Friday, September 5, 2008


Version at BMCR home site
Jerzy Linderski, Roman Questions II. Selected Papers. HABES, 44. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2007. Pp. xi, 726. ISBN 978-3-515-08134-4. €100.00.
Reviewed by Josiah Osgood, Georgetown University

The re-publication of an historian's papers in a lavish edition such as this invites questions. Of course, the papers are made more accessible, but, one should ask, are they made more useful and more usable? If this alone justifies the enterprise, one still might ask for more: Do the papers together illustrate a mode of inquiry which others might profitably follow? Do they, in their variety, have a more fundamental unity which reveals a philosophy of history? Can their insights be applied to other chapters in the story of humanity?

By any test conceivable Linderski's volume is a resounding success, one that might, if possible, soar higher even than its companion, the first Roman Questions, which appeared in 1995 and was acclaimed by reviewers.1 Presented here are fifty entries, comprising seventy-one items altogether (very short pieces, mainly book reviews, are amalgamated). Four papers are printed for the first time: as with all of Linderski's work, so packed are they with information and insight there can be no substitute for reading them. (1) "Augustales and Sodales Augustales" exposes, and sets right, confusion in a recent journal article of these two distinct bodies and urges that "nomenclature can indeed be insidious" and "no speculation can replace a careful reading of every line and of every word, a procedure nowadays too often forgotten or disdained" (on which see more below). (2) "Orbilius, Scaurus, and the Award of Corniculum" elucidates several passages in which the Latin word corniculum denotes not (as thought) a military decoration but the office of cornicularius (i.e., adjutant to an officer). (3) "Legio V in Messana" brilliantly argues that the Caesarian legion left to garrison Messana in 48 BC was not (as generally accepted) the veteran legio Alaudarum. (4) "How Did King Flavius Dades and Pitiaxes Publicius Agrippa Acquire Their Roman Names?" explores the Roman nomenclature of two individuals from the ancient kingdom of Iberia (in modern Georgia). Unlike the first Roman Questions, all previous work has been reset, allowing the author to incorporate addenda and corrigenda in curly brackets directly into each piece as needed. (There are also included 32 pages of "Addenda et corrigenda to Roman Questions I.") Thorough indices of modern authors, ancient sources, ancient persons, places, subjects, and words, running to 86 pages, end the volume.

With these indices, the papers in this volume collectively form an invaluable tool of research. To use one of Linderski's own accolades (see, e.g., 211, 349, 559, 592), this book is a "mine of information." Throughout there are illuminating explanations of a host of matters pertaining to such fields as Roman religion, constitutional law, and nomenclature among others; bibliography is always thoroughly presented and evaluated. To discover that Linderski has treated a topic of interest really is to strike gold. In this book one also finds numerous contributions to lexicography and textual criticism. Prominent too is the attention to epigraphy (the index of inscriptiones runs to nearly eleven pages here, compared to four in RQ I), where, as always with this scholar, texts are not just cited, but explained. Specialists in a range of sub-fields will be consulting this volume for years to come, and the indices facilitate this. As Linderski observes, "without detailed indices all texts but particularly inscriptions are half mute" (412), but as he also points out, one now wants more: electronic editions fully machine-searchable. Academic publishers need to keep up with technology at the rate scholars do or they risk obsolescence.

This brings us to method, in which this book has specific lessons aplenty. To generalize crudely, one might say that the overarching approach is this. One starts with a specific question unanswered or unsatisfactorily answered, for instance a textual crux or a puzzling, even seemingly bizarre, episode. Next come gathering and study of all relevant sources literary and epigraphic; new epigraphic material in particular often illuminates old problems (see, e.g., 9, 53, 117, 188, 313). But everything must be examined afresh: take nothing second-hand! Linderski can show again and again even eminent scholars misusing, misunderstanding, even misquoting sources (see, e.g., 98, 116, 310, 390, 475, 485, 511, 631). "Every line" and "every word", as we saw, must be understood. No compromises are allowed: "before we proceed to a literary or historical study we have first to know in the analyzed text the sense of every word, in all its applications and shades" (595). Distressingly, standard dictionaries are shown constantly to omit important examples, provide unhelpful definitions, even misconstrue items (see, e.g., 70, 100, 188, 308, 330, 349, 407, 466, 549). "One should not trust lexicons and lexicographers blindly" (478). Electronic databanks are of immense value (see, e.g., 175, 204, 208, 218, 322, 543). Also make sure to take into account the context of any quotation, and the overall value of the source; Livy, for instance, is exposed in these pages again and again as a fabulist rather than a good antiquarian (see, e.g., 51, 67, 74, 219, 517). The "historian's craft" is above all "a painstaking analysis of the sources" (633), but Linderski also relies on exhaustive analysis of the secondary literature as a tool of investigation. One might find buried in older studies a vital piece of evidence or valuable perceptions; the shape of the scholarship as a whole helps one to see where a new approach to a problem might be tried. Even the negative act of putting to rest erroneous conceptions can clear the way for others.

In Linderski's work, the answer to a seemingly minor question is often shown to have momentous results. Two examples will make the point. In the wonderfully titled "Transitus. Official Travel under the Sign of the Obelus," Linderski starts with a crux in the text of Cicero, Ad Atticum 5.21.5 = SB 114 (obelized in the edition of Shackleton Bailey) and reaches, by the end, a most convincing solution, helped in part by a new epigraphic source, an early imperial edict concerning requisitioned transport, as well as a range of literary parallels. New light is thrown on Cicero's governorship of Cilicia and, even more important, the lex Iulia de repetundis of 59 BC, the legal foundation for Rome's administration of the provinces for centuries to come. The concept of transitus, the official passage of a magistrate (or later, the emperor), is thoroughly explained, the entry in OLD shown to be deficient, and a new technical meaning for the word is revealed. The utterly brilliant "The Pontiff and the Tribune: the Death of Tiberius Gracchus," offers an explanation for why the pontifex maximus Scipio Nasica displayed the purple border of his toga on his veiled head as he rushed out in pursuit of the wayward tribune--already a puzzle for Appian. We learn here not just technical details concerning Roman dress, sacred law, and funerals; shocking truths about Roman religion, too dreadful for rationalist scholars, are revealed.

Linderski makes his method admirably clear not only by example but also constant explanation of what he is doing, and why. The remarkable biographical accounts of the Bryn Mawr lumina Taylor, Michels, and Broughton that end the volume are also enlightening (and should be read by any student of the Roman Republic). But there sounds too, throughout these papers, a warning refrain. By definition, any solid and original work of history has at some point to confront the evidence. The task cannot be evaded. Yet, Linderski argues, it is more and more neglected, in favor of what he at one point calls "sociological commonplaces" (175). Neither sociology nor the social sciences themselves are impugned, but rather a misapplication of them; elsewhere we hear of "pretentious sociologizing" (178), "vulgar sociology" (288), the "modish sociological morass" (583), the "pest" of a certain sociological approach, that "has spread far and wide producing vast libraries of hot air" (285). A Roman gift for satire displays itself in his reviews in particular: "Sense? Never mind; acclaim among readers of the Annales is assured, but what a sober jurist of Mommsen's persuasion would like to say I do not dare to utter" (280). One hopes that feelings are not hurt, since this patently is not the point (indeed, the impression the reader really takes away from this work is one of great humanitas). Nor is Linderski simply showing that the 'sources', so often maligned as blinkered or exhausted, still have many secrets to yield. He is also insisting, rightly, that there is no substitute for the patient observation of the peculiar institutions of Rome. "The task of the scholar," Linderski says, "is akin to that of the scientist: not only to describe the phenomena but also to uncover their inner structure, and the rules by which they are governed" (512).

Here we come to philosophy. Crude generalizations are even more out of place, but one can at least say that there constantly emerges in these pages a sense, sometimes indeed frightening, of the importance of (inherited) institutions. Those who would discount them are deluding themselves. "Institutions are a peculiar organism with a life of their own: they are in their essence the creations of the dead and they weigh on the living; they are like a coral reef, part petrified, part alive..." (36). Power matters in history, but so does law, and so too religion, however irrational it may seem. "We are rather referring to that spontaneous, overpowering, and humble feeling of attachment to the Deity that individuals experience out of fear or gratitude. This we must not deny to the Romans. Only the blind or deaf or indoctrinated will not hear or see or comprehend it. For it is omnipresent in the Roman world in countless dedications, vows and offerings. Illusions of course; but also realities of mind and life" (513).

In showing the numinous and mystic, the bizarre, of Roman society, and in all societies, and in showing the weight of the past, the historian has two advantages, fully on display in these Roman Questions. The first is the humanist's love of creative literature and sense of style. Linderski's words explain, but they also are imbued with feeling and cause sensation in turn. A relentless rationalizing can kill a subject, rather than conjure it. Full dispassion may, paradoxically, hinder objectivity. Second, the historian who is immersed in a never-ending body of scholarship--itself a part of history too--sees best how much our perception of the past, and society in general, has changed, and it is humbling to see. The lesson is not that there are no right answers, but that institutions have a complexity which reflects the minds of the organisms who create and transmit them.


1.   See, for example, the review for BMCR 1997.02.09 by T. Corey Brennan.

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