OUP (2017) h/b 316pp £65 (ISBN 9780198777380)
Whole weeks will slide by in the company of this deceptively small book. H. offers 7 chapters that are at heart ‘a philological study of a political concept’; and those working at the chalk-face will know all too well the cry of exasperation when students realise that certain Latin words do not mean what they expect them to mean: auctoritas does not just mean ‘authority’, maiestas is not simply ‘majesty’ and res publica most definitely does not mean ‘republic.’
H. opens with this point: res publica did not mean ‘the Roman republic’, nor was it the term for Rome’s corporate identity. Rather, it should perhaps be seen as more closely connected to its literal translation, or as H. suggests ‘something that should be managed for the public good, but need not necessarily be managed by the public and certainly should not be read as synonymous with the public’. H. goes on to trace how the concept of res publica twisted and turned in the minds and words of the key players in the late Republic, ending with Cicero’s Philippics.
Chapter 2 considers the relationship between the political concept of res publica and the magistrates elected by the populus to manage their affairs. These magistrates were the managers of res publica and its representatives; thus, glory or ignominy for one part of the relationship meant glory or ignominy for the other. Chapter 3, in a detailed exploration of the events surrounding Tiberius Gracchus’ tribunate, H. considers how perceived threats to res publica were traced to those at the heart of Roman politics; she notes that Tiberius Gracchus’ murder by a senatorial mob led by Scipio Nasica was triggered by Nasica’s desire to ‘save’ the res publica from betrayal. She then moves on to consider Sulla’s dictatorship, or more precisely the fact that Sulla abdicated his dictatorship when he believed that the res publica had been settled. Thus H. argues that res publica became a ‘structured political sphere’ under Sulla that lived long after the dictator’s death.
Chapter 4 focuses on the writings of Cicero, and explores the way that Cicero’s understanding of the res publica was presented as the grounds for his actions during the so-called Catilinarian conspiracy (i.e. saving Rome/res publica from the conspirators) and the focus for his rhetoric both during and after his exile (i.e. having saved the res publica, Cicero can now be identified with it). This chapter in particular is a fascinating read, utilising Cicero’s own ‘rhetorical alchemy’ to demonstrate how the political concept of res publica became increasingly plastic.
Chapter 5 studies the resulting disintegration of many aspects of Roman political life following the civil wars. Chapter 6 considers how this disintegration resulted in a new rhetorical relationship: the relationship between private individuals taking action outside the political structures of the res publica in order to save it. Here, H. returns to Nasica and the murder of Tiberius Gracchus before moving on to Augustus’ representation of himself in the opening lines of his Res Gestae. Chapter 7 concludes the book and offers an overview of the conclusions reached: that the flexibility of the concept ‘enabled politicians to exploit it in a variety of ways’; that the collapse of Rome’s political sphere led to different factions adopting differing perspectives during the civil wars, and thus a fracturing of the concept; and finally, that the collapse of the republic led to an inevitable shrinkage both in the range of possible meanings of res publica and in the political gains to be made from invoking it.
H. has produced not only a masterly study of a sinuous political concept but also a fascinating study of the demise of the Roman republic. Whilst Latin and Greek passages are all translated, some of the chapters are perhaps rather heavy weather for the general reader, though this would be a useful addition to the bookshelf of anyone teaching A level or above. My only quibble is that whilst the Latin and Greek sections are fastidiously (even laboriously) translated, quotations from German academic texts are not.