Friday, February 22, 2019


Jed W. Atkins, Roman Political Thought. Key themes in ancient history. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. xvii, 239. ISBN 9781107514553. £19.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Daniel Kapust, University of Wisconsin-Madison (

Version at BMCR home site


Roman Political Thought is Atkins' second book-length contribution to the burgeoning cross-disciplinary literature on the topic.1 Whereas Dean Hammer's 2014 book of the same name was a chronological study of major figures in Roman political thought, Atkins' book is an introduction centering on the theme of republicanism. By republicanism, Atkins understands Rome to be a commonwealth featuring "popular sovereignty…rule of law…civic virtue and citizenship…oratory as an instrument of political decision-making, devotion to Rome and its gods, and a commitment to Rome's standing and glory in both domestic and international contexts" (2). In keeping with the goals of the Key Themes in Ancient History series, Atkins puts Roman political thought into conversation with later political thinkers. With the Greek concept of politeia in mind, Atkins is attuned to "the rich interplay between the formal political institutions and political culture that characterized Roman political thought" (4). Atkins largely succeeds in providing a thematic overview, and the result is a well written and conceived volume that will be of interest to those first encountering Roman political thought.

Atkins organizes the chapters thematically, with each featuring a chronological selection of Roman writers. Chapter 1, "The Roman Constitution in Theory and Practice," focuses on Polybius, Cicero (chiefly De republica), Seneca's De clementia, and the anonymous 6th century Dialogue on Political Science. Atkins argues that Polybius' inaccuracies are due partly to his Greek political-philosophical framework, which reduced the complexity of the Roman assembly system into an all-encompassing "people" (19), a people that was not, for Atkins, sovereign in the modern sense. But Polybius' distortion was not simply due to an ill-suited conceptual schema; it also stems from his signature account of anakyklosis, in which the "cycle" was only checked by mutual fear among constitutional components, and Polybius analyzed the different elements of Rome's constitution to allow his psychology to operate. By contrast, Cicero's account of Rome's constitution emphasizes "the blending of the principles and interests of different socio-economic classes" (28), which means that the chief function of the statesman is to ensure "harmony and concord among the different political orders" (28). Turning from the late republic to the principate, Atkins suggests that Augustus "greatly reduced the public space previously available for elites to participate in politics" (30). Republican ideology nonetheless persisted in various ways, including Seneca's claim that Nero's "noble slavery," rooted in his obligations to his subjects, was analogous to the Ciceronian idea "of government as a matter of trust (fides)" (32). Chapter 2, "Liberty and Related Concepts," begins by noting just how atypical is "the modern liberal-democratic creed that a free society… protects and promotes individual liberty through the recognition of individual rights" (37). Turning first to Benjamin Constant's famous 1819 "The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns," and then to Isaiah Berlin's distinction between negative and positive liberty, Atkins also introduces the neo-Roman republican account of liberty of Philip Pettit and Quentin Skinner, comparing and contrasting Roman liberty to Greek and modern thought. The central rights of Roman citizenship—a status consisting of "the absence of ownership or control by another"—protected Roman citizens from arbitrary interference (45). Especially important, and evident in Livy, is the rule of law and a range of "citizens' rights," including provocatio, appellatio, conubium, and suffragium (47). In Roman thought, then, we find something that we do not see in Athens: "the notion of rights working to protect individual freedom" (49). Atkins argues that Roman thought does not offer a strong case for the connection between participation and liberty—Romans were content to rely on "laws and rights to effectively deal with a master's arbitrary will" (54). Given Syme's claim2 that "the Principate, though absolute, was not arbitrary," Rome shows it is possible to possess legally secured rights without popular participation.

The third chapter, "Citizenship and Civic Virtue," turns first to the topic of citizenship, building on a three-part account in contemporary political theory: citizenship as participation, as rights, and as identity. Behind this account is a tension between universalizing accounts of citizenship, centering on the possession of rights, and particularistic accounts, centering on identity and participation. While Caracalla officially universalized Roman citizenship, the shift indicates that citizenship had little to do with participation or identity by 212 CE. By contrast, citizenship under the republic was a matter of rights, participation, and civic status. From this analysis of republican and imperial citizenship, Atkins turns to the topic of civic virtue: "What virtues should citizens possess under the Roman Republic? (73)." Livy's Cincinnatus is illustrative: he possesses "qualities of character resistant to the temptation to transgress the limits of republican government" (75). Cicero's De officiis also provides examples of civic virtues, given the background of the "traditional aristocratic honor code emphasizing active, competitive public service as the source for standing and glory" (76). Civic virtue, while certainly present under the principate, shifted in emphasis: instead of justice in Cicero, we find in Tacitus modestia and obsequium, qualities better suited to a period in which overt elite competition had largely ceased. Augustine in turn reimagines civic virtues to argue "that Roman society would benefit from Christian citizens occupying a range of offices and social roles" (88). Whereas Ciceronian civic virtue checked corruption, Augustinian civic virtue eliminates "the excessive love of temporal goods" that causes corruption.

"Political Passions and Civic Corruption," the fourth chapter, turns to Sallust, Lucretius, Seneca, and Plutarch to supplement the "rationalist accounts of virtue" that Atkins takes to characterize contemporary liberal political thought (chiefly John Rawls' magnum opus A Theory of Justice) (95). Lucretius, seeking to prevent civil stasis, promotes reverence to supplement his scientific rationalism, with a proper form of piety enabling humans to embrace limits on their desires. Seneca, by contrast, sees gratitude as the most important civic passion in De beneficiis because it "recognizes dependence and fosters interdependence," thus building connections between individuals (105) and checking self-aggrandizement. Plutarch, too, elevates gratitude, with the vice of ingratitude most evident in his accounts of Marius and Pyrrhus: neither is sufficiently backward-looking, and both are thus excessively hopeful. Atkins argues, given the insights of the republican tradition, that "liberal democracies need civic virtues like reverence" (111).

Chapter 5, "Rhetoric, Deliberation, and Judgment," defends Roman rhetoric against two sorts of criticisms—the Platonic criticism of rhetoric as "flattery and manipulation" (112) and the Hobbesian criticism of rhetoric as "undermining popular government" (113). For Atkins, Cicero develops an account of speaker-audience interaction relying on a common "aesthetic sense" (121) to constrain the speaker and to foster collective judgment, a process enabled by both parties adhering to a public "script" (121). Quintilian, given the institutional changes under the principate and the concomitant decline of a "shared moral vocabulary" that underlay the Ciceronian script (127), focuses on "speaking well" rather than persuasion. Tacitus closes out the chapter, with Atkins (following Bartsch) arguing that drama "replaced oratory as the central means of delivering free and critical political speech" (133).

"Civil Religion" is the focus of Chapter 6. Following a discussion of the centralization of priesthoods under the principate, Atkins turns to toleration in Rome, first to case studies on Judaism and Christianity, and then to Tertullian and Lactantius. Both church fathers developed principled arguments for toleration—strikingly because both men, as Christians, held that "there is one true God for all people, the Christian God" (159). Atkins concludes by suggesting that citizens of modern liberal democracies may find it "instructive to consider the Roman experience" as we think about problems of nationalism and the tensions of globalization (165).

The final substantive chapter, "Imperialism, Just War Theory, and Cosmopolitanism," turns first to Polybius, Sallust, Cicero, and Tacitus to understand the connection between Roman institutions and empire. Atkins locates Cicero as a key figure in just war theory, while arguing that more familiar (and abstract) accounts based in human rights are found in Ambrose and Augustine. Following a discussion of the non- human rights elements of cosmopolitanism in Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, Atkins considers whether realist international relations theory can adequately explain Roman foreign policy behavior. Given the centrality of honor to Roman ideology and behavior, Atkins argues that "survival" for states like Rome "cannot be their most overriding and important end" (191).

Rome, Atkins concludes, is a fruitful object of study because it mixes familiar and unfamiliar. He thus distinguishes his approach from the approaches of those, such as Clifford Ando, who emphasize the incommensurability of Roman thought with ours, and those, such as Pettit, who emphasize its commensurability. Atkins' view, he suggests, lends itself to learning lessons from Rome that are important to those who live in regimes characterized by liberalism, an ideology which "typically, if not necessarily," includes "individual autonomy, rights, capitalism, materialism, universalism, tolerance, and rationalism" (195).

Since Atkins wants his book to let "us to approach republicanism afresh by providing crucial distance from liberalism," he emphasizes factors that differentiate Rome from 21st century America: the Roman world was "a status-driven, hierarchical, slave-owning world with a very different set of values from those prevailing in western liberal democracies" (9). This attention to nuance was lacking in Atkins' treatment of liberalism. An account of liberalism, in my view, should be able to include thinkers as diverse as Michel de Montaigne, John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls. Atkins' account of liberalism – a combination of "individual autonomy, rights, capitalism, materialism, universalism, tolerance, and rationalism" – is vague. Mill is a liberal, but talks little about rights and emphasizes the passions; Rawls, given his stress on what he calls the "background culture" as a condition for his argument in Political Liberalism 3, is not much of a universalist; Montaigne, held by Judith Shklar and others to be a liberal (or proto-liberal) is not a capitalist; and Smith has little use for materialism in Theory of Moral Sentiments. If Atkins had more time and space to devote to the subject, I suspect he would have given a fuller account, but the problem with such a short account is that it makes his effort to put Roman thought into conversation with contemporary thought less persuasive. To take just one example: Atkins suggests that Madison argues in Federalists 10 and 51 that the constitution helped "remedy the problem of faction arising from passions that destroyed ancient republics" (94). But the solution of Madison, Jay, and Hamilton is to have more factions, and thus a greater diversity of passions and interests, and the constitution itself relies upon the passions ("Ambition must be made to counteract ambition," as in Federalist 51).

Atkins' discussion of civic virtue elides important conceptual problems. Does he have in mind the set of virtues that ought to be held by citizens of particular regimes (a point Atkins makes with reference to Aristotle on page 73)? Or does he have in mind a more robust set of moral virtues, a point implicit in his classification of Cicero's De officiis as a text dealing with civic virtues? If civic virtues for Roman thinkers are simply virtues appropriate for an individual to possess and display qua Roman citizen, why are they virtues? Are they good insofar as they secure liberty? Or are they good insofar as they bring the individual glory and dignitas?

I found Atkins' reconstruction of Cicero's defense of rhetoric to be unsatisfactory. Cicero may hold that there is a sort of common "aesthetic sense" that enables each of us "to perceive when words, thoughts, and actions are discordant" (121), but Cicero also thinks that orators can and do manipulate their audiences. Even if the uneducated audience can pick up on grossly discordant speech, it's not hard to imagine that a clever orator (cf. Cic. De inventione I.3) could craft an aesthetically pleasing style while making very bad—and very convincing—arguments. What grounds does Cicero give us for believing that the better argument wins out, all things being equal? The more that elite speech is constrained by and embedded in an intersubjective script, allowing for what Atkins terms "the possibility for public, shared, and therefore truly political, judgments" (123), the less clear is the extent to which oratory can allow for disruptive change. That is, insofar as judgment relies upon a script that guards it, it is unclear what allows for the often necessary break in decorum that allows marginalized voices to be heard.4

A lost opportunity, given our political moment, is Atkins' brief account of horizontal accountability in discussing Cicero's desire that rule be "dispersed among many magistracies" (58). No small part of Roman elite horizontal accountability was the set of norms and expectations held to govern elite (mis)behavior, norms and expectations that broke down with the increased individuation of the late republic. Living as we do in a moment in which norms and expectations of elites seem to break down more each day, the Roman experience is illuminating, if frightening.

These criticisms notwithstanding, Atkins' book is an important contribution to the cross-disciplinary study of Roman political thought, and it fulfills his intention of providing a concise, stimulating, and provocative introduction to Roman thought ranging from Polybius to Augustine.


1.   Atkins' first book, Cicero on Politics and the Limits of Reason, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.
2.   Ronald Syme. The Roman Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1939. 516.
3.   John Rawls. Political Liberalism. Columbia University Press. New York. 2005. 14.
4.   I'm indebted to Joy Connolly for making me think along these lines, and for questioning my own reading of Cicero.

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