BMCR 2022.07.11

Political conversations in late Republican Rome

, Political conversations in late Republican Rome. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2022. Pp. 304. ISBN 9780192856265. $100.00.


“Play it tough. That’s the way they play it and that’s the way we are going to play it.” So Richard Nixon in a recorded conversation discussing and ultimately revealing his participation in the cover-up of the Watergate scandal by his administration.[1] Political deals, machinations, and conspiracies concocted in smoke-filled back-rooms might seem more appropriate to modern politics or even the silver screen, but C. Rosillo-López argues in Political Conversations in Late Republican Rome that they were an integral and typical part of political life in the Late Republic. As expected, the book builds upon the author’s long pedigree of research on how political information was communicated in Late Republican Rome among the populace more generally, among the elite, and within specific institutional contexts.[2]

The book itself comprises eight chapters, each with helpfully descriptive headings and subheadings that serve to continuously orient the reader and to facilitate quick reference. Abundant footnotes throughout the book provide easy access to the original Latin as well as scholarship where relevant, but do not distract from the arguments of the main text.

After a brief introduction in which Rosillo-López situates her argument as a development of previous and familiar studies of clientela and amicitia, ranging from Gelzer to Brunt and Meier, the first chapter carefully reviews and evaluates approaches to the political system of Rome. In each case, Rosillo-López notes the problematic tendency to conflate institutional politics with Rome’s political elite and non-institutional politics with the non-elite. Her solution is the “descriptive and intuitive” category of “extra-institutional politics,” which has the “advantage of a negative definition,” namely that it includes everything that is not institutional (17). What precisely counts as “political,” however, is never explicitly addressed by Rosillo-López, though the implication is that perhaps everything could be, under the right circumstances. Even so, it would be helpful to consider how and when conversations and information veered from the non-political to the political; one could see, for example, how Cornelia’s discussions of her father and her murdered sons could be interpreted as being political in a certain setting (Plut. CG. 19.2), but her guests at Misenum, Plutarch notes, are various “Greeks” and “literary men” rather than the Roman senators we would expect to be participating in a political conversation.

Chapter two confronts an issue with which every historian of the Late Republic is familiar: the overwhelming preponderance of primary source material written or curated by Cicero and the resulting methodological difficulties of interpreting that corpus. As Rosillo-López admits, the vast majority of the evidence for political conversations is contained within Cicero’s written correspondence. Even so, she argues, Cicero’s letters were not subject to the same types “of bias or manipulation as many political memoirs,” (23) as is clear from the fact that they were often written within days or sometimes hours after the conversation in question and were not rewritten after other information came to light. In any case, the author convincingly suggests that this evidence is more important for what it reveals about the “working mechanisms of extra-institutional politics,” (30) which can be extrapolated to political behavior among the elite more easily, whether or not we accept the content as unproblematic.

Chapter three establishes the importance of face-to-face meetings versus communicating through letters or messengers. Most striking is the observation about proximity to politics at Rome—a typical year for Cicero would see three-quarters of the year spent in Rome itself, with the remainder of the time spent “at a comfortable distance that allowed him to come back in no time at all” (39). Being disconnected from this “circulatory system,” as Rosillo-López dubs it, risked failure; 45% of praetors who refused an overseas province, for example, won their consular elections, compared to 25% of those who accepted.[3] The chapter concludes with a lengthy analysis of the so-called conference at Luca in 56 BCE, in which Rosillo-López argues against the “traditional” account of a meeting with 200 senators by pointing out the logistical impossibilities of hosting such a large number of senators and their entourages at the municipal town of Luca. Rather, she argues, Caesar purposely placed his winter camps in Cisalpine Gaul at a five-day journey from Rome to facilitate consistent meetings with Senators throughout the winter months, which only later was exaggerated in the sources to one large conference in 56 BCE.

In chapters four and five, Rosillo-López outlines the mechanisms and dynamics of political conversation, from the education of young aspiring politicians in the norms and expectations of conversation to the specific instances in which such conversations could take place and the types of information shared within these settings. Four case studies of conversation transcriptions are analyzed—a meeting between Cicero and Caesar in late March 49 BCE; a meeting shortly afterwards, in April 49 BCE, between Cicero and Scribonius Curio; a group conversation in June 44 BCE between Caesar’s assassins and their conspirators; and a letter from Decimus Junius Brutus recounting a conversation between himself and Hirtius shortly after Caesar’s assassination. In each instance, Rosillo-López emphasizes the desire of the conversationalists to hear the speculations and predictions of others, as well as to assert their social status.

Rosillo-López then moves to a consideration of the stuff of political conversations—the information that is requested, sought after, and passed along in such conversations. She argues that gaining reliable information (certa) about what would happen (futura) was the main goal of having access to an information network. Cicero again serves as the focal point of analysis—his disconnection from the circulation of information and his lack of knowledge of Clodius’ plans in 59 BCE is acutely felt in his desperate requests for Atticus to “fish for” (episcere) and “extract” (elicere) information on his behalf (160-7). Such an explicit request abandons the typical niceties expected in correspondence between friends, but nevertheless reveals the perceived importance of having consistent, reliable sources of political information.

Different non-senatorial actors and their roles in political conversations serve as the subjects of the seventh chapter. While these figures often enter into conversations on the margins, or even as representatives of senatorial figures, Rosillo-López emphasizes their agency, though to differing degrees of success. The example of Quintus Cicero’s freedman Statius, for instance, does demonstrate the important political advising role that freedmen could have, even at the protestations of senators such as M. Cicero himself (186–87). Yet there is a tenuous connection between advising a former dominus and displaying individual agency within a political conversation, especially given the state of our sources. More convincing are the cases of three non-elite women—Volumnia Cytheris, Chelidon, and Praecia. In each case, these women are characterized as dangerous given their ability to enter into senatorial circles and to advocate for their own interests. It is no surprise that the sources attribute this ability to their beauty or sexual licentiousness; we see a similar characterization of Clodia herself, whose frequent meetings with aspiring politicians was described by Cicero in Pro Caelio as transforming her neighborhood into a vicinitas meretricia (Cic. Cael. 37).[4] While Rosillo-López concentrates on a handful of individuals in the chapter itself, she has helpfully gathered all mentions of non-senatorial actors in political conversations in the book’s appendix.

The book’s final chapter, “The Senate and Extra-Institutional Politics,” demonstrates how extra-institutional politics were integral to the functioning of political institutions, most notably the Senate. For one thing, knowing when the Senate was to meet and the agenda for any individual Senate session was only possible through the extra-institutional conversations between senators and their confidantes; these conversations were also integral for securing support for legislation before any official business had even been conducted. The example of the tribunate is useful. Tribunes were elected in July, but did not take office until Dec. 10. The first few weeks of any individual tribunate always contained a flurry of political activity, especially since the new consuls did not take office until Jan. 1. To hit the ground running, tribunes engaged in constant conversation with senators and privati in the intervening months, as they both prepared written legislation and attempted to cajole senators into supporting that legislation. Rullus’ rogatio agraria on Dec. 12, 63 BCE, for example, was long anticipated and widely known about, signaling this very process of consensus building through informal conversations.

Rosillo-López is persuasive in supporting her main argument—first, that “politics” was conducted outside of institutional contexts; and second, that extra-institutional politics, in the guise of informal political conversations, was essential to the functioning of the political institutions themselves. The book is therefore an important contribution to the growing body of work exploring the non-institutional contexts of Rome’s legal and political history.

Several other argumentative threads crop up throughout the book, which raise interesting possibilities for future work on this topic. The most notable of these, to my mind, is the functioning of status in political conversations. It is clear that Rosillo-López sees status posturing, acquisition, and maintenance as being a fundamental part of the dynamics of conversation (e.g. 134: “desire to convey status”; 143: “struggling not to cede an iota of their status”; 150: “diminish the status of a possible rival”; 163: “undermined his own political status”; etc.). Precisely how such status concerns converge, or not, with the search for good and reliable information is an interesting question that is not raised in the book, but that will hopefully be taken up at a later date.

This last point also reflects the methodology of the monograph. In general, the primary sources are interpreted as containing relatively straightforward representations of political conversations, their contents, and their dynamics, with a few references to theoretical literature serving to orient the reader.[5] There is also a clear comparative framework within which Rosillo-López interprets the evidence, most obvious in the consistent reference to modern politics in the USA or Europe. This connection leads at times to provocative, if perhaps anachronistic, categorizations of the primary source data—for example, the sharing of secret conversations is referred to as “leaking” that information, with explicit reference to the Watergate tapes and WikiLeaks.

There are a handful of typos (e.g. 31, n. 41: “on Caesar’s (corr. Caesar) as an artful reporter”; 121, n. 249: “debating the curse (corr. course) to follow”; 183: “whose role in conversation has been not been (corr. has not been) sufficiently stated”; etc.) but they do not distract from an otherwise engaging and lucid prose style.

Ultimately, Rosillo-López’s book will become required reading for students and scholars interested in Late Republican political history and its non-institutional manifestations, especially as it lays the essential groundwork for further research seeking to analyze, for example, how these political conversations were venues for the acquisition of information alongside social status, or even the criteria by which reliable information was evaluated and weighed against rumors or gossip.


[1] From the so-called “Smoking Gun Tape,” recording the conversation of President Richard Nixon and Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman, on July 24, 1974, in the Oval Office.

[2] E.g. C. Rosillo-López Public Opinion in the Late Roman Republic (2017); (ed.) Political Communication in the Roman World (2020); “Informal Political communication and Network Theory in the Late Roman Republic,” Journal of Historical Network Research 4: 90-113.

[3] Blösel, W. 2016. “The imperia of the 70s to 50s and public opinion.” In C. Rosillo-López (ed.), Communicating Public Opinion in the Roman World (2019).

[4] Leigh, M. 2004. “The pro Caelio and Comedy.” Classical Philology 99.4: 308-11.

[5] E.g., in discussions of conversational networks, Granovetter’s concept of the “strength of weak ties” makes an appearance, though more recent work on gossip and networks; e.g. in F. Giardini and R. Wittek, The Oxford Handbook of Gossip and Reputation (2019) does not. Similarly, the socialization of young Roman elite men nods towards Bourdieu’s habitus but does not engage with the text explicitly, nor with subsequent explorations by other practice theorists, such as Lois Wacquant.