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The Study of Republican Rome and (the Phantom Menace of) the German ‘Sonderforschungsbereich’

Hans Beck

The recent knowledge advancement in Roman Republican studies has been due to a vivid, vibrant international scholarly debate. Yet despite the close exchange between scholars and students from both sides of the Atlantic, and elsewhere, there are noticeable fracture zones. Indeed, since the days of Gelzer and Syme, one such ridge runs through the exchange between scholars in the Anglophone world and those in German speaking academia. It does not emerge from ill intend or ignorance, but largely from the different trajectories of divergent university cultures. In my paper, I will argue that today the institution of the German ‘Sonderforschungsbereich’ (“Special Research Cluster”) poses a formidable challenge to Anglophone scholarship. All semantic differences aside, it nourishes an imbalance of the engagement in conceptual debates.

The semantic gap between English and German has been noted by many. For instance, terms such as ‘Gehorsamstiefe’ (“depth of obedience,” Christian Meier) or ‘Jovialitätsgebot’ (“theatrical equiponderance,” Martin Jehne) that have become landmark labels in the conceptualization of Roman politics, are notoriously hard to integrate into Anglophone scholarship. But there is more at stake than translation. Each of these terms may build on divergent semantic connotations, but the true divide comes from their charge with scholarly paradigms that are in and of themselves the result of very broad trans-disciplinary research operations. The organization of those operations in Special Research Clusters is unmatched in the Anglophone world, their imprint on the Humanities and Social Sciences immense.

I will flesh out the consequences in the second section of my talk, drawing on the paradigm of different forms of capitals, and on how this is appreciated in German and Anglophone scholarship. The notion of capitals is seemingly unsuspicious; its basic meaning, after Bourdieu, by and large well understood. In German academia, reference to symbolic capital in particular has led to an in-depth conceptual as well as methodological debate (spearheaded by Karl-J. Hölkeskamp). Coinciding with the trends of the cultural and memorial turns, this has triggered an at-large exploration of the symbolic dimension of politics as well as its inherent semiotics. Anglophone scholarship is reluctant to subscribe to the implicit hierarchy of concepts that follow from such a research emphasis (note how the major companions to the Roman Republic are generally unimpressed by the approach). In German scholarship, on the other hand, the importance of all other forms of Bourdieu’s capitals appears to have disappeared from the radar. As I will hope to show, future investigations, for instance on the importance of economic capitals and material assets, will benefit both from closer conceptual exchange and their meaningful, balanced application.

Session/Panel Title

Thinking through Recent German Scholarship on the Roman Republic

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