BMCR 2024.06.06

A culture of civil war? Bellum civile and political communication in late republican Rome

, , , A culture of civil war? Bellum civile and political communication in late republican Rome. Heidelberger althistorische Beiträge und epigraphische Studien, 65. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2023. Pp. 370. ISBN 9783515134019.

This book has its origins in a joint conference that took place in Heidelberg and Konstanz in 2017. The title itself is as intriguing as it is promising. What the editors understand by a “culture of civil war” is clearly stated in the introduction. They have taken their cue from the notion of “political culture” to fabricate a more specific view for the period 133-129 BCE, which is the timeframe of the book: “We argue that civil war became a figure of thought in the first century BCE” (p. 9). This is perhaps a tribute to the importance that studies on (Roman) civil war have taken in the last decade, which have allowed scholars to take a new perspective on the period, insisting on internal conflict and not so much on the internal consensus and the absolute obedience of the plebs to the guidance of the Senate, as was customary in the twentieth century. Perhaps not by chance the book opens (p. 8-9) with a quotation of Mommsen’s History of Rome. Once historians have put conflict instead of consensus under the spotlight, his nineteenth-century masterpiece so utterly discredited by Mathias Gelzer and Cristian Meier recovers pride of place, at least as an illustrative introduction, as this is the last time that Mommsen appears in the book.

The editors have succeeded in uniting in four separate sections 14 chapters which discuss the topic from different angles: first, the political repercussions of civil war; then, the memory of civil war; followed by norms and values; and finally, language and rhetoric. Two of the chapters (those written by Gotter and Santangelo) have already been published elsewhere. In the chapter by Maschek, the reader will not find anything different from what the author already explored more extensively in his book Die römischen Bürgerkriege (2018). The chapter serves as something of a summary of the whole book.

The first chapter by Hannah Mitchell on “the discourse of elite neutrality” serves as a good starting point, because taking sides is the essence of civil wars. They force people in general, but particularly the elite, to decide whose side aligns with their values and preferences, even if these are not the only criteria on which the dies are cast. Keeping a distance from conflict may be a safe decision, but it implies refusing aid to the res publica in times of need. In the same way as other contributors to this book, Mitchell has selected one particular case to analyze: the agonizing months leading up to the moment when Cicero decided to join forces with Pompey in June 49 BC.

Next, Carsten H. Lange focuses on the battles of Naulochus and Actium, noting that they were not portrayed as naval victories, but instead as part of broader operations, including land battles. Although the corresponding entry in the Fasti Triumphales has been lost, we may be assured that Actium was not recorded as a naval triumph. Katryn Welch’s contribution “Memorable Women and Women in the Memory of Civil Wars” closes this section. Analyzing some of the “usual suspects” (Fulvia, Hortensia, the Anonymous woman in the Laudatio Turiae) she claims that “women’s active role in this period is due not to the exceptional conditions of civil war but only to the fact that they were most noticed then”. These influential women did not stop having political conversations and networks when Augustus came into sole power. Welch rightly emphasizes their legal capacity to manage their own wealth; some changes in the law even reinforced the expectations that a woman may enrich herself (p. 107). This did not begin with civil wars, nor was it discontinued after they ended.

Amy Russell’s “The Spaces of Civil War” opens the second section of the book, devoted to memory. In her view, the city is the primary space of civil war (p. 115). By implication, there should have been lieux de mémoire in Rome connected to those fateful years of the past (p. 124). She focuses on the heads of the enemies being displayed on the rostra, a trope that is not mentioned in Cicero’s generation because it was too traumatic (p. 127). Some relevant piece of evidence that could have been considered here is Cicero’s letter on Pompey’s flight from Rome (Cic. Att. 7.11.3-4 = SB 134). The bitter criticism he threw at Pompey clearly shows the importance of the Urbs Roma, its temples and altars, as opposed to the civitas. Cicero emphasized the crucial importance of immutable and sacred places over people (who can run away and seek refuge). Cristina Rosillo-López focuses her chapter on the figure of T. Labienus, whose paternal uncle was among the victims who died with Saturninus. He was the accuser of C. Rabirius in the famous perduellio trial. In Rosillo-López’s hands this serves as an outstanding example of how family memories should have helped to build and transmit group identity in elite circles. Being oral memories, they have mostly vanished from recorded evidence, but historians should be alert to their influence. P. Rutilius Rufus’ de vita sua is the subject of the chapter by Harriet I. Flower. She carefully reconstructs the contents of this lost work, which (it is argued here) would have included not only the circumstances of his trial but also his version of the violent events of the 80s in Asia, or the reasons why he did not return to Rome after Sulla’s victory. In the last chapter of this section, Ulrich Gotter presents a new interpretation of Caesar’s book on Civil War: its intended audience would have been not the common people, but instead the aristocrats who survived the civil war. His main argument is the abrupt beginning of the work, which only those who had lived through those turbulent days could fully understand. This is traditionally explained by positing a posthumous publication, something which Gotter consequently discards.

The third section of the book (on norms and values) opens with Wolfgang Havener’s chapter on “exemplarity in times of civil strife”. He also uses case studies (Cicero, Nepos, and Valerius Maximus) to show how integrating the civil war into the exemplary canon facilitated the reintegration of Roman society after such traumatic experiences. Federico Santangelo explores the central role of pietas in the civil war. The chapter opens with the Tacitean scene of Vitellius rejoicing at the spectacle of so many Roman dead bodies after the battle of Bedriacum (Tac. Hist. 2.70). Although this sad episode happened well beyond the chronological framework of the book, it serves as a good introduction to the central question, namely, “how to confront the death of fellow citizens in a civil conflict” (p. 228). Here pietas had a threefold function: “issuing a call to restraint, making the case for a full-scale repression or asserting a level of continuity with the past” (p. 240). Kit Morrell shows the survival of Rome’s “culture of legality”. Even in these troubled years, law was not simply ignored, but either obeyed or abolished (with the exception of the lex Pompeia de provinciis). Roman politicians were emphatic about their respect for the law while condemning violations committed by the enemy. This is only to be expected since civil wars are by (at least Armitage’s) definition a conflict of legitimacies. Morrell overstates his case by claiming that “the triumvirate too was formally established by the lex Titia as a magistrate with legally defined (if extremely wide-ranging) powers” (p. 263). Yet Cassius Dio tells us that in 28 BC Octavian abolished the illegal acts of the Triumvirate and for the first time took the customary oath of a consul leaving office (D.C. 53.2.5; Tac. Ann. 3.28.2). He was keenly aware of the many illegal acts that he himself had committed. Morrell also claims that “both sides purported to defend the republic” (p. 251). Yet he considers the term “Republicans” preferable to “Pompeians” to denote Caesar’s opponents. As Catherine Steel very poignantly points out, the idea that the res publica was in danger as a justification for violence was used by conservative politicians: “popularis politicians continued for much longer to frame their position in terms of a conflict between competing programmes within the res publica” (p. 328). Dominik Maschek explores the material evidence of civil war in cases such as the killing in the forum of Valentia during the Sertorian war and of the the traditional elite of Praeneste after the siege of 82. Henning Börm calls attention to the use of Hellenistic discourse and models in Roman politics. Relying heavily on Christian Meier’s perspective, Börm assures that this was not a conflict between the rich and the poor or Romans against non-Romans, but a conflict within the elite whose members circulated different slogans in order to galvanize ample sectors of the demos. Using Meier to connect the Greek political rhetoric with the Roman seems self-contradictory: Meier contraposed Greek history, where democracy could flourish, to the Roman case where democracy was simply ‘unthinkable’. In his view Roman aristocracy was well acquainted with Greek political ideas, but it was forbidden to draw lessons from them for Rome[1]. Yet, Börm tries to see some continuity here, a least in two different topics: on the one hand the idea that he who proposes land redistribution aspires to tyranny; on the other, Sulla’s proscription. Matteo Cadario’s chapter begins with the famous (but lost) statue of Pompey in the curia where Caesar was killed. He reconstructs it as not naked but togata. He goes on to review the different statues of Caesar between 46 and 44 BC and the change in the language of power that occurred after his assassination: while Pompey, Crassus or Cicero had only one portrait type, between 43 and 27 Augustus changed his face five times. Cadario attributes this to the changing political situation (p. 359), but instability was also rampant before 44 BC

One of the side effects of the intense debate on “Roman democracy” which Fergus Millar’s articles sparked some 40 years ago is the possibility to confront civil war in all its different angles. Concepts and topics hitherto sidelined, or ignored, such as values, norms, or memories, have now taken its place in the center of the debate. This book is a welcome addition in this line of studies. From a theoretical point of view, important books such as those written by D. Armitage or S. Kalyvas are put to good use here. Others could also have been of some use, such as G. Agamben’s Stasis on the question of duration of civil strife. Morrell’s chapter in particular may have taken a different path if it had used Carl Schmitt`s definition which opens his Politische Theologie: “the sovereign is he who decides on the state of emergency”.

A very useful general index closes the volume. On the negative side, it is unfortunate that some references cannot be found in the bibliography at the end of the chapter, e.g. Gording 2002 (quoted in p. 103 ftn. 76); Brännstedt (forthcoming) (in p. 106 ftn. 86) or Russell 2013 (p. 328 ftn.5).



[1] Christian Meier, “Die Ordnung der römischen Republik.” Historische Zeitschrift 300.3 (2015) 593-697, at p. 595, 624, 634, 635, 669.