Thursday, June 2, 2011


Bernhard Linke, Mischa Meier, Meret Strothmann (ed.), Zwischen Monarchie und Republik: gesellschaftliche Stabilisierungsleistungen und politische Transformationspotentiale in den antiken Stadtstaaten. Historia Einzelschriften 217. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010. Pp. 236. ISBN 9783515097826. €54.00.

Reviewed by Christopher Smith, British School at Rome (

Version at BMCR home site

This collection of essays arises from a conference held in 2006, and reflects and pays tribute to the interests of Walter Eder. They cover archaic Greece, archaic Rome, and the transition to the Augustan monarchy at Rome. All but one essay is in German.

The collection begins with a theoretical and methodological introduction, which places emphasis on the value of the comparative exercise, and I will return to this later. The essays start with the tyranny of Cypselus and Periander; the focus of Schmitz's account is to understand the ways in which the concepts of legitimacy changed during the period. The tyrants gain legitimacy from the Bacchiads, and then perhaps lose legitimacy by social and political change. Much of the chapter is based on assessments of the accounts of Herodotus and Nicolaus of Damascus, and the literary elements are emphasised.

Welwei returns to the much-debated question of the relationship between the Peisistratid tyranny and the Athenian democracy. Welwei does not see the tyranny as a necessary precursor of democracy, and does not accept any generalizable principles along these lines. Tyranny is an interruption in general terms, and not simply an interruption of the traditional aristocracy.

Rhodes' essay argues that Athenian stability after 404 BC is best explained by a general acceptance of the principles of democracy, coupled with a pragmatic attempt to modify its practices and to avoid the excesses of the fifth century. This interesting outline suggests that it became more accepted that democracy could be adjusted without failing, and this allowed politicians to move away from seriously held beliefs in diametrically opposed support of democracy or oligarchy.

Leppin looks at Xenophon's Hieron, and the essay relates well to at least the problems outlined by Rhodes. In Leppin's interpretation Xenophon advocates the removal of a focus on the personal element or the charismatic value of a leader in favour of the technique of leadership. The work is therefore both more and less than a mirror to the prince; it does not set out to show the image of a good prince, but the methods required to be a good prince.

Meier looks at three case studies for political figures who represent a brake on power and a somewhat democratic element; the ephors of Sparta, the tribunes of the Roman plebs, and the goden or legal spokesman of medieval Iceland. The comparison of classical antiquity with medieval Iceland is not new but it still has the capacity for further exploration. Here the emphasis is on the way in which popular political office, in all three case studies, tends to lead to more extreme claims for power in terms of scope of authority, or in terms of protection – the ephorate for instance is described as seeking a process of 'Aristokratisierung' and the tribunate are (as in the following chapter by Linke) associated with the monarchy. There are some quite complex issues surrounding collegiality which might affect the claims made here. One might question whether the fact of the collegiality of the magistracies, especially the tribunate when it arrives at the number of ten individuals, negates any monarchical tendency, but the comparison between Rome and Sparta deserves further exploration.

Linke looks at the transition from monarchy to the Republic in Rome – which, interestingly, is a transition between two constitutional forms of government and a move towards greater democracy –; it is the only such example in the volume. Here, Linke expands on the old argument that the plebeians were closer to the kingship than the aristocratic patricians and that the plebeians' capacity for integration proved stronger than patrician exclusivity, but that increasingly plebeians moved towards a more Republican standpoint. Both sides then found themselves immensely invested in their res publica. It seems to me that there remain some difficulties in extracting this narrative from the sources, not least the absence of any real understanding of the nature of archaic kingship, and the model of the popular individual leader may be derived too fully from alternative sources to be a reliable model, but this is an intriguing essay nonetheless.

Schmitt's essay on Janus fits into the volume's emphasis on transition between forms of power, by virtue of his thesis that Augustus, using Varro's account, manipulated the deity into becoming a deity of peace which suited his monarchic vision. Schmitt's account relates to broader issues about the re-descriptions of religion and institutional life which can be seen in the early imperial period, for instance debates over the introduction of the virtues of the imperial family into public religious life. It is however perhaps the least well integrated into the volume as a whole.

Raaflaub considers Caesar's Civil War and the contribution this made to the definitive change of political constitution. Jehne in a densely argued piece looks for the roots of Caesar's monarchic tendencies in the Republic, and on the whole seems to stress the radical nature of Caesar's position. Finally Strothmann's essay on Augustus argues for his concern for the unity and harmony of heaven and earth, though the three theses which underpin his argument (the sacrality of kings, the importance of military success and the necessity of this act of unification within the ideology of rulership) could undoubtedly be multiplied, contested and reformulated, and perhaps applied with equal accuracy to the Republican order.

The volume is set up to invite comparisons between the case studies, and one essay is specifically comparative, but there are problems with this construction, and especially around some of the most complex concepts which underlie the work. The very nature of monarchy is variable, even in antiquity. Sparta had two kings. Insofar as it is possible to say anything at all about the early Roman kings, they were neither like the Bacchiads nor the Cypselids. If the later Roman kings resemble tyrants, we will never know for sure how much of that is historiographical overlay, or from what period. And a Roman emperor cannot readily be compared to archaic forms of government.

The volume therefore is a comparison of transitional moments, and the issue is whether these represent stabilization or transformation of political form. To a degree, both presuppose determined intent. It is also very difficult to get past the historiographical flattening out of contest and stasis in favour of unilinear development – the beginning of the Roman Republic may have been even rockier than the sources betray, and ancient accounts of the highly controversial moves towards some form of centralised rule in the later first century BC at Rome, although they reveal elements of controversy and contest, also portray them through the perspective of survivors under the system which was ultimately successful. In short, the volume is optimistic about the similarities between transitions, whereas a differently conceived account might present comparative accounts of descriptions of transition, without assuming that the reality was so similar. In other words, are we seeing standard accounts of the passage from one constitution to another rather than common historical features in how these societies managed transition? Given the disparate nature of the case studies, the latter might seem more plausible.

It is not wholly clear what the specific point or purpose of comparison is for the volume as a whole, and comparison is not straightforward – medieval Iceland tells us nothing about fifth century Rome, although it may offer a helpful heuristic exercise. This volume does however prompt thoughts about the construction of stable governance in antiquity. A fear of violence coupled with inherently unstable and personal leadership and highly concentrated power structures make transitions particularly interesting in antiquity, as does the actual longevity of many of the societies within which these transitions occur. The volume is perhaps not wholly successful in effecting comparison between the various case studies, but it addresses substantial questions both particular to local events, and more broadly, to Europe and the Mediterranean as a whole.

Table of Contents

Einleitung – Zwischen Monarchie und Republik

Winfried Schmitz, Kypselos und Periandros. Mordende Despoten oder Wohltater der Stadt?

Karl-Wilhelm Welwei, Eine Tyrannis als Vorstufe der Demokratie? Uberlegungen zur Tyrannis des Peisistratos

P.J. Rhodes, Stability in the Athenian Democracy after 403 B.C.

Hartmut Leppin, Xenophons Hieron: Uberlegungen zur Geschichte des monarchischen Denkens im klassischen Athen

Mischa Meier, Ephoren, Volkstribune, Goden: Zum Aufstieg politischer ‚Nebenkrafte' in

Sparta, Rom und im mittelalterlichen Island

Bernhard Linke, Von der Monarchie zur Republik: Roms langer Weg zum republikanischen


Tassilo Schmitt, Die Schlie├čung des Ianus als Erfindung, Tradition und Symbol. Epik, Historiographie und politische Wirklichkeit

Kurt A. Raaflaub, Poker um Macht und Freiheit: Caesars Burgerkrieg als Wendepunkt im

Ubergang von der Republik zur Monarchie

Martin Jehne, Der Dictator und die Republik. Wurzeln, Formen und Perspektiven von Caesars Monarchie

Meret Strothmann, Himmel und Erde im Einklang. Augustus und der eine Gott

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