Thursday, November 18, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp, Reconstructing the Roman Republic: An Ancient Political Culture and Modern Research (translated by Henry Heitmann-Gordon; revised, updated, and augmented by the author). Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010. Pp. xiv, 189. ISBN 9780691140384. $35.00.

Reviewed by Gareth C. Sampson


This is an English translation of Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp's 2004 work,1 which was revised and updated by the author himself prior to translation. In the introduction, the author provides the rationale behind the book, which he intends as an overview of recent decades of work on the Roman Republic. This work, he argues, has been revitalised by fresh approaches to the task of defining the political culture of the Republic. The book comprises nine chapters analysing the political and sociological theories which Hölkeskamp believes lie at the heart of the current debate.

Chapter One, "From Provocation to Discussion, A Plea for Continuation," acts as an overview in which Hölkeskamp traces a change in the approach to studying the Republic back to Fergus Millar, who he argues challenged the consensus that Rome was an oligarchy and that the prosopographical approach was the appropriate one. However, Hölkeskamp goes on to argue that Millar was not the first to challenge the traditional prosopographical approach to Roman history. Hölkeskamp goes further, too, arguing that a new consensus has been built up by Millar and those who have supposedly followed his path. These have in turn created a new orthodoxy, which has itself been too overstated.

With each side apparently overstating the other's position, Hölkeskamp offers his work as a balance between the two. The reader is given the impression that the author is trying too hard to create a clear-cut conflict within the community of Roman historians, with himself in the role of neutral referee.

Chapter Two, "Reality versus System, Conventional Conceptualizations of a Constitution," develops the theme of the first chapter. In this chapter Fergus Millar's theories are described as being simplistic and superficial and based on a traditionalism dating back to Mommsen. The works and theories of Christian Meier are discussed, with Meier being lauded as a pioneer of the move away from the so-called traditional approaches to studies of the Republic and favourably compared to Millar. Hölkeskamp provides an interesting discussion on the nature of written and unwritten constitutions and how they apply to Rome. He then moves on to discuss the role of mos maiorum as a regulating system for the Republic and how an increasing disregard for it was a contributing factor to the decline of the Republic. Hölkeskamp argues that the replacement of a flexible system such as the mos maiorum by legislation trying to prescribe social norms led to a decline in the Republican system. He argues that the replacement of the mos maiorum by legislation signifies loss of consensus rather than democracy's rise.

In Chapter 3, "From System to Structure, New Questions about the Social Framework of Politics," Hölkeskamp focuses on the systems and offices of the Republic, in particular the tribunate of the plebs and the Senate. He sees the power of the Senate as a result of its freedom from formally defined and precisely circumscribed responsibilities, which allowed it to occupy a central role in the Republic. He also argues that a key role of the Senate was as guardian and arbiter of the mos maiorum at the centre of the Republican system. He follows this with a fascinating analysis of the evolving nature of the clientage system in Rome, which he describes as a series of ephemeral networks, of constantly shifting coalitions within the Roman social order. Hölkeskamp then expands upon Meier's theories concerning the differences between the Struggle of the Orders and the disintegration of the Republic, with the former producing new norms and consensus and the latter creating a self- perpetuating system of disharmony and disunity. Throughout the chapter Hölkeskamp restates his belief in the superiority of the theories of Meier over those of Millar.

Chapter 4, "From Structures to Concepts, Problems of (Self-) Conceptualization of an Alien Society," is a short one in which Hölkeskamp addresses the question of why the Republic didn't collapse earlier by examining what he believes were the underlying strengths of the Republican system. In particular he examines the solidarity of the ruling class and the obedience of the populus Romanus in maintaining the structures and practices of the Republic. He also outlines the way ancient historians have taken notice of developments in other fields of history and applied them to ancient societies and asks how far these techniques work.

In Chapter 5, "From Concepts to Political Culture, The Benefits of Theory," Hölkeskamp explores the unconscious underlying framework of a poorly documented society and asks how far it can be recovered by modern theorists. To accomplish this, Hölkeskamp analyses a range of Republican experiences from the ritualization of the assemblies to the spectacle of the Triumph to assess the experience of the participants and the multi-layered messages such events contained. He also considers topics such as urban space and the world of images in stone, from public spaces, monuments and public buildings, all of which he argues formed an intrinsic part of the Republican system: politics visible and audible.

In Chapter 6, "Between 'Aristocracy' and 'Democracy', Beyond a Dated Dichotomy," Hölkeskamp analyses the Roman aristocracy. He returns to familiar territory with more barbed comments about Fergus Millar, this time focussed on Millar's methodology, which he considers to be sweeping, one-sided and angry, and goes on to accuse Millar of not making an effort to conduct a detailed analysis of the topic.2 The topic of Meier's superiority to Millar recurs. Hölkeskamp presents an interesting analysis of the Roman nobility, arguing that it was an aristocracy of office rather than one of birth and a positive force of integration following territorial expansion. He finishes with an analysis of the leading plebeian families of the Republic.

In Chapter 7, "Consensus and Consent, Necessary Requirements of a Competitive Culture," Hölkeskamp returns to his discussion of the visibility and audibility of the Roman political system and focuses on the issue of public presentations, treating a range of locations and public events. Hölkeskamp connects this aspect of politics to the change in the nature of the clientage system he discussed earlier, arguing that the growth of clientage resulted in a decline of personal contact between patron and client and thus led to a growth in other forms of media.

Chapter 8, "Symbolic Capital as Social Credit, Locating the Core of the Consensus,") considers the nature of the Roman nobility and the methods they used to maintain pre-eminence, in the light of his argument that they were an aristocracy of office rather than birth. He discusses the various theories of social and symbolic capital and how they apply to the Republic. In particular he argues that many of the aristocracy had a natural advantage as they already possessed capital created by their noble ancestors, but that they had to renew it constantly for it to be relevant to the current generation. Thus the memories of the Roman populace had to be refreshed to remind them of an aristocrat's prominent ancestor. Hölkeskamp argues that this created problems, as the greater a family's past achievements, the greater the pressure on the current generation to enhance that inherited capital.

In Chapter 9, "An End of the Beginning, A New Ancient History and its Topicality," Hölkeskamp returns to his historiographical analysis of the trends in Republican scholarship. This is a wide-ranging discussion with analysis of the roles of such figures as Finley, Syme, Gelzer and Meier. Hölkeskamp argues that prosopography led to the solidification and sterilisation of ancient history. Summing up his arguments on the Republican system, Hölkeskamp argues for the necessity of creating a conceptual framework with room for all of the elements of the Republican system. He argues that there was a stable network of social structures and mechanisms which ensured integration of all the elements of Roman society, and that the Republic was infused with a deep-rooted culture of consensus at all levels, and that it was the disruption of this consensus which caused the system to collapse.

The final chapter is followed by a comprehensive forty page bibliography covering the whole range of topics raised in the book, from Roman history to political and sociological theory—an excellent complement to the work.

Overall, this is a fascinating and thought-provoking work which tries to add a fresh dimension to the field of Roman Republican studies. The translation is an excellent one, especially given the book's complex arguments. Structurally, the chapters have a tendency to jump back and forth between topics, often returning to a subject first raised in the chapter before last. The other noticeable aspect is that whilst the work is strong on the strengths of the Roman Republican system, the reasons behind its collapse are not investigated in corresponding depth. The final comment must concern the unnecessary and somewhat gratuitous attacks on the scholarship and sometimes character of Fergus Millar which infuse this work.


1.   Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp, Rekonstruktionen einer Republik. Die politische Kultur des antiken Rom und die Forschung der letzten Jahrzehnte, München, Oldenbourg Wissenschaftsverlag, 2004.
2.   p.76.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.