Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Monica Chiabà, Roma e le priscae Latinae coloniae. Polymnia: studi di storia romana, 1. Trieste: Edizioni Università di Trieste, 2011. Pp. xx, 242. ISBN 9788883033612. €22.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Christopher Smith, British School at Rome (director@bsrome.it)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This volume is the publication of a doctoral thesis which had its origins in Trieste and in Rome. It considers the phenomenon of the founding of Latin colonies by Rome from the beginning of the fifth century to 338 BC. The first chapter look at the very earliest examples; the second at the nature of the relationship between Rome and the Latins; the third at the ancient tradition on ager Romanus antiquus. The fourth and longest chapter is a chronologically organised account of each colony. The conclusions are followed by a substantial bibliography of 77 pages.

Throughout, Chiabà takes the view that the sources are for the most part to be trusted; that they either accurately report past events, or can be interpreted to explain motives and causes. The account is interesting because it presents this position with a high degree of consistency, and is the fullest modern account we have. The question of course is whether such a position holds up.

For the period before the foedus Cassianum, a handful of foundations are mentioned by Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Plutarch; the mysterious Signourion (possibly the same as Signia, which is also mentioned); Pometia (possibly Satricum); Cora; Fidenae (which is also attributed to Romulus); and Velitrae. In this context Chiabà introduces the idea of gentilicial rather than state-inspired foundations; and goes on to indicate problems over the precise juridical status of these foundations, which she takes to be Latin. One stumbling block would be the absence of Velitrae in the list of Latin colonies in Livy in the context of the Hannibalic War, but Chiabà assumes that the status had changed as a result of punishment in 338 BC (Livy 8.14.5-7).

The ability to found Latin colonies from Rome this early presupposes some degree of control over the status of Latinity, and it is therefore necessary for Chiabà to argue that Rome was indeed predominant in Latium from at least the period of the foedus Cassianum. This requires explanation of L. Cincius' passage (Festus 276L) in which he has been taken by some to suggest that the Romans and Latins rotated command of the Latin League until 340 BC; Chiabà argues that this rotation perhaps ceased with the treaty, or that the command only changed on rare occasions when the Latins invited Roman help.

The tradition on the ager publicus Romanus is then defended; this land included both private land and land enjoyed by the gentes, and expanded with conquest, and was the object of plebeian desire. This becomes significant later on in the work.

The treatment of the individual colonies is detailed and contains full reference to the sources, largely to argue for their general reliability. The conclusion is an argument that what plebeians wanted was viritane distribution, but what the patricians wanted was colonization, which left their lands untouched. So the tradition does contain a legitimate account, and we see Latin colonies then as part of the struggle between a landowning elite, and a new radical force seeking a fairer distribution, and objecting to their being sent off as defensive garrisons.

The book is well and conscientiously written, but it lacks two key demonstrations; the first that we have any reason to believe that the narrative is reliable; and the second that the construction of the legal forms is anything other than later invention. Although both are touched on in the introduction, a sceptical approach might look for more defence. A lot depends inevitably on the existence of some record of the foundation of the colonies, either in the Annales Maximi, or in some other list which finds its way into the standard account. To some extent there is also quite a lot riding on the relationship between consuls and colonies; Chiabà notes the importance of triumvirs for founding colonies, but a sceptic might argue that the narrative of the early consuls (who of course may have been praetors) is highly dependent on the names of places colonized and that a degree of simplification may have gone on. If an annalist was faced with the name of Valerius Publicola and the place Signourion (or some other garbled name) he may have resorted to some scholarly reconstruction. (Increasing evidence for the later 6th century at Signia is only glanced at here, but at some point will need to be worked in more fully). The foedus Cassianum is sufficiently notorious not to need much labouring here, except to point out that its terms can only ever be conjectural, and there is much danger in a contextual analysis which may itself depend on contextual analyses from antiquity (what did the ancients really know about this treaty, and when did they come to know it?) Finally, just to take an example, what we know about Labici is very little. We are not sure where it was precisely. It seems to have been taken by the Volscians, and is mentioned in various lists of cities, especially connected with Coriolanus. It was clearly disputed territory until the Romans decided to send 1500 colonists in 418, and then more or less disappears. Here the issue must be whether the ancients knew a lot which is condensed to the scattered references, or whether they guessed their way forwards from very little. What evidence specifically could there have been for Livy's two comments, first that the foundation of Labici was a cunning senatorial ruse to anticipate a plebeian demand for viritane distribution; and second that each colonist got two iugera apiece?

If one were arguing about this is a Greek context, I suspect that one would have started to talk about local traditions of history and knowledge, and this is the second gap in Chiabà's account. The huge debate on what a Greek colony was (and if indeed colony was a word that should be used) is absent from consideration. Yet it is far from clear that we know what a Latin colony was really like, and some of the same objections to the term colony may apply here, since it is easy simply to translate colonia but not at all easy to be sure that the translation is not a false friend.

Here there are two issues. One is about institutional and constitutional memory. One might set up for instance an illustrative dichotomy; either the Romans remembered complicated arguments about status from the fifth century BC, or they rationalised the product of a desperate scramble for territorial advantage in a period of vicious sporadic fighting. If the latter, who cared if Bola or Vitellia was or was not Latin? They were presumably grabbed, fortified, held in some shape or form, whether by the full original force or by some much less well organised and disparate group, in the teeth of the forces of climate, geography and internal migration. Many of the colonies seem to have been or become fairly independent, perhaps the subject of long term negotiated relationships. Fifth century realities and post —Hannibalic war reflection on this odd group of outposts may have had little in common. At the same time, we hear next to nothing in this account about the possibility of local versions of their identity, and how these might then be located in other narratives.

This leads to the second issue; what in fact was a Latin colony—what was the phenotype that contained Signia and Sutrium, Velletri and Vitellia? Chiabà's argument that they share an origin in the politics of the struggle of the orders is interesting and may hold some truth, but there is little elaboration here of what that might mean. Were all the colonists therefore clients? Were they indebted to a family name more than to Rome? Was that why they had lower stakes in the voting game, as a balance? Or was it really the worst job in the world? What did one feel like a hundred years after foundation—despondent and disenfranchised, or proud to have upheld the Latin name?

Here we need more on the archaeology. Looking at Signia's walls and its temple foundation and its position, for example, cannot prove anything one way or another, but this is a subject where one needs to start to try to put together geography, archaeology and history—but perhaps history in the sense of what sort of tradition was possible, both at Rome, and locally, and over time. It is also important to see these megalithic walls in the broader context of Italic fortifications, perhaps as part of a rhetoric of monumentality. We also need more on the formation of the tradition. One is struck by how many Latin colonies are said also to have a relationship with Alba Longa, once Rome's mother city, but then Rome's sad victim. Understanding the role of the story of Alba Longa in the construction of justifications in and around the subjugation of the Latins in 338 BC remains a potentially intriguing subject.

Chiabà has therefore given us a useful volume, well researched and well documented, but also a reminder that in these difficult areas one needs to consider a very wide range of alternative methodologies for understanding the evidence. This is therefore far from a demonstration of the reliability of the ancient account, but it does show that there is still work to be done.

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