Tuesday, March 5, 2019


Susan Treggiari, Servilia and Her Family. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. 416. ISBN 9780198829348. $119.95.

Reviewed by Ramsay MacMullen, Yale University (ramsay.macmullen@yale.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

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To the modern mind, the self-destruction of the Roman Republic is very much easier to explain in its visible actions than in its deeper causes. The visible are what the centuries-long political narrative reveals—a competition for prominence and glory among the clans, rewarding leaders of the common army against external states and peoples. What is hidden are the reasons why a degree of share-and-share-alike among these clans could not have continued for yet more centuries instead of yielding, in the end, to civil strife and the emergence of a monarchy. Susan Treggiari's examination of one life, one gens, one very prominent woman of the republic's end-times opens a wider window on this question; the life-story told is as helpful as anything else in print, where the materials to work with are so unsatisfactory, the gaps separating the informational dots are so wide and so many, and connections can only be conjectural.

Conjecture in turn must be plausible, it must persuade. In Servilia, persuasion is from the outset supported by the authority Treggiari brings to the explanation of motive, an authority earned by demonstrated mastery of the materials, both ancient sources and modern scholarship, over many years and in the contexts of many debates.

As often in the past, Treggiari addresses both general reader and specialist. The former, whether amateur historian or chance enthusiast, may find the weight of the book intimidating, with all its notes and so much of the Latin included; so only the concluding chapters on Servilia's place in society and interactions may be enough; but they open up so many sharp questions, they are likely to induce a return into the earlier pages, where after all the Latin is translated, not only in the text but in the notes, and where in addition there are two essential family trees, plus a glossary and a year-by-year calendar of Servilia's doings and the surrounding events. Throughout, the author's style is plain English, too—always clear, often conversational, and what's conversational can of course be elegant.

For the specialist there are tightly focused, deep-burrowing studies of particular clans or gentes in a number of Appendices, and a bibliography of over 500 titles to support the argument, every item of it somewhere used with profit or where necessary, crisply criticized. The whole is very much up to date with some items only in the web or still in press in 2018. Others, however, are given a place in the list of Abbreviations because they are so frequently cited as authoritative despite being a century old.1 Syme's Roman Revolution (1939) is a constant companion. In fact, over all these intervening decades to the present, the data base itself has received essentially no increase, remaining thus sufficiently limited for some Classicists to have more or less memorized it over the years—so, this reviewer (no such a wonder, himself) would suppose, listening in on Classics colleagues in their casual discussions. The best scholarship has no age.

So too, the interest ever to be found in Treggiari's chosen period: Servilia's lifetime extending from 100 BC. into at least later middle age (the date of her death, unknown). Caesar was an exact coeval; Cicero slightly older. These years of Rome, compared to anything earlier, are well reported. No need for resort to theory or novel interpretation; only, let every point be supported by the actual words of some actual text. Scholars may take that semi-divine strongman Antaeus for their model, whose strength never failed him so long as he kept his feet on the ground. In historical studies, so careful an approach was long ago given the name "prosopographical", that is, through some imagined Roman Burke's Peerage or Who's Who. Rightly applied, it can discover what in anthropology would be called an "emic" picture where "emic" indicates an attempt at close engagement with an alien way of life on its own terms, as opposed to an "etic" approach from the observer's vantage point and values—the latter, proposing analogies and explanatory constructs. Here is where even Treggiari's most detailed pages justify themselves.

In warning, as Treggiari emphasizes, even at the top of Rome's socioeconomic pyramid the sources afford hardly more than occasional glimpses of everyday conduct. However, from what is known of lives closely similar to Servilia's, parallels can be drawn to her known decisions. Add what is known of then-current morality, customs, and emotional responses; for, excepting purely reflexive decisions, common ideas of right and wrong do shape behavior at least in part, in those past times as today. Imagination in combination with learning may then make possible some estimate of motives; and in motivation the historian seeks and finds the bedrock of interpretation.

Treggiari's method appears in the opening chapter on "Servilia's World," where the first dozen pages are not about women but about men's life, their political preoccupations at the level of Servilia's class, military service, magistracies, campaigning, the court system, and so forth. Treggiari evidently aims at something much more ambitious than a conventional woman's life-story; rather, an understanding of life as a common enterprise lived and shaped by both sexes together, married, as of course would be the case for the great majority of the adult population, from small farmer families or retailers, up to the nobility. This social truth can hardly be imagined in modern terms, still frozen in Romantic assumptions that love alone counts—for without love, we protest, what is marriage? To that question, the Roman answer was, it's the family that counts; marriage is a team effort. Girls upon entering into puberty were promptly given away as brides, supplying what young men of Servilia's class had need of, their wife's dowry to finance the first step in a political career, and the promise of an heir, preferably male, to continue the family line. Servilia was thus wed at the age of fourteen, as near as can be reckoned, and bore her first child Brutus the next year (85 BC).

She had been prepared for her role by her upbringing at the hands of the family's slaves, with the steadying influence of her grandmother Cornelia and her uncle Drusus (her stepfather had divorced her mother when the girl was quite tiny, and her mother and her new stepfather were to die when she was still only nine or so). "We can imagine her being close to her wetnurse and paedagogae/paedagogi" who provided continuity as she moved from house to house three times over the course of her earliest years. It was this group of loved ones that would shape the child's and teenager's ideas of right and wrong, as those Roman metrics can be known to us still through more or less contemporary epitaphs and speeches, letters and moral essays. As Treggiari explains, terms for feminine virtue (castitas, pudicitia …) embrace or imply a range of virtues as wide as those for the male sex, and with considerable overlap, too. Male virtues like physical courage, what may be called patriotism, and the will to enhance the status of the family were all part of a woman's worth.

Exemplary Roman women were revered in legend for their specific acts or moral qualities, including of course those that served husband and family; "it seems probable that the women of the family told their daughters and grand-daughters about noble women [as] a model"; and indeed, Cornelia herself "was held to have shown greatness of spirit comparable with that of her son. This courage will have had an impact on the children, who were still so young, especially Servilia".2 Specific to every gens were the stories told of its own elders at their tomb-side, too, in the appointed days of ancestor worship. In dwelling on these matters it is Treggiari's object to prepare the reader for the mature Servilia and the choices of conduct that she made.

Treggiari is helpful also through showing how Servilia's uncle Drusus' home, one of the capital's Palatine palaces, served there to familiarize her with human types of every possible sort circulating daily in the public rooms, seeking access to their host, patron, friend, or supporter in the political arena. From these spaces in the home Servilia was taken to as an orphan, women of the household were not excluded; nor were they always excluded from men's evening meals. As she grew up, to join adults, she evidently received instruction in the accomplishments suitable to her station; so she could keep up a tolerable dinner conversation, understand references to Greek literature, probably knew something of music and dance. Her physical surroundings silently taught her, too, the taste and discrimination that would be eventually expected of the mistress of a fortune like her uncle's.

Married, as a matrona, she became a member of that female rank, called an ordo like the two upper ranks of Roman males, the senators and equestrians, though perhaps the designation applied to women was metaphorical and hyperbolic.3 The men wore the gold ring of senatorial rank, a broad purple stripe on their togas; special shoes and a special range of colors in their items of clothing, attested in memorial statuary; and those great ones who had been awarded a triumph would on ceremonial occasions don an all-purple toga with palm-leaf embroidery and a tunic with gold stars. Matronae had only their defining outer garment, the stola.4 But any of them who could boast in their lineage of clans such as the Servilii, Junii, and Porcii, not to mention the Cornelii and Caecilii Metelli, walked about invisibly clad in the majesty of the Roman past. They were never without their names. Servilia's was a rarefied world and often characterized as arrogant or worse.

It was marked, too, by special strains, the effects of which Treggiari remarks on. Political rivalries involved the courts where "one can imagine that the child Servilia became increasingly aware of the struggles being played out in prosecution and counter-prosecution"; also, at the hustings, with partisan coalitions, and in the assemblies with bought votes and organized rioting. Also, murder. Servilia's stepfather and uncle engaged in a notorious feud, on which rumor blamed the assassination of the latter by some cobbler at Drusus' home. The knife was not withdrawn lest bleeding finish the job; but the dying man, carried into an inner room, survived only a few hours, weak but conscious and barely speaking. "The kin whom he addressed presumably included the women of the household, Cornelia and perhaps his sister. If Servilia was not there, she could have been told about his last words later".5 What she made of the event, and how she internalized its meaning, would have an effect on her conduct and opinions in the future.

Treggiari's own words are quoted, above, to draw attention to her method, where she aspires to insights into Servilia's "personality and desires" as well as the more usual and limited "family and background [and] the determinable events of her life". Treggiari thus makes a place for empathy as a tool, indeed a very important tool, of historical interpretation, just as the modern anthropologist teaches, aiming at something essential: "psychological closeness, a sort of transcultural identification with our subjects." The words are Clifford Geertz's—who adds in explanation, "What happens to Verstehen when Einfühlen disappears?"6 To this and to anthropology as a reminder of the role of what we call our feelings, in our decision making, we should add the insight that anthropologists themselves encounter among peoples who see "feelings" as thoughts by another name, using one word for the two where "thinking" is what we would rather call "cognition". The virtual identity of the two mental sensations as a flow is little different from the teachings of today's neuroscience.7

In the main flow of the book where Servilia has reached adulthood, her story joins that of the latter generations of the Republic, amid political strife and civil war. Where there might be nothing new to say in the foreground, Treggiari focuses on Servilia in the background: her participation in marriage arrangements, personal appeals to close friends or kin, and occasional interventions in matters normally or mostly male territory. Readers are reminded of the extraordinarily rivalrous nature of the clans, quite as tireless, lawless, and ruthless as anything found among preliterate peoples. Among these, a minute knowledge of one's nearer kin, as distinct from merely married relations, may dictate instant friendship or instead, lethal action, one or the other, upon any chance encounter. For Romans, one of such rules distinguished blood connections from any other.8 Yet even so, the interests of the family over-all might require, and the family's leading members must always try to negotiate, some accommodation—as for example with that cruel butcher Pompey.9 Servilia in her thirties and forties, involved in the lives of a son by one marriage, three daughters by another, all four with their quite different connections and all needing their mother's arranging of any betrothal, had to cope with dizzying complexities and considerations. She must strategize with or against many friends in many households, in the interests of the family, all the while maintaining as many ties of good feeling as possible. Her love affair with Caesar for many years involved her in yet another set of relationships at the highest levels of power, for he had his own wives and children to think about. As she grew older and had to confront more responsibilities, Servilia proved herself to others as someone they must take seriously.

For example: Cicero's letters to Atticus in June 44 B.C. They have provoked a great deal of scholarly back-and-forth which, as always, Treggiari presents point by point, with her own preferred interpretations. Two letters in particular concern what is termed a consilium, one particular family council bringing to a suburban villa Servilia as hostess, and her son Brutus, his wife, his half-sister Tertia, the lean and hungry Cassius, and Cicero himself. He reports the discussion and an interjection in Servilia's words which show the noteworthy respect she enjoyed within this group; still more striking, her undertaking to squelch a political proposal that was awaiting senate action. Cicero indicates that she will be trusted to follow through on that matter. That is remarkable. And she expressed her views on what Brutus should do, not many weeks after the assassination and therefore at a moment of great significance. Brutus followed her advice. In sum, she makes history.

In this contention, of evident concern to her biographer, Treggiari loyally follows in the footsteps of her mentor Ronald Syme: "In all of his work from the late 1930s on [that is, from his Roman Revolution of 1939], Syme was alert to the importance of women in history".10 Elsewhere she distinguishes many kinds of "history", whether social or family or some other sub-species; but here, she surely takes the word in its conventional sense indicating consequentiality: that is, the degree to which the behavior of many people was affected in some matter they paid real attention to. It is only a step further in our understanding to say this "history" must be political, ordinarily the territory of men, as in fact Treggiari accepts in her summing up of Servilia's role.11 Treggiari's contention, in which she is of course by no means alone, seems to me supported at too many points to be disputed. Servilia did "make history".

That said, it remains for individual readers to decide how much of Treggiari's demonstration is good enough to support further interpretation, or whether it is sometimes mere conjecture, too near the top of a leaning tower of conjectures one upon another. There are problems—not least, that Treggiari's pages given to the years after 43 BC can draw on no mentions of Servilia in the sources. Caution here does not, however, threaten the contention itself, likely to stand as firmly as Pisa's bell-tower to this day.

A second matter of concern to Treggiari is also at first sight troubling: that is, the use of the biographer's sensitivity in divining motivation. Critics who would say there's no way this can work, since nobody can get into anyone else's mind, may be left to their logic. It has no place with homo sapiens in everyday interactions; no place, for example, in our jury trials. Sane readers of Servilia may be glad to accept Treggiari's findings of this sort or perhaps only trim them down a bit. In any case, the matter is quite crucial, and is carefully considered by her.

She begins with the word pudicitia (discussed earlier): it was "parallel to male virtus," covering a variety of laudable acts and tendencies in women, the opposite or breach of which would be shameful, especially adultery.12 The human species is thus seen to be, in Aristotle's words, a social animal. We want to please. To a society's rules for doing so, conformity can be induced by the approval of co-specifics and enforced by opprobrium. Any share of one or the other that the individual earns will be shared with the whole family; and for the likes of Servilia, more than anything, "what was at stake was gloria," the good name of the clan. Looseness, however, in the term pudicitia reminds us that words come into use to sum up perceptions rather than to inculcate them. Like a medal, "modesty" was pinned on behavior for what people had done, not like a law that dictates behavior. The same is true of gloria and similar value-terms. To understand motivation, it thus makes better sense to look at prevailing values through cases and situations before going on to lexical discussion. By a case approach we can see that adultery, for example, was "acceptable" if it was in fact accepted —as so often it was. It could be discreetly known but ignored; likewise, a wife's way of handling the family's finances, whether corruptly venal or admirably frugal as it might be characterized.13

To see how such contradictions might be allowed, Treggiari devotes an Appendix to the Whig aristocracy of the later 18th and early decades of the 19th century. Here, and scattered, too, in her main text, she draws parallels between Servilia's life and family, and that of such great persons as the duchess of Devonshire (d. 1806), political arranger and mistress of Charles James Fox and later of Charles Grey.14 The duchess in her novel Sylph offers a character much resembling her own self, saying in a candid moment, "I am, I give you my word, a very unexceptionable wife."15 Such women were known for their interventions in the politics of the day. That is the point. In their marital lives, their lofty social status provided license, and the beneficiaries, male or female, if they chose, might thus be licentious and nevertheless go scot-free. Obvious similarities suggest themselves in the sexual lives of males of Servilia's stratum, blatantly at odds with the values of most of their fellow citizens. Treggiari's analogies do enlarge the reader's understanding; that they can establish a Roman truth is by no means her claim, given the many differences between the Whig and the Roman high aristocracy; but the suggestion that truths—that is, accurate pictures of the past—may indeed be fostered by a wide range of apparent analogies, seems welcome. Certainly the assumptions reflexive among observers belonging to a 21st-century capitalist, even a post-industrialist, society, are of no help at all.

A second Appendix offers for analysis a wide selection of modern fictional treatments of Servilia's story and her world, from Jack Lindsay's in 1934 to Colleen McCullough's many volumes ending in 2002.16 To this as to the previous Appendix Treggiari has made a serious commitment, evidently to enlarge empathy; for it is obvious that her treatment of this literature is aimed at as wide a choice as possible of "insights into human nature." Her underlying concern is with the gaps in our knowledge and her own scores and scores of conjectures to fill them. How can they be made more plausible? Together, the two Appendixes join with the flow of all the earlier pages to enhance the historian's powers of explanation; but there is nothing dogmatic about them.

What does seem to me undeniable in Servilia is the evidence for a preoccupation of the greater clans with power, making that history-making stratum "rivalrous", as it was termed above, to an extraordinary degree. There is nothing novel in this perception, of course, but it suggests a sort of inevitability, or great likelihood: namely, of larger and larger aggregations of clan power forming competitively, not unlike mergers among commercial organizations in a capitalist society today, not only to survive but to come out on top.

In support of this reading of Treggiari's work, in her opening chapter, we are alerted to the natural process of contraction within this elite body through the dying out of dynastic lines, where "those who remained faced fierce competition for dignitas". The value set on this attainment appears, for example, in the fact that, explicitly, "Caesar made civil war in defense of tribunes's rights and his own dignitas"—this, his assertion of an accepted moral value on a grand scale. The positive term we can understand better by its opposite, indignitas, applied to the failure to resist or avenge any impudence, any slight or challenge. As a measurement of what might be at stake, we have Cassius at that family council of June 44 ready to risk his life rather than accept a safe retreat that he considered beneath him. It was a job to talk him out of his outrage.17 On a small scale yet serious, in the capital itself from ancient times, the gentes of Rome in blood feuds or political contests had deployed strong-arm slave gangs against each other and endured assaults in turn on their own great homes as castles.18

Further in support of Treggiari's findings, there is that knotted tangled quality in the elite class. "They're all cousins". It was true of Servilia's relations, embracing those "three groups" called by Syme "the core of the ruling class in the 70s". Subsequent discussion has brought out how essential coalitions among the elite were bound to be; for, had every clan asserted its autonomy, the result could only have been chaos.19 To point this out, however, is not to rule out the possibility that coalitions might go too far, on an ever grander scale, and might thus end in one such of huge power provoking the formation of another, and struggling to be winner-takes-all. Servilia seems to show this tendency in place and in operation in her lifetime and circle, ready to be invoked by a person of such ambitions as Caesar's—or his enemies', Cato, Brutus, and others in league. Their very definition of "good" was agreed on; it was good to raise the standing, the glory, of one's clan; it was bad to bend before another's challenge; so in rivalry had always lain their republic's end.

In a conclusion all the more effective for being so understated, Treggiari recalls what is evident in her account, her subject's "intelligence, diplomatic skills, and personality. … The woman who enchanted Caesar and silenced Cicero deserves to be remembered."20


1.   Old friends, L. C. Purser and R. Y. Tyrrell, The Correspondence of M. Tullius Cicero . . . (Dublin and London, 1904-1933); Friederich Münzer, Römische Adelsparteien und Adelsfamilien (Stuttgart, 1920).
2.   "It seems probable," Servilia 85; 55, on Cornelia, quoted.
3.   Servilia 16.
4.   See Paolo Liverani, "Reflections on colour coding in Roman art," in Les arts de la couleur en Grèce ancienne … et ailleurs, ed. Philippe Jockey (Bull. Corr. Hellénique, Supplement: Colloque Athènes École Française, Paris 2018) 317-22, on special shades of red and grey, with blue, and ornaments on the clothing items of magistratus, scribae, adolescents, triumphators, lictors, priests, augurs, equites, and senators, whether togas or tunics or cloaks or the military paludamentum; also the auratae vestes matronarum, cf. the texts of the first century BC and AD.
5.   Quoted from Servilia 53, the story at 52.
6.   For the quotation, "family and background …", where Treggiari pays tribute to Ronald Syme, see Servilia, the Preface, p. x; for "psychological closeness …" and the nature of anthropological understanding, see Clifford Geertz, "'From the native's point of view." Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Issue 1, October 1974, p. 28.
7.   Ramsay MacMullen, Why Do We Do What We Do? Motivation in History and the Social Sciences (Berlin/Warsaw, De Gruyter, 2014) 54f., 79, and passim; adding much depth of explanation, Antonio Damasio, The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures (New York, Pantheon Books, 2018) 55, 160f., and passim.
8.   Rivalry splits families, Servilia 45f. and passim; 276f., on "blood-kin" as distinct from marital.
9.   Pompey and Servilia's kin, Servilia 86, 94, 277.
10.   Servilia p. x.
11.   Servilia 138, seeing Servilia as "working behind the scenes", "setting a pattern for the wives and sisters of the emperors, who could influence a man … family connexions undoubtedly helped", where Treggiari (279, cf. 294) compares a certain English Viscountess of the 18th-19th century; 109, other Victorian and Edwardian parallels.
12.   Servilia 19-22 (p. 20, quoted), the opening discussion of underlying explanations for conduct.
13.   Frugality, Servilia 253.
14.   To underline resemblances, Treggiari might have cited the remark of the soon-to-be prime minister Robert Peel in 1834, "Damn the Whigs, they're all cousins."
15.   Servilia 295.
16.   Servilia 298, quoted on "insights", and passim in Appendix 6. McCullough was author of no less than six relevant novels from 1990 on, including The October Horse (2002) and still later (2007) on Antony and Cleopatra (at the outset of her plans, on a visit to the U.S., inviting myself to serve as expert reader, to which I agreed; but she soon found a better helper in her own Australia).
17.   Indignitas as used, e.g., in Cic., Prov. Cons.38, where the word is almost the equivalent of "powerlessness"; compare Ramsay MacMullen, "Personal power in the Roman empire," American Journal of Philology 107 (1986) 516, and the risk of contumely if one tolerated any advice from an inferior, Servilia 253 n. 14; cf. 189-93, on Cassius' indignation.
18.   Servilia 4, cf. 18, "Their status, dignitas, was earned by … election … Competition was built in. The young were to aim at gloria and dignitas"; and there, further, the words quoted on Caesar; general social-historical treatment in MacMullen, "Personal power" 513-17, finding (516) "there is the closest connection between dignitas and the power to strike back," and instancing esp. Caesar while noting also the acting out of dignitas in the capital and other cities through private armed guards of slaves serving noblemen in their homes like fortresses; further on this urban strife, Susan Treggiari, Roman Social History (London/ New York, Routledge, 2002) 79-81, 90-94.
19.   Above, "all cousins," at n. 14, of the year 1834; Syme quoted, Servilia 230, with reff. to Wiseman and Brunt.
20.   Servilia 280.

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