BMCR 2016.09.30

The Politics of Public Space in Republican Rome

Amy Russell, The Politics of Public Space in Republican Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. xix, 226. ISBN 9781107040496 $99.99.


The Politics of Public Space in Republican Rome deals with a concept (public) that was at the core of the Romans’ understanding of their political world (the res publica). It concentrates on the creation, manipulation and experience of public space. Amy Russell argues persuasively against static definitions of the concept of ‘public’ and its counterpart ‘private’, and shows instead how they were constantly negotiated and reformulated, not in the least by the different degrees to which private elements entered the public sphere. In this way, she makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the political and cultural workings of Roman Republican society, by applying fresh theoretical and methodological perspectives to often well-known spaces in Republican Rome.

The book’s most obvious contributions lie in the fields of Roman politics and Republican political culture. In this context, Russell focuses on the social production of space and its effects both on the definition of concepts of public and private and on the political process. She convincingly argues that private elements can enter public space, allowing for ‘gradations of the public’ (p. xi). As Russell stresses, attention to the fluent boundaries of ‘public’ and ‘private’ is already well developed in research on the Roman house, and the analysis of these categories as historical terms rather than universal categories is in line with recent work on Imperial Rome.1 The added value of Russell’s work is that she applies these notions consistently to public spaces in Republican Rome. This allows her to demonstrate that the malleable nature of these concepts offered room for manipulation, presenting opportunities for the Roman elite to exert influence both in the city and in politics.

Chapter 1 (Introduction) sets the scene by exploring the concepts of public and private, paying attention to differences between the Roman and the modern (English) concepts. The ambiguities and instability of the terms are well illustrated by a detailed case study of the Atrium Vestae. Russell’s focus on space allows her to develop a behavioural approach to public and private, based on the premise that people behave differently in spaces that are experienced as public or private, and moreover, that different levels of behavioural control apply; the question who was able to exert control and how (e.g. by physical barriers, guards or community surveillance) is therefore important. The analysis focuses on those spaces where the issue of control was controversial, as these have most insights to offer into the ways public and private were negotiated.

Chapter 2 (Roman concepts: publicus and privatus) consists of an analysis of the Latin terms publicus and privatus in Republican texts, as far as they are related to space. The Latin terms proper feature here for the first time, and some notice in the introduction of the findings in this chapter would have been welcome. Russell makes the important observation that, while publicus and privatus were relevant concepts in the Roman Republican world and appear as an antithetical pair in various texts, no precise definition can be derived from them. For example, the term publicus in ‘ res publica ’ refers to the citizen body of Rome, but the term has a broader meaning in relation to space, referring to a lack of control—spaces where the individual can go unnoticed.

The implications of these observations are first explored in Chapter 3 (The definition of political space in the Forum Romanum). The analysis in terms of control offers interesting insights here. As political space, the Forum was a place where behaviour was controlled to a large extent by the community (of male citizens), in order to be able to make decisions without disruptions. Simultaneously, individual political players also attempted to exercise influence in the Forum, with potential consequences for the configuration of space. But the Forum was also public in the sense of an uncontrolled space where people who were not necessarily part of the citizen body blended into a relatively anonymous mass. This public aspect also affected the functioning of the Forum as a political space. These private and ‘mass’ interferences present an important difference from the Greek classical polis, where political space was much more clearly delineated.

In Chapter 4 (The Forum between political space and private space), private interventions in the political space of the Forum are further investigated. Much of both commercial and domestic space on and around the Forum in the Republican period was privately owned, and even monuments and buildings that were legally public could be appropriated by the magistrate responsible for erection. In this context, Russell makes the interesting observation that there is continuity in terms of the combination of public and private elements from the atria of the Middle Republic to the later basilicae. The architecture of the basilicae was borrowed from Hellenistic palaces, where in a regal context, the boundaries between public and private were equally blurred.

Chapter 5 (Gods, patrons, and community in sacred space) moves away from the Forum to investigate similar mixtures of public and private in sacred contexts. Votive victory temples are a good example where individuals could exercise control over sacred space that was officially public, but in order to do so, a careful balance between its public and private elements had to be found. One solution was to create ‘mixed-use’ complexes that combined temples with monuments or buildings that were more closely connected to one person or family, such as a porticus or a family tomb.

Another way of exercising personal influence over a public temple is discussed in Chapter 6 (Greek art in Roman space: public conquest and private leisure). By manipulating the visual and spatial ‘decoration’ of temple complexes through the insertion of Greek art (often booty, belonging to the manubiae of a conqueror), a private claim could be laid, which moreover was associated with royalness (cf. the example of the basilica above) and leisure. Again, patrons could in this way manipulate the discourse on public and private in the Roman world to their own advantage.

In Chapter 7 (Pompey and the privatisation of public space on the Campus Martius), we see the culmination of several of the themes explored in the previous chapters. In his complex of theatre, temple, portico, curia, house and horti, Pompey managed to put a private stamp on both sacred and political space, with the result that no clear line can be drawn between the complex’s private and public characteristics. Russell shows how the extreme control that Pompey exercised had effects both on Roman politics and on the everyday experiences of visitors to the portico, to the effect that a new category of space was created where public, private and sacred were almost completely interwoven.

The conclusion (Chapter 8: The death of public space?) offers some thoughts on developments after the fall of the Republic, which—quite naturally—remain somewhat sketchy. Russell claims that the presence of the emperor led to the disappearance of the interplay between personal freedom and the communal world of the populus, marking the end of the Res Publica and a complete reconfiguration of Roman concepts of public and private.

Russell’s perspective of ‘gradations of publicness’ in public space in Republican Rome is, on the whole, convincing. It functions well as a general framework that clarifies how and why various spaces in Rome developed as they did. Moreover, it offers important insights into the role of these spaces as an integral part of Roman politics, where individual patrons could carefully manipulate the boundaries between private and public and thus become ‘permanently public’ (p. 191). In this way, Russell’s analysis elucidates an important aspect of political culture in the Roman Republic.

The argument is mainly built on a series of case studies. While on an individual level, these are not necessarily very innovative, they do function well as contributions to the general argument. Unfortunately, however, the reasons behind the selection of particular case studies are not made explicit. It seems that their selection was based on a combination of the quality of information available and the recognisability of public and private elements. This resulted in the selection of highly manipulated spaces that are mostly well-known and well-studied sites in Republican Rome. Laudably, Russell mostly manages to give brief but comprehensive overviews of work on these central places in Rome’s urbanscape, although in her discussion of the complex around the tomb of the Scipios (pp. 111-114) she fails to include the recent work by Rita Volpe et al.2 By focusing on these spaces, however, Russell leaves unexplored the way that less explicitly manipulated public space—such as the back alleys that she frequently mentions as examples of uncontrolled space—may have affected politics and the city.

Russell repeatedly—and importantly—pays attention to overlap in different ways of categorising and experiencing space (e.g. public, private, sacred, political, foreign). However, her analysis of associations and experiences in specific spaces remain largely hypothetical, due to the nature of the sources. The behavioural approach presented in Chapter 1 is circumstantial in most cases (noted by Russell on p. 189) and often remains implicit. Russell mainly explores different variables that may have changed the spectrum of behaviour in the spaces under study, including religion, memory, and associations evoked by architecture and art. What is largely missing here, is the way specific events such as a triumph or a political speech could exert private influence in public space, and thus change behaviour and the meaning of space. In addition, despite Russell’s efforts, the role of anyone else than elite male citizens in these dynamics remains difficult to establish.

Throughout, the book is equipped with good quality figures that are often an indispensable help in following the argument. The only criticism here is that the two sketch maps of the Forum (maps 2 and 3, showing the Forum in c. 200 BC and c. 60 BC, respectively) do not show clearly that the Forum developed from a fragmented space into a well-defined square, as claimed on p. 69. Errors are few: one has crept in on p. 106, where the translation of Livy 6.29.9 mentions ten instead of nine towns captured by Cincinnatus. More seriously, the elogium of Appius Claudius Caecus, which mentions his construction of the temple of Bellona (p. 118), is not CIL I 2 192, and is not the elogium found at Brundisium (for which an ascription to Appius Claudius is questionable).3 The elogium of the Forum of Augustus is in CIL I 2, p. 192, no. 9 (also CIL VI 40943 = CIL VI 31606). The text is restored with the help of the elogium of Arretium ( CIL XI 1827), which is the only one to actually mention the temple of Bellona.

In all, this is a clearly written book that offers valuable insights into the transformation of public space in Republican Rome, by showing that it is best understood as an integral part of a developing discourse on ‘public’ and ‘private’. It is a rewarding read for anyone interested in the dynamics of Roman Republican politics and culture.


1. On this change in methodology, see Winterling, A. 2005. ‹‹Öffentlich›› und ‹‹privat›› im kaiserzeitlichen Rom. In Schmitt, T., Schmitz, W., and Winterling, A. (eds.), Gegenwärtige Antike—antike Gegenwarten. Kolloquium zum 60. Geburtstag von Rolf Rilinger. Munich: R. Oldenbourg Wissenschaftsverlag, 223-244.

2. Volpe, R., Bartoloni, V., Pacetti, F. and Santucci, S. 2014. ‘Sepolcro degli Scipioni. Indagini nell’ area archeologica’ (2008, 2010-2011). In Bullettino della Commissione Archeologica Comunale di Roma 115, 175-191. In particular Volpe’s contribution on pp. 182-185, which offers a new reconstruction of the façade of the tomb of the Scipios and a graphic hypothetical reconstruction of the complex with tomb, temple of the Tempestates, and villa (for which Volpe presents some evidence from the Monte d’Oro), could have strengthened Russell’s argument.

3. The Brundisium elogium : AE 1954, 216 = AE 1959, 32 = AE 2003, 353.