter also ends with two tables, one of laws relating to citizen status and citizen liberties, the other of property ratings and voting units.

Chapter Six (“Convergence: the City of Rome,” 239-82) describes the centrality of the city in the lives of Romans and others, and as a consequence deduces a high level of movement in and out of the city (239-40, 254-5). The growth of the city over time, a result of regional expansion and economic growth, displays — in cults and names of neighborhoods, for example — the footprint of outsiders and naturalized citizens. In the same centuries, Roman citizens were scattered, or newly made, throughout Italy, although drawn back to Rome on a regular basis for civic (census, dilectus, assemblies), economic, judicial, and ritual (tribal and familial) reasons (244-50), a magnet effect that “institutionalized” mobility to and from Rome and partly depended on the roads Rome built (248; 250-2). Construction in the city — water and sewage systems, the city’s market, ritual, and civic facilities — “also met the needs of a mobile people” (252). Such mobility, “the order of the day,” made the population of the city of Rome (although growing constantly in aggregate) “fundamentally unstable” (254-5). Veterans, allies, and those dispossessed of their land (W. judges the number of freed slaves and foreign craftsmen in the city to be negligible, 255-6) are the mobile populations most visible in the historical record, where they are seen influencing legislation and seeking work and subsidized or free grain (256-9). Because inhabitants of Italy converged on Rome so frequently and in such numbers, and because impoverished citizens knew that they could acquire land by law (and non-citizens, citizenship), the law-making assemblies must have “exerted a unique pull” (259). “[A]n important reason why … citizens migrated to Rome … was precisely in order to participate in assemblies” (260), where resources could be shared out and wrongs righted. The apparent fact that newcomers to the city could survive, and that order continued to characterize the life of such a vast and quickly growing city, is indirect testimony to the strength of the social bonds that expanded to enmesh them — familial, city-of-origin, tribal, professional (through collegia), religious, and those of their new neighborhoods — with many of these overlapping but the tribal tie the most important (262-7; 274-5; but note also 391-2, the “traditional understandings about social hierarchy … were key to maintaining public order in Rome”). The public lawmaking process was “vitally important in creating the conditions” that led to Roman prosperity created by this expansion (267), since the laws passed were often those that “removed impediments to Rome’s continued central position in an expanding empire” (268): economic and commercial laws, laws about officeholders, laws establishing special commissions of inquiries ( quaestiones), all laid out in two tables at the end of the chapter. Surprisingly few laws, however, concerned themselves with city management or civic order (272-3). Nonetheless, “[a]ll Romans understood the necessity for resolving potentially disruptive issues in lawmaking assemblies, which represented in microcosm the balance of forces in the city of Rome” (275).

Part II traverses a vast and interesting territory, both chronological and geographic, but neither the argument nor the evidence is entirely satisfactory. The point of the three chapters together is that assimilation of the Italians (achieved and attested in a variety of ways) bonds the hearts and minds of Italians and Romans; that the centrality of the city of Rome in a readily and regularly mobile universe is established and deepened; and that deep knowledge of Roman ways (and the law-making process in particular) is thereby created. This last consequence is, however, merely assumed to follow naturally from the facts of assimilation and centrality. But does it? Can wider context prove a specific connection? If it does not, then much of these three chapters is merely digressive — pleasant and interesting, to be sure, but not relevant to any specific argument about Italian acceptance of the centrality of Roman law-making assemblies in Roman life.

To this reader, at least, the argumentation was insufficient. The questions were good: why, one must ask, would Italians come to appreciate the place of, specifically, law-making assemblies in the Roman experience? Why would extra-mural Romans make the trek to Rome for law-making assemblies in particular? The larger contextual answers offered — “because the Italians were acculturated,” “because Italian assimilation took place through military service, grants of (full or partial) citizenship, and tribal accommodation,” “because the city of Rome was central to Romans,” “because voting was a central act of citizenship,” “because it was in citizens’ economic interests to vote at assemblies in which legislation to their advantage was being discussed,” “because attendance was high” (never established directly, but “many must have” attended because “convening in assemblies … allowed the primary expression of citizenship,” 101) — establish the possibility of a causal relation, not the fact of it. And the actual evidence is in the end too weak to prove such a causal relation between context of assimilation and centralization and the exaltation of the place of law-making that is presumed to result. An Italian interest in full citizenship in the second century BC need prove nothing more than an Italian appreciation of the grim and ever-more-obvious fact that citizens and Italians were rewarded unequally for their military efforts; Italian quiescence in the face of failed attempts to grant them provocatio need prove only that they had no choice and no effective form of redress (199-200); an Italian presence at Tiberius Gracchus’s assembly in 133 BC need prove nothing more than an Italian understanding that noisy mobs can influence legislation or, indeed, disrupt ritually delicate processes (as in 233 n.56); Italian petitions for help — in a boundary dispute, in controlling the emigration of citizens to Rome, in preventing wrongful enslavement by a Roman — need prove nothing more than Italian acceptance of the fact that their dominant partner was in a position to ameliorate their situation (as contemporary Greeks knew as well), not always specific knowledge and approval of how that dominant partner would do it. Even the lex agraria of 111 BC (a “triumph of Roman notions of private land ownership,” 171) cannot prove Italian endorsement of Roman ideas and Roman decision-making in assemblies; it proves only that whatever the Romans decided, the Italians had to accept. Similarly, the fact that veterans and the landless are prominently present at the law-making assemblies that promised them land or grain can establish only that such people were there on those occasions, not that they had travelled to the city at that time, regularly travelled to the city for such occasions, or had forced the legislation by being in the city at that time; the anecdote of Publius Elvius’s trip to Rome for the ludi Romani cannot prove that such travel was routine (247).

This over-reliance on context to establish a specific connection occurs elsewhere in these chapters as well. Necessary Italian actions, like conscription or census undertaken to fulfill the manpower obligations established by treaty, become for W. signs of acculturation because they serve Roman purposes (202); the census in Italian towns is particularly claimed as evidence that “Roman organization was taking over,” although there is no evidence that the Italian census ever came under the jurisdiction of the Roman censor (210); the fact of a five-year census cycle in Rome is interpreted as a consequence of the understood fluctuation of property ownership and property value in a time of expansion, not as the (concomitant and perhaps more straightforward) consequences of high rates of disease and death in a militarily active population (219). Notably striking are the problems posed by W.’s efforts to prove the “primary attachment of every citizen” to “his tribe” (216) and the importance of the tribe in Roman life: the centrality of tribes in networks political and otherwise, for example, is derived from references to the tribe in texts like the Gracchan lex repetundarum or the Commentariolum. Here, however, tribal identity is merely one of several to which a praetor hearing a case or a politician canvassing for votes must be attentive: family, patronage, collegia, and sodalitates are all important in these texts, and there is no good reason to privilege tribe over any of these other connections (225-6, 266; acknowledged later at 302-4). The centrality of the tribe is also deduced from the poorly understood adjustments to the centuriate assembly in the late third century BC, but this reform (treated in only two-and-a-half pages) results in a significantly unifying role for the tribe that is nonetheless “hidden” (221-3) and therefore contributes less than (perhaps) it should to the point being made. Mere mention or existence cannot establish either centrality or significance; these must be argued. In short, the great and admirable efforts of Part II construct the great, long bones of context but not the crucial joints of connection, and the cartilege and ligaments of evidence tear under the strain.

3. Summary and Assessment of Part III.

Part Three (“The Decline of the Republic,” 283-414) also comprises three chapters, these detailing the subversion of public law and the processes that created it in the very century in which it appeared to be at its apogee. Chapter Seven (“A Roman Balance,” 285-323) asks how Romans before this century coped with a steady inflow of new citizens — how they worked “to maintain the integrity of the system” (286). The composition of the governing classes of Republican Rome was, necessarily, constantly changing (war produced fatalities, fatalities produced opportunities for others), but newcomers (ensured entry because the people were “far more ecumenical” than the nobility, 288) were always a problem for the “leading clans.” The “almost insurmountable friction” within the governing elite between new and old families, friction that would bring down the Republic (289), began in the fourth century, manifested itself regularly in efforts to create magistracies, regulate access to office, and control membership of the Senate or a century (often through laws, but also through efforts of the censors, 289-91), and was the result of the growing number of Romans competing for office — in other words, a problem created by expansion and never solved (291). The new members of Rome’s political leadership were aware that “holding the loyalties of the majority population required new efforts” (293), for the “volatility” of law-making starting with Gaius Gracchus (repeated legislation on similar matters, and lots of it) indicates that “the mechanisms of reciprocity” between increasingly diverse voters and officeholders had “forever changed” (294). Specifically, patronage could not keep up: labor contracts preserved in Cato’s de agricultura attest to the absence of lasting attachment (i.e., patronage) between rural landowner and rural workforce (294-6); the bonds of military service superseded other connections “in a world of changing relationships” (297); the “civil rights and privileges” of citizens “transcended any reliance on the deference owed to Roman senator or elected official” (297); and there were simply too many citizens with too few attachments, or following too many new potential leaders. Even in this more fluid world, however, the “real danger to the Roman system … came from men of highest status” (301). The growing number of potential leaders “invited efforts” to control elite behavior in office through law: criminalizing activities like those now called repetundae, ambitus, and maiestas, and using the law-making assemblies to do so, confirms “a societywide concern to set limits on an irrepressible aristocracy” (302) and a desire in Roman leaders to manage extensive change in the leadership group (306). The introduction of the written ballot in three different venues between 139 and 130 was not a democratic move but an attack on the power of tribal leaders (and the already established elite to whom they were connected), since a man handing in a written ballot no longer had to state his vote to the (presumably intimidating) tribal rogator. “How,” after all, “could the Roman people express their will effectively when the influx of newcomers to a tribe could so vastly expand the power of tribal leaders that they had the capability of skewing such expression?” (307). So written ballots prevented such distortion, restored an even playing field for all members of the expanding governing group, and served the particular purposes of newcomers, one of whom (Gabinius) sponsored the first of the laws. Such action was merely one of many (spanning 250 years, table 7.3) designed to ensure that the law-making process worked “the way it was supposed to” (309): such efforts included laws about procedure and laws that preserved “the open conditions deemed essential for the production of legitimate law” and the “uncoerced expression of community consensus” (310). All the difficulties and tensions consequent upon Rome’s expanding leadership “helped ensure that public lawmaking came into its own as a mechanism of adjustment” (315). Three tables — offices and positions, crimes, voting assemblies — end the chapter.

Chapter Eight (“Crisis and Restoration, 91-70,” 324-66) follows the interaction of events and law-making: the chief problems, again, were the widespread frictions accompanying Roman expansion and “the attenuation of the traditional balance among the various tribes, classes, and status groups,” the chief solutions laws or law proposals that restored “the Roman way” as various groups interpreted this (325). The citizenship issue in the Social War and the laws that ended it are the first example (326-8), the civil war of 88-82, the laws associated with this time period, and Sulla’s lawmaking of 82-81 the second (328-39); the third is the continuing conflict over the incorporation of new citizens after 90 (339-44). The tribune P. Sulpicius is characterized as “[c]learly aiming at reconciliation and the restoration of some balance in the Roman community after a trying war,” the acceptance of his laws of 88 by the people as reflecting “a communitywide desire to integrate some new members in controlled ways, to reconcile old, and to conserve the Senate membership” (330), although violent disagreement marked all the contiones about these proposals. Sulla as dictator, signalling a new awareness of the “political potential of lawmaking assemblies” (338; also 403, he was “the first”), developed several new tools to solve “the dilemma of leadership” (defined in part as a need to maintain “traditional relationships between groups,” 337-8): proscriptions and massacre — “a sensible solution to pressing claims for parity within the Roman community by groups the Romans thought they could not absorb” (334) — and numerous new quaestiones, which were “designed to allow Sulla and the Senate to control undesirable members of the Roman elite by accusing them of crimes that could be sustained” (336). Leadership in fact “would continue to be the prime divisive issue in the Roman state” (338), for the continuous admission of Latins and Italians into Roman citizenship and the highest property classes brought “the rightful leadership of Rome … increasingly into question,” and newcomers at lower levels undermined the “customary relationship between the leaders and the led” (340). Although this weakening of customary relationships had been under way (according to W.) since the 160s (as already noted in Chapter Seven, 293-301), it is treated as a significantly visible issue only now (” if all tribes were flooded with large numbers of new citizens the traditional balances … could be lost,” 341), and Sulla devised a number of ways, specifically by limiting the censorship and the tribunate, to ensure that “the whole process of formal incorporation through tribe and property classes” would be put on hold (in the event, until the year 70 BC, 343). Such delaying tactics had a steep price, however, since major crises — of 87, 83-1, 78 (Lepidus), 73-1 (Spartacus), and 63 (Catilinarian Conspiracy), as well as later (through 44 BC, 359) — “were all in one way or another an outcome of the failure to accord full citizenship to qualified newcomers and to effectively manage their absorption into Roman society” (344). This failure led to the social disruption and debt that fuelled these crises (344-50); that the Romans survived these crises is attributed to their success, “even now,” in using public lawmaking assemblies to reach “generally acceptable solutions to societywide crises” (348), one example of this being Pompey’s legislation of 70, identified as a powerful step towards “restoring community cohesion along traditional lines” (357). Yet these assemblies were now, “for the first time … undergoing a … transformation at the hands of a new aristocracy” (350), and were “grievously flawed” as a result of their inability to absorb all the newcomers: they were “less representative of the citizen body than ever” (359).

The consequences of this are the subject of Chapter Nine (“The Demise of Public Law,” 367-414): “[p]ublic lawmaking as the uncoerced expression of the people’s will was for all practical purposes over” by 47 BC because “a more varied and irregular leadership … began to use the process to advance special interests” (368) — although some still tried to use it to restore the balance of traditional ways — and in the end displayed “an irrevocable consensus … to silence the voice of the Roman people” (401). This argument is first explored through three episodes of lawmaking, in 67 (369-74), 59 (374-9), and 58 (380-6). These produced politically motivated laws that concerned themselves with issues of leadership (373, 376); with the economic and political interests of equestrians, and matters involving new citizens (379); and with the accommodation of new citizens, the access to resources, and the rightful leadership of Rome (386), thereby revealing a “leadership in conflict within itself and with the people” (371), “the attenuation of the traditional linkages between members of the Roman state at all levels” (375), and “competitive lawmaking, now a common phenomenon” (385, 389). Clodius in particular had a talent for recruiting the downtrodden — already organized into vici and collegia in Rome — and “molding them into a group with a voice, and arms, within the tribes” (381); he must have relied “on the influencing presence” of these downtrodden, his supporters, in the assemblies that passed his laws (383). Despite the obviously self-serving tenor of much of his legislation, “he also had the people’s interest at heart,” for his vision was that of “deliberate, controlled, group participation by marginal citizens [even the disenfranchised and slave] in the traditional political process” (386). Others did their best to regularize and protect customary formal procedures in lawmaking assemblies, where violations of procedure (including violence, bribery, and the cancellation of laws) had become increasingly common (386-97). This, however, resulted in the curtailment, indeed the subjugation, of the potential for group expression (388), which sometimes then had to express itself through violence (392). “Arguably … at the core of the inability of elite Romans to sustain the customary operation of the system … is the massive transformation” in its membership (393), but the final blow was dealt by Julius Caesar, who first monopolized the legal treatment of uncontroversial matters, then dictated legal results in more controversial issues (397-401), and finally was deemed to produce legitimate laws through posthumous written versions alone (403), setting the stage for the imperial dictation of law. Four tables (public law sponsors of 67, then of 59-58; laws about the conduct of assemblies; law topics and sponsors) then end the chapter. An Epilogue (415-34) summarizes the many intertwined arguments of the book, a process apparently just as complicated and lengthy for the author as it has been for me.

This last Part proposes a new and specific understanding of an old and general explanation of the fall of the Roman Republic: that Rome outgrew the institutions of the city-state with which she began her rise to world power, with fatal results. It also attempts to weave into this an understanding of the corrosive effects of divisions between the classes; to downplay the attention given to the politics of the ruling group (368) while nonetheless identifying and giving proper historical significance to the friction within that group; to emphasize horizontal rather than vertical solidarity in a collapsing world; and to defend the centrality of the sovereignty of the people and the legitimacy of law at a time when one was abused and the other politicized and undermined. A tall order, and one that leads, perhaps inevitably, to too much internal contradiction for the argument as a whole to stand.

(a) There are substantial problems of timing. If the lawmaking institutions of the state are to fail under the pressure of too many people, the great rush of people and the wobbling of institutions need to exist in some sort of a clear chronological relationship that permits the deduction of cause and effect; and “failing” should be defined. “Wobbling” is of course a subjective assessment. But W. dates the dissolution of bonds of patronage to the 160s, the politicization of the legal process to Sulla (although an even stronger argument could be made for Gaius Gracchus), violence over lawmaking to “the later Republic” (388; traditionally, such violence begins with Tiberius Gracchus), and cancellation of laws to 103 and 100 (Saturninus); yet the turning point for law-making is 90 or 81 BC (358; 339), and the big rush of new citizens is after 70 BC. To retreat behind the concept of the anticipation and gradual intensification of these problems — that they are worrisome for a long time, but really only blossom after 70 — seems to me merely avoidance of a major disjunction: there is a least a generation between problem and cause in almost every aspect suggested. To stretch the “problem” of newcomers at the elite level back in time (even into the fourth century BC) does not help to explain the specific troubles of the late Republic either.

(b) W. identifies the incorporation of newcomers, especially of the wealthier and more ambitious ones, as a constant and escalating problem. But was it? Isn’t there some point in a phenomenon that goes on for two hundred and fifty years, longer than the United States has been in existence, at which one can say that a system of incorporation, even if imperfect, works? The Roman leadership was remarkably porous all through the Republic, and especially “wide open” after 70 BC (351); if there is regularly a place for such people, if they regularly attain a place, and if the problem of their existence is (therefore) regularly solved, perhaps their incorporation is not so much of a problem after all. A growing pool of potential leaders doesn’t necessarily translate into greater pressure on the existing elite: for every Marius there may have been not just one Atticus, but two or three. Some of the “problematic” nature of this phenomenon of elite incorporation is, I suspect, derived from the undeniable competitiveness of the governing elite (e.g., 336), but competitiveness could derive from other sources, like the drive for glory, the oppressive weight of the splendid past and distinguished family, or the sense that the rewards of achievement, both tangible and intangible, are growing.

(c) And indeed, even if there was virtually unsustainable pressure on the governing elite from ambitious newcomers, and their presence could be demonstrated to correlate clearly with the faltering of Roman institutions, why would these newcomers, this new aristocracy, be responsible for the transformation (and debasement) of the lawmaking process (393-4)? If the many pages of Part II are taken to heart, few Italian outsider-equestrians would have needed to traverse any great mental distance to understand and respect Roman institutions like the lawmaking assemblies. For these were the men who, W. argued previously, were so in tune with everything that Romans believed and cherished about their own institutions. Would they not have been the first to resort again to arms when their appropriate tribal and century registration was shamelessly blocked between 90 and 70 BC? Instead, they are quite surprisingly represented as men who were “not necessarily privy to the conventions of rule shared by an earlier elite group” (355), and from this, bad results for lawmaking seem to follow. Yet it seems more likely to me that if these newcomers had lacked anything, they would have lacked confidence, not expertise, knowledge of conventions, or self-restraint. And if they had actually lacked expert or conventional knowledge, if they were “noticeably … less well equipped”(354), there were (despite proscription) enough old-time senators who had survived Sulla, like Lutatius Catulus — the Robert Byrd of the late-Republican Senate — who could have helped them. Or they could even have been helped by a new man — Cicero — whose knowledge of the conventional process and lofty purposes of lawmaking was so profound that his speeches contributed W.’s paradigms for how Romans thought about and presented laws in Chapter Two. Moreover, the men who endorsed the legal process most strongly, while wrenching it around most convincingly to serve their own purposes, were Sulla and Caesar, patricians from very old Roman families. Desperation for political advantage and advancement, not lack of knowledge, point of origin, or newcomer status in a transforming aristocracy, can suffice to explain the troubles in which lawmaking found itself, in the last decades of the Republic.

(d) Even if friction between old and new members of the Roman governing elite could be shown to be the friction that brought down the Republic (289), a reader cannot help thinking that the final precipitating event here was not Sulla vs. Marius, but Caesar vs. Pompey: not old citizen vs. new, but old vs. (established-if-not-quite-so) old citizen. This suggests that the power base of such men — a power base to which they must be connected through some, or many, forms of vertical bonding — still needs to be part of any understanding of the fall of the Republic, and leads one to question just how much the customary bonds between leader and people had attenuated. The addition of so many new citizens into the thirty-five tribes after 70 might indeed have simply overwhelmed a system in which the curatores tribuum could have expected to have any knowledge of individuals (343). But, if in 63 BC tribes still had custodes and divisores, the latter with “long-established techniques of distribution among tribesmen of all … stations” (381) and who were of some use to the blueblood Clodius, then there was still tribal organization and it was still working and it could still connect elite and people. So these institutions had not failed in the tsunami of new citizens either, and there is no need to dismiss as wishful nostalgia the Commentariolum‘s injunction to seek out tribal leaders (431). Other vertical bonds may not have suffered too greatly either, and it should not be forgotten that, if the granting of citizenship were seen as a gift, then the grantor might well be viewed as a patron, another vector of interpretation in the constant arguing over the inclusion of the Italians (and others) in the Roman state. If Italians indeed offered an oath of personal loyalty to Livius Drusus in return for persuading the Romans to grant them citizenship (Diodorus 37.11), then an urgent political reason for his murder does spring to mind. This is not to suggest that any old-fashioned model of face-to-face patronage as the sole key to political supremacy is still viable. But it seems reasonable to imagine vertical bonding as attractive and useful wherever it could be inherited, established, or adjusted, and new techniques (like oratory) for winning over groups of people — attached or unattached — exploited in addition, whenever possible.

These are, in short, four interrelated arguments of the book — timing, incorporation at the elite level, consequence of incorporation at the elite level for lawmaking, and the attenuation of vertical bonds — that culminate here in Part III, but fail to persuade because at every turn they suggest alternative explanations (some even acknowledged by the author) that seem just as, or more, compelling. This is a problem that, I think, derives directly from the use of leges and plebiscita as the chief avenue and agent of analysis: laws and their uses can be so all-encompassing that there is no facet of Roman Republican life they do not touch. W. did try to explain everything, but too much in the end eluded her grasp — because no one could have done it. Yet even so, she could have helped herself and her case in a number of relatively straightforward ways that would have plugged some gaps and soothed some doubts. The moment of lawmaking that is, arguably, most crucial to this book is the citizenship law of the year 90, but its actual passage is treated in less than a page (326-7); the fact that Appian ( BC 1.49) attributes the withdrawal of many Italians from the war to a senatusconsultum promising citizenship, not a law, is not mentioned (perhaps it can be explained away, but it needs to be); and the astonishing about-face between 91 BC (the murder of Drusus for proposing Italian citizenship) and the apparently uncontroversial law of 90 is explained only by noting that the war was going badly. If the law of 90 was in fact easy to pass (it was accepted “[w]ith no recorded opposition,” 327), this must mean that the people wanted it; and, if the people wanted the Italians to enjoy full citizenship, then the previous anecdotes of their resistance to the concept (despite resistance itself being stated as a fact on page 325) must be the distortion of speakers who attributed to the people beliefs the latter may have held but which were much more obviously the view of the Roman leaders (339), an implicit contradiction, of course, of what W. claims effective leaders in Rome were: “absolutely dependent for their positions … on their varying abilities to articulate the will of the people” (116; see also 74, 123, 376, 418). So was everyone who inflamed or reported on this obstinacy a bad leader or an unreliable source? Was the determined resistance that blindsided Gaius Gracchus based on an attitude that was only “somewhat popular” (339)? Arguing away inconvenient evidence by attributing it to the distortion, the misunderstanding (88), or the elitism (68, 308) of the sources (when otherwise the same sources are treated as perfectly reliable), is, frankly, an irritating bad habit and makes readers suspicious, as is the flat dismissal of other scholars, although this may be the result of very tight stipulations on footnotes by the publisher (e.g., 238 n.145). Dating Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon to 50 BC (258, 367) also makes readers very suspicious — of the author’s control of detail at very least, as do unsubstantiated statements (“most wars fought between the 130s and the 60s … failed to bring gold and silver into the Roman treasury,” 345), asides that suggest misunderstandings (Marius’s career an example of the “limitations” of patronage, 80, or the idea that the Senate, through Calpurnius Piso, “obstructed the implementation” of the lex Gabinia, 371), and bad Latin ( vires militares, 374; lex de provincia consulare, 385). Occasional forays into the footnotes were not reassuring (e.g., 281 n.57, where the reference should be Cassius Dio 41.1-7, not 40.59-66, and there is no mention of free grain as a motivation). Footnotes are meant to help, but vague referencing (to entire books, e.g., 59 n.26, 411 n.86) and cross-referencing (to entire chapters in this book, e.g., 126 n.29, 322 n.53) do not assist very much; all too often remarks in the text of the “many scholars believe” type were not substantiated by any footnote (e.g., 329, 330; 364 n.32 has only one scholar), and footnotes that were given did not respond to the crucial element in the sentence footnoted (e.g., 24 n.39, 103 n.7, 213 n.90, 255 n.51, etc.). Editors should also have helped more with contradictory statements, often on the same page (“almost anyone could become a Roman … the Romans were clearly selective in bringing outsiders into the Roman citizen body,” 194; citizenship was “a singular matter decided only by the people” on 198, but on 193 it had been granted by Senate decree too; on 350 public law received “the same respect as ever” from Romans, but on the same page they are also “accustomed to its evanescence”; see also 261, 274), and infelicities like the implication that Appian wrote in Latin (” … Sulla’s ‘new laws’ (leges novae) as Appian describes them … ,” 335). These are all technical matters that are easily fixed, but they were not and should have been, for, as Cicero would have insisted, if interrogated about his de lege agraria, persuasiveness resides at least in part in the details.

4. Further Thoughts.

An important contention of this book, and the most thought-provoking, is that public lawmaking enables, creates, enacts, and affirms the consensus and unity of the people (19, 20, 32, 33, 96, 228, 275, 315). But what was this consensus, and did the strength of the people, the laws, and the state depend on it? At one level a type of consensus — about procedure — must have existed: the principle of group voting is never challenged, so the concept that the majority (of tribes or centuries) of a majority (of individuals within some unevenly sized tribes or centuries) will render the opinion of all must have been seen as acceptable, must have commanded assent. But “we accept these uneven weightings in voting because this is the way we have always voted” and “we have achieved consensus on these specific issues, about which we previously disagreed passionately, by virtue of having voted on them in this way” are two very different matters, and it is difficult to get from the first to the second. Perhaps it always was difficult to make this leap, and consensus on matter rather than procedure — the second option — never existed. The predominant view in the late Republic, “we accept that the result was legitimate, but we nonetheless think there’s nothing wrong with coming back tomorrow and changing the result by doing it again” — which may be what W. means by “a facade of public agreement” (358) — would then be the one that Romans had always had: by tradition and convention, they respected the results of a lawmaking assembly when the procedure had been performed properly, but they were not committed heart and soul to the results (and therefore unwilling to change them) precisely because the result achieved did not command consensus. Or perhaps agreement of the majority replaced consensus about matter merely as part of a change over time. Such a change could be the result of what Roman lawmaking assemblies were used for, how often they were used, or the voters’ perceptions of why laws were being proposed: a voter sensing a purpose behind a vote that was different from the apparent purpose of the law itself will react with a different level of commitment to the result. Every law passed cannot have been, or been seen as, for the greater good of Rome or the Roman people, despite W.’s earnest and well-meaning desire that it be so (extending even to the legislation of Gabinius, Vatinius, and Clodius); every law, indeed most of those of the late Republic, cannot have commanded consensus even after passage. Indeed, the imposition of oaths to uphold laws, an innovation (apparently) of Saturninus in 100 BC, confirms this. Such oaths attempted to impose individual commitment to the law (as demonstrated also in other contexts: 208, 295-6) and force perfect and audible consensus when (we must assume) it did not exist. This surely was an attempt to make reality out of (what was now) a fiction, required because actuality and hope (or tradition) were too dissonant, not because the supply of trust was vanishing (304) or because there was a “weakening commitment to the lawmaking process” (390). And the more obvious self-interest and manipulation — through oaths, but also through rhetoric — on either side of the leader/mass divide, the more necessary it became to view laws as temporary, as ad hoc and majority-driven rather than consensus-enacting. Consensus may always have been a myth. If it merely eroded over time, however, it was clearly seen to have done so by the year 100 BC, and all of the factors that could have contributed to that erosion — change in use, frequency, attitude of proposer — were there in the legislation, passed and planned, of Gaius Gracchus, the man from an old Roman noble family who used the lawmaking assembly as a weapon of vengeance a generation before the Italians were granted full citizenship and fifty-three years before their full incorporation into, and the (presumed) failure of, properly functioning lawmaking assemblies. The fact that legislation continued to be seen as legitimate even when it no longer embodied and affirmed consensus must therefore mean that its legitimacy rested not on the consensual implications of its making, as W. thinks, but on something else, like tradition or ritual formality.

A related contention is that assemblies enjoyed “a central position in Roman society” (xiii): by creating legitimate law, they expressed and enacted the sovereignty of the people, which permitted them (and them alone) to resolve the most important conflicts. But was only one set of institutions in the state, the assemblies, truly central, leaving the others, like magistracies and Senate, as merely peripheral? All occupying “a central position” together would make more sense. For agreement among magistrates, Senate, and assemblies mattered, since each could block the other (the Senate as late as 60 BC was thwarting the will of great men and the people, 376) and good opinions conferring an impression of unanimity were valued on all sides (92, 96, 109). Even Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, both good leaders in W.’s eyes (355), learned that pressing ahead to meet the people’s needs without at least token agreement from magistrates and Senate exacted a very great price. Here a further exploration of rogationes that failed to pass (mentioned in passing, 327, 335, 371, 372, 379, 381) could have been quite useful and illuminating: where and why did the process go wrong? Was the fault only that these proposals did not command consensus, that they were not in the people’s best interests? One failure was the agrarian law of 63, another a proposal in favor of greater openness in jury voting; by the logic of the book’s overall argument they should have passed. Examinations of failures as well as successes in lawmaking might well have exposed an intense set of societal and institutional interconnections that went far beyond leader and lawmaking assembly, and that would have defined good leaders as more than just sensitive and accurate channellers of the people’s desires. As a consequence of this kind of investigation, one might well conclude that the more important consensus (in the sense of agreement everyone could live with, not many hearts beating as one) that broke down in the late Republic may have been that imperfect consensus within the Senate, followed by that imperfect consensus between Senate, magistrates, and people, which had allowed the Senate for centuries to lead by dignitas and deference alone. For centuries, the appearance of agreement was enough; when even the appearance of agreement was openly spurned — by Tiberius Gracchus, by Gaius Gracchus, by Marius — then the possibility of consensus, or just its myth, became infinitely more distant, and eventually unnecessary. Without the myth of consensus or the appearance of agreement, the edifice collapsed into various competing powers — the strength and loyalty of the armies, the sovereignty of the people, the personal power of a Pompey or a Julius Caesar. In this world, the sovereignty of the people was revealed to be fairly puny, a negative rather than positive strength. Laws and elections (and obstructive violence [e.g., 380] and public obloquy) were the unarmed people’s only weapons, all subject to manipulation and intimidation, and fatally dependent to the end on leadership from above.

This is a much more traditional view of the fall of the Republic, to be sure, but the strivings of The Laws of the Roman People to show otherwise by making the lawmaking assemblies the agents and avenues of the Republic’s rise and decline suggest above all that consensus and popular sovereignty were, most likely, Roman myths. They were traditional, resonant, and very powerful myths, but revealed to be no more than myths when too many insiders refused to sustain them any further. In the end, this book has all the gory fascination of a terrible train wreck, but one in which the broken cars have split open to reveal interesting and thought-provoking contents, and the fate of the entirety in its jackknifed agony provokes very large thoughts about why the cars of the train locked together and moved at high speed in the first place — and what, in the end, causes a train to jump its tracks.