CJ – Online Review ~ The Laws of the Roman People

Williamson, Callie. The Laws of the Roman People: Public Law in the Expansion and Decline of the Roman Republic. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2016. Pp. xxviii + 508. Paper, $44.95. ISBN 978-0-472-03661-5.

Reviewed by Molly Jones-Lewis, The University of Maryland, Baltimore County

When writing an academic book, the hope is that the finished work will be, above all, useful. In that, Callie Williamson’s The Laws of the Roman People, now available in a reasonably priced paperback edition, more than succeeds. Its ambitious goal-to explore the rise and fall of public lawmaking during the Roman Republic in its historical and cultural context-is met and exceeded, delivering a lucid and thorough discussion of the topic that is detailed enough to satisfy specialists in Roman legal history, yet accessible to those first exploring the field. It approaches its subject organically, moving from the mechanics of composing and passing law to the historical circumstances that shaped the process, and does an admirable job of bringing life to the dry minutiae of the legislative process.
The book divides into three major sections: Patterns and Process, The Expansion of Rome, and The Decline of the Republic. The first (Patterns and Process) begins with a discussion of the various lawmaking assemblies and the sorts of legislation passed in them, moving chronologically from the early Republic to the assassination of Caesar in 44 bce. It then turns to a specific land reform bill (the Rogatio Agraria Servilia of 63 bce) discussed extensively in Cicero’s speeches and letters as a case study in the mechanisms, customary and formal, by which public legislation moved from draft, to promulgation, and then to law. The entire three-chapter section is accompanied by a number of charts arranging the known statistics of public legislation by factors such as date, topic, sponsorship, and category.

The remainder of the book proceeds chronologically, arguing that periods of crisis and expansion coincided with the increasing use of lawmaking assemblies, then contextualizing the history of public legislation within the expansion of Roman dominance in the Italian peninsula. Williamson convincingly ties the use of popular assemblies to Roman efforts to promote loyalty and unity in the face of Hannibal’s invasion, grounding her discussion in the evolving economic and geographic conditions of an increasingly urbanized Italy. The fourth and fifth chapters are particularly gratifying in their bottom-up approach, focusing on the ways in which the customs and concerns of rural non-elite Italians impacted the way in which Rome approached the legislative problems of the time. This gives an organic feel to the argument; conflicts over land use in this section inform, in retrospect, the features of agrarian legislation so central to the first section. Likewise, the narrative of territorial expansion lies neatly parallel to the first section’s arguments about expansion in the legislative process.

Finally, in the third section (Decline of the Republic), the focus returns to the city of Rome and the way in which the crises of leadership during the first century bce impacted the world of Roman law and lawmaking, transitioning smoothly from the social history of the second section with a discussion of how Rome evolved into a central regulatory hub for Italy. Then, Williamson moves on to the events and personalities that directed policy from that urban center, returning, briefly, to the years of the Second Punic war before proceeding through the civil conflicts of the late Republic. The eighth chapter pivots around Sulla’s dictatorship and the stream of legislation generated during 81 bce. She concludes in the ninth chapter with Julius Caesar, arguing that the posthumous enactment of Caesar’s laws in 44 bce effectively finalized the shift away from public, collaborative lawmaking toward a process lead and controlled by the princeps. Within that discussion, Williamson provides valuable context for the genesis of laws regulating the political process, corruption, and murder-laws that were the basis of many a high-profile case of the Imperial period and are therefore of special interest to scholars whose interests range later than the late Republic.

The text and argument alone are enough to make this book a substantial contribution to the field of Roman law and legislation; it covers a large span of time without falling prey to sweeping generalization, maintaining a high density of detail to satisfy the curiosity of a variety of readers. But the tables and appendices add yet another aid to the reader, organizing as they do a vast array of information in a format that is sensible and easy to consult. This reviewer’s copy is battered and coffee-stained from being grabbed for hasty consultation, and now bristles with tabs marked for future reference. Anyone with an interest in ancient Rome, regardless of their level of interest in law and government, will find Williamson’s work relevant and thorough.


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CJ-Online Review ~ Aristophanes: Clouds, Women at the Thesmophoria, Frogs.

Aristophanes: Clouds, Women at the Thesmophoria, Frogs. By Stephen Halliwell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xcvi + 304. Hardcover, $100.00. ISBN 978-0-19-814994-1.

Reviewed by Matthew C. Wellenbach, Catholic Memorial School

Stephen Halliwell has now brought forth the second installment in his planned three-part series of new verse translations of Aristophanes’ comedies. The first volume (Oxford 1997) presented Birds, Lysistrata, Assembly-Women, and Wealth. This one contains Clouds, Women at the Thesmophoria, Frogs, and a selection of fragments from the lost plays, a feature not evident from the book’s title but which is a welcome bonus. The accurate and lively translations will serve well anyone wishing to study these comedies, and Halliwell’s informative general introduction, stimulating introductions to individual plays, rich explanatory notes, and ample references are an excellent guide to the world of both Aristophanic and ancient Greek comedy.

The first part of the book consists of a general introduction, select bibliography, and chronology, and is almost identical in content to what is found at the beginning of the 1997 volume. The bibliography has been updated with scholarship published through 2014, and the chronology, which begins with the birth of Aeschylus and ends with the death of Aristophanes, now lists the premieres of a few tragedies by Aeschylus and Euripides, such as Persians and Hippolytus, that are mentioned or alluded to in the comedies of this volume. Of the general introduction’s many subsections (“Old Comedy and Dionysiac Festivity,” The Dynamics of Fantasy,” and “Formality and Performance,” among others), the most important is the one titled “Translating Aristophanes,” where Halliwell lays out his principles of translation. He draws an opposition in translating ancient Greek comedy between, on the one hand, “assimilation and modernization,” and, on the other, “the acknowledgement and savouring of historical distance” (lv). Coming down in favor of the latter, Halliwell chooses to translate Aristophanes’ comedies into modern English verse while maintaining, rather than eliminating, “the historical fabric of names, references, and allusions” that is omnipresent in the plays. It is a project that Halliwell undertakes with success.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of this translation is its use of verse. (In the introduction, Halliwell discusses some of his predecessors’ attempts at translating Aristophanes into verse.) Halliwell turns Aristophanes’ iambic trimeter dialogue into a five-beat line that mixes feet of two and three syllables, as in Heracles’ verses from the Frogs: “Aren’t there lots of other young kids around the place / Composing tragic plays-huge numbers of them, / And all with more gift of the gab than Euripides has?” (176). For Aristophanes’ varied tetrameters (iambic, trochaic, and anapestic), Halliwell prefers the English “fourteener,” and he uses non-rhyming free verse for the lyric sections.

Halliwell pairs his fluency in rendering verse with deftness at capturing the complexities of Aristophanes’ language, which gives his translations particular verve. In a passage from Clouds, Strepsiades imagines the abuse he will incur once he has learned the art of persuasion. Aristophanes presents a litany of inventive insults, part of which Halliwell translates as: “A quoter, a yapper, a fox, and a wriggler / A schemer, duplicitous, oily and phoney/A rogue and disgusting, a twister and cheat / A lip-smacking creep!” (39-40). Halliwell also varies his registers when characters adopt a tragic tone, something that happens frequently in two of these three comedies. Many of these moments are flagged with a note explaining the exact nature of the tragic allusion, but even when they are not, the tragic coloring is still evident, as when, in Women at the Thesmophoria, Agathon’s servant asks Euripides and his Kinsman: “What rustic comes nigh to this enclosure?” (105).

One question to ask of this volume is: Why these three plays? Halliwell provides an answer in the preface to the series’ first volume: Clouds, Women at the Thesmophoria, and Frogs deal with “cultural” themes. Given the stated reason for collecting the three comedies together here, I wonder if more could have been made of the unifying thread of “culture.” While Halliwell has much to say on the matter, he spreads out his observations across the general introduction and the introductions to the individual comedies. I, for one, would have welcomed a concentrated examination of the topic, all the more so because Halliwell has contributed so much to our understanding of Aristophanes’ role as a cultural critic. Still, having these three comedies in one volume will give readers an opportunity to consider on their own what resonances there are among them. As Halliwell puts it in the preface to this volume, he hopes his translations will “engage the imagination of modern readers.” This they will do.

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#classicaltwitter ~ March 21, 2017

CJ-Online Review ~ The Hellenistic World. Using Coins as Sources

The Hellenistic World. Using Coins as Sources. By Peter Thonemann. Guides to the Coinage of the Ancient World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. xxxii + 232. Paper, $34.99. ISBN 978-1-107-45175-9.

Reviewed by Philip Kiernan, Kennesaw State University

The first in a new series on ancient coinage organized by the American Numismatic Society, this book applies numismatic evidence of the Hellenistic world to four central themes: globalism, identity, political economy, and ideology. The goal is to open up a specialist field to a broader audience.

Thonemann begins with a narrative account of the Sinanpasa Hoard, a massive accumulation of silver coins of Alexander the Great that probably represents the retirement package of one of Alexander’s soldiers. The hoard serves to illustrate the huge quantities of coin struck by Alexander that would steer numismatic history for the next three centuries. Alexander’s coinage created what Thonemann calls a global “Hellenistic monetary civilization” which spread far beyond the range of his conquests.

This civilization is surveyed in the second chapter (The ‘Big’ Hellenistic World) thus continuing the theme of globalism, and includes, very rightly, imitations of Hellenistic coinages struck in “barbarian” regions of the ancient world. The survey ends in the easternmost extremity of this monetary civilization with the Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek coins. Even if the function of these peripheral coinages differed from that of the Mediterranean basin, the imagery, form and ideas behind them were are certainly inspired by the Greek world.

Chapter 3 addresses civic identity, mostly in Asia Minor. The flood of Alexander’s coins into Asia Minor resulted in a reduction of civic issues as compared to the region under Persian rule. By 300 bc, the poleis of Asia Minor were striking copies of Alexander’s imperial coinage (the “civic Alexanders”), perhaps to express a new global Hellenistic identity. It is only in the third and second centuries bc that expressions of local identity re-appear on civic issues, taking the form of local divinities and symbols, such as Apollo Smintheus at Alexandria Troas. These issues were not meant to be new international trade coinages, competing with the older and well-recognized coins of Alexander, which were still plentiful, but rather expressed the vitality of civic life and the identity of the issuing polis.

Coins struck by allied groups of cities and collectives (koiná) are discussed in chapter four. Thonemann uses the Aetolians, the Achaean and Lycian leagues as examples of alliances that struck coins to create a sense of group identity. By contrast, the cistophori (“basket-bearers”), struck by the cities of Asia Minor after 167 bc, are effectively the royal coins of the Attalids, but in the guise of a collective coinage. With the cista on the obverse and a bow case intertwined with snakes on the reverse, these coins lack a founding ruler-portrait, reference to a shared foundational event, or anything truly common to the issuing cities. Since the Attalids had been gifted control of their territory by the Romans, these coins literally forged a koinón (pun intended), creating the impression of a shared identity and alliance.

Finally, Thonemann considers the little-known coinages struck for festivals organized by groups of cities. He highlights the festival of Athena Ilias, whose organizers struck festival coins every four years. These issues, Thonemann suggests, had more to do with expressing a group identity amongst the participating cities than with paying athletes or facilitating trade at the festival.

Thonemann’s last chapter on identity explores the Hellenistic identity of coins in ‘fringe’ areas (chapter 5). This includes the short-lived native dynasty that used the Achaemenid title fratarakā and reigned near Persepolis in the third century bc, as well as the Parthians, their allies, successors and neighbors. Not infrequently, the issues of these non-Greeks bear the profile bust of a ruler, albeit in native dress, with a seated divinity on the reverse comparable to the Zeus of Alexander or the Apollo of the Seleucids. The imagery of these dynasties is “Greek in style and form, but combatively Persian in content and meaning.” (91) A similar mixture of Greek and non-Greek elements can be found on the coins of the Bactrians and Indo-Greek kings. Thonemann explores the question Greek identity being expressed by their issuers, but one wonders if the adoption of Hellenistic-looking coinage and Greek weight standards had more to do with the need to create an accepted form of payment than an expression of identity.

Chapters 6 and 7 explore basic questions about the political economy of Hellenistic coins. Like other ancient coin issuers, the Hellenistic states lacked modern monetary policies, and struck coins largely to pay their bills. This explains the erratic issues of many cities. But states did pay attention to the circulation of their coins beyond this point. Some, like the Seleucids, opted for an open currency system, with coins struck on the international Attic weight standard that could move freely in and out of the issuer’s territory. Others, like the Ptolemies and Attalids, opted for a closed or ‘epichoric’ system in which coins struck at unusual weight standards did not generally circulate beyond their respective regions.

Thonemann bravely adds a chapter on the place bronze coins in Hellenistic economies and their relationship to silver. As token coins, with a metal value not equal to their face value, bronze coins required laws to enforce their acceptance. Thus one would expect them to be purely epichoric, but many seem to have circulated outside of the realms of those who issued them, and (from epigraphic evidence) they were used for a surprisingly wide range of transactions.

Chapter 8 introduces political ideology, considering the visual languages of Hellenistic coins: royal and dynastic portraitures, the trappings and images of divinities, and other expressions of power. The ideological messages of Hellenistic coins would have been seen by far eyes than any statue, painting, or inscribed edict. Thonemann’s final chapter (9) discusses the earliest Roman coins of Macedonia and Asia from Flaminius onwards. In both regions, Roman interference with local coinage is surprisingly minimal, and was surely meant to convey a sense of continuity. The denarius does not arrive properly until the reign of Augustus. Roman period civic issues in the Greek East (the so-called ‘Greek Imperial Coinage’) were another function of civic pride with Hellenistic roots. Those same roots, Thonemann concludes, can be found in the coins of Rome’s client kings in Crimea, her Parthian and Sassanian enemies, and even in modern currency.

Apart from a brief appendix at the back of the book by Andrew Meadows, this is not, nor was it intended to be, a technical manual of Hellenistic numismatics. Nowhere is the procedure for calculating die outputs discussed, nor is there a guide to identifying Hellenistic coins. But those who require such information will easily find it elsewhere.[1]

The achievement of this book, and it is no small accomplishment, is a highly readable and up to date account of Hellenistic coinage that successfully connects coins to broad historical questions. This book is a must-read for Greek historians and numismatists alike. It has set a very high bar indeed for the next books in this new series.

Works Cited

de Callataÿ, F. 1995. “Calculating Ancient Coin Production: Seeking a Balance” NC 155: 289-311.
de Callataÿ, F. 1997. Recueil quantitatif des émissions monétaires hellénistiques, Numismatique Romaine. Wetteren.
de Callataÿ, F. ed. 2006. La quantification en numismatique antique. Choix d’articles 1984-2004. Moneta 52. Wetteren.
Head, B.V. 1911. Historia Numorum. A Manual of Greek Numismatics. Revised edition.  Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Mørkholm , O.,  P. Grierson, U. Westermark 1991. Early Hellenistic Coinage: from the accession of Alexander to the peace of Apamea, 336-188 B.C. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nicolet-Pierre, H. 2002. Numismatique Gréque.  Paris: Armand-Colin.

[1] E.g. on the quantification of ancient coin production de Callataÿ  1995; 2006 and 2007; and on Greek and Hellenistic numismatics in general Head 1911; Mørkholm, Grierson and Westemark 1991; and Nicolet-Pierre 2002.

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#classicaltwitter ~ March 20, 2017