BMCR 2009.04.38

From Asculum to Actium. The Municipalization of Italy from the Social War to Augustus. Oxford Classical Monographs

, From Asculum to Actium. The Municipalization of Italy from the Social War to Augustus. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. xviii, 566. ISBN 978-0-19-923184-3. $215.00.

Table of Contents


From Asculum to Actium is a history of the higher magistracies in the polities of Italy created de novo as municipalities in the aftermath of the Social War. It began life as an Oxford dissertation, which Bispham completed in 1994. I mention that fact because the size and cost of the volume the dissertation has become are likely to be significant factors in its reception. This is up to a point a shame, because many of Bispham’s conclusions to arguments both minor and major strike me as sensible. But he and the Press must bear the blame for having presented the material in this form; as I shall endeavor to demonstrate, Bispham is himself aware that the amount of background and source-critical excursus will try the patience of readers and the capacity of library budgets.1

Bispham himself describes chapters 6-9 as “form(ing) the core of the book, presenting a detailed discussion of the senior municipal magistracies (the quattuorvirate and the duovirate) as they emerge from the epigraphic sources” (51). This statement prompts reflections of two kinds. On the one hand, chapter 6 begins on p. 247, on my estimate some 130,000 words into the book. In other words, the reader is asked to traverse the equivalent of something like a standard monograph before Bispham’s argument begins.2 And on the other, this represents a conscious narrowing of a far more ambitious and interesting programme sketched and occasionally taken up but ultimately eschewed by Bispham himself.

Near the opening of the book, Bispham offers a brief description of the ethnic, linguistic, juridical and sociological diversity of the Italian peninsula in the early first century B.C.E. and asks, “How was this huge diversity of culture, language, tradition, outlook, and aspiration to be managed?” He responds, “My task is to examine how Rome addressed this problem” (10). But in the next such programmatic statement, some sixteen thousand words on, the brief Bispham sets himself has narrowed: “My discussion of the means by which the transition from an allied community to Roman municipium was effected is essentially a juridical one, a constitutional study of the new municipia” (40). Soon, it narrows further still: “Yet for the post-Social-War period a detailed study of the constitutional development of the Italian communities based on the epigraphic evidence is lacking…. This book represents, I think, the first systematic attempt to analyse all the epigraphic (and literary) evidence for the municipal quattuorvitate and duovirate between the Social War and the battle of Actium…” (46-47).

Bispham helpfully sets forth a great deal of the relevant epigraphic evidence in an Addendum (473-510). But it is hard not to conclude from reading his discussion of it that the evidence could have been presented in tabular form, as indeed Bispham himself presents data on the public-law status of Italian communities in Appendix 3. This is so not least because the inscriptions in questions are overwhelming honorific or commemorative. That is to say, if one reads them with an eye toward “the constitutional development of the Italian communities,” the data they yield addresses the questions what magistracies existed in Italian communities and when are they attested. The epigraphic evidence tout court may have been able to address other questions (more on this in a moment), but on the topic of constitutional history narrowly conceived, this may be all we can glean from this particular data set. To the extent that the texts provide any sense what the competencies of a magistracy were, and hence any indication regarding conceptions of the public sphere and the responsibilities of government, they suggest that wealthy individuals in public office saw to the construction and repair of buildings—but that is naturally what we would expect from a body of texts inscribed at the site of such works. Acts of municipal senates or texts of municipal decrees would naturally have provided information relevant to these questions, but, as Bispham observes, “less than perhaps half a dozen municipal decrees [are] extant from the Republic” (313).

I will return momentarily to the conclusions Bispham does draw from this data: some are narrow and sound; others are more fragile. But for reasons that shall become clear when I do so, I must first describe one set of issues Bispham rightly asserts as relevant but declines to consider.

In chapter 4 Bispham considers (in a deeply roundabout way) the name, date and content of the post-Social War law or laws that established the public law structures of the new municipia, as well as the institutional mechanisms established or exploited for enrolling the new citizens. Looking back on the conclusions of that chapter at the start of chapter 5, Bispham writes:

This [legislation] obviously left a large number of important questions unanswered, and uncertainty about the future of a whole range of practices which had been fundamental to the life of the communities of Italy as independent states, but might not be acceptable or Roman enough, to survive enfranchisement. The obvious example is in the field of civil law: marriages, inheritances, loans and business partnerships, land sales, and guardianship (to name a few aspects at random) were for Romans governed by Roman ius civile. Italian practices in these and other areas of society were, by definition, not…. (205).

Bracketing some important matters of fact and interpretation embedded in these sentences, allow me to point out that these topics would seem to be embraced in any robust answer to the question, “How was this huge diversity of culture, language, tradition, outlook, and aspiration to be managed?” (10). But these questions are effectively set aside: “On the thorny question of jurisdiction I have little to add; a detailed consideration of Roman law and its adoption in the newly enfranchised part of Italy lies outside the scope of this work” (421). This is so despite the fact both Cicero and Livy in very similar language describe the taking up or refusal by Latins—or imposition by Rome—of select leges de iure civili as an essential constituent of those processes of negotiation and relations of power by which communities Romanos se fieri paterentur (the first phrase is from Cicero Balb. 21, quoted by Bispham on p. 159; the latter from Livy 9.45.6-7, quoted by Bispham in p. 104 n. 150; see also 245). It is so despite Bispham’s own insistence—with which I am entirely in agreement—that “it seems that the Roman Senate expected that the absorption of the principles of criminal and civil law was one of the main functions of acculturation…. After all, they had had centuries of experience of how quickly and in which areas their civil law was assimilated by incorporated peoples” (223). And yet, systematic study of these issues is repeatedly refused.

This stance is lamentable for two reasons. First, Bispham must surely know the relevant evidence better than nearly anyone in field and it is a loss to us all not have his reflections on these issues (see, e.g., pp. 158-159, citing pre-Social War legislation that extended civil law regulations to aliens, as well as 162 n. 4, discussing Sulpicius Rufus on Latin and forms of betrothal, from Gellius 4.4 = fr. 2 Huschke-Seckel-Kuebler (though neither the citation from Gellius nor the fragment number is given)).

More importantly, Bispham himself frames the achievement of the municipal system, and the broader implications of his own analysis, within an evaluative framework that contrasts the “uniformity of the quattuorvirate” and the “external similarity” it “imposed” over against the “high flexibility” that lay beneath such “exterior uniformity”: the municipal system succeeded because it “allowed for the preservation of local and traditional elements” (437-438). As he said in an early summary of the conclusion’s argument, he understands the “broader political significance of municipalization” to be “located in its provision of political and public structures which to a certain extent met the needs and aspirations of Italians” (51-52).

There are a number of problems here: most significantly, because he has declined to offer systematic study of any aspect of municipalization beyond the titulature of magistracies, Bispham provides us with no data by which to index this “high flexibility,” nor indeed any contemporaneous evidence that such flexibility was a normative ideal. Indeed, his own remarks on the Roman Senate’s expectations in regard to law and acculturation before the Social War would seem to argue against this having been an ideal at the level he seems to assume. On another level, I take it that the evidence that municipalization “met the needs and aspirations of Italians” consists largely of the negative token that serious sedition in Italy in the aftermath of the Social War is not attested; and in the positive evidence that individuals who held office in the new system and who thus found their social standing affirmed and perhaps elevated by that system chose to commemorate themselves and others of their socio-political peer group. It may well be that this evidence can be made to speak to the broader needs and aspirations of all Italians, but no hermeneutic is herein offered by which to justify that act of generalization.

I want in closing to highlight three conclusions drawn by Bispham: the first two derive from the arguments at the core of the work, while the third seems to me not simply important but genuinely novel.

First, Bispham is able to conclude, with considerable force, that “the pressure for the promotion of submunicipal centres to the status of municipia, the incentives to dioikismos and sunoikismos, the processes which were creating many of the new centres in the late Republic, likewise lay with the local domi nobiles : no real incentive to advancement was offered by the Senate as a matter of policy” (417). This may well be true; if so, as regards urbanism, it is a striking departure from Roman practice outside Italy, where the forced resettlement of populations was an enormously regular feature of life in the aftermath of annexation. More generally, it is a striking testament to the highly structured devolution of authority to local elites practiced by Rome, patently kindred to that widely visible in Macedonia and Achaea in the second century B.C.E.

Second, Bispham urges that the appearance of duoviral municipalities should be read at least in part “as an attempt by them to assimilate themselves outwardly to the colonies,” in the context of a Roman politics in which significant relations between regional centers and Rome were being conducted on a nakedly personalized level, between dynasts of their colonies (402-403). This would seem to permit, even encourage, a rereading of late Republican politics, such that, e.g., the seemingly distortive relations obtaining between generals and veteran colonies were paraded as beneficial before municipalities at nearly the very moment when those municipalities were being asked to imagine themselves within some normative Roman politics that no longer existed.

Third, Bispham traces in relief the existence and history of the wide swaths of Italy that long remained unmunicipalized (80-81; 410-412). The treatment is necessarily cursory, if only because his topic is rather very precisely municipalities. But the topic is of the utmost importance, and Bispham has done a huge service by drawing attention to it and, indeed, to a point mapping it.

There is much more here but I cannot summarize it all, not least because Bispham’s emphases are at the least idiosyncratic and ultimately, I fear, self-subverting. It very much seems that a record is here presented of every path taken in the research for this book, and the argument for retracing any given path is simply that it was once taken. But the result is that the conclusions Bispham ultimately emphasizes are not necessarily well-supported by the armature articulated in the body of the work. Not all toil undertaken in a course of research must find its way between the same covers, and the author and the Press have not served each other or the public well by allowing that in this case, not least when the result is so prohibitively expensive.


1. Bispham devotes pp. 39-46 to a biographically-organized discussion of method, describing in counterpoint his framing of questions and his seeking after evidence to address them and subsequently the skills to use that evidence. He concludes: “What matters here is that the kinds of things which can be done, and which I would now want to do with the epigraphic evidence, are not the same objectives which I believed useful and justified when I began the work. I hope the final product is not too obviously a Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together from horribly incompatible aims.”

2. Rather than overload the text with examples, and perhaps give an overly negative impression of my assessment of his treatment, I here merely observe that the first half of the volume treats at enormous length topics of no direct relevance and often reaches entirely conventional conclusions. As Bispham himself writes regarding his study of the Romano-Karthaginian treaty: “it tells us nothing concrete about munipalization” (35); again, “we have very few really encouraging data, if any, about what municipalization meant on a day-to-day basis before the first century B.C.” (37)—but he devotes the next 130 pages to just that topic; 74 pages on, he sums up, “with no claim to originality” (111); and continues, another 50 pages on, that we must cover still more “ground well-trodden”: “nevertheless, a thorough analysis of the evidence is indispensable.” Not, it is not: at least, that analysis need not be conducted in print again, not if it has been done before, and the conclusions to be reached have “no claim to originality” (cf. p. 335: “My date for the first appearance of the quattuorvirate iure dicundo brings me (along with the majority of scholars writing on the subject since 1935) into disagreement with the conclusions reached by Hans Rudolf” [parenthesis in original]).