The Last Generation Of The Roman Republic by Erich S. Gruen

Book Review by Germanicus

The Last generation of the Roman republic is a great resource for anyone interested in this era of Roman history…..and for anyone after a collection of hard evidence for political machinations of the same era. A warning though, it is very tiring to read. As a scholarly work, it’s one of those books I haven’t read since university days, where there is half a page of text, accompanied by half a page of footnotes. I often found the real chestnuts of information were often contained in the footnotes. Published in 1974, this book by Erich Gruen, I understand written as a response to another scholarly work (Syme)which I haven’t read, aims to rethink all aspects of the era, with varying success.

Beginning with Sulla, and his constitution, the author paints a dazzling picture of political intrigue and alliances, and traces the evolution and continuation of these alliances. I say dazzling, because if one isn’t concentrating, and fully awake, the endless succession of names and dates and legislation will go in never to be recalled. The chapters deal with the Plebs and the Army, political alliances, political violence, legislation, agrarian reforms and all the big players of the Ciceronian age, with detailed sections on the members of the first triumvirate.

To tell you the truth, I feel that the main point the author was trying to make, was that the political situation was far more complex at the time than other authors would have one believe, and that a simplistic – Marius>>>>Sulla>>>>>Pompey>>>>Caesar>>>>>unhealthy republic model, will not suffice, nor will it be accurate. Rather, Gruen aims to impress upon the reader that for the 70s, 60s and 50s things went on as they always had. He makes this case compelling by an exhaustive study of office holders throughout the period, demonstrating who was aligned with who, and the fact that office holders continued to come from the Patrician class, or plebian nobiles, no big change from the previous century. The real catalyst for change as he sees it was enfranchisement of the socii, changing the possibilities in the demagogues favor, without the nobiles awareness of the fact.

In evaluating his sources, Gruen is derisive of Sallust and Cicero, but uses both anyway regularly, which seemed strange to me, although in fairness he mostly used them to point to actual, documented legal cases, offices held ect, rather than relying on their opinions which are largely considered tainted.

The chapter I found most interesting though was concerning the Roman Army, and it’s so called “proffesionalization” Gruen makes an argument for this process to be considerably overstated, and not nearly as marked as many would have one believe, and no great departure from previous years. His evidence for terms of military service was interesting – implying no fixed term right up to the Principate, but the actions of armies and their relations with their commanders I found somewhat simplified by Gruen, making his argument for state loyalty rather than personal loyalty less compelling.

The book is full of useful information, and is set out in such a way that it can happily sit on the shelf, but be regularly referred to when debates become heated. As I mentioned in the beginning, The last generation of the Roman republic is a valuable resource for anyone with more than a passing interest in the era and its results.

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