BMCR 2011.09.29

Response: Kingsbury, Straumann, and Lupher on Sutton on Kingsbury, Straumann, Lupher, Alberico Gentili. The Wars of the Romans

Response to 2011.07.48

Response by

We’d like to thank Dana Sutton for his friendly review. His last paragraph exonerates us from what he takes to be an error, which he instead attributes to anonymous blurb writers. But we regard the blurb as entirely correct in the claim that Gentili developed arguments that became pivotal in debates on imperialism. Sutton denies the relevance of Alberico Gentili’s work for, as he puts it, “European settlement of the New World and subsequent colonization of other less culturally developed peoples” and its “cogency for debates about the legality or morality of modern colonialism.” But these topics are central themes in several contributions to the companion volume, mentioned by Sutton, The Roman Foundations of the Law of Nations: Alberico Gentili and the Justice of Empire (Oxford University Press, 2010). There, relations of Gentili’s work to the sixteenth century context are addressed by David Lupher and Diego Panizza as well as in Chris Warren’s essay on Gentili’s poetics, and relations of Gentili’s thought to wider debates on imperialism are discussed in the chapters by Anthony Pagden, Noel Malcolm and others. The following passage on p. xvi of the Introduction to our critical edition reviewed by Sutton deals with precisely the kind of civilizational claim in favor of imperialism made in The Wars of the Romans that Sutton says does not figure there:

The […] civilizational claim made by Laelius in [Cicero’s] Republic, namely that Rome’s conquest and rule had made the conquered better off by taking away the right to do injury “from wicked people,” has equally important reverberations in Gentili’s late sixteenth-century framing of the debate on The Wars of the Romans. In the following passage, Picenus makes the case that, compared to the Roman empire, the Ottoman empire of his own day hardly qualifies as barbarian, then cites from Tacitus’ Agricola the Caledonian chieftain Calgacus’ famous anti-Roman speech [ The Wars of the Romans 1.13, p. 117]:

“Go off and tell me about Turkish barbarity! You hear of provinces conquered with the blood of provinces. Where they have made a solitude, there they used to allege that they had established peace, as the Briton [Calgacus] complained [Tac. Agr. 30.6]. Robbers of the whole world, whom neither the East nor the West will have satisfied, and who, although they have shut up the whole world in that city of theirs, nonetheless coveted the little huts of the Britons—as the Briton [Calgacus] cries out in the same place [cf. Tac. Agr. 30.4-5]. ‘Like a stomach that can’t be filled is Rome, consuming everything and always hungry still, since into its lap are gathered the riches scraped away from all the overthrown cities and the denuded lands’—and so on. (The pious and religious witness Orosius writes these things [Orosius, Historiae adversus paganos 5.18.].) ‘The one and only state born for the destruction of the human race,’ says Arnobius [ Disputationes adversus gentes ], a holy man.” To answer this hyperbole, the defender in Book 2 [ The Wars of the Romans 2.1, p. 129] asserts the civilizing effect of Roman rule. Far from making a solitude and calling it peace, the Romans had pacified the territories of the subjugated peoples by eliminating “kings and chieftains, who were the sources of internal wars there,” and, what is more, Rome thus established “public tranquility and, so to speak, the health of a single well-joined body.” The peoples of Italy, the defender maintains, “before the time of the Roman Empire … were considered barbarians not only by the Greeks but even by the barbarians themselves, but soon emerged as the most cultivated people and rulers of everything.” To the Germans Roman rule had bestowed “all the arts of civilization,” turning them “from rude and rustic men into the most polished.”

The Carneadean debate, filtered through Cicero and Augustine, and the model of Roman imperialism were as important for Gentili as they were for the Valladolid debaters,1 and the arguments do have of course relevance—if not cogency—for debates about the legality or morality of modern imperialism.


1. On the importance of the “Roman model” for the Spanish debate, see David Lupher, Romans in a New World. Classical Models in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2003).