BMCR 2019.08.15

Rome after Sulla

, Rome after Sulla. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019. xiv, 219. ISBN 9781472580573. ebook.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

In Rome after Sulla, J. Alison Rosenblitt explores the years immediately following Sulla’s dictatorship, especially the years 80-77 BC and the insurrection of M. Aemilius Lepidus (cos. 78 BC). This period is often given only cursory treatment in the usual narrative of the late Republic, which tends to move quickly from Sulla’s proscriptions and his reform of the government to the rise of Pompey and Crassus and their shared consulship in 70 BC. This compression of the timeline downplays the significance of Lepidus’ military uprising and his attempts to restore the powers of the tribunate, reducing his activities to a simple failed coup against the Sullan regime. Rosenblitt takes a deep dive into this narrow period of four years and argues for their fundamental importance for understanding the slow collapse of the Republic. She contends that the events of Sulla’s dictatorship traumatized Roman society in a deep and lasting way, leaving the Romans unable to recover or find practical solutions to the serious problems that lingered for decades after Sulla. Jumping between historical and historiographical approaches, Rosenblitt argues that Lepidus’ insurrection demonstrates the immediate and lasting failures of the Sullan reforms, and that Sallust’s Historiae in particular reveals the lasting trauma inflicted upon Roman society.

Chapter One (“Introduction: Sullan Tyranny and Sullan Instability”) sets out the book’s objective to explore the nature of politics in the post-Sullan era, which Rosenblitt contends was never stable because Sulla’s reforms were based upon the untenable principle of exclusion—excluding the survivors of his proscriptions (and their children) from their property and their rights as citizens, and excluding the plebs from their traditional means of expressing political discontent. She argues that social trauma is a meaningful and important concept for understanding Roman society during this period, and that the inability of the Roman people to come to grips with the trauma caused by Sulla left them with deep conflicts over the relationship between justice and the stability offered by autocracy. Rosenblitt argues that previous work on this period has focused on the works of Cicero, and so has been skewed by his tendency “to construe Roman politics as consensual wherever and whenever possible” (1). As a corrective to this, she prioritizes Sallust’s Historiae in her arguments, contending that his obsession with Sulla provides more realistic information on the ways in which Sulla’s dictatorship was a root cause for the ultimate collapse of the Republic.

The main argument of the book is divided into three sections. Part One, “Negotiating the End of Sulla,” contains two chapters that together explore the state of affairs in Rome in 80 and 79 BC. Chapter Two (“80 BC: The pro Roscio Vanishes”) argues that the closing of Sulla’s proscription lists in 81 BC did not end the trauma of the Roman people or relieve them from the constant fear and uncertainty that were hallmarks of Sulla’s tyranny. Rosenblitt maintains that in 80 BC the Romans were oppressed by the uncertainty of not knowing what could and could not be said or done under the Sullan regime. Using the pro Roscio as her main source, she explores the way Cicero deftly utilized the audience’s imagination to trigger their own thinking about the unspoken and unsayable fears that pervaded Rome at the time. This rhetorical strategy assumes a deep reservoir of fear and uncertainty in the minds of the Roman audience, showing that— while Sulla presented 80 BC as a transition back to normalcy—Cicero’s audience was still profoundly uncertain about the state, nature, and duration of Sulla’s reforms. Chapter Three (“79 BC: The Turning Tide”) argues that these uncertainties about Sulla’s acts crystallized almost immediately upon his retirement, highlighting that the atrocities of his regime had not brought stability to the Republic. One critical issue was the fate of those who had been excluded from property and citizenship as a result of Sulla’s proscriptions, and whether some Romans were thinking of recalling them as early as 79 BC. M. Aemilius Lepidus, who would canvass for and win the consulship of 78 BC, was interested in the question of recall because his son—who had been adopted by L. Cornelius Scipio Asiagenus (cos. 83 BC)—was one of those exiles. While recalling these Romans appeared just, everyone knew it would create massive instability, since it would draw into question the legitimacy both of Sulla’s proscriptions and of the disposition of the property of the conscripted, which was now in the hands of Sulla’s supporters. Thus the tension between justice and stability began roiling Rome.

Part Two (“Counter-revolution”) examines the activities of Lepidus in 78 and 77 BC. Chapter Four (“Urban Conflict and Etrurian Tumult: Formulating 78-77 BC”) attempts to disentangle the three main narratives for these years and to demonstrate that each presents a different portrait of Lepidus and his activities: Appian emphasizes the factional conflict with Catulus and the recurring pattern of civil war in the late Republic; Sallust gives more attention to Lepidus’ political activities in the city and presents him as a reformer; and the Livian tradition emphasizes the moral issues of Lepidus’ activities, measuring the justice of his desire to recall exiles with the need for stability in the state. Chapter Five (“More than Catiline, Less than Caesar: The Politics of M. Aemilius Lepidus, cos. 78 BC”) presents a historical reconstruction of the year 78 BC that emphasizes Lepidus’ political program. Rosenblitt argues that his agenda was a rational and serious attempt to legislate a counter-reformation, and he carefully built up popular support by promulgating a corn law and keeping large numbers of workers employed restoring the Basilica Aemilia in the Forum. She argues that his goal was to legislate the return of the exiles, so he initially refused to support the restoration of the powers of the tribunate because he wanted to own the leadership of the effort to overturn Sulla’s policies. It was only after he was unexpectedly dispatched with an army to Etruria that he began calling for the restoration of the powers of the tribunes, hoping they would continue to advance his desired reforms in his absence. The slowness of the Senate to respond to Lepidus’ challenge suggests that he enjoyed substantial support among the senators and the people, who did not necessarily expect Sulla’s policies to last.

Because the sources view and interpret the tumultus Lepidi from notably different perspectives, Chapter Six (“After Sulla; After Lepidus”) steps back and asks what ‘post-Sullan’ means and to what period it properly refers. Focusing on the themes of exile, exclusion, justice, and accountability, the chapter argues that the middle decades of the first century BC could all be considered post-Sullan in that the Roman people were never able to recover from the trauma of Sulla’s dictatorship. The question of those exiled or otherwise excluded from society remained a recurring problem throughout the 70s and 60s BC, and Sulla’s vision of an excluded plebs weakened the traditional avenues for expressing popular dissent, leading to the normalization of violence and civil war as methods for engaging in politics.

Having argued in parts One and Two that Sulla’s reforms had failed to establish true stability in Rome, Part Three (“Sallust and the Political Culture of Rome after Sulla”) uses Sallust’s Historiae to explore how instability manifested itself in the following decades, displaying a traumatized political culture. Chapter Seven (“Autocracy and Stability: Moving beyond the ‘Problems’ of the Speech of Lepidus”) focuses on the speech that Sallust gives to Lepidus in the Historiae and how it is crafted to explore ways for talking about Sulla’s autocracy. Juxtaposing the cruelty of Sulla with the clemency that Caesar would later display in his own autocracy, Sallust uses Lepidus’ speech to undermine Sulla’s legitimacy and subvert his claim to have brought felicitas and concordia to Rome. Chapter Eight (“ Dominatio and Deceit: Sallust on Pompey”) situates the speech of Lepidus within the wider cultural anxieties about leading figures of the late Republic, and in particular examines the theme of deceit in Sallust’s narrative of Pompey’s rise to power. Rosenblitt argues that Sallust crafted his letter from Pompey to display the insincerity and deceit of Sulla’s young lieutenant, who in his climb to power presented his cruel actions in civil war as if they had been virtuous actions in foreign war. In this way Sulla’s autocracy presented Rome with new challenges in determining the sincerity of those who sought power.

Section Three ends with two chapters on the nature of hostile politics after Sulla. Chapter Nine (“Hostile Politics (I): Political Discourse after Sulla”) examines how the social and political trauma of the 80s BC led to a new type of political discourse in the 70s. Sallust reveals how popular leaders adopted the rhetorical technique of labeling their political opponents as hostes instead of as inimici, and spoke of the people as plunder and slaves for the powerful elite. This type of political language developed from Sulla’s own political use of the label hostis, and it changed politics in Rome because it did not allow for middle ground or the possibility of agreement between the two sides in a political debate. Chapter Ten (“Hostile Politics (II): Sallust’s Historiae ”) concludes by exploring Sallust’s historiographical treatment of hostile politics, how it blurred the line between civil and foreign war, and how his slightly later perspective enabled Sallust to appreciate more fully the extent of the trauma Sulla inflicted on the state. An epilogue summarizes the arguments of the book, and two appendices examine the evidence for the activities of Lepidus and the problems scholars have raised with Sallust’s speech of Lepidus. The book closes with endnotes, a bibliography, and an index. Rosenblitt has made a significant contribution to scholarship on the late Republic by providing a close examination of a period that is often underappreciated, although there has recently been a surge of interest.1 Her method of moving between historical and historiographical approaches is effective in developing her arguments, although the transitions are occasionally rough and can cause repetition in her discussion. Her focus on Sallust’s Historiae as a central source is very useful in developing a better understanding of the contentious years 80-77 BC, and she is alert to the ways in which the text reflects Sallust’s own experiences in later decades of the Republic. To deal with this challenge, Rosenblitt allows the end-points in her inquiries to shift, which requires close attention in the reader but provides a wider range of perspectives into the topics she discusses. The book is based on the author’s dissertation, and two of the chapters are drawn from material previously published as articles.2 Rome after Sulla makes a strong argument that Sulla’s bloody dictatorship did not bring a period of stability to Rome, but instead left the Republic traumatized, divided, and ready to begin its slow descent into collapse. The book is well written and argued, and will surely be of interest to anyone interested in the late Republic.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Sullan Tyranny and Sullan Instability
2. 80 BC: The pro Roscio Vanishes
3. 79 BC: The Turning Tide
4. Urban Conflict and Etrurian Tumult: Formulating 78-77 BC
5. More than Catiline, Less than Caesar: The Politics of M. Aemilius Lepidus, cos. 78 BC
6. After Sulla; After Lepidus
7. Autocracy and Stability: Moving beyond the ‘Problems’ of the Speech of Lepidus
8. Dominatio and Deceit: Sallust on Pompey
9. Hostile Politics (I): Political Discourse after Sulla
10. Hostile Politics (II): Sallust’s Historiae
Epilogue: Legitimacy and the End of the Republic
Appendix A: Evidence for the Activities of M. Aemilius Lepidus, cos. 78 BC
Appendix B: ‘Problems’ in Sallust’s speech of Lepidus
Works Cited
Index Locorum
General Index


1. Works that were published while Rome after Sulla was being revised or was already in production include: P. Burton (2014), “The Revolt of Lepidus (cos. 78 BC) Revisited,” Historia 63.4: 404-21; Alexandra Eckert (2016), Lucius Cornelius Sulla in der antiken Erinnerung: Jener Mörder, der sich Felix nannte, Berlin and Boston; Antonio La Penna and Rodolfo Funari (eds.), C. Sallusti Crispi Historiae I: Fragmenta 1.1-146, Berlin and Boston; and Kathryn Seidl Steed (2017) “The Speeches of Sallust’s Histories and the Legacy of Sulla,” Historia 66.4: 401-41.

2. Chapter Three draws on the author’s article (2014) “The Turning Tide: the Politics of the Year 79 BCE,” TAPA 144.2: 415-44, and Chapter Nine from (2016) “Hostile Politics: Sallust and the Rhetoric of Popular Champions in the Late Republic,” AJP 137.4: 655-88.