BMCR 2011.07.48

Alberico Gentili. The Wars of the Romans: A Critical Edition and Translation of De armis Romanis

, , , Alberico Gentili. The Wars of the Romans: A Critical Edition and Translation of De armis Romanis. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. xxx, 388. ISBN 9780199600519. $120.00.

1 Responses

[For Benedict Kingsbury, Benjamin Straumann, and David Lupher’s response to this review, see BMCR 2011.09.29 ]

Alberico Gentili, together with his father, the physician Matteo Gentili and his brother Scipio (a well-known author of Neo-Latin poetry), a trio of Protestant refugees, came to England in 1580. Although one would never know this from the single biography in print—the life in the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie — Scipio stayed in England during the early 1580’s, where he became attached to the circle of Sir Philip Sidney and published several volumes of original poetry and a partial translation of Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata. This exerted great influence on the course of English literature and it can be shown that, by a series of intermediate steps, Milton’s Satan was ultimately based on the Satan of Tasso’s Book IV, probably as presented by Gentili. Scipio then went on to Germany, where he studied and eventually taught the law at various German Universities. Alberico went to Oxford, where he was given the position of Regius Professor of Civil Law in 1586, a position he at least nominally held until his death in 1608, although starting about 1590 he became increasingly involved in practicing the law in London. Gentili wrote tirelessly, and his specialty was international law. Since Thomas Erskine Holland’s 1874 Oxford lecture first drew attention to his work, he has often been described as the most important and influential authority on the subject prior to Grotius.

Benedict Kingsbury and Benjamin Straumann have very recently given us a more general study of Gentili’s contribution to international law in The Roman Foundations of the Law of Nations: Alberico Gentili and the Justice of Empire (also published by the Oxford University Press, in 2010). Now these legal historians have teamed up with the Classicist David Lupher to give us a critical edition, replete with annotations and an English translation, of Gentili’s 1590 De Armis Romanis, a consideration of the legitimacy of the Roman Empire. This work evidently had its origin in a debate held before the Oxford law faculty in which the legality of the Roman Empire was attacked and then defended. The con side (only) was expanded and published by Gentili in his De iniustitia bellica Romanorum actio, printed at Oxford in 1590 with a dedication to the Earl of Essex. Now that was repeated in expanded form as Book I, placed in the mouth of an anonymous citizen of Picenum, with a Book II containing a rebuttal by a Roman, that, for some reason, was published (and again dedicated to Essex) at Hanau in 1599. In Book I, the speaker from Picenum (who has a rather alarming tendency to cherry-pick his historical sources, fastening on those that favor his side and throwing discredit on those that do not) builds a case by walking us through Roman history. He begins with Romulus, pointing out examples of Roman mendacity, faithlessness, rapacity, and similar malfeasances and violations of international law as displayed in the series of wars of aggression which progressively expanded the scope of the Empire, with a concluding look at oppressive Roman misbehavior in the provinces thus gained. In Book II the Roman does just the opposite: he strives to rehabilitate the credit of the authorities disdained by his opponent, then takes us through a similar tour of Roman history refuting the accusations of “Picenus” and showing how the Romans had always acted legally and in good faith . He concludes by enumerating the benefits that colonials had enjoyed living under Roman rule. Afterwards, Gentili makes no attempt to intervene and pick a winner. The editors of this volume (p. x) incline to think the Roman advances the stronger case. I am not so sure I agree. Rather, as a law professor, Gentili is indulging in the time-honored pedagogical device of showing how both sides of a case can be argued to best advantage.

This is a wonderful contribution. Each in his own way, the three contributors have given us a modern edition of a Renaissance text well worth reading and studying. It is well executed in every respect, and I heartily congratulate them on a job well done.

Rather than discussing the book, I would prefer to take the rather unusual step of considering a statement from the dust jacket blurb, presumably contributed by some anonymous soul working for the Oxford University Press, who wanted to supply a touch of “contemporary relevance” in the hope of boosting sales:

Writing in the wake of the first wave of European colonial expansion in the Americas, and relying on models of the controversy of Roman imperialism from Cicero to Lactantius and Augustine, Gentili developed the arguments which were to become pivotal in normative debates concerning imperialism.

It is unfortunate that every purchaser of the book will have the opportunity to read these words, since they encourage a fundamentally wrong reading of Gentili’s work and misguided appraisal of his intentions, a misunderstanding for which the volume’s editors can scarcely be held responsible. For Gentili is not attempting to write any sort of tract for his own times. Even though he was writing while England was engaged in war with Spain, his Roman Empire is Roman pure and simple, and is in no way used to represent the contemporary Spanish one. This is conclusively shown by the fact that, when it comes to discussing Roman acquisition of such provinces as Gaul and Britain, Gentili does not consider the legality of the situation of a civilized nation colonizing a barbarous one. In this context one thinks of the so-called Valladolid Controversy of 1550, a debate organized by Charles V in which Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda had sought to legitimize the Spanish occupation of the Americas by advancing a theory that Indians were incapable of self-government, and so were “natural slaves” as defined by Aristotle in the first Book of the Politics. Their colonization was therefore a form of just war by the normative standards of international law. Bartolomé de las Casas had argued the contrary position. In considering the legalities of Roman colonization in similar situations, it might have been a useful argumentative tactic, both pro and con, to take the arguments advanced by both Las Casas and Sepúlveda and apply them retroactively to appropriate events in Roman history, which indeed would have given this debate a more contemporary spin. But assuming that Gentili was aware of the Valladolid Controversy, he displays no interest in it and does not regard the colonization of barbarians as a situation requiring special consideration. And at the ends of their respective discourses, when the speaker from Picenum and the Roman variously discuss the oppression suffered by subjugated peoples at the hands of the Romans, and the benefits they enjoyed, barbarian or culturally backward peoples are not singled out for mention by either side. For this reason, I am afraid, Gentili’s treatise has little relevance for European settlement of the New World and subsequent colonization of other less culturally developed peoples over the following centuries, and, for that reason, limited cogency for debates about the legality or morality of modern colonialism. But then again, the editors of the volume make no claim that it does.