Roman History in Chains

Fergus Millar

  • Romans and Aliens by J.P.V.D. Balsdon
    Duckworth, 310 pp, £18.00, August 1979, ISBN 0 7156 1043 0
  • Pompey: A Political Biography by Robin Seager
    Blackwell, 209 pp, £12.00, August 1979, ISBN 0 631 10841 6
  • The Gracchi by David Stockton
    Oxford, 251 pp, £9.50, October 1979, ISBN 0 19 872104 8
  • Cicero: the Ascending Years by Thomas Mitchell
    Yale, 257 pp, £11.00, September 1979, ISBN 0 300 02277 8
  • Clio’s Cosmetics: Three Studies in Greco-Roman Literature by T.P. Wiseman
    Leicester University Press, 209 pp, £13.00, November 1979, ISBN 0 7185 1165 4

These five books, all published in the second half of 1979, are very good evidence for the established place of Roman history in contemporary English-speaking culture and (even more) education. Books on familiar subjects continue to be written, and to find publishers and – presumably – readers. One of the five, indeed, is offered with the sole justification – outdated by the time the book appeared – that no biography of Pompey exists in English. Each of them also bears witness to the quite high standards of scholarship and respect for facts which prevail in English ancient history. Yet, in another way, they all, with the exception of Wiseman’s Clio’s Cosmetics, give an uneasy impression of parochialism, of an unconsciousness of debates and questions current elsewhere in the writing of history, and of a lack of any perspective on the very particular problems posed by the enormous but erratically distributed mass of different types of evidence surviving from the ancient world.

One possible strategem might be to have the courage to abandon these familiar territories and to try to write the history of one of those areas where chance has preserved some aspects at least of the life of a whole community. For instance, the modest town of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt is the source of some three thousand published documents and literary texts in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri alone (with perhaps as many more to come). Why not see what the attempt to produce an Oxyrhynchus to match Ladurie’s Montaillou would be like? Or, alternatively, our libraries are deluged with endless series of archaeological reports from (nearly) all over the Roman world. But no one since Rostovtzeff (a Braudel before his time, for all the conceptual naiveties for which it is so easy to criticise him) has attempted to gather it all into any sort of framework.

The only one of these books which offers any Mediterranean-wide perspective is Balsdon’s Romans and Aliens, a remarkable collection of curious learning and an enjoyable memorial to a cultivated and scholarls Oxford don, who wrote it in retirement and did not live to see its publication. It sets out to sketch a number of related themes – for instance, attitudes of Romans to others and of others to Rome, the use and role of different languages in the Roman world, the means of acquisition of Roman citizenship. No one will read it without pleasure, or without learning something new. But it remains a collection of loosely arranged material, posing no clear questions or defining in what ways the answers might matter.

Nonetheless, the perspectives offered in Balsdon’s book might have done something to supply a justification for Seager’s biography of Pompey. A true biography was out of the question, and such a thing is not clearly feasible for any person before Augustine. But if our evidence comes to a bundle of external impressions, these are, after all, extensive and varied, reflecting a long and bloody career covering four vital decades and many areas of the ancient world from Spain, Sicily and Africa to the Balkans, Asia Minor, Syria and, at the end Egypt. Pompey was indeed precisely the figure in whom the sudden and decisive establishment of Roman dominance in the decades from the 80s to the 40s BC was most clearly personified, both for Romans and for others. So we have a remarkable variety of evidence, from Cicero’s elaborate justification of an extraordinary command for Pompey in 66, to the Jewish author of the Psalms of Solomon describing the desecration of the temple and Pompey’s humiliating death on the shore of Egypt 15 years later. We also have the many vivid reflections of Pompey in Strabo’s Geography, most vivid of all, perhaps, where he describes how his own grandfather, serving under Mithridates, betrayed 15 fortresses to Lucullus in the hope of a suitable reward: ‘But when Pompey took over the command of the war he treated as enemies all those who had done any favour to Lucullus because of his personal hostility to him; and when he had finished the war and gone home he saw to it that any honours which Lucullus had promised to people in Pontus were not ratified by the Senate.’

Seager’s book contains no reflection of this striking testimony to the savage mutual competition which both fuelled and hampered the course of Roman conquest. Nor does it discuss what we can reconstruct of the presentation of Pompey by his Greek historian, Theophanes of Mytilene. Even a conventionally biographical approach could have explored a number of major themes: provincial patronage and the spread of the citizenship; individual power and collective institutions; the revolution in the scale and character of Roman monumental building, in which the theatre of Pompey (copied, according to Plutarch’s Life, from that of Mytilene) was of central importance. But the author has chosen instead a year-by-year ‘political’ biography: in other words, a narrative of the successive issues in which Pompey was involved.

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