BMCR 2007.05.30

A Companion to the Roman Republic

, , A Companion to the Roman Republic. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006. xxx, 737. $149.95.

Table of Contents

A Companion to the Roman Republic is one of twenty-nine Companions to the Ancient World now in preparation or already published by Blackwell. They have clearly seen a market for ‘sophisticated and authoritative overviews of periods of ancient history’ for ‘scholars, students, and general readers’, and academics are willing to provide copy (for minimal reward). It will be interesting to see over the next couple of years how this series fares in comparison with others aimed at the same market.

It is unusual to begin with comments about the production quality of a volume, but in this case the issue is significant enough to justify mention at the outset. The reviewer has casually noted some fifty misprints, concentrated particularly in the contributions of Stoddart, Gargola, Rüpke, Welch, and Batstone (there are even three in a piece by one of the editors). This is without taking account of numerous solecisms and examples of ungrammatical (and inconsistent) punctuation which together make some contributions unpleasant to read. (But note that one of the pre-publication reviews — a dubious but now ubiquitous feature of modern publishing — describes the work as ‘always … readable and clear’.) The same lack of care is evident in other features. Stoddart’s contribution is undermined by the absence of suitable accompanying maps (maps 4-6 are wholly unsatisfactory); some figures in Welch’s piece are crying out for annotation (figures 24.13 and 24.16 [p.513, 516] simply retain the numbering from their sources, but are not provided with a key); and internal references throughout are to chapter and not page number. These failures are the responsibility of individual contributors — and the editors — but especially of the publisher, whose failure to maintain a professional standard of production is even less acceptable given the high price of this volume.

One can thankfully be more positive about the contents. There are many good and very good pieces in this collection. In particular, mention should be made of the contributions by Jehne, North, Rosenstein, Yakobson, Eckstein, de Ligt, and Morstein-Marx and Rosenstein, which can all be recommended wholeheartedly as clear and compelling introductions to their respective themes. Jehne manages the difficult task of clearly outlining one hundred and fifty years of competing interpretations of the republican political system; North gives an admirable description of the workings of the republican ‘constitution’; Rosenstein presents a thorough and wide-ranging exposition of the aristocratic ethos and its development; Yakobson gives a balanced assessment of the popular element in Republican politics; Eckstein profitably examines Roman ‘imperialism’ in the light of competing conceptual frameworks; de Ligt argues successfully against population decline (but also against a ‘high count’) in the third to first centuries BC, and Morstein-Marx and Rosenstein conclude by asking challenging conceptual questions about the ‘fall’ of the ‘Republic’.

Some other contributions deserve brief comment. Bispham’s successful exposition of the development of republican historiography concludes with an interesting corrective to those who see ancient history merely as a sub-genre of rhetoric: inventio is a ‘false friend’ which does not mean ‘invention’. Anyone who has struggled with the recondite literature on Roman coinage will be grateful to Pobjoy for his clear introduction to this topic. Torelli’s detailed piece on topography and archaeology has much to offer but begins very much in medias res and would have benefited from a summary of pre-Republican urban development. Rüpke starts in an unpromising theoretical mode but in fact delivers an effective introduction to the practicalities of Roman religion. David’s discussion of the role of rhetoric in public life is mercifully free of jargon, though one might have looked for a discussion also of military rhetoric. Gruen’s is a fascinating account of Roman attitudes to foreigners, but can we be sure that his evidence for a sophisticated and positive outlook does not represent deviation from the norm? Deniaux’s piece on patronage contains much valuable material and discussion, but approaches many crucial issues indirectly: the extent to which patronage and clientship were governed by formal rules and sanctions; how competing ties to multiple patrons or clients (individual or collective) were in practice resolved; and how much of Roman society was in fact bound by ties of clientship are all issues which need much more direct treatment. Perhaps more disappointing is Alexander’s essay on Roman law: the intended reader is unlikely to be much closer to understanding the legis actiones or the praetor’s edict, subjects which need to be treated with more clarity in the interests of the beginner.

While my reaction to most pieces is more or less positive, there are a very few which seem to me seriously flawed. The first is Corbeill’s discussion of ‘The Republican Body’, which goes badly awry in a final section which tries to identify a popular challenge to the aristocratic culture of the body. The aristocratic ethos adopted the penetrative act as the signifier of masculinity, but the popular view was entirely different: ‘he [the soldier] is the epitome of manly courage ( virtus), despite the fact that he may regularly subject himself to the penetration of his body’s boundaries … Former soldiers by dramatically displaying their battle scars, offer a model by which penetrability could be construed as a marker of status’ (p. 452). The transfer of penetration from the sexual to the military is trite and also unconvincing in the light of an aristocracy which, Rosenstein has told us, tried to gain favour by displaying battle-scars (p. 367). The obvious (and unfalsifiable) response adopted by Corbeill is to interpret these displays as an appeal to popular counter-culture. It is no surprise to see the idea pushed even further: when Caesar is charged with effeminacy (and worse), Corbeill finds it ‘tempting to see in these charges not random abuse, but a political appeal by Caesar to non-elite beliefs and opinions that have been obscured by our hostile sources’ (p.453). This is one of the few temptations the present reviewer is able to resist.

The second problematic contribution is Batstone’s piece on literature. This is characterised by a dubious explanation for the nature of Plautus’ rewriting of Menander. Plautus’ work ‘celebrates the energies and the duplicity required when Rome was possessing and changing the Mediterranean. It celebrates those energies by finding them lurking everywhere: in the psychology of the duped and swindled, in the slippery characters who keep playing out of role, in the outrageous plots and exaggerated arias, but most of all in the way the plays interrupt the action, stop the plot, postpone the final victory just for the chance to play one more time with the psyche and symbolic systems of others’ (p. 550). Plautus as a metaphor for Roman imperialism elides the distinction between author, text, and reader, and unwisely eschews more direct dramatic explanations. Batstone’s wilful search for paradox and irony, evident also in his treatment of other authors and genres, is not worthy of this collection, and much of his (superficial) cleverness will bemuse many of the readers for whom this work is intended. This may seem unnecessarily harsh, but how else can one respond to: ‘Romanness … is the process by which the contestants compete simultaneously for personal influence and for their own symbolic and rhetorical definitions of Rome’ (p.544)? But maybe the uninitiated need to be confronted with this ‘cutting edge’ approach to Latin literature.

It is a surprise to express mixed feelings about Hölkeskamp’s piece on collective memory. Having outlined some of the theoretical issues involved in the preservation of pre-literary historical memory, Hölkeskamp argues plausibly that dynamic ritual in a monumental context was the prime mechanism for the preservation of Roman historical memory, and concludes that ‘the distinction that modern scholars like to draw between “communicative memory” , which is … “present in the present” as it covers only two or three generations, and the “cultural memory”, with its selective and stylized preservation of events of a more remote past, does not apply: … in the cultural memory of the Republic around 150, Romulus and Brutus, the first triumph and the initial struggles of the young Republic, are as vivid and immediate as Scipio Africanus and the Second Punic War or L. Aemilius Paullus and his spectacular triumph of 167.’ (p.491). But the piece ends two paragraphs later, begging too many questions. How, for example, does this conclusion affect our understanding of the canonical history of the Republic? An earlier observation highlights the problems that needed to be addressed: ‘every group which has an image of itself as a group aims to take permanent possession of … specific, meaningful locations, which are symbols of its identity and fixed points of reference for its memory’ (p.482). How many such groups were there, or had there been, and to what extent was the collective memory in 150 the product of a struggle between these different groups over the meaning to be attached to the city’s monuments and rituals? And how and why did one or other prevail? The student of Roman history would benefit greatly from such a discussion, and the failure to provide one is an opportunity missed.

There are in truth few such missed opportunities. In a perfect world the reader might have looked for more basic but nonetheless essential information in place of some of the abstract emphasis on identity and political culture: discussions of colonization and the development and rights of various types of citizenship, for example, are fragmented, and there is some overlap and repetition of other themes. But, in spite of its idiosyncrasies, this Companion does its job of introducing students to current debates in the study of the Roman republic, and of inspiring further study. Rosenstein and Morstein-Marx can be confident that they have guided a project which, in terms of content at least, is ahead of its competitors.