BMCR 2020.10.04

Empire, hegemony or anarchy? Rome and Italy, 201-31 BCE

, , , Empire, hegemony or anarchy? Rome and Italy, 201-31 BCE. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2019. 259 p. ISBN 9783515115247. €49,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Since the seminal conference Hellenismus in Mittelitalien in 1974, organised by Paul Zanker, archaeological and historical research on Rome and Italy in the period between the second Punic War and the principate of Augustus has been highly prolific. Recent culminations of this trend came with Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s 2008 monograph on Rome’s Cultural Revolution, the three volumes of the series E pluribus unum?, published from 2014 to 2020, Filippo Carlà-Uhink’s work on the nascent notion of “Italia” from the 3rd to the 1st century BCE, Nicola Terrenato’s latest book on the role of elite interactions in the first centuries of Roman expansion, and Saskia T. Roselaar’s 2019 study on economic and political integration in republican Italy.[1] Alongside a vast range of studies on specific topics and archaeological sites, these works are mostly characterised by their rejection of received interpretive frameworks of socio-politically motivated acculturation, as encapsulated in the much-maligned concepts of “Hellenization” and “Romanization”. Instead, the emphasis in recent scholarship is firmly set on multiculturalism, regional identities, cultural complexity, and the importance of elite networks, in particular when it comes to the interpretation of art, architecture, and material culture.

This volume, edited by Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp, Sema Karataş, and Roman Roth, does take a lot of this on board (e.g. in two chapters on the republican city of Rome and urbanism in Italy more widely, authored by John R. Patterson and Marion Bolder-Boos, respectively). However, in many respects the book also offers promising new directions and perspectives for the history and archaeology of late republican Rome and Italy beyond the current mainstream.

This starts at the level of general epistemology. It is striking that concepts such as “empire” and “hegemony” have featured rather inconsistently in recent historical and archaeological studies on late republican Italy. In most strands of scholarship there is a conspicuous absence of engagement with concepts of state formation and political theory (in contrast to works on the early Republic, e.g. most recently Terrenato 2019). Perhaps this can partly be seen as a reaction against older views of Roman imperialism and “Romanization”, as encapsulated in the seminal works of William H. Harris and Keith Hopkins, alongside the essentially Marxist model of Roman imperialist expansion that was promulgated through the works of the Istituto Gramsci. However, I would argue that the prime cause behind this lack of recent engagement with conflict, dominance, and power is the (overly) positive emphasis on cultural exchange, which has to a large degree superseded the previous concepts of “acculturation” and “cultural hegemony”.

In setting the agenda for the chapters to follow, Roman Roth discusses the three theoretical strands which are reflected in the title of the volume: Firstly, he states that, already in the last 170 years of the Republic, the Italian peninsula should be understood as the centre of a Mediterranean empire (“Empire”), a view which ultimately goes back to Polybius (Histories 1.3) and has recently received a book length treatment by Josiah Osgood.[2] Secondly, Roth notes the “centrality of Rome and the Roman – and not just the elite – in virtually all decisive contexts within that configuration (‘Hegemony’)” (p. 11); thirdly, he identifies a “lack of comprehensive structural cohesion that existed beyond the few isolated spheres of interaction in which we may speak of Rome and Italy in the same breath’ and a result of this was the ‘considerable risk of implosion (‘Anarchy’) of the ‘hegemonic construct” (p. 11).

All of this is largely uncontroversial, but Roth then goes on to introduce a fourth conceptual framework that has the clear potential to bring about a profound change in our thinking and writing: the idea of late republican Italy as a “post-conflict region” (pp. 14-5). Ever since Toynbee’s monumental, yet often dismissed, attempt to gauge the impact of the Second Punic War on the Italian peninsula (ably discussed by Clifford Ando, pp. 56-7), the bearings of conflict, violence, and warfare on the socio-political and economic trajectories of Rome and the Italian regions in the 2nd and 1st century BCE have cried out for a renewed and innovative effort at comprehensive analysis. The concept of the “post-conflict region” offers exciting new avenues for doing precisely this, without falling for the grand, teleological narratives of successful unification which have been so powerful since Augustus’ propagation of “tota Italia” (Res Gestae 25.2) – tellingly, a concept that the princeps used to describe the support he had received in times of civil war.

It has to be said that the book’s individual chapters address these theoretical strands, and particular the idea of Italy as a “post-conflict region”, to varying degrees. As with most other examples of the genre, the strength of this edited volume does not lie in perfect overall consistency, but in the multiplicity of viewpoints, case studies, and materials which are adduced. The authors are all eminent specialists in the field, carefully chosen to represent various strands of current research in Roman republican history and archaeology.

In the first section on “Conceptualising Rome’s Italian Empire”, John R. Patterson and Clifford Ando discuss the ways in which the Roman conquest of Italy led to the creation of a complex and often contentious system which oscillated between celebratory commemoration and institutionalised administration. This is followed by larger second part on “Territories and Societies, 201-91 BC”. First, Roman Roth conveys a poignant panorama of the interests and issues involved in the expansion of Roman citizenship in Italy from the end of the Second Punic War to the outbreak of the Social War (pp. 85-106). Based upon a range of pertinent case studies, Marion Bolder-Boos then reassesses traditional views on the “stereotypical nature” of late republican Roman urbanism and town planning (pp. 107-29). Instead, she focuses on the creative tension between individual trajectories and larger urbanistic trends which transcends conventional notions of “Romanization” and “Hellenization”. This is followed by a concise chapter by Stéphane Bourdin who delineates the structural and socio-political importance of Italic “leagues” and alliances that in many cases persisted beyond the initial phase of Roman conquest. Finally, Saskia T. Roselaar offers an expert treatment of the problematic and potentially explosive legal framework in which Italians negotiated their rights to property and trade with Rome. She is certainly right to stress the impressive architectural development of many central Italic communities during the later 2ndcentury BCE; however, the statement that many allied towns, in the second half of the 2nd century, had theatres long before Rome (p. 152) should be put into perspective by referring to the famous case of the stone theatre commissioned by the Roman censors M. Valerius Messalla and C. Cassius Longinus in 154 or 153 BCE (Val. Max. 2.4.2; Liv. Per. 48); although construction had to be aborted due to the moralising intervention of P. Cornelius Scipio Nasica, this censorial building project, if successful, would have provided Rome with a stone theatre in a prime location and, arguably, of significant dimensions. Roselaar also implies that individuals from Italic communities might not have been able to bid for public contracts (p. 159-60), which seems to be somewhat problematic in the light of what Diodorus tells us about the way in which the silver mines of Carthago Nova were run by Italians (5.36.3-4), corroborated by the epigraphic evidence for the dominance of Campanian families which are attested on lead ingots and in the corpus of late republican inscriptions from Cartagena.[3]

The third section of the book is dedicated to the period from the Social War to the battle of Actium and deals with the difficult and multifaceted process of socio-political integration. Guy Bradley explores the strategies of the socii during the cataclysmic conflict with Rome, leading to a number of highly perceptive remarks about how the Social War’s legacy shaped Roman politics for decades to come. At several points, the concept of the “post-conflict region” shines through his elegantly written analysis; in future studies, it would be interesting to see it applied even more explicitly to regions like Picenum or Samnium. The same is true for Wolfgang Blösel’s rich study of the late republican army as a key facilitator for political integration since the early 80s of the 1st century BCE and for the two final chapters, authored by Sema Karataş and Federico Santangelo, on municipal elites and their career opportunities in Rome. All of these chapters are excellent in their own right, and they provide a most fertile ground for rethinking the impact of conflict and integration on late republican history and material culture.

Overall, this book has the clear potential to make more than just yet another contribution to the burgeoning field of studies on late republican Italy. This is mainly due to the fact that it takes an avowedly “historical” stance, shifting the focus from cultural concepts and identity studies back towards political and social aspects of state formation and conflict. In the face of current challenges, both in an academic and non-academic context, such a return to key concerns of historiography seems to be more timely than ever.

Authors and titles

Introduction: Between Imperial Heartland and Post-Conflict Region: Rome and Italy, 201–31 BC (Roman Roth)
The Roman Conquest of Italy and the Republican City of Rome (John R. Patterson)
Hannibal’s Legacy: Sovereignty and Territoriality in Republican Rome (Clifford Ando)
The Expansion of the Citizenship and Roman Elite Interests in Regional Italy, c. 200–91 BC: A Structural Perspective (Roman Roth)
Adorning the City: Urbanistic Trends in Republican Central Italy (Marion Bolder-Boos)
Les ligues italiennes de la soumission à Rome à l’intégration (Stéphane Bourdin)
Between Rome and Italy Hegemony, Anarchy and Land in the Late Second Century BC (Saskia T. Roselaar)
State formation and the Social War (Guy Bradley)
Die ‚politische‘ Integration der italischen Neubürger in den römischen Legionen vom Bundesgenossenkrieg bis zur Triumviratszeit (Wolfgang Blösel)
The Integration of domi nobiles at Rome: A Case Study (Sema Karataş)
Municipal Men in the Age of the Civil Wars (Federico Santangelo)


[1] A. Wallace-Hadrill, Rome’s Cultural Revolution (Cambridge 2008), S. T. Roselaar, Italy’s Economic Revolution: Integration and Economy in Republican Italy (Oxford 2019), N. Terrenato, The Early Roman Expansion into Italy: Elite Negotiation and Family Agendas (Cambridge 2019), M. Aberson, M. C. Biella, M. Di Fazio, P. Sánchez and M. Wullschleger (eds.), Entre archéologie et histoire: dialogues sur divers peuples de l’Italie préromaine (Bern 2014), M. Aberson, M. C. Biella, M. Di Fazio, P. Sánchez and M. Wullschleger (eds.), L’Italia centrale e la creazione di una koiné culturale? I percorsi della ‘romanizzazione’ (Bern 2016), M. Aberson, M. C. Biella, M. Di Fazio and M. Wullschleger (eds.), Nos sumus Romani qui fuimus ante… Memory of Ancient Italy (ibid. 2020), F. Carlà-Uhink, The “Birth” of Italy: the Institutionalization of Italy as a Region, 3rd-1st century BCE (Berlin 2017). To this list should be added A. E. Cooley (ed.), A Companion to Roman Italy (Chichester 2016).

[2] J. Osgood, Rome and the Making of a World State 150 BCE-20 CE (Cambridge 2018).

[3] A. Orejas and Sánchez-Palencia, “Mines, Territorial Organization, and Social Structure in Roman Iberia: Carthago Noua and the Peninsular Northwest,” AJA (2002) 581-99, M. Stefanile, “Gentes procedentes de Campania en la explotación de las minas de Carthago Nova” in J. M. López Ballesta (ed.), Phicaria: Encuentros Internacionales del Mediterraneo 3: Minería y metalurgia en el Mediterráneo y su periferia oceánica (Mazarrón 2015) 170-80.