Monday, August 10, 2009

2009.08.23

Version at BMCR home site
Pamela Marin, Blood in the Forum: The Struggle for the Roman Republic. London/New York: Continuum, 2009. Pp. xix, 198. ISBN 9781847251671. $29.95.
Reviewed by Darryl A. Phillips, College of Charleston, South Carolina

The history of the last century of the Roman Republic is well worth relating. Land reform efforts, political bloodshed, shifting loyalty of soldiers, the rise of the urban plebs, provincial conquests, piracy, and open civil war make for an exciting narrative. In this book Marin takes us through the history of Rome from 133 - 44 B.C. with an emphasis on the last four decades. This story, of course, has been told many times before.1 Marin's innovation is to focus the later part of her work on Cato the Younger, to whom she assigns a leading role in events. Marin's recent Ph.D. dissertation on "Cato the Younger: Myth and Reality" no doubt provided much material. The present work, however, is much more ambitious in scope than her dissertation as it aims to provide a complete overview of the century and is clearly aimed at a wider audience. The book partially succeeds by providing a fresh focal point for examining the late Republic, but too much emphasis on Cato at the expense of a more balanced narrative leaves much of the story untold. The argument for Cato's crucial role is unconvincing.

Chapter 1, "What it Was to be Roman," provides an introduction to the work as a whole. Discussions of Roman political and social institutions, aristocratic values, religious practices, and specialized terminology prepare the readers for what follows and suggest that the book is aimed at undergraduate students and general readers. The material is clearly and succinctly presented. A brief discussion of Roman views of suicide offers a hint at where the narrative is headed. The author notes that she consciously avoids the labels "optimates" and "populares" that dominate most modern narratives of the period, and instead will focus on individuals and their actions.

The book progresses in chronological order. Chapter 2, "A Blueprint for Civil War? Sulla and the 80s BCE," begins with the land reform efforts of Tiberius Gracchus and ends with the dictatorship of Sulla. Chapter 3, "The Up and Coming Generation: Rome in the 70s BCE," presents the continuing campaign against Mithridates, emerging problems with pirates, and the revolt of Spartacus, ending with the consulship of Pompey and Crassus in 70 B.C. Chapter 4, "Hope for the Future: Rome in the 60s BCE," discusses further problems of piracy and Mithridates, and ends with a close examination of the election of magistrates for 63 B.C. These chapters provide a useful survey, generally presenting the events in clear prose and logical order. Quotations from a range of primary sources are incorporated into the narrative to illustrate and expand upon the main text. Notes are kept to a minimum throughout, although both the notes and bibliography that are included point to major primary sources and English language scholarly treatments of topics. In these early chapters, Marin's account is without controversy, except perhaps for her final analysis of Tiberius Gracchus' tribunate. Marin comments that "his methods were unconstitutional, or at the very least, against tradition" (p.32). Regrettably, this opportunity to explore the failure of the Roman "constitution" and to explore in greater depth the conflict with tradition is not taken up, and readers interested in political history will be left unsatisfied. Marin's remark here is nonetheless revealing, as we see early on that this history is going to take the Senate's side.

In Chapter 5, "Rome in Crisis? The Catilinarian Conspiracy of 63 BCE," and Chapter 6,"A First Triumvirate? Rome in the Early 50s BCE," the value of Marin's approach is best seen. As she explores the complex relationships among Catiline, Cicero, Cato and Clodius, Marin takes a close look at the individuals while avoiding any notions of larger "parties". She cautions us not to take Cicero at face value as she reassesses the relationship of Cato and Clodius. Marin argues that, viewed as independent agents, both Cato and Clodius benefitted from Cato's assignment in Cyprus orchestrated by Clodius. She argues that Clodius should not be dismissed as a mere tool of the triumvirs. While engaging with the standard Cicero-centered narrative of this period, Marin provides a fresh perspective on the events in Rome in the late 60s and 50s B.C.

Chapter 7, "Violence in Republican Rome: The Truth of the Late 50s BCE," and Chapter 8, "Civil War and Caesar's Dictatorship," trace the turbulent decade ending with Caesar's assassination in 44 B.C. Three pages of concluding remarks sum up the discussion and point ahead to the domination of Octavian/Augustus. In addition to the body of the book, a time line and several maps are included at the front. Endnotes, lists of primary and secondary sources, and an index are found at the back.

As a second-string player in affairs, Cato could usefully serve as a focal point for analysis, especially to help us understand how a conservative aristocrat's life and career were affected by the upheaval of this period. This book, however, goes a step too far by assigning too much importance to Cato. After recounting Caesar's victories at Pharsalus and Thapsus as a prelude to a lengthy narrative of Cato's suicide, we find some rather far-fetched historical speculation: "One could question whether it [suicide] was the right decision, as Cato could have continued his protests against Caesar, perhaps even to joining Pompey's son, Sextus Pompeius or even, by force of personality, have driven Caesar out of Rome with his own troops (p.159)." Marin quickly acknowledges that it is doubtful that Cato could have succeeded, and indeed her own narrative has given little evidence to support this scenario. The speculation, however, points to a problem with the overall construction of the book. While Cato may usefully be viewed as a foil for understanding the events of the period, he was not as important a figure in dictating the course of events as were Caesar and Pompey themselves. He was not their equal in rank, military skill, or popular influence. Cato did not lead an army against Caesar, and it was on the field of battle where Caesar won the day. The reader will come away from this book with a rather inflated sense of the importance of Cato, and a rather deflated picture of others.

Cato's appointment in Cyprus in 58 B.C. offers another example. Marin devotes more time to discussing this administrative position than to Caesar's decade-long command in Gaul. Marin argues that the Cyprus appointment would have conferred "great honour and prestige" on Cato (p.125) and that he returned to Rome in 56 B.C. with his "reputation at an all-time high (p.131)." Yet upon his return Cato was unsuccessful in his bid for the praetorship in 55 B.C., a loss that Marin attributes, with little elaboration, to the machinations of the consuls Pompey and Crassus. Cato's failure in this election and his later failure to win election to the consulship certainly need more critical analysis. While Cato's status is overstated, Caesar suffers the opposite fate. Catullus 57 is taken as general evidence of "Caesar's continued unpopularity" (p.134) in the mid-50s B.C. But for both Cato and Caesar we need a context to understand what is meant by "prestige" and "popularity." Even if we are to avoid the terms "optimates" and "populares," there is a need to acknowledge multiple points of view and the relative status of the players. A reader well versed in the history of the period can place Marin's observations in their proper context, but the general reader will be left with an unbalanced view.

The focus on Cato without an acknowledgement of other viewpoints means that this book ultimately tells the story of the late Republic only as Cato would have had it remembered. At the critical moment in January 49 B.C., Marin suggests that Caesar presented his case for crossing the Rubicon not "for any evil purposes, but merely to protect himself" (p.154). She quotes directly from Caesar's Bellum Civile 1.22, but does not discuss this pivotal passage in which Caesar himself presents multiple reasons for his actions, including not only protecting himself (as Marin notes), but also upholding the rights of the tribunes of the plebs and freeing the Roman people from the domination of a faction. Caesar did not overtly aim to overthrow the Republic, as Marin suggests (p.155). The story is much more interesting than that. He aimed to further his form of the Republic, one that was fundamentally at odds with the Republic envisioned by Cato and the boni.

A number of errors of fact and omission detract from the work as a whole. To cite a few examples: Cicero is referred to as a "young, honest quaestor" when he was asked to take on the prosecution of Verres (he had been quaestor four years earlier); the so-called "Commentariolum Petitionis" is presented as a letter written by Cicero to his brother Quintus (not the other way around); Pompey's sole consulship in 52 B.C. is repeatedly referred to as a "dictatorship"; and Lucius Junius Brutus is said to have assassinated (not expelled) the last king of Rome. Oddly missing from the discussion of the start of the Mithridatic wars is the massacre of Romans and Italians in the east that was carried out with the help of Rome's former allies. The omission is especially strange as the campaigns against Mithridates and other provincial matters play such a prominent role in the book.

Provocative works and studies that approach old problems in new ways can play an important role both in scholarly discussions and with wider audiences. Generally, such works are most successful when they openly engage opposing views. Works directed to a general audience lose their value if they present only a narrow perspective. Press materials for this book provocatively claim that it presents "the tragedy of the Roman Republic in its true light."2 Had he lived long enough, Cato the Younger would certainly approve. Caesar and many others would not.



Notes:


1.   D. Shotter, The Fall of the Roman Republic, London: Routledge, 1994 (2nd ed. 2005), offers an account that parallels Marin's work in length, scope, and intended audience. Among the many other works, The Cambridge Ancient History Volume 9: The Last Age of the Roman Republic, 146-43 BC (2nd ed. 1994), especially chapters 9 & 10 by T.P. Wiseman that cover the 60s and 50s B.C., provides a detailed chronological survey and thorough analysis.
2.   http://www.continuumbooks.com/books/detail.aspx?BookId=130989.

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