Thursday, November 21, 2019


Miriam T. Griffin, Politics and Philosophy at Rome: Collected Papers. Edited by Catalina Balmaceda. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xvi, 775. ISBN 9780198793120. $155.00.

Reviewed by Benjamin Harriman, Edinburgh University (

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

Miriam Griffin's contribution to the study of Roman philosophy and its historical context is notable not just for its great impact but its continuing relevance. Seneca, a Philosopher in Politics, although published more than forty years ago, stills sparkles in its crystalline discussions of Seneca's attitude to slavery, political participation, and philosophical suicide. The book under review, bringing together papers published throughout her career, spanning the well-known to the hard-to-access, and including unpublished lectures and occasional pieces, makes the depth of her work and the significance of a historian's approach to the political context of ancient philosophy obvious.

Of course, this will not surprise anyone in her wide readership. However, there are a few unexpected delights here. A short, light-footed piece, written with Jasper Griffin, for The New York Review of Books, on the occasion of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, draws a striking parallel with the aftermath of the death of Germanicus and makes a deft assessment of the value of imperial self-control, even in the face of public outrage. An obituary of Sir Ronald Syme for The Journal of Roman Studies is informative, but also insightful, and clearly heartfelt—a model for the genre.

Five of the papers included are previously unpublished. Rather than recapitulate the published articles that will be familiar to many, I focus on these five below. As Professor Balmaceda, the editor of this volume, remarks in her introductory notes, some of these five were originally delivered to audiences in schools. The concision, focus, and the general lack of the paraphernalia of footnotes, critical reference to secondary literature and the like certainly suggest such an origin. Yet they are notable for how directly themes treated in greater detail and nuance elsewhere emerge. As such, they represent an excellent window in Griffin's scholarly preoccupations and arguments. All five would find a natural home in the bibliographies of undergraduate and A-Level / high-school introductory courses in classics and ancient history.

'Writing History, the Senate vs. Tacitus' offers a succinct lesson in historiography.1 The Piso inscription (also treated in the unpublished five in 'Tiberius on Family Relations') is contrasted with Tacitus' account of the death of Germanicus and its aftermath in the Annals to set up an initial, importantly unstable, contrast. The inscription seems particularly reliable from a historian's point of view. It is contemporary with the events it is concerned with, governmental in origin, and written in the non-stylish, plain language we tend to trust. Tactius' version, in contrast, was written a century after the fact, within a historical tradition, and (although this is left implicit) in Tacitus' elegant Latin.

Griffin quickly disabuses us of any notion of simple truth to be found in government accounts presented as histories and intending to instruct future generations. Here Tacitius, although superficially suspect, comes to represent an important ideal for any historian: a commitment to truth even in the face of political uncertainty. His account challenges the propagandistic inscription by proceeding from a shrewd understanding of human motivation. What we are left with is a humane vision of the historian striving for impartiality (and largely succeeding) in a complex, contested socio-political context.

Certainly, there is an element of hero worship here, and the role of the historian is rather grandly imagined. However, the piece manages to tackle some of the central issues facing both the historian and her ancient counterpart with focus and didactic power. This is clearly an excellent piece for students new to history and historiography.

'Pliny's Letters, between History and E-mail' makes a case for the surviving letters of antiquity as our most precious historical evidence. Here some of themes that consistently appear elsewhere in Griffin's work are treated. These include Stoic attitudes to suicide, slavery, and politics, and the value of considering first-century CE Roman philosophy from a prosopographical standpoint. Pliny's use of exempla and the importance of his presentation of contemporary moral norms for understanding his society are carefully elaborated. Particularly convincing here (contra Hoffer)2 is the analysis of Pliny's report of the Stoic Euphrates in 1.10, where his joint commitment to philosophy and public life is praised.

'Nero, from Zero to Hero' is a delicate consideration of the renewed interest in Nero from non-textual perspectives, i.e. it is an examination of whether the negative portrait in the historians ought to be reconsidered in light of Nero's undoubted contributions to architecture, coinage, and the material sphere more generally. Here the very same visual qualities of Nero's legendary theatricality that have led to a more positive portrait in contemporary scholarship are also said to be those that are used by Cassius Dio, Tactius, and Suetonius to damn him. She concludes with a look at the curious pseudo-Lucianic Nero and its story of an interaction between Nero and an actor. From this text, Griffin finds a particularly concentrated example of how those aspects that made Nero such a compelling figure are not only inseparable from those that made him a tyrant; they are arguably the very same qualities. In a few careful pages, Griffin deflates the initial contrast between the good and the bad and offers a compelling portrait of how this opposition stems from a single source.

'Tacitus and Nero' functions as a general introduction to the Annals with familiar remarks on Tacitus' use of Nero's reign as the culmination of a crescendo of vicious indulgence extending back to Actium. We also find discussion of Tacitus' use of characterization within his overall authorial strategy. Perhaps most usefully, there is a careful analysis of the incompleteness of the work and whether or not events post-dating spring 66 were originally treated. The arguments for both possibilities are carefully stated and a plausible, if speculative, account of what continuing to 68 might have achieved for Tacitus is given.

Finally, 'Tiberius and Family Relations' returns to the Piso inscription considered in the first unpublished piece summarized above. Here Tiberius' strict interpretation of patria potestas enables him to take a sympathetic position on what should happen to the traitor Piso's son. How Tiberius' conservatism helps us to understand the difficult question of the nature of his relationship with his mother, Livia, and the effect of his emphasis on moderatio in the face of grief are also examined. In this lecture, we find a particularly acute example of how Griffin illuminates a dominant question in Roman philosophy—the nature and extent of officia, as explored by Cicero, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, and others—by grounding the discussion in the lived experience of those political figures preserved by Roman historians.

I have so far omitted discussion of Griffin's most widely known articles. Re-reading 'Philosophy, Politics, and Politicians at Rome', 'Philosophy, Cato, and Roman Suicide', and 'Philosophical Badinage in Cicero's Letters to his Friends' confirms how useful this collection will be for specialists to have easily at hand. What is most striking reading through the collection as a whole is how accessible Griffin consistently is, even when discussing more technical matters, e.g. in 'Un Frammento del Libro XI di Tito Livio?' and 'The Composition of the Academica'. This makes the volume a valuable resource for a wide-ranging readership.

Of course, there are some inconveniences here. Producing the collection as a single volume is certainly a plus, but it has come at the cost of heft and densely packed pages with small type and minimal margins. As the editor notes, one of the benefits of a collection of this kind is that inaccessible pieces are now easily available in a single resource. However, without an indication of the original page numbering, this 'one-stop shop' becomes less useful than it might have been.3

Overall, this collection is to be warmly welcomed and Professor Balmaceda thanked for her editorial efforts.


1.   This paper is dated to 1999; however, a reference to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq suggests later editing, or delivery.
2.   S. E. Hoffer, The Anxieties of Pliny the Younger, Oxford, 1999.
3.   See the collected articles of the late Myles Burnyeat for how this might be successfully done: M. F. Burnyeat, Explorations in Ancient and Modern Philosophy, Cambridge, 2012.

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