In this fairly short work (122 pages of preface and main text), Ramsay MacMullen approaches the problem of understanding early Rome in the absence of detailed historical information. As he explains in the preface, he does this by treating the “entire people as one personality,” and makes good reference to the famed eye-witness to the early United States, Tocqueville. The work is divided into two parts chronologically, the first bringing us down to 509 and the second to 264, and those sections are both divided into four chapters, each titled with one of the four main “personality” traits MacMullen sees in the Romans: conservative, tolerant, aggressive, and practical.
The chapters show a familiarity and comfort with not only the relevant historical scholarship, but also the archaeological, as will surprise no one familiar with MacMullen’s extensive output. Students wishing to explore both recent and classic works on early Rome could do much worse than to start with the bibliography here. There are few images, mainly maps, and notes follow the text, with headings on each page that indicate the original page of the reference, a welcome convenience. The book ends with a short index.
The four traits that MacMullen focuses on will be familiar to a beginning student of the Romans, perhaps even to those who have not formally studied antiquity, and he makes a fair case for each of them. For myself I would have preferred a more contextualized approach, so that, if indeed the Romans were conservative, we had some standard of comparison: Were they more conservative than their neighbors…than the Greeks…the Celts? I also suspect that many readers will not be so willing to go along with his theoretical “personality” approach to any culture, especially one as complex and evolving as that of the Romans, even in its earlier centuries. The desire, with which he closes the book, to be able to answer the questions of why things turned out how they did with a “…because that’s who the Romans were” will not satisfy too many of even the modern historians he cites.
However let me leave this part of the book’s content aside, because it becomes clear very early on that the book’s main goal is to make an argument about the reliability of the ancient tradition regarding early Rome and modern historiography of the same. The final chapter, “Wrap-up,” is concerned almost entirely with this. There one reads a quote put into the mouth of the scholar wishing to write on “early Rome and its story” using these ancient written sources: “We cannot know, non liquet.” To find this on page 117 makes one wonder what those preceding 116 pages were all about, though to be fair MacMullen uses a fair amount of archaeology, as mentioned above, so at least some of those preceding pages were justified by this standard. There is however a constant use of material that comes only from these unreliable writings.
The book becomes then another salvo in a long-running battle on how to approach ancient Rome, as MacMullen knows and describes in the book. The two sides might be described thusly (to my mind): on the one hand, those who are willing to start from a fairly trusting stance towards the ancient historians, however much they might need correction from, say, archaeology or epigraphy; and on the other hand those who find the ancients so unreliable as to be useless. Undermining their position, the latter group often, if not usually, does not refrain from an attempt at historical analysis of early Rome, and inevitably does so by using the material they claim is worthless. This book falls into that same trap.
For example in chapter eight we read about the plebeian secession of 494, and in chapter four of the arrival of Appius Claudius in Rome with his retinue. Neither of these events has even the slightest shred of evidence for it, outside the pages of the historians. On p. 91 MacMullen even engages in the same kind of source analysis he complains about when he judges accounts of early genocide by the Romans “more credible” for what he imagines would have been their distastefulness for men like Livy. (I do not disagree, but then I would put myself in the first camp described above.)
I am left unsure what use to recommend for this book. Scholars familiar with the debate on Roman historiography will find little to change their minds, whichever camp they place themselves in, and all but the most advanced undergraduates will be lost, I fear. Perhaps graduate students can find in it a readable introduction to the debate on early Rome and the myriad approaches to it.