BMCR 2021.04.08

Roman political culture: seven studies of the senate and city councils of Italy

, Roman political culture: seven studies of the senate and city councils of Italy from the first to the sixth century AD. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 336. ISBN 9780198850809. $99.00.

The primary purpose of Tacoma’s work is to examine social dynamics that resulted from the longevity of Roman political culture in institutions such as the Senate and local town councils and the ritual of their acts throughout the Imperial period. He argues that political culture had a specific form which, despite changes to actual power dynamics, continued unabated until late into antiquity, becoming more social than political in nature to the point that the Senate and decurionum were bodies that ‘were self­referential and self­definitional’ (p. 5). This necessitates, Tacoma states, a long approach in terms of chronology whilst simultaneously providing analysis in detailed contexts. The result is ‘an experiment in method,’ something that falls between a thematic monograph and collection of loosely connected studies of political institutions and individual players (p. 19). He identifies seven tensions that are present in political culture: free debate, hierarchy and agency, self-reflexivity and solemnity, strategies for exerting power, competition for honours, agency in benefactions, and how political institutions were central to society. Each one of these tensions is examined in the following chapters, covering a wide range of time and texts.

Chapter 1 uses the Apocolocyntosis as a starting point for examining the ability the Senate had to engage in free debate under single rule. Tacoma draws parallels between the Senecan text and the acta senatus, using arguments about both the deification of Claudius and foreigners in Roman society to address the means by which debate took place, was recorded, and the myriad issues surrounding the negotiations of power between political entities. Patronage and the use of networks are the basis of Chapter 2, using the electoral programmata of Pompeii as evidence of the malleability of these ties, and that the unstable nature of social networks demonstrates that elections were not the foregone conclusion of elite control, as has been argued by others.[1] The evidence, Tacoma concludes, demonstrates the fluidity of patronage ties during an election cycle, as well as the agency supporters had in their engagement with the system of campaigning and voting. Herein, Tacoma is particularly adept at synthesising previous scholarship on Pompeian elections and pointing out conclusions that are contradicted by the evidence or are simply illogical. Letters of the Pliny the Younger relating incidents of joking in the Senate as a means for examining concepts of decorum and behaviour amongst the proceedings of the senators feature in Chapter 3. Within the letters discussing pranks carried out during a vote in the curia, Pliny is able to expound on his dissatisfaction with the re-introduction of the secret ballot, allowing for further examination of the processes of elections begun in the previous chapter. More to the point, Pliny’s letters illustrate a certain amount of self-reflection about the role of senators in a period when single rule has existed for a century and what that means in terms of both political and social function.  The act of acclamation as a political strategy used to force decisions is discussed in Chapter 4, specifically in relation to the end of the reign of Commodus, his succession, and the implementation of damnatio memoriae. Based on a passage in the Historia Augustae of one of the only recorded examples of a senatorial acclamation, the discussion centres on the inversion of honorific language into insults, in some ways analogous to a curse tablet, thus allowing anger and relief to be expressed by senators. Chapter 5 focuses on the reciprocity of honours between emperor and subjects, examining the exchange between Constantine and the town of Hispellum regarding renaming the city and establishing a priest for festivals dedicated to the emperor’s family. This chapter is especially good at highlighting the continuation of traditional Roman practices related to honourifics and the Imperial cult in spite of the fundamental changes brought about by the advent of Christianity, as well as the shift of civic competition from city-city to city-emperor. Moving into the post-Roman period, Chapter 6 delves into the ambiguity of benefactions as a voluntary behaviour or a coerced act undertaken by magistrates. In this instance, letters exchanged between the Ostrogothic ruler Theoderic and a magistrate regarding the draining of the Pontine Marshes illustrate the same type of community benefit through euergetism that is more often attested in the late Republican and early Imperial periods than in the sixth century AD. By relating the written evidence to the archaeological evidence for such an engineering project, Tacoma takes the discussion of benefactions further by questioning the importance of intent versus actual completion. The change in function of town councils that occurs by the late sixth century into one that is more performative than legislative is addressed in Chapter 7. The Ravenna papyri attest to the role political institutions held in conferring status on individuals through the documentation of petitions and registration of legal transactions. This material demonstrates the legacy of Roman political institutions and documentation, in addition to the witnessing of performative actions that provided status and legitimacy.

Overall, Tacoma demonstrates the slow process of change to senatorial and local governance that took place in the Imperial period and beyond. He views political culture as being used as a means to reaffirm one’s place in society, stating that ‘Anybody who wanted to be anything had to participate in some form of political life.’ (p. 279). He soundly demonstrates there is evidence of ongoing negotiation of expectation and agency in a political environment that was an embedded characteristic of urban life, establishing that, whilst over the course of centuries political power may have waned, but social power did not.

As it is presented as a series of cases studies that chronologically span the first six centuries AD, Tacoma’s work reads more like an edited volume than a single authored monograph. This is not a criticism, but rather illustrates the breadth of the research undertaken, and the way in which the book might be used by readers, scholars, and students alike. Chapter 1, for example, covers multiple topics frequently taught in undergraduate Roman history modules including ideas about deification, issues between Romans (i.e. the Senate) and admittance of foreigners to citizenship, and analyses the accuracy and authority of ancient written sources, whether historiography or satire. Whilst reading this, I often found myself thinking about how I could use it in future teaching. Other chapters, however, seem more applicable to those working on later antiquity (Chapter 5), or landscape and environment (Chapter 6). In essence, the work, although ostensibly focused on the continuation of Roman political culture in the Imperial period, offers such a range of topics to render itself useful to many more than those interested in politics.

In the introduction to the book Tacoma details the many reasons why, whether accurate inferences from the evidence or not, most scholarship of politics and political culture cease with the ascendancy of Augustus and the establishment of single rule. There is certain continuation of Roman politics both in the city of Rome, as the political elite learn to negotiate their new role in relation to the emperor, and more importantly in the cities and towns of Italy and the provinces, where little fundamentally changes in the political institutions for centuries. This work, therefore, is a welcome addition to the many tomes on Roman politics, as it comprises an initial first step into considering the wider role of political life beyond the capital itself. [2]


[1] Contra Henrik Mouritsen (1988) Elections, Magistrates and Municipal Elite, Rome and (1999) ‘Electoral campaigning in Pompeii: a reconsideration’, Athenaeum 87: 515–523.

[2] Due to restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the book was received and read as an e-book. As such, I am unable to comment on any aspects of the physical presentation of the work.