Rise of the Early Roman Republic

A discussion on Roman “civism” by Thomas L. Dynneson

Any book that attempts to understand Early Rome is fraught with difficulty; some sink while others float. Thomas Dynneson’s work may be found somewhere in between.

Written by Joshua R. Hall on

I want to open this review of Rise of the Early Roman Republic: Reflections on Becoming Roman (2018) with an apology to both Thomas Dynneson and the publisher, Peter Lang. I have been sitting on this book since February. I normally try to get my reviews written in a shorter period than this.

But, in this case, the delay is because I have tried to craft a response to this volume which does it justice, while articulating a number of serious problems that I find with it.

As a result, I have decided to write this review in two parts. The first will be a brief summary of the chapters. The second will be a critical review from the perspective of a specialist on Early Rome.

Summary

The book opens with a lengthy preface (pp. xi-xxii) and introduction (pp. xxiii-xxxi). In the former, it is made evident that the volume under review fits into a series, also written by Dynneson, which looks at “civism” in various cultures. These other works include City-State Civism in Ancient Greece: Its Real and Ideal Expressions (2008) and Civism: Cultivating Citizenship in European History (2000), both also published by Peter Lang.

In full disclosure, I have not read either of these. But, according to the introduction of Early Roman Republic, “civism” was “developed as a concept, as well as a means, to help explain the growing complexities that contributed to the development of western civilization” (p. xiii). This immediately raised a red-flag in my mind, but I continued on.

Phrased in a less West-centred way, Dynneson goes on to repeat a definition of the concept from an earlier book, thus civism is “the means used by society and/or the state to cultivate the principles of the idealized citizen.” Although the author goes on to further discuss the concept, this seems to be the most distilled definition. And it is with this version of the concept that I moved forward in my reviewing of this book.

Dynneson’s introduction gives a bit of historical foundation to readers regarding the period his later analysis will cover. He primarily discusses issues of citizenship and “civism”, and touches on the topics of colonization and warfare. The latter is rightly pointed to as a Roman means of “economic development” through “garnering booty (…) that would have the effect of creating great wealth for the nobles” (p. xxx).

Eagerly moving from the introduction into the main body of the book, I was soon put off. Unfortunately for the author, the first sentence of his book reads thusly: “Despite the problem with sources, Plutarch suggests that I may have been acquainted with and influenced by the teachings of Pythagoras of Samos, but both Livy and Plutarch dismiss this claim because of the timeframe, or because of an apparent chronological problem” (p. 3).

It was fairly easy for me to deduce that the “I” in that sentence was meant to be “Numa Pompilius”, as that is the title of Chapter One, and that legendary second king is mentioned in the next line. The chapter then goes on to discuss the reforms and beliefs attributed to Numa. Much of this is fairly straightforward, and besides attributing these to a historical “Numa”, Dynneson’s discussion is not that out of line with most modern scholars. Although his approach is not a critical one, he does cover the significant issues typically ascribed to the king’s reign.

This is, except, in a theory he proposes regarding the transference of philosophy between Regal Rome and Classical Greece. He claims that “Numa’s personal life and life as the king of Rome seems to anticipate the work of both Plato and Aristotle (…) [but there] can be no direct line of influence between them other than in a mythological sense.” The section goes on to ask and answer the rhetorical question of “whether or not Plato and Aristotle possibly might have learned of the rule of Numa through influences flowing from Italy to Greece” via the Pythagoreans (p. 5).

While this is possible it seems rather improbable that the beliefs and behaviours of an early Roman king influenced Pythagoras and his followers and then both Plato and Aristotle. If this was the case, we would expect to find the name Numa, or perhaps a more realistic person, mentioned somewhere in the existing Greek philosophical texts.

The second chapter looks at Roman religion in a very broad sense. It covers religious practice and the nature of the gods. As would be expected, there is overlap with the first chapter, as Numa is so deeply connected to Roman religion. This leaves me asking the question: would it have been better to combine these? I am afraid that I always reach the conclusion of “yes.” It also would help readers to make sense of the line in Chapter One, which reads “Related to religion is Jan N. Bremmer’s ‘The Roman aetiological myths,’ in which he describes the myths of the shields falling into Numa’s hands and the religious interpretations that follow” (p. 14) which is then described in more detail in the second chapter (p. 25).

Dynneson’s overview of Roman religion is very broad, eliding many details, and overlooking details of historical development and context. Within his conclusion, however, his main point can be found, that “religion became a shaping force of civic behavior” (p. 30). While this is well-said, and certainly true of Rome, it seems like it can be said of almost any civilization. Thus we find Bruce Trigger saying that in “early civilizations the struggle to protect local and individual rights of subjects against increasing exploitation by kings, government officials, and individual members of the upper classes was conducted primarily in a religious idiom.”Show B. Trigger, Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study (2003), p. 493.

The third chapter looks at the ties between landscape and civic identity. It is an interesting discussion which begins with an overview of the connections between landscapes and the formation of identities and then moves into a number of site-specific examinations. Amongst the latter are things such as the Pomerium, the Forum, and the Capitol.

Dynneson’s concluding remarks for this chapter, however, are problematic. He argues that citizenship was “restricted and exclusive” in ancient city-states, noting that it “was a very selective and restricted group of men, who were required to serve in hoplite military units related to a specific brotherhood or curia” (p. 52). Continuing on with this line of thinking, we read that “most individuals that migrated to Rome from various cities of Latium did not possess citizenship status, although they and their relatives were residents of Rome” (p. 53). These conclusions seem much more in-line with thinking on Greek poleis than on Early Rome.

We really know very little about how citizenship was thought of in the archaic Roman state, and a jejune discussion such as Dynneson’s overlooks most of these problems. For instance, the conclusion that most people who came to Rome from the surrounding area were not considered citizens has no basis in the evidence for Early Rome. Once Rome began to expand, questions of citizenship became more complex and we know a bit more about it. But for earlier periods, we cannot say definitively that this was the case. Dynneson does point to familial connections as being important for citizenship rights, which probably holds some truth (e.g. the migration of the Claudii in Livy 2.16), but we do not know enough to say that these connections were always necessary to be a citizen.

Chapter four covers Roman “virtue” (read: virtus). He underlines the militaristic nature of Roman “manliness” which I think is warranted. He also includes discussions of three individuals: Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, Publius Horatius Cocles, and Gaius Mucius Scaevola (pp. 65-69). Dynneson rightly notes that “noble youth were told about the exploits of the family patriarchs who had won glory and honor for the family in the past” and that “every youth was inspired to demonstrate their manliness, as an aspect of their citizenship” (p. 72).

Dynneson then moves on, in his fifth chapter, to discussing the Rape of Lucretia and the other legends surrounding the birth of the Republic. The discussion of the evidence is fairly standard.

The sixth chapter is about Roman education. After two pages of a general introduction to ancient education (though not in much detail), the author’s narrative gets derailed (as it often does). Under the heading “Origins of Roman Education,” Dynneson simply talks about agrarian traditions in Roman culture (pp. 92-93). The chapter then moves on to an overview of educational aims, such as instruction in manliness or religion.

No citations to primary sources are given (as is common in the book), and some of his statements are certainly based in later Roman practice that he has found in a modern historical work. He cites Livy 3.44 that there were school booths near the Forum. Eruditely, however, in his conclusion for this chapter, Dynneson points to funeral orations as being “instructive lessons… for those in attendance were reminded of sacrifice and service to state,” at least in the case of those who had served the state honorably (p. 102).

We now move into Part Two of the book. Chapter seven deals with foundation myths and “reality.” Given the latter’s inclusion, one wonders why archaeological evidence is entirely neglected. The eighth chapter provides summaries of the reigns of the seven kings of Rome. I am bewildered by the last line of the “Related Chapter Sources” section here, which reads “In general, most works by “important” presses that present chapters by multiple authors, tend to, at times, contain a chapter on the Regal Period, but most do not” (p. 141). There seems to be some confusion as to what the author is trying to say.

Chapter nine is entitled “Tribalism and Civilization.” Its opening paragraphs are interesting, in a way. Dynneson begins by noting that “tribalism was not conducive to complex social living in an urban setting,” noting that “by its nature, tribalism does not make allowances for the formation of an inclusive society,” and that “even today, this fact rears its head in the form of tribal warfare, as seen in Rwanda in Africa in 1994” (p. 142). I think that this comparison is a bit reckless and unneeded.

Dynneson goes on to discuss tribalism as a concept. The history of this is outside of my expertise to comment upon. Although, I am sure that Robin Fox will be surprised to find that he is twice referred to as a woman (pp. 145 and 156). He may also be dismayed to have been merged in the bibliography with classicist Robin Lane Fox (p. 364). This chapter goes on to discuss the dichotomy between individualism and collectivism in tribal societies, including Rome.

Part Three comes next, which includes four chapters on different peoples with whom Early Rome came into contact. These are: the Etruscans (chapter ten), the Greeks of Magna Graecia (chapter eleven), the Carthaginians (chapter twelve), and the Celts (chapter thirteen). These are very broad overviews with short sections discussing their connections and contributions to Roman society.

Part four again consists of four chapters. These look at the patricians (fourteen), the plebs (fifteen), “the Comitia Curiata and the Hoplite” (sixteen), and “Servius and the Rise of the Roman City-State” (seventeen). These chapters cover the social struggles of Early Rome, or the non-existence of one, as Dynneson follows Mitchell (1990) in thinking that the “Struggle of the Orders” was largely (or entirely) fabricated. His conclusion in the first of these chapters that “the emergence of the city-state at Rome was based on the introduction of the hoplite military system” is antiquated (p. 259), as explained below.

The discussion and argument of these chapters may be interesting if the author had gone to the primary sources. As it stands, however, Dynneson relies on the conclusions of modern scholars which at times makes the narrative difficult to follow, or trust.

The final section of the book is the general conclusion, dealt with at the end of the next part of my review.

My perspective

This part of the review is from my perspective as an expert on Early Rome. I will address more general problems as well as a few specific instances where I think Dynneson’s interpretation is flawed.

My first, and perhaps most important, complaint from the perspective of a historian is that Dynneson seems to have relied heavily on modern scholars’ interpretation of primary sources, while not consulting these himself. Of course, I cannot actually speak for his process, but ancient authors are rarely cited and conclusions are drawn almost exclusively from the perspectives of modern works. This may not seem like a significant problem for some lay readers, but to a historian this is extremely problematic. Without an intimate understanding of the sources themselves, and reflective contemplation of them, it is impossible to really understand the period, or at least what later Romans thought of the period.

This culminates in worrying declarations that betray a very loose relationship between Dynneson and his source material. Statements such as this should have given peer-reviewers concern: “In addition to the ancient sources, historians have included material on [Roman] religion as early as Cicero, and many others down through the ages” (p. 33). These are compared with the earlier mentioned authors, Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and Plutarch. I find it absurd to describe these three authors as “the ancient sources” in comparison to Cicero who was consul before Dionysius was born and sometime around the year of Livy’s birth, and who died at least one-hundred years before Plutarch was even born!

It is surprising, in light of the reliance on secondary sources, and given the period and topic under examination, that there is not a single non-anglophone entry in the bibliography. As the author wanted to examine civic identities, I am flabbergasted to not find in the bibliography Stéphane Bourdin’s Les peuples de l’Italie préromaine. Identités, territoires et relations inter-ethniques en Italie centrale et septentrionale (VIIIe-Ier s. ac. J.-C.) (2012), or even Carmine Ampolo’s “La città riformata e l’organizzazione centuriata. Lo spazio, il tempo, il sacro nella nuova realtà urbana,”Show Now available in A. Giardina and A. Schiavone, Storia di Roma (1999), pp.49-85. among many others. Dynneson’s thinking on certain topics, especially the function of Roman gentes and the curiae would have been enhanced by consulting Christopher Smith’s The Roman Clan: The Gens from Ancient Ideology to Modern Anthropology (2006).

The reliance on modern works, rather than ancient evidence, led Dynneson to almost copy lines from the authors he read. Take for instance this passage from chapter sixteen juxtaposed to that from one of his most-cited sources. In discussing the names of the Roman gentes, Dynneson’s sentence reads “names also were associated with geographical regions and also specific geographical features (Oppius, Caelius, Vibennius, and so forth)” (p. 285). While R.E. Mitchell wrote “names are associated with obvious regions or with geographical features – Oppius, Caelius, and Vibennius – but the origins of most names remains obscure.”Show R.E. Mitchell, Patricians and Plebians: The Origin of the Roman State (1990), p. 50. It should be noted that in Dynneson’s book this line, and its paragraph, feels like a non-sequitur and that it belongs in the previous section of the chapter.

There are too many places where either confusion or misunderstanding hampers the author’s arguments to single out all of them. There are a few passages, however, that I would like to point out as examples (although I will admit these were chosen fairly arbitrarily).

The first is in the “Reflections on Becoming Roman” section of chapter eleven, The Hellenes of Magna Graecia. The third paragraph begins with “Caere (Kyme)” (p. 200). It appears that Dynneson is trying to clear up for his reader that the Etruscan city of Caere was known by other names, however Kyme is not one of them. Kyme is the Greek spelling of Cumae, a city on the Bay of Naples. Rather, Hellenic authors referred to Caere (Etruscan Cisra) as Agylla.Show e.g. by Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, etc.

In this paragraph, the author goes on to say (pp. 200-201):

Because the Tiber River was an ideal commercial highway for moving goods inland from the coast, the Romans soon realized that control of Tiber River was essential for their economic wellbeing. Rome, more than any other city, was in a position to become “the emporium” of central Italy. This recognition was exemplified when the first gifts to Olympian Zeus included some gifts from Italian cities that also established treasuries at the temple of Delphi, and also when Romans applied to the oracle at Delphi to resolve some pressing religious questions.

It could be argued that Rome’s position at a ford in the Tiber, somewhat near the coast, and on the North-South road did position it well for participating in trans-Mediterranean trade, but the evidence from the coastal cities of Etruria should make us wary of saying Rome was in a position to become the preeminent trading city. Beyond this, however, the sentence which beings “this recognition” is completely nonsensical. Assuming that the Romans did presume to be the most important traders, and in possession of the most economically valuable plot of land in central Italy, why would it be exemplified by “first gifts” to “Olympian Zeus” donated by a number of Italian cities at Delphi, a sacred complex dedicated to Apollo?

Dynneson speaks often about hoplites, at one point noting that “Early Roman aristocratic citizenship was based on a hoplite military mentality (a phalanx mentality related to the idea of a heavily armored interlocked infantry formation armed with lances, short swords, shields and armored leg grieves)” (p. 258). Given recent reconsiderations of what “hoplite warfare” was, and how warfare impacted social structure in Archaic and Classical Greece, this conclusion feels rather uninformed. No reference will be found in the bibliography to skeptical historians of Hellenic warfare (such as van Wees, Rawlings, or Krentz), or even updated studies which are more supportive of the “hoplite orthodoxy”.Show For instance, a number of the articles in D. Kagan and G.F. Viggiano (eds), Men of Bronze: Hoplite Warfare in Ancient Greece (2013).

Readers will also be confused by this passage from chapter eighteen (pp. 319-320):

The early “constitution” of Rome also reflected a confusing set of checks and balances in which decisions were easily nullified by an opposing political force. The “constitution” reflected a division of powers, which was aimed at protecting liberties, but led to military disasters such as the Battle of Cannae. In this battle the Roman forces under the dictator Fabius allowed the forces of Hannibal to defeat the Romans. The Roman forces under the dictator Fabius Maximus attempted to defeat the Carthaginians through a war of attrition, which allowed the forces of Hannibal to regroup. The strategy of Fabius created confusion and division among Roman political leaders, which then brought on a constitutional crisis in which Fabius was finally replaced.

To begin with, Fabius Maximus was not the commander at Cannae. This dishonor falls to either Gaius Terentius Varro, traditionally blamed for the disaster, or Lucius Aemilius Paullus.Show On the Roman command at Cannae, see G. Daly, Cannae: The Experience of Battle in the Second Punic War (2002), pp. 119-123. These two were the consuls at the time; Fabius had not been dictator for some time. It seems that Dynneson has confused the political disagreement about Fabius’ strategy of delay and attrition for the defeat at Cannae, although I cannot say for sure. As well, it is an exaggeration to say that the aftermath of Fabius’ campaign was a “constitutional crisis” and is simply one of many examples of Roman political tensions.

Unfortunately, these are only some of the historical problems of the book, and I have neither the time nor the patience to discuss all of them.

In terms of analysis and drawing new conclusions about the development of the Roman state, civic structure, or civic identity, the volume adds little. The individual chapters are essentially just summaries of the author’s thoughts on certain topics, but without the proposition of new ideas. In fact, much of what Dynneson concludes can be seen as outdated, or at least controversial. This is because he has formed his understanding of Early Rome primarily from Richard E. Mitchell’s Patricians and Plebians: The Origin of the Roman State (1990). While this is an interesting volume, many of its theses are contentious and it should probably not be the main source of an author’s knowledge.

I had hoped that the general conclusions would provide an insightful summary and interjection of some fresh takes on early Roman history, but I was disappointed. It begins with a wandering discussion of Aristotelian philosophical and political thoughts (pp. 339-341). Dynneson then goes on to discuss some of what had been earlier in the book, such as the essential place that myth and legend played in the formation of Roman identity, the importance of religion in Early Roman life and civic culture, and the importance of military virtues to Roman identity.

Conclusions

As a general conclusion, I have to say that I was disappointed in this book. It reads as a first draft. Many of the ideas are only half-explained, and there is considerable overlap in discussion throughout. A few chapters could easily have been merged to make it a more coherent read. The argumentation is not well-developed and is hard to follow at points. This could have been cleared up, in parts, by references to primary sources.

This is, in part, because there seems to be a nebulous chronological setting for the discussion. While Dynneson speaks of the evolving nature of Roman civic identity and society, he eschews any real discussion of how this developed.

Additionally, there are far too many typographical errors in this volume; this, of course, is to be blamed on the editor and not the author. The constant, and at points seemingly random, italicization of words is also rather distracting.

There could be some instances where I would recommend someone read this book, although I am not entirely sure what these would be. It certainly should not be the first work someone goes to to learn about Early Rome. For specialists in other disciplines wanting information on Roman politics and civic culture, it is also not recommended. What further stops me from recommending it to anyone, is the price point. At €125.00 (exclusive of VAT) or £100.00, or $149.95 (USD), this book is wildly overpriced. For this, of course, I do not blame the author; this is a symptom of modern academic publishing.

Most of my complaints with this book are historical, but I do wish to raise one from the perspective of someone wishing to study Roman “civism”. I did not get a coherent picture of what this was from this volume. The discussions about the various aspects of Roman society are not new and are better articulated by other classicists and ancient historians. If readers are interested in Early Rome, I would instead recommend Kathryn Lomas’ recent The Rise of Rome: From the Iron Age to the Punic Wars (2017).