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Wed, 19 Aug 2009 09:33:16 -0500
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Remembering the Roman People: Essays on Late-Republican Politics and 
Literature. By T.P. WISEMAN. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 
2009. Pp. 271. Cloth, $110.00. ISBN: 978–0–19–923976–4.

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CJ Online 2009.08.05
Wiseman’s (W.) latest book consists of ten essays (only one previously 
published, “Roman History and the Ideological Vacuum”), which aim to 
explore the interests, outlook and self-image of the Roman People in the 
late Republic. The subject has been ignored, W. argues (pp. 5–32), 
essentially because Cicero, chief witness for the age, ignored it; and 
20th-century historians, even when unsympathetic to Cicero, often were 
content to follow Syme’s lead and had no time for ideology. (A 
fascinating chapter on Macaulay shows how a politician of an earlier age 
could read every word of Cicero’s writings and find numerous traces of 
ideological warfare—and compromise.) While many Senators clearly saw the 
Republic as theirs, W. argues that there was a longstanding idea, still 
cherished by the People, of something else: a Republic of equals.

As with all W.’s work, the essays are compulsively readable—novelistic 
in their sequence and freshness despite tackling a range of subjects, and 
formidably learned. To name just a few topics that receive substantial 
discussion: the historian Licinius Macer; the origin of the “constitution 
of Romulus” in Dionysius of Halicarnassus (likely Varro); Varro’s 
political sympathies, his Menippean satires and their possible public 
performance; the overlapping venues and practices of theater and politics; 
justifications of political murder developed in the late Republic; and the 
assassination of Caesar and its immediate aftermath. A wide array of 
evidence and methodologies is brought in—including the study of 
fragmentary authors, topographical research and Quellenforschung. Even when 
much speculation is involved (as in “The Fall and Rise of Gaius Geta,” 
discussing the obscure consul of 116 BC), the solutions proposed are of 
larger value because they bring in out-of-the-way evidence or fresh 
approaches potentially useful for tackling related problems.

So it is that any student of the Roman Republic must read this book, and 
will do so with profit, even if further questions should be asked. It 
would, for instance, be valuable to have more discussion of who the 
“Roman People” really were, and who they thought they were. Strictly 
speaking, they were all the citizens of Rome, spreading from the City 
through Italy and across the empire. But did members of the urban plebs see 
their interests as identical to those of distant Italians, perhaps only 
recently enfranchised, or of citizens abroad? What did citizens abroad 
actually seek from the government in Rome? And why were at least some of 
the People willing to pick up arms and kill one another in civil war? That 
goes unexplained here. Also, it must be remembered that Cicero, loud as he 
was, did not speak for all the so-called optimates. Cato the Younger’s 
distinctive voice, for instance, is largely elided in this account—but it 
deserves a hearing too, and to do so with sympathy takes some effort.

But to signal further just how stimulating this work is, especially on 
points of detail, I would like to offer reflections on a few of W.’s more 
specific ideas. First, W. argues that the satires of Lucilius were written 
“for performance, before a popular audience” (p. 136). This is an 
intriguing idea, but I am not sure that the evidence for it holds up. W. 
relies primarily on Hor. Sat. 2.1.68–74, interpreting the passage to mean 
that “Scipio and Laelius were by the stage among the crowd as Lucilius, 
or the actor performing his work, satirized the audience.” But surely 
Horace’s point is that the aristocratic Lucilius—the first major Latin 
poet of Senatorial stock—attacked the People and their leaders, and 
consorted with Aemilianus and Laelius only when they had withdrawn from the 
general public and the public’s stage (ubi se a vulgo et scaena in 
secreta remorant, line 71). Further, W. does not note the passages where 
Lucilius discussed his ideal reader (particularly 592–3 Marx = Cic. De 
Or. 2.25, and 595–6 Marx = Plin. NH praef. 7; cf. Marx 594 = Cic. Fin. 
1.7)—not decisive evidence but surely relevant to the question. I would 
be inclined to see at least some of Lucilius’ poetry as composed for a 
more intimate audience, perhaps like certain poems of Catullus, for whom 
Lucilius was an important precursor. One might think too of the witty verse 
epistles sent from Corinth by Spurius Mummius, brother of the conqueror, to 
friends in Rome (mentioned by Cicero, Att. 13.6.4—reading facetis).

A few pages later, W. points out that seven of Varro’s Menippean satires 
are known to have “canine titles” (e.g., “Beware of the Dog”) and 
suggests that they allude to the ethical criticism associated with the 
“cynic dog” (p. 142). Lucilius, W. writes, took on that persona, “and 
though there is no sign of it in the few surviving Ennian fragments, it is 
possible that Roman satura exploited it from the start.” It is worth 
remembering too the earlier Greek background, in which the wolf represented 
the “Outsider,” a figure destructive to the community, while the poet 
could serve as a canine counterpart that staved off such threats (e.g., Pi. 
P. 2.83–5, and cf. more generally Archilochus and the significantly named 
“Lycambes”). Lucilius was obviously playing on this in the great 
concilium deorum that became the first book of his collected works by 
taking on L. Cornelius Lentulus “Lupus.” The incorporation into satire 
of personal invective (as opposed to simple moralizing) does seem to me 
likely to be a Lucilian innovation, as the grammarian Diomedes maintained 
(Gramm. Lat. I p. 485 Keil, discussed by Gordon Williams, Tradition and 
Originality in Roman Poetry (Oxford, 1968) 445–7). Perhaps then Ennius 
fr. 63 Vahlen (meum non est, ac si me canis memorderit) actually refers to 
the poet’s self-imposed “muzzling”.

Finally, to touch on an altogether different matter, I turn to W.’s 
comment: “It may seem frivolous to suggest that Caesar was killed because 
the optimates liked things to be at their own convenience, but something 
like that must be near the truth” (p. 203). Here I think W. is very much 
onto something (and hope to strengthen and refine this suggestion in a book 
I am working on, The Last Days of Caesar). It is all too easy even for 
classicists to fall under Shakespeare’s spell and turn the Ides of March 
into the great drama of Marcus Brutus. But recent work by Mark Toher (e.g., 
in M. Wyke, ed., Julius Caesar in Western Culture (Malden, MA, 2006) 
29–44) suggests how Nicolaus of Damascus offers a different version of 
events, in which Decimus Brutus, Caesar’s own favorite, is listed first 
among the conspirators. And the fact was that a number of the conspirators 
were not vanquished Republicans or optimate to the core. If, following the 
lead of Peter White (in F. Cairns and E. Fantham, eds., Caesar against 
Liberty? Perspectives on His Autocracy (Cambridge, 2003) 68–95), we delve 
more fully into Cicero’s correspondence, we can see that Caesar lost his 
grip on relations with a number of his fellow Senators. He was inaccessible 
to them, shielded by his subordinates (especially Oppius and Balbus), grew 
out of touch with Senators’ views and became ever more absorbed in his 
own literary endeavors. A sense emerges that even those within Caesar’s 
own entourage might have been less than pleased.

Caesar had long found it difficult to maintain good relations with his 
colleagues in the Senate and had always had an arrogant streak. Power did 
not corrupt him, nor did he entirely dislike his position at the top of 
society. But it was not one he could handle. Caesar’s failure, 
ultimately, was a prosaic one—a failure of leadership. And while he might 
have been the Roman People’s favorite, that failure cost them dear when a 
terrible civil war erupted after the assassination he could have prevented.

Georgetown University

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