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Rome’s Revolution

Rome’s Revolution: Death of the Republic & Birth of the Empire
Richard Alston
Oxford University Press  385pp  £20

Richard Alston traces the transformation of the Roman state, from the tribunate of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC to the accession of Tiberius in AD 14. The years in between witnessed the collapse of the old Republican political system, the bloodletting of almost 20 years of civil war and the consolidation of a monarchical system of power through the long years of the reign of Emperor Augustus. 

This story is not new and Alston’s title rather invites comparison with one of the most distinguished works of classical scholarship: Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution (1939). Early on, Alston acknowledges the greatness of Syme’s contribution but thereafter he avoids direct reference to it: the section heading ‘Octavian’s Coup: The March on Rome’ reads like a nod to the titles of chapters nine and 13 of Syme’s masterpiece, but there is no explicit engagement with his thought. Other scholars will recognise similar acts of homage in sections entitled ‘Caesar’s Legacy and the Formation of the Revolution’ and ‘The Cultural Revolution’. Some will react badly to Alston’s tendency to refer to the mistaken approaches of ‘conservative thinkers’ or ‘elite historians’ without actually identifying with whom he is picking a fight.

Throughout Rome’s Revolution the impression is given of a study in denial about its true identity. Published in a new series of narrative histories aimed at a wider market, it provides a vigorous, swift-paced account of events and is particularly strong at describing the military campaigns leading to crucial battles, such as Philippi in 42 BC and Actium in 31 BC. It has some interesting analyses of the financial aspects of the brutal proscriptions of the second triumvirate and of the massive investment involved in settling retired legionaries or ensuring the grain supply to Rome. Alston also draws effectively on his knowledge of Roman Egypt and is an informed and intriguing guide to Octavian’s treatment of that country’s people in the aftermath of the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra. One figure of particular interest is the poet and first prefect of Egypt, Cornelius Gallus, who contributed to the adornment of Alexandria by transporting an obelisk from its home city of Heliopolis, saw off a significant local revolt and erected a boastful trilingual inscription recording his achievements. Alston then follows Gallus back to Rome and writes well about his prosecution by the odious Valerius Largus: so perilous was it to speak openly in front of this scoundrel that his contemporary Proculeius would theatrically cover his mouth with his hand whenever Largus drew near. This is handled with aplomb, but Alston seems conscious that he should be doing more. That something more is developing a new way of describing social and political relations at Rome. Rejecting others’ talk of ‘classes, institutions, constitutions, and political structures’, Alston borrows the sociology of contemporary African states in his analysis of ‘patrimonial networks’ as a vehicle for the distribution of power and resources. There is considerable overlap here with the distinctive role of the patron-client relationship (clientela) and political friendship (amicitia), but Alston argues for  the patrimonial network as the conceptual basis for offering a more global account of power at Rome. Yet to make this work he needs more than a single footnote to explain what the model offers and then more explicitly to address the similarities and differences between contemporary Africa and ancient Rome. Pompey could have been used here, who, aged just 23, mustered a private army of 15,000 men from his native region of Picenum to fight for Sulla. In fact Alston says of this extraordinary episode simply that ‘Pompey rose to prominence with Sulla’s second march on Rome’.

The final impression is of two very different books forced into one. The first is the ‘riveting narrative’ with which the blurb draws in the non-specialist reader and which Alston successfully provides. The second is the innovative account of Roman society that might have been. It resurfaces in sentences that insistently repeat the buzzword ‘network’ as if repeatedly using the word will itself make the concept more compelling. This is both intellectually disappointing and stylistically aggravating. Alston is much better when he sticks to the basics and keeps the story ticking over. When he reaches for aphorisms and asserts universal truths, bathos almost inevitably results.

The book has a variety of maps and illustrations and closes with a timeline, a cast of characters, some slightly patchy endnotes, a bibliography and an index. The proliferation of misprints should put the publisher to shame.

Matthew Leigh is Professor of Classical Languages and Literatures at the University of Oxford.

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