Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Harriet I. Flower, Roman Republics. Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010. Pp. xi, 204. ISBN 9780691140438. $29.95.
Reviewed by Colin Bailey, Grant MacEwan University

Roman Republics is a highly readable, highly persuasive volume intended to revitalize the study of the republican period in Rome. The volume is not aimed exclusively at beginners or experts; both will find much of value in the reassessment presented. Arising from a very justified concern about the application of the term 'crisis' to the eighty-four years between 133 and 49 BC, Flower provides a structure on which to found "a renewed discussion of Roman republican political culture, of its evolving nature, of the kinds of challenges it faced and overcame over time, and of the precise historical circumstances in which it succumbed to a combination of outside pressures and internal violence" (x-xi). Divided into three parts and nine sections, Roman Republics considers some problems inherent in the traditional periodization of the republican period before offering an alternative approach and a brief discussion of some of the implications of new chronological divisions.

Part One, Framework (pp. 1-57), provides the basis for and the outline of Flower's argument. The division of time into more or less self-contained periods is a necessity in historical studies, but divisions will always influence the discussion and interpretation of the events within each period. The segmentation of any period of history is, therefore, something to be carefully considered. Preparatory to offering a new periodization of the republican period, Flower highlights some of the problems which can emerge from accepting an inherited chronological framework.

The traditional periodization of the five centuries of Roman history between the Regal and Imperial periods into the Early, Middle, and Late Republic tends to create the impression of a static, unchanging Republic. Flower suggests that to discuss early Roman history in such broad and poorly defined terms is to overlook and, indeed, to obscure the subtleties of Roman republican politics. The use of the term 'republic' as a chronological descriptor tends to overshadow the primary constitutional aspects of the term, with the result that we often identify as the Republic that period of time during which one man did not rule.

Flower suggests that a complete reassessment of the chronology after the expulsion of the kings is necessary if we are to understand properly the governance of Rome before the establishment of the empire. In order to discuss meaningfully the history of republican Rome, we must first be able to describe accurately republican politics in Rome; an open consideration of politics and political change in the republican centuries reveals a series of six distinct Roman republics and several transitional periods. Flower proposes these divisions to facilitate a consideration of the dynamic and evolutionary nature of republican politics in order to challenge and dissolve the perception of "a single, monolithic republic" (17).

The 'articulated' chronology is conveniently delineated in a table on page 33 and graphically presented in three comparative timelines (Appendix I, pp. 173-6): a pre-republican period after the monarchy (509-494); a proto-republic ending with the publication of the Twelve Tables (494-451/0); Republic 1 (450-367/6); Republic 2 (366-300); three republics of the nobiles (300-180, 180-139, and 139-88, i. e., Republics 3, 4, & 5); a transitional period during which republican operations ceased (88-81); Republic 6 (81-60); a triumvirate (59-53); a transitional period (53-49); Caesar's dictatorship (49-44); and a second triumvirate (43-33). The transitional moments are largely self-evident, though those of the third, fourth and fifth republics (the three republics of the nobiles) are more open: for example, Flower identifies 300 and the opening of the priesthoods to plebeians as the beginning of a shared republic between patricians and plebeians, but acknowledges that the lex Hortensia of 287 might be supported as an alternative. Recognition of transitional years within the republican period, however, is the vital element of the argument.

Little time is spent on the earliest periods, but Flower does speculate on the first republic as a form of hereditary power-sharing leading to a more open republic after the Licinio-Sextian laws of 367/6. The fourth, fifth and sixth republics (two republics of the nobiles and the 'New Republic' of Sulla, respectively) receive the greatest attention.

Part Two, Change (pp. 59-114), elaborates on the second two republics of the nobiles. Flower first distinguishes between violent and non-violent change, with the intention of debunking the too-common perception of the late second century as a time of stalemate, inaction and unchanging patterns in politics--a perception which is often created by a too-narrow focus on political violence beginning with Tiberius Gracchus, party politics and repeated reform failure. Flower identifies nine distinct political changes accomplished through non-violent, legal means during the second century (the second republic of the nobiles), which demonstrate a dynamic republic long before Tiberius Gracchus' efforts at reform, rather than a Republic obsessively observing and maintaining a rigidly fixed constitution. Non-violent change, Flower demonstrates, was essential to the operations of these republics, and was central in the transition from one republic to another. Thus, 180 BC and the lex Villia annalis mark the beginnings of a fourth republic that witnessed significant change through the paired processes of competition and cooperation between the nobiles until 139, when the secret ballot began to be carefully and intentionally introduced; this was a fundamental innovation with far-reaching consequences, Flower argues, which marks the end of this fourth republic. Change, as Flower notes, was an accepted part of second-century republican politics: politics was not an institutionalized archaism unable to respond to foreign and domestic pressures. Flower further notes that non-violent change continued to define politics even after the career of Tiberius Gracchus, and that this non-violent change (particularly Marius' military reforms) was as important to the disruption of political workings as violent change was: violence and outside pressure, Flower argues, are not by themselves enough to account for the collapse and revolution of the 80s.

Flower is careful not to dismiss violent change entirely, but insists that only by assessing the individual instances of political violence can we accurately discuss the import of that violence for political practices. Such a reconsideration reveals the error in viewing Sulla's coup as a simple interruption in the operations of the Republic; his coup put a clear end to a fifth republic, one weakened by more than a generation of lethal and non-lethal violence. Flower demonstrates through the assessment of several examples of violence that it was used to circumvent the regular laws in order to accomplish immediate goals. Violence is shown to be not the cause of the end of republican government, but an indication of the breakdown of the system. Flower argues, in consequence, that the fifth republic was already collapsing when Sulla marched on Rome and overthrew the government. The result, Flower suggests, is that there was no republic for the majority of the 80s -- "the civil war of 83-82 was fought between a rogue regime in the city and a rogue general Sulla" (93). Sulla's attempts at reform after his return from the east were not intended to restore the republic, which he had himself overthrown, but rather to establish a new republic that would operate along different lines; Flower demonstrates quite clearly that Sulla's 'New Republic' was a sharp break from the republics of the nobiles and ancestral traditions of governance.

Flower is concerned to emphasize the internal pressures which encouraged change in the Roman political system, but not to the exclusion of the external pressures. Flower suggests that the reversals in areas where Roman armies had previously enjoyed success (e.g., Spain, North Africa, northern Italy) resulted in increased factionalization in Roman politics, as citizens began to require the leaders of the major families to justify and account for their failures; magistrates elected under the secret ballots were not able to command the same confidence that their ancestors had. As in internal politics, the external crises of the last decade of the second century, coupled with internal pressures caused by the inability of the Senate to successfully deal with the question of Italian citizenship, resulted in an increasing willingness to circumvent the normal political rules that had enabled the functioning and flourishing of the republics of the nobiles: in order to save the republic, the traditional structures were undermined.

Part Three, Aftermath (pp. 115-171), explores what Flower considers to be the final republic and some of the implications of the revised chronology of the entire republican period. One of the most significant and central is that Sulla cannot be regarded as a reformer concerned to restore senatorial supremacy. Flower argues that Sulla's system was markedly different, a New Republic rather than a restored republic. The changes introduced by Sulla to the senate itself, the cursus honorum and the contiones would all, Flower rightly argues, have marked Sulla's republic as fundamentally different from the remembered republic.

The years traditionally identified as the 'Fall of the Republic' are, according to Flower's model, actually the years after the fall of the last traditional republic. Sulla's new republic was fundamentally different, and was not wholly accepted by the senate or the magistrates. The failure of the senate to perform the role envisioned by Sulla, Flower suggests, led to the emergence of powerful generals in the style of Marius and Sulla himself; these followers, however, undermined Sulla's republic in their efforts to make it resemble more the poorly remembered republics of the second century. Flower places the end of Sulla's republic at the emergence of the alliance between Pompey, Crassus and Caesar, with the note that it (Sulla's republic) had been significantly altered a decade earlier during the consulship of Pompey and Crassus.

By way of conclusion, Flower discusses briefly a series of socio-political implications of a revised timeline, which sees an end to republican politics in 60 BC and a series of transitionary or triumviral periods thereafter. Flower's model offers a greater and more dynamic understanding of the final years of republican practices in Rome, beyond a too simple combination of institutionalized lethargy and the political ambition of one or two leading figures: the nobiles, the senators, the generals, and the soldiers all have a clearer role in the end of republican Rome if we accept that Sulla's republic was not a restoration. This chronology of the republican period is at odds with the traditional presentation of that period of Roman history. That traditional presentation, however, is unsatisfactory: as Flower demonstrates quite clearly, the republic of Cicero is not the republic of Cato the Censor or of Appius Claudius Caecus.

A republican period articulated into distinct republics has been wanting for a very long time. Flower does not claim to provide the only possible articulated chronology of the republic, simply a starting point, and in this she is successful. The framework has been established, a periodization of the republican period has been demonstrated to be effective, and the developments of politics, religion, and society in the republican period can now be more beneficially examined.

The bibliography is extensive, running to nineteen pages, and includes many new and forthcoming volumes in addition to older, standard treatments of pre-Imperial Rome. The notes are informative, directing the inquiring reader to relevant secondary material, without burdening the casual reader with excessive information. All ancient and modern quotations are translated.

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