BMCR 2017.03.20

Ceremony and Power: Performing Politics in Rome between Republic and Empire

, Ceremony and Power: Performing Politics in Rome between Republic and Empire. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015. xii, 361; 4 p. of plates. ISBN 9780472036660. $44.95 (pb).


Shortly after the 2016 election, the Vice-President elect, Mike Pence, attended a production of the Broadway hit Hamilton and was roundly booed by those in attendance. It became a brief cause-célèbre the week before Thanksgiving in the media, but the classicists and ancient historians might have recalled several examples of the Roman public expressing their approbation of or disdain for the elite in the theater and amphitheater.1 During his consulate in 59 BC, for example, Caesar received a lukewarm response from the theater crowds, according to Cicero, writing to Atticus. Cicero further reported that Caesar took this poorly, and rumors flew that he began complaining to Pompey.2

While there are many platforms for the public today to engage in approbation or criticism of their leaders, a venue like a Broadway theater entails one of the few places of true, direct contact between rulers and ruled (a leader may choose to not look at Facebook or ignore Twitter, after all). It is these moments of contact between people and the elite in Late Republican Rome and the negotiations of power and consensus that were at stake in these interactions which forms the subject of Geoffrey Sumi’s monograph Ceremony and Power, originally released in 2005 but now available in a more affordable paperback edition.3

The monograph primarily focuses on the years 46 B.C. to 31 B.C., with some retrospective attention paid to the dictator Sulla as the main antecedent of the changes the book examines. Sumi argues that a close analysis of the nature of public ceremony in these years provides a unique glimpse into not just the continuity and change we see between Republic and Empire, but on how Caesar and Octavian/Augustus envisioned and defined their public roles. Further, Sumi considers the role of the public within their regimes and ultimately how the public ceremonial of the Republic transformed into the court ceremonial of the principate. In fact, Sumi contends, these public performances are exactly where the nature of Caesar’s dictatorship and Augustus’ principate are expounded and defined for the Roman people. In its focus on the importance of the Roman people, Sumi’s work thus complements the monographs of Lily Ross Taylor, Claude Nicolet, and Fergus Millar in its analysis of the role of the popuous in the Roman political system (that is, where we should place the balance of power in SPQR—the Senatus or the Populus), while also providing a genial companion to the accounts of the transition from Republic to Empire of Ronald Syme, Paul Zanker, and more recently Josiah Osgood.4

Though the book has been out for about 10 years, it does not seem to have had a wide impact in the field. Besides a smattering of reviews (see note 3), I have not been able to find much in the way of citation in recent works. Given the strengths of the book, this is unfortunate and it is hoped this more affordable paperback reprinting can help Sumi’s work reach a wider audience.

However, since the book has been available online for some time, I can’t help but see the paperback reissue as something of a missed opportunity, where at least an updated introduction could help to place the monograph in some of the broader trends of the past several years. Here is where the light touch of the methodological introduction perhaps becomes a detriment, where discussions of power, performance and authority would have been welcome.5 This seems particularly acute because while the book does have numerous small historical points to make, it often abandons even a patina of theoretical analysis from the introduction to craft a largely historical narrative.

Ultimately, the value of Sumi’s book is threefold: first, as an introduction and analysis of Roman public ceremony; second as a clear and elegantly written historical account of a troubled historical period (both in events and in our sources); and third as a contribution to the debate over the role of the populus in the Roman political imagination. A more affordable paperback reissue is particularly welcome as it allows Sumi’s work to reach a wider audience, something this work deserves. ​


1. See A. Cameron Circus Factions; Oxford (1976) 158-60 for a list of examples in the late Republic.

2. Cicero Ad Att. 2.19.3.

3. There was no BMCR review for the original edition. It has been reviewed (inter alia) by Kathryn Lomas in the American Historical Review 111.5 (2006) pp. 1574-1575; Allen Ward in The New England Classical Journal 33.4 (2006) 319-322; Carlos Noreña in Classical Review 57.1 (2007, 178-179), by Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp in Klio 89 (2007) 521-522, and by Kelly Olson in Classical Journal (online) (2008).

4. Lily Ross Taylor, Party Politics in the Age of Caesar (1949) Berkeley; Claude Nicolet (P.S. Falla trans.), The World of The Citizen in Republican Rome, (1980) Berkeley; Fergus Millar, The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic (1998) Ann Arbor; Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution (1939) Oxford; Paul Zanker The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (1990) Ann Arbor; Josiah Osgood Caesar’s Legacy (2006) Cambridge.

5. In particular discussion of (among others) Morestein-Marx, Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late Roman Republic (2004) Cambridge (which likely came out too late for Sumi to take account of in the original volume), or Lowrie, Writing Performance and Authority in Augustan Rome (2009) Oxford. ​