Questioning Reputations: Essays on Nine Roman Republican Politicians

Book Review by Bryaxis Hecatee

In Questioning reputations: essays on nine republican politicians (2003) we find a book whose main goal is to invite us to re-evaluate what we know of nine iconic personalities of the first century B.C., three of them major actors of the period and six of them, analyzed in pairs, being considered as minor personages in our sources despite their undeniable importance in the events of the time. This is done by a close analysis of the ancient sources, each of which being searched for bias or hidden agendas that might make their historical authors distort the facts. First looking at specific aspects of the lives of Marius, Pompey and Caesar, R. J. Evans continues by comparing the lives of Saturninus and Glaucia, Drusus and Sulpicius and then Clodius and Milo.

The first topic is Marius, a man usually described as first and foremost a military man. Yet, according to Evans, this reputation might very well have been initially propaganda although subsequently proven correct when victories did indeed appear. Pompey is studied for his role in the 70’s, when he went into Spain to fight against Sertorius, and the reputation he gained in this difficult war where he lost many a battle before the rebel marian general was assassinated. The reasons of why he was chosen by the Senate to reinforce the army already there and the chronology of the events is of particular interest although scholars like W. J. Tattum (The Classical Review, vol. 54-2, 2004, pp. 490-491) have not been impressed by this new reconstruction of the events.

Caesar’s relationships with tribunes of the Plebs are then examined by Evans, a relationship that is moulded by how previous major politicians saw and used the tribunes as tools or obstacles to be removed. For Evans indeed, the popularis side of Caesar can be questioned in light of his treatment of the tribunes, the personal hatred of Caesar for Cato which began during the Catiline conspiracy when Cato was tribune being also a major date from which, according to Evans, Caesar began to distrust the tribunes although he used some. According to this line of thinking, the arrival in Caesar’s camp of the tribunes supporting his cause was no more than a stroke of luck to be used, for the Imperator did not think he had any more use for those men that could, for all he cared, have been put to death by the Senate.

The three next comparisons try to reconstruct the personalities and actions of six tribunes of the plebs that caused troubles in Rome during the first half of the first century B.C., showing that what the sources tells us might be different to what is usually found in modern books about them. Using every available source, including very fragmentary or late sources and trying to reconstruct some lost sources through later authors who used them (for example the Commentarii of Sulla or Poseidonios’ history), he shows Glaucia to have been a good politician cut down too early to show his true qualities. This re-interpretation of the sources includes the re-dating of various events in the careers of both men, with implications on Marius and Sulla’s lives too.

Talking about Drusus and Sulpicius, Evans draws a new portrait of both men, showing Drusus as a man perhaps suffering from some form of epilepsy or personality disorder and having committed suicide when no longer able to cope with the events, Sulpicius being described as a competent but hasty man, his haste finally leading to his downfall. The study of Clodius and Milo leads the author to the opinion that both men had a lot in common, including possibly part of their youth during which they might, for a time, have struck a friendship that would have then soured to open enmity and murder, both being manipulated by external players. Much is said about Cicero’s vision of the lives of the two men, one his most obdurate enemy and the other his saviour.

As Tatum remarks, Evans’ analysis has missed some important and relevant pieces of scholarship that might very well bring down his thesis and this part of the book should thus be taken with great caution. Yet, as Tom Stevenson correctly says (Scholia Reviews vol. 13, 2004, p.6) the main merit of the book is to make us rethink the period and, looking beyond the faults of Evans’ book, give a fresh look on our sources without letting the image given to us by tradition hamper our judgment.

Those Romanophiles extensively schooled in Roman military affairs may find little here of worth. Those who want an introduction to the Roman military may otherwise find this a valuable read, especially if they want a more humanistic perspective as opposed to a military science perspective.

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