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.

Demise of a Major Classics Blog, Alas

… and it was one which I was not aware of! Tip o’ the pileus to Neville Morley (at Classics International) for pointing us to an item at the Bristol Classics blog about the disappearance of an important German language Classics blog:

… you should read the whole thing, but three paragraphs are bang on (alas):

[…] It’s tempting, and probably not wholly inaccurate, to think of the Aufstieg und Niedergang of A&A as telling us something significant about German culture: in positive terms, its seriousness, its willingness to engage properly with big ideas, and its habit of taking its audience seriously and treating it with respect, whereas we British bloggers, even if respectable academics, have to avoid anything that might make us seem remotely elitist or intellectual (the pervasive trope of self-deprecation, the desperate references to contemporary pop culture…). One might equally argue that the Germans, or at any rate the FAZ, had completely failed to grasp the conventions of the genre of the blog, or its manifest advantages: blogs are great precisely because they’re not properly worked-through academic articles, they can be spontaneous responses to whatever’s going on, and because they allow the author to admit to having a personality rather than rigorously suppressing this beneath the conventions of academic prose and propriety. The demise of Antike und Abendland may then be seen as a belated recognition that this kind of serious, scholarly blog is not really suited to bringing in the kinds of mass audience that media groups, even German media groups, are looking for.

But of course that doesn’t mean that a serious blog can never reach a substantial audience, simply that it will not reach the sort of audience that persuades a newspaper group to pay the author to produce it. That leaves the question of whether the author would happily turn out a 500+ word essay every week if not being paid for it – but the same could be said of A Don’s Life. The majority of blogs, even academic blogs, are personal enterprises, with their authors willing to devote the time to writing entries for non-pecuniary motives of some sort – and for many of us in the UK, I suspect, it is above all the opportunity to play around with ideas and respond quickly to whatever catches our interest, temporarily free from the looming presence of the REF and its minions that otherwise constantly shadows our research activities. There is also the opportunity to advertise forthcoming conferences and other events to keep classics on the map, to publicise one’s ‘proper’ publications and so forth, but above all we do this because it’s fun and informal, and that then conditions what we write and how we write it.

Is that all there is, and all blogs are for? In the world of classics and ancient history, it does rather feel like that; granted, I haven’t devoted much time to looking, but I don’t visit Mary’s blog, or Edith’s, or Constantina’s or the Rogue Classicist’s, in the expectation of heavyweight discussion of current academic debates – their personal insights on certain matters, yes, but that’s not the same thing, and they aren’t discussed in the same way by other visitors to the sites. Essentially, there seems to be little overlap between the world of academic debate on the ancient world and the world of classical blogs, beyond the identity of some of the authors (History of the Ancient World offers links to academic articles, but since it doesn’t allow any comments or discussion it’s irrelevant, and rather puzzling). Serious debate about ancient history and classics appears – I’m very happy to be corrected on this – to take place off-line, in the traditional fora of conferences and scholarly publications.

… all this is bang on and gives me the opportunity to bring up something I’ve been pondering for the past while. Why do we not have the equivalent of an ASOR blog  or Bible and Interpretation for Classics? Both these sites regularly post papers of various length from academics and there is often much discussion that follows (often lively). For the past while, e.g., the ASOR blog has been mostly updated with brief accounts of digs that have just concluded and personally, I’d much rather get such info straight from the diggers rather than filtered through some press guy looking for a sexy angle. As far as I can tell, however, the main sticking point of this would be that it would have to be done via one of the major organizations (whether on this continent or across the pond) who has some familiarity with the scholars involved for it to be taken seriously. I’m not talking something as major as the Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics  but something more along the lines of things which one gets in the Ancient History Bulletin, but obviously covering all aspects of Classics and not being confined to scholars from a particular institution. Personally, I would LOVE if genuine scholars at academic institutions would send such things to Rogueclassicism to publish, but there seems to  be a reluctance for that, probably because Rogueclassicism isn’t ‘serious enough’, despite the massive outreach potential  (I’ve only had a couple of guest posts, as far as I recall, from genuine scholarly efforts — I have rejected probably a thousand or more requests for offers of guest posts which aren’t quite in that category).   If there are scholars out there with something they want to ‘test the waters’ with, feel free to drop me a line … if some institution would like to be the ‘filter’ and use Rogueclassicism as a platform, similiter.