Rachel Feig Vishnia’s new book, a translation of a Hebrew version from 2008, identifies its readership early:
‘Some two and a half decades of teaching courses on the Roman Republic to students who had practically no prior knowledge of the period (and at times no interest either), and yet who evinced lively curiosity whenever we dealt with topics that still have great relevance for societies today – (sic) led me to believe that a book designed as a teaching aid, combining the “basics” of Roman history, society and government with an examination of a key feature of the Republican political culture that readily lends itself to comparison with modern phenomena, could be useful to both undergraduate and graduate students, as well as appealing to a wider readership.’
Feig Vishnia’s aim is an excellent one, and there is certainly a place for this kind of work. Presenting accurate details to the uninitiated, however, is no easy task. Feig Vishnia is compelled to dedicate three of her four chapters to Roman history, society and government before finally turning to her subject of elections. Anyone who has had to explain something like Roman elections to non-specialists will be familiar with the dilemma: accuracy requires background information, but with each contextualising fact the discussion becomes less and less simple, less readily digestible. Given that this book is not meant to be an original contribution with a thesis, it ultimately has to be assessed on its success in making Roman elections comprehensible and meaningful to students and non-specialists.
The first three chapters provide general overviews of Roman history (chapter one), Roman society (chapter two) and Roman government (chapter three). All three are dense, conventional and accurate. Feig Vishnia’s history of the Republic is very much the one the Romans themselves told, closely allied to Livy’s version: the conflict of the orders, for example, was ‘entirely bloodless (p. 1)’ and the suppression of Saturninus was ‘the first armed battle ever held within the city’s boundaries (p. 10)’; Servius Tullus slides from a historiographical character (‘is said to have…’ (p. 32)) to a firm historical actor (‘it is clear that Servius Tullius – (sic) for political, military, and fiscal reasons organized the community along timocratic lines’ (p. 37, and similarly on p. 36 and 48). The chapter on society examines the usual suspects of gentes, ordines, clientela etc, with appropriate stress on the hierarchies within Roman society, and Feig Vishnia does a particularly good job explaining the terms nobilitas and novitas, even if not everyone will agree with her conclusions. The third chapter provides an accurate account of Rome’s magistracies, the senate and the voting assemblies, with an excellent treatment of the courts. Even if each scholar will quibble with a point here and there, all three chapters stick to the evidence and provide the orthodox introduction expected in the classroom. They are, however, incredibly dense and quite dry, a point to which I will return.
Chapter 4 is the point of the book. Roman elections are indeed an important topic to a wide audience. Voting is central to the ways in which so many modern societies work, and its importance only grows as a more diverse set of countries decide their political fates at the ballot box. But for so many students, voting and the modern world are inseparable. How can the undergraduate know the social effects of modern voting are not in fact the result of industrial class conflict or of mass media? Rome is one case study which allows us to separate voting from some of its typical playmates. Ancient history allows us to study elections without the ubiquitous background noise of the modern economy and modern communications. Voting is also, as Feig Vishnia points out, a way to make antiquity less foreign and more accessible.
The chapter devotes half of its 44 pages to the nuts and bolts of Roman elections, from declaring candidacy to declaring winners. Along the way, Feig Vishnia gives useful summaries of the scholarship on some old chestnuts: an examination of amicitia, for example, shows how views have developed from Syme and Taylor to Brunt (p.116); the discussion of the number of voters also involves a debate between Taylor, MacMullen and Mouritsen (p. 125-6), though the use of Nicolet on the elections of 45 should have a much clearer warning that elections after 50 do not reflect the earlier reality.1 It is important for students to understand that so many of these issues are subjects of debate, and Feig Vishnia does a good job of making this clear while also establishing what she thinks and why. Although I think she misreads the role of Cato in regulating the tribunician elections in 54, the examination of ambitus laws will be useful for more advanced students who need a clear guide to a confusing subject.
In the other half of the chapter, Feig Vishnia tackles the relationship between elections and democracy. She rightly introduces the chapter by pointing out that not all elections imply equal degrees of democracy. Discussions follow in which timocratic assemblies and the absence of alternative political platforms are shown to undermine democracy at Rome. This is all done well, and there is also a good denial of any radicalism in the move from oral voting to written ballot. Instead of tying the entire chapter into recent debates, however, Feig Vishnia provides a three page epilogue in which she discusses the views of Fergus Millar and the nearly thirty year old debate about Roman democracy.
The strength of this approach is that the book does not deviate from her chosen topic of elections; the cost, however, is that Feig Vishnia refuses to examine Roman elections from more perspectives. She excels when looking at the administrative or organizing structures of Roman elections, but there are important questions left untouched. Flaig’s work on Roman politics as ritual, for example, is central to the problem of what exactly candidates and voters were doing, and while Hölkeskamp’s discussion of the electorate as an arbitrator in aristocratic competition may have appeared too late in its English version (it is nonetheless in Feig Vishnia’s bibliography and epilogue), the German version appeared in 2004.2 Even Millar’s views on the democratic elements of the Roman Republic make little sense without a lengthy examination of oratory and of legislative assemblies; the latter may fit the title of “voting” rather than “elections,” but as soon as Feig Vishnia discusses “democracy,” voting on laws surely deserves more than the brief discussion on pp. 92-3. Many readers will approach this book precisely because they are interested in democracy, but the separation of elections from Rome’s rich array of political interactions gives them a misleading impression. Democracy is not simply measured by the degree to which “the people” control the appointment of “representatives” to offices; Millar’s great contribution was in showing that Rome’s political system compelled leaders to act in certain ways and forced them to take note of constituencies they would have preferred to ignore. The annual elections were only a small part of the story.
And of course this is why Feig Vishnia provides three chapters of historical context. She was absolutely correct to realize that Roman elections cannot be understood without the information she provides early on. But how or when would I assign my students a history of the Roman Republic in thirty, very dense pages? Given that they would have a larger textbook and an entire course of lectures, how should this introduction be used? Fortunately Feig Vishnia provides an excellent index and plenty of internal references (though those on p. 32 to “p.00” seem to have gone awry), so the first chapters can be referred to as needed when students hit any point of the fourth chapter which requires more context. If thought of as large appendices, therefore, they will be very useful. The whole book is in fact better suited to graduate students and scholars from other fields who want to know about Rome’s elections and can digest complicated information fast. The book is filled with information for this kind of reader and that is a worthy contribution. As a guide to “the nuts and bolts of Roman elections” for those outside the field, it does an excellent job.
1. Taylor, L.R. 1966. Roman Voting Assemblies. Ann Arbor; MacMullen, R. 1980. ‘How Many Romans Voted,’ Athenaeum 58: 454-7; Mouritsen, H. 2001, Plebs and Politics in the Late Roman Republic. Cambridge.
2. Flaig, E. 2003. Ritualisierte Politik: Zeichen, Gesten und Herrschaft im Alten Rom. Göttingen; Hölkeskamp, K-J. 2004. Rekonstruktionen einer Republik : die politische Kultur des antiken Rom und die Forschung der letzten Jahrzehnte Munich; 2010. Reconstructing the Roman Republic: An Ancient Political Culture and Modern Research. Princeton.