BMCR 2006.01.48

Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History

, Conspiracy narratives in Roman history. 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.. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2004. 1 online resource (viii, 197 pages). ISBN 0292797184 $45.00.

Last summer’s identification of W. Mark Felt as Watergate informant “Deep Throat” has brought the idea of secret informants and political conspiracies back into the headlines. The luxury of this new information permits us to revisit the “facts” of that scandal and to draw conclusions based on new evidence. We do not have the same advantage in examining political plots and conspiracies from antiquity, but Victoria Pagán [hereafter P.] nevertheless contributes to an improved understanding of the narrative difficulties faced by authors writing about conspiracies during the Roman republic and empire. Specifically, P. is interested in examining how authors addressed the issue of narrating secret words and deeds while attempting to maintain narrative continuity. In addition, she considers the role of liminal personalities in the form of women, slaves and foreigners in transmitting such secrets from the private to public sphere.

P. collects well-attested examples of conspiracies and analyzes these historical narratives from a literary-critical perspective; the book leaves aside the question of the events’ historicity and instead “seeks to understand how the Roman historians talk about conspiracy; how they articulate, in the open and public forum of history writing, the closed and secret event of conspiracy” (p. 5). The fundamental difficulty for the historian is to construct a coherent narrative about an event that, by definition, is not openly or widely known. P. examines five of the most famous conspiracy narratives in Roman history, choosing in each instance a substantial, connected narrative for discussion. The book thus covers conspiracies that range from 186 B.C. to A.D. 65, and Roman historians from the late Republican era to the Antonine age.

The structure of the book is as follows: after an introduction, it is divided into five chapters grouped into two parts, according to the end result of the conspiracy. Part One, “Betrayed Conspiracies,” contains three chapters on individual narratives, arranged chronologically by the date of composition. Chapter 1 examines Sallust’s monograph on the Catilinarian conspiracy; Chapter 2 discusses the Bacchanalian affair as narrated in Livy 39.8-19; Chapter 3 focuses on Tacitus’ lengthy narrative concerning the Pisonian conspiracy ( Ann. 15.48-74). The results of these detailed discussions are summarized in a section at the end of this chapter, where P. constructs a “typology of conspiracy narrative.” Part Two, “Successful Conspiracies,” consists of two chapters centered on narratives where the conspiracy was revealed only after its goal had been achieved. Here, Chapter 4 examines the assassination of Caligula (Josephus, AJ 19.1-273), while Chapter 5 is concerned with perhaps the most famous of all assassinations, that of Julius Caesar (Appian, BC 2.111-117). Rounding out the table of contents, the book has a concluding section, notes, an extensive bibliography as well as a general index and an index locorum.

In the Introduction, P. approaches the subject of ancient conspiracy narratives by way of comparison with two modern “conspiracies,” that surrounding the erasure of possible evidence in the Watergate tapes, and the evidence contained (or missing) on the Zapruder film, one man’s recording of the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. While these two events might seem at first to be hardly germane to an analysis of ancient conspiracy narratives, P. rightly observes that modern and ancient historians who set out to record such events face similar difficulties: “In both examples, the information needed to complete the story and to ensure the continuity of an accurate narrative, one that represents the historical event from beginning to end, cannot be recovered.” (p. 3). One of P.’s main aims in the book is to examine “how a historian confronts the limits of knowledge” (p. 4). Conspiracy is by definition a secret event about which certainty is difficult, if not impossible. The problem is compounded by temporal distance from the event itself; consequently P.’s choice of conspiracies that take place over a wide chronological span allows her to see how the treatment of conspiracy narrative develops over time. This temporal span, together with the range of socioeconomic backgrounds of the authors, highlights the differences that crop up in conspiracy narratives from Sallust to Appian; at the same time, however, P. shows us the remarkable similarity of elements that each author chooses to include. P.’s selection of these five accounts is based on their historical importance, the narrative extent of the accounts and the variety of sources that document them. The Introduction concludes with a brief discussion of the meanings and context of the Latin term coniuratio and finally, an exposition of the methodology for examining the conspiracy narratives under discussion.

Sallust’s account of the conspiracy of Catiline is taken up in Chapter 1 from a primarily narratological point of view. After briefly sketching the political and historical context of the conspiracy, P. turns to examining how Sallust maintains narrative continuity in the face of the necessary gap in his knowledge of the events. Among the techniques P. identifies here is Sallust’s use of first person authorial statements to underscore his assertions and to emphasize the extent of his researches. In addition, P. notes the use of unnamed, unspecified sources to report scandalous events that the author might not want to assert in his own persona (e.g. fuere ea tempestate qui dicerent, Sall. Cat. 22.1 [pp.33-4]). P. then examines the maintenance of suspense in a monograph whose outcome was already well-known, observing that standard historiographical techniques such as digressions, speeches and character sketches impede the forward progress of the action, thereby delaying the reader’s arrival at the outcome of the conspiracy and the end of the monograph. P.’s discussion of the preface as one of these “diversionary tactics” offers a useful reading of this much-discussed passage, although it is surprising not to see a reference to the standard works on Latin prose prefaces.1 P. puts a positive spin on Sallust’s treatment of the so-called First Catilinarian conspiracy, calling it “perhaps the most dramatic example of Sallust’s negotiation of an epistemological gap” (p. 40). A less charitable interpretation of the passage is that Sallust wanted to build a circumstantial case for Catiline’s proclivity for conspiracy but, lacking concrete evidence, simply stated as much as he could piece together. The “tone of finality and closure” in the phrase satis dictum could just as easily represent Sallust’s inability to sustain a narrative element based on little or no evidence. The chapter concludes with a well-argued treatment of the roles of marginal characters (Fulvia and the Allobroges) in Sallust’s account. Here, as elsewhere in the book, P. makes a case for the roles of women, foreigners and slaves as integral to the communication of secret information.

The Bacchanalian Affair is the subject of Chapter 2, which includes a concise assessment of our sources for the event, Livy’s brief narrative in Book 39 and the SC de Bacchanalibus, preserved on a bronze tablet and included in the text (p.51), as well as a discussion of the religious and social attitudes towards participation in the Bacchanalia and of the character of the informant, Hispala. This chapter explores more fully the roles of foreigners, women and slaves as intermediaries in transmitting information from a private to public sphere. P. recognizes that Livy’s account and that of the inscription differ in one crucial detail (one meeting of the senate or two) and notes that, whereas other scholars have focused on whether or how Livy is incorrect, “we ought to consider instead why he has chosen to portray the events as he does” (p. 53). In P.’s view, Livy embellishes the narrative as a means of ensuring narrative continuity, that is, to explain how the information was brought into the public sphere. A highlight here is P.’s argument that ritual initiation and conspiracy share many characteristics: they both exist in a liminal state between worlds (p. 59).

The last chapter of Part One deals with the Pisonian conspiracy as recorded by Tacitus ( Ann. 15.48-74), and is followed by a short section on the typology of conspiracy narrative, essentially a summary of the findings of the first three chapters. Tacitus of course had ample material for conspiracy narratives, and the problems of ascertaining “the facts” under a closed regime such as the Principate are a well-known component of the Annales. It is fitting, then, that P. takes the time to assess other instances of conspiracy in Tacitus, primarily the trial of another Calpurnius Piso following the death of Germanicus in Book 3. For example, on the topic of the death of Cn. Piso in Book 3, P. shows how the difficulty of obtaining accurate information manifests itself for the historian: “to maintain the momentum of the story, to avoid silence, the author must first create continuity where there is none, and the reader must infer continuity where the author is unable to sustain it explicitly… Both author and reader must confront the limits of knowledge” (p. 71). Turning to the Pisonian conspiracy proper, P. offers an insightful interpretation of Tacitus’ account. The fact that the narrative of this conspiracy spills over into Book 16 suggests that “the horror of Nero’s suppression could not be contained in one book alone” (p.74). Also on the topic of structure, P. engages in a close reading of Tacitus’ double beginning in narrating the conspiracy. He first mentions it with the traditional naming of the consuls (15.48.1) and again in the next chapter. According to P. the doubling of this beginning has the effect of emphasizing the onset of the conspiracy, of delaying the actual narrative and thus creating suspense, and of linking it with other instances of problematical historical beginnings. P. might have taken this interpretation one step further: just as the conspiracy itself proceeds in two stages (the abortive attempt by Epicharis to incite Proculus to act, and the later agreement by the conspirators as a body to kill Nero at the games) so Tacitus’ narrative has a hesitant beginning emboldened by the intervening character sketch of the “hero”, Piso himself. The remainder of the chapter focuses on the behavior of Epicharis under torture and compares her role in the conspiracy with that of the other women discussed earlier (Fulvia and Hispala). P. demonstrates that Epicharis’ refusal to give in even under severe torture effectively “subvert[s] the republican model of the conspiratorial bedfellow” (p. 83). While Fulvia and Hispala revealed plots against the state, Epicharis kept secret the names of the men involved in a conspiracy to save the state. Such a reversal of roles is in keeping with Tacitus’ larger estimation of the moral quality of the Principate.

The second half of the book concerns successful assassination plots and the difficulties that the historian faces when narrating such events. P. offers two episodes as examples, the assassination of Caligula as told by Josephus, and Appian’s account of Julius Caesar’s assassination. With these two narratives, the historians face slightly different problems than the authors of betrayed conspiracies and it will be useful to consider them together. Since the outcome of the plots was so well-known, the author must work to keep the reader interested; P. explores the ways that Josephus and Appian endeavor to maintain suspense throughout their narratives of the assassination. P. reviews closely the motives of Josephus in recounting the plot and analyzes the ways in which Josephus negotiates the problems of secrecy and authority. Although one might expect that the details of a successful conspiracy would have been less accessible to historians, P. shows that Josephus is remarkably confident in his narrative. Moreover, silence has a dual role here, simultaneously hindering the momentum of the conspiracy and ensuring its success. Appian, on the other hand, announces the conclusion of his narrative right at the outset (p. 112); P. suggests that because opinions were still divided on the morality of Caesar’s assassination, the historian could hold the reader’s attention despite having ‘spoiled’ the ending. People remained fascinated with the plot to kill the dictator. Appian also uses digressions as a tactic to increase suspense in the reader; although the reader knows that Caesar was killed, there is continued interest is in the ‘whys’ and the ‘hows’ of the plot’s execution.

The discussion of Josephus’ account is insightful and brings together many of the themes first introduced in Part One. At the same time, however, P.’s thesis that marginal figures such as slaves, women and foreigners are essential to conspiracy narratives is more difficult to maintain with the accounts of successful conspiracies. Because no one informed the authorities of the impending assassinations, there is little evidence that these figures could serve as vehicles for the conveyance of information from the private to the public sphere. This is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the conspiracies in Part Two: because the conspiracies were successful, the challenges of narrating them are different from the challenges of narrating those that were betrayed. P.’s discussion of Josephus reveals that she is aware of the reduced role that women and slaves play here, but makes an effort to include as an essential component to conspiracy narratives the metaphorical references to slaves embodied in the language surrounding the conspiracy (pp. 104-6). This extension to the metaphorical level is less convincing than P.’s earlier discussions; one senses that because marginal figures have been named as essential components to the typology of conspiracy narratives, P. is compelled to seek out evidence that fits in with that typology. The same can be said for the participation of women in the plot to kill Caesar. As P. rightly observes, only one woman was involved in this conspiracy, Brutus’ wife Porcia. Appian does not include Porcia in his narrative, but mentions her death. After a discussion of Porcia’s self-mutilation as a test of her strength, as it appears in other sources, P. asserts that Porcia set an example of fortitude that informed the depictions of women involved in conspiracies recounted by later authors. Thus, although Porcia has no major role in Appian’s narrative, and although women and slaves are not readily apparent in Josephus, it is worth noting that because Josephus and Appian are relatively late sources, the weak attempts to include women and slaves may be a recognition on their part that such characters are expected to appear in conspiracy narratives. That is, if P.’s typology is correct for the earlier accounts of Sallust and Livy, it is possible that Appian and Josephus modeled their narratives on these earlier examples.

The importance of P.’s book lies in its thoughtful and innovative approach to Roman historiography, especially in its close readings of the conspiracies it considers. P. has provided a theoretically informed reading of some of the major Roman historians; by taking up the relatively common phenomenon of conspiracy in Roman history, the book calls attention to the ways that historians negotiated significant epistemological gaps in their attempts to achieve narrative continuity. Such an approach is a welcome and useful contribution to the study of historiography.


1. For example, Tore Janson, Latin Prose Prefaces: Studies in Literary Conventions (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1968) and Elmar Herkommer, Die Topoi in den Proömien der römischen Geschichtswerke (Diss. Tübingen, 1968).