Aristocracies

M.I. Finley

  • Death and Renewal. Sociological Studies in Roman History: Vol. II by Keith Hopkins
    Cambridge, 276 pp, £19.50, May 1983, ISBN 0 521 24991 0

The durability of the Roman ruling class, despite the continuing loss of individual families, was perhaps unique in history. From the establishment of a republic at the end of the sixth century BC to, anyway, the death of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius seven hundred years later, the Roman state, which had grown by conquest from a small autonomous city on the Tiber to a great empire reaching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Euphrates River, was dominated and ruled by a relatively small aristocracy which had survived not only various threats from below but also the replacement of the republic by the monarchy of Augustus. There were all kinds of changes, of course, especially those made necessary by the vastly increased scale of activity, the vastly increased wealth and luxury, the vastly increased armies and military operations, and so on. Yet ‘durability’ is the correct term. Occasionally there were nicely illustrative personal examples: both Julius Caesar and his assassin Brutus could claim membership of lineages that traced their high status back half a millennium.

We call this ruling class an aristocracy, and the Romans themselves spoke of a nobilitas, though the word turns out to be much harder to define than one might expect. It was an odd kind of aristocracy by traditional European canons, if for no other reason because in a certain sense it rested on a ‘democratic’ base. Membership in this aristocracy was de facto, not de jure: there were no hereditary titles, no peerage in the formal sense. The main offices of state, in which there was no distinction between civilian and military posts, were monopolised by the aristocracy, except when they themselves sponsored ‘new men’ for admission, the most famous, or at least the most self-advertised, of whom was Cicero. But the offices of state were few in number, and as they became, with Roman expansion, increasingly lucrative for the incumbents, they were the object of a fierce and costly competition, the oddity of which was that they were elective posts, open only to the aristocracy and their occasional client – outsiders but chosen by popular vote. No other nobility was subject to a comparable need to obtain, and pay for, popular backing in an annually-repeated contest. The rules of the game were formulated in such a way as to guarantee absolutely that no one could enter the contest who was not either a member of the nobilitas or someone who had made his mark in the municipal aristocracies of Italy and had acquired proper Roman aristocratic patronage. But the final contest was genuinely open. Cato, the famous censor of 184-180 BC, had been defeated when he stood for the office in 189.

The main offices were normally held for a tenure of a single year, though occasionally someone managed a further term or terms and the highest offices, the consulship and praetorship, were with growing frequency prorogued for a period as the expanding empire required more and more provincial governors (hence the word ‘proconsul’) and commanders of armies. The normal age for the consulship was 40, after which a man had completed his office-holding career unless he were subsequently elected to the censorship – an abnormal post for which two men were chosen every five years.

The oddity of the whole set-up can hardly be overstated. Men born to aristocratic status staked very large sums of money on a series of popular elections, to the quaestorship, the praetorship and the consulship, which, if successful, they held for only one year with the likelihood of a brief prorogation, and that was the end. In those few years, furthermore, they were expected both to administer Rome and to command armies in battle (since Roman armies were engaged on actual campaigns virtually every year without exception), with the probability that someone else would have to take over at the end of a year.

Yet there was never a shortage of candidates. There were men born to the aristocracy who did not compete or who gave up at an early age; there were men who entered the competition, failed, and disappeared from the historical record. Yet enough remained in the running to guarantee genuine competition. There lay the uniqueness of the Roman aristocracy: more precisely, of the aristocracy of the Republic, for one of the marks of the breakdown of that system, and of the transition to the monarchy founded by Augustus, was the emergence of repeated office-holding by such major figures as Marius and Sulla, of ‘extraordinary’ commands for longer terms (notably in the case of Pompey), and eventually of the dictatorship of Caesar. The aristocracy of the Empire also displayed remarkable continuity as a class, but under different circumstances and different rules.

The institutional key to this continuity during the Republic was the Senate. In principle, membership in the Senate, which was customarily for life, was given to every man who had attained the quaestorship, normally at the age of 30 (exceptions need not detain us). Much of the Senate’s power was traditional rather than statutory, but it was beyond doubt by far the main power in the Republican political structure. It was through his membership of the Senate, for instance, that the elder Cato, who held his last public office (the censorship) from 184 to 180 BC, remained active and extremely influential in politics to the end of his life 34 years later. Cato was a ‘new man’ – that is to say, a noble who came from a family which had never before had a representative in a major office of state. Like Cicero at the end of the Republic, he thus lends some credence to the view that the system produced a meritocracy. But that view is mistaken.

Keith Hopkins speaks more than once of the ‘considerable ability’ needed for the ‘top jobs’, but there is a fair amount of evidence that many incompetents or mediocrities held top jobs throughout the Republic. As we can see all around us today, if a state possesses enough brute force it can manage pragmatically with a low level of ability in its leaders (other than shrewd toughness, lack of scruple and the other skills of the bully). As Hopkins says, ‘the formal prerequisite of political success was money, not noble birth.’ Given the relatively early age at which the competition began for the top jobs, and given the nature of the economy, enough money was available to the competitors solely through inheritance or through patronage. There was no place in this society for ‘from rags to riches’, not even as a myth.

The interplay between competitiveness and inheritance, between continuity and change in the leading personnel of the Roman state, is at the heart of Hopkins’s new book, and I must pause to declare my interest. Professor Hopkins was an undergraduate pupil of mine in Cambridge many years ago, we have been friends for twenty-five years, and the book is dedicated to me with a generous dedicatory paragraph. If, therefore, a note of dissatisfaction can be detected in this essay, the psychological explanation is not far to seek.

Death and Renewal consists of four chapters held together rather loosely. The two central ones, written jointly with Dr Graham Burton, make up more than half the volume. They consist of a detailed demonstration that the conventional view of a mostly hereditary aristocracy in Rome is untenable. The demographic argument is sufficient proof by itself. In a genuinely hereditary aristocracy, the next eligible male succeeds at any age, whereas in the Roman system there was a high ‘age-threshold’: one had to have reached the right age to stand for the quaestorship, the praetorship and the consulship, and the probability was that one-third of 20-year-old males would have been dead before the age of 40. Given that fact, and given the competitiveness of the few high posts, it comes as no surprise – once someone has finally had the idea and taken the trouble to do the calculations – that in the final two centuries of the Republic only 40 per cent of the consuls had consular fathers, one-third consular grandfathers, one-third consular sons, one-quarter consular grandsons.

There is, as I have already indicated, no rational dispute possible about that assessment of the extent of hereditary renewal among the Roman aristocracy. Even after we allow for the one weakness in the argument – namely, that the evidence does not allow us to identify the office-holders whose inherited advantages came through the female line – it remains the case that, over any three generations, the inflow of ‘new men’ into the Senate was a considerable and steady one.

But that is perhaps less surprising than Hopkins claims. The pattern was sufficiently similar in all European aristocracies before the modern ‘demographic explosion’. In the Loire region of France, for example, 66 of the 215 lineages with a claim to noble status in 1200 had disappeared by the end of the 13th century because the male line had become extinct, another 80 went in the next century, and 38 more in the 15th. Or, to cite another example, well-known from Lawrence Stone’s Crisis of the Aristocracy, 19 per cent of all marriages within the English nobility between 1540 and 1660 were childless, 29 per cent without male issue; of second marriages, the respective percentages were 48 and 58. The oddity of the Roman aristocracy was therefore not a demographic one. It lay both in the absence of titles of nobility and in the struggle for office-holding. Demographically, biographically, aristocracies have always required steady recruitment from outside; what survives are titles, where they exist, and they can pass to distant relations or even be re-created. Where titles do not exist, as in ancient Rome, the continuation of the nobilitas necessarily follows a different pattern of reproduction.

A few historians of Rome have shown an awareness of the situation, notably Peter Brunt. But no one had previously done the necessary statistical analysis, and it is of some interest to look briefly at the implications. The reason, I should state at the outset, is not inherent in the difficulties of the statistical methods employed (Hopkins exaggerates when he calls his tables ‘formidable’), but rather in the reluctance of ancient historians, unlike their counterparts in the medieval and modern fields, to make proper or sufficient use of such an indispensable tool. No one denies that a statistical inquiry will often reveal otherwise hidden relationships, but it has been too easy for ancient historians to fall back upon the lack of reliable figures in the ancient evidence. Even in the not too frequent cases in which figures were actually compiled in antiquity, the surviving ancient writers failed either to record them or to examine them: the Roman Republican census is a sufficient example. When that fact is combined with the still common, though not often explicitly stated, view that anything written in ancient Greek or Latin is mysteriously privileged and not subject to the accepted canons of criticism, the result is a powerful habit of following the lead of the sources. That means a failure to ask questions that the ancient sources did not themselves ask: in the matter which concerns us now, a failure properly to employ statistics by making calculations not thought of in antiquity.

In a basic methodological statement, the great 19th-century German historian, J.G. Droysen, wrote that historians ‘must know what they wish to seek; only then will they find something. One must question things correctly, then they give an answer.’ Anyone who, like Keith Hopkins or myself, considers the study of history to include the search for the answers to problems accepts that doctrine as a matter of course. Droysen, it has to be stressed, wrote long narrative histories and his remark was directed to his own kind of historical account. But a writer of even the most austere narrative cannot escape Droysen’s doctrine, much as many may pretend otherwise. Thus no one will be able to write an acceptable history of the Roman Republic without incorporating into the narrative Hopkins’s findings about the nature and limits of aristocratic continuity, and therefore shifting Cicero’s boast of being a rare ‘new man’ in the Senate to the realm of ideology from the realm of fact to which it patently does not belong.

Hopkins’s strength lies in his ability to think of interesting questions and to find ways of answering them. That is the skill every good historian has possessed and displayed since the early 19th century (or really since antiquity itself). Hopkins happens to have made his academic career as a teacher of sociology and has for some years been professor of sociology in Brunel University. Nevertheless, unless one considers his work on ancient demography (in which he showed his skills more than twenty years ago) to be specifically sociological, I see nothing in this book, or in the previous volume, Conquerors and Slaves (1978), that warrants the blurb-writer’s talk of ‘sociological techniques’.

The first and fourth chapters of the new book, dealing with an artificially held together series of behaviour patterns – gladiatorial shows, tombs, burial clubs, grief and mourning, wills and legacy-hunting – are more conventional in method than the two central chapters on the demography of the Roman aristocracy. Hopkins takes impish pleasure in cocking a snook time and again at traditional historians, but there is no cause for the anger that has been aroused, as when Professor Badian in reviewing the earlier volume wrote that ‘the feuding against “conventional” historians is deplorable.’ It may be tiresome after a while, but it cannot be condemned if it has more than a little foundation in fact, as it has.

My difficulty lies in a different direction. The first and the last chapter are too conventional, though they are filled with fine individual points, and often they seem to lack grounding. Thus the Foucaultesque notion that cruel public punishment, such as the crucifixion of six thousand slaves following the defeat in 70 BC of the rebellion led by Spartacus, ‘ritually re-established the moral and political order. The power of the state was dramatically reconfirmed,’ needs more argument before it can be taken as anything but a fancy way of saying the obvious. In any case, this was not at all a peculiarly Roman way of behaving.

In the end, I doubt that Death and Renewal is more than a catchword title for several studies related only by the fact that they happen to involve death. However, as with the earlier book, the central chapters represent a genuine contribution to a new understanding of Roman social institutions.