BMCR 2006.10.14

Being a Roman Magistrate: Office-holding and Roman Identity in Late Antique Gaul. Bibliotheca Historica 101

, , Being a Roman magistrate : office-holding and Roman identity in late antique Gaul. Bibliotheca historica ; 101. Helsinki: Suomalaisen kirjallisuuden seura, 2006. 178 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9517468067. €29.00.

Being a Roman Magistrate is a study of the attitudes toward imperial service found among the aristocrats of Late Roman Gaul. The question of how Gallic authors conceived of their roles in a larger Roman society is extremely relevant for theories about the dissolution of the Empire in the West. Did the Gauls precipitate this destruction by withdrawing from imperial service, asserting a Gallic identity over and against the Empire? Or did the Gauls identify themselves as Romans first and remain eager to serve the state? Through a close reading of a select corpus of Gallic writers, Pauli Sivonen (hereafter “S.”) attempts to come to grips with just what imperial offices meant to the Gallic elite and how these offices were used to buttress an aristocrat’s sense of identity and social standing.

S. opens his work with a brief chapter surveying his primary sources. In the main, these are the writings of the Gallic panegyrists, Ausonius, Rutilius Namatianus, and Sidonius Apollinaris. Although this is only a subset of what is available from the period, S. believes that rigorous analysis of a limited corpus will allow him to derive views that are more broadly applicable to the Gallic aristocrats.

In “Roman Office Holding,” the second chapter of the book, S. traces the historical views of the Roman elite toward the magistracies, beginning in the Republic. Members of the Gallic elite were driven to compete for offices for reasons that would have been extremely familiar to their Republican predecessors. Office-holding was perceived as a moral obligation: the best men served the state, their duty as one of the favored few. Moreover, the magistracies were also an arena where a man could demonstrate his greatness of spirit, gaining prestige among his peers as well as bringing glory to his family. Whether a Gallic aristocrat hailed from an ancient senatorial family or was a new man, the aristocratic values inculcated through education and identity ensured an ongoing Gallic interest in pursuing Roman magistracies.

The third chapter, “A Magistrate’s Identity,” is devoted to analyzing the official ideology associated with office-holding in Late Antiquity. Potent symbols, such as the city of Rome as the birthplace and symbolic center of Roman culture, recur frequently in the Gallic texts under consideration. S. also points out how often traditional symbols of office (the curule chair, the toga praetexta, and the fasces) were employed by Gallic authors to remind their readers of their office-holding. The possession of these traditional symbols was one way Gallic writers could suggest the distance between the best men (themselves) and the rest of Roman society.

The next chapter, “Motives and Limitations,” examines the motivations for seeking — or in some cases avoiding — magisterial office. S. returns to Cicero and the Republican period for an interpretive key, and finds, once again, a great deal of continuity with the stated ideals of the past. Gallic writers could suggest that the best class of men had a moral obligation to serve the state through the magistracies. There was also an ongoing pressure to add glory to the family name. It was a profound dishonor for a noble family to have no formal role in the administration of the Roman state, and there was also pressure for a young man to outperform his ancestors, to bring new glory to the family. On a personal level, S. points to the competitiveness of Roman society: it was extremely important that a man hold his place among his peers. To be overcome by one’s inferiors was a terrible dishonor in a culture where personal status was constantly emphasized. Pursuit of a political career was the best way to maintain or improve position on this highly competitive ladder.

But, as S. notes, the magistracies lasted only a year each. Was there a mechanism for using local offices in Gaul to assert position while awaiting the call from the emperor to take another step up the cursus honorum ? S. finds in his target group of writers a strong emphasis on the local aspect of their careers. But this local emphasis was often sharply curtailed: the Gallic writers surveyed identified themselves with Gaul, but with a city or region, their patria. The idea of a larger Gallic identity does not emerge in the surveyed texts: the Gauls were Romans first, and the demands of local office-holding were never allowed to take precedence over imperial service. When the emperor called, the Gallic authors responded.

S. then takes up the question of Gallic self-representation in a chapter entitled “Moral Qualities.” Power groupings in highly stratified societies tend to use claims of moral superiority to justify their positions, and S. suggests that Gallic magistrates were no different. In an examination of the self-projected moral structure of public life in Gaul, S. finds writers using exempla to construct versions of good and bad magistrates. A Gallic writer might employ these exempla to suggest his own (or a friend’s) moral excellence or, conversely, to express disapproval of an enemy. The terms used to laud or disparage another magistrate were drawn from a canonical list of “national virtues” which had been in use since the Republic. S. argues that this core list of values and a shared culture that honored these values bound together an aristocratic class that spanned a far-flung empire. The Gauls aspired to office because their education, still rooted in Ciceronian virtue, had convinced them that this is what a Roman citizen of the aristocratic class did. The educational process itself ensured that they had more in common with an aristocrat from the eastern half of the Empire than the Gallic peasant who worked in the fields. Again, suggests S., there does not seem to have been a distinctive “Gallic” culture —- the Gauls, who participated in this upper class identity, believed themselves to be as Roman as anyone else in the Empire.

Although Gallic writers drew much of their political theory and ways of discussing office-holding from the texts of the Republic, there was a fundamental disjunction between the two periods: in Late Antiquity, it was the emperor and his comites who held real power. In a chapter entitled “Magistrates and Emperors,” S. examines how Gallic aristocrats portrayed the emperor in their writings. By Late Antiquity the emperor had become a key political symbol, both as pater patriae and divine ruler. These aspects were reinforced over the course of the Principate as the Emperor claimed military honor for himself at the expense of the senatorial elite and, from Diocletian onward, solidified his position as the person who controlled the legions and was ultimately responsible for the defense of the empire. The symbolic qualities of the emperor, as center and protector of the Empire, emerge rather conventionally in Gallic texts. But S. believes that there was also an ongoing element of competition between emperor and elite. Gauls often criticized the conduct of past emperors, which could be read as oblique attacks on the office itself. They also, in at least the case of the Gallic panegyrist Pacatus, dared to criticize the conduct of a reigning emperor (Theodosius); Pacatus had the temerity to claim that Theodosius’ preoccupation with events in the East had allowed the usurper Maximus Magnus to seize power in Gaul. S. suggests that some of this subtle competition may have been inevitable, given the ways in which the great influence of the Republican ideals of Cicero shaped Gallic ways of thinking and writing about magistracies.

S.’s final chapter, “Office-holding in the Changing World of Late Antiquity,” is largely devoted to summarizing the chapters that preceded it. S. also addresses the problem of how well his chosen texts represent a larger Gallic consensus about the magistracies. Although limited in number and written by those who were successful in progressing up the cursus honorum, these texts, S. believes, are genuine manifestations of a larger ethos. Possible exceptions to this ethos, on the part of the Bagaudae and those who sought service in the burgeoning Christian church, are touched upon in a lamentably short section of the chapter. Although the latter group could disparage the worldly ambitions bound up in office-holding, S. believes that this probably did not represent a mainstream view and dismisses these writings fairly cursorily. He concludes the book with a short analysis of how the situation changed after the political landscape was altered by the Germanic invasions. Through a reading of Sidonius, S. signals the transformation of office-holding from Roman magistracies to positions in the new Germanic kingdoms. The ongoing participation of an elite in these ventures suggests that the aristocrats were less interested in whom they served than the status and power found in service itself.

Many of the conclusions S. reaches in this study are less than surprising. A great deal has already been written about these men, their class, and the way they viewed themselves in Late Roman society (as S.’s thorough bibliography suggests). I was, however, particularly struck by just how strongly the political ideas and values fashioned by Cicero and his republican contemporaries continued to dominate Roman political life, 500 years later. Whether one would credit this as constancy or stagnation is a matter of debate, but S. is very good at demonstrating how this legacy endured and remained relevant for centuries. S.’s demonstration that Gallic aristocrats identified themselves as Romans first, rather than as Gauls, will also be of interest. The vigorous pursuit of higher offices and the way these offices are described in extant texts suggests both an ongoing interest in the Roman state as well as a desire to be part of that state.

This book could be profitably employed as an introduction to the values and aristocratic mindset that was associated with the magistracies. S. has an accessible writing style that is refreshingly free of jargon and well-suited for undergraduates. Unfortunately, he was not well-served by his copy-editor, as there are a significant number of syntactical errors and some very odd examples of word usage that should have been caught in the production stage. Overall, however, this is a fine study and one that I recommend for anyone interested in the end of the Late Roman world.