This book, a set of elegant, complex, and complexly interrelated case studies in the political and social life of the last century of the Roman Republic, is an exercise in returning to first principles—in particular, to the root meaning of ‘republic’ ( res publica), whose original sense, “the People’s property” or “the People’s business,” Wiseman takes as his starting point. He argues that the People — very much with a capital “P” — were central to Roman political life and development, and that the existence of political parties (long out of scholarly fashion) must be taken seriously. In short (and like Fergus Millar, among others) Wiseman wants to “put the ideology back” (33) into the study of the late Republic.
The obstacles to doing so are primarily Cicero and Gelzer and, in the English-speaking world, Syme. The first because his powerfully talented, conservative voice both carried the day in antiquity (a view which can and should be contested more than Wiseman does, however) and — more damagingly — has survived to the near-total exclusion of all others; the latter two because, as Wiseman demonstrates, against the background of the fascination with charismatic Caesarism in the late 19th century, political life as the pursuit of power became the means of analyzing Roman politics for Gelzer ( Die Nobilität der römischen Republik, 1912), and in his wake Münzer ( Römische Adelsparteien und Adelsfamilien, 1920) and Syme, who “kept his eye firmly fixed on Machtpolitik” (30). Essentially, Wiseman claims, the narrative of the late Republic that has dominated Roman studies is that which sees the political murder of the Gracchi as “justified by [Cicero’s] outrageously partisan reinterpretation of what the republic permitted and required” (187), going on to become the justification for the assassination of Julius Caesar, who was staged (by the same Cicero) as a murderous tyrant deserving to be slain. Wiseman aims to discover what the People’s narrative might have looked like.
It is very hard to see around Cicero. Wiseman fixes primarily on Varro to try to open up the now shadowy world in which Cicero’s rhetoric originally played only a part. This is not a new tactic: David Levene did the same thing, to eye-opening effect, in a chapter on the literary life of the late Republic,1 and Varro’s satires, in particular, are once again starting to attract interest (not least because of Wiseman’s example). For Wiseman it is not only, perhaps not even mostly, the prose works that prove productive, though he certainly uses them as evidence (especially in chapters 4 and 6): he devotes a whole chapter here (“Marcopolis”) to the Menippean Satires, dissecting the surviving titles and building on the scrappy remains a picture of a body of satirical work whose “cumulative impact must have been very impressive”: “[t]he nearest analogy might be a popular columnist in a mass-circulation newspaper, for in the Roman world the stage was the only mass medium available” (147). Wiseman sees Varro’s work as “telling the citizens how to live” (151), performances in which “that tough-minded, outspoken old man” (131) argued for a state in which old fashioned civic virtues and a “traditionally egalitarian way of thinking about the republic” (115) bespoke a real ideological divide, and an ideal polis very different from Cicero’s.
Wiseman demonstrates that there are other ways, less straightforward even than Varronian reconstruction, to get at the popular ideology: through the career of Gaius Licinius Geta, for example, a tenuously attested character who (Wiseman shows) must have been a striking example of the resistance to, and ultimate triumph over, aristocratic arrogance and violence in the last decades of the second century; through Licinius Macer, whose activities in the 70s form part of an argument — including Macer’s mysterious coinage and the topography of the Capitoline — identifying the god Veiovis as the god of Romulus’ all-inclusive asylum, and whose written history Wiseman here argues (as he has before) to have been “politically contentious”; and through an analysis of the path by which political assassination became justifiable, even inevitable, in the years after 133 BCE. All of this feeds into a carefully built progression via a discussion of the Roman political stage (chapter 8) and the ethics of judicial murder to an analysis of the nature and effect of Caesar’s killing (chapters 9-10).
These topics (among others in this volume) are ones that Wiseman has returned to again and again throughout the course of his work, especially since the publication in 1995 of Remus, his first book-length investigation of the construction and effect of plebeian ideology in Rome. So, for example, the conviction that pre-Horatian satire was performed on the stage fits with Wiseman’s well-known predilection for seeing, or inferring, stage performances as a crucial link in much Roman historiographical, mythical, and cultural process. I do not think that his claim for the performance of satire can be disproved: but I am uncomfortable with his tendency (here as elsewhere) to take the sources literally. So we meet Horace, unproblematically and without irony a son of a freedman (148); and Scipio, Laelius, and Lucilius, before they withdrew to play “until the vegetables cooked,” gathering together by the stage (Hor. Sat. 2.1.68-74). Yet if there is one thing we know about Roman satire, it is that its constant evocation of “real life” is at least as much a matter of poetics (so the holus as part of the satirist’s moderate meal: Sat. 1.1.74, 1.6.112) as of documentary evidence. Here, as elsewhere, Wiseman’s very selective use of secondary material stands out. This is one of the most learned of classical scholars, who knows the fields, both ancient and modern, inside out, and who argues meticulously against individual positions (in this volume, especially those of Gruen, Mouritsen, and Goldberg). A sparing use of secondary literature has often been his practice elsewhere, of course, and is part of his insistence on returning to the sources rather than accepting the scholarly communis opinio, itself too often an accretion of unexamined assumptions that are products of very specific cultural influences, to which Wiseman is acutely sensitive. This approach is part, too, of his brilliant historical imagination and his revelatory reconstructions. But that return to the sources can also mask the interpretative problems that other scholars have found in the ancient texts: e.g., the question of how we are to understand Horace’s claim to be the son of a freedman—for he clearly was neither financially nor socially disadvantaged by that position2. That, together with the ubiquitous insistence in this volume on the authority of “common sense” and “reason,” sits uncomfortably with the Wiseman of Clio’s Cosmetics, who understands that the ancient historiographical and literary record is a heady brew of inventio, loci communes, and cultural traditions being shaped not by real but by constructed memories.
1. Levene, D. S., “The Late Republican/Triumviral Period: 90–40 B.C.,” in S. Harrison (ed.), A Companion to Latin Literature (Malden, MA and Oxford, 2005) 31–43.
2. Williams, G. ” Libertino patre natus : true or false?” in S. Harrison (ed.), Homage to Horace (Oxford 1995) 296-313.