John R. Patterson, Political Life in the City of Rome. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2000. Pp. vii + 90, incl. 9 illustrations. ISBN 1-85399-514-2. UKú8.95.
Shannon N. Byrne
Ball State University.
This concise analysis of late republican politics, part of the Classical World Series, will be a welcome contribution to courses on classical civilization and introductory courses on Roman history and culture, inasmuch as Patterson brings together facts that students must learn about assemblies, magistracies, etc. and presents them in a context that clearly demonstrates their relevancy to an understanding of late republican Rome. Students who read this book in conjunction with a main text (or fact-filled lectures) will better understand how the lower and upper classes interacted to determine the outcome of Roman politics. Students and teachers alike will appreciate the explanatory subheadings that divide most chapters into topics that can be read individually to supplement readings from other texts. The following summary is designed to show the sort of material contained in each chapter.
The central theme is explained in the Introduction (pp. 1-3), which serves as the first chapter, that is 'to study the structures of Roman politics (as opposed to the careers of distinguished individuals); and to relate the patterns of Roman political life to the history and archaeology of the city of Rome itself' (p. 1). The focus is roughly the last 150 years of the Republic, from the battle of Zama to Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon in 49 BC, though Patterson also looks ahead to the early imperial period to chart the results of certain political developments that began under the Republic.
Chapter 2, 'Problems of interpretations' (pp. 4-7), briefly examines the main literary sources for the period and discusses some of the problems involved in reconstructing the topography of republican Rome. Patterson cautions that Roman historians and authors who supply much of the information on this period belonged to and so focused on the social elite, leaving modern scholars to glean only bits and pieces of the role played by the 'man in the street' in Roman politics (Patterson returns to the issue on just how much the ordinary citizen mattered in late republican politics in the next chapter). Next Patterson outlines some of the reasons that make it difficult to reconstruct Republican topography; for example, the continued occupancy of the city since ancient times and the successive layers of building that have occurred in the last two thousand years. Patterson then shows how literary texts, archaeological evidence, renaissance drawings and early photographs are all used to reconstruct late republican Rome, a process which is ongoing and subject to change as new evidence is brought to light.
Chapter 3, 'The Roman political system in outline' (pp. 8-28), discusses how popular assemblies, the senate, and various Roman magistracies worked together to form the Roman political system. Each of the four assemblies is separately treated in terms of participation and function (the summary of the comitia centuriata is particularly well done), and Patterson emphasizes that despite their differences they share the fact that each assembly was divided into voting groups, with the group vote, not the individual vote, counting in elections and law making. Patterson also discusses where the different assemblies met and the political importance attached to certain meeting places, as well as an apparent shift from aristocratic to democratic appeal as meetings moved from the Comitium to the Forum. Using the third book of Varro's De Agricultura, Patterson shows how long it could take for votes to be counted and how problems such as ballot stuffing and other misconduct could occur. It is noted that although the assemblies were made up in such a way that they favored the rich (comitia centuriata) and made it difficult for average citizens living in the countryside to get to Rome to cast a vote (comitia tributa), nevertheless the popular vote could be decisive in determining the outcome of an election that divided the upper classes, which is why politicians spent so much time, effort, and money in entertaining the masses (see Chapter 5). Patterson next examines the senate, defining its great authority despite a lack of precise constitutional status, its membership (ex-magistrates), and where it could meet (usually the Curia, whose fourth century structure is shown in fig. 3). Included is a discussion on the duties and numbers of the different magistracies from their inception through Sulla's changes, followed by a discussion on senatorial eligibility, which uses financial and demographic information to demonstrate that senatorial membership was less exclusive than literary texts would indicate.
Chapter 4, 'Aristocratic competition in the city of Rome' (pp. 29-52), provides valuable insight into the competitive nature of Roman politics: how it manifested itself in buildings and monuments designed for the public yet with the builder's name prominently displayed for his own prestige and the prestige of his descendants; how aristocratic competitiveness intensified during the last 150 years of the Republic, when rivalry among individuals reached a peak; and most importantly how lavish displays were expected for public benefit, but private luxury was seriously frowned upon, prompting the passage of numerous sumptuary laws designed to check the prestige of individuals over that of the senate in the early second century BC, when other similar measures (e.g., Lex Villia Annalis) were also being taken to control the influence of the overly ambitious. Patterson looks at temples, funerary monuments, basilicas and porticoes, and especially aristocratic houses, which displayed prestigious and in some cases doubtful family histories for public view.
Chapter 5, 'The practice of politics' (pp. 53-70), brings together points from earlier chapters to show the methods employed by Roman aristocrats to win over the electorate and be first among their peers. Here Patterson often refers to advice given in the Commentariolum Petitionis, such as that the successful politician canvasses not only in Rome but in all of Italy, and will take different approaches depending on his family's status (the nobilis will rely on a long history of family achievements, whereas the novus homo will need to prove himself via military campaigns and rhetorical skills). Patterson notes that patronage, while always an important social institution in Roman society and at one time a significant factor in politics, nevertheless during the late republic seems to have played a diminishing role due to the increase in city population and the independence of individual politicians. More immediate factors that played into aristocratic competition were bribery, more and more lavish displays of public entertainment for future votes, and an increase in the willingness to use mob violence as a political tool. This chapter ends with a sketch of the societal changes that had occurred during the last 150 years of the Republic.
Chapter 6, 'The Empire: the end of politics?' (pp. 71-78), concludes with a discussion on the impact of a single ruler on the Roman political system, the changes that occurred in the assemblies (mainly a loss of influence), and changes in the elections of magistracies, which, despite a strong central authority, continued to be the object of vehement aristocratic competition (excluding the many offices that were earmarked for imperial candidates).
The book ends with two appendices, one for further study and another for further readings, a glossary of terms that occur throughout the book, and an index. The book also contains nine illustrations. All in all there is much information in this slender volume that will help make late republican Rome more comprehensible to beginning students.