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The Politics of Elitism: The Roman Republic—Then and Now, in Old Europe and the Brave New Anglophone World

Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp

This paper is focused on the particular interaction between German, English and American scholars working on the field of politics and political structures of the Roman Republic ever since Matthias Gelzer and Friedrich Münzer published their classic books in 1912 and 1920 respectively. It is by no means accidental that both books were among the few works translated into English: the long history of this interaction, with an ‘elitist’ concept of politics as focus, remains to be of prime importance, because it has implicitly and even explicitly been referred to in the modern debate on the ‘political culture’ of the Republic which began in the late 1980s and is still going on.

It was in 1990 that William Harris chose the concept of ‘political culture’ in his rejoinder to John North’s critical review of the “frozen-waste theory” of politics in republican Rome in the style of Matthias Gelzer’s concept of “factions”, clientelae etc. and Friedrich Münzer`s “aristocratic parties” and their thinly veiled “arcana imperii”. Moreover, this label was meant to denounce Sir Ronald Syme’s concept of politics as a never-ending “strife for power, wealth and glory” within the exclusive circles of “an aristocracy unique in duration and predominance”. This sombre vision of the decline and fall of the libera res publica was elegantly expounded in his influential masterpiece The Roman Revolution. Decades later, Syme still magisterially defended his radically elitist view as a metahistorical eternal truth: “oligarchy is imposed as the guiding theme, the link from age to age whatever be the form and name of government”. The underlying concept of Republican politics was based on a set of interdependent assumptions: politics was conceived as a zero-sum game between a small number of dominant families striving for power in the shape of the consulship. In order to achieve this object of their ambition, their leading figures formed alliances on the basis of kinship, dynastic marriages and ‘friendships’. These alliances were taken to be stable, they rose to take over “government”, when others fell from “power” only to rise again – a never-ending wheel of fortune, according to Howard Scullard’s equally influential Roman Politics 220-150 BC and also presupposed in Lily Ross Taylor’s Party Politics. The people, in Syme’s words, “had no voice in government” and even “no place in history”.

It was Sir Fergus Millar who not only rejected this well-established orthodoxy – and who finally admitted that his teacher Ronald Syme had been its most influential representative. He also offered a new, indeed iconoclastic reading of the “political character” of the Republic as a whole – although he never systematically explained his analytical categories: Millar claimed that the libera res publica was to be conceived as a variant of ancient democracy, which was much more akin to the direct democracy of classical Athens than modern (once again especially German) scholarship had been prepared to admit – the new elitist bête noire was Christian Meier, even though the latter had been the first scholar to offer a systematic deconstruction of the received ‘factionalist’ wisdom.

Above all, Millar also insisted on the overwhelming importance of mass oratory and the central role and function of the orator before the people assembled in the Comitium or Forum. Interestingly enough, it was this specific form of direct communication and interaction which became an important theme of the debate on the political culture of the Republic, which got off the ground with the afore-mentioned exchange between Harris and North. This debate continues to the present day, and it has long gone way beyond the less than fruitful question of whether or not we should think of the Republic as (a sort of) democracy – the contributions of E. Flaig and M. Jehne on the one hand, R. Morstein-Marx on the other attest to its liveliness (cf. Hölkeskamp 2010).

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Thinking through Recent German Scholarship on the Roman Republic

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