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Hans Beck: Karriere und Hierarchie. Die römische Aristokratie und die Anfänge des cursus honorum in der mittleren Republik (= KLIO. Beiträge zur Alten Geschichte. Beihefte. Neue Folge; Bd. 10), Berlin: Akademie Verlag 2005, 452 S., ISBN 978-3-05-004154-4, EUR 69,80
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Rezension von:
Christer F. Bruun
Department of Classics, University of Toronto
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Christer F. Bruun: Rezension von: Hans Beck: Karriere und Hierarchie. Die römische Aristokratie und die Anfänge des cursus honorum in der mittleren Republik, Berlin: Akademie Verlag 2005, in: sehepunkte 7 (2007), Nr. 2 [15.02.2007], URL:

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Hans Beck: Karriere und Hierarchie

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This work, based on Beck's dissertation at Cologne (Köln), is dedicated to the study of the Roman Middle Republic, here defined as the period c. 300 - 180 BCE. The study sets out from App. Claudius Caecus, the first "three-dimensional" Roman aristocrat known to us, and ends with the lex Villia annalis which regulated the senatorial career. The author, a pupil of K.-J. Hölkeskamp and co-editor of the useful collection of sources Die Frühen Römischen Historiker (2004-5), investigates the specific ways in which Roman aristocrats participated in public life, i.e. how they advanced in elected office on the rungs of the "career ladder", the cursus honorum.

When modern historians of ancient Rome use the concept cursus honorum, they normally refer to the Principate, when the hierarchy of offices and requirements for eligibility had been strictly regulated. In Republican Rome the situation was different. The offices, which originally were meant to serve a city state, were few and there were few rules regarding mandatory intervals between holding office, minimum age, or, sometimes, even the order in which offices were held. During the period here under scrutiny, political and social changes gave the cursus a clearer structure and provided for a more predictable career, until in 180 the lex Villia annalis laid down a number of rules. Beck argues convincingly that this and other laws during the period did not suddenly implement new decisions by those in power but reflected gradual changes in political practice.

The study of the Roman senatorial cursus honorum is commonly associated with the field of prosopography, sometimes adroitly called "collective biography". Indeed, it is the quantitative analysis that allows scholars to identify the typical example and the exceptions, to intuit the underlying rules, both explicit and implicit, and to draw significant conclusions regarding the policy pursued by those in government and the mentality of the office-holding class. In Roman senatorial prosopography of the last half-century or so, the work of Ronald Syme looms large, together with that of Géza Alföldy, A.R. Birley, Werner Eck, among others. These scholars, however, have all been concerned with the imperial period. Much less work has been done on the Republic, no doubt because there have been few new discoveries, but surely also because of a lack of structure to the cursus during this period.

Beck steers a middle course between "collective" and individual biography. More than a third of the book is dedicated to a systematic discussion of the political system of his chosen period. This part is followed by eleven mini-biographies of Roman office holders on 250 pages, which make up the bulk of the book. In these lives of many of the best known Romans of the period the interested reader will find concise narrative accounts, solidly based on current knowledge. For the earliest life, that of App. Claudius, a comparison with Michel Humm's impressive Appius Claudius Caecus (2005) of over 600 pages shows that many of the problems raised by the early sources might require an even more probing analysis.

The author presents his contribution to our understanding of aristocratic behavior during this period over some 150 pages at the beginning of the book. Beck argues cogently that doubts recently voiced by Fergus Millar regarding the whole concept of Roman "Adel" (inherited nobility) are unfounded. In the Roman Republic, even though the elite depended for its survival on holding public office and such offices could neither be bought nor inherited, there surely was a narrow upper class which regularly saw its scions accede to elected office, so as to be able to preserve the social and economic status of their family.

That Roman aristocrats were engaged in fierce competition for offices and distinctions is not surprising, but the way in which this rivalry played out is debated. Beck uses the concept of "symbolisches Kapital", taken over from Pierre Bourdieu and Egon Flaig, frequently in his argument (four times on p. 60 alone): "in seinem Kern bestand dieses Kapital aus der Summe der Bekanntheit und Anerkennung seiner Inhaber" (16). This reputation (to use a mundane word) was partly inherited: a Roman aristocrat could draw on the popularity and the deeds of his ancestors, and his own actions obviously had an impact as well. Indeed, no one has ever doubted that the Romans, both fellow aristocrats and that elusive entity, the citizens gathered together in the voting assembly, were influenced by a successful individual with a successful ancestry. In Beck's hands, however, "symbolic capital" becomes an all-powerful explanatory instrument, and in particular he uses it to refute the old idea that the Romans formed factions or even "parties" in their struggle for offices and military commands. One would have thought that this idea, embodied in the very title of Friedrich Münzer's Römische Adelsparteien und Adelsfamilien (1920) and developed by several later scholars, had been definitely discredited thanks to the works of K.-J. Hölkeskamp and others in the past decades: to talk about parties in Republican Rome is anachronistic; it was a candidate's reputation, his ability to influence opinion through public action and performances that decided an election 'annotation:' (so goes the argument).

Beck's exposition of "symbolisches Kapital", however, cannot but help throw unexpected light on some aspects of this outmoded theory of aristocratic alliances. Münzer was originally inspired by the fact that a number of Roman families seem to accompany each other with some frequency in the list of office holders (the fasti), and it was the appearance of this repeated domination of the elections 'annotation:' (as though they had formed a successful political party) that accounted for his theory. This apparent pattern will not rattle defenders of the "symbolisches Kapital"; in a few case studies of such instances Beck argues that we are dealing with coincidences (355-56, 360).

In reality, I do not see how anyone can doubt that Roman aristocrats forged alliances in times of election. Why would they not have done so? Roman senators were not from a different planet. They lived in a society which was based on amicitia among peers and on a patron-client relationship among unequals. How could they not have attempted to make use of these social ties? This is of course not to argue that they established "parties", and this is not to say that we can identify the multiple ties and agreements that obtained before every election, for the name patterns we see may indeed be coincidental. But one thing is certain, agreements there were. Whether these agreements were more important than "symbolic capital" is worth considering, as is what impact the reputation, inherited or new, of a family or a person had when these ties were forged.

Another line of argument against the "faction theory" would have been to question the reliability of the fasti. After all, Cicero knew that spurious offices and honors had been inserted into the fasti by flatterers among the Roman antiquarians. Although Beck is well aware of the work of T.P. Wiseman, the leading scholar among those less inclined to take the mid-republican fasti completely at face value, he does not pay serious attention to this possibility. As a result, Beck's results are less than completely convincing. The tables in the first section are a case in point. When tracing the success of the "symbolic capital" in the list of consuls, Beck identifies men whose father had held the same office in the past. In many cases the interval between father and son is close to forty years 'annotation:' (for the 53 consuls whose father is thought to have been consul, the average distance in years between the consulships is 36.3 years, the median 37 years). Granted that no minimum age for the consulship yet existed, if the father, consul at a certain age, had built up "capital", the son should have been able to benefit from it so as to reach the consulate earlier. Then there is the demographic factor to consider. Assuming that the son of a consul had a career at least equal to that of his father and reached the peak at the same age, we would have to conclude that fathers often sired their most successful sons at forty or later. How believable is that? Less than a generation should separate these consulships, not more. Roman historians consider c. 30 years as the normal interval between consular generations during the Principate 'annotation:' (see P. Leunissen, Konsuln und Konsulare in der Zeit von Commodus bis Severus Alexander (180-235 n.Chr.), Amsterdam 1989, 371-73).

Another startling series of data goes without discussion: the frequency of triumphs. Surely no public event in Rome was more likely to generate "symbolic capital" than a triumph. There were some formal rules for when a commander was allowed one, but rules could be tampered with and in later times the matter was often contentious. The Second Punic War (218-201), an important period for Beck's argument, stunningly enough saw only three triumphs (p. 354 n. 138) and two ovationes 'annotation:'(lesser triumphs). Did no one care to build up "symbolic capital"? Did a jealous Senate prevent the generals from celebrating their victories? Regardless of the actual losses among the enemy - and the Carthaginians and their allies are said to have lost many battles 'annotation:'(for 215 BCE alone, see Liv. 23.35.19, 23.37.6, 23.37.11, etc.) - are we to believe that the State considered triumphs unnecessary for public and military morale during this the most difficult and costly of all Roman wars? In sum, the use of the fasti and the theory of "symbolisches Kapital" occasionally produce a certain uneasiness in the reader. There has been much debate about the Roman Middle Republic, and one merit of Beck's book is to demonstrate that the debate is not over, by any means.

Christer F. Bruun