Rezension über:

Christian Sigmund: 'Königtum' in der politischen Kultur des spätrepublikanischen Rom (= Beiträge zur Altertumskunde; Bd. 333), Berlin: De Gruyter 2014, XII + 418 S., ISBN 978-3-11-037438-4, EUR 109,95
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Rezension von:
Christopher Smith
School of Classics, University of St Andrews / British School at Rome
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Christopher Smith: Rezension von: Christian Sigmund: 'Königtum' in der politischen Kultur des spätrepublikanischen Rom, Berlin: De Gruyter 2014, in: sehepunkte 15 (2015), Nr. 5 [15.05.2015], URL:

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Christian Sigmund: 'Königtum' in der politischen Kultur des spätrepublikanischen Rom

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This is a welcome account of a significant phenomenon in the late Republic and early Principate, the concept of kingship. Rooted in Roman tradition on the one hand, and a structural feature of many of the cultures which the Romans met in their imperial expansion, kingship became a touchstone and a rhetorical tool. In the past, simplistic accounts tended to see the Romans as simply averse to kingship, but Sigmund's account successfully demonstrates that the concept and the reality were more complex than that.

Sigmund begins with some reflections on how the word rex and variations became widely used without having any specific constitutional references. He spends very little time on the nature of early kingship, referring merely to some of its sacral duties as reflected in the office of the rex sacrorum.

The second chapter looks at kingship in Republican literature down to the death of Caesar. Sigmund treats the evidence thematically. The first section gathers indications of how an antimonarchic tendency was rooted in Rome's memory, with the expulsion of the kings and foundation of the Republic, or perhaps better, the adjustment of the constitutional settlement. Sigmund then goes on to show that the Romans could take a different view, with examples from Ennius' bonus Ancus to Cato's apparent description of King Ptolemy VI as rex optimus atque beneficissimus.

A long section on Cicero begins with the de re publica, and well demonstrates the oddities of this work which tries to wrestle the concept of a kingly man into the Republican constitution. Elsewhere, Cicero's language reflects the contingencies of audience and subject matter. Rex and even better tyrannus are rhetorically useful in denigrating an opponent; but at the same time Cicero was able to see the rex as an attractive option, and the bold move in pro Sulla 25 to redefine and even claim kingship shows how Cicero could play with the idea. Sigmund's next section explores this further by looking at ways in which the Roman senators could be seen as monarchical. Their culture of memory, the discourse over increasingly grand houses and gardens, their role as cultural patrons, and the powerful role of the consuls in war and in the provinces, all indicate ways in which Roman senators edged up towards elements of what they saw in royal courts; and this fed into and was supported by Epicurean treatises on the good king, and the more exotic world of poetry. Looked at from the other side, which Sigmund does not do very much, we can see how problematic Rome was for the Hellenistic East, which had to find ways of assimilating a Republican structure to their own experience; there are some helpful essays on this in the very recent volume Barthélémy Grass / Ghislaine Stouder (eds.): La diplomatie romaine sous la République: réflexions sur une pratique. Actes des rencontre de Paris (21-22 juin 2013) et Genève (31 octobre-1er novembre 2013), Besançon 2015. Sigmund concludes the chapter with Pyrrhus's famous supposed description (Plut. Pyrrh. 19.6) of the Roman senate as an assembly of kings.

From this point it is natural to turn to Caesar. This is well trodden territory; Sigmund rather cleverly turns attention to the literature which emerged after the assassination, specifically Sallust, Nepos and Livy, to see ways in which they dealt with the problem of kingship, its advantages when coupled with morality, and its disadvantages. This is an interesting take on the subject, and might be profitably read against, for instance, Liv Yarrow's important account of Hellenistic historiography.

The Hellenistic world does come into focus in the next chapter, on Augustus and his principate. Again, Sigmund skates lightly over the historical aspects, and moves to representation, choosing to look at Nicolaus of Damascus and the Augustan poets. The ambiguity of the literature is well-demonstrated, and follows similar lines to another recent account of the odium regni in the poets, in Philippe le Doze: Le Parnasse face à l'Olympe. Poésie et culture politique à l'époque d'Octavien / Auguste, Rome 2014. The last author treated is Valerius Maximus who it is suggested collapsed the distinction between Republic and Empire into a presentation of the continuity of moral virtue.

The last substantive chapter looks at the development of the concept of rex and regnum in the early empire, when it obviously became impossible for senators to behave like kings. Seneca's philosophical concept of kingship permitted him to explore some of the paradoxes of monarchy, and Sigmund traces further fine distinctions between Caesar, princeps and rex, and the maintenance of distance between Roman and foreign kings. There is a sharp conclusion, a very full bibliography and a brief index, but not of sources, which would have been useful.

This is a useful book, and sets out a more balanced view than the main previous account, that of Paul Martin: L'idée de royauté à Rome (two volumes), Clermont-Ferrand 1982-94. Martin laid more emphasis on the odium regni than Sigmund, but the most distinctive differences were his attempts to consider the period before the second century BC, and omission of the post-Augustan period. In this sense, Sigmund is a rather more modern approach, seeing the sources in the context of their own time.

Given the amount of ground covered it would seem churlish to complain of gaps, but the absence of visual and archaeological material is notable, especially when one gets into the principate. I pick out also here one very odd text, and one central author is missing. The brontoscopic calendar, allegedly written by Nigidius Figulus, and according to him associated with Rome, mentions kings: 'if it thunders, it warns the downfall of a rule or the overthrow of a king' and 'if it thunders, the king will help many'. Which king? This strange text perhaps reveals that there may have been a lot more rather strange material than Sigmund's account of the canonical sources might indicate. The missing author is Varro, who certainly discussed the kings and may have been quite original (think of his hydromantic Numa, or his interest in Titus Tatius). In order to make a coherent reading, Sigmund has had to exclude some of the odder versions of what kings might do or be, and perhaps thereby, notwithstanding the sophistication of his own account, underplays the richness of the concept. Finally, by looking largely at complete texts and nothing after the first century AD, Sigmund leaves out of consideration the games which late Roman sources play with earlier kings. That however would be a different book; this one is sensible, reliable and well-produced. It looks as if Ennius once said something like 'you can expect kings to be decent when things are going well' (quippe solent reges omnes in rebus secundis, Skutsch 353); Sigmund shows how this pragmatic approach led the Romans to a balanced and nuanced reading of kingship, using it to illuminate and comment on behaviour in more or less coded ways.

Christopher Smith