BMCR 2007.01.20

The Roman Collegia. The Modern Evolution of an Ancient Concept. Mnemosyne Supplement 277

, The Roman collegia : the modern evolution of an ancient concept. Mnemosyne, supplements ; v. 277. History and archaeology of classical antiquity.. Leiden: Brill, 2006. 1 online resource (xii, 247 pages).. ISBN 904740937X. $129.00.

To those who might still cherish the obsolete idea that the social status of a scholar is irrelevant to his or her research, this book should be unsettling. In this interesting and well-researched volume, Jonathan S. Perry describes some aspects of the development of research on the collegia from Th. Mommsen up to the present time, especially focusing—in more than half of the book—on the intersection of this research and the politics of Fascist Italy. Although he does not present a comprehensive history of research on the Roman collegia, this volume nevertheless provides us with intriguing insights into parts of that history, and will prove valuable for those interested in this aspect of Roman history as well as the role it played in Italy in the first half of the 20th century.

In the Introduction the author demonstrates the problem of assessing the various sources considered relevant to understand the phenomena of the Roman collegia by sketching the history of the early research on the firefighter associations. In presenting especially the arguments of Otto Hirschfeld (from 1884 on), Perry argues that Hirschfeld’s characterizations are not at all as obvious as subsequent scholars of the Roman collegia have supposed. In fact, Perry states his general skepticism and the consequent turn of his research thus: “I despair of ever understanding the collegia in their full complexity, given the nature of our evidence and the frustratingly inadequate information that even several hundred texts can furnish” (p. 18). Furthermore, he finds that the reasoning of scholars is often more illuminating than their actual conclusions, and that the experiences of the individual scholar play a significant role in drawing these conclusions. Sensitivity to and awareness of the latter circumstance are of course essential for those who study the research of previous scholars. But it had some unexpected consequences for the direction of Perry’s work: his research on the Roman collegia led him into what he calls “some very dark corners of the recent European past” (p. 18), namely Fascist Italy.

We shall briefly retrace the focus of the various chapters, which may be read as separate studies.

In Chapter One, Perry first describes the arguments of Theodor Mommsen on the collegia funeraticia as set forth in his famous study of 1843. According to Perry, and this is the thesis of much of his book, Mommsen is to be understood in light of his own time. In addition, he suggests, much of the strength of Mommsen’s study in later research is due to the historian’s later reputation, even though his reasoning was at bottom erroneous (pp. 31-40). In the second part of this study, Perry discusses G.B De Rossi’s attempts to argue that the earliest Christian cemeteries show a strong connection to the familial colleges and that Christian communities may deliberately have organized themselves on the model of these organizations (p. 41), that is, that “certain Christian cemeteries in Rome had their origin in the funerary collegia arranged within prominent households” (p. 48). Mommsen disagreed with this view, and Perry argues that this disagreement was partly due to the religious and social backgrounds of these scholars: Mommsen, as a former Lutheran Christian, “‘secularized’ the collegia funeraticia,” while de Rossi saw them as a “suitable subterfuge for a persecuted minority” (60).

Chapter Two discusses J.-P. Waltzing’s multi-volume study Étude historique sur les corporations professionelles chez les Romains. Published in 1895-1900, the volumes came into being at a time and in a culture where the social conditions of the growing masses of workers were at issue. Hence, Perry finds that Waltzing’s works demonstrate some of the same concerns, and that contemporary social issues play a quite obvious role in Waltzing’s studies of the Roman collegia. The cultural milieu was “a direct influence on how the book was composed, and it was designed to address timely, as well as timeless, concerns” (p. 70).

The following three chapters may be read and evaluated as an organic whole, focusing on several studies of collegia published in Fascist Italy (pp. 89-190). The last chapter, ‘Socialism and Sociability: The Collegia since 1945’ (pp. 191-214), deals with the history of collegia research after 1945. This is followed the (strangely titled) ‘Conclusion,’ whose subject is ‘ Autumn Journal, Bottai’s Journal, and the relevance of Rome’ (pp. 215-224).

The first of these chapters (pp. 98-118), entitled ‘Collegia and Corporativismo in Fascist Italy,’ examines several scholars publishing in the 1930s, among these especially F. M. De Robertis, A. Pino-Branca, F. G. Lo Bianco, P.S. Leicht, V. Bandini, A.P. Torri and A. Caldarini. Among these De Robertis is the most prominent both because of his many publications and the distinction that he makes between the Roman Collegia and the Fascism of his day, a distinction not made by many of his contemporaries in Italy. Chapter Four, ‘Collegia, the Institute of Roman Studies and ‘Romanità” (pp. 119-153), traces the role the Institute of Roman Studies played in the development of the classics in fostering Fascist ideology, a focus that is also central in the following chapter on ‘Collegia, Race, and Roman heritage under Giuseppe Bottai’ (pp. 155-190). In focusing on G. Bottai, Mussolini’s Minister of Education, Perry manages to give a detailed but astonishing picture of not so much how fascism influenced research on the ancient Roman collegia, but rather on how the fascist idea of corporations influenced the focus in several (popular) publications dealing with Italian Fascism as a heritage of ancient Roman collegia, resulting in a romanticized view of “Romanness.” It is rather disturbing to see how this Romanness also was tied to issues of race and ethnicity—to Romanness, aryanism, or anti-Semitism.

In the last main chapter (pp. 191-212), Perry provides a brief sketch of the development of Collegia research since 1945. Its first part focuses mainly on the later works of Robertis (he died in 2003), then on a few historians in Eastern Europe. Finally, Perry correctly observes (p. 205) that later scholars have turned away from the “professional” interests of Waltzing and the juridical approach of Robertis, and have turned to focus on social relations, an approach very amply illustrated by the works of R. MacMullen and others.

This is a learned study, and the reader will be rewarded by the author’s insights into the history of the research on the Roman collegia. But its title is somewhat misleading in the sense that this study is not a history of research as such, but more a study of some aspects of this history, focusing especially on Mommsen and his collegia funeraticia, Waltzing’s focus on the professional collegia, and then above all on the role fascism played in the history of Italian research on the collegia.

As interesting as this volume is, there are some inconsistencies of presentation, as well as a failure to make use of some relevant material.

First, the author excels in providing extended quotations in several languages: English, German, French, Italian and Latin. In the first chapter, the author is keen to translate long quotations, e.g., German on pp. 17, 24-27, 47; on p. 30 (cf. p. 54), a long Latin quotation is left un-translated, while another on the next page is translated (cf. also p. 32, 36). On p. 56 a French quotation is translated, while on p. 57 (and 72) a quotation is left untranslated. Sometimes the translation is given following the quotation, sometimes the translation is given in the text, while the original text is placed in a footnote (cf. p. 37, 43). Thus there seems to be no consistency in when to translate and when not. For those not able to read Italian, this lack of service to the reader is even worse when a long quotation in Italian is left untranslated (e.g., pp. 92, 125). However, most of the time Italian quotations in the text are translated (pp. 98, 99, 105, etc).

Furthermore, though the focus of the present study is on the Roman collegia, I find it somewhat surprising that studies of the Greek associations are not at all utilized. Reading this volume one might get the impression that the Greek associations did not exist. I may reveal my own bias, but relying on several later studies, I am more used to thinking about Greco-Roman clubs and associations than to operate with sharp lines drawn between the Roman and the Greek associations.

The last chapter is rather brief; I think that the author has deliberately left out some parts of recent literature on the associations. When, for instance, he finds that much of the present day literature on the sociology of early Christian communities, e.g., W.A. Meek’s The First Urban Christians, are due to much of the former research on the so-called collegia funeraticia, I do think he overemphasizes the influence of the collegia funeraticia research at the expense of the influence of the research on Greco-Roman voluntary associations in general. Furthermore, I would have expected that he would have dealt a little more with some of the more recent studies published in the last two decades on the relations between the ancient associations and the early church. But for some reason, Perry judges these to be irrelevant even in the last chapter.

The author has an interesting comment on one of the last pages (p. 222) when he says; “At what point, however, does ‘being relevant’ to one’s society become ‘collaboration’ with it and its leadership? I think this is the central question behind the material I have addressed in this book.” This is a pertinent question to be kept in mind, and readers should be grateful to Perry for presenting this part of the history of research on the collegia.