BMCR 2018.04.38

Political Communication in the Roman World. Impact of Empire, 27

, Political Communication in the Roman World. Impact of Empire, 27. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2017. 284. ISBN 9789004350847, 9004350845. ebook.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Given the increasing interest in the transmission and impact of political speech and rhetoric, this edited volume of papers on “political communication in the Roman world” is a welcome publication for those who study the cultural, social, and political history of Republican and Imperial Rome, and it will surely promote further research, as well as discussion and debate. Of the volume’s eleven contributions, six focus on various episodes or aspects of the (Late) Republic and five on different periods throughout the Empire. These papers, seven of which I discuss in some detail below, are organized thematically into five parts.

Catherine Steel conceives of “public speech” more broadly beyond oratorical texts and demonstrates the more complex reality of oratorical delivery that is hinted at within them. For example, Steel invites us to imagine the delivery of late Republican speeches in the Senate or before a contio in actual practice, when an orator, such as Cicero or T. Munatius Plancus, would have been consistently interrupted by various forms of approval and disapproval. In short, orator and audience interacted and so communicated with one another as part of a performance, a lively interchange that allowed for and even mandated quick and nimble responses, which complicates our view of how such speeches influenced and shaped official political action (this at once evokes Shadi Bartsch’s Actors in the Audience [Harvard, 1994], which is not referenced). Steel’s approach can prove fruitful if applied to other speeches and of all types. But this approach still raises questions about the extent to which these other forms of “public speeches” that are contained within oratorical texts are recordings of what was actually said and to what extent they are carefully constructed subtexts (or intratexts) central to the author’s self-presentation. In short, what, exactly, is their value?

Using the correspondence of Cicero, among other literary sources, Cristina Rosillo-López illustrates well the importance that senators such as Cicero and Pompey placed on informal conversations in order to stay well informed about current political opinions on any given issue, and discusses the role that these conversations had in shaping projected political actions. But again, questions about authorial agendas arise: How much of what Cicero tells us about his conversations with important and powerful men such as Pompey can be understood historically, apart from how he wished to portray himself in relation to these men?

By arguing that Hadrian’s administrative style consisted of “governing by dispatching letters,” Juan Manuel Cortés-Copete, in line with testimony from ancient literary sources, ascribes the creation of a more robust and complex bureaucratic form of imperial government to this emperor. In so doing, Cortés-Copete adds his voice to a perspective that rightly challenges the reactive and simplistic “petition-and-response” model of Fergus Millar,1 which leaves little if any room for flexibility and innovation from one emperor to another and tends to see emperors as two-dimensional, static paper-pushers. Consequently, Cortés-Copete revises “petition-and-response” to include the category of imperial initiative, such as when Hadrian apparently dispatched missives to cities motu proprio, that is, not as a response to a particular request, and suggests that such initiative reveals an evolution of and an increase in communication between the emperor and his subjects. Cortés-Copete makes a good and interesting case, but the texts he presents in support of his claim regarding imperial initiative are open to interpretation, not least because of their fragmentary state and our inability to contextualize them more fully (pp. 125-30). Moreover, we should consider not only when an emperor might have taken (and did take) the initiative in dispensing benefits to his subjects, but also when he might have wished to appear to be doing so.

Julio Cesar Magalhães de Oliveira focuses on the role of rumor in how the Roman public responded to reports of an emperor’s demise in the Later Empire. Here Magalhães de Oliveira shows well that there was continuity in the operation and impact of rumors from the Principate; indeed, reports and rumors are shown playing important roles in producing action among the urban plebs when they perceived that there were “political opportunities” worth taking advantage of. One key example is the reaction of the people of Alexandria to news of the death of Constantius II and the accession of Julian as sole emperor, when the Alexandrians revolted and ultimately lynched the hated bishop George of Cappadocia on 24 December 361 (pp. 170-73). Magalhães de Oliveira does not see this episode as a serious breach of civic order, but as “the expression of a reasonable discontent” (p. 172). And yet, from the perspective of diverse contemporaries, there was nothing reasonable about the Alexandrians’ recourse to mob justice, least of all according to the Emperor Julian, who responded to the Alexandrians with a missive in which he reprimanded them for their brutal actions, actions which he also described as unlawful and inexcusable because they had not waited for his judgement on the bishop.2 Moreover, the lynching of George and the sequence of events leading up to it were more complex than Magalhães de Oliveira seems to consider; we do not know what, exactly, had prompted (and allowed) the Alexandrians to seize George from imperial authorities and to murder him.

When noting Cicero’s role in the fate of Marcus Antonius, Ronald Syme once remarked that “the memory of Antonius is overwhelmed by the oratory of Cicero, by fraud and fiction.”3 Antonio Duplá Ansuategui demonstrates just how overwhelming Cicero’s rhetoric was. Duplá Ansuategui argues that a key component of that oratory was in vigorously delegitimizing Antonius, setting him apart from the community that was the res publica and thus laying the groundwork for the incitement of physical violence against him and others. The Cicero that emerges from these pages is far from a statesman; on the contrary, he comes off as quite dangerous in his apparent eagerness to condone extralegal violence against fellow citizens. While Cicero’s choice to incite violence can be seen to represent a “failure to communicate,” the very incitement of violence by means of oratory actually showcases success in communication, in that his messages were received and understood clearly by many of his fellow senators and citizens, just as he had apparently intended.

A “failure of political communication” is more evident in Martin Jehne’s contribution on the deliberations and (in)actions of the minority party in the Senate that was most opposed to Caesar prior to the outbreak of civil war in January 49 BCE. Jehne underscores an important paradox, that the anti-Caesarians pushed Caesar to the brink of war and yet were ill-prepared to wage it. Jehne makes a compelling case that those who were most hostile to Caesar and who attached themselves to Pompey, such as the Marcelli, Metellus Scipio, and Cato, were detached from reality and suffered from political myopia, in that they could not anticipate Caesar’s invasion of Italy after the (dubious) senatus consultum ultimum was issued against him. How do we reconcile and explain this paradox and myopia? Jehne proposes that the anti-Caesarians assessed Caesar’s possible responses to their action from a perspective founded in a narrow understanding of proper Roman political behavior, that is, traditional, constitutional practices, and that their relative lack of military experience (as a group), led them to the conclusion that Caesar would not choose to follow the examples of Sulla and Cinna. Given that Caesar had been intimately connected to Sulla and Cinna (he had affiliations with influential supporters of the one and married a daughter of the other), as well as Marius (his uncle by marriage), the anti-Caesarian conclusion that Caesar would not seek to emulate these generals should have been explained further. However, as Jehne is right to emphasize, the anti-Caesarians operated from a series of (false) assumptions about Caesar instead of communicating more clearly and consistently, both with him and one another, about the possible consequences of their actions.

Henriette van der Blom explores references by imperial authors, such as Velleius Paterculus, Quintilian, Pliny the Younger, and Tacitus, to republican orators so as to improve our understanding of which of these orators were listed as exemplars; she considers how such a list came to be and what it tells us about the circulation and influence of republican political communication in an early imperial context. Van der Blom’s paper prompts further questions: Could orators such as Cicero and Asinius Pollio be praised for their manners of expression without partly endorsing the substance of their speeches (or seeming to) in the process? In short, how effectively could imperial authors’ praise of republican rhetorical style be separated from praise of content?

It is regrettable that this volume does not display greater cohesion between its chapters by means of interconnected references that tie those chapters closer together and that some chapters are occasionally marred by typos and awkward turns of phrase. Nevertheless, there is substantial scholarly value in this collection of papers, in that it draws attention to the diverse and subtle kinds of communication in public, cultural, and political settings—speeches and verbal interruptions to them, conversations, intermediations in person or by letter, the role of letters in imperial administration, rumors, incitements to violence, broader discussions of political consequences and possibilities, the circulation and influence of republican models of oratorical exemplarity, and epigrams—that many scholars often consider but sometimes take for granted, modes of political communication that, now able to be demonstrated more clearly, will necessitate a reevaluation of the relationship between political speech and political action in the Roman world. What this volume does well is to help to highlight the idea that Roman political communication was not only a fundamental means or tool by which information was distributed, but that it was also a mentalité or state of mind.

Authors and Titles

Introduction, Cristina Rosillo-López
I Speech and Mechanisms of Political Communication
Defining Public Speech in the Roman Republic: Occasion, Audience and Purpose, Catherine Steel
Informal Conversations between Senators in the Late Roman Republic, Cristina Rosillo-López
II Political Communication at a Distance
Intermediaries in Political Communication: Adlegatio and its Uses, W. Jeffrey Tatum
Circulation of Information in Cicero’s Correspondence of the Years 59-58 BC, Francisco Pina Polo
Governing by Dispatching Letters: The Hadrianic Chancellery, Juan Manuel Cortés-Copete
III Political Communication, a Bottom-up Approach
The Roman Plebs and Rumour: Social Interactions and Political Communication in the Early Principate, Cyril Courrier
The Emperor is Dead! Rumours, Protests, and Political Opportunities in Late Antiquity, Julio Cesar Magalhães de Oliveira
IV Failure of Political Communication
Incitement to Violence in Late Republican Political Oratory, Antonio Duplá Ansuategui
Why the Anti-Caesarians Failed: Political Communication on the Eve of Civil War (51 to 49 BC), Martin Jehne
V Representations of Political Communication
The Reception of Republican Political Communication: Tacitus’ Choice of Exemplary Republican Orators in Context, Henriette van der Blom
Retouching a Self-Portrait (Or How to Adapt One’s Image in Times of Political Change): The Case of Martial in the Light of Pliny the Younger, Rosario Moreno Soldevila


1. Fergus Millar, The Emperor in the Roman World (31 BC – AD 337). Ithaca: 1992 2. The review and challenge of Keith Hopkins, “Rules of Evidence,” Journal of Roman Studies 68 (1978), 178–86, remains classic and fundamental. See also Jonathan Edmondson, “The Roman emperor and the local communities of the Roman Empire,” in J.-L. Ferrary and J. Scheid (ed.), Il princeps romano: autocrate o magistrato? Fattori giuridici e fattori sociali del potere imperiale da Augusto a Commodo. Pavia: 2015, 701-29 (not cited by Cortés-Copete), who discusses Hadrian’s “personal initiative” (pp. 708-9).

2. Jul. Ep. ad Alex. (21 Wright, 60 Bidez). Magalhães de Oliveira does not include Julian’s letter in his discussion, nor other important testimonies, such as those of Gregory of Nazianzus ( Or. 4, 86.3), the Historia Acephala (2.8–10), and Jerome ( Chron. s. a. 362).

3. Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution. Oxford: 1939 (1952 2), 4.