Friday, July 22, 2011


H. H. Scullard, From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome 133 B.C. to A.D. 68 (first published 1959). Routledge Classics. London/New York: Routledge, 2011. Pp. xxxi, 410. ISBN 9780415584883. $24.95 (pb).

Reviewed by John Noël Dillon, University of Exeter (

Version at BMCR home site


Fifty-two years, five editions (1959, 1963, 1970, 1976, 1982), and more than as many reprints since it first appeared, From the Gracchi to Nero is still praised by some of the greatest contemporary scholars of Roman history, whose laudes are listed on the first page of the front matter of the 2011 edition here under review.1

The present reprint in the Routledge Classics series advertises a new foreword by Dominic Rathbone, who teaches at King's College, London, where Scullard taught until his retirement in 1970. It is in fact four and a half pages long. Rathbone attributes the success of From the Gracchi to Nero to the "chronological centrality" of its material (evident in its title) and moreover to its excellence as a textbook. "Like Scullard himself," writes Rathbone, "it bears a quiet air of authority" (ibid.). Scullard is judicious and learned, yet also unassuming and generally accessible; and, finally, he writes well. Style, after all, abides.

Rathbone does not really make good his promise to estimate the impact of From the Gracchi to Nero; nor is it necessary to do so.2 He instead sketches the interpretation of Roman history that the book has propagated over fifty years. It is, unsurprisingly, a traditional history that dwells on the politics and campaigns of Great Men. Given his own extensive research on Roman economics, Rathbone is generous to call the book "almost ahead of its time" (xxvii) for its two chapters each on social and economic life and on art, literature, and thought in the Late Republic and Early Principate.

Rathbone states, "Scullard's overview of Roman history is grounded in early twentieth-century liberalism." It is a liberalism that accepts conquest in the name of peace and prosperity, advocates individual liberty, yet also demands patriotic social responsibility. This political philosophy emerges clearly in Scullard's lionizing of Cicero's concordia ordinum (p. 95): Scullard's Cicero perishes in the attempt to strike "one more blow in defence of the free state" (136). The advocacy of individual freedom also appears in the condemnation of statist control. For example, in a passage that will dismay contemporary scholars of Late Antiquity, Scullard blames Claudius for planting the seeds of "that gigantic bureaucratic machine" which "choke[d] the free life of the whole Roman world" (247).

Much more could and should be said about From the Gracchi to Nero as a textbook in the twenty-first century. Obviously, there is much dated content in a book last revised in 1982.3 The style of the book, too, often strikes one as quaint. The manner in which Scullard writes a brief epitaph after the death of a famous Roman (in passages that might serve well as English texts for Latin translation exercises) harkens back to the ancients themselves.4 Likewise, this history of the Late Republic is an old-fashioned tale of moral decline (a fact Rathbone notes, but does not press). The reader watches the Republic fall like a tall building that comes crashing down as its leaders succumb to decadence and vice.5

This story of virtue and vice simplifies the history of a troubled age. Much of the political strife in From the Gracchi to Nero is described as a contest between selfishness and generosity, beginning with the agrarian crisis and the extension of Roman citizenship to the allies and ending with Roman "responsibilities" toward the provinces. The Senate and plebs are alternately "selfish"; attempts to enfranchise the Italians, "generous."6 A reader today deserves to understand why the Roman nobility or the urban poor felt that their rights were jeopardized, whether or not those fears were justified or justifiable. When Scullard accuses the miserable poor of Rome as "increasingly irresponsible and unrepresentative of the needs of the people as a whole" (24) he overlooks the fact that the urban plebs were the Romans who had the greatest needs of all. Why is it so good and so obviously right that all Italy unite in Roman citizenship and "grow into a nation" (58)?

This tendency is related to one of the less edifying qualities of the work. Scullard advocates throughout a kind of Italian nationalism that is surprising from an author writing after the rise and fiery collapse of fascism in Europe:

...many of the more remote country towns of central Italy must have retained a more untouched Italian way of life, and it was from this healthier source, rather than from the older Hellenized aristocracy or urban mob in Rome that Augustus was to seek regenerative powers for Roman society. (161)

How can Scullard praise the fusion of Greek and Roman culture, yet think the backwater towns of Italy "healthier" than the "demoralized" and Hellenized Romans of the Late Republic, who are "unworthy of Rome's past" (195)? A Livy or Sallust might think so. Augustus himself is transformed into a model of good-old-fashioned Italian (or perhaps English?) pragmatism and sobriety, whose "temperament and birth" (195) make him suited to reform the morals of Rome.

Modern readers should also be warned that From the Gracchi to Nero is very much a pre-colonial work of scholarship. Scullard at times betrays a complacency toward imperialism that is unthinkable today. Scullard writes, "The Gauls fought for freedom, but freedom for what?" (113). They would have continued to wage war on one another and then been conquered by the Germans, "and they would have brought, not a higher civilization, but a retrogression to barbarism. . .As it was, a generation bled, suffered and died, but the succeeding one enjoyed peace, thanks to their predecessors' sacrifice and to the wisdom of their conqueror's final settlement. (113-114)

Finally, one of the less obvious characteristics of the work: From the Gracchi to Nero might better be called From the Gracchi to St. Paul. The selflessness expected of the Romans suggests a Christian message, and Christian coloring throughout the book seems to confirm it: Ti. Gracchus is "not a voice crying in the wilderness" (21); "The Gracchi were in a true sense martyrs: they had witnessed to their belief in the need for reform and they had suffered for their faith" (32); "Vergil and Horace started indeed as poets of the revolutionary triumviral period but they became the evangelists of the settlement" (200). Later, Scullard is explicit:

Few contemporaries...can have realized that the most important event for the future of the Roman empire as well as for the later world...was the life and teaching of Jesus Christ in Palestine under the procuratorship of Pilate who, yielding to the hatred of the Jews, ordered his crucifixion. (235)

The book ends with the evangelism of St. Paul, whose mission to the gentiles is facilitated by the pax Romana and whose life is saved (initially anyway) by possession of Roman citizenship (309). The teleological urgency of Italian unification and the harmony of the Roman Empire become intelligible, as St. Augustine argued long ago.

Every great history eventually becomes a nuisance to contemporary historians. From the Gracchi to Nero is written not for today's student, though it has much to offer, but for privileged, Christian, English schoolboys in need of heroes and steeped in war and politics, who believe in the righteousness of empire and the march of civilization—and who incidentally can already read Latin.7

Many things made and make From the Gracchi to Nero a great book: The lengthy chronological table in the front is ideal for study. Scullard's presentation is balanced and unprepossessing. The work breathes an air of confident, competent scholarship, and the extensive notes give a veritable snapshot of a great generation of English scholarship on Rome, with a touch of continental learning. The book is detailed--even too detailed--but it is perhaps this very abundance that attracts and fascinates the amateur and the enthusiast, the "general reader" who is not satisfied by generalizations and vague references, who wants to know what happened. Until Scullard's work is finally supplanted, publishers may well continue to reprint From the Gracchi to Nero.8


1.   Miriam Griffin, Richard Talbert, Greg Woolf, Tim Cornell, and Ronald Mellor, all of whose praise appeared already on the 2001 reprint.
2.   F. W. Walbank, "Howard Hayes Scullard†," Gnomon 56 (1984), 189-191 concluded that, "It is arguable that no scholar of this century has been more influential in encouraging and furthering the study of Roman history in English-speaking schools and universities."
3.   With respect to content, not character, Scullard's depiction of Roman religion, either as something native and original threatened by Eastern contamination (cf. 9, 175), or as a fossilized system of rituals devoid of meaning (174, 197), is to be deprecated.
4.   Sertorius (76), Spartacus (80), Mithridates (86), Pompey (117f.), Caesar (129f.), etc.
5.   "If the governing class became rotten, there would be little hope for the Republic" (11); cf. p. 149f.
6.   On the demise of the Republic, Scullard concludes (130): "A selfish oligarchy of nobles and capitalists, who exploited the provincials in the interests of themselves and of an idle urban mob, had failed to preserve law and peace, let alone to set their house in better order. The days of the city-state were over, and Rome must recognize her responsibilities to the non-political orders in Italy and the provinces."
7.   As Rathbone notes (xxv), even this reprint of the 1982 edition still contains untranslated snippets of Vergil and other phrases, e.g. 15: imperium maiestatemque populi Romani comiter conservanto (Cic. Balb. 35—future imperative and all!); cf. 58, 160, 199.
8.   Typos: "extortioncourt" (31); read "named" for "name" (66); "under-took" (140); "harbourdues" (151); "healtheir" (161); read "any influence" for "nay influence" (249); "cornshortage" (268); read "Res publica amissa" for "Re publica amissa" (349); read "Burkert" for "Burket" (361); "negotatores" (368).


  1. In reading John N. Dillon’s thoughtfully formulated appraisal of H. H. Scullard, From the Gracchi to Nero (2011.07.36), it was a jolt to find my own name listed among those scholars whose praise of this venerable 1950s textbook is prominently featured in its latest reissue. I did indeed provide some well chosen words for a previous reissue a decade and more ago, but it should be understood that I was not consulted about their repetition this year. To claim today, as Dillon himself does at the end of his review, that Scullard’s book has yet to be supplanted for readers who want ‘to know what happened’ (beyond generalizations and vague references) is simply incorrect. There have in fact been several recent books which aim to meet that need and much more, including The Romans from Village to Empire (Oxford U. P., 2004), which I co-authored with Mary Boatwright and Daniel Gargola. An expanded second edition is about to appear. The revised text is reinforced by an even larger array of maps and illustrations than before, many now in color. Invaluable though such components surely are for effective teaching and learning, it was just not practical to incorporate them in a British textbook of the 1950s on the generous scale that has since become routine. Hence Scullard’s book was, and is, without illustrations and almost without maps; moreover, the latest items of bibliography it cites are thirty years old. Nowadays, for the sake of the pupils they are striving to engage, instructors who still persist in requiring Scullard for Roman history classes should seriously consider a twenty-first century alternative. Exposure to the period piece that his book has become is best postponed to an upper-level seminar on changing approaches and fashions in the teaching of ancient history.

    Richard Talbert,
    History Dept., University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

  2. In culling typos, the original reviewer perhaps missed "Cornith" for Corinth p. 4. I'm consulting the 1989 reprint.

    Talbert's absurd view (but what IS his real view?--note his politically convenient recantation), that Scullard's standard text must now be treated as a radioactive isotope, carefully shielded from its originally intended audience, and taught, if at all, only to the carefully inoculated "advanced" as a regrettable negative example from our benighted past, is just a trivial illustration of the muddy ditch the American academy has somehow driven itself into. Call the dredger and the tow-truck, please.