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Publicity, öffentlichkeit, and the Populus Romanus: Finding ‘the public’ in English and German Scholarship on the Late Republic

Amy Russell

The Roman Republican ‘ideology of publicity’, Millar’s suggestion that important decisions and procedures had to be performed in public with the populus Romanus as witnesses, has made the public contio central to our understanding of Republican politics. But Millar’s further claim that the ideology of publicity is evidence of popular political power has been challenged. In German, Hölkeskamp and Flaig argued that public politics consisted of ritualized performance which reproduced existing power structures. In English, Morstein-Marx proposed that ‘public opinion’ was not an expression of ordinary people’s needs and desires, but something called into being by the elite who controlled the contiones. This paper will not attempt to solve the problem of the contio: instead, I explore how the difference between German and Anglophone concepts of ‘publicity’, ‘the public sphere’, and ‘Öffentlichkeit’ have affected the way the debate has played out.

I begin to track the commonalities and differences between concepts by exploring the terms used by translators (and reviewers writing in the other language), and suggest how some of them might affect the way authors and audiences in both languages reinterpret theoretical frameworks and ancient evidence. English translators of German have no single word equivalent to the abstract German ‘Öffentlichkeit’, and often resort to a more concrete metaphor (‘publicity’, ‘public realm’ or ‘public space’). Similarly, Winterling has noted that German cannot capture the English terms’ close connection with the state and the public/private opposition. Sometimes we sidestep the problem entirely: Rüpke’s Kalender und Öffentlichkeit appeared in English as The Roman Calendar from Numa to Constantine, with theoretical sections on the role of the calendar in the definition of Öffentlichkeit entirely removed. Scholars and theorists working on more recent periods have considered similar problems. In his work on Habermas, Mah points out that when translated as ‘public realm’, ‘Öffentlichkeit’ takes on new overtones. The ‘public realm’ is imagined as something one can enter and leave, something which can be subdivided, or something which can exist in multiple separate parallel ‘realms’. Yet ‘Öffentlichkeit’ is a collective singular, unitary and all-encompassing; it determines and produces a single ‘public’ (‘das Publikum’).

As ancient historians, we face our own problems of translation. Neither English nor German maps easily onto Latin terms: there is no obvious Latin translation for ‘Öffentlichkeit’ in any of its senses, or for ‘publicity’ or ‘the public realm’. Far from participating in a German-inflected framework in which an abstract notion of publicness creates ‘the public’, or an Anglophone world in which ‘public’ and ‘private’ are mutually constitutive, Romans derived the adjective publicus from the populus – a collective singular ‘public’ which is itself primary (leaving privatus, as the etymology suggests, entirely residual). The populus is even more limited and exclusionary than any related concept in German or English.

We may fear that by applying any modern terms to the Roman Republic we are merely importing anachronism. But concepts do not need to be ancient to be useful. The populus exists prior to the contio, but when the orator defines his particular audience as the populus, it is also worth asking to what extent he (or, perhaps, the institution of the contio) is engaged in ‘die Herstellung politischer Öffentlichkeit’ (Tiersch). The populus is defiantly singular: does this imply a single publicness, or could multiple forms of publicness exist (for example, the circuli which O’Neill describes as forming part of ‘a public culture’, implying the possibility of plural ‘public cultures’)? The slippages and gaps between English and German can serve as a salutary reminder that no language, not even Latin, is perfectly suited to describe the Roman world. Each has something to offer, and new approaches should aim not (only) to translate German into English or vice versa but to appreciate the untranslatable differences between them and the valuable diversity this brings to scholarship.

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Thinking through Recent German Scholarship on the Roman Republic

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