BMCR 2006.11.06

The Roman Clan: The Gens from Ancient Ideology to Modern Anthropology

, The Roman clan : the gens from ancient ideology to modern anthropology. W.B. Stanford memorial lectures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xiii, 393 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0521856922 $100.00.

Table of Contents

The Roman aristocratic family has always fascinated scholars of antiquity. In The Roman Clan, C. J. Smith (S.) explores the roots of this fascination, and offers a thoroughly systematic re-evaluation of the Roman gens.

S. proceeds from the premise that the gens has so far been largely misunderstood, “because we have brought to it preconceptions which derive from the way the gens has been presented in other disciplines such as social anthropology” (2). Accordingly, S. sifts through the modern historiography of the gens, separating the ancient evidence from later preconceptions and mistreatments. S. argues that the gens was never an essential part of Roman aristocratic self-definition, but rather that the history of the gens is part of a larger debate on the form and conduct of the Roman community.

The book is divided into two parts; the first (chapters 1-4) lays out the ancient evidence for the gens, traces the development of modern ideas about it, and explores their effect on our understanding of the gens, especially in the field of archaeology. Part 2 (chapters 5-11) attempts a reconstruction of the gens within Roman society in the 4th and 5th centuries B.C. This narrow temporal focus allows S. to highlight the broader social context in which the gens functioned. S. thus offers a nuanced and sensitive view of a period of Roman history usually thought to lack social cohesion or political awareness, and this is one of the highlights of The Roman Clan.

Chapter 1 considers the ancient evidence for the gens. S. is careful to sort out the temporal layers of the sources, pointing out that while the laws pertaining to the gens may have fallen into disuse by the second century A.D., our sources otherwise suggest a social institution which remained dynamic well into the late Republic and early Empire. The ancient sources, though scant, allow S. to form a working model of the gens : “[m]embership of the gens passes through the male line. The gens extends beyond the agnatic family to include all members who have the same nomen and claim some kind of kinship” (32).1 S. further points out that the gens is mentioned in particular contexts: inheritance, customs and cults unique to a particular gens, and as part of the patrician monopoly on magistracies and priesthoods.

Chapter 2 considers the “historiography of a Roman institution” (112), and surveys a number of modern interpretations of the gens (Sigonio, Vico, Niebuhr and Mommsen, Marx, Maine, and Morgan). As S. points out, debate on the nature of the gens has been driven by the desire to interpret the gens as “part of a system of law or a comparandum to elucidate other societies” (66). Thus, S. argues that notions of the Roman gens underlie key intellectual disciplines of the modern age, chiefly law, political science, and social anthropology. This development makes easy the slide between different disciplinary notions of the gens,2 which owe more to the modern idea of the gens than to the historical phenomenon itself.

The comparative method and the issue of interdisciplinary interaction continue to occupy S. in Chapters 3 and 4. Chapter 3 considers current developments in the study of the Greek genos. S. relies on the works of D. Roussel and F. Bourriot who, independent of each other, published studies of Attic social groups.3 Both reached the conclusion that there is little evidence that the ” genos was ever anything other than a group which transmitted priestly office” (118), and questioned the notion that two institutions with the same name in two separate time periods would have some “fundamental identity, or a kind of lineage” (118) connecting them. For S. this model has important consequences (with due caveats) when applied to the Roman gens, and indeed two important themes of S.’s reconstruction in the second part of the book emerge from this chapter: first, the dynamic development of the gens; second, the importance of the gens in regulating religious office.

Chapter 4 considers the influence of the anthropological model of the gens in archaeology. S.’s focus is the burial evidence of central Italy as it is adduced to support the existence of gentilicial society at Rome. S. argues that many identifications of gentilicial burials rely on a concept of the gens as an “egalitarian family structure” (156). This anthropological concept, however, has little to do with the observable reality of the historical gens, and obscures different interpretations of the archaeological material. In this context, a discussion of the Tomb of the Scipios would have been fascinating, although this monument falls outside S.’s well-defined scope.

All in all, Part I succeeds in demonstrating the complexity and ambiguity of the available evidence, which S. contends is “a genuine product of the fact that the gens was a topic of debate in antiquity” (164). S.’s reconstruction of the historiography of the gens is illuminating and thought-provoking, especially against the background of the current flourishing of interdisciplinarity in the Classics. S.’s analyses demonstrate that a more historically aware approach to interdisciplinarity can help one avoid misleading assumptions.

Chapter 5 begins Part II of the book. In a brief overview of the archaic Roman community S. highlights two key issues: the nature of clientela and the identification of the plebs. One of S.’s main assertions is that maintaining the cohesiveness of the community remained an important value, even in the troubled days of the Struggle of the Orders. S. sees the plebs as a political movement, which did not necessarily encompass all non-patrician elements in Rome. Instead, he sees non-patrician society as consisting of a range of positions as regards the patrician aristocracy, from avid supporters to vehement opponents. Thus, S. argues, clientela did not always entail semi-servitude and abject poverty; clients ranged over the entire spectrum of social status. This approach to Roman society has important consequences, in particular a reduced emphasis on the political fault lines of patrician/plebeian status.

Chapter 6 seeks “to clarify the political society in the early Republic” through a focus on the curiae and their interaction with the gens. S. argues that the curiate assembly was the original assembly of the Quirites, and that it represented and regulated the entire citizen body. In the early fifth century some of its functions were distributed among new kinds of assembly (tribal and centuriate). The spheres of competence which the curiae retained, however, (inheritance, adoption, the lex curiata de imperio) closely map onto the areas in which the gens is most often invoked. These spheres of competence also involved the curiae in processes which related to two areas of alleged patrician monopoly: the auspicia and the gentes (223). This is, S. cautions, not to say that the gentes dominated the curiae or the curiate assembly; the curiae voted by genera hominum, i.e., by kinship groups, of which the gentes were only one type. If the gentes were a patrician preserve, the rest of the populace must have had their own kinship groups within the curiae. Thus, S. reinstates the curiae as a central political body in the early Republic, and establishes the role of the gens relative to the curiate assembly, and consequently in the social structures of Roman society.

Chapter 7 is the first of three chapters to consider the patriciate and its privileges. This chapter investigates the relationship between individual gentes and the ownership of land. S. tackles two main problems: the fact that some tribes shared names with patrician gentes, and the centrality of land ownership in the tensions between patricians and plebeians. S. refutes the claim that individual gentes owned large portions of land in the area of a particular tribe, and thus dominated it and lent it their name. Instead, S. offers a more nuanced model, wherein some gentes were especially connected to some areas; some tribes may have represented the local powerbases of some expansionist gentes, while others consisted of various combinations of privately owned land and ager publicus, which could have been poached and exploited, to the exclusion of other elements of society.

In Chapter, 8 S. concludes that the patriciate was “a fiction of its own making” (299). S. characterizes its history as a steady decline in power, as the aristocracy which formed around the kings struggled to maintain its position in the new circumstances of the Republic. It is in this context, he argues, that patrician claims to privileged position were formed. S.’s discussion of patres, patricii and the senate (252-8) demonstrates how ill-defined the patriciate is at the semantic level. Thus, claims and counterclaims about the patriciate were often part of an ongoing argument about the relative importance of the patriciate in the Roman community, and were not statements of fact. S. points out, however, that the decline of the patriciate did not translate into a similar decline in the fortunes of individual patrician houses.

The brief Chapter 9 takes the Roman army as an example of S.’s more general argument on the “nature and coherence of early Roman society” (281). Considering the structure of the early Roman army, S. argues that the Romans employed an advanced theory in combining large numbers of men into units, a process which clearly reflects the organization of the Roman assemblies. The second part of the chapter concentrates on the gens Fabia‘s military operations against Veii. The evidence, S. admits, pulls in two directions: on the one hand, a full levy, directed by the state, and organized in similar ways to the citizen body. On the other hand, it appears that individual aristocratic houses could field their own armed forces, and were able to sustain war against external powers on their own. S. does not attempt to reconcile the opposites. Instead, he suggests that the early Republican army exemplifies the tension between private interest and communal good which permeated all spheres of Roman life.

Chapter 10 offers a new analysis of the gens, both in its contemporary context and in the historical tradition. S. argues that the gens emerged in the period of rapid expansion in the sixth century, and out of the need to defend those achievements in the early Republic from various external threats (323). Further, as the main social unit by which patricians were organized, the gens had a key role in the preservation of the patriciate, even in the face of a decline in its power and privileges. Finally, the gens acted as a distributive factor, ensuring that office and privilege circulated among the aristocracy. The gentes became an aspiration, a mark of privilege and nobility. S. then turns to the related question of the gens’ place in the Roman historical tradition. He makes a tripartite argument: first, the Roman historical tradition provides a reductive picture of Roman society, focused around the binary opposition of patricians and plebeians. Second, the debates over patrician privileges and plebeian rights continued right up until the beginning of Roman historiography. Third, the gens’ role in the ancient argument about patrician privileges meant that the gens was part and parcel of “the ongoing argument about the constitution of Roman society, which was itself part of the intellectual arena in which Roman history was created” (333).

S. ends with a short chapter on the relevance of Roman history to the modern world, in which he makes a case for the “reinstitution of Roman politics as a paradigm and model which merits our consideration as an important intellectual construct” (336). S. sees this omission as a result of an erroneous view of Rome as conservative, irrational, and even primitive. Perceptions of the gens had much to do with the formation of this view, according to which the gentes formed blocks of tightly-knit families, bastions of resistance to all change under the banner of the mos maiorum. S.’s work, however, has argued for a more nuanced view of the gens, one which aligns well with new developments in the field. Just as the study of Roman Republican politics has recently shifted towards the comitium and a greater emphasis on a political discourse which involved the entire citizen body,4 so too, S. hopes, Republican Rome will be restored as a complex society, which can provide a useful and engaging challenge for present day students.

Two Appendices supplement Chapter 6 on the Roman curiae. The first is a detailed analysis of Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ treatment of the curiae and their development (2.21.2-23.5), which suggests that Dionysius presents them as a still lively institution in his own day. The second Appendix deals with the attempts to identify the missing curiae. S. engages particularly with the arguments of Palmer and Carandini, rejecting their association of the curiae with the Argei.5 Instead, he suggests that the sources merely point to an important religious aspect of the curiae and, more importantly, demonstrate their continued importance after the sixth century.

Typographical slips are few and far between.6 One quibble: this is a very expensive book, currently selling for around $100 — a high price tag that will necessarily limit circulation. Despite its price, however, this is not a book for libraries only: the argument is complex, but in the course of making it S. supplies scores of insightful treatments of many varied issues. S’s sophisticated historicism produces a fresh account of the gens, not only in its historical context, but also as an influential cultural paradigm within and outside the study of Roman history. This is a book that will reward frequent consultation, and stimulate discussion not only on the Roman gens, but also on the complexities of Roman culture under the Republic, and the history of our discipline.


1. This definition is derived primarily from Table V of the Twelve Tables and Scaevola’s definition of gentiles apud Cic. Top. 29.

2. R. P. Saller sounds a similar note; see R. P. Saller (1997) “Roman Kinship: Structure and Sentiment,” in: B. Rawson and P. Weaver (eds.), The Roman Family in Italy: Status, Sentiment, Space, Oxford: 7-34, esp. 10-18.

3. D. Roussel (1976) Tribu et cité: Études sur les groupes sociaux dans les cités grecques aux époques archaïque et classique (Paris); F. Bourriot (1976) Recherches sur la nature du Genos: Étude d’histoire sociale athénienne, périodes archaïque et classique, (Lille).

4. To mention only two of a recent host of studies: F. Millar (1998) The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic, (Ann Arbor), and R. Morstein-Marx (2004) Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late Roman Republic, (Cambridge).

5. A. Carandini (1997) La nascita di Roma: Dèi, Lari, eroi, uomini all’alba di una civiltà, (Turin); R.E.A. Palmer (1970) The Archaic Community of the Romans, (Cambridge).

6. Of which the only one of significance I noticed is: in 48n.128, read Scipiones for Servilii.