Friday, May 21, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Aloys Winterling, Politics and Society in Imperial Rome. Malden, MA/Oxford/Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Pp. 170. ISBN 9781405179690. $99.95.
Reviewed by Carlos Machado, Universidade de São Paulo

Table of Contents

Imperial Rome was founded on a paradox. The Roman aristocracy had dominated political life since the early Republic, be it through patronage, friendship, or votes. Political dominance, in its turn, guaranteed social prominence. Magistracies brought honour, and it is not a coincidence that the word honos referred to both public esteem and office. In other words, the Republican social order was politically integrated, just as the political order was socially integrated. The advent of the Principate was marked by the introduction of a new political order, based on military and economic power, but the social order and its values remained basically the same. Emperors were a monarchic element in an aristocratic society, a paradox caused by the coexistence and inter-dependence of two contradictory temporalities, the 'simultaneity of the non-simultaneous',1 a Republican social order in an imperial polity. In order to understand the early Empire, one needs concepts of difference, and not of unity; it is necessary to incorporate the Roman paradox into our vision of imperial Rome.

This is, in a nutshell, the argument of Aloys Winterling in this stimulating collection of essays. Winterling's work is well known to German readers and this volume will hopefully bring the attention of a non-German audience to it. The articles collected in this volume span the last ten years, and although written on different occasions they show remarkable coherence. The thesis presented above is constantly restated from different points of view. Repetition is inevitable, but this is a minor fault: the author's arguments and methodology are new and sophisticated, and deserve to be well understood.

Chapter one is a short introduction and presents the argument of the book in a clear and synthetic way. Part one, "Paradoxical structures", is divided into three chapters. Chapter two discusses the Roman "State", "Society", and their political integration. Scholars studying the Principate usually emphasize either its Republican (following Mommsen) or monarchic character (as in the work of Béranger). These approaches lead to a dead end, however, as they are neither satisfactory nor contradictory. This is shown by the text of the Lex de imperio Vespasiani and its apparently contradictory rulings. A similar problem is faced by those studying Roman society, which was structured simultaneously by the competing principles of status/rank and the more open realities of political and economic power. In imperial times, the traditional social hierarchy coexisted with a new hierarchy based on proximity to the emperor and access to his resources. This is well illustrated by a letter of the younger Pliny complaining about the honours paid to the imperial freedman Pallas (Epp. 7.29 and 8.6), a man of disproportionate power and influence but who could not be fully accepted by the traditional elite. Rather than separating the realm of politics from society, what we need to do is to treat them as a single reality, albeit paradoxical. Emperors needed the senate to legitimize their power and to run the empire, as senators were seen as the summit of that society. The senate, on the other hand, needed the emperor to acknowledge its role and to seek the Curia's approval, in order to retain its dignity.

Chapter three raises the important question of how friendship and patron-client relations changed in this context. Scholars usually consider only the functional (instrumental) aspects of these relationships. This approach leads to a paradox: all-powerful emperors did not need clients and 'friends' to reach power, but money and soldiers. However, dispensing favours was a crucial strategy for remaining in power, just as was establishing friendships with aristocrats. Emperors were expected to engage in a specific form of political communication, behaving in a 'civil' manner. This allowed them to stress their participation in the old social order that they had subverted. From the senatorial point of view, the advent of Empire emptied patron-client relations of their instrumental utility. These were reduced to their symbolic meaning, a status symbol. This change led to an important development in the meaning of amicitia, now conceived as a pure and non-interested personal relationship.

The intersection of private and public is the subject of Chapter four. In the Republic, the distinction between what we consider a public and a private sphere was most strongly expressed by the opposition between domus and res publica. This conceptual distinction continued in imperial times, but the figure of the emperor, both private and public, confused its boundaries. Authors like Pliny and Tacitus introduced the term aula to clarify this situation. Confusion and ambiguity continued, however, as old categories reflecting a Republican/aristocratic system of values were not able to describe a new political reality, but still informed the political judgement and behaviour of powerful Romans.

Part two, "Two cases in point", consists of two case studies, both of them centred on the imperial court. Chapter five discusses the imperial aula, an institution that Winterling describes as a 'court without State'. In spite of having abandoned Mommsen's constitutional approach, scholars still follow his division of the court into distinct categories, such as the emperor, his council, his family, his friends, and his servants. These were in reality closely integrated. The imperial domus was unlike any aristocratic house, and the servants and friends who lived in and frequented it were an integral part of imperial power. The government of the Roman empire had a physical centre, a specific space where social and political relations were created, a centre that was superimposed over the traditional domains of the domus and res publica.

The development of the imperial order is explored in Chapter six, dealing with the 'meaningful madness' of Caligula.2 Madness, as Foucault has shown, is a social tool for characterizing behaviour considered by contemporaries as deviant.3 Rather than following the social judgment of ancient authors, Winterling places Caligula in his historical context. The emperor understood the tense paradox between the 'old' social order and the 'new' imperial regime, exposing the realities of his power in an explicit way. Winterling attributes the emperor's behaviour to the conspiracy that Caligula claimed to have discovered in AD 39. His view is that Caligula initially followed the same communicative patterns as Augustus, emphasizing his respect for the old order. The events of 39 represented a turning point, as the emperor exposed rather than concealed the paradox of the situation created by his predecessors. What he did, in sum, was to establish a new form of political communication with the troops, the aristocracy, and the people, anticipating developments that would become acceptable only in the late third century.

Part three, "Academic Approaches", discusses the works of two seminal scholars, Theodor Mommsen and Christian Meier. Chapter seven is dedicated to Mommsen and his theory that the Principate was a dyarchia. Mommsen developed this theory with the very specific aim of understanding Rome's constitutional history. There is a great difference between the realities of political life and the abstraction of Roman law, and Mommsen was well aware of this fact. As Winterling stresses, the coexistence of the 'sovereign Senate of the Principate' (Mommsen's expression) and the Augustan monarchy did not mean that these institutions were compatible. The richness of the concept of dyarchia lies in part in the fact that Mommsen was able to identify the paradox that was at the base of imperial society, even if he did not try to explain it. This paradox is also present in another crucial work, Christian Meier's Res publica amissa. The idea of the crisis of the late Republic as a 'crisis without alternative' can be seen in this same light. The Republican aristocracy was unable to change its political system and attempts at reforming the system were denounced as a threat to society, even if they seem rational in hindsight. The Republican political order lost its function as a new political and administrative system took its place, but its social values were reinforced.

Politics and Society is original in methodological and theoretical terms. Winterling's analysis focuses on what he calls 'structural history' - a concept that is never explained, but that seems to refer to the correlation of forces within the upper stratum of Roman society. As he points out, this approach allows us to avoid the pitfalls of heavily biased texts, like Tacitus or Suetonius. It is possible to incorporate the information preserved in these authors' works without following their political opinions. The author claims, instead, that these opinions should be treated as the subject of historical inquiry, as one more component of the tense relationship between emperors and senators. In the same vein, concepts such as 'friendship' or 'private' should be considered in terms of their specific, historical meaning, as they help us to understand the way in which that society thought about itself.

Throughout, Winterling's reasoning is inductive. Ancient authors are cited in order to illustrate an argument or to prove a point, rather than as the basis for a hypothesis. The argument is eminently theoretical, and the chapters have a strong essayistic flavour. The author engages in a fruitful dialogue with social theorists like Habermas and Foucault, and the reader will certainly benefit from this approach. Classicists are more used to these authors and their theories now than they were ten years ago, but Winterling's use of social theory and his 'structural' approach are refreshing and thought-provoking.4

On the other hand, more attention to the vicissitudes of political and social history is needed here. Winterling's model (in the Weberian or Finleynian sense) of two coexisting and contradictory temporalities, represented by the Republican social order and the imperial regime, leaves crucial developments out of his picture of the late Republic and early Principate. His description of the Republic is perhaps too aristocratic, especially after the works of Fergus Millar (among others) on the nature of popular participation in assemblies.5 The revolution that transformed the composition of the Roman elite between the time of Sulla and Augustus plays no role in the re-definition of the older social order, which is assumed to have survived intact until the end of the first century AD and even later.6 And yet, as Andrew Wallace-Hadrill has recently shown, this period was marked by important cultural and ideological changes within this group.7 The imperial senate is seen as remarkably unified, only disturbed at times of conspiracies. Although the sociopolitical structure uncovered by Winterling illuminates many aspects of early imperial history, one is left to wonder whether the men and women living at the time played any role in (re)defining it at all.

These criticisms are beyond what the author himself sets as his objective, however. Defining the political and social structures of the Principate is a huge task, in which the likes of Mommsen, Gelzer, and Syme achieved only partial success. Winterling's book is an important contribution to this debate, with an original and thought-provoking argument. His approach is innovative and the methodological and theoretical issues he raises are stimulating.


1.   A concept he borrows from the German historian Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past. On the semantics of historical time (New York 2004), p. 95.
2.   Winterling's book on Caligula was reviewed in 2003.12.06 and is being published in English by the University of California Press.
3.   See Foucault's Histoire de la folie (Paris, 1961).
4.   Besides Habermas' The Structural Transformation of the Private Sphere (Cambridge, 1992), one notes the influence of his The Theory of Communicative Action (Cambridge, 1986). A good example of social theory applied to imperial history is C. Ando's Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty (Berkeley, 2000).
5.   As in the articles collected in volume one of Rome, the Greek World and the East (Chapel Hill, 2002).
6.   Analysed in R. Syme's classic The Roman Revolution (Oxford, 1939).
7.   See Rome's Cultural Revolution (Cambridge, 2008).

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