Friday, February 22, 2019


Chloe Ragazzoli, Ömür Harmanşah, Chiara Salvador, Elizabeth Frood (ed.), Scribbling through History: Graffiti, Places and People from Antiquity to Modernity. London; New York: Bloomsbury, 2018. Pp. 244. ISBN 9781474288811. £73.44.

Reviewed by Nikolaos Lazaridis, California State University, Sacramento (

Version at BMCR home site

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

This volume is a collection of essays primarily by scholars who participated in a three-day workshop that Chloe Ragazzoli organized in Oxford in 2013 (Workshop website). The essays revisit core questions about graffiti (such as graffiti's relationship with time and space) by using case studies from various fieldwork projects.

In the general introduction, the editors point out that our current definition of "graffiti" has gone a long way from its original narrow meaning that was based mainly on the corpus of Pompeian graffiti. However, there are still some lingering, inaccurate conceptions about graffiti: for example, because of the misconception that (especially figural) graffiti occupy the marginal, low registers of a literate culture and are poor relatives of official inscriptions, epigraphers in the 18th and 19th centuries avoided recording and publishing graffiti.

The first section of this volume, which is dedicated to graffiti's dynamic relationship with the landscape, begins with Chloe Ragazzoli embarking on a study of the 18th-dynasty graffiti at the so-called "Scribes' Cave" (a site that is famous for two erotic graffiti) above the tomb of Mentuhotep II at Deir el-Bahari. She uses the corpus of more than 70 examples of votive and other graffiti inked on the smoothed walls of this man-made chamber to illustrate how ancient Egyptian graffiti often formed an "epigraphic cluster", creating a social space for dialogue, self-presentation, and shared identity. In this particular case, the self-conscious group exploiting this social space consisted of scribes and staff members of the Temple of Hatshepsut, and their group consciousness manifested itself in some of these graffiti where multiple authors signed their names and referred to each other as "friends" or "brothers/colleagues". In the process of creating this social space, these graffiti transformed the previously unused surfaces into monumental spaces with their own decorum rules and conventions.1

Continuing with Egyptian graffiti, Alain Delattre presents in the next article three examples from his ongoing work on Christian graffiti from the Theban region, making two intriguing points: (a) the decision to scratch such graffiti was made not only to share information about a single event (such as someone's visit) or the author's presence, but also to show off the author's writing skills (and I would add, also the author's status within the world of travelers and pilgrims); and (b) the occasional decision to scratch cryptographic graffiti could be considered an intellectual exercise, joke, or display of restricted knowledge, rather than a conscious attempt to hide a message. 2

In the third article of this section, Ömür Harmanşah sustains an important argument that he has made in earlier publications (see p. 61 for an example): several scholars have rushed to include Late Bronze Age Anatolian rock inscriptions and reliefs in the corpus of imperial Hittite propaganda texts without taking into consideration the micro-associations of such epigraphic materials with their immediate context's earlier local traditions. In order to illustrate the validity of this argument, Harmanşah adduces rock graffiti at the Suratkaya shelter, located at the south-eastern edge of Latmos Mountain's area. He considers the recently discovered hieroglyphic Luwian graffiti there in relation to the long-lasting, local practice of venerating this mountain. One of the most significant points the author makes is that by contrast to the epigraphers' default approach to graffiti as materials of secondary status, one should also consider the possibility in monumentalized natural sites that graffiti were partially (if not wholly) responsible for those sites' process of monumentalization.

Next, Michael Macdonald's article on graffiti from 1st–4th century CE Syria and Arabia explores differences between graffiti made by nomads in Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia who used the Safaitic script (and whom the author considers members of a "non-literate" society in which institutions functioned orally, although individual members knew how to read and write) and graffiti made by settled Nabateans who have been schooled to read and write in Aramaic. The author argues that the nomads' graffiti were in their majority products of pastime and self-expression, with little care for communicating with a specific audience,3 or for participating in an interactive cluster. However, there were also a few examples of pastime, funerary, or even religious clusters — the latter type was an interesting practice that was connected to these nomads' habit of leaving their graffiti around the cairns that marked someone's burial spot. By contrast, Nabatean graffiti were more connected to monumental sites, such as tombs or temples, or non-monumental sites of established public significance, such as sacred places or popular travel routes, where they formed clusters and interacted with each other.

In the last article of this section, Christiane Gruber discusses political uses of graffiti in modern Turkey. The author focuses on the corpus of graffiti produced by the members of the "Occupy Gezi Movement", who in 2013 opposed the Turkish government's decision to destroy the Gezi park in central Istanbul and who essentially represented numerous groups who have been disenfranchised by policies under Erdoğan. Within this context, such graffiti, implementing their strategy of "urban sabotage", were intended to voice dissent, reclaim public spaces, and (re)empower their marginalized authors. As the author puts it, "daring sloganeering thus formed a key component of Gezi's oral performances, texts and images as these interacted with urban landscapes that were, quite literally, 'up for grabs'" (85).

Moving on to the volume's second section on monumental wall graffiti, Rebecca Benefiel's article brings in the famous and well-studied corpus of graffiti from Pompeii. Although Pompeian graffiti tended to be discreet and respect wall decoration as well as other graffiti's space, they were inked in every type of public and private space. By using examples from graffiti that included references to gladiators, greetings, and poetry, Benefiel illustrates effectively how these graffiti participated in oral social exchange, a large-scale conversation that encompassed all members of Pompeian society.

As opposed to Pompeian graffiti that were oriented towards everyday life, the ancient Mayan graffiti that were incised on stucco walls of monuments in the city of Tikal conveyed elite members' dissenting views over official authority. Elizabeth Olton's article focuses on figural graffiti of the regional Ruler and Protector motif in Room 9 of Maler's Palace and argues that in addition to earlier scholarly interpretations of such graffiti either as markers of historical events or as products of mindless doodling, one may also consider them as responses to the formal aesthetic canons. They reinterpreted, or even satirized, canonical motifs by modifying the scale, movements, and expressions of the depicted figures, through which their makers attested to, and commented upon, the underlying inconsistencies of Mayan politics. Significantly, such subversive graffiti were incised only on interior walls, thus targeting a specific private audience.

Returning to public graffiti, in the next article Hana Navrátilová summarizes some results from her ongoing work on visitors' graffiti from ancient Egyptian monuments in the necropolis of Memphis. This type of graffiti is an important source for information about such monuments' reception, use, and appropriation by later (up to 900 years after a monument's construction) generations of ancient Egyptians. The visiting graffiti makers, who identified themselves primarily as scribes and literate men, strolled around major parts of such monuments, carefully planning their graffiti through which they displayed knowledge about the monuments' reputation, owners, and cultic foci.

In the next article, Karen Stern explores Jewish graffiti (that is, markings that included at least one reference to Jewish culture) in ancient funerary sites, arguing that such graffiti-acts enabled their Jewish makers to commemorate their dead and to reuse existing monuments. Using examples from the necropolis of Beit Shearim, outside the modern city of Tivon, the author briefly discusses isolated, as well as clusters of, graffiti usually located around entrance areas (like the Egyptian visitors' graffiti in the previous article. She argues, among other things, that the actual location of these graffiti can be correlated to their intended (living or dead) audiences, and that by leaving their mark, visitors participated in a monument's continuous use.

The final section of this volume interestingly relates graffiti to textual marginalia and annotations, considering them all as comparable specimens of "secondary epigraphy". Starting with Glen Dudbridge's article on circulating medieval Chinese verses by inking them on walls, the author observes how graffiti of this sort attested to the mobilization of the Chinese educated elite, who, while traveling in foreign places, invited their peers to participate in a dialogue through poetic verses. The irony was that these spontaneous verses were immortalized (and eventually became parts of canonical literature) not by being "deposited" on a wall, as was the case with other examples of monumental graffiti in this volume, but by later being copied on paper, thereby allowing them to escape the deliberate whitewashing of walls bearing traces of graffiti.

Continuing with the idea of graffiti-like marginal texts on paper, Janine Rogers offers a short discussion of medieval manuscript marginalia and their relationship with monumental graffiti. The acknowledgement of such a relationship is not new in Medieval Studies and is associated with the idea that book-space is always public and may contain multi-authored messages. Like graffiti, manuscript marginalia could be textual and/or pictorial and could playfully invite their audience to decode them in light of their location and in response to the already existing physical or textual "monument".

In the last article, Marc Jahjah ushers graffiti making into the modern world of social media. By highlighting the function of graffiti as a forum for open-ended dialogue, the author argues that this type of annotation is most welcomed in the digital world, hailed as a means of freedom, as well as a potential resource for information. In the same way ancient travelers expected to find graffiti marking well-trodden paths, inhabitants of the digital world anticipate graffiti and marginalia, encourage them by providing annotation software, and mine their valuable information.

Overall, this volume actualizes a unique meeting of different corpora of graffiti, treating graffiti making as a "practice" that is well-embedded in its immediate physical and sociocultural context. I believe that the volume would have benefited by a more consistent strategy toward differentiating graffiti from inscriptions, or from other kindred terms, since some of the authors use such terms interchangeably, confusing the reader (see e.g. Harmanşah's usage of "graffiti" and "inscriptions" throughout chapter 3). Also, one may note that the term "secondary epigraphy", which is employed by several authors of this volume, seems counter-productive, as it works against the overall efforts of this volume's authors to stress the fact that the recording and study of graffiti is equally important to that of official texts and imagery.

Authors and titles

Preface (C. Ragazzoli)
Introduction (C. Ragazzoli, Ö. Harmanşah, C. Salvador)
Part 1: Graffiti and the Landscape (with an introduction by Ö. Harmanşah)
Chapter 1: The Scribes' Cave: Graffiti and the Production of Social Space in Ancient Egypt circa
1500 BC (C. Ragazzoli)
Chapter 2: Christian Graffiti in Egypt: Case Studies on the Theban Mountain (A. Delattre)
Chapter 3: Graffiti or Monument? Inscription of Place at Anatolian Rock Reliefs (Ö. Harmanşah)
Chapter 4: Tweets from Antiquity: Literacy, Graffiti, and Their Uses in the Towns and Deserts of Ancient Arabia (M. Macdonald)
Chapter 5: Gezi Graffiti: Shout-outs to Resistance and Rebellion in Contemporary Turkey (C. Gruber)
Part 2: Graffiti and the Wall (with an introduction by C. Salvador)
Chapter 6: Gladiators, Greetings, and Poetry: Graffiti in First Century Pompeii (R. Benefiel)
Chapter 7: A New Look at Maya Graffiti from Tikal (E. Olton)
Chapter 8: Visitors' Inscriptions in the Memphite Pyramid Complexes of Ancient Egypt (c. 1543–1292 BC) (H. Navratilova)
Chapter 9: Carving Lines and Shaping Monuments: Mortuary Graffiti and Jews in the Ancient Mediterranean (K. Stern)
Part 3: Graffiti and the Written Page (with an introduction by C. Ragazzoli)
Chapter 10: Verses on Walls in Medieval China (G. Dudbridge)
Chapter 11: Graffiti and the Medieval Margin (J. Rogers)
Chapter 12: Graffiti under Control: Annotation Practices in Social Book Platforms (M. Jahjah)


1.   Interestingly, as Ragazzoli sketches out the defining features of the four categories of Egyptian graffito (pp. 24–26), she states that specimens belonging to the category of "exploration and desert graffiti" abided by the rules of decorum as famously defined by John Baines. I do not, however, believe this is completely accurate: instead, I am inclined to think that when the authors of such graffiti knew about the formal rules of monumental decorum, they responded to them either by imitating them or by deviating from them (cf. N. Lazaridis, "Desert deviations: Massaging standard writing conventions in North Kharga's ancient graffiti", in: Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference of the Dakhleh Oasis Project, forthcoming).
2.   I believe that Delattre's assumption that cryptography was unpopular, or even socially unacceptable, based on the fact that a certain Jacob scratched on the way to Deir el-Bahari a non-cryptographic "explanation" to his earlier cryptographic message is a little far-fetched. One could also interpret this unique presence of a graffito decoding part of the message of an earlier cryptographic graffito as a result of an intellectual exercise: someone else passed by and found the time to sit and solve the riddle of Jacob's cryptographic graffito.
3.   In the case of the Safaitic graffiti that included some sort of appeal to a divine being for safety, the audience was more defined, and thus brings up the question whether the author had to modify his graffito's form and style in order to be understood and to appear more attractive for the divine audience he had in mind.

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Jed W. Atkins, Roman Political Thought. Key themes in ancient history. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. xvii, 239. ISBN 9781107514553. £19.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Daniel Kapust, University of Wisconsin-Madison (

Version at BMCR home site


Roman Political Thought is Atkins' second book-length contribution to the burgeoning cross-disciplinary literature on the topic.1 Whereas Dean Hammer's 2014 book of the same name was a chronological study of major figures in Roman political thought, Atkins' book is an introduction centering on the theme of republicanism. By republicanism, Atkins understands Rome to be a commonwealth featuring "popular sovereignty…rule of law…civic virtue and citizenship…oratory as an instrument of political decision-making, devotion to Rome and its gods, and a commitment to Rome's standing and glory in both domestic and international contexts" (2). In keeping with the goals of the Key Themes in Ancient History series, Atkins puts Roman political thought into conversation with later political thinkers. With the Greek concept of politeia in mind, Atkins is attuned to "the rich interplay between the formal political institutions and political culture that characterized Roman political thought" (4). Atkins largely succeeds in providing a thematic overview, and the result is a well written and conceived volume that will be of interest to those first encountering Roman political thought.

Atkins organizes the chapters thematically, with each featuring a chronological selection of Roman writers. Chapter 1, "The Roman Constitution in Theory and Practice," focuses on Polybius, Cicero (chiefly De republica), Seneca's De clementia, and the anonymous 6th century Dialogue on Political Science. Atkins argues that Polybius' inaccuracies are due partly to his Greek political-philosophical framework, which reduced the complexity of the Roman assembly system into an all-encompassing "people" (19), a people that was not, for Atkins, sovereign in the modern sense. But Polybius' distortion was not simply due to an ill-suited conceptual schema; it also stems from his signature account of anakyklosis, in which the "cycle" was only checked by mutual fear among constitutional components, and Polybius analyzed the different elements of Rome's constitution to allow his psychology to operate. By contrast, Cicero's account of Rome's constitution emphasizes "the blending of the principles and interests of different socio-economic classes" (28), which means that the chief function of the statesman is to ensure "harmony and concord among the different political orders" (28). Turning from the late republic to the principate, Atkins suggests that Augustus "greatly reduced the public space previously available for elites to participate in politics" (30). Republican ideology nonetheless persisted in various ways, including Seneca's claim that Nero's "noble slavery," rooted in his obligations to his subjects, was analogous to the Ciceronian idea "of government as a matter of trust (fides)" (32). Chapter 2, "Liberty and Related Concepts," begins by noting just how atypical is "the modern liberal-democratic creed that a free society… protects and promotes individual liberty through the recognition of individual rights" (37). Turning first to Benjamin Constant's famous 1819 "The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns," and then to Isaiah Berlin's distinction between negative and positive liberty, Atkins also introduces the neo-Roman republican account of liberty of Philip Pettit and Quentin Skinner, comparing and contrasting Roman liberty to Greek and modern thought. The central rights of Roman citizenship—a status consisting of "the absence of ownership or control by another"—protected Roman citizens from arbitrary interference (45). Especially important, and evident in Livy, is the rule of law and a range of "citizens' rights," including provocatio, appellatio, conubium, and suffragium (47). In Roman thought, then, we find something that we do not see in Athens: "the notion of rights working to protect individual freedom" (49). Atkins argues that Roman thought does not offer a strong case for the connection between participation and liberty—Romans were content to rely on "laws and rights to effectively deal with a master's arbitrary will" (54). Given Syme's claim2 that "the Principate, though absolute, was not arbitrary," Rome shows it is possible to possess legally secured rights without popular participation.

The third chapter, "Citizenship and Civic Virtue," turns first to the topic of citizenship, building on a three-part account in contemporary political theory: citizenship as participation, as rights, and as identity. Behind this account is a tension between universalizing accounts of citizenship, centering on the possession of rights, and particularistic accounts, centering on identity and participation. While Caracalla officially universalized Roman citizenship, the shift indicates that citizenship had little to do with participation or identity by 212 CE. By contrast, citizenship under the republic was a matter of rights, participation, and civic status. From this analysis of republican and imperial citizenship, Atkins turns to the topic of civic virtue: "What virtues should citizens possess under the Roman Republic? (73)." Livy's Cincinnatus is illustrative: he possesses "qualities of character resistant to the temptation to transgress the limits of republican government" (75). Cicero's De officiis also provides examples of civic virtues, given the background of the "traditional aristocratic honor code emphasizing active, competitive public service as the source for standing and glory" (76). Civic virtue, while certainly present under the principate, shifted in emphasis: instead of justice in Cicero, we find in Tacitus modestia and obsequium, qualities better suited to a period in which overt elite competition had largely ceased. Augustine in turn reimagines civic virtues to argue "that Roman society would benefit from Christian citizens occupying a range of offices and social roles" (88). Whereas Ciceronian civic virtue checked corruption, Augustinian civic virtue eliminates "the excessive love of temporal goods" that causes corruption.

"Political Passions and Civic Corruption," the fourth chapter, turns to Sallust, Lucretius, Seneca, and Plutarch to supplement the "rationalist accounts of virtue" that Atkins takes to characterize contemporary liberal political thought (chiefly John Rawls' magnum opus A Theory of Justice) (95). Lucretius, seeking to prevent civil stasis, promotes reverence to supplement his scientific rationalism, with a proper form of piety enabling humans to embrace limits on their desires. Seneca, by contrast, sees gratitude as the most important civic passion in De beneficiis because it "recognizes dependence and fosters interdependence," thus building connections between individuals (105) and checking self-aggrandizement. Plutarch, too, elevates gratitude, with the vice of ingratitude most evident in his accounts of Marius and Pyrrhus: neither is sufficiently backward-looking, and both are thus excessively hopeful. Atkins argues, given the insights of the republican tradition, that "liberal democracies need civic virtues like reverence" (111).

Chapter 5, "Rhetoric, Deliberation, and Judgment," defends Roman rhetoric against two sorts of criticisms—the Platonic criticism of rhetoric as "flattery and manipulation" (112) and the Hobbesian criticism of rhetoric as "undermining popular government" (113). For Atkins, Cicero develops an account of speaker-audience interaction relying on a common "aesthetic sense" (121) to constrain the speaker and to foster collective judgment, a process enabled by both parties adhering to a public "script" (121). Quintilian, given the institutional changes under the principate and the concomitant decline of a "shared moral vocabulary" that underlay the Ciceronian script (127), focuses on "speaking well" rather than persuasion. Tacitus closes out the chapter, with Atkins (following Bartsch) arguing that drama "replaced oratory as the central means of delivering free and critical political speech" (133).

"Civil Religion" is the focus of Chapter 6. Following a discussion of the centralization of priesthoods under the principate, Atkins turns to toleration in Rome, first to case studies on Judaism and Christianity, and then to Tertullian and Lactantius. Both church fathers developed principled arguments for toleration—strikingly because both men, as Christians, held that "there is one true God for all people, the Christian God" (159). Atkins concludes by suggesting that citizens of modern liberal democracies may find it "instructive to consider the Roman experience" as we think about problems of nationalism and the tensions of globalization (165).

The final substantive chapter, "Imperialism, Just War Theory, and Cosmopolitanism," turns first to Polybius, Sallust, Cicero, and Tacitus to understand the connection between Roman institutions and empire. Atkins locates Cicero as a key figure in just war theory, while arguing that more familiar (and abstract) accounts based in human rights are found in Ambrose and Augustine. Following a discussion of the non- human rights elements of cosmopolitanism in Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, Atkins considers whether realist international relations theory can adequately explain Roman foreign policy behavior. Given the centrality of honor to Roman ideology and behavior, Atkins argues that "survival" for states like Rome "cannot be their most overriding and important end" (191).

Rome, Atkins concludes, is a fruitful object of study because it mixes familiar and unfamiliar. He thus distinguishes his approach from the approaches of those, such as Clifford Ando, who emphasize the incommensurability of Roman thought with ours, and those, such as Pettit, who emphasize its commensurability. Atkins' view, he suggests, lends itself to learning lessons from Rome that are important to those who live in regimes characterized by liberalism, an ideology which "typically, if not necessarily," includes "individual autonomy, rights, capitalism, materialism, universalism, tolerance, and rationalism" (195).

Since Atkins wants his book to let "us to approach republicanism afresh by providing crucial distance from liberalism," he emphasizes factors that differentiate Rome from 21st century America: the Roman world was "a status-driven, hierarchical, slave-owning world with a very different set of values from those prevailing in western liberal democracies" (9). This attention to nuance was lacking in Atkins' treatment of liberalism. An account of liberalism, in my view, should be able to include thinkers as diverse as Michel de Montaigne, John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls. Atkins' account of liberalism – a combination of "individual autonomy, rights, capitalism, materialism, universalism, tolerance, and rationalism" – is vague. Mill is a liberal, but talks little about rights and emphasizes the passions; Rawls, given his stress on what he calls the "background culture" as a condition for his argument in Political Liberalism 3, is not much of a universalist; Montaigne, held by Judith Shklar and others to be a liberal (or proto-liberal) is not a capitalist; and Smith has little use for materialism in Theory of Moral Sentiments. If Atkins had more time and space to devote to the subject, I suspect he would have given a fuller account, but the problem with such a short account is that it makes his effort to put Roman thought into conversation with contemporary thought less persuasive. To take just one example: Atkins suggests that Madison argues in Federalists 10 and 51 that the constitution helped "remedy the problem of faction arising from passions that destroyed ancient republics" (94). But the solution of Madison, Jay, and Hamilton is to have more factions, and thus a greater diversity of passions and interests, and the constitution itself relies upon the passions ("Ambition must be made to counteract ambition," as in Federalist 51).

Atkins' discussion of civic virtue elides important conceptual problems. Does he have in mind the set of virtues that ought to be held by citizens of particular regimes (a point Atkins makes with reference to Aristotle on page 73)? Or does he have in mind a more robust set of moral virtues, a point implicit in his classification of Cicero's De officiis as a text dealing with civic virtues? If civic virtues for Roman thinkers are simply virtues appropriate for an individual to possess and display qua Roman citizen, why are they virtues? Are they good insofar as they secure liberty? Or are they good insofar as they bring the individual glory and dignitas?

I found Atkins' reconstruction of Cicero's defense of rhetoric to be unsatisfactory. Cicero may hold that there is a sort of common "aesthetic sense" that enables each of us "to perceive when words, thoughts, and actions are discordant" (121), but Cicero also thinks that orators can and do manipulate their audiences. Even if the uneducated audience can pick up on grossly discordant speech, it's not hard to imagine that a clever orator (cf. Cic. De inventione I.3) could craft an aesthetically pleasing style while making very bad—and very convincing—arguments. What grounds does Cicero give us for believing that the better argument wins out, all things being equal? The more that elite speech is constrained by and embedded in an intersubjective script, allowing for what Atkins terms "the possibility for public, shared, and therefore truly political, judgments" (123), the less clear is the extent to which oratory can allow for disruptive change. That is, insofar as judgment relies upon a script that guards it, it is unclear what allows for the often necessary break in decorum that allows marginalized voices to be heard.4

A lost opportunity, given our political moment, is Atkins' brief account of horizontal accountability in discussing Cicero's desire that rule be "dispersed among many magistracies" (58). No small part of Roman elite horizontal accountability was the set of norms and expectations held to govern elite (mis)behavior, norms and expectations that broke down with the increased individuation of the late republic. Living as we do in a moment in which norms and expectations of elites seem to break down more each day, the Roman experience is illuminating, if frightening.

These criticisms notwithstanding, Atkins' book is an important contribution to the cross-disciplinary study of Roman political thought, and it fulfills his intention of providing a concise, stimulating, and provocative introduction to Roman thought ranging from Polybius to Augustine.


1.   Atkins' first book, Cicero on Politics and the Limits of Reason, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.
2.   Ronald Syme. The Roman Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1939. 516.
3.   John Rawls. Political Liberalism. Columbia University Press. New York. 2005. 14.
4.   I'm indebted to Joy Connolly for making me think along these lines, and for questioning my own reading of Cicero.

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Annika Domainko, Uncertainty in Livy and Velleius: Time, Hermeneutics, and Roman Historiography. Zetemata, Heft 154. München: Verlag C. H. Beck, 2018. Pp. viii, 252. ISBN 9783406722295. €78,00 (pb).

Reviewed by Jennifer Gerrish, College of Charleston (

Version at BMCR home site

Domainko's exploration of temporal and hermeneutic uncertainty in Roman historiography combines various theoretical approaches (chiefly narratology) with close readings of Velleius Paterculus and Livy. A revised version of Domainko's 2017 dissertation, this volume's insights are at times undermined by the structural vestiges of its previous incarnation as a thesis, but the author's admirable command of the relevant literature and meticulous treatment of Velleius's and Livy's texts still make it a worthwhile contribution to the study of Roman historiography.

In the Introduction, Domainko demonstrates the book's methodology with a brief case study, focusing on the staged battle of Gallic prisoners put on by Hannibal to raise the spirits of his troops (Livy 21.42.1-43.2). The spectaculum, Domainko argues, is characterized by hermeneutic uncertainty; the Carthaginian soldiers (and perhaps the reader) do not know how to interpret it until the uncertainty is resolved by Hannibal's explication of the spectaculum and its purpose. The uncertainty has a temporal dimension as well, insofar as the Carthaginian soldiers use the mock battle to grapple with their own uncertain future from the safety of the audience; likewise, "the reader might immerse herself into the narrative and grapple with the tension between what she knows about the course of history and her expectations towards the outcome of Livy's version of it" (16).

This case study is a helpfully concrete example of Domainko's methodology and is likely to be more useful to most readers than Chapter Two, in which the author lays out the theoretical underpinnings of the book at length. Domainko's work is shaped by both post-structuralist and anthropological approaches to hermeneutic uncertainty, and the author cites Derrida and the Islamic studies scholar Thomas Bauer as particularly influential here. Domainko also follows Jauss's concept of the "as-if" function of aesthetic experience, which posits that narrative can offer the audience a safe space in which to come to terms with uncertainty (as demonstrated in the example of Hannibal's spectaculum, above). Chapter Two is densely written and rich in jargon; it will be of interest and use to some readers, but certainly not all.

Those who lose patience with this deep dive into theory would do well to stick with Domainko, for once the author's attention turns to Velleius Paterculus and Livy in the third and fourth chapters, respectively, the strengths of her historiographical readings become clear. These chapters are the volume's high point. In the introduction, Domainko explains the decision to treat the historians out of chronological order. First, the author suggests, Velleius's compact history allows for observations to be made across the entire work, which then "makes it possible to carve out a detailed methodology and a clear-cut interpretive lens through which to assess Livy's monumental counterproject" (24). Additionally, Domainko prefers the anachronistic approach because it makes clear that the author is not "falling prey to a covert evolutionist agenda" (24). In these two compelling chapters the author maps Velleius and Livy onto a continuum of uncertainty, with Velleius generally characterized by less uncertainty and Livy allowing for more. However, as Domainko notes, we should not be tempted to be overly schematic in characterizing these authors; in this spirit, Domainko also gives brief counter-examples illustrating moments of openness in Velleius and closure in Livy.

In Chapter Three, Domainko argues that the deeply teleological narrative of Velleius worked to eliminate uncertainty and emphasize instead the unbroken continuity between the Republican past and the Principate. Temporal uncertainty is minimized by Velleius' configuring of Roman history as measured backwards from the narrator's own day. "Time," Domainko asserts, "is crafted as being magnetically pulled towards the present, and as a result of this strong teleology, variant plotlines and the idea of a contingent development of history is, for all intents and purposes, eliminated" (109). On the narrative level, the sense of closure is expressed most noticeably by Velleius' strong aversion to polyphony; the author maintains a tight grip on the reader's perspective, thereby resolving hermeneutic uncertainty by acting as authoritative interpreter.

Chapter Four focuses on Livy, in whose work Domainko identifies a greater degree of both hermeneutic and temporal uncertainty than in Velleius. Using the Caudium episode in Book Nine as a case study, Domainko argues that Livy introduces uncertainty by creating tension between experience and expectation on the part of both his characters and the reader. For example, the author points out that Livy's description of the Caudine Forks immediately before the ambush narrative conforms to many elements of the locus amoenus topos. The expectation of the reader, who knows all too well what is about to happen, is at odds with the sense of bucolic harmony activated by this topos; although the reader knows better, it becomes tempting to imagine an alternative outcome more suited to the expectations created by the locus amoenus. Whereas Velleius constantly directs the reader's attention to the Principate as the fulfillment of Rome's telos, Livy uses techniques like "side-shadowing" and polyphony to raise the possibility of alternative outcomes, thus downplaying any sense of inevitability and emphasizing the contingency of historical events. Domainko here cites Herennius Pontius' advice to his son that the Romans must be either released unharmed or killed to a man; anything in between would set the stage for a resurgence of the defeated. Pontius thus makes the alternative outcomes explicit, "side-shadowing" two potential alternate histories while also foreshadowing the third, destructive course that the younger Pontius will ultimately choose.

Domainko provides a concluding synopsis in Chapter Five. As one of few moments of overlap between Livy and Velleius' extant narratives, the Battle of Pydna in 168 BCE offers a fruitful opportunity to compare the authors' respective approaches to uncertainty. The book's Epilogue offers some interesting suggestions about the role of temporal and hermeneutic uncertainty beyond the realm of historiography and beyond antiquity entirely. In the first part, Domainko examines the role of uncertainty in Horace's Epistles, while the second shifts focus to the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees to Europe beginning around 2015. The author argues in the latter section that the "so-called refugee crisis put on display the fact that much of our reality was not a given, but contingent—a social construct put up between interpretive possibilities that are in constant need of being weighed, evaluated, and negotiated against one another and in constant need of adjustment and reaffirmation" (208). This is a thought-provoking idea, but this section seems to be working hard to find a modern relevance that I did not feel the book was wanting. While both parts of the Epilogue are suggestive, each feels out of place, fitting naturally neither with one another nor with the book as a whole. Domainko's discussions here would have a greater impact, perhaps, in another context: the Horace analysis might make a stand-alone article, while the modern coda reads like a promising popular-interest essay.

In general, this book retains both the positive and negative features that might be expected in a revised dissertation. Domainko shows an admirable command of the relevant theoretical and historiographical literature. That mastery might have been demonstrated more efficiently in a less mechanical format. Chapters Three and Four each open with a "Survey of Recent Scholarship" that is—if there is such a thing—too comprehensive and not uniformly relevant, especially given that the likely audience for this book will consist of scholars focusing on ancient historiography. For example, the evolution of Livian studies from the Quellenforschung of the nineteenth century is not germane to Domainko's argument (nor does Domainko's audience probably need to be reminded of it). The book's previous life as a dissertation is also perceptible in its structure, which tends toward the broadly inclusive approach typical of many theses, in which the author demonstrates their range at the expense of focused discussion. In addition to the Epilogue (as I have already mentioned) Chapter Three's "Excursus: Enargeia, Embodiment, Visualization" is thought-provoking and worthy of attention, but its relevance to the chapter is tenuous and it would perhaps be better served by publication in another format. Overall, scholars (and perhaps graduate students) focusing on ancient historiography will most appreciate the excellent close readings of Velleius and Livy in Chapters Three, Four, and Five.

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Thursday, February 21, 2019


Sylvain Delcomminette, Aristote et la nécessité. Tradition de la pensée classique. Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 2018. Pp. 643. ISBN 9782711627363. €45.00.

Reviewed by Claudio César Calabrese, Universidad Panamericana (

Version at BMCR home site

Sylvain Delcomminette, professor at the Université libre de Bruxelles, gives us a perspective from which to understand and discuss the complex framework of ideas that we call "Aristotle's philosophy". We can put his central thesis forward in the following way: if philosophy and necessity were intimately interconnected in the Stagirite's thought, then this would allow for a coherent and detailed explanation of his philosophy. The author organizes this task into five parts, each divided into a number of chapters.

The first part ("L'Idéalisme Langagier d'Aristote", pp. 25-111) is composed of the following chapters: I. "Status et Fonction de l'Analyse du Langage" (pp. 25-40), where professor Delcomminette studies the famous text of De Interpretatione I, 16a3-8: "the sounds of the speech are the symbols of the heart's affections". Here, Aristotle marks off four levels of significance: the things, the affections of the heart, the sounds of the speech and the characters of the writing. While the first two are common to everyone (the affections of the heart are images with a certain degree of similarity compared to the things), the next two can vary, since the sounds of the speech are signs of the affections, making writing a sign of a sign. The core of the investigation establishes that Aristotle postulates the existence of an extralinguistic reality, with which the heart is in contact without the mediation of language (p. 25); through language we notice an experience that has been beforehand generated in the heart.

In Chapter II, "L' Être et la Liaison" (pp. 41-63), the author considers the characteristics of apophantic statements, through the notions of copula and predicate (pp. 41-50) and through the doctrine of the categories (pp. 50-63). Chapter III ("Le problème de la contradiction", pp. 65-75) studies the unity of a proposition and the terms which are linked in it. The notion of necessity is considered here from a logical perspective as well: in order for a proposition to be true it is necessary that its negation be false. Chapter IV ("Le Nécessaire et le Status des Modalités", pp. 77-106) expands on the way Aristotle establishes certain operative concepts (especially, being and necessity) starting from an analysis of language that allows experiences to be transformed into objects of science. The second part ("Science et Nécessité", pp. 111-244) considers two Aristotelian treatises, the Prior Analytics and Posterior Analytics, which present what was later called his "theory of science". Aristotle states there that all science must be based on axioms or primary principles, from which all further developments are derived (through syllogistic demonstrations). Thus the study of logic and of the theory of science shows, on the one side, that all necessity is included in the principle of non-contradiction and, on the other, that the latter can be expressed through definition. This second part is divided into four chapters: V. "La Démarche Analytique" (pp. 111-24); VI. "Nécessité et Raisonnement" (pp. 124-53); VII. "La Nécessité dans la Théorie de la Science" (pp. 155-211); VIII. "La Connaissance des Principes Propres de la Science" (pp. 213-42).

The third part, "La Nécessité et le Devenir" (pp. 243-322), works on the Aristotelian project of establishing a science of becoming, or what we know as "physics." The core of this part might be articulated in the following terms: if science is only of what is necessary, can we discover necessity in the realm of becoming? This part consists of two chapters: IX. "Modalités et Temporalité" (pp. 245-277) and X. "Nécessité et Contingence dans le Devenir" (pp. 279-322).

The fourth part, "Fondation Métaphysique de la Nécessité" (pp. 323-527), is extremely important, given that it sustains the unity of the Metaphysics. This unity – as our author signals – can only be sustained on condition of reading it as continuous with the previously studied theory of science; the leading thread of this reading is also the concept of necessity. This section is composed of four chapters: XI. "Nature et objet de la Métaphysique" (pp. 327-360); XII. "Le Principe de non-contradiction" (pp.361-386); XIII, "Ousia et Définition" (pp. 387-447); XIV. "Vers l'Unité des Principes" (pp. 449-527).

The fifth and last part, "Une Éthique de la Contingence ou de la Nécessité" (pp.529-73), presents an analysis of ethics as something that concerns contingency and the non-necessary. The elaboration of this last part answers two questions: Does ethics belong to the domain of freedom in so far as it goes against necessity? Does necessity play a solely negative role in ethics, as a limit of inclinations or of free choice? The answer to both questions unfolds through three chapters: XV. "Le problème de la responsabilité morale" (pp. 531-61); XVI. "Le rôle de la connaissance dans l'éthique" (pp. 543-61); XVII. "La nécessité dans la vie humaine" (pp. 563-73). The book offers a very wide bibliography (pp.579-608) and two indexes, one of authors or Index Nominum (pp. 609-14) and another of quotes or Index locorum (pp.615-42), which enhance the work's scientific value.

The central value of Sylvain Delcominette's labor resides in his carrying out an overall interpretation of the Stagirite's work. Is this work meticulously coherent? The author gives a positive answer and provides solid arguments, distinguishing "coherence" from "systematic character": the former is a requirement for philosophy and the latter is a characteristic which has been imposed on philosophy, originally by German idealism. Aristotle's thought has internal coherence in analyzing language as a tool that strives to purify experience to make science possible. A task of this nature is only possible if we supply fundamental propositions or principles: in the field of the special sciences, Aristotle has identified the first principles with concepts. From an epistemological or foundational point of view, Aristotelian philosophy is far from being reduced to empiricism, for it defines science by what distinguishes it from experience (and places it above experience). The knowledge of necessity is essential to science; it provides a scientific universality which is the knowledge of eidos or ousia.

In order for this approach not to appear to mirror a science limited to the study of eternal connections between essences, we should go to the most important innovation with respect to Plato: the foundation of a science of the becoming, starting with the notion of teleology. In Delcomminette's words : "La téléologie permet ainsi à une pensé originellement développée de manière purement logique d'étendre son empire sur la temporalité et le devenir. Ce faisant, loin de prendre ses distances avec l'idéalisme, Aristote repousse ses limites en reconnaissant à la pensée une puissance inédite" (p. 576). The metaphysical position underpinning this statement can be put in these terms: if eidos is the condition for the possibility of science, this is because it is the very background of being; Aristotle calls it primary ousia in his Metaphysics, and he identifies it with activity, which, in its purest form, is thought. Science is possible because thought has been previously present in the world in some way, under varied forms and degrees, as it alone can be found in pure actuality. All potentiality derives from some actuality – both from a logical-epistemological point of view, and from an ontological point of view. All this reveals a fundamental actuality, which Aristotle calls "God". The return to this actuality represents at the same time an ethical ideal; from this perspective as well we observe the Platonic roots of a philosophy that grants thought a normative value. This is understood on two levels: (a) in so far as praxis does not access morality except under the control of the intellectual virtue of phronēsis; (b) thought, in its purest form, gets to be the ultimate end, which allows man to reach perfect joy. Necessity, far from being a burden, is witnesses to thought at home in reality.

This book's most significant contribution consists of revealing the profound unity of Aristotle's work in an academic context where what is fragmentary and, thus, sometimes contradictory tends to be privileged. In my opinion, the author expands the consequences of Aristotle's distinctions within the concept of necessity, which we find in Metaphysics Δ.5. I definitely welcome a book that opens an argumentative space to rethink Aristotle, starting from the unity and coherence of his thought.

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Adrian Keith Goldsworthy, Hadrian's Wall. New York: Basic Books, 2018. Pp. xx, 169. ISBN 9781541644427. $25.00.

Reviewed by Michael J. Taylor, University at Albany, SUNY (

Version at BMCR home site


Hadrian's Wall is unquestionably the most impressive and monumental frontier system from the Roman Empire. The wall is a major tourist destination, where one can hike the 84-mile path from the River Tyne to the Solway Firth, stopping along the way at well-curated museums at Vindolanda, Carvoran and Birdoswald, not mention enough pubs to fuel the journey. This book is a brief survey of the wall and its garrison. Goldsworthy himself states that the project is less about Hadrian's Wall than about the Roman army on Hadrian's Wall. This is well within his bailiwick, as prior to departing academia for a career as a popular writer and public ambassador for the Classics, Goldsworthy wrote an Oxford DPhil thesis on the Imperial Roman army, which subsequently was published as a landmark book on the topic.1

While the book moves quickly, it does at least have some basic arguments to make. It is tempting to view Hadrian's Wall as primarily an "argument in stone," given that Roman frontiers elsewhere managed to get by without continuous stone walls. While the monumentality of the wall was certainly important and had ideological implications, Goldsworthy makes the case that the wall, in stone, was also a practical tool for managing the British frontier. He notes that the very fact that the wall was reoccupied in the 160s AD after the frontier shifted back south from the Antonine Wall suggests it was more than a mere vanity project for Hadrian; otherwise it would have been abandoned after his death. And the western sections of the wall, initially built out of turf, were subsequently replaced by a stone wall, suggesting that the merits of stone construction were determined after experience manning spans of both materials. The many changes to the wall over time, which Goldsworthy concisely surveys, were at once corrections to the original top-down plan, but also proof that the fortification system could be effectively modified to retain its utility as circumstances shifted.

Goldsworthy has the courage to plunge into one of the longest running and most unsolvable controversies regarding the wall: did a walkway run along the top? He tentatively suggests that one did, plausibly noting that the eventual demolition of the towers might have been prompted by the fact that sentries could achieve the same field of observation standing on the wall itself as they could posted slightly higher up in a tower. The bridges connecting the wall as its path was broken by streams also strongly imply the presence of a sentry pathway.

On the uses of the wall, it has long been known that it would do little to repel a determined invading army. Goldsworthy reasonably presents the goal of the wall as detering raiding parties form the north, not so much by preventing them from getting in, but rather by making it difficult and unprofitable to get back out again. A small party might, of course, slip across the outer ditch, scale the wall and flit across the vallum. But the military zone behind the wall increased the probability that their presence would be detected, and more seriously, the vallum, wall and ditch would have represented a profound impediment against returning with anything of value, especially items such as livestock, wagons, or captives.

For a popular book, the content can be somewhat sterile. Goldsworthy, for example, mentions in passing the discovery of murder victims along the wall: a child found buried beneath a house in Vindolanda, and a couple buried under a building just outside of Housesteads. But why not talk more about the grisly details, given that such crimes reveal the messy humanity of the frontier? The book does feature a grim illustration (pg. 116) by Graham Sumner of a Roman cavalryman toting about a severed head. But Goldsworthy does not mention that we have a severed head from the wall, found at Vindolanda, which seems to have been displayed outside the fort at one point. One reason to discuss the skull would simply be to titillate the casual reader with gore, but it also captures the stark violence that was omnipresent on the Roman frontier, violence which discussions of curtain walls, towers and mile-castles can too easily, if inadvertently, sanitize. And why not mention the various phalluses that have been carved into the wall (there are three on mile 49 alone), not simply because sex sells, but also because of how they incontrovertibly gender Roman military power in general, and the wall in particular?

While Goldsworthy does not make things as interesting as he might, what he does do he generally does well. He provides an overview of the Roman army of the principate, and a discussion of the complex construction and occupation history of the wall from A.D. 122 to the late fourth century. The last few chapters mostly follow the history of the Roman army in Britain, although these are sometimes more the history of emperors and pretenders than of the wall itself. The book ends with a brief guide on how to visit the wall. One disappointing aspect is the illustrations. There are plenty, to be sure, but all in black and white, and all printed directly on paper instead of plates, which inevitably reduces the sharpness and quality of the image. In many ways we get a coffee table book in terms of breezy content, but without the glossy pictures.

Unlike some of Goldworthy's other popular works, Hadrian's Wall has limited crossover appeal for scholars. It contains only a smattering of notes and a short list of suggested reading in lieu of a bibliography. A scholar needing an overview of the wall before giving a lecture on Roman Britain would still be best advised to consult the guide provided by Breeze and Dobson.2 Nonetheless, Goldsworthy's work is concise and competent for the general reader. The slim and light volume also enjoys the practical advantage of fitting nicely into a rucksack if you are through-hiking the wall.


1.   A. Goldsworthy, The Roman Army at War: 100 BC-AD 200. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
2.   D. Breeze and B. Dobson. Hadrian's Wall, 4th edition. New York: Penguin, 2000.

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