BMCR 2006.04.04

Spectacular Power in the Greek and Roman City

, Spectacular power in the Greek and Roman city. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 1 online resource (vi, 289 pages). ISBN 1423753143 $125.00.

Andrew Bell’s book gets off to an arresting start with the miscalculated speech by Nicolae Ceaus,escu in Bucharest four days before his death that revealed his weakness and unleashed the anger of his subjects. Bell is interested in the self-presentation of political leaders, and the responses that they elicit from the citizen body. The ancient sources, as he admits, tell us much more about the former than about the latter; but from the surviving textual record, unbalanced though it is, he sets out to reconstruct the way in which the ruler manipulated his physical presence and paraded his material resources to impress his subjects in classical Athens, the Hellenistic world, and Republican Rome. Sometimes the subjects were not impressed; but failure is just as revealing of intention as success, and one of Bell’s concerns is the extent to which the “ordinary man” in Antiquity possessed the power to refuse to be over-awed by the spectacle that his ruler strove so hard to make of himself and his treasures.

The image of Ceaus,escu hovering on his balcony, humiliated by the jeering audience, introduces theoretical considerations that occupy the central portion of the first chapter (“Looking at the Powerful”). The concepts, and much of the jargon (“embodied subjects”, “phenomenology”, etc.), come from modern sociological studies, e.g. power as ritual (Geertz), as an end in itself (Foucault), as culturally determined (Bourdieu); but Bell has difficulty showing how the essence of their thinking illuminates his topic, getting bogged down instead in verbiage (e.g. 14: “The theorizing of Pierre Bourdieu does provide encouragement to comprehend individuals engaged in highly complex relations with those dominant social norms objectively identified by social scientists”).1 The rest of this introductory chapter considers how in both Athens and Rome the democratic leaders “played to the gallery,” parading their prestige and celebrity so as to orchestrate mass endorsement from their fellow-citizens, including those equally qualified for positions of eminence. Bell hints that the self-display of political figures in the ancient city had ramifications that spread to the borders of the known world (“Big-time politics explains the visitations of armies, when only ruthless plundering could redeem a man from spectacular indebtedness,” 22-3), but such assertions are neither defended nor developed, and it is hard to see how the chapter has equipped the reader with special tools for analyzing the discrete case-studies that follow.

The second chapter (“Looking at Caesar”) shows the opportunism of Julius Caesar in adjusting his image and behavior as circumstances changed. For some of the trends in Caesar’s self-presentation Bell finds an analogy in the behavior of Scipio Africanus (34-7), but the analysis is frustratingly vague; for example, having described popular reactions to Scipio’s procession at Rome on the anniversary of the battle of Zama in 187 BC, he concludes (36): “This power can conveniently be understood and described as kingly. It perhaps corresponds to practical manifestations of power and thus popular comprehensions of power as much as it does to the unwritten rubrics of constitutional norms.” This does not seem to get us far: did Scipio’s behavior have regal overtones for his audience? if so, how should this perception be reconciled with the reputation of monarchy in Republican Rome? what does the phrase “unwritten rubrics of constitutional norms” mean in this context? Unfortunately, a similar lack of precision characterizes the entire book.

The title to chapter 3 (“The Affections of the Athenians”) betrays a fondness for alliteration that tempts Bell to employ many misleading phrases, this particular instance evoking a cuddly atmosphere distinctly at odds with the merciless political climate in democratic Athens; Bell himself (56) acknowledges the threat of ostracism. He suggests that the exercise of democratic power included the right for a society to construct its own heroes (57), and emphasizes the heroic ethos in Homer, implying that it shaped the way the average Athenian expected his leaders to behave. Simultaneously, he acknowledges that social practices such as ritual feasting and the conduct of festivals enabled wealthy sponsors to exploit the Athenian competitive spirit for their own self-aggrandizement. As with the Homeric epics, so too he interprets tragedy as habituating ordinary Athenians to the presence of pre-eminent individuals in their own society; and he interprets comedy as an outlet for skepticism about precisely their qualifications for such eminence. Alcibiades is a promising candidate for a case-study, high-born, handsome, and wealthy, with a military track-record; the popularity he commanded in his lifetime contrasts (98) with the discredit accruing in the manner of his death, and with the theatrical self-advertisement of the fourth- and third-century tyrants, Demetrius Poliorcetes at Athens and the rulers of Syracuse from Dionysius I to Agathocles (most of whom Bell introduces abruptly and without identification). Vague conclusions follow (110):

The whole world never exactly did look exclusively upon men such as Dion. But prestige among the more peaceable Athenians was counted as valuable as the harbour of Peiraeus, in large part because of their complex traditions of discrimination, in which assertive self-aggrandisement had in all sorts of intricate ways been reconciled to the sensibilities of commonality, both inescapable and inalienable.

Bell concludes the chapter by suggesting that Sulla and Antony capitalized on the Athenian tradition of lionizing large personalities. I think he is trying to make the interesting point that Roman imperialists liked to fancy themselves voluntarily welcomed by venerable democracies; but there are too many words for me to be sure.

Chapter 4 (“Kings and Elephants”) shows how the scions of the Diadochi, chiefly Ptolemy Philadelphus and Antiochus IV of Syria, exploited their newly-acquired territories to put on fabulous displays of wealth and curiosities. Whereas Ptolemy appropriated the image and memory of Alexander, Antiochus looked rather to Rome for a model; if he thereby hoped to impress his subjects, affecting Roman ciuilitas in his personal behavior and emulating aspects of the triumph of Aemilius Paullus, initial discomfiture at displays of gladiators instead of traditional Greek spectacles nearly cost him his popularity. But, Bell asserts, the ultimate success of Antiochus’ experiment illustrates the potential of a society to adapt its ways to those of a more influential power.

Chapter 5 (“Elephants and Citizens”) begins with the corollary to Antiochus’ Romanization, namely the Hellenization of Rome’s Republican leaders from the third century onwards, and the increasing taste for spectacular displays that Bell interprets as aristocratic competition for popular favor, a competition that ultimately created an insatiable appetite for spectacle on the part of the populus Romanus. He ponders the ambiguous record of audience-reaction to Pompey’s display of elephants at the inauguration of his theater, pointing out that it is hard for impresarios to predict popular response to extravagant acts of self-promotion; he is apparently unfamiliar with a recent examination of the numerous versions of this famous tale.2 The rest of the chapter is devoted to ludi at which the people are recorded as having expressed their political will, and to the erection and dismantling of statuary commemorating public figures — still in modern times a telling index of the waxing and waning of popular support. Bell shows something of the moral dilemma felt by those members of the Roman upper class who perceived the fine distinction between generosity and prodigal extravagance; the person of Cicero illustrates the capitulation of philosophical scruples before the coveted popularity of a set of games (196-7).

The last chapter (“Ciceronian Consensus”) is a more diffuse version of a previously published article;3 some of the wording remains the same, but inexplicably the section-headings that sign-posted the argument have been removed, and clarity diminishes even though, taking page-size into account, the length is about the same (41 pages, not counting the 9-page coda showing how Octavian monopolized “ritual visibility” in Rome). The nub of the argument is that oratory at Rome was a spectacle in its own right, eliciting a crowd-response and guaranteeing a popular following; Bell reminds us that an orator fails without an audience. Some attention is paid to the manipulation of religious symbols and priestly authority; and we are left with the image of Augustus carefully orchestrating religious spectacle — at risk of prompting an unfavorable omen.

A brief Afterword returns to Ceaus,escu’s Romania twenty years before the incident with which the book began. Bell springs a surprise: this time the focus of attention is President Nixon, notoriously shy and secretive, and yet flattered and excited by the reception he received from the Romanian people (and favorably impressed, apparently, by Ceaus,escu). Bell meditates briefly upon the power of face-to-face encounters between ruler and ruled — a power that is felt even today, when such encounters are largely conducted through the medium of the television-screen — and ends optimistically with the sentiment that popular response to the spectacle provided by a leader is a truly democratic expression of a people’s will.

Spectacle, especially at Rome, has enjoyed a wave of scholarly popularity over the last quarter of a century; and scholarship’s traditional focus on the ruling élite has shifted to take account of the popular masses.4 Bell’s topic brings these two interests together in a way that has not been done before, not least because his concept of “spectacular power” concentrates more upon the individual self-fashioning of politicians and orators than on the conventional spectacles of theatre and, at Rome, circus and amphitheatre. There is certainly grade-inflation in the way in which such individuals showed off, and Bell sees a gradual capitulation of the public to displays of this kind, but regrettably it is hard to pin down what he has achieved, beyond quoting his own captatio beneuolentiae in the Preface: “The argument is simply that crowds watching and judging pre-eminent individuals in cities were a vital presence in ancient political history.”

The book comprises an enormous accumulation of detail without any clearly sign-posted argumentative structure (significantly, Bell states in the Preface that, although the individual chapters are designed to have a cumulative effect, they can be read independently). One of the problems is the sheer scope of the sources adduced. Bell anticipates this criticism in the Preface, arguing quite reasonably that all ancient authors had some knowledge of city-life and are therefore valuable for his study. The difficulty is that disparate details from different authors are knitted together to construct a narrative, thereby eliminating all traces of internal consistency in any individual discourse, and although Bell does discuss the literary purpose of Polybius and Plutarch, the rest of the sources are mined for details with little or no attention to the larger context from which they are drawn. Clichés such as the impossibility of capturing Demetrius Poliocetes’ good looks in a portrait (103) are apparently taken at face-value.

A further challenge is the problem of identifying who constitutes “the people” on any given occasion. Bell does not engage with this difficulty, although a few telling details are mentioned in passing, such as Suetonius’ remark that the people laid gifts upon Caesar’s bier omisso ordine (43). Detailed linguistic analysis of the way in which the people are presented in the sources that Bell taps would have helped to delineate his treatment more sharply, and a typology of the occasions on which a political grandee came face-to-face with the people, and the sorts of detail that impressed them, might also have lent keener focus to this study. The main structuring principle, however, is chronological. This highlights the escalation in extravagant self-promotion, but the narrative structure, being necessarily episodic, divorces the analysis of illustrative episodes from any thematic treatment; a thematic approach underpinned by a chronological framework might have yielded more stimulating insights. Given, however, that chronology rules, it is not clear to me what is gained by disrupting the sequence to treat Caesar before classical Athens; paradigmatic he may be, but since he is not adduced as a touchstone throughout the periods treated subsequently, there seems little advantage to giving him priority.

Apart from numerous instances of faulty grammar, syntax, and punctuation, and the recurrent obstacle posed by awkward parentheses, the book is written in a very obfuscating manner, with a plethora of abstract nouns (often employed in an otiose plural: “behaviours,” “circumspections,” “hungers,” “needinesses,” “persuasivenesses”, “rhetorics,” etc.; even dignitates) and superfluous adverbs. Two indications of Bell’s failure to achieve clarity of expression are his use of neologisms (of which “gladiatoriality” is the most egregious) and his habit of embedding quotations from other scholars within his sentences, where they often do not fit properly, instead of struggling to say what he means in his own words; discounting conventional quotations set off from the syntax of the surrounding discourse, in the first chapter (23 pages) he embeds 29 such quotations. The second chapter contains a particularly distracting example of this habit (45-6): “Analysis of such coherence requires perhaps more emphasis upon ‘how the elite were perceived by others’ and not so much ‘how they perceived themselves’ if one wishes to understand ‘that deliberate balance between individual ambition and common values’ which served ‘for four centuries to sustain aristocratic ascendancy’;” a footnote adds: “Thus contra Gruen 1996: 225.” Bell presumably means that he considers the élite’s self-perception in Antiquity more important than their perception by others, whereas Gruen thinks the opposite (misquoted, incidentally: he wrote “delicate,” not “deliberate”); but straightforward formulations, alas, are hard to find among these pages. Furthermore, numerous colloquialisms also smack of failure to think of the right expression: “sexily charismatic” (37) seems a very unlikely description of Sulla.

Curiously, the first footnote in the book, appended to the sentence in which Bell states that Ceaus,escu’s speech was delivered on 21 December 1989, claims inter alia that “Much of the following is based upon the New York Times of 12 and 13 December 1989.” Admittedly, since the subsequent account of Ceaus,escu’s fall ranges both backwards from his catastrophic speech as well as forwards, news reports may have been filed on those two dates that supplied Bell with some critical information; but the apparent contradiction is, unfortunately, a harbinger of much that is muddled or confusing in the book as a whole. Division between paragraphs frequently seems arbitrary, betrayed by the use of pronouns whose referent is buried in a previous paragraph; there are distortions of detail;5 translations from ancient sources are sometimes so literal as to sound garbled;6 the relevance of some footnotes is not clear.7 Frequently one suspects that Bell was not thinking about what he wrote, otherwise how could he claim, for example, that “the populus Romanus is accorded much greater symbolic significance than in, say, the Grand Procession of Ptolemy Philadelphus” (159), or refer to “the living, breathing Roman constitution” (207)?

Inaccuracies extend to technical aspects, where it is not so much judgment that is required as simply the exercise of care. Greek is sadly mangled: words are run together or split in two; breathings and apostrophes are frequently facing in the wrong direction; acute and grave accents are confused; π is often capitalized, even in the middle of a word; iota subscripts turn up underneath letters where they do not belong (and regularly appear instead of the cedilla under the first s in Ceaus,escu’s name); the lunate sigma dwarfs the rest of the type-face, looking suspiciously like an italicized roman c. In five lines of Homer on p. 63 I counted eleven errors; in n. 60 on the same page the Greek corresponding to a translated quotation in the text overruns the translation by an extra word at the beginning and a whole line at the end, and exhibits several errors besides (a similar problem, though less extreme, occurs with a Latin quotation at p. 34 n. 53). The bibliography is bedeviled by erratic layout; consistency may be “the hobgoblin of little minds,” as Emerson claimed, but its absence is nevertheless an irritant when one is trying to distinguish, for instance, between volumes and page-numbers in citations from the Cambridge Ancient History. More seriously, there are numerous bibliographical errors and omissions.8 In the text itself errors in citation are frequent.9

This book had its origins as a doctoral dissertation, and many of the flaws in structure and presentation may be a legacy of that rite de passage. Unfortunately, the cumulative effect is of insufficient mastery of the scholarly apparatus, and — frankly — a distracting degree of carelessness. More damaging, however, is the lack of incisive analysis, suffocated by the author’s inflated style and imprecise habits of thought and expression. This is a pity, since Bell’s theme of the popular response to larger-than-life public figures has the potential to illuminate not only the “democratic” periods of ancient history but also what came after the Ides of March, when his investigation effectively comes to an end.

I should put it on record that I understand a paperback edition with corrections is to appear shortly; how far the corrections will extend I do not know.


1. Residual traces of theory may be responsible for the use of the French word for “resentment” (99) or the abrupt introduction of a “Situationist” (130). Sahlins’ “big-man” (58 n. 30) makes sporadic appearances in the text.

2. Jo-Ann Shelton, “Elephants, Pompey, and the Reports of Popular Displeasure in 55 BC,” in S. N. Byrne and E. P. Cueva (eds.), Veritatis Amicitiaeque Causa: Essays in Honor of Anna Lydia Motto and John R. Clark (Wauconda, IL, 1999), 231-71.

3. “Cicero and the Spectacle of Power,” Journal of Roman Studies 87 (1997), 1-22.

4. Surprisingly, on Roman spectacle Bell is content to refer to bibliography collected in an article published in 1996 (148 n. 148); and, despite his focus on oratory, he does not update his article of 1997 by taking account of Francisco Pina Polo, Contra Arma Verbis: Der Redner vor dem Volk in der späten römischen Republik (Stuttgart, 1996), although he cites an article in English published by the same author in Klio in 1995.

5. E.g. (to cite three different categories of distortion) the claim (49) that Cicero was sufficiently familiar with the Iliad “not to need to bother” to look up passages he quoted (quotation from memory was the default position in Antiquity, the process of checking a papyrus roll being so cumbersome; Gellius himself, whom Bell cites in n. 126, is surprised not by Cicero’s error but by Tiro’s failure to correct it); or the implication (167) that Pompey’s theater was grafted onto an earlier temple of Venus Victrix (the temple-complex, which indeed seems to have been built upon the site of an earlier temple, itself contained a shrine to Venus, whose grand stepped approach was a pretext for the cauea); or a misdirected attempt (174) to register a supplement by Baiter at Cic. Sest. 106.

6. “The city, cherish, my Caelius, the city and live in its light!” (18), “he accomplished his plan by great effort and by great dangers” (40), “he so demagogued the vulgar and the poor” (97), “when his rule was being snatched away” (144). At Diod. 31. 16. 1 a crucial γάρ must be translated if the train of thought is to be clear (140).

7. E.g. 35 n. 59, 56 n. 20, 87 n. 169, 113 n. 299, 117 n. 14, 137 n. 110, 194 n. 180.

8. Persistent capitalization of geographical adjectives in French and German; misprints in the title of entries under Bollinger, Fornara, Hamel, Hammond, Jacoby (1954), Müller, and Soklowski, and in the initials or nomenclature of D’Arms, Catharine Edwards, Hellegouarc’h, Müller (confused with Oswyn Murray, who appears just below), Warde Fowler, Walbank (1984 a), and Yavetz; confusion in (or absence of) editors’ names, date, volume-number, publisher, place of publication, or page-numbers for entries under Astin (1989), Clausen, Fornara, Jebb (the original publication, of which the — imperfectly — cited version is a reprint, would also have helped), Lahusen, Powell, Stevens, and Thompson; doublet entries for works by Finley and Meier; a combination of two different Greek fonts in the entry for Wohl. The paper quoted as delivered by Dorothy Thompson at a Chicago-Stanford symposium in 1997 has since appeared in print: “Philadelphus’ Procession: Power in a Mediterranean Context,” in L. Mooren (ed.), Politics, Administration and Society in the Hellenistic and Roman World: Proceedings of the International Colloquium, Bertinoro 19-24 July 1997 (Leuven, 2000), 365-88.

9. Appian is sometimes cited by the section-numbers in the outer margin of the Teubner, sometimes the inner; “ibid.” is used strangely, to mean sometimes “in the same work (but a different book)”, sometimes “in the same work and book (but a different section)”, etc., and yet at 242-3 successive notes (178-9) repeat exactly the same reference in Syme’s Roman Revolution; at 37 n. 67 the Sallust quotation is off by one section; at 248 n. 211 we are introduced to a fourteenth book of Pliny’s letters; “Nuremberg” is mis-spelled (21), Meier becomes “Meyer” (24), Mithradates (111) turns into “Mithridates” (158). Of the 15 supplementary volumes to RE the article on ludi publici (174 n. 90) is to be found at 5. 608-30; at 105 n. 257 the cross-reference should be to n. 209. Citations are sometimes missing (as with the extended quotation straddling 105-6) or to be inferred. At 203 n. 13 a verbatim quotation is attributed both to Pina Polo and to Nicolet. An ellipse signaled in the narrative at 34 suggests that perhaps the surrounding text is another embedded quotation, though not indicated as such. Etc.