Friday, January 26, 2018


Richard Duncan-Jones, Power and Privilege in Roman Society. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. xii, 229. ISBN 9781107149793. $99.99.

Reviewed by John Weisweiler, University of Maryland, College Park (

Version at BMCR home site


The title of Richard Duncan-Jones' new book conjures an immense project: a sweeping overview of Roman social hierarchies, from top to bottom. What this volume offers is something more modest, but not without rewards of its own. Power and Privilege is a collection of specialist studies in Roman social history, focused around three themes. Part I looks at career patterns amongst senators, Rome's governing élite (1-86); Part II traces the social make-up of the equestrian order, the second-highest status group (87-128); and Part III offers observations on the origins and careers of slaves (129-153). There are few linkages between the different parts of this monograph. The achievement of this book is not in developing a large overarching thesis, but in shedding new light on several long-standing questions of Roman social history.

The most powerful section of the book is Part 1 on senators. In chapter 1, Duncan-Jones establishes problem and methodology. Did careers of senators follow the ideal of a 'meritocracy' in which jobs were given to the most qualified persons? Or was the Roman governing élite an 'ancien régime system where nobility effortlessly rises to the top' (7)? In order to answer this question, Duncan-Jones draws up a list of 557 office-holders whose careers are well-attested. Through statistical analyses of this database, he hopes to determine to what extent political success in Rome depended on inherited status or earned achievement.

In chapters 2 and 3, Duncan-Jones examines the early careers of senators: the vigintivirate (twenty junior administrative positions exercised by prospective members of the senate in their late teens and early twenties) and the five traditional Republican magistracies (quaestor, tribune of the plebs, aedile, praetor and consul). He shows that there was a delicate hierarchy not only between different magistracies, but also between holders of the same office. For example, the monetales, the three overseers of the Roman mint, on average were of higher birth and had more distinguished careers than other uigintiuiri. But social status was not the universal determinant of success. Sometimes commitment to public service counted too. This was particularly true in the case of so-called 'praetorian' positions. These posts were governorships held by senators after they had completed their terms of office as praetors and before they secured an election to the highest magistracy of the Roman state, the consulate. According to Duncan-Jones' data, senators who held two or more of these 'praetorian' posts were more successful in later stages of their career than those who held one or none at all. This suggests that emperors took into account experience when filling the highest government posts (30-31).

This interpretation is confirmed by the next chapter, in which Duncan-Jones analyzes the social origins of the most prestigious governors in the empire, the proconsuls of Asia and Africa (36-44). Disproportionately often, holders of these positions already earlier in their careers had served in these same provinces – despite the fact that these governorships were allegedly allocated by lot (38-40). Clearly, the appointment process was manipulated in order to enable the most suitable candidates to govern these wealthy and important provinces. Duncan-Jones cites Ronald Syme: 'in the sortition, little was left to chance' (37).

In chapter 5, Duncan-Jones turns from civilian appointments to military commands (61-72). Governorships of frontier provinces in which large armies were stationed were reserved for ex-consuls. It might be thought that emperors would allocate these crucial 'consular' governorships chiefly on the basis of military experience. After all, holders of these posts played a crucial role in the defense of the empire. Surprisingly, social status was important even here. As Duncan-Jones shows, consular governorships disproportionately often went to members of prominent families, who also monopolized major priesthoods in Rome: 'The major consular appointments thus reflected the social hierarchy' (50). Only the war-torn provinces of Syria, Britannia and Dacia stand apart. In these regions alone, the overwhelming majority of governors had army experience (55-57). In these specific cases, military skills overrode the considerations of prestige and patronage that usually determined access to high office in Rome.

In chapter 6, Duncan-Jones looks at the geographical origins of senators (61-72). According to his calculations, in the first century, only one-sixth of all senators in the database were from outside Italy; in the second and third centuries, this number rises to 45% and 49% respectively (Table 6.1, 63). This is broadly in line with the findings of Mason Hammond and other scholars who have studied the social composition of the Roman élite since the early twentieth century. The senatorial part of the book concludes with two chapters that trace the chronological distribution of the evidence on which the preceding analyses are based. Duncan-Jones shows that the onset of the Antonine plague led to a drastic decline in the number of career inscriptions (73-80). He also demonstrates that the most prestigious posts in a senatorial career were much more likely to be included in career inscriptions than magistracies of lesser status. He nevertheless is confident that his findings are not affected by the uneven survival of the evidence (81-86). I will explain below why I disagree with this optimistic assessment. But even if the evidentiary foundation on which his conclusions are based is not quite as firm as Duncan-Jones asserts, there can be no doubt that the first part of this book provides a wealth of useful materials for historians of the Roman administration.

Chapters 9 to 12 explore the make-up of the equestrian order. Duncan-Jones begins by surveying modes of admission to this second-highest status group in Roman society (89-104). He then analyzes the careers of senior administrators who were recruited from the equestrian order. Duncan-Jones identifies an interesting pattern. The best-remunerated officials almost exclusively were recruited from one of two groups. Either they were men who had no military experience whatsoever; they presumably owed their appointment to wealth or inherited status. Or they had held four or more military posts before they embarked on a civilian career; in these cases, military experience must have been one of the key reasons for their success. Surprisingly, the great majority of equestrians—those who exercised between one and three officer posts—were less successful than these two groups. This is a remarkable finding. As in the senate, so also in the equestrian order, military experience might enable administrators of lower relative rank to outflank rivals of higher status.

I was less convinced by the final chapters of the book. Chapter 11 traces the economic functions of equestrians (118-122), chapter 12 explores the ability of slaves and freedmen to join the equestrian order (123-128). These sections are based on a collection of literary and epigraphic sources, rather than Duncan-Jones' trademark method of statistical analysis, and offer little new material. Since an earlier version of the equestrian chapters was already published in Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History 13 (2006), pp. 183-223, I wonder whether they needed to be reprinted in full here. The final two chapters discuss Roman slavery. Again, they mainly consist of a survey of literary and epigraphic evidence. The main conceptual innovation is that Duncan-Jones seeks to challenge Walter Scheidel's argument that Roman slaves were a self-reproducing population (131-141). This is a refreshing thesis, but the argument is weakened by apparent ignorance of Kyle Harper's fundamental work on the subject. In his monograph, Late Roman Slavery (Cambridge 2011), Harper assembled a wealth of sources on self-sale into slavery, reaching similar conclusions as Duncan-Jones. In an earlier article, published in Journal of Roman Studies 98 (2008), 83-119, at 106-116, Harper showed that age and sex ratios on slave estates in the Aegean are in line with what we would expect from a self-reproducing population. At first sight, this finding does not fit well with Duncan-Jones' view that war prisoners were the major source of the unfree population.

How to assess the achievement of this book as a whole? Duncan-Jones was one of the first scholars who systematically applied quantitative methods to the study of Roman history. Also in Power and Privilege, he is most convincing when his argument is based on statistical analyses. His database of senators enables him to reach new insights on the structure of senatorial careers in the Principate. He is less sure-footed when evaluating the problem of how the uneven survival of evidence affects his conclusions. What Duncan-Jones calls his 'sample' of careers, consists of 557 office- holders whose public lives are known, chiefly because they were inscribed on the bases of honorific statues dedicated by their clients. But these men are not a random cross-section of all members of the senate who lived in this period. Not all senators were equally likely to receive honorific inscriptions. Most obviously, commemoration was linked to political success. As Duncan-Jones himself observes in chapter 7, the highest office-holders were much more frequently honored by grateful subjects than their less successful peers. This has potentially far-reaching consequences.

Consider chapter 6, in which the admission of provincial families into the imperial élite is analyzed. According to Duncan- Jones, Italians remained in the majority in the senate from the time of Augustus until the late third century. But only a small minority of all senators who lived in this long period are known. In turn, of all known senators, there are even fewer whose geographical origin can be determined with any certainty. In these cases, we have usually found inscriptions set up in their regions of origin. But the habit to produce epigraphy is not equally widespread in all regions of the empire. From the Apennine Peninsula, many more inscriptions survive than from other regions. This means that the origins of Italian senators can be determined more frequently than those of their provincial counterparts. If this is correct, this suggests that Duncan-Jones may underestimate the pace with which provincial families joined the senate. This suspicion seems to be corroborated by Géza Alföldy's and Paul Leunissen's studies of the geographical origins of consuls, which feature a considerably higher percentage of non-Italian office-holders.1

Nevertheless, this book offers a real advance in our understanding of Roman social history more generally, and of senatorial careers in particular. Two key insights may be highlighted. First, Duncan-Jones exposes the extent to which respect for high status shaped the allocation of senior government posts in the Roman Empire. To put it in his own terminology, the emperor's appointment policies seem to have followed more closely the model of an ancien régime nobility than of a modern meritocracy. By contrast, for scholars such as Keith Hopkins, Roman rulers deliberately undermined the authority of senators with the highest prestige, in order to shore up their own power. By highlighting the extent to which Roman rulers promoted the interests of the most distinguished stratum of senatorial families, Duncan- Jones further problematizes views of Augustus and his successors as enemies of the aristocracy. Secondly, this book nuances our understanding of the workings of Roman patronage. In general, he confirms Richard Saller's conclusion that status and personal relations, not merit or seniority, determined the allocation of senior government posts in the Roman Empire. But by showing that in some circumstances, military experience gave less connected senators and equestrians an extra edge over higher-status peers, he usefully complicates our image of early imperial government as a wholly patronage-based affair. If the limits of some of the statistics in Power and Privilege are kept in mind, the data contained in it provide an excellent starting point for further research into the social history of Roman élites.


1.   See chapters III of Géza Alföldy: Konsulat und Senatorenstand unter den Antoninen: prosopographische Untersuchungen zur senatorischen Führungsschicht, Bonn 1977 and of Paul Leunissen: Konsuln und Konsulare in der Zeit von Commodus bis Severus Alexander (180-235 n. Chr.): prosopographische Untersuchungen zur senatorischen Elite im römischen Kaiserreich, Amsterdam 1989. Duncan-Jones cites these studies on pp. 63-64, Table 6.2. Ignoring the uneven survival of the evidence, he argues that provincials are more heavily represented amongst consuls than amongst senators as a whole because they were actually more politically successful.

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