BMCR 2013.08.51

Libertas and the Practice of Politics in the Late Roman Republic

, Libertas and the Practice of Politics in the Late Roman Republic. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. ix, 324. ISBN9781107028173 $99.00.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Arena’s aim in this interesting book is “to study the conceptualisations of the idea of libertas and the nature of their connection with the practice of politics in the late Roman Republic” (p. 1). Focusing especially on Cicero’s oratory and speeches in sources such as Sallust, Plutarch, and Dio, Arena argues that those engaged in late republican political debates shared a single notion of liberty as “non-subjection to the arbitrary will of either a foreign power or a domestic group or individual” (p. 8). To be free was not to be a slave, and being free had a political dimension protected by public institutions and practices.1 This shared conception of liberty would, however, undergo conceptual change especially in the 40s BCE, in part as the result of debates surrounding the senatus consultum ultimum (SCU).

The book speaks to two broad audiences, the first and most obvious of which is classicists and ancient historians interested in the political culture and practices of first-century BCE Rome, evident in Arena’s engagement with work by Clifford Ando, Joy Connolly, Fergus Millar, Matthew Roller, and Peter Wiseman, among others. The second audience, about which I will say more, is political theorists and intellectual historians interested in republicanism. In this regard, Quentin Skinner and Phillip Pettit seek to articulate a distinctively Roman (or neo-Roman) understanding of freedom centering on the opposition between freedom and slavery.2 One is free in this tradition (and as opposed to the post-Hobbesian liberal tradition) not when one is not subject to interference, but rather when one is not subject to arbitrary interference. After all, as Pettit argues in Republicanism, “there may be enslavement and domination without interference” (p. 31). Arena’s book builds on and extends such scholarship in a very valuable way, attempting to trace out the significance of the opposition between liberty and servitude in Roman republican discourse.

The book consists of seven chapters, the first of which serves as an introduction to the book as a whole, and the last of which serves as an epilogue tracing the conceptual change noted above. Chapter 1 argues that “the strict dichotomy between libertas and slavery” structured the conceptualization of liberty in first-century BCE Rome (p. 21). Liberty was thus understood as “non-domination” (p. 29).3 Arena argues in Chapter 2 that the status of being a free person entailed the possession of the “same basic liberties” (p. 72). This status extended to, and was protected by, the political sphere: “the rights to suffragium, provocatio, all the powers of the tribunes of the plebs…and the rule of law generally, are presented as the true foundations of Roman liberty” (p. 48). Just as the individual Roman was free insofar as he was not subject to domination, Arena claims in Chapter 3, so too was Rome free insofar as it was subject neither to foreign domination nor a particular individual or group within the polity.

While Romans shared a view of liberty as non-domination, they disagreed on how to achieve it at the institutional level. Those disagreeing fell into two broad ideological categories, or what Arena (drawing on Wittgenstein’s notion of a family resemblance) terms “families” (p. 79): optimates and populares. These ideological families functioned as styles of political discourse and should not be understood as reified political-philosophical systems; nor is it always the case that a particular individual or grouping was consistently in one camp or the other. Roman elites might deploy arguments from either family, yet this fluidity should not be taken to suggest that each side had its own understanding of liberty (or that libertas was an empty term). Rather, both families understood liberty as non-domination, while differing on how best to achieve liberty. Optimate ideology centered on three broad claims: the only regime that achieves political liberty is the mixed regime which distributes “power through different political loci ” to prevent any individual or group from becoming too powerful (p. 88); the mixed regime gives space for the tensions that emerge between the many and the few while maintaining balance between them; the mixed regime promotes concordia through “full representation” of all the parts of the community (p. 101). Populares, by contrast, emphasized that liberty could only be achieved if the assembly was paramount, holding that equality should be understood as arithmetical rather than geometrical, to use rough Aristotelian terms ( Politics V.1301a26-35).

Building on the distinction between these two ideological families, in Chapter 4 Arena analyzes the “ideological discourse of the political debate” (p. 170) of the late republic, focusing on three issues: the imperia extraordinaria, the senatus consultum ultimum, and agrarian distributions. The general discursive pattern that emerges is that those deploying optimate discourse tended to oppose populares proposals through appeals to liberty, while those advancing optimate proposals were opposed by populares who in their turn deployed the notion of liberty. Thus, a person opposing land distribution might argue that the powers possessed by land commissioners were “incompatible with liberty,” as were “the procedures put in place to appoint the commissioners” (p. 236). So powerful was the shared idea of libertas that, as Arena argues in Chapter 5, elites understood that they needed to invoke “the idea of libertas if they wished to entertain any serious hope of success” (p. 255), regardless of their actual beliefs or intentions. The irony, however, of these conflicts is that the successful description of the SCU as necessary for liberty undermined the concept of liberty as non-domination. Accepting the SCU as necessary to preserve liberty meant describing as free a situation in which “the rule of law was not upheld” (p. 275). This innovation, introduced especially by orators, would pave the ideological way for Octavian to act privately for ostensibly public purposes, but the innovation could only succeed if it was accepted by “the language-users” of Rome – namely, the Roman people. We see this conceptual innovation, according to Arena, in Cicero’s Philippics, which deploy themes from On Duties, in which, she suggests, “Cicero holds that a man is truly free when he acts according to virtue and, above all, justice” (p. 262).4 Liberty, in such an account, is “moral and universalistic” (p. 261); “no longer related to positive laws,” liberty is a function of adhering to “the divine natural law” (p. 262).

My evaluation of Arena’s book is primarily from the perspective of political theory; hence, I will not focus on matters of philology. With that as a preface, Arena’s book strikes me as having three key features that make it an important and valuable contribution. First, Arena has assembled a generally persuasive case for the thesis that liberty structured important elements of Roman political discourse in the late republic not because different actors deployed different conceptions of liberty, but rather because different actors deployed different arguments drawing on a widely shared account of liberty. Second: in doing so, she lays out quite vividly and sensitively the fluidity of libertas in Roman political discourse, the political and legal institution of which becomes contested without the term becoming so slippery that it can mean just anything. Third, and finally, Arena’s book is an important contribution to discussions of ideology5 in the late republic through her careful reconstruction of the ways in which actors supporting the “socio-political status quo adopted a consist [sic] pattern of political behaviour” by invoking liberty.

Other features are less satisfactory. Arena admirably pieces together the rhetorical moves that political actors made in advancing and attacking policy proposals in the name of liberty. Less clear is what makes one move more effective than another. Under what circumstances does the invocation of liberty on behalf of granting extraordinary commands succeed, and under what circumstances does it fail? Is the success or failure of such moves a matter of logic, of political strategy, or of circumstance? A virtue of Arena’s method, which strikes me as broadly Skinnerian,6 is that she does not rely upon reconstructing actors’ actual beliefs in making sense of their ideological discourse, but a limitation of the method, in my view, is that we seem to encounter a political-rhetorical world of strategic moves and counter-moves, while the persuasiveness of any particular move may be unclear. It also struck me that the argument of the Epilogue might be fleshed out more fully. While I found intriguing Arena’s turn to the usage of the “speaking community” (p. 276) to explain conceptual change, I wanted to hear more about why the community found the separation of liberty from the rule of law to be persuasive. In addition, it seems to me that we encounter in, say, On the Commonwealth 1.68 an account of liberty that is more moral than political, as “excessive license” in the moral domain leads to “slavery.” Similarly, the moral and divine element of law allows Cicero at On the Laws 2.13 to argue that “a law of just any kind will not be a law.”7 We also see in On Duties (e.g. 3.83) the connection between positive law and liberty. I do not mean to suggest that we do not see a separation of liberty from positive laws in Cicero’s On Duties; it does, however, seem to me that we find Cicero making similar arguments in earlier texts, on the one hand, and Cicero still connecting liberty and positive law in On Duties. (I also wanted to see more discussion of the Roman strains identified by Brunt of liberty as “doing as one likes” (“ Libertas in the Republic”, in The Fall of the Roman Republic and Related Essays (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1988).

Finally, I wonder what Arena’s argument tells us about contemporary efforts to appropriate liberty as non-domination. While not one of Arena’s explicit aims, her frequent engagement with the work of Pettit and Skinner make her arguments relevant to the neo-republican project. To the extent that “slavery provided the fundamental social category by the means of which membership of the Roman community was circumscribed and defined” such that “a Roman citizen was conceived as the polar opposite of slave” (p. 14), can the status-based idea of non-domination be appropriated as a universalistic ideal? This point has, in my view, been raised by others (notably Clifford Ando), but is worth repeating given the interdisciplinary appeal of Arena’s book. Another point worth noting, in light of contemporary concerns with imperialism and colonialism, is the connection between Rome’s status as a non-dominated polity and Roman imperialism. As Arena notes (p. 76), “Rome’s dominion over the empire guaranteed the res publica the absence of arbitrary interference from external powers.” Again, one might ask what the historical connection between Roman liberty and Roman imperialism might mean for those seeking to apply a Roman-rooted concept to our times.

Arena’s book will be of interest and value to classicists, ancient historians, political theorists, and intellectual historians, and is sure to be of use to those interested in Roman political thought, its reception, and its potential application.

Table of Contents

List of illustrations
1. Roman libertas
2. The citizens’ political liberty
3. The liberty of the commonwealth
The ‘optimate’ tradition
The ‘popularis’ tradition
4. The political struggle in the first century BC
The imperia extraordinaria
The so-called ‘senatus consultum ultimum’
Agrarian distributions
5. Political response and the need for legitimacy
Index locorum
General index


1. Arena’s description of Roman libertas as political is an important contribution. For contrasting views, see, e.g. Clifford Ando, Law, Language and Empire in the Roman Tradition (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011); Matthew Roller, Constructing Autocracy: Aristocrats and Emperors in Julio-Claudian Rome (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2001).

2. See, e.g., Quentin Skinner, Liberty Before Liberalism (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998); Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997).

3. As I have already noted the broad aims of the book, I will not discuss the Introduction further.

4. In support of this claim, Arena cites On Duties 1.17 and 1.20.

5. Similar studies include Robert Morstein-Marx, Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late Roman Republic (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004) and T.P. Wiseman, Remembering the Roman People: Essays on Late Republican Politics and Literature (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009).

6. On method, see Quentin Skinner, Visions of Politics, Vol. I: Regarding Method (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002).

7. The translation is Niall Rudd, The Republic and The Laws (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998).