K.-J. Hölkeskamp: Libera Res Publica

Libera Res Publica. Die politische Kultur des antiken Rom – Positionen und Perspektiven

Hölkeskamp, Karl-Joachim
Stuttgart 2017: Franz Steiner Verlag
Anzahl Seiten
400 S.
€ 59,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Craige Champion, Department of History, Syracuse University

All of the essays in this book were previously published (between 2005 and 2017), but collectively they provide new insights, treating many facets of the study of Roman republican political culture. The first two chapters examine the enormous influence of what we can call the positivistic historiography of Theodor Mommsen and Friedrich Münzer. In their own ways, both scholars have come to represent a kind of (outmoded) empirical method that we pretend to have left behind us (i.e., Mommsen’s legalistic orientation and Münzer’s pioneering prosopographical reconstructions), but H. shows both the subtlety of their thought and the degree to which more recent approaches to studying the political culture of the Roman Republic still depend on them (for Münzer, see the bibliographical discussion at S. 46–50).

In the case of Mommsen, H. focuses on the opposition between form and content in the conception of a republican “Senatsregimente,” and regarding Münzer, he underscores a paradox: “Zusammenfassend – und das ist nun keineswegs übertriebend zugespitzt – könnte man als letzte Paradoxie formulieren: MÜNZERS opus magnum von 1920 war zugleich eines der am wenigstens gelesenen und am häufigsten zitierten Bücher über das antike Rom im 20. Jahrhundert, und sein Modell der römisch-republikanischen Politik und seine Methode gehörten zu den am intensivsten diskutierten und am gründlichsten widerlegten modernen Deutungsangeboten in der (Alten) Geschichte” (S. 71).

Chapters 1 and 2, therefore, lay the groundwork for the historiographical trajectory of the modern study of republican Rome, and the remaining chapters trace and explore subsequent developments. Chapter 3 introduces the key theme for the rest of the book (and much else of H.’s work): the notion of “political culture.” The quest to understand the Roman Republic in terms of its political culture entails a holistic, interdisciplinary approach that embraces theories borrowed from other historical concentrations and indeed from other fields, quite comfortable with abstract conceptualizing and historical extrapolation, while at the same time giving up nothing of the rigor and precision demanded by the high standards of nineteenth century Altertumswissenschaft(H. demonstrates what such a interdisciplinary/traditional scholarship might look like in his numismatically-based reconstruction of how the Caecilii Metelli created the clan’s “corporate identity” in Chapter 9). And so H. builds upon the insights of thinkers such as P. Bourdieu, C. Geertz, Th. Kuhn, G. Simmel, and M. Weber (among many others) in order to draw nuanced and layered historical pictures of the agonal, competitive aristocratic society of republican Rome and of the nature of the channels of communication between elites and nonelites in that society.[1]

This project, then, must go far beyond political institutions and historical events; it is an archaeological excavation (in a Foucauldian sense) of a political culture that draws its insights from cultural, social, artistic, epigraphical, numismatic, and aesthetic evidence – a history of elite representations and “self-fashioning.” It engages with many of the recent “turns” in the historical profession: the linguistic turn, the visual turn, the iconic turn, the communicative turn, and above all, the cultural turn.[2] In such a manner, we can aspire to a deeper understanding of the self-fashioning, symbolic capital, and corporate identity of the Roman ruling elite. But a major question for the historian arises about the degree to which a ruling class’ self-projections can be efficacious in creating societal consensus about rigidly hierarchical polities, such as republican Rome (see esp. Chapters 5–7). To formulate a completely satisfactory explanation, we would have to have much greater access to the culture and values of nonelites than the surviving evidence for ancient Rome allows. Given the restrictions imposed by our sources, we must work hard here to tease out evidence for an answer to our question[3], and in the purely political realm, we can also ask to what degree political communication was a two way street; to what extent meaningful political input traveled from nonelites to elites (as, for example, in the theater and at the games). In recent years, scholars have been preoccupied by this question of nonelite political power in the Roman Republic, especially since F. Millar issued the radical challenge to scholarly orthodoxies with his formulation of a “democratic Rome.”[4] Throughout these essays, the reader will gain rich insights into the nature of the problem of “democratic Rome” and the challenges it poses for historical reconstruction (see esp. Chapters 6 and 7).[5]

The final chapter (Chapter 10) turns to the question of the nature and causes of the fall of the Roman Republic. How do we account for the series of Roman warlords beginning with Marius, the ebbing of senatorial power and control, the breakdown of public order in the capital, culminating in the dominatio of Caesar and, ultimately, the institution of the Principate? E. Gruen’s The Last Generation of the Roman Republic furnishes the point of departure. In that iconoclastic and controversial book, Gruen argued that we are chasing a chimera in looking for constitutional abnormalities and institutional collapse as the causal key to the problem. For him, republican institutions remained intact, and the events of the Late Republic are best understood as a catastrophic series of idiosyncratic and aleatory developments. In short, we are well advised to recognize the workings of chance, a factor emphasized by Polybius himself, the Greek historian of Rome’s rise to universal domination.[6] Seeking to incorporate formal, institutional and societal causes and the contingent and accidental, H. turns the problem on its head, so to speak, arguing that there was always elite aporia in attempting to achieve consensus among the ruling class in a competitive aristocracy and that there was never a “goldene Zeitalter der Oligarchie.” H. suggests that new models and modes of scholarly analysis promise a greater, more nuanced, and sensitive understanding of this watershed moment in Roman history.

Libera Res Publica is a fine collection of essays by one of the most important historians of ancient Rome of our times. It is essential reading for scholars of the Roman Republic, and it will be a necessary addition to the bookshelf of any serious student of Roman political culture.

[1] See R. Morstein Marx, Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late Roman Republic, Cambridge 2004.
[2] On these “turns,” see H.’s comments at S. 320.
[3] For an exemplary model, see R. Knapp, Invisible Romans, Cambridge, Mass. 2014.
[4] See F. Millar, The Political Character of the Classical Roman Republic, in: Journal of Roman Studies 74 (1984), S. 1-19; ders., Politics, Persuasion, and the People before the Social War (150–90 B.C.), in: Journal of Roman Studies 76 (1986), S.1-11; ders., Political Power in Mid-Republican Rome: Curia or Comitium?, in: Journal of Roman Studies 79 (1989), S. 138-150. For a balanced and nuanced rejoinder, see the collected essays in M. Jehne (Hrsg.), Demokratie in Rom? Die Rolle des Volkes in der Politik der römischen Republik, Stuttgart 1995.
[5] For a brilliant study of how aristocratic “self-fashioning” in the religious sphere helped the senatorial aristocracy to harness and curb its members’ individual ambition and thereby preserve the integrity of the ruling class (in contrast to such “self fashioning” for nonelite consumption), see J. Rüpke, Religion in Republican Rome: Rationalization and Ritual Change, Philadelphia, Penn. 2012.
[6] On this point regarding Polybius, see F. Maier, “Überall mit dem Unerwarteten rechnen”: die Kontingenz historischer Prozesse bei Polybios. Vestigia, Bd 65, Munich 2012.

Veröffentlicht am
Redaktionell betreut durch
Weitere Informationen
Sprache Publikation
Sprache Beitrag