ElAnt v1n2 - Reviews and Roman Factional Politics

Volume 1, Number 2
July 1993


Bob Develin,
Department of Classical Studies,
University of Ottawa,
Ontario, K1N 6N5,
e-mail: rdevelin@acadvm1.uottawa.ca

The reader may well find this a strange combination of an article. My interest in (that is, against) the factional reconstruction of Roman politics in what we call for convenience the Middle Republic is sufficiently well known. That I have long thought about writing on the nature of reviewing in our business is known to some. But what could possibly provoke the combination of the two? John Briscoe reviewed my book The Practice of Politics at Rome 366-167 B.C. (Collection Latomus 188: Brussels, 1985) in JRS 77 (1987), pp. 195 ff. He said therein that he was not going to deal with the methodological question of the validity or otherwise of the factional explanation of Roman politics, as he intended to mount a defence of it elsewhere. We have had to be patient, but we now have 'Political Groupings in the Middle Republic: a Restatement', in Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History , VI ed. Carl Deroux (Collection Latomus 217: Brussels, 1992), pp. 70 ff.. I take my cues, therefore, from his review and from his restatement.


Briscoe decided, then, not to examine in his review my arguments against the supposition that entities properly called factions were an influential force in Roman politics during the chosen period. That decision meant that he ignored the major methodological thrust of the work, preferring instead to pick out some particular points to criticise. That struck me at the time as an abrogation of the reviewer's responsibility and helped to feed an already growing dissatisfaction with many reviews in the Classical disciplines. While the general forum for reviews has improved in recent times, it yet seems necessary to set out what seem to me some simple truths.

We are all familiar with the nit-picking review which gives no overall sense of the work under scrutiny and fails to comes to grips with its methodological bases. One other reviewer of my above-mentioned book went on thus for some length, but ultimately (so far as I could see) did not say whether he liked the book or thought it any good. At least this reviewer was evidently not inhibited in terms of space, but often enough this has been a complicating factor. Whether or not a reviewer is naturally (?) inclined to the nit-picking, hobby-horse approach, if he/she is severely restricted in the matter of length, how is it possible to deal in any detail with methodology? Add to this the passage of time between the appearance of a work and that of its review. A short review becoming available two or three years after the publication of its subject has very little use, as the work will have been absorbed into research processes. If there are to be such brief pieces, they should be available very quickly, to give the potential audience a chance to decide whether to secure the publication for themselves or their libraries (where hard choices have to be made these days). Substantial reviews in conventional journals can still serve a useful purpose within two or three years (but really no longer than that), can contribute to debate in their own right. It follows that a plurality of such treatments has the potential to increase the benefits.

There are places which have developed a capacity for relaxed and spacious reviews. I think especially of Liverpool Classical Monthly and The Ancient History Bulletin , to which I will gladly add Electronic Antiquity . But it must be said that the most important innovation has been the Bryn Mawr Classical Review , available in both conventional and electronic format. The latter asks for completed reviews within three months of receipt of the book and publishes six times a year. It provides, therefore, for reviews which can be both substantial and timely. Of the 18 reviews in the sixth issue of 1992, 12 were of books published in that same year. It seems to me self-evident that in the light of this other journals should give serious thought to their review policy.

Individual reviewers too might think more about their task. The duty would seem to be to put the general, methodological thrust of a work first. Detailed criticisms may be used for pointed illustration. After all, when this task has been performed, those who use the book in their own research will assess the validity of particular arguments. With current emphases in ancient history (to confine myself to my own area), we can be optimistic of continued improvement. I do urge colleagues to keep an eye on this and indeed, as I have been doing a considerable amount of reviewing myself of late, I would be glad if they could direct to me criticisms of my products in the interests of better contribution to the needs of our discipline.


So now we may consider what sort of job Briscoe has done in filling up the gap left by his review. Well in fact, although he refers to my work in his introductory paragraph, as well as to K.- J. Holkeskamp, Die Entstehung der Nobilitat (Stuttgart, 1987), which in many ways is parallel to (while independent of) my own treatment, he does not treat it in depth, concentrating on Fergus Millar, 'The Political Character of the Classical Roman Republic', JRS 74 (1984), pp. 1 ff. and the final chapter of Peter Brunt, The Fall of the Roman Republic (Oxford, 1988). I wonder if the reason for this is that he realised that his fundamental points, stated at his conclusion, are not far from my own positions. We will see this miraculous convergence in due course.

First let me unburden myself with regard to the few places where I do make a personal appearance. I had singled Briscoe out as one of those 'insensitive to the range of possibilities within the game of politics'. In a praetermissio (p. 73) he claims he will ignore my implication that he is politically naive. Whatever may emerge from 'academic prosopography' (which apparently show him as politically involved), we are talking about what is exhibited in his treatment of Roman politics. Similarly, when he adds in a footnote 'Nor do I regard politics as a game', this doesn't matter either: ultimately the question is whether Roman politics is in any way seen as a game (the description is hardly novel). As I have noted publicly and privately many times, so often the private persona does not carry over into the academic persona. I judge from Briscoe's published works and I do not withdraw my observation, though admitting that it may have been unkind to name names. And I believe the confidence he displayed in his reconstructions was not simply the bland one which he states here: 'that there were divisions within the senate, and that it is worth trying to identify them'. In itself that bespeaks nothing that could meaningfully be called a faction.

'Develin thinks that consular elections were frequently not contested, matters having been arranged among the ruling class' (p. 80). Develin actually thinks that the ruling class, if such we call them, could arrange the consular elections, more formally in critical circumstances, as in the Hannibalic War, but through a more informal complex of expectations and assumptions in other times. This does not mean, especially in the second century BC, so much a lack of contest, as a lack of meaningful contest. Briscoe ignores my treatment of specifics, my attempts to demonstrate patterns in the holding of office and to offer explanations of the phenomena, my observation that when we know the candidates for the consulship, we see men most of whom made it eventually, and my consequent deduction that election at first attempt was infrequent and repulsae were part of the preparation for election. In part of his argument, at n. 46, he rejects my view ( Latomus 36 [1977], pp. 110-113) 'that imperator at this time [early second century] denotes only the possession of imperium'. That was not my view. The purpose of debate is not served by the increasingly common phenomenon of sloppy reading, not to mention sloppy and unreflective writing. (I hereby formally repent for sins of my own in this regard.)

Briscoe is, therefore, not initially impressive, but let us be clear that I am not in the least sensitive to criticism, so long as it is based on a proper representation of what I said and does not continue to ignore the larger foundations of my position. I am not at all wedded to every idea that I expressed and ought to be willing to consider a reasoned argument for influential factions, along with a definition of what these factions are. There is no lack of literature beating around that bush. Are the desiderata perhaps to be found in the propositions Briscoe does deal with?

He takes (p. 73) Millar's statement that 'it is for those who follow the factions-hypothesis to state what its logical and evidential foundations are'. This, of course, has never been done, and Briscoe is not going to do it either: 'Millar's apparent demand for a rigorous logical justification of the procedure is extreme. As so often in our discipline, a deductive scientific demonstration is not possible'. In other circumstances I would call this a cop out, but in these I won't ( praetermissio in vicem ). Note, however, that the word 'rigorous' is Briscoe's addition. We can agree that the procedure is putting together available evidence in a plausible picture which is necessarily hypothetical, but we need more than the sort of exercise we find again here, namely showing that on certain occasions there was family solidarity and that certain incidents show people taking sides, however dramatically. Let us have some sort of justification of the view that wants some sort of factions to be a general factor in Roman politics. I continue to maintain that the bulk of the evidence is against it and I do not see how Millar's reasonable demand will ever be met.

Briscoe goes on to talk about the cooperation of gens members at elections and to pick at Brunt in particular. I have no problem with this view, so my work does not figure. He does, however, limit the extent by pointing out where gentiles disagreed on strategy or policy. But this had nothing to do with elections, where such things were not issues. This is a long established and powerful position, made even more persuasive when we realise, what is often forgotten, that election to the consulship was the culmination of a process. These men, at least in the developed system of the second century, had been through the competition for lower office, which I have tried to demonstrate could be more severe than that for the consulship. This is so often forgotten, but keeping it in mind must, it seems to me, control the overall conception of political realities. I refer the reader to full arguments in my book.

I do not, indeed cannot, deny that there were disputes, sometimes vicious, among the political aristocracy, that there were occasional problems at elections, that untoward behaviour could upset an expected result, that friends might naturally aid each other, and when it comes to policy matters, 'those of like mind are naturally drawn together' (p. 76). In fact, I believe I noticed all that and did not perceive it as surprising. Whatever combinations did form for whatever purposes cannot be supported over long periods of times, except for very few possible and fewer probable associations between families. So too Briscoe, but his statement 'each period must be examined in its own right' (p. 78) is extremely dangerous. What is a 'period'? The very vagueness on that issue has been one of the factors enabling scholars to produce differing factional constellations. Fair enough perhaps, given the premiss, but it is the underlying hypothesis which must be examined in its own right.

You may see how we have gravitated to similarities of positions. Briscoe ends with five points which represent 'the procedures to be followed' (pp. 82-83):

1. 'Arguments from collegiality and succession in office must be used with great caution'. See Practice , pp. 48 ff. There can be significance, but I cannot share a confidence in anything derived from a single repetition of family names in the consulship in different, even succeeding, generations. There must be a possiblity of coincidence in this. And of course families did come together through marriage, or marriages arose after contacts otherwise formed. It is another matter how long such closeness might last and what degree of difference of opinion it could bear. Such associations are natural and do not create factions in themselves.

2. 'Arguments from nomenclature alone are particularly dangerous in the case of long-established, and therefore widely spread gentes'. Quite.

3. All propositions are 'hypothetical and provisional, to be tested against further evidence'. I add 'if further evidence exists', for often surely, our picture is already formed from all the evidence. Literary evidence, we are told, is superior to that of the Fasti or simple family relationship. Yes, but there are varying views of the value of literary evidence. 'Those who, in general, are in political agreement may nevertheless disagree on a particular issue'. My point exactly. Yet it still leaves the question as to what sort of general political agreement we are talking about.

4. All the senators were not members of one group or another. 'It was more a matter of a number of small groups working for their own objectives'. See Practice , p. 127 on the a priori likelihood of pooled resources. The transitory nature of such groups, I contend, and their potential ineffectiveness (and many must be ineffective), diminishes their status as factions.

5. 'It is proper to ask whether different views on matters of public policy (in our period, that is, foreign policy) can be associated with particular families or groups'. Indeed it is, but it is also proper to keep an open mind as to the results.

While Briscoe and I, in respect of the above points, end up uncomfortably close together, I do not think that these principles emerge naturally either from the rest of his paper or from the results of his previous investigations. This latest restatement has, so far as I can see, made no advance in the debate. There still ought to be a debate, if only to sharpen the reconstruction of those opposed to factional explanations, and Briscoe is not as alone as he may think in standing against the rejection of the factional hypothesis, or at least in continuing to use it.

In a political aristocracy and with outsiders wanting to get in, with important decisions to be made and with people wanting to think they influenced those decisions, there were private discussions and associations of like-minded people, there were coattails to be hung onto - who could reasonably deny this? But factions are another matter. I am sure things did change and would believe that something more like factions emerged in the turbulence of the post-Gracchan period. But I would also believe that there were always influential factors larger than any faction could control.

Rome was never a democracy, and Polybios, who outside Book 6 refers to Rome correctly as an aristocracy, knew it. A political aristocracy is never a wholly tranquil body, but it can be drawn under certain circumstances as a more or less united body. Remember that it is the nobility as a whole that Sallust classifies as a factio and that this word doesn't mean a faction, even at the beginning of Augustus' Res Gestae ; it has a very aggressive and not very pleasant connotation. Amicitia can signal a number of things (including friendship!) and there's not much of significance in the natural partes . I suggest that while (and we are dependent on sources from the late Republic or later) you will find vocabulary referring to attachment and opposition in politics, to friendship and hostility, you won't find anything especially redolent of factionalism. If anyone wants to defend the factional hypothesis, vocabulary might be a good place to start.

In spite of the wishes of one reviewer, I have no intention of pursuing my analysis of Roman politics on a large scale further than I have - the Greeks have so much more to offer. Yet I hope others will continue to rethink their approaches and perhaps put political analysis in a different frame. Of course, I do not, any more than Briscoe, reject prosopographical investigation in itself. He says (p. 71): 'Total rejection of prosopography as a worthwhile activity can be expected only from those who think that ancient historians should be concerning themselves exclusively with social and economic issues, and should abandon concentration on the documented doings of the upper class'. Wait a minute. Aren't 'the documented doings of the upper class' part of social history too? Isn't political activity in a political aristocracy part of that aristocracy's social behaviour? We can always hope to widen our perspectives. We can also hope that reviews will help us to do it.

Bob Develin
e-mail: rdevelin@acadvm1.uottawa.ca

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 1 Issue 2 - July 1993
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606