BMCR 2023.11.11

Kampf um Mittelitalien: Roms ungerader Weg zur Großmacht

, Kampf um Mittelitalien: Roms ungerader Weg zur Großmacht. Hermes Einzelschrift, 122. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2021. Pp. 448. ISBN 9783515131131.

In this book, Marian Helm presents his readers with an in-depth analysis of the Roman Republic’s path to central Italian hegemony during the fourth century BCE. As the title indicates, Helm’s underlying aim is to offer us a perspective that takes due note of frequently neglected setbacks and ruptures from the Romans’ point-of-view. These, according to the author, characterised the period as much as did the Republic’s achievement to cement its virtually unassailable position by the year 293 BCE. This, as Helm acknowledges, forms the endpoint of both Livy’s first Decade and his own discussion, which is methodologically sound but at the same time revealing of the constraints which the sources place on those grappling with the periodisation of Republican history. To illustrate his important point about setbacks and ruptures, Helm aptly places repeated emphasis on the sequence of events at the beginning of the fourth century, when the triumph over Veii was soon followed by the dies ater of the Allia, which in turn left the community shaken in its foundations for over a decade (see below).

Helm starts his account with a lengthy introduction that sets out with a detailed review of earlier literature on Rome’s early expansion before moving to a discussion of methodology. Here, he makes a convincing case for aiming to produce an intertwined narrative analysis of external events—viz. Rome’s relations with her neighbours—and internal—viz. socio-political—developments, while pleading for an historical perspective that views both levels as potentially open-ended (‘prinzipielle Ergebnisoffenheit’, p. 29).[1] In principle, Helm follows Harriet Flower’s revisionist approach to periodising Republican history but takes this considerably further by sub-dividing the fourth century into four phases of about 20 to 25 years (‘Sequenzen’, pp. 29-30) and thus providing an analytical framework for his narrative.[2] Yet the author potentially introduces an element of circular argumentation here: the start and end dates of his proposed sequences by and large coincide with famously (or notoriously) momentous events (e.g., the Latin War, Caudium, the censorship of Appius Claudius), which is naturally bound to put a certain spin on his conclusions. Helm’s subsequent observations on the importance of a path-dependent approach to historical decision-making are much more convincing and by and large offer a corrective to the minor shortcomings of his periodisation. Helm concludes his introductory chapter with a detailed if occasionally optimistic discussion of the available, archaeological and literary evidence for the fourth century.

Rather than moving directly on to the book’s main period, however, the author next turns to its pre-history in a discussion that reaches as far back as the coming-to-power of Rome’s ‘Etruscan kings’ (chapter 2). His main points of interest in this chapter are the early phases of the Struggle of the Orders and the beginning of Rome’s expansion as increasingly intertwined factors even before the conquest of Veii.

Next, Helm begins to address the subject of his book proper, with two chapters (3-4) that are dedicated to ‘Sequenz I’, that is, the years from the conquest of Veii to the aftermath of the attempted coup by M. Manlius Capitolinus. As mentioned above, Helm offers a cogent analysis of the roller-coaster ride that is represented by these years and, in particular, by the close sequence of complete military triumph and total disaster. Even if he might be overly indulging the temptations of Livian Kunstprosa here, Helm’s overall observation is not only sound but has rarely been spelt out with such precision. For although the momentous foundation of four new tribes on formerly Veientine territory in 387 BCE would naturally have been impossible without the triumph of 396, it markedly took place only after the Gallic disaster and in circumstances which, literary elaboration notwithstanding, clearly come across as controversial. Helm’s suggestion of an irretrievable loss of Patrician authority as a result of the sack is certainly plausible, and it is difficult not to see the creation of new tribus as an instance of successful Plebeian agitation for land distribution that was almost bound to set a precedent. Equally thought-provoking—yet less conclusively provable—is Helm’s take on Manlius Capitolinus’ alleged stab at gaining supreme power, which constitutes the other main theme of the section. He views this as indicative of beginning tensions between ordinary and elite Plebeians, the latter being represented by the Popular Tribunes who refused to intervene on the Patrician war hero’s behalf after his failed coup attempt. Although this is a possible conclusion to draw, the considerable, narrative elaboration of this episode should not be underestimated and call for at least some caution here, as should the resumed confrontation along order-lines after the coup had failed.

Helm’s second sequence (Chapters 5-6) takes us from the leges Liciniae Sextiae to the so-called First Samnite War. The author rightly stresses the importance of the introduction of the consulship—at least in its historically recognisable form—and aptly documents that this must have resulted in increasing competition among the Plebeian elite who were de facto (if not de iure) entitled to one consular position after 367 BCE. Less convincing perhaps is how Helm reconstructs this competition in quasi-factional terms as, for example, regarding a supposed ‘fall’ of the Genucii (pp. 165-171), which moreover depends quite heavily on a close reading of Livy’s narrative about Rome’s war with the Hernici. Similarly, Helm readily accepts the—scurrilous, in some of its details—tradition of a Roman victory over Tarquinii and the Faliscans in the wars of the 350s, whereas recent scholarship favours the opposite view or, at the very least, a scenario in which the Romans failed to be victorious.[3] By contrast, the author’s discussion of the ‘First Samnite War’ and the seditio of 342 BC (pp. 201-211) supports his case for viewing domestic and external affairs as essentially intertwined, although it might be worth considering if what lies behind Livy’s convoluted narrative might not be a case of semi-private warfare colliding with other interests within the Roman community.

Quite predictably, the book’s third section (‘Sequenz III’) kicks off with the Latin War (341-338 BC) and thus with a conflict that, as Helm himself notes, ended in a settlement (Liv. 8.14) which has generally been viewed as epoch-making. While he maintains this view, Helm rightly cautions against viewing the deal of 338 BC as a strategic choice. By contrast, he pleads for this to serve as a prime example of Ergebnisoffenheit, while also conceding the (highly probable but ultimately unknowable) extent to which the narrative of this conflict was influenced by that of the Social War. Yet Helm’s discussion of the regional dynamics post-338 BC in terms of Kristaller’s central-place theory, while mostly illuminating, in some instances draws overarching conclusions from very specific examples. Thus, it could be argued that Rome’s intervention in the activities of Juno Sospita’s sanctuary was cogent in view of its importance as the centre of Latin (fictive) kinship; however, other sacred centres remained significant in their own right (e.g., Praeneste, Tibur), even when they were in fact located within settlements of Roman citizens, as the case of Tarracina-Anxur was to demonstrate some decades later. On the other hand, Helm is remarkably perspicacious when it comes to central aspects of the settlement, such as the reason why some communities received full citizenship while others did not. It is a pity, in fact, that he does not discuss the vexed question of the civitas sine suffragio in greater detail since those whom the tradition broad-brushed under this heading by and large coincided with the wavering allies (esp. pp. 308-312) of Helm’s ‘Sequenz IV’.

This last narrative section of the book (chapters 8-9), then, grapples with what is arguably the most complex part of the period under the author’s consideration: for momentous events on the battlefield, several of which not turning out in Rome’s favour, were intertwined with tumultuous actions at Rome and in Campania. Regarding internal affairs, Helm makes a brave attempt at deciphering the quaestiones Maenianae (314 BCE), even if his very detailed reading of an episode which was clearly no longer understood when Livy (or, for that matter, his predecessors) was writing might be erring on the optimistic side. Yet the drift of his argument is convincing, as is, by and large, his idea of a ‘new beginning’ after the defeat at Lautulae (315 BC), which is signposted internally by the censorship of Appius Claudius Caecus. In terms of external relations, Helm can document a rapprochement with the allies, even if he might have said a little more about the remarkable proliferation of colonial foundations from 314 and about what was in it (or not) for Rome’s recently reluctant allies (cf. pp. 318-21). Regarding the latter, Helm’s assessment of Claudius’ controversial Census is not only illuminating but also convincing in as much as the formal inscription of regional men—and the elites in particular—would explain both the resistance with which he was met at Rome and the fruits which it would soon bear in terms of military conquest. Yet even if some of Appius Claudius’ actions were reversed by the Censors of 304 BCE—the full-scale reversal reported by the sources strikes as highly unlikely—what ultimately resulted was not so much a clean compromise (cf. pp. 346-347) as a qualified victory for the Plebeian elite, coupled with a face-saving defeat for their Patrician counterparts. For with the activities of Cn. Flavius in the same year, there could be no going back on (quite literally) an opening of the books, while military success at the same time confirmed the importance of sharing with the elites of Latium in a consolidated community of interests.

This community of interests forms the subject of the book’s fine last chapter, a concluding discussion that is aptly entitled ‘Einheit durch Zersplitterung’ (pp. 348-370). Helm’s emphasis lies on the tribus as the key instruments of integration here, which at the same time provided considerable scope for socio-political structuration at the regional level. The author rightly points to the significance of the increase in the Republic’s Military Tribunes to 24 per annum in 311 BCE—or was this perhaps not rather the creation of the ‘classical’ Military Tribuneship tout court?—and his sound argument might have been strengthened further by pointing out that this measure effectively allowed all tribes to be represented at this level of military leadership and, as a result, by candidates in future elections to proper magistracies. Helm’s model of the complex networks that were created through the tribus both at the regional level and in linking centre and periphery is convincing overall, even if a little rigid: some insights gained by Terrenato’s agency-based approach could profitably have been adapted here.[4] And rather than viewing this ‘multitude of networks’ as ‘crystalline’, we might be better off conceptualising them as circles of integration that shared various points of intersection—not just at the level of political action but also in relation to religion, gender, as well as to sliding scales of freedom and oppression. [5]  For this reason, the resulting structural whole was less easy to dissolve than Helm’s model seems to imply. In fact, if we believe Velleius Paterculus’ account of the Social War—and there is little reason why we should not—such tight bonds even extended beyond the Roman citizenry and were not limited to the elites, either.

Yet these are minor criticisms that do not diminish the book’s overall importance. Helm’s study is certainly ambitious but admirably achieves the author’s objectives. His detailed focus on the fourth century is inspired and he succeeds at providing us with an anatomy of Rome’s embryonic imperialism during a period that in many ways—including the question of what we can know about it—forms the link between early Rome and the ‘classical’ Republic.  The author’s command of his sources is evident throughout the book, while his engagement with modern scholarship merits the attribute exemplary. Fundamentally, Helm is to be congratulated on having given us a study which anyone interested in Rome’s early expansion cannot afford to ignore.



[1] Here, Helm builds on the fundamental discussion by K.-J. Hölkeskamp ‘Conquest, competition and consensus. Roman expansion in Italy and the rise of the nobilitas. Historia 42 (1993), 12-39, for a revised and updated version of which (in German) cf. idem, Senatus Populusque Romanus. Die politische Kulture der Republik—Dimensionen und Deutungen.  (Stuttgart 2004), 11-48.

[2] H. Flower, Roman Republics (Princeton 2010).

[3] Cf. L. Pulcinelli L’etruria meridionale e Roma. Insediamenti e territori tra IV e III secolo a.C. (Rome 2016), esp. 23-24, with further references; M. Torelli Gli Spurinas. Una famiglia di principes nella Tarquinia della rinascita. (Rome 2019), esp. 122-124.

[4] Cf. N. Terrenato The Early Roman Expansion into Italy. Elite Negotiation and Family Agendas. (Cambridge 2019).

[5] Cf. R. Roth ‘Rome’s Italian Expansion and the Transformation of Roman Citizenship (387—91 BC)’, in Filonik, J., C. Plastow and R. Zelnick Abramovitz (eds) Citizenship in the Ancient Mediterranean. (Abingdon 2023, 563-576), esp. 573-575.