BMCR 2006.03.26

Die römische Republik von den Gracchen bis Sulla

Bernhard Linke, Die römische Republik von den Gracchen bis Sulla. Geschichte kompakt. Antike. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2005. x, 150 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3534154983 €14.90.

The reader should realize that this book is intended for use in undergraduate courses at German universities. Even at Dutch universities one would hesitate to prescribe German secondary literature at the undergraduate level — it would certainly make one unpopular — and I can imagine that the use of even the best of German handbooks at American or British universities is limited. I shall pay particular attention to the features of the book that determine its usefulness as introduction to students who have little or no previous knowledge of late Republican Rome. A review of this book may nevertheless have some interesting points to make to readers in non-German speaking countries who cannot use the book for the purpose for which it is intended.

The book is part of a series of brief handbooks published by the Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft under the heading ‘Geschichte kompakt’. The series intends to cover subjects that are popular topics of undergraduate courses and its purpose is to provide accessible introductions to those readers who have no previous knowledge of ancient history. Emphasis is put on lowering the threshold of unfamiliar Greek and Latin terminology to history students with no background in those languages. The chief editor on Antiquity is Kai Brodersen; the advisory board includes such eminent German scholars as Peter Funke and Aloys Winterling. Bernhard Linke, professor of Antiquity and Europe at the Technical University of Chemnitz, was unknown to me. The select bibliography mentions only a collection he edited with M. Stemmler: Mos maiorum. Untersuchungen zu den Formen der Identitätsstiftung und Stabilisierung in der rmischen Republik (Stuttgart 2000). L’année philologique includes several recent publications on Roman religion and the role of rituals in stabilizing Roman society.

Linke must be complimented for the clarity and brevity of his account of complex issues. He succeeds in explaining Roman history in plain language without oversimplifying matters. The reader is taken seriously; explanations are given without condescending and unhelpful analogies with the modern world. (For the one exception, which compares Rome ruling the Mediterranean world to Freiburg ruling a hypothetical Freiburgian Empire stretching from France to Russia [p. 2], the author may be forgiven.) Although he sometimes and inevitably chooses one particular interpretation or explanation rather than another, he is explicit about the nature of the evidence, which often does not allow a clear choice between various options. He regularly stresses that our sources are sparse, biased, and sometimes written centuries after the events described. His well-balanced account of politics between 133 BC and 79 BC includes recent views without trying to be fashionable.

The book has several features stemming from its purpose as a student introduction. Each chapter starts with a chronology of events for the years covered by the chapter. Throughout the book, brief explanatory notes (usually 6 to 10 lines) are included in ‘text blocks’ between the main text, marked by a large ‘E’ in the margin. For example, in the first pages of the chapter on Tiberius Gracchus we find notes on the censor, augurs and quaestors. The idea probably is to explain ‘unfamiliar terminology’ when it occurs. One may wonder, however, if such explanatory notes turn out to be very helpful. For instance, while we find notes on the aedile, quaestor, and censor, we do not find one on the consul. Likewise, we find notes on provinciae and the allies, but not on citizens or citizenship. Are these latter terms self-evident? Would it not have been better to include these terms in the brief synopsis of the Roman state and its constitution with which the book starts? Furthermore, these notes are not easily found by students who want to look up what exactly a ‘tribus’ was, since they are not listed or especially mentioned in the index. The limitations of the explanatory notes are most obvious on p. 22-23, where we find a lengthy note on the term ‘tribune of the plebs’, followed by a one-and-a-half page explanation in the main text of the awkward position of the tribunes of the plebs: the post originated as an instrument of the constitutionally powerless plebeians but developed into an instrument of the senate and its prominent members. Moreover, explanatory notes on ‘Rome and Numidia’ in the context of the Jugurthine War and on ‘Gaius Marius’ in the context of . . ., well, Gaius Marius are also not very useful. In short, I should have preferred a glossary on Greek and Latin terminology and explanation of topics in the main account.

Apart from the ‘E’s’ in the margin, one can regularly find a large ‘θ’, indicating a short quotation from an ancient source. These are useful and illustrative. In fact, more of these might have been preferable. The book has no illustrations, which is certainly detrimental to its attractiveness to undergraduates. Printed in a small font, the book consists of page after page fully covered with text. Fortunately, subheadings and keywords in the margin make the text more accessible. The lack of illustrations may have contributed to the low price of the book, which is no minor advantage if it is intended to be bought by students. Difficult to explain, however, is the total absence of maps. A readership consisting of people without any knowledge of ancient history would surely have appreciated a map of the Roman Empire in mid-second century BC or the time of Sulla, featuring its neighbors such as the kingdom of Numidia or the short-lived Pontine Empire of Mithridates of Pontus.

The book has no footnotes or endnotes. In fact, it has no references at all (apart from the quotes just mentioned), which inevitably will cause frustration to students who want to explore in further detail some of the issues mentioned. For example, regarding Tiberius Gracchus’ lex agraria, mention is made of the disparities between the sources on the amount of ager publicus that could be occupied by Roman citizens. Unfortunately, Linke does not say in which work and where we may find the passage in Appian mentioned in this regard. On the next page Linke refers to a plausible interpretation by Gianfranco Tibiletti, but no publication by that author is included in the bibliography.

After a six page introduction on the Roman constitution, the second chapter outlines the problems stemming from the Hannibalic War and Rome’s rapid expansion. This might seem somewhat traditional, but mention is made of the possibility (but no more) that the population recovered quite soon and that service in the legions may actually not have been as detrimental to the peasantry as is often said. The next chapters each connect a short period to a prominent figure dominating these years. Such an approach has its disadvantages. It confirms a tendency by our ancient sources to focus on a few individuals. This is the case with the Gracchi, who clearly did not operate in isolation from their peers. The reform activities of Fulvius Flaccus, who was a member of the land commissions and consul in 125 BC, are included in a paragraph titled ‘waiting for Gaius Gracchus’! Some long-term developments, in particular the position of the allies, would have been better served by a structure not dominated by particular persons. Despite this criticism, the book gives a clear overview of an eventful period of the Roman Republic, referring to the most recent publications and at times offering stimulating explanations and interpretations.