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 One of the five, indeed, is offered with the sole justification – outdated by the time the book appeared – that no biography of Pompey exists in English.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.

Even such an account could have been used to ask how much we understand of the conventions of Roman politics: the exercise of power, the relation of political figures to their supporters (if they had ‘supporters’ on any ongoing basis) in Rome, Italy and the provinces, or what changed during the period in the presuppositions and objectives of political figures. But instead our accepted presuppositions about, for instance, clientela are allowed to determine the way the narrative is presented. Seager notes that Pompey’s father, Pompeius Strabo, as consul of 89 BC, established relationships of clientela in Picenum which were an important political legacy to his son. This is justified by a footnote whose first sentence perfectly exemplifies this style of non-explanatory scholarship: ‘On Pompeius’ inherited power in Picenum cf. Cic. Qf.2.3.4, Phil. 5.44, B.Afr. 22.5, App. BC 1.80.366. Vell, 2.29.1, Val.Max. 5.2.9, Plut. Pomp. 6, Dio fr. 107.1’. The sources cited range from contemporaries to ones of the early third century AD: there is no indication of the context of these heterogeneous passages, and no discussion of their standpoint or reliability. So the reader can tell neither whether the clientelae referred to were individual or collective (i.e. relations of patronage with some or all of the towns of the region), nor whether they were exclusive (i.e. whether these individuals or towns might not have had multiple patroni), nor what is meant by ‘inherited power’ (i.e. how and under what circumstances it could be actualised). But Pompey’s supposed ‘power base’ in Picenum has often been taken as a paradigm case of the local clientelae of a Roman politician, so this would have been just the occasion to ask whether (as I myself believe) the importance of clientelae has been exaggerated. As it happens, the only one of the passages listed which even uses the term clientelae to describe the relations between Pompey and Picenum is that from Velleius, who says that in 83 BC he raised an army in Picenum ‘which was filled with paternal clientelae of his’. As with all the basic questions about Roman politics, the issue remains open. It is a great pity that Robin Seager, who a few years ago produced important re-examinations of the concepts factio and populares, has not used his life of Pompey to carry the process further.

No one could accuse David Stockton’s The Gracchi of a similar failure to discuss evidence and problems. It begins by setting out the basic workings of the Republican constitution, and continues with a (rather brief) examination of the literary sources. There follows a sober survey of the relation of questions about land to Roman politics in the second century BC. Various limitations now become evident. The effects of wars and conquests are mentioned in a general way, but not the recent assumption (for the first time) of direct control of areas across the Adriatic and in Africa, nor the very important question of conquest and land distribution in the Po valley (Gallia Cisalpina), perhaps interrupted after the 160s BC. The perspective is firmly Italian – but without the use of Italian archaeological evidence other than that put forward by M.W. Frederiksen in Dialoghi di Archeologia (1971). However erratic, confusing and deceptive the mass of archaeological evidence may be, it is surely out of place to write as if it did not exist. A glance at F. Coarelli on public building in Rome between the Second Punic War and Sulla will confirm that behind the major issues of the Gracchan period lies the rapid development of urban life in Italy.

All the same, we should be grateful that The Gracchi marks a step away from the view that Roman political life consisted essentially of struggles for advantage between factions, and treats the issues for what they were – fundamental questions about the Roman state, sovereignty within it and its relation to Italy and (with Gaius Gracchus) the provinces. That being so, it is a pity that Stockton sidesteps the issue of the influence of Greek political ideas with a brief acknowledgement that the question is ‘both important and elusive’. For if we are to understand the Gracchi and their times at all, we cannot avoid the question of the historical precedents and models on which they based their views, and the possible sources of their ideas about the state. Stockton’s Gracchi (like those of many others before him) continue to exist in a geographical and intellectual vacuum in which the world outside Italy hardly matters, and in which no one compares the Roman and Spartan constitutions, listens to Polybius or Panaetius, or is aware that Greek cities go to strenuous efforts to ensure a corn supply for their citizens at controlled prices. It is also striking that the one contemporary Roman commentator of whose views on the political scene many fragments remain, the satiric poet Lucilius, does not rate a single mention.

In short, what we have is a serious and reliable attempt to work over the standard problems of what the Gracchi really did or intended to do, but without a new or wider perspective, whether historical, geographical or intellectual. Something of the latter is provided, rather surprisingly, by Thomas Mitchell’s Cicero: The Ascending Years. The title arouses foreboding, apparently justified by the first few pages and their obsessive use of those Latin catch-words (dignitas, nobilitas, amicitia, adfinis, potentia, principes familiarum) with which we like to persuade ourselves that we understand Roman society and politics. But in fact the book puts forward two related theses of some importance as regards Cicero’s social, political and intellectual background. The first concerns the network of social, personal and marital connections which linked even the best-established ‘noble’ families (those of which one member at least had led the consulship) with small-town gentry such as the Cicerones of Arpinum. The high degree of exclusiveness which marked the occupation of the consulate itself was by no means characteristic of the 300-strong Senate as a whole, which was open – first by indirect, then (after Sulla) by direct election – to the whole class of gentry of ‘equestrian’ status. Membership was not hereditary, and had to be achieved anew in each generation. In other words, within the relatively restricted framework imposed by Roman social values, it was an open and fluid system. Moreover – and here Mitchell’s book is of considerable value – members of the small-town gentry like Cicero’s father, who never held any public office in Rome, could nonetheless have close personal friendships with leading senators – in his case, Q. Mucius Scaevola the augur (consul in 117 BC), M. Antonius (consul of 99 BC) and L. Crassus (consul of 95 BC). Cicero’s own rise as a ‘new man’ thus appears in a rather different perspective.

More important, however, is the second thesis: that these same persons, and others at whose feet Cicero acquired his knowledge of and attitudes to Roman law, constitutional practice and politics, did have definable political and constitutional standpoints. Mitchell rightly argues against the long-established modern view which has confused the highly personalised competition for office or in the courts with the question of these same persons’ response to issues (legislation, constitutional questions, decisions on war and peace). Against all the prevailing assumptions, which go back to Gelzer’s Die Römische Nobilität of 1912, Mitchell argues for abandoning the emphasis on factions supposedly united by personal and family ties, and for returning to something more like the view of Mommsen in his History of Rome. That is not (obviously enough) to say that there were political parties in any sense, but that we can legitimately characterise a succession of political figures as ‘conservatives’. In Mitchell’s view, they were marked by ‘a more basic concern to maintain the aristocracy as a whole in a stable position of power in the face of growing threats arising from the changing conditions of an expanding state and empire’. That seems to me not quite right, if meant as a characterisation of how these men saw their own position. Both for the generation before him and for Cicero, the relevant conscious attitude was that of the defence of the constitution. We should thus take more note than we have of Cicero’s words in the Brutus, talking of Crassus’ speech of 106 BC in support of a law returning control of the jury-courts to the Senate: ‘For me that speech on the law of Caepio has been since boyhood as it were a teacher; in it the authority of the Senate, the order on whose behalf he was speaking, is upheld, and obloquy is poured on the faction of jurors and accusers.’

The ‘conservative’ position, classically formulated by Cicero in the Pro Sestio of 56 BC, can thus be defined. But it is a different matter to argue (as Mitchell does) that Cicero – let alone anyone else – invariably kept to it. Nor is there any comparable label for those who either consistently (like Gaius Gracchus or, as I believe, Caesar) or from time to time took up non-conservative positions – who preferred the achievement of specific objectives (land distributions, grants of citizenship, decisive victories abroad) to the maintenance of the constitutional status quo. It is a difficulty for Mitchell’s whole argument that, in speaking in favour of Pompey’s command against Mithridates in 66 BC, Cicero was – with infinite care to avoid offence – arguing for just such a necessary innovation.

The fact that this book is marked by special pleading on the interpretation of issues and political stances does not destroy the value of the service it renders in arguing that we should stop conjuring up the ghosts of factions, and instead try to use what we know about how Romans of the late Republic were brought up, how they saw their own state and its traditions, and what values they applied in their communal life. Both this and rather more is offered by the boldest and most interesting of the books under review, T.P. Wiseman’s Clio’s Cosmetics. This provides not only a series of daring and provocative propositions on the intellectual life of the late Republic, but a firm attempt to draw out the implications of what Cicero says in the Brutus 62: that the ‘history’ of the early Republic as we have it has not only been distorted in the interests of the glory of particular Roman families, but has been loaded with whole successions of events which never really happened. Our habit is to make a formal bow in the direction of these uncomfortable thoughts and then proceed, on the ‘kernel of truth’ principle, largely to ignore them. Wiseman by contrast insists, first, on the non-veridical conventions of ancient historiography and, secondly, on the ominous fact that the histories of Rome written in about 100 BC by Cn. Gellius, and (as he argues) about 50 BC by Valerius Antias, suddenly acquired a vastly increased scale and detail compared to those which preceded them. The implication must be that the extra material which they incorporated was to a large extent simply fiction. It is therefore these elaborate and rhetorical fictions which lie behind Livy, and behind his much fuller and (partly for that reason) much neglected contemporary, Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Wiseman’s arguments serve to underline the seriousness of the question as to what genuine material, literary or archaeological, we have for Roman history down to the later fourth century BC. For, of course, it is common ground that before the last part of the third century there was no Roman historiography at all.

To prove something to be dubious, however, is not the same thing as to prove it false. To do that, we need to know that something else is true. So when it comes to the substance of the historical tradition, Wiseman has sometimes to rely on bare assertions, accepting for instance the view of A. Alföldi, based on isolated scraps of ancient evidence, that down to 340 BC Rome functioned simply as one member of the Latin League. On this theory, the story was subsequently rewritten in order, as it were, to Romanise it. But we do not and cannot know that the Latin League played so consistent and dominating a political and military role in the sixth to fifth centuries. So here the argument about Roman historiography becomes circular.

Might it be possible, alternatively, to demonstrate how, when and by whom the major fictional elements in early Republican ‘history’ were elaborated? In a very bold and speculative argument, Wiseman suggests that the many detailed episodes from earlier history centring on members of the Claudian and Valerian families have precise and datable origins within the political struggles of the late Republic: that is to say, that the repeated portrait of arrogant and brutal Claudii and of wise and statesmanlike Valerii was formed by Valerius Antias (firmly down-dated by several decades) in a historical work published in the period 50 BC and after. The contrasting roles of the Appii Pulchri (of whom the most famous was Clodius) and of the Valerii Messallae in the 50s BC thus provided the essence of the pseudo-historical material cooked up by Valerius Antias (perhaps the descendant of a freedman of the Valerii) and retrojected onto earlier history. He was then answered by a rival, pro-Claudian, historian, writing in the 40s or 30s BC, whom Wiseman identifies as Q. Aelius Tubero.

The thesis need only set out to make clear both how far from proof and how potentially important it is. It needs, for a start, a fuller demonstration of what the hypothetical anti-Claudian/pro-Valerian history would have been like. But, more important, it raises the question of how Romans in the late Republic understood their own history, or newly produced literary versions of it. Cicero’s many historical discussions with Atticus surely suggest that they did feel that there was a body of factual material, whose contradictions and difficulties might be capable of resolution. On the other hand, the use of highly-coloured, semi-historical examples in forensic and political speeches was common, and (as we saw above) Cicero had no doubt of the fictional character of much of the tradition. So did they read Valerius Antias as historical fiction, conscious of the daring and abusive retrojections?

In other words, both in the political life and in the historiography of the late Republic our task must be to understand the presuppositions, values and outlook of the society which produced the very extensive surviving evidence. Mitchell’s and Wiseman’s books offer some hope that further progress could be made. And yet one’s strongest impression is of how these five books proceed with varying degrees of orthodoxy and heterodoxy within the bounds of a familiar range of literary material and within the intellectual horizons of the well-rooted pedagogic tradition which is both the strength and the limitation of ancient history as practised in Britain. By contrast, a glance into Evelyne Patlagean’s Pauvreté Economique et Pauvreté Sociale à Byzance of 1977, for example, will reveal a wholly different level of ambition, curiosity and commitment in its approach to a society of the past. We are, of course, the prisoners of our evidence, and our Classical sources barely touch on the social underworld revealed by Christian literature. But, on the evidence of these books, we wear our chains a little too easily.