CIVIL WAR IN ANCIENT GREECE AND ROME: Contexts of Disintegration and Reintegration

Edited by H. Börm, M. Mattheis and J. Wienand

Steiner Verlag (2016) p/b 436pp £83.49 (ISBN 9783515112246)

This book is based on papers delivered at a conference in 2011 at Schloss Reisenburg near Günzburg, Germany, hosted by the Universities of Heidelberg and Konstanz. Of the fifteen chapters, seven are in German preceded by abstracts in English; four of the contributors are from the UK, seven from Germany, one from Denmark and one is an ‘independent scholar’. The aim of the book is to furnish ‘a better understanding of the performative and communicative logic of civil conflict’ in the Graeco-Roman world. It is divided into two parts: the first covers the classical age to the early principate, the second the high empire to late antiquity.

The first thing to say about the book is that it is not intended to provide a routine analysis or description of civil wars in Greece and Rome: political and social disintegration and reintegration are its themes, indeed ‘ the events themselves … are not the focus’. Instead we have a much more nuanced treatment of the civil wars which reveal some less obvious consequences and outcomes of civil strife, or stasis.

Henning Börm’s introduction highlights the debilitating effects of civil war on a society, the destruction of social cohesion and the profound difficulties involved in reintegration and the restoration of societal norms. Hans-Joachim Gehrke analyses the important role the gymnasium played in providing the glue for reintegration of the polis; it helped re-educate and placate the angry young men disaffected by the civil strife so as to enable a rebuilding process to take place. Benjamin Gray uses epigraphical evidence to prove the inconsistent effect of various inscriptions which were designed to foster post-civil war peace: some effective at avoiding stasis, other not so. Boris Dreyer’s contribution addresses how Polybius deals with internal conflict in his Histories, and how he defines stasis which, in large part, he ascribes to the hubris and greed of politicians. At the same time, Polybius sees ‘Rome’s internal unity as the decisive advantage in its struggle against Carthage for hegemony’. Henning Börm then looks at the effect of Rome’s hegemony on late Hellenistic poleis.

Italian communities were also affected by Rome’s late republic turmoil, as illustrated in Federico Santangelo’s chapter. Many Italian cities found themselves in the invidious position of having backed the losing side: Santangelo describes the consequences. How Octavian behaved after Actium is dealt with by Wolfgang Havener, particularly his controversial and distasteful triumph celebrating the victory over fellow-Roman Mark Antony. The author argues that Octavian’s purpose was not self-glorification but to use the triumph as a launch pad for his pax Augusta, to demonstrate that the civil strife was over and Rome’s reintegration was under way.

In the first chapter of part two the first year of the four emperors takes centre stage in Alexander Heinemann’s contribution; here he examines the consequences of Vespasian’s occupation of the Capitol and the torching of the temple of Jupiter, how Capitoline Jupiter became ‘ a veritable battle cry’ and how Domitian later was glorified, despite his minor role in events. Mathias Haake examines the serial staseis of the 3rd C, taking Constantius II’s civil war victory as a starting point to explain developments from the time of the second year of the four emperors, using Septimius Severus, Aurelian and Constantius I as examples. Martijn Icks’ ‘Great Pretender’ chapter looks at how the proclamation of emperor was received in the case of three ‘good’ pretenders: Vespasian, Pescennius Niger and Julian. Sympathetic historians alleged that all three could justify their usurpation because of acclamation by the Roman army and people. ‘Maxentius’ Head and the Rituals of Civil War’ examines the significance of public atrocity and the immense power of decapitation as a legitimisation of rule, from Sulla’s proscriptions and Cicero’s execution through to Maxentius. Johannes Wienand shows how Julian dealt with his accession to the throne and the strategy he adopted when he found himself emperor or Rome, unexpectedly without a fight.

Marco Mattheis’ chapter on the public face of the civil war pretender gives us an insight into how major towns and cities had to decide whether or not to support a usurper on the flimsy basis of an image of that usurper circulated by his supporters. The author uses this ritual as a basis for a discussion on ritual generally, including the use of ritual by usurpers to legitimise the stasis they have caused. Peter Bell shines a light on an interesting aspect of civil war when he discusses the role of circus factions; here he argues that the factions played a role in the stabilisation of the emperor’s position adding, though, that they could create the opposite effect if the imperial court failed to take advantage of its ability to play the Greens off against the Blues, or vice versa.

Finally, Johannes Wienand discusses a reworked sestertius showing Maximinus Thrax as an examplar of the effect of and attempts at regeneration after civil strife. The coin was re-struck in AD 238 to incorporate and publicise the shocking fate which befell Thrax as part of a damnatio memoriae. The adulteration of the coin, says Johannes Wienand, reflects the key themes of the volume under review.

All in all, the book gives us some interesting and thought-provoking insights into the effects of civil war on Greek and Roman politics and society and attempts to salvage reintegration from disintegration; at the same time it succeeds in its aim of advancing our understanding of the impact of civil war in ancient Greece and Rome.

Paul Chrystal


We welcome your comments; please send via our social media.
Back to Reading Room