Monday, June 26, 2017


Clément Chillet, Marie-Claire Ferriès, Yann Rivière (ed.), Les confiscations, le pouvoir et Rome de la fin de la République à la mort de Néron. Scripta antiqua, 92. Bordeaux: Ausonius Éditions, 2016. Pp. 413. ISBN 9782356131720. €25.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Mario Adamo, University of Cambridge (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume contains the proceedings of a conference on confiscations and expropriations in the late republic and the Julio-Claudian dynasty, held in November 2010 as part of the collective research program on "confiscations and expropriations" carried out at the École française de Rome in 2008-2011. The same project has already produced a volume on Late Antiquity, which debates Walter Goffart's "minimalist" view on the impact of barbarians' settlement in the Roman Empire.1

The conference on Late Antiquity had ended in disagreement (and rightly so, given the inconclusive nature of the evidence).2 The present volume, by contrast, sets out with a more optimistic spirit (see Rivière's Introduction): the general aim is to demonstrate that, even though quantification is impossible, forced transfers of property were a major historical agent in the period under investigation.

By the end of the volume the accumulation of evidence has convincingly done the job. The only minimalistic note – or rather an overtone – is sounded by Saliou's suggestion that the land of Rome was public property, held by private citizens as a sort of ager occupatorius. This does not seem correct: the legendary bequests to the people of the agri Turax, Semurius, Lintirius and Solinius, as well as the campus Tiberinus, clearly demonstrate that only some portions of the land of Rome were considered public property. Saliou grounds her argument on Livy's references to the public status of the land in the early republic; these, however, rather than disclosing any legal Realien, only show that Livy reflected (and made inferences) on the "archaeology" of Rome's landscape of property (for the same kind of reflection – this time in a rural context – see Liv. 4.48: the patricians are scared by Sp. Maecilius' proposal to distribute the land conquered in war, because technically all the land would fall into this category, since Rome has expanded from being a city-state).

This book offers something for all tastes. Those interested in the intersection between the economy and social relationships (à la Verboven) will be delighted to find the familiar muddy mingling of senators, knights, money-lenders and sectores. As for elite culture and ideology, they are served especially well by the diptych on domus and horti by Guilhembet and Jolivet. There are also various comments on the effects of the sale of confiscated property on real estate prices, the volume of circulating money, and interest rates, which make a welcome addition to Woytek's study of the relationship between confiscations and military coin issues – the only contribution to explicitly take on the economic side of expropriations.

However, as the title reveals, the main foci are two.

One is the relationship between confiscations and power. The volume explores the use of expropriations as political weapons, to deal blows to ambitious competitors, and in extreme cases to cause the political death that inevitably accompanied the loss of one's patrimonium (so Roddaz, p. 351). Following a line of inquiry opened by Flower's Art of Forgetting, various contributions explore the opposed effects that confiscations could have on memory, including both total oblivion and exemplarity (destroyed houses, for example, left memory of their disgraced owners like scars in the urban fabric).

Readers will also find excellent material on the range of approaches to expropriations – and the underlying conceptions of power – adopted by different leaders. Caesar made a show of his clementia, setting the example for imperial behaviour (the theme is found again in the S. C. de Cn. Pisone patre). Augustus advertised his respect for private property, stressing in the Res Gestae that dispossessed landowners had all been reimbursed. The same propagandistic desire to avoid confiscations underlies Augustus' decision to downsize his projected forum (note Palombi's brilliant suggestion that a relative of Augustus especially benefited from the resizing).

Of great interest is Perrin's reassessment of Nero's treatment of private properties: in his enlightened quinquennium he seems to have only seized the property of condemned senators (a behaviour which by that time was customary for emperors); between 64 and 68, he did confiscate property to build his domus aurea, but apparently this was less traumatic than the sources would want us to believe: in this as in many other matters, Nero has received very bad press.

The other focus of the volume lies in the relationship between dispossessions, building programs and consequent changes to the topography of the Urbs.

If a critique can be made here, at times the focus is too narrowly legal. Brégi systematically analyses dispossessions for public utility (one wonders whether the 7-page-long survey of modern European law was strictly necessary: impatient readers may well pick up from the second paragraph of p. 31); yet, he leaves aside the fora, since these were paid for with private money. This distinction, though, misses the opportunity to reflect on why the only apparent difference between magistrates' and private individuals' building projects is the source of the money to fund them. By contrast, even though Borlenghi and Chillet discuss in no less detail the legal aspects of Maecenas' appropriation of a tract of the Servian walls – ultimately disagreeing on the matter –, they also use this episode to comment on the conflation of the categories of private and public in the figures of Augustus and his associates. Personal interpretations varied: whilst Maecenas' gardens – allegedly serving the purpose to make the Esquiline a wholesome place for the population – were inaccessible to the public, Agrippa's horti – formerly belonged to Pompey, then passed through Antony's hands – were bequeathed to the people of Rome. This theme is further explored in Perrin's study of the domus aurea, which comments on the combination of private areas and spaces open to the public.

Despite the excellent analysis of the legal framework of expropriations, at times the distinction between expropriations and other forms of public acquisition is lost. For example, Cic. Att. 4.16.8 (= LXXXIX Shackleton-Bailey, wrongly referenced at p. 41, n. 97) is not an expropriation, nor is the purchase of Scipio Africanus' house by the censor of 169 BC (p. 40). Likewise, even though Facchinetti admits that some apparent expropriations may have been donatives, for some reason she does not consider the possibility of public purchases, nor that the pre-existing structures may have already been public property.

A serious shortcoming of the volume is its failure to explain the choice of its geographical and chronological scope. Nowhere are we told why the phenomenon of expropriations in the late republic and early Empire is worth studying in isolation. In fact, the phenomenon of confiscations reveals an extraordinary continuity: for example, the treatment reserved by Clodius to Cicero's house resembles the consecratio of Ti. Gracchus' estate in 169 BC, or of Q. Caecilius Metellus Numidicus' property in 131 BC. It is not surprising that the volume simply disregards its purported chronological focus, including treatment of these episodes, as well as others from earlier and later periods.

Similarly perplexing is the spatial limitation. Most of the contributions deal with Rome alone, and Facchinetti's thorough survey of the cities of Northern Italy maintains this urban focus. But were urban confiscations different from their rural counterpart? Again, rural expropriations do find room in the volume, even though their selection is strikingly haphazard (post-Sullan land commissions and confiscations are deemed worth discussing, but not the Gracchan precedent, nor emperors' confiscations of senatorial villas).

Because of its unclear criteria for inclusion, the volume leaves out other forms of expropriation that would have constituted excellent material for comparison. Middle republican multae, for example, would have enriched the dossier on the use of confiscations as political weapons. 3 Discussing the usurpation of public land by private landholders would have provided an excellent contrast to the image of omnipotent emperors able of putting their hands on whatever they wanted. 4

Perhaps greater clarity in the scope of the enterprise could have been achieved by coordinating more closely with another collective study of confiscations in Classical Antiquity, edited by Ferriès and Delrieux in 2013. 5 To a large extent, the Roman section of that earlier volume overlaps with the book under review here (contributions by Allély, Couhade-Beyneix, Hollard, Deniaux, Kirbihler, Laignoux, Ferriès, and Hilbold). This is very odd, considering that the two publications have one editor in common.

At a mere €25, the book is excellent value for money. Yet, low price does not justify poor copy-editing: the book is marred by an astonishing number of typos, and some items are missing from the bibliography.

The most annoying problem is the lack of coordination between single papers, which produces repetitions and fragmentation of the information: just to give a few examples, the projected aqueduct of Liv. 40.51.7 is found both in Brégi's and Saliou's papers; L. Sentius' terminatio of the Esquiline is discussed at length both by Chillet and Borlenghi (who wrongly mentions him as C. Sentius on p. 303); to find out that the campus Esquilinus was used for executions, readers will have to peruse Borlenghi's contribution on the city walls, since the information is missing in Chillet's paper on the Esquiline; having been informed by Brégi that expropriations had been carried out to build the fora of Caesar and Augustus, one will have to reach the bottom of the book to find Palombi make a strong case against this idea. Cross-references would have avoided the nuisance: unfortunately, they are provided only in rare instances.

In conclusion, the single papers are of undeniable value, and make an enjoyable and instructive read. They deserved a more unified framework, and more careful editing, to fully do them justice.

Table of Contents

Y. Rivière, "Introduction. Confiscare, publicare, uindicare. Esquisse lexicale et procédurale des confiscations romaines": 9-20
1. Les confiscations.
Le cadre juridique.
Jean-François Brégi, "Les vicissitudes de l'expropriation pour cause d'utilité publique à la fin de la république et au début de l'empire": 25-52
Catherine Saliou, "Entre le droit, l'histoire et la mémoire: le statut du sol de Rome dans l'Histoire Romaine de Tite-Live": 53-66
Politique et confiscations.
Grazia Facchinetti, "Esproprio o donazioni? Dalla proprietà privata a quella pubblica nella documentazione archeologica delle città dell'Italia settentrionale tra la tarda repubblica e l'età imperiale": 69-138
Marie-Claire Ferriès, "Les confiscations durant les guerres civiles, une arme supplémentaire ou un mal nécessaire ?": 139-63
Jean-Pierre Guilhembet, "Les domus de Rome comme objet et enjeu de confiscations à la fin de la République et au Haut Empire": 165-81
Bernhard E. Woytek, "Exactions and the Monetary Economy of the Late Roman Republic. A Numismatic Perspective": 183-97
2. L'autorité publique dans la politique d'urbanisme.
Des crises
Vincent Jolivet, "Tempêtes sur les jardins du Pouvoir, de Pompée à Proba": 203-27
Yves Perrin, "Main basse sur la Ville? Les expropriations et confiscations de Néron à Rome": 229-46
Le moment augustéen
Clément Chillet, "Transferts de propriété à Rome sous le Triumvirat: le cas des jardins de Mécène": 249-78
Maria Pia Muzzioli, "Confische ed espropri nel Campo Marzio": 279-97
Collectif ou particulier?
Aldo Borlenghi, "Mura Serviane e Mura Aureliane : l'occupazione di spazi pubblici e di aree private in occasione dell'abbandono e della costruzione delle due cinte urbane": 301-34
Domenico Palombi, "Entre public et privé: le cas des Forums Impériaux": 335-49
Jean-Michel Roddaz, "Conclusions": 351-6


1.   P. Porena, Introduzione, in Y. Rivière and P. Porena (eds), Expropriations et confiscations dans les royaumes barbares. Une approche régionale, Rome 2012: 1-10. For Goffart's views see his Barbarians and Romans, A.D. 418-584: the techniques of accommodation, Princeton 1980; see also id. Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire (Philadelphia 2006), Chapter 6.
2.   See P. Heather's Conclusions in Rivière and Porena 2012.
3.   On censorial fines see S. Piacentin, The Role of Aedilician Fines in the Making of Public Rome, Historia forthcoming 2018.
4.   Vespasian, for example, was able to recover urban properties in Pompeii (CIL X 1018), but encountered resistance when eyeing subseciva, and Domitian had to drop the matter eventually (Agennius Urbicus 38.14 Campbell; Hyginus 98.22 Campbell).
5.   M.-C. Ferriès and F. Delrieux (eds) Spolier et confisquer dans les mondes grec et romain, des guerres médiques à l'avènement de l'Empire, Chambéry, 2013.

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