BMCR 2008.04.25

Ethnic Identity and Aristocratic Competition in Republican Rome

, Ethnic identity and aristocratic competition in Republican Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xvi, 337 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521863317. $85.00.

Table of Contents

Romans were the descendants of disparate ethnic groups—Latins, Sabines, Etruscans, etc.—who came together in the distant past to forge a single, albeit pluralistic community. This is the story of the origins of the Roman people promoted by later Roman authors, such as Florus and Velleius Paterculus, and often repeated in modern classrooms and history texts. Indeed, Rome in the Republican period is often considered noteworthy, if not praiseworthy, for its capacity to absorb diverse cultural, ethnic, and linguistic communities in Italy. Meanwhile, the Roman aristocracy was constantly evolving, as municipal elite were slowly incorporated and recruited into the ranks of the domi nobiles. In this excellent, thought-provoking book, Gary Farney explores how the issue of ethnic identity crosscut Roman political culture.

The first chapter, Duae Patriae, serves as a long introduction. The chapter’s title refers to the two homelands that each Roman aristocrat had: his (or his family’s) original hometown and Rome. According to Farney, this dual identity (or dual origin) loomed large in aristocratic self-representation and political competition. For example, “blue-blooded” aristocrats from long-established families might tout their own gentes’ antiquity and purity, or they might insult political opponents of municipal origins by calling them ‘foreigners.’ Indeed, Farney argues that “individual families formulated their own unique advertising schemes” (p. 20) in what he calls ‘family identity advertisement’ , and that “ethnic identity formed an important element of family identity” (p. 22). A family might adopt a cognomen that alluded to a venerable ethnic origin (such as Sabine of Latin), advertise a genealogy (no doubt fabricated) showing current family members as direct descendants of legendary figures (such as the king Numa), wear items of ‘ethnic’ clothing (Caesar donning red boots in the fashion of the Alban kings), and so forth. In other words, aristocratic families would exploit and manipulate ethnic identity (real or fabricated) for political ends. They needed to do this, according to Farney, because Roman elections were fiercely contested so that candidates would have felt compelled to actively campaign for votes—including from the lower property classes. The voters in turn would have based their opinions of the candidates, at least in part, on the assumption of group identity, ethnically imparted virtues, and inherited qualities or skills. Farney thus situates his discussion of ethnic identity squarely in the ongoing debate between Millar, Yakobson, Hölkeskamp, Mouritsen and Vishnia (among others) on the role and power of the people in Roman Republican politics. In other words, ethnic identity was at the very heart of Roman political culture.

Before moving on to his case studies, Farney lays out his theoretical and methodological approaches and assumptions. Farney adopts an “instrumentalist view” of ethnic identity, stressing how Roman elite families claimed some or other ethnic descent in order to pursue specific political and/or social goals. This liberates Farney from having to deal with whether or not individual families “really” belonged to a given ethnic group, or even if groups (such as the Sabines) really once existed as separate ethnic communities. All that matters is if an individual or family advertised ethnic membership or descent. The evidence for such ethnic self-promotion is, as Farney admits, “subtle;” throughout the book literary evidence is used when available, but often images and allusions on coins and “ethnic” praenomina and cognomina are invoked. According to Farney, the praenomina of aristocrats are more important than inherited ethnic nomina, because they were consciously chosen and so reflect an active effort by elite families to make ethnic self-identifications. When dealing with aristocratic names, one is also confronted with the difficulties and debates surrounding the early magistrates on the fasti. However, since the book deals largely with the middle and, especially, late republic, questions about the historicity and ethnicity of individuals in the early fasti are largely circumvented. That said, Farney needs to determine the origines of certain families, especially those of moneyers who put their own names on coins bearing other “ethnic” symbolism and/or allusions. In such cases, Farney’s establishment of the ethnic identities of individual family names draws heavily on previous work by Wiseman, Torelli, Harris, Münzer, Taylor, Syme, Wikander, Badian, and the Epigrafia e ordine senatorio II. In general, the approach to the nomenclatural evidence is cautious and sound.

Yet it is the use of numismatic evidence—especially in chapters two and three—where the analysis shines most brightly. At the core of the study are “forty-three issues of coins struck between the 180s and 10s BC that advertise the ethnic identity of the moneyer through the use of ‘private types'” (p. 49)—that is, coins bearing not only the name of a moneyer whose origo is secure, but also images or legends that make reference to that origin and so advertise that ethnic identity of the moneyer. Indeed, the book’s success largely rises and falls on the handling of this numismatic evidence, as it comprises a significant number of examples of the sort of ethnic advertising that Farney assumes went on all the time in the course of aristocratic politics.

The first case study of ethnic identity and politics is Chapter 2: Homo Romanus natus in Latio. Latin communities were among the first to be absorbed into the expanding Roman state. Consequently Latin elite were integrated into the Roman aristocracy at an early date, and throughout the Republican period families with “Latin” names continued to dominate the aristocracy. The supposed great antiquity of these families garnered them political legitimacy and great respect. Moreover, not all domi nobiles of Latin descent were equal: those whose origines traced back to the primeval ager Romanus or to Latium vetus possessed political advantage over elite whose families originally came from towns of Latium adiectum, which was conquered, granted citizenship, and absorbed more recently. In other words, “old Latin families” had a political head start over other aristocrats simply because of their origines. On this point GS can draw on direct literary evidence, namely Cicero’s comment ( Planc. 19) that Iuventius, who came from an old town (Tusculum) that had produced many consulars, had an advantage over his client Plancius, because the latter came from Atina, which was not as old or distinguished or as close to Rome.

Since tracing one’s origo to a very old Latin town was beneficial, it is not surprising that aristocratic families advertised ancient ethnic lineage. Of the forty-three private-type “ethnic” coins that Farney identifies, the largest percentage (twenty-eight) allude to the Latin origines of the moneyers; of these, twenty-six make reference to towns of Latium vetus. In most cases, the moneyer alluded to his origo through a famous cult closely associated with his hometown: for example, eight moneyers from Lanuvium minted coins with the image of Juno Sospita of Lanuvium, while three different Fonteii of Tusculum minted coins with images of the Dioscuri of Tusculum. Other coins allude to legendary founders or mythical or historical events associated with the moneyer’s hometown. 1 In Farney’s estimation, these issues were conscious efforts on the part of the moneyers to remind people of their origines. The case is bolstered by a additional literary and epigraphical references: Caesar wore red boots in the fashion of the Alban kings (as noted above); the Julio-Claudians associated themselves with Venus, Aeneas, and the throne of Alba Longa; the Mamilii claimed to have descended from Telegonus, son of Ulysses and founder of Tusculum; and so on. Farney also speculates that Marcus Agrippa (or Augustus) manipulated the the legend of Agrippa Silvius by adding “Agrippa” to the legendary king’s name, in order to promote Marcus Agrippa’s family’s legitimacy through a (fabricated) claims to Latin antiquity (pp. 60-61).

The arguments follow much the same line in Chapter 3: Romanus atque Sabinus. The Sabines were the second most ancient ethnic group to be incorporated into Rome, at least according to Roman legend. They had a reputation as a rough and tumble mountain folk: frugal, virtuous, brave, stern and possessing the gift of prophesy. At least five patrician gens claimed descent from the Sabines, including the Claudii, and they advertised their ethnic origin by association with “Sabine” cults, elaborate genealogical connections to the Sabine kings, or by invoking the stereotypic Sabine characteristics. Regarding the numismatic evidence, thirteen of the forty-three republican “ethnic” issues allude to Sabine descent, second only to advertisements of Latin descent. Moneyers would mint coins with images of Roman gods that were thought to be of Sabine origin, but in most cases utilized the Sabine kings.2 Sabininess was frequently invoked through the adoption of “ethnic” names. Among the many examples Farney brings to bear: “Sabinus” was a very popular cognomen, appearing in names of individuals from about a dozen families; Cicero ( Fam. 15.20.1) complained complains that many aristocrats have recently adopted the name Sabinus to gain political advantage in elections; “Nero” meant “brave and tough” (traditional Sabine characteristics) in the Sabine language, according to Suetonius ( Tib. 1.2). The Calpurnii claimed Sabine origins, and L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi had the reputation of being old fashioned; his cognomen Frugi alluded to traditional Sabine frugality. A number of Roman authors of alleged Sabine descent claimed that the Sabines derived from the Spartans, and “by the late Republic, most Romans had accepted both the Sabine image and their Spartan genealogy” (p. 105). Farney closes the chapter arguing that the image of the “good Sabine” descended from Lacadaemonian blood was invented by Cato the Elder to promote his own family.

The arguments in the following two chapters, while plausible, are less forceful. Chapter 4: Tusci ac Barbari looks at the third ancient people to be absorbed into Rome, the Etruscans. Unlike the Sabines and the Latins, the image of the Etruscans remained generally negative: supposedly decadent, effeminate, lacking self-control, wealthy, and often villainous. Relatively few securely Etruscan families made their way into the senate before the close of the third century, with a few additional families joining the domi nobiles before the Social War. Since there was so much ethnic bias against the Etruscans, families of Etruscan descent tended not to advertise their origines : “no Etruscan Roman ever minted a coin issued with a discernible Etruscan message, though many actually did strike coins” (p. 144), and only one family (Maecenas’) claimed an elaborate genealogy (linking the Etruscans to the Lydians). Similarly, “the paucity of ‘Etruscan’ cognomina is striking compared to the large number we can identify from other ethnic groups who advertise their origins via ethnic names” (p. 146). Some Etruscans even went in the opposite direction, latinising their names in order to obscure their ethnicity. Farney is forced into the difficult position of proving a negative conclusion, whereby the lack of examples is the primary evidence. It is difficult to evaluate the arguments, especially since Farney does not include any images or descriptions of the coins struck by the Etruscan moneyers, leaving the reader at the mercy of the author’s claim that they did not allude to ethnic origins. It should be noted that one of the Etruscan moneyers was a certain M. Pupius Piso Frugi, mentioned without comment on p. 144 n. 61. Yet his cognomen Frugi is cited, in Chapter 3, as evidence of an aristocrat appealing to traditional Sabinity. If aristocrats of various ethnic descents adopted the same cognomina, then this perhaps undermines Farney’s general claim that such adopted cognomina were pregnant with ethnic resonance.3

On the other hand, the disciplina etrusca was generally respected by the Roman aristocracy, Cicero’s Cato ( Div. 2.51) excepted. Farney argues that Etruscan aristocrats used this to influence politics: “In sum, they seem to have used the disciplina to rationalize a place for Etruscan culture in Hellenic philosophy and religion, to influence Roman politics, and (I would suggest) to legitimize their ethnic identity in the eyes of their peers in the political culture of the Republic” (p. 156). The assertion is plausible, but the supporting arguments are not as secure. For example, Farney notes that “many men proudly claiming to be haruspices are known from various epitaphs and dedicatory inscriptions found in and around Etruria” (p. 157), yet surely the primary audience for such inscriptions would have been other Etruscan Romans, not Romans from other origines. If so, then such monuments honoring their ancestral religion would have done little to “further their own political ambitions and advertise their families’ value to the republic” (p.158). Literary evidence supposedly showing Etruscan Romans influencing politics is also ambiguous. One example—the “most famous instance” (p. 161) according to Farney—will suffice: a haruspex named Spurinna allegedly warned Julius Caesar not to go to the senate on the day he was assassinated, which Farney takes as showing Spurinna “trying to make the political situation at Rome conform to his particular point of view.” Leaving aside the likelihood that the story is spurious, the argument verges on circular. That Spurinna (et al) tried to manipulate politics is plausible enough, but Farney simply has no direct literary evidence (such Cicero’s claim that politicians adopted the name Sabinus to promote their political careers), so he compelled to rely more on assumption and speculation. The chapter concludes by arguing that Etruscans eventually did fit in, and so during the imperial period it would have been attractive for aristocrats to claim Etruscan origins. Still, it is interesting to note that the main evidence cited—the so-called elogia Tarquiniensia —would have been consumed by a local audience (at Tarquinia), and not outside of Etruria.

Just as the Etruscan elite faced an uphill battle incorporating themselves into the Roman aristocracy, so too did those from “Italian” towns, discussed in Chapter 5: Municipalia illa prodigia. Farney notes that very few senatorial families of “Italic” origin are known before the social war, but Caesar radically changed the political landscape by incorporating municipal elite into the Roman aristocracy on a large scale. Still, old ethnic stereotypes died hard—Bruttians were considered rebellious, Ligurians liars, Campanians proud and decadent—and such stereotypes would have hurt efforts by Italic elite to compete with Roman aristocrats of more ‘respectable’ ethnic origins. Thus Italic elite adopted strategies to legitimize their ethnic origins. Elaborate genealogies linked Italic peoples to more ancient and respectable ethnic groups, or even to Greek and/or Roman heroes: many cities claimed Diomedes as their founder, a later tradition asserted a Trojan origin (via Aeneas’ grandfather Capys) for the Capuans, etc. Other groups claimed to be derived from the Sabines, thus “cleaning up” their image as rebellious and barbaric mountain-men by presenting themselves hardy yet frugal, just like the venerated Sabines. Indeed, Strabo (5.4.12) writes that central Apennine folk (such as the Samnites) referred to themselves as Sabellus (Sabellic) because their ancestors were Sabines. Farney, following Dench, sees this as a clear act of self-legitimizing: “…I would argue that ‘Sabellus’ was a term of empowerment among central Apennine people in the late Republic and that they used it before it was picked up by Roman authors” (p. 210). Italic Roman aristocrats advertised their alleged Sabine origins by adopting the cognomen Sabinus or Sabellus. Farney also identifies one possible “private type” Republican coin that advertises the Italic ethnic origins of the moneyer, though the numismatic evidence for such advertising is largely lacking, as it is for Etruscan Romans. Finally, Roman authors of Italic origin in the early empire wrote in defense of the behavior of their ancestors who opposed Rome in past wars. In other words, by this time it was “safe” for Italic Romans to take pride in their ancestry, as did Romans of Latin or Sabine descent.

Chapter 6: Transferendo huc quod usquam egregium fuerit is part epilogue on ethnic politics in the imperial period and the incorporation of provincial elite into the senatorial aristocracy, part conclusion. In Farney’s final evaluation, Rome was often “hesitant and ambivalent” in its plurality and multiculturalism, but during the age of Cicero “the definition of ‘Roman’ was expanded” (p. 246) to include peoples inhabiting the whole peninsula. The reinvention of Rome as a pluralistic society made up of different and far-flung ethnic groups would have a profound impact on the forging of an even bigger “Roman” community that (eventually) encompassed the whole Mediterranean. A fifty-page Appendix follows: it includes a long catalogue of all the coins mentioned in the book, tables arranging these coins by chronological order, family name, ethnic origin, etc., and a separate conclusion. Unfortunately, images of the coins were not included with the verbal descriptions.4

Ethnic Identity and Aristocratic Competition in Republican Rome is a very fine work of scholarship. The topic touches on a wide range of important debates in Roman history, and at the same time the core issues of multiculturalism, plurality, ethnicity, and identity politics bear in a timely fashion on contemporary discussions. Different readers, including the reviewer, will probably not agree with every single argument posited,5 but this is not surprising in a work that is provocative and original. Farney is to be commended.

Lastly, the reviewer apologizes for the tardiness in submitting this review.


1. Thus, a certain Cornelius Cethegus may have placed the image of the Alban king Agrippa Silvius on a coin in the late second century, if we accept Farney’s identification. In one remarkable example, a L. Atilius Nomentanus (around 141 BC) advertised his hometown of Nomentum by replacing the legend ROMA with NOM (p. 74-75).

2. Numa appears on four issues, Titus Taius twice, and Ancus Marcius twice; a certain L. Titurius Sabinus minted coins (c. 89 BC) that depicted the Rape of the Sabine Women on the reverse and Titus Tatius on the obverse (pp. 82-88).

3. This last point relates to a more general methodological question concerning the numismatic evidence. Farney does a good job showing that individual moneyers minted coins alluding to their ethnic origins, but he does not discuss the degree to which the images on the coins were used exclusively. Did, for example, the image of Numa appear only on coins minted by Sabine Roman moneyers, or did moneyers of other ethnic descents also mint Numa coins? If so, such images might not have had the ethnic resonance that Farney asserts. One potential example: the Aelii Paeti are mentioned as possibly of Etruscan origin (p. 159-160); yet a certain P. Aelius Paetus minted a coin (c. 138 BC) bearing the image of the Dioscuri on the reverse (Sydenham 455), who were strongly associated with Tusculum and therefore symbols of Latin ethnic identity, according to Farney (p. 70). It is possible that images on coins had various layers of meaning, and such examples need not fundamentally undercut Farney’s thesis. Still, some more discussion would be welcome.

4. The book is otherwise very well produced and edited. The four maps at the beginning of the book, reproduced from the CAH, are somewhat dark and hard to read. I found only one typographical error (p. 7. n. 17): habet civitates set unam illas… should read habet civitates sed unam illas….

5. My own disagreements, besides those mentioned above, are mostly quibbles. I do not entirely agree with Farney’s interpretation (p. 187-188) of the role of the Calavii in the defection of Capua during the Hannibalic War (see Fronda, Phoenix [2007] 61: 83-108), but this does not critically compromise the main thrust of his arguments.