BMCR 2020.08.28

Communicating public opinion in the Roman Republic

, Communicating public opinion in the Roman Republic. Historia. Einzelschriften, Band 256. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2019. 304 p.. ISBN 9783515121729 €59,00.

[My review does not consider the chapter ‘Ventus Popularis? “Popular Opinion” in the 70s and its senatorial reception’ by T. W. Hillard, as he is my colleague at Macquarie University.]
[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Communicating Public Opinion in the Roman Republic is edited by Cristina Rosillo-López, whose monograph Public Opinion in the Late Roman Republic (Cambridge, 2017) represents an important contribution to our understanding of Roman political culture. This collection, which emerged from a 2016 seminar in Seville, consists of thirteen essays written by Roman historians (nine men, four women), based in Europe, Australasia, the United States, and Israel. Based on its title, I expected the volume to build on the themes of Rosillo-López’s monograph by exploring how the Roman people expressed and disseminated their views, focusing on chants, pamphlets, graffiti, rumours and other forms of communication. But the title is misleading: most chapters actually discuss how elite Romans represented, responded to, or attempted to shape public opinion. This dissonance is representative of the lack of conceptual and methodological clarity that prevents the volume from succeeding as a collective whole. However, the book does contain several standout chapters that merit close attention.

In the Introduction, Rosillo López does not offer a definition of public opinion (readers should consult pp. 18-27 of her 2017 monograph). Instead, she repurposes Justice Stewart Potter’s pronouncement about pornography – ‘I know it when I see it’ – and applies it to public opinion. Rosillo López states: ‘The aim is that the reader, at the end of each chapter or the whole volume, will be able to say about public opinion in Rome: “I know it when I see it.”’ (p. 7). The absence of a definition is felt throughout the entire volume. The majority of the contributors do not offer any definition themselves, and indeed, in some chapters, ‘public opinion’ appears as little more than a buzzword, inserted to conform to the volume’s title rather than forming an organic part of the argument.

The theoretical heavy lifting that is largely absent from the Introduction can instead be found in the chapters by Frédéric Hurlet and Amy Russell. Hurlet’s chapter, ‘L’öffentliche Meinung de Habermas et l’opinion publique dans la Rome antique. De la raison à l’auctoritas,’ is superb. Engaging with the work of Jurgen Habermas, he considers the applicability of the idea of public opinion to the Roman Republic, arguing that we can use such terminology, if we recognise that in Rome public opinion was primarily a reactive phenomenon. Russell’s excellent paper, ‘The populus Romanus as the source of public opinion,’ points out that Romans regarded the populus Romanus as an indivisible unit, which articulated legitimate public opinion. But this ideal clashed with the reality that the entire populus Romanus could never be present at political events, such as contiones. This led to politicians claiming that their own supporters represented the true populus Romanus.

I would have liked to see greater integration of Hurlet’s and Russell’s conclusions into other chapters, as it would have enhanced their methodological clarity. Indeed, some essays tend to offer rather traditional approaches to the people in Roman politics. Alejandro Díaz Fernández’s ‘Military disasters, public opinion, and Roman politics during the wars in Hispania (153-133 B.C.)’ focuses on the people’s role in granting provincial commands to senators and judging their actions when they returned. Despite its title, this chapter is not really concerned with discussing the mechanics of public opinion, but rather plays out within the more familiar parameters of the debate regarding popular political participation. A similar problem manifests itself in Wolfgang Blösel’s contribution, ‘The imperia extraordinaria of the 70s to 50s B.C. and public opinion,’ which is a narrative-heavy account of the political manoeuvres which led to the awarding of special commands to Pompey, and the role of the people in these affairs. Finally, Francisco Pina Polo’s ‘Rhetoric of fear in Republican Rome: the Ciceronian case,’ although it tries to offer a more innovative approach by using modern political rhetoric as a framing device, provides a largely conventional analysis of the language used by Cicero in his speeches. The integration of Hurlet’s points about the reactiveness of public opinion and Russell’s arguments about who constituted ‘the people’ would have tied these chapters more clearly into the volume’s overall themes.

One of the most effective theoretical points about what counts as public opinion comes in Kit Morrell’s excellent chapter ‘“Who wants to go to Alexandria?” Pompey, Ptolemy and public opinion, 57-56 BC.’ She not only analyses the language used to describe public opinion as found in Cicero’s Letters, but also draws out the complexities which lay behind such statements. As Morrell writes, ‘Furthermore, while Cicero’s comments often refer to senators, we are in fact dealing with a number of “publics,” from the consulares down to the mob in the forum, with various diverging or intersecting viewpoints’ (p. 158).The fact that the overwhelming majority of our evidence for late Republican politics is Ciceronian is a perennial methodological problem, but it is one worth addressing, as Morrell does.

Cicero looms large in Cristina Rosillo López’s own stimulating paper, which asks ‘How did Romans perceive and measure public opinion?’ The answer: by watching and listening. Romans observed candidates when they were out in public, examining the number and identity of their followers, and they paid attention to spending on games and banquets. Rosillo López’s examination of this watching game features rewarding observations. For example, she ingenuously suggests that the laws of the 60s B.C. forbidding the hiring of followers were prompted by concerns that these rent-a-crowds would make it harder to ascertain the true popularity of electoral candidates (p. 60). Listening was just as important: keeping one’s ear to the ground enabled senators like Cicero to ascertain whether a candidate had enough support, and his strike-rate as an electoral forecaster seems to have been quite respectable (p. 77). I would have liked to see Rosillo López extend her discussion further by interrogating the nature of Cicero’s ‘public’ more closely, along the lines suggested by Morrell’s point, noted above.

One of the problems with assessing public opinion in the late Roman Republic is the lack of a range of contemporary voices, hence the prominence of Cicero. The problem is even more acute for earlier periods, for which we are largely dependent on Livy, Plutarch, and Polybius. In this regard, Enrique García Riaza deserves praise for tackling the late third and early second centuries B.C. in his paper ‘Laureatae Litterae. Announcing victories and public opinion in the Middle Republic,’ He proposes that the legati who travelled to Rome to announce military successes played a significant role in shaping public opinion, and that this opinion in turn determined whether the general would be awarded a triumph. But this argument is unfortunately not supported by the evidence presented. García Riaza’s analysis of the legati demonstrates that they were high-status individuals with connections to their commander (pp. 93-98). This does not, however, back up his proposition that generals selected ‘the members of the legatio sent to Rome to communicate the victory in order to increase the impact of the news on the public’ (p. 86). They were selected because they were trusted by their generals (a point conceded on p. 97). The best evidence presented for the messengers’ ability to convince the people is their presentation of prisoners when announcing the victories (pp. 99-100). These displays would have been an effective way for Roman commanders to demonstrate that they deserved a triumph. The chapter would have been more successful if it had concentrated on the persuasive power of these displays as the central point, rather than the selection of individual legati.

As noted at the beginning of this review, I would question whether the volume is fundamentally about communicatingpublic opinion. We learn comparatively little about how the public or ‘publics’ articulated their views. Given the number of contributions that focus on techniques and strategies used by politicians to persuade the people, a better title might have been Representing, Shaping, and Responding to Public Opinion in the Roman Republic (picking up on the themes of Hurlet’s important contribution). For example, Kathryn Welch’s rewarding chapter, ‘Selling proscription to the Roman public,’ analyses how politicians attempted to shape public opinion. She argues that the Triumvirs’ prosecution edict of 43 B.C. emphasised that the murder of Julius Caesar was a sacrilegious act, ‘principally aimed at those who had protected the murderers but who had escaped the Pedian law’ (p. 251). Moreover, Welch proposes, it was Marcus Antonius in particular, who shaped this argument in an attempt to win over public opinion. W. Jeffrey Tatum’s lively and engaging ‘Canvassing the elite: communicating sound values in the Commentariolum Petitionis’ likewise deals with the theme of persuasion, showing how this public letter portrays Cicero as a conventional and reassuring candidate for the consulship.

I conclude with two chapters that I found especially problematic within the volume’s remit, even allowing for the wider scope suggested above. Clifford Ando’s ‘The space and time of politics in civil war,’ is a challenging read. One must negotiate pages devoted to Lucan, Tacitus, and even an extended discussion of the emperor Julian before arriving at the key focus, an examination of political rhetoric of 49 B.C. as expressed in Caesar’s Bellum Civile. Ando highlights the dissonance between the ideal of power invested in the senate and people at Rome, and the reality, in which the senate and people were no longer solely located in this city. This is an important observation, and for Ando it shows that features of the Roman monarchy were already present in the late Republic. But Ando’s analysis of Caesar’s Bellum Civile is not given proper room to breathe, taking up a mere four pages (pp. 183-6) within what is already a very short piece.

Alexander Yakobson’s study, ‘Velleius Paterculus, imperial ideology and the old republic,’ although more focused than Ando’s contribution, seems similarly afloat in this volume. His analysis of Velleius’ portrayal of the civil war between Pompey and Caesar and the latter’s assassination is thought provoking, but will be of greater utility to scholars of Velleius than those working on Republican public opinion. The connection to the overall theme is that Velleius’ views of the dying days of the Republic reflects ‘public opinion within the elite’ during the reign of Tiberius (p. 291). This may be true, but Yakobson’s historiographical analysis does not offer enough evidence to support this contention.

In the quotation from the Introduction included above, Rosillo López states that the aim of the volume is for the reader to be able to recognise public opinion in Rome, so that they can say ‘I know it when I see it’. The volume as a whole does not have the conceptual or methodological coherence to achieve this, but it contains some excellent chapters which make valuable contributions to ongoing scholarly debates.

Authors and titles

Cristina Rosillo-López:  Introduction
Frédéric Hurlet: L’öffentliche Meinung de Habermas et l’opinion publique dans la Rome antique. De la raison à l’auctoritas
Amy Russell: The populus Romanus as the source of public opinion
Cristina Rosillo-López: How did Romans perceive and measure public opinion?
Enrique García Riaza: Laureatae litterae. Announcing Victories and Public Opinion in the Middle Republic
Alejandro Díaz Fernández: Military disasters, public opinion, and Roman politics during the wars in Hispania (153–133 B. C.)
Wolfgang Blösel: The imperia extraordinaria of the 70s to 50s B. C. and Public Opinion
Kit Morrell: “Who wants to go to Alexandria?” Pompey, Ptolemy, and public opinion, 57–56 BC
Clifford Ando: The space and time of politics in civil war
Francisco Pina Polo: Rhetoric of Fear in Republican Rome: the Ciceronian Case
T. W. Hillard: Ventus Popularis? ‘Popular Opinion’ in the 70s and its senatorial Reception
Kathryn Welch: Selling Proscription to the Roman Public
W. Jeffrey Tatum: Canvassing the elite: communicating sound values in the Commentariolum Petitionis
Alexander Yakobson: Velleius Paterculus, imperial ideology and the old republic