The “Struggle of the Orders” that supposedly pitted a Roman patrician aristocracy against a plebeian proletariat has always made historians uncomfortable, and most historians today disregard the one-dimensional view as portrayed in our sources. Randall S. Howarth’s new book The Origins of Roman Citizenship enters this debate clearly on the side of Richard Mitchell (who wrote the introduction) and his more radical positions in an attempt to completely dismiss the concept. Whether you agree or disagree with Howarth’s conclusions, his book is worthy of consideration in the debate regarding not only the “Struggle of the Orders” but also the evolution of archaic Roman government and Rome’s diplomacy with its Latin neighbors. In Howarth’s view, the traditional domestic “Struggle of the Orders” was actually “pseudo-historical overlay that tends to obscure an actual historical conflict between two political models, a federal model and a city-based model” (87), that is, between Rome and her Latin allies. This struggle played a fundamental role in institutional development within the Roman government.
According to the model that Howarth puts forth, at the expulsion of the last king, Rome was politically underdeveloped, having only one legislative assembly, the curiae, and only Tribunes as magistrates. However, Rome was part of a larger federal alliance of Latin states that had its own separate assemblies, including an advisory body of aristocrats and a military assembly that elected its commanders. Rome and the other Latin cities thus operated within two overlapping governmental systems, one local and one federal. According to this model, later Roman historians confused and conflated these two systems into one domestic system. It was this system of dual “identities” that led to the final evolution of the Roman Republic by the mid third century. The federal aristocratic assembly would evolve into the Senate, and the military assembly would become the Comitia Centuriata. Thus, in Howarth’s view, the tribes (and by extension the Tribal Assembly) were a domestic organization that included only the Roman people, while the Centuries and Comitia Centuriata were a federal organization that included both Romans and Latins. In his mind, this explains why the Comitia Centuriata elected magistrates with imperium in later Republic once Rome absorbed these federal systems as her own. It also explains why the curiae acted as a “rubber stamp” to give local approval of the decisions made by the federal Comitia Centuriata. Tension grew within this Latin federal system, and, after the Latin War of the mid-fourth century, Rome became dominant and absorbed the federal identity and its institutions.
The “Struggle of the Orders” was part of the tension within this federal system, albeit in a disguised form. Tension within the system, according to Howarth’s model, began very early after the expulsion of the kings but was reconciled and celebrated in a Latin Festival, originally of two days, held outside of archaic Rome on the Aventine Hill. The traditional domestic dispute where the plebeians seceded from the city in 494 BC and retreated to either the Sacred Mount (Livy) or the Aventine (Piso) was actually the Roman people contesting the power of the Latin aristocracy concerning distribution of conquered lands. In an ironic twist that escaped later Roman historians, these Romans who demanded greater say in the allocation of spoils became the insufferable plebeians of later accounts. The Tribunes, already in existence by the time of the dispute, now interceded on behalf of the Roman people with the Latin aristocracy that would become the Senate. The settlement of this dispute was the Cassian Treaty of 492 BC, after which a third day was added to the Latin Festival. Howarth bases his argument on the fact that both the Aventine and the Sacred Mount were more important to Latins than Romans; also the dates of these two traditionally separate events are too close for mere coincidence. He ignores the possibility that, if it were a domestic dispute, by going to places important to Latins the people may have been reaching out to their neighbors against an internal aristocracy. He goes on to examine, in minute detail which need not all be recounted here, how in the sources every event in the traditional “Struggle of the Orders” corresponds with developments in Roman-Latin relations as Rome grew in power and eventually became dominant in the League. Ultimately, at the end of the struggle in 367 BC, the Temple of Concord was erected to commemorate events, and a fourth day was added to the Latin Festival, which in Howarth’s mind is proof positive that the whole affair was not just an internal Roman matter. During this process, Rome’s evolving relationship with its allies facilitated the absorption of the federal political system and the incorporation its former allies into a new body politic, hence the title of the book.
Howarth fully admits that his thesis may be radical and will create controversy (6). He does fully realize its limitations as well since he states that his theoretical model “will not fit all the evidence nor will it solve all the historiographical problems” (38). The writing style is at times polemical, such as when he states that most modern historians have “failed to apply what is increasingly clear about the Early Republic,” but it is possible to make “more reasonable and rational reconstructions” using his model (5). However, throughout the text, he often is forced to qualify his statements by saying such things as “we can say with some confidence . . . ” (65); “tribunes were probably already in existence . . .” (101); Military Tribunes with consular power “may well have included Latin Allies” (116); “very possibly. . . ” (214); etc. These would not be as problematic if they were not often key to his overall argument such as in the case of the pre-existence of Tribunes.
Despite its thought provoking argument, the book does have some major conceptual flaws. First, Howarth repeatedly uses the concept of competing “identities,” one urban and one Latin, in the evolution of events. However, he neither defines exactly what he means by “identity,” nor attempts to explain what actually constitutes an identity and how one should identify it in the sources. He never tries to show that there even was a “Roman” or a “Latin” identity or how they differed and changed over time. He goes to great lengths to dismiss the more problematic concept of ethnicity (54) but fails to explain why identity, whatever he means by it, would be a better term. This is most disappointing since work in the later Empire has advanced the concept of identity greatly. Even if there were competing identities, what saliency would they have had among different people? A second major problem is that if later Roman historians did confuse a diplomatic struggle for a domestic one, where did the terms patrician and plebeian come from and why did they have such saliency in the later Republic and Empire? What was the process that led the Romans to delude themselves? And finally, given that the later Romans did believe in the “Struggle of the Orders,” what does that tell us about them? This would be a nice conclusion to his argument.
Despite these issues, the book is thought-provoking, and the argument is generally sound, whether you agree with the conclusions or not. Perhaps Howarth’s words summarize it best when he was discussing the evolution of the tribal structure: “Of course, this solution is entirely conjectural, even if plausible” (208).