BMCR 2011.04.24

Hearsay, History, and Heresy: Collected Essays on the Roman Republic by Richard E. Mitchell

, Hearsay, History, and Heresy: Collected Essays on the Roman Republic by Richard E. Mitchell. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2010. 370. ISBN 9781593336424. $125.12.

This work is a compilation of Richard Mitchell’s articles on early Roman history. There are twelve articles in total, ten of which have already been published, and they are presented in chronological order of publication.

The work opens with a short introductory piece by Howarth, entitled “the Assumption Is”, charting the origins and evolution of Mitchell’s views. Here Howarth details what he believes to be the essence of Mitchell’s argument, namely that scholars need to challenge the whole narratological framework of fourth century events, in particular the Struggle of the Orders, rather than merely criticise individual elements. Howarth also touches on a key concern for modern academia, namely that the bulk of Mitchell’s work on this area is spread across more than a dozen different articles, published in various journals and collected works, most of which are not easily available.

The first three of Mitchell’s articles, two on Roman coins and one on Romano-Carthaginian treaties, form a unity. In both “The Fourth Century Origin of the Roman Didrachms” and “Hoard Evidence and Early Roman Coinage”, Mitchell challenges the traditional chronology for the development of Rome’s coinage and argues for pushing the dates back into the late fourth century for the development of more sophisticated Roman coins. This, he argues, came in response to the Roman expansion into Southern Italy, a theme which he expands upon in his article “Roman-Carthaginian Treatises: 306 and 279 B.C”. Aside from the detailed argument on the identity and nature of the various Romano-Carthaginian treaties of the period and their confused presentation in the surviving sources, Mitchell argues for a more advanced picture of Roman development with regard to Southern Italy. One strand that Mitchell develops across all three articles concerns the growth of Roman naval power in the late fourth and early third centuries, as seen through Roman activity in Corsica, Pontia and the Adriatic. For these reasons, he argues that Rome would not have accepted Carthaginian restrictions on her naval sphere of interest.

The next article, “The Aristocracy of the Roman Republic”, moves Mitchell’s analysis a stage further and is an excellent examination of the nature of the Republican aristocracy and its evolution. Central to Mitchell’s analysis is the move away from the Struggle of the Orders to a model of co-operation between the patrician and plebeian elites, with the senatorial order well aware of the need to promote fresh blood by developing a system of admitting the wealthy plebeian families, who could be relied upon to continue the Senatorial ethos. Thus, Mitchell argues, Rome developed an aristocracy of office holders rather than a closed elite. For Mitchell the expansion of Roman military activities and sphere of influence provided both a challenge to the aristocracy to provide more military and governing personnel, but also an opportunity for more individuals to gain notice and advancement. Yet Mitchell also highlights the diminution of the aristocracy’s control, especially with the growth in the citizen population diluting the patron-client relationship and thus requiring different methods of reaching out to the Roman populace.

With his next article, “Historical Development in Livy”, Mitchell turns his focus to the narrative sources, in term of the story they present and its modern interpretation. Mitchell focuses on the Struggle of the Orders and argues that modern analysis has subverted the evidence found in Livy to create an artificial Struggle narrative. For Mitchell the Struggle of the Orders, or the “big lie” as he calls it (p. 156), was not a phenomenon found between the Plebeian secession in 494 B.C. and the Lex Hortensia of 287 B.C., but has been artificially constructed by modern analysts using selective evidence and selective chronological boundaries. Mitchell sees Livy as having a plebeian / patrician tension throughout the whole Republic from Romulus to Augustus. In particular he dismisses the Lex Hortensia as being little more than a sequel to the actions of Cn. Flavius in 304 B.C., doing little more than allowing for market days to be used for legal business and thus continuing the break up of the priestly monopoly on legal business.

This is a theme which Mitchell develops in the next article, “Roman History, Roman Law, and Roman Priests: The Common Ground”. Mitchell argues that the surviving sources paint a more secular version of early Roman law than was the case, and downplay the role of the Roman priests. In particular he argues that we are unable to recover the original nature of the Twelve Tables and that the Decemvirs must have all been priests. Mitchell returns to his arguments over the gradual loosening of the priestly control of Roman law, with both the actions of Cn. Flavius and the subsequent Lex Hortensia, which meant that market days could be used for legal business, thus making the whole legal process more accessible.

In the next article, “The Historical and Historiographical Prominence of the Pyrrhic War”, Mitchell returns to develop themes he raised in his early work and questions whether the Pyrrhic War period was such a turning point for Roman history as is made out, both then and today. Mitchell argues that for the Romans, as well as modern historians, the Pyrrhic War has been given a special watershed status before which Rome was a simpler and more ‘innocent’ society and that a great deal of change has been artificially attributed to this period to support this view, from the introduction of new types of coins to the Lex Hortensia. Not only does Mitchell challenge this view, but he also traces its origins back to the accounts of Timaeus.

The next section of this work is a reprint of the conclusion to Mitchell’s famous work on the Struggle of the Orders and the argument follows the clear lead given in its title: “The Struggle of the Orders is a Fiction”.1 In this piece, Mitchell builds on his earlier arguments but goes a step further in trying to demolish the whole edifice of the Struggle of the Orders as an embellishment of evidence found in the surviving sources, notably Livy. Mitchell’s own version of the Republic does not have class struggle as a feature; rather the fundamental division is between the military and non-military elements of Roman society. Throughout the third century, Mitchell believes, Rome underwent an evolution, from the old city state military institutions to ones which were fit for its expanded role, both within Italy and the wider Mediterranean. This evolution provided Rome with greater manpower and reduced Italian autonomy.

Mitchell continues to develop this alternate vision of the Republic in his next two articles, “Demands for Land Redistribution and Debt Reduction in the Roman Republic” and “Ager Publicus; Public Property and Private Wealth during the Roman Republic”. He argues that there was no burden of military service in the fourth century, as the campaigns Rome fought were short in duration and close in proximity. Thus there would be no indebtness of the plebeian soldiers requiring land distribution or debt relief. He sees these demands as being misinterpretations of plebeian agitators’ demands for a greater share of the campaign booty. Mitchell argues that this agitation died away as Rome expanded militarily throughout Italy, thus gaining more booty and land. He also presents his arguments for the Roman army being a client army until the third century at the earliest, with soldiers being recruited through personal ties rather than a state defined census qualification, and thus the Servian classes belong to the third century B.C. and no earlier.

The final two articles of the collection are previously unpublished and contain much material discussed before. In “What Exactly is Tradition in the Context of Roman Republican History?”, Mitchell re-examines the historiography of the early Republic and the various narratives of the decline of ancient empires, which he ultimately traces back to Timaeus. In “The Role of Maritime Colonies in Roman Expansion”, Mitchell returns to the subject of the maritime colonies founded by Rome in the fourth and third centuries and argues that these colonies were composed of the urban poor, not veterans, and rather than being exempt from military service provided the crew for one naval vessel each. Thus these colonies formed a system that was part coastguard, part naval defence. He then goes onto to re-state his arguments for the Roman navy playing a more prominent role in Roman warfare in the pre-Punic War period than is portrayed by the surviving sources.

Overall, this work succeeds in its two principal aims: bringing together the main body of Mitchell’s work on the early Roman Republic and challenging how the early Republic is portrayed both by later sources and by modern historians. Even if one does not agree with Mitchell’s conclusions, especially in regard to his version of Roman society and its institutions, he provides a robust challenge to existing interpretations that drives forward the study of the early Republic and thus is an important work for anyone studying the period.


1. Richard E. Mitchell, Patricians and Plebeians: the Origin of the Roman State, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1990.