BMCR 2017.05.07

The Republican Aventine and Rome’s Social Order

, The Republican Aventine and Rome’s Social Order. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016. xi, 243. ISBN 9780472119882. $70.00.


Two years ago, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio outlawed separate entrances for low-income and high-income tenants in mixed-income developments on the grounds that such segregation is unjust and anti-American. 1 Lisa Mignone’s new book shows that historically, the urban rich and the urban poor lived quite near each other, with a case study of Rome’s Aventine Hill during the Roman Republic. Nevertheless, ancient ideologies and modern historiographies, especially in the wake of the French scholar Alfred Merlin, identify the Aventine with plebeians at every period. Mignone strives to dismantle this assumption in order to paint a less ideological image of the Republican Aventine.

After an introductory chapter laying out the structure of the book, Chapter One makes two arguments. First, plebeian withdrawals or secessions, a way to counteract patrician dominance during the early Republic, do not consistently go to the Aventine (unsuccessfully in 449 BCE), but to the Mons Sacer (494 BCE) or to the Janiculum (287 BCE). Second, the dominant role of plebeian-patrician struggles in the politics of the late second century and first century BCE contaminates accounts of earlier events or laws to such an extent that links between pro-plebeian politicians like the Gracchi and the Aventine retroject the Aventine even into events of the fifth century BCE. But the secessions of 494 and 449 themselves seem to be ideological fictions (34, 38-39), an assertion which somewhat undercuts the first argument—if the secessions of 494 and 449 BCE never actually happened, can they count as anything other than evidence for the ideology of the late Republican and early Imperial authors who discuss them? I wonder whether the chapter might have benefited from going in reverse chronological order, from when we have the most material to when we have the least. Nevertheless, the second argument, that the plebeian Aventine is not a construct of modern scholars, but of Piso Frugi and Cicero, amplified by Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, forms a useful basis for the rest of the book.

Chapter Two provides a legal history of the lex Icilia de Aventino publicando of 456 BCE. One concern is to remove the adjective Icilia from the law’s name on the grounds that although the Icilii were real tribunes, they are associated with pro-plebeian reforms with suspicious frequency in Livy and Dionysius (67-73), and tribunes at this period did not give their names to laws (68). Another concern is to dispel the idea that the law redistributed Aventine land to plebeians, partly though a word study of publicare and publicus. While Mignone acknowledges the numerous problems with the history of the ager publicus, she makes the unusual claim that the action of the verb publicare does not necessarily create ager publicus, that publicare means only “to confiscate” and does not necessarily entail subsequent redistribution or leasing (57-64). This point seems very counter-intuitive, but a well-chosen passage from the Digest (19.2.33) clarifies that not all ager publicatus was publicus either in a technical sense of the Latin word or in a modern sense of ‘public space,’ at least until Augustus (64-67). The original intent of the law seems impossible to recover, but sources like Livy and Dionysius associate it with redistributive land-reform measures in the style of the Gracchi. Perhaps the law was meant only to confiscate land from those who had stolen or forcibly occupied it, perhaps to return it to its original owner, on analogy with the Hebrew concept of Jubilee (Leviticus 25.13).

Chapter Three is a mixture of archaeological and literary evidence for habitation of the Aventine, and the archaeological evidence provides context for the literary evidence. Mignone’s discussions of water—supply, drainage, and general hydrology—on the Aventine, drawing on the work of Aldrete and others, stand out in their detail and clarity. Mignone also discusses the development of emporia and horrea on the Tiber side of the Aventine, especially the connection to Aventine residents such as the Sulpicii Galbae (90-92). Some of the perplexities about the connections between different parts of the hill (87) could perhaps be explored through including the imperial-era economic evidence from nearby Mons Testaceus to fill in the picture 2, especially since Mignone cites later evidence, from the fourth and fifth century CE, to show elite presence on higher ground (88). The rest of the chapter contains well-chosen literary anecdotes about famous residents such as Ennius the poet and his neighbor Servius Galba, which reveal a mixture of income levels on the Aventine hard to recover from archaeology. The juxtaposition between Cicero’s down-market tenements and the domus expolita of Caesarian scribe Lucius Faberius evokes particularly well the mixed-income nature of the Republican Aventine (108-116).

Chapter Four discusses the development of elite housing on the Aventine, with a survey of the lamentable state of current archaeological knowledge (119-126). More positively, Mignone offers an analysis of an elite Roman house on the Aventine, the so-called Casa Bellezza, that has undergone some excavation well below the level of the modern street (127-135). Although it is difficult on the scale of a single site to analyze such data as door frequency or traffic patterns, Mignone can still do vertical analysis—this domus has a subterranean level characteristic of upscale houses, including the later Golden House of Nero (132-133). This seems like a promising method for reconstructing the social structure of the Aventine, even if future excavations are only sporadic, restricted by current land-use patterns, or must be done with ground- penetrating radar.

Chapter Five concerns ancient urbanism and pre-modern urban organization in general. This chapter also tries to identify and unpeel the assumptions of modern theories based on mechanized transport, beginning with a focus on the early development of Chicago (144-148). Mignone’s discussion of how to use post-Republican data from the Regionary Catalogs and the Forma Urbis Romae is particularly informative (158-165). Evidence from Pompeii is also adduced, with appropriate caution about generalizing findings to all Roman cities (165-170). Mignone also emphasizes the role tabernae as important social and economic mixing zones (163-165), which brings to mind evidence from Pompeii. 3 Moreover, the Roman colony of Cosa, founded in 273 BCE, could provide another example of a Roman town without an obvious elite residential district; R. Mitchell suggests that economic diversity was the norm in military colonies based on distribution of land to veterans between 390 and 264 BCE, including maritime colonies of urban poor serving as naval crews. 4 The role of neighborhoods or vici in maintaining public order receives a good discussion, including how they became nuclei of unrest in the Late Republic (170-176). Mignone emphasizes that Republican Rome was a city of a million people with plenty of “natural surveillance” (176), but no formal police force (177).

After a brief Conclusion, the Epilogue gives a rapid tour from Cola di Rienzo through Bolívar of ‘plebeian’ revolutionary movements that drew inspiration from the Aventine and influenced even Alfred Merlin’s history. Mignone illuminates a series of post-medieval misreadings of ancient history and emphasizes the Mons Sacer, whose plebeian heritage is better attested and is an appropriate touchstone for Bolívar’s revolutionary movement (196-201). Mignone notes the irony that more recent invocations of the Aventine as a site of resistance come from those who were not physically there—the Paris Communards and the anti-Mussolini Aventiniani (192-196).

Appendix 1 argues that the temple of Ceres, Liber, and Libera was probably located in the Forum Boarium near the Circus Maximus rather than on the Aventine, even if this temple had plebeian associations. Appendix 2 discusses the reliability of Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ account of a now-lost inscription preserving the lex de Aventino publicando, but this material seems to belong in Chapter Two.

The book is well produced and proofread.5 The cover image, a photograph by the author, shows the contemporary Aventine hill, with a mixture of burnt-sienna roof tiles, Roman Revival arches, TV antennas, and solar panels. The foreshortened photograph, by showing horizontal and vertical variations in house size, provides a useful visual analogue to the author’s argument about economic diversity in the Roman Republic.

While the book is well written and well-argued, the argument is largely negative, targeted at Roman historians who might be tempted to refer to the Aventine Hill as the ‘plebeian hill,’ although positive evidence like the so-called Casa Bellezza is thin on the ground. Moreover, Mignone has discussed the relationship of Remus to the Aventine, which is an important piece of Roman historical imagination, as taking an anti-Palatine position. 6 If some areas of the Aventine are newly or again excavated, archaeologists should now be free from the interpretive constraints of the ‘plebeian hill.’

Similarly, Mignone’s book strengthens a useful anti-assumption for studies of Roman colonization—do not look for the ‘patrician’ and ‘plebeian’ areas, but expect to find mixed-income habitation. The book is also useful for literary studies in that elite Romans could always encounter non-elite Romans, as in the garden conversation of Galba and Ennius (93-99). For example, in Augustine’s Confessions, it is not surprising for the rhetor Augustine to encounter a drunken beggar in Milan or for rhetoric student Alypius to be mistaken for a smash-and-grab robber in Carthage ( Conf. 6.6.9, 6.9.14). In ancient societies, the orbits and ambits of the high and low routinely crossed each other.

Some of the findings even address contemporary urban planners or policy makers. Remarkably, ancient Republican Rome was a city of a million people with no economic segregation or formal police force. Ancient Rome, including the Aventine, may still have lessons to teach us about how to allow poor people to find housing near their jobs or how to increase public safety without a sworn officer or surveillance camera on every corner.


1. J. Moyer, “ NYC bans ‘poor doors’ –separate entrances for low-income tenants,” Washington Post, June 30, 2015.

2. Summarized in P.P.A. Funari, “Monte Testaccio and the Roman economy,” JRA, vol. 14, no. 2, 2001, p. 585.

3. R. Laurence, “The Organization of Space in Pompeii,” in T. Cornell and K. Lomas (eds.), Urban Society in Roman Italy, London, 1995, pp. 63-78.

4. R. Mitchell, “The Definition of patres and plebs : an end to the struggle of the Orders,” in Social Struggles in Archaic Rome (ed. K. Raaflaub, 2 nd ed, Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005), pp. 128-167.

5. The only errors I could find are that F. Coarelli’s name is missing its second ‘L’ at page x in the Acknowledgments, and the Parisian church of Sacré-Cœur is missing a “U” on p. 155.

6. L. Mignone, “The Augural Contest at Rome: the view from the Aventine,” CPh vol. 111, no. 4, 2016, pp. 391-405.