CJ Online Review: Gallia, Remembering the Roman Republic

posted with permission:

Remembering the Roman Republic: Culture, Politics, and History under the Principate. By Andrew B. Gallia. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xiv + 319. Hardcover, $95.00/£60.00. ISBN 978-1-107-01260-0.

Reviewed by Thomas E. Strunk, Xavier University

Andrew Gallia has written a superb book, of which he has every reason to be proud. His study examines the period from the revolt against Nero in 68 to the reign of Trajan. It should be distinguished in this regard from another superb book, which on the surface looks rather similar, Alain Gowing’s Empire and Memory: The Representation of the Roman Republic in Imperial Culture (Cambridge, 2005). In distinction to Gowing, Gallia focuses on a shorter period of time and with greater depth. This focus and depth, along with a rare ability not only to analyze texts across genres but also to incorporate material culture, particularly numismatics, stand as Gallia’s achievement.

After a brief introduction on ancient and modern understandings of memory, Gallia begins in chapter one with the concept of freedom and its significance for the revolt against Nero in 68. Gallia relies on the usual historical suspects, Tacitus, Suetonius and Plutarch, but he also integrates the numismatic evidence, which for this period is particularly significant. Gallia argues that claims to libertas recalled both Republican ideals, hence Galba’s revival of M. Brutus’ famous Ides of March coins, and earlier Imperial conceptions, which are best represented by Augustus’ statements in the Res Gestae and Claudius’ coins advertising Libertas Augusta. This point is at the heart of Gallia’s study: libertas had manifold points of reference and could simultaneously invoke the Republic and the Principate. Modern scholarship has often been divided on stressing the continuity or discontinuity between the Republic and Principate, and the argument in favor of one or the other may be valid for a certain author or discreet historical period, but what Gallia succeeds in demonstrating is that both continuity and discontinuity co-existed side by side throughout the early Principate.

Chapter 2 addresses the significance of the Capitolium and its rebuilding under Vespasian. Gallia deftly demarcates the connections the Capitolium had with the Republican libertas from its associations with Roman imperialism. These competing claims were carefully championed by Helvidius Priscus and Vespasian respectively. In Chapter 3, Gallia explores Domitian’s execution of the Vestal Virgin Cornelia. Here too there were competing claims upon the Republic: Domitian’s desire to return to the morality of the Republic and Cornelia’s invocation of heroic Vestal Virgins from Rome’s past. In both Chapters 2 and 3, Gallia does a fine job of incorporating his knowledge of the topography of Rome with the literary texts, Tacitus’ Histories for the Capitolium and Pliny’s letter 4.11 on Cornelia (the text of which is included with an English translation in Appendix A).

In Chapter 4, Gallia turns to rhetoric and oratory with special emphasis on Pliny’s letters and Tacitus’ Dialogus de oratoribus. It is here that I have my one interpretive quibble with Gallia. In his discussion on the Dialogus, which begins with some acquaintances visiting Maternus out of their concern for his politically offensive play on Cato the Younger, Gallia persuasively delineates the various strands of Cato’s memory and meaning under the Principate: that of the Stoic philosopher who calmly accepted his death and that of the political opponent of autocracy who committed suicide rather than submit to a tyrant. When Gallia comes to discuss Maternus’ controversial speech at the close of the dialogue, which records the highest praise for the regime, he reads it at face value rather than taking the flattery as ironic; this alone is not a deal breaker (though see T. E. Strunk, “Offending the Powerful: Tacitus’ Dialogus de Oratoribus and Safe Criticism,” Mnemosyne 63 (2010) 241–67). Yet then Gallia explains why Maternus’ play on Cato offended the authorities by claiming that Maternus invoked the philosophic Cato rather than the political Cato. The problem here is that the philosophic Cato was not offensive to the authorities as demonstrated by the authors who appeal to it—Horace, Valerius Maximus, and Seneca amongst others; it was the political Cato invoked by Lucan, Thrasea Paetus, Helvidius Priscus, and, I assert, Maternus, that was threatening to the Principate. Maternus’ actions in the Dialogus make the most sense if Maternus’ Cato is the political Cato and his words at the end are ironic as an attempt to establish plausible deniability should he run into trouble with the regime. This critique, which many will not share, does not wholly detract from Gallia’s thesis, and in fact, the competing modern interpretations of the Dialogus are indicative of Gallia’s assertion that the meaning of figures like Cato was contested.

In Chapter 5, Gallia examines two sources that are generally not turned to in discussions of the memory of the Republic, Silius Italicus’ Punica and Julius Frontinus’ Strategemata. In both of these authors, Gallia shows how the Republic had to compete with a growing store of Imperial memories and exempla, as well as Greek exempla, which the Roman elite were ever more willing to look towards for models.

In his closing chapter, one of his strongest, Gallia considers the restoration coins of Trajan, a fascinating example of the Republic’s perduring memory under the Principate. Trajan’s restoration coinage was a series of denarii that copied various Republican coins so precisely that in most cases only Trajan’s legend distinguishes them from their Republican counterparts. Reissues of imperial coinage had occurred previously, as Trajan would do so himself, but never had Republican coinage been restored. Gallia explores the multiplicity of interpretations available to ancients and moderns, for Trajan did not shy away from controversial images or personalities in the restored coinage. Gallia helpfully includes an appendix providing details of all of these coins, though it does not contain images of them.

Gallia ends with a brief conclusion followed by the aforementioned appendices, an impressive thirty-nine page bibliography, and an index. The text is almost entirely free of misspellings and other errata. The writing is pleasant to read, and the argumentation is sophisticated yet pellucid. This is an excellent book, which all those interested in the Roman Republic and Principate will want to read.

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