Thursday, June 13, 2013


Henri Etcheto, Les Scipions: Famille et pouvoir à Rome à l'époque républicaine. Scripta antiqua, 45. Bordeaux: Ausonius Éditions, 2012. Pp. 475. ISBN 9782356130730. €25.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Jesper Carlsen, University of Southern Denmark (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The preserved literary sources for ancient Roman history were predominantly written by male members of the Roman elite, and their intended audience was other male members of this aristocracy. This restricted gender and social perspective have serious consequences for modern scholarship, but it was also reflected in many studies in the 19th and 20th centuries of Roman politics. Prosopographical studies building on the fundamental and ground-breaking works by Matthias Gelzer, Friedrich Münzer and Ronald Syme tried to reconstruct parties and factions through elaborate and speculative studies of kinship, marriages, collegiality in office and friendship.1 In more recent decades the criticism of the views of such a prosopographical approach has been harsh, and it had even been called 'the waste theory' of Roman politics.2 On the other hand the importance of the kin or paternal clan (gens), the family (familia) and the importance of the ancestors as social and political symbols should not be underestimated in Roman public life. Despite the former prosopographical approach and the renewed interest in the Roman family life as a social formation only a few collective biographies of a single gens or familia during the late republic and early empire have been published in recent decades. They included analyses of the Acilii Glabriones, the Caecilii Metelli, the Calpurnii, the Domitii Ahenobarbi and Ulpii, but their approaches are very different and there is much more work to be done.3

The Scipionic family was one the most distinguished families of the Roman aristocracy in the third and second centuries BCE with 16 consuls and five censorships in nine generations. Although traditional biographies of its two most famous members, Scipio Africanus and Scipio Aemilianus, exist a thorough study of the Cornelii Scipiones with a new methodological approach and new results is very welcome.4 Les Scipions. Famille et pouvoir à Rome à l'époque républicaine, written by Henri Etcheto, has its origin in a doctoral thesis of University Michel de Montaigne – Bourdeaux 3, as is still evident in the composition and the apparatus. The important book is divided in three parts. After the introduction (pp. 11-22) with a brief overview of earlier research on the Roman aristocracy follows Part One Nobilissima familia (pp.23-84) containing three chapters with Latin headings discussing different topics such as the family's onomastic, its members' ages and marriage strategies and finally also their magistracies. Part Two Le siècle des Scipions? La continuité familiale à l'épreuve du pouvoir (pp. 85-151) in four chapters also with Latin headings analyzes the political practice of the Cornelii Scipiones in the middle and late republic, especially their role in the Roman expansion, and finally the decline of the family in the first century BCE. The short conclusion (pp. 153-156) is followed by five very useful appendices. The first two are a prosopographical catalogue consisting of biographies of 37 males, of whom four are hypothetical, and 17 females (pp. 157-194) and genealogical tables (pp. 195-199). Both will be consulted regularly. The third appendix (pp. 201-207) collects and summarizes the scant information about the property of the Cornelii Scipiones. Appendix Four (pp. 209-259) is a detailed analysis of the famous tombs and epitaphs of the Scipios excavated just outside Porta Capena at Rome. The last appendix (pp. 261-290) discusses the iconography on coins, portraits and statues that have been attributed to the family. The notes cover 145 pages (pp. 291-436) and the up-to-date bibliography with only a few minor inaccuracies runs to 22 pages (pp. 437-458). The book also includes 43 illustrations in black and white and two indices of names and subjects (pp. 459-473), but unfortunately not an index of ancient written sources.

The analyses are not diachronic narrative, but strictly synchronic. In short, the book is a kind of social micro-history discussing the family's social values and the identities and mentalities of its members. This unusual approach is both the strength and weakness of Etcheto's monograph. The thematic concern avoids repetitions between the different chapters and allows extensive discussions of the abundant sources to the house of the Cornelii Scipiones. A good example is the third chapter in the first part called "Stirpem nobilitavit honor. L'ethos familial des Scipions: la réussite politique comme horizon social" (pp. 63-84), in which Etcheto carefully analyses the cursus honorum of the members of the four different branches of the Cornelii Scipiones, supported by three useful lists illustrating not only their careers but also the preservation of their socio-political position during nine generations. In the second part Etcheto discusses the so-called 'age of the Scipios',5 and he gives important nuances to this notion and the influence of the family on Roman imperialism. He also argues that the political and social decline of the Scipios began in the second half of the second century BCE when competition and opposition were aroused within the family. Scipio Aemilianus was isolated in the house of the Cornelii Scipiones and in conflict with the branch of the Scipiones Nasicae, who played the most prominent political role in the late republic ("le siècle des Scipiones Nasicae" [p. 140]). The problem of the purely synchronic approach is not the lack of a diachronic narrative, but that the analyses presuppose a thorough knowledge of the different family members, of which several bear identical names. Etcheto tries to solve this problem with frequent references to the prosopographical appendix, but the book is in no respect easy reading.

The merits of Etcheto's book are obvious enough. By focussing on one very influential patrician family we get a better understanding of the political and social strategies of both the individuals and the branches of the family. The analyses are in most cases cautiously sound, and the almost two thousand notes are a goldmine of references to ancient sources and modern scholarship. It is of course always possible to question details or raise new questions not answered in the book, but this would be unfair and not do justice to its results. Etcheto has written a stimulating monograph that shows that studying one important senatorial family can give us a wider and better understanding of the Roman Republic and the social and political behaviour of Roman noble families.


1.   M. Gelzer, Die Nobilität der römischen Republik (Leipzig, 1912); F. Münzer, Römische Adelsparteien und Adelsfamilien (Stuttgart, 1920); R. Syme, The Roman Revolution (Oxford, 1939).
2.   J.A. North, Democratic Politics in Republican Rome, Past and Present 126 (1990), 3-21.
3.   J. Van Ooteghem, Les Caecilii Metelli de la république (Bruxelles, 1967); M. Väisänen, Su una gens romana: Gli Ulpii dei ceti superiori e la questione delle origini dei portatori del gentilizio (Helsinki, 1979); M. Dondin-Payre, Exercice du pouvoir et continuité gentilice: Les Acilii Glabriones du IIIe siècle av. J.-C. au Ve siècle ap. J.-C. (Rome, 1993); I. Hofmann-Löbl, Die Calpurnii. Politisches Wirken und familiäre Kontinuität (Frankfurt am Main, 1996), but surprisingly not mentioned in the comprehensive bibliography; J. Carlsen, The Rise and Fall of a Roman Noble Family: The Domitii Ahenobarbi 196 BC – AD 68 (Odense, 2006).
4.   H.H. Scullard, Scipio Africanus: Soldier and Politician (London, 1970); A.E. Astin, Scipio Aemilianus (Oxford, 1967).
5.   P. Grimal, Le siècle des Scipions. Rome et l'hellénisme au temps des guerres puniques (Paris, 1953).

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