Monday, September 30, 2013


Stefanie Märtin, Die politische Führungsschicht der römischen Republik im 2. Jh. v. Chr. zwischen Konformitätsstreben und struktureller Differenzierung. Bochumer Altertumswissenschaftliches Colloquium 87. Trier: WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2012. Pp. 585. ISBN 9783868213966. €59.50.

Reviewed by Karl-J. Hölkeskamp, Universität zu Köln (

Version at BMCR home site

Ever since Sir Fergus Millar's iconoclastic reading of the "political character" of mid-republican Rome as a kind of Greek-style 'democracy' in a series of influential articles,1 the debate on the political culture of the middle (and late) republic in general and the character of the senatorial 'nobility' as ruling class in particular has gained considerable momentum: the complex interplay of the roles and functions of magistracy, senate and assemblies; the different military, political, social and religious roles of senators as magistrates and commanders, patrons and priests; the patterns of recruitment of this class and its internal stratification as well as its particular code of behaviour and concomitant ritual languages of collective 'self-fashioning' as a meritocracy and especially the discursive forms, contents and media of its communication and interaction with the populus Romanus at large have been explored and analyzed in detail in a series of publications.2

This peculiarly conservative book and its author seem to be unmoved and indeed untouched by this debate – only very few of these contributions are mentioned at all (e.g. en passant p. 53 n. 60; p. 282 n. 226; p. 331-2 nn. 130 and 133), and there is no systematic discussion of the different positions, models, concepts and categories that have been proposed in recent research. In lengthy notes, the author does indeed cite hundreds of titles (cf. the bibliography, pp. 554-85), but all too often just in uncommented accumulative lists – as, e.g., in the excursus on republican "memorial culture" (Erinnerungskultur), the emergence of senatorial historiography and its ambivalent roles in the process of the "conceptualization" and "fixing the mos maiorum", when it was already losing its traditional binding force (pp. 26 with n.24 and 210-43). Much of what the author has to say about 'collective'/'cultural memory' on the one hand and the role of Fabius Pictor, Cato and other second-century historians in this context on the other is neither differentiated enough nor really original.3 Other discussions of details – e.g., of the concept ofnobilitas in the sources and as a category in modern research (p. 24-5 with n. 16) and of modern interpretations of the lex Genucia ne quis eundem magistratum intra decem annos caperet (p. 43 with n. 25) – are marred by oversimplifications or misunderstandings in details or both.

Moreover, much of the literature Märtin adduces in other contexts is definitely outmoded – it may still be feasible to quote Th. Mommsens Römische Geschichte (if only for the elegance of his language and the witty sharpness of his magisterial judgments and characterizations), but H. Bengtson's handbook of Roman history does certainly not represent the communis opinio about the 'outbreak' of the 'crisis' of the Republic and its causes (p. 19 n. 7, cf. also p. 400-1 nn. 2, 8 and 9).4 What is more, she simply states programmatically that the theme of her book precludes an approach centered on a "history of events" (ereignisgeschichtliche Untersuchung) from 210 to 133 BCE and that there are, after all, "comprehensive" surveys – and then she refers the reader to not more than three textbooks of very varied quality, all of which treat the complex history of these decades on less than a dozen pages (p. 30 with n. 29).

The conceptual framework of the whole book consists of a strangely unreflected, indeed partly outmoded terminology. The title (which by the way can be read as an implicit petitio principii) construes a dichotomy between "striving for conformity" (Konformitätsstreben) and "structural differentiation" of the "ruling class" – whereas the former concept suggests that political actors actively pursued a sort of long-term strategy and intentional objective to secure "conformity" (whatever that means), the latter seems to circumscribe a sort of process beyond the control and indeed the perception of these actors – and indeed the adjective 'strukturell' does re-appear frequently. In Chapters II, III and IV on 'structural' political and social developments of the senatorial aristocracy and its central institution (pp. 35-81; 82-134; 135-209), this dichotomy resurfaces in a variety of similar or related concepts: "integrative power", (problems of) "integration" (Integrationskraft/-probleme) of the ruling class as a "homogeneous" collective versus "individual interests", nobiles disregarding norms and conventions, "differentiation" through "hierarchization", "heterogeneity" and "disintegration", which gradually but necessarily resulted in a loss of auctoritas of the central institution, the Senate, and its capacity to generate and guarantee consensus (cf. the general conclusions, chapter VIII, pp.484-91).5

In order to analyze the complex process, which she conceptualizes in terms and concepts with obviously negative connotations, the author proposes to discard the seemingly all too crude dichotomy of nobilis versus homo novus and to introduce a differentiated set of intermediate or sub-categories: homo cognominis novi, homo paene novus, filius hominis novi, homo novus filius praetoris (cf. also the appendices, chapter IX, pp. 492-548). Apart from the embarrassing fact that in many cases individuals cannot really be categorized in one or another group with certainty or at least probability, I do not see that this differentiation and categories such as homines paene novi offer a substantial explanatory potential. Moreover, the author does not even consider the possibility that the complex relationship of keen, even fierce competition between ambitious individuals for (higher) magistracies, above all the consulship, on the one hand and a basically unchallenged consensus among the senatorial class as collective about the general rules of this competition and the criteria of excellence and of legitimate claims to rank and reputation on the other could take the form of a sort of precarious balance or complementarity.6

The following chapter (V, pp. 210-287) is focused on what the author interprets as countermeasures to "change" through "differentiation" in the shape of legislation intended to "educate" these new strata within the more and more 'differentiated' senatorial class which she sees as "social climbers" from the ranks of the equites – she subsumes not only the well- known lex Claudia de nave senatorum and the sumptuary legislation under the category of "education(al) laws" (Erziehungsgesetze), but also a spate of different measures such as the lex Villia annalis and the rather obscure leges de ambitu of 181 and 159, the leges tabellariae and even the pre-Gracchan attempts at agrarian legislation. I for one do not find this sweeping and summary inclusion of laws on very heterogeneous topics and moved in very diverse concrete circumstances very convincing. By the way, the vexed problem of conflicts over norms and between norms with comparable binding force has recently been analyzed in detail on a much more refined theoretical and methodological basis.7

The final, rather lengthy chapters on the "reform plan" or "reform programme" of the Gracchi and their supporters in 133 and 125-121 BCE (Chapters VI, pp. 288-397, and VII, pp. 398-483) continue the author's basic argument in a similar vein. After the failure of previous "educational laws", Ti. Gracchus – according to the author, a "traditionalist" with a "conservative" project – introduced his famous lex Sempronia agraria not so much in order to deal with an 'agrarian crisis', but as a sort of modified sumptuary law, i.e. a new strategy to strengthen the dominance and "control" of the nobiles over the "social climbers" in the political élite from the ranks of the equites and their economic resources (pp. 297; 311; 317). It is typical of the author's style of argument that she offers the interesting idea that Gracchus and his supporters as well as his adversaries both appealed to mos maiorum, only to embark on a lengthy digression on plebiscites introduced (ex) auctoritate senatus or contra senatum from 218 to 133 BCE on the one hand and the conventions ruling tribunician intercessio on the other, which ends with the by no means new conclusion that Tiberius acted "according to established practice" when submitting his rogatio to the concilium plebis without prior consultation of the Senate, whereas Octavius' veto was indeed "in several respects a breach of rules of mos maiorum" and triggered off an irreversible escalation of the conflict (p. 354, cf. pp. 321-67).8 I am inclined to quote the late Keith Hopkins: So what?

The following chapter on the "large-scale and comprehensive programme of reforms" launched by C. Gracchus, M. Fulvius Flaccus and their associates is focused on the thesis that they also pursued "conservative aims", in particular to provide a new basis of "legitimacy" for the "claim to leadership" of the nobilitas and thus to re-stabilize the "aristocratic res publica (pp. 398, 417, 477) – the author insists on her interpretive pattern with a kind of stubborn consequence: even the lex frumentaria is categorized among the "measures to educate the political class" (p. 458). The senate, as a body no longer able "to keep its own members under control" and incapable to take the lead itself, as well as "the reformers themselves", when confronted with the combined opposition of different groups and resorting to violence, brought about the failure (pp. 477- 80).

At the end of the day – much ado about nothing? Not quite. Even if the book is definitely too long (almost 500 pages of text and notes) and all too often covers well-known ground and moves on beaten paths; even if the style of language and argument is time and again boringly repetitious and long-winded; even if the prosopographical-statistical approach as such, though highly refined, cannot provide the source basis for an analysis of (a change of) the 'collective mentality' of a group; even if the basic idea of a kind of linear process of, as it were, differentiation cum disintegration is not really convincing, as it fails to do justice to the complexity and contradictory character of the development – the book does contain quite a few interesting observations on details, which are unfortunately drowned in expansive expositions of sufficiently well-known facts. And, at least, the interesting idea that former praetors became a kind of 'sub-consular' stratum of their own in the internal 'hierarchy' of the senatorial aristocracy, in particular after the increase of posts of this rank after 200 BCE, certainly deserves attention – though it will remain difficult, for lack of data and a meagre source base,9 empirically to identify the concrete effects and assess the consequences of this sort of differentiation.


1.   These articles are reprinted in F.G.B. Millar,The Roman Republic and the Augustan Revolution, ed. by H.M. Cotton and G.M. Rogers (Chapel Hill and London 2002). Cf. also idem,The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic (Ann Arbor 1998).
2.   Cf., e.g., J. North, "Democratic Politics in Republican Rome," Past and Present 126 (1990) 3-21 (= Studies in Ancient Greek and Roman Society, ed. by R. Osborne, Cambridge 2004, 140-58, with 'Postscript 2003'); W.V. Harris, "On Defining the Political Culture of the Roman Republic,"ClPh 85 (1990) 288-94; M. Jehne, "Methods, Models, and Historiography," in: A Companion to the Roman Republic, ed. by N. Rosenstein and R. Morstein-Marx (Malden, MA 2006) 3-28; K.-J. Hölkeskamp,Rekonstruktionen einer Republik. Die politische Kultur des antiken Rom und die Forschung der letzten Jahrzehnte (Munich 2004) (updated and augmented American edition: Reconstructing the Roman Republic. An Ancient Political Culture and Modern Research, Princeton 2010), with full bibliography, and just recently the comprehensive survey of the debate by F. Hurlet, "Démocratie à Rome? Quelle démocratie? En relisant Millar (et Hölkeskamp)," in Rome, a City and Its Empire in Perspective. The Impact of the Roman World through Fergus Millar's Research/Rome, une cité impérial en jeu. L'impact du monde romain selon Fergus Millar, ed. by S. Benoist (Leiden and Boston 2012) 19-43.
3.   The author obviously ignores the most important, comprehensive and penetrating analysis of Republican 'memorial culture' by U. Walter, Memoria und res publica: Zur Geschichtskultur im republikanischen Rom (Frankfurt am Main 2004). Cf. also the contributions in Formen römischer Geschichtsschreibung von den Anfängen bis Livius. Gattungen – Autoren – Kontexte, ed. by U. Eigler et alii (Darmstadt 2003).
4.   Cf. for recent surveys of theories and explanations R. Morstein-Marx, N. Rosenstein, "The Transformation of the Republic," in: Companion (n. 2) 625-37; K.-J. Hölkeskamp, "Eine politische Kultur (in) der Krise? Gemäßigt radikale Vorbemerkungen zum kategorischen Imperativ der Konzepte," in Eine politische Kultur (in) der Krise? Die "letzte Generation" der römischen Republik, ed. by idem, E. Müller-Luckner (Munich 2009) 1-25.
5.   Cf. the important study by J. von Ungern-Sternberg, "Die Legitimitätskrise der römischen Republik," in Historische Zeitschrift 266 (1998) 607-24 (= idem, Römische Studien (Leipzig 2006) 390-404).
6.   Cf. K.-J. Hölkeskamp, "Konsens und Konkurrenz. Die politische Kultur der römischen Republik in neuer Sicht," Klio 88 (2006) 360-96, and also H. Beck, Karriere und Hierarchie. Die römische Aristokratie und die Anfänge des cursus honorum in der mittleren Republik (Berlin 2005), which the author does frequently cite, if only for details.
7.   Cf. now Ch. Lundgreen, Regelkonflikte in der römischen Republik. Geltung und Gewichtung von Normen in politischen Entscheidungsprozessen (Stuttgart 2011).
8.   Cf. the fundamental contributions by E. Badian, "Tiberius Gracchus and the Beginning of the Roman Revolution," in ANRW I 1 (1972) 668-731, and Ch. Meier, "Die loca intercessionis bei Rogationen. Zugleich ein Beitrag zum Problem der Bedingungen der tribunizischen Intercession," in MusHelv 25 (1968) 86-100.
9.   The Fasti Praetorii are far from complete for the decades after 165 BCE: T. Corey Brennan, The Praetorship in the Roman Republic, vol. II Appendix B.5 and 6, pp.736-48, cf. also vol. I, 222-46; vol. II, 357-87; cf. also the author's appendices, chapters IX.9 and 11.

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