Friday, September 14, 2012


Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp, Die Entstehung der Nobilität: Studien zur sozialen und politischen Geschichte der Römischen Republik im 4. Jh. v. Chr. 2., erweiterte Auflage (first edition published 1987). Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2011. Pp. xxxiii, 344. ISBN 9783515098830.

Reviewed by Kaj Sandberg, Åbo Akademi University (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Cologne professor Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp has published extensively and variously both on the Greek World and Rome, but he is probably best known for his research on the political and social history of the Roman Republic as well as on the political culture and mentalities of this society (I have not done all of the bibliometrics needed to be more precise here). The volume under review constitutes the third incarnation of an acclaimed study that first appeared as his dissertation in late 1984. After a thorough revision it was issued in print three years later by Steiner Verlag,1 which is also the publisher of the present manifestation. What may well prove to be remembered as his magnum opus provides a well-documented and meticulous analysis of the emergence, in the course of the fourth century BC, of the Roman nobilitas as a socio-political class. The gradual coalescence, out of an initial state of division and mutual opposition, of the old patriciate with an ascending plebeian élite largely replaced an original, or, at any rate, near-original,2 closed hereditary aristocracy with a (quasi-)meritocracy that at all times was capable of admitting new families to its ranks. The various stages of this immensely important historical process – along with all of the intricate underlying dynamics in their social, institutional and cultural settings – are examined in unsurpassed detail in this classic study.

Though labeled an "erweiterte Auflage" this release is not, strictly speaking, a new edition. It does not represent a retractatio, but a reprint enhanced with updates in the form of a newly written introductory essay and two separate addenda. The reprint part of this issue, being "ein unveränderter Nachdruck der im Jahre 1987 erschienenen Arbeit" (p. vii), is actually a facsimile reproduction of the original main body of the text – consisting of six main chapters (I–VI), two of which are further sub-divided – along with the original preface and the whole apparatus of citation and reference in the notes, bibliography and indices. All of which is well and fine. As we deal with a seminal study that has been extensively referred to and discussed in the scholarly literature over the last twenty-five years, this specific kind of republishing format has several obvious advantages. Retaining not only the original pagination, but also the precise verbatim contents of all those statements and passages that have been cited and "gone into circulation", a non-invasive re-packaging clearly serves a useful purpose.

The first edition of Die Entstehung der Nobilität has become increasingly hard to find in the international book market. A re-issue is therefore most welcome, as it remains essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in republican Rome. Not only is it an important inquiry in its own right, but it also marks a significant shift in the recent development of Roman studies. Whereas the archaic period of Roman history has always attracted its due share of attention among Italian and French scholars, it was for a long time markedly underresearched in both the German and Anglophone worlds. In the "Vorwort zur Neuauflage" (p. vii–viii), speaking from his own experiences at Bochum as well as at Oxford, Hölkeskamp notes that when he began his research for the study thirty years ago his area of interest lay far beyond the chronological termini imposed by then-current convention. There was at the time a general scholarly consensus that dealing with the Middle and Early Republic was not only an unpromising and somehow devious pursuit, but outright "karriereschädlich" (p. vii). The widespread perception that there was little or nothing new to be discovered about these periods was paired with a general neglect, in academic teaching, of all Roman history prior to the Punic Wars (ibid.). In the mid-80s time was ripe for a change. Together with a handful of other publications the present study deserves credit and attention also for attracting new interest to earlier Roman history, which today constitutes a thriving field of research.3 As a matter of fact, the complex political and social developments the inquiry addresses involve or border on a host of intriguing problems that have been major topics in the scholarly discussion of the last twenty-five years. This whole state of affairs is the principal rationale for an enhanced re-release.

As for the new material included in the volume, a lengthy introductory essay provides a broad introduction to and contextualization of the themes of the study. This treatise, entitled "Die klassische Republik in der Forschung 1986– 2011: Themen und Tendenzen" (p. ix–xxxiii), is an erudite and very valuable survey of the themes and tendencies of the research on the Classical Republic of the last twenty-five years. In effect, it is also a substantial contribution to the ongoing debate, sparked by Fergus Millar nearly thirty years ago,4 on the fundamental nature of the political system of republican Rome. This important discussion – focusing on the question of to what extent the populus Romanus in its formally omnipotent electoral, legislative and judicial assemblies was able to exert real power in a society that since the days of Mommsen has been perceived as an oligarchy – is taking place between the adherents of the so-called orthodox view (based on the immensely influential works of Gelzer and Münzer) on the one hand, and the revisionists arguing for the importance of the popular element in the political process, on the other. Hölkeskamp, who has repeatedly contributed to this lively debate,5 is critical of the revisionist scholars' focus on constitutional form but also of the factional approach of the prosopographical school and restates his view that it was the political culture of the Romans – the values, traditions and practices of élite and ordinary citizens alike – that defined the nature of the political system, which in his interpretation of the evidence was controlled by the nobilitas.

A more explicit update, with regard to the specific contents of the original study, is provided at the end of the book. Whereas the introductory essay represents a self-contained scholarly treatise, the section "Kapitel I–VI: Addenda 2001" (pp. 305–331) constitutes a supplement – and a very substantial one – to the notes of the first edition. Here the author offers a wealth of new material in the form of references to works published after 1986 as well as novel discussions. This part of the book is designed to be read collaterally with the six chapters of the study, progressing chapter by chapter and page by page; the subject matters discussed are marked out by means of bold lemmata. An additional bibliography ("Literaturverzeichnis: Addenda 2011", pp. 333–344), containing all the titles and publication dates of the works referred to in the introductory essay and in the supplement, concludes the volume.

As has become clear in this review, the enhanced re-release of Hölkeskamp's magisterial study of the origins of the nobilitas of the Roman Republic is most welcome and deserves the attention of all students of Roman history.

Lastly, I wish to extend my sincerest apology to the editors of the BMCR, and also to the author of the reviewed volume, for the tardiness of this review.


1.   Reviews of the first edition include: J. Hellegouarc'h, Revue des Études Latines 66 (1988), 325–326; R. Seager, Liverpool Classical Monthly 13 (1988), 157–159; R. Develin, Gnomon 61 (1989), 365–367; J.-C. Richard, Latomus 49 (1990), 701–702; J. Thiel, German Studies, Section 1 23 (1990), 75–76; G. Zecchini, Aevum 64 (1990), 61–67 and M.-T. Raepsaet-Charlier, L'Antiquité Classique 60 (1991), 575–576. See also, and especially, the very informed discussion in F. Millar, Journal of Roman Studies 79 (1989), 138–150 (`Political power in mid-republican Rome: Curia or Comitium?´, review article on Social Struggles in Archaic Rome, see below, n. 3, and the volume under review here).
2.   I am, of course, referring to the process known as the closing of the patriciate, or, as it first was coined by De Sanctis, "la serrata del patriziato".
3.   Among these we should note at least R. Develin, The Practice of Politics at Rome 366–167 BC (Collection Latomus 188), Brussels 1985 and K. A. Raaflaub (ed.), Social Struggles in Archaic Rome. New Perspectives on the Conflict of the Orders, Berkeley – Los Angeles 1986 (second, expanded and updated edition, Malden, Mass. 2005).
4.   F. Millar, "The political character of the classical Roman Republic, 200–151 BC", JRS 74 (1984) 1–19. Cf. id., "Politics, persuasion and the people before the Social War (150–90 B.C.)", JRS 76 (1986) 1–11.
5.   See, above all, "The Roman Republic. Government of the people, by the people, for the people", Scripta Classica Israelica 19 (2000), 203–223; Rekonstruktionen einer Republik. Die politische Kultur des antiken Rom und die Forschung der letzten Jahrzehnte, München 2004 and Reconstructing the Roman Republic: An Ancient Political Culture and Modern Research, Princeton 2010 (a translation and revision of Hölkeskamp 2004).

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