A Critique of Klaus Bringmann’s A History of the Roman Republic

In A History of the Roman Republic, Klaus Bringmann discusses in detail the characteristics of and changes in Roman politics and imperialism over the Republican era. His book therefore provides a complex and broad historical analysis of the nature of Roman politics and the Roman military system. However, a shortcoming of Bringmann’s book is the sparse attention given to analyzing all aspects of Roman society and culture and their development through the Republican era. While Bringmann does preface his book stipulating that it is an “account of the political history of the Republic,” he acknowledges that “the economic and social fields and… the phenomena of religion, acculturation, and mentalities” (Bringmann viii) must be taken into consideration. He does devote some energy to discussing them, but does so in a political context; his uses his descriptions of Roman culture, for example, to explain larger political circumstances but not to provide a deep understanding of Roman society itself. As a result, I would argue that Bringmann’s analysis is not comprehensive enough to provide the broad and multifaceted understanding of the Roman state that “a history of the Roman Republic” would entail.

I have noticed that authors of historical narratives and analyses, particularly those of the classical era, focus their energy primarily on the political activities of elite classes and the particulars of military campaigns. As a result, they frequently neglect the lives, struggles, and characteristics of the common people. By only studying the elites of a society or the particulars of their warfare, a woefully inadequate picture of that society is presented. A historian studying the United States, for example, would not come close to describing the history and historical character of America by only focusing on its wars and Congress. The common people of Ancient Rome, regardless of how much influence they had on the historical process, were nonetheless a major part of history. Any true understanding of Rome’s history necessitates a deep knowledge of Roman culture and society, both that of the elites and the masses, which Bringmann’s book falls far short of providing.

The majority of Bringmann’s book details the development of Roman politics and Rome’s growing empire, and in this analysis his writing shines. However, only three chapters specifically focus on issues in Roman society and culture.  Specifically, Bri*ngmann discusses the Hellenization of Roman culture in the 2nd century BCE, the development of a monetary economy and its impacts, and the late-2nd century agrarian crisis. These chapters make up merely 33 of the book’s 321 pages, hardly significant compared to the breadth of analysis Bringmann devotes to Roman politics and conquests.

In his discussion of the Hellenization of Roman culture, Bringmann does discuss in some depth the character of Roman art, theater, and religion after contact with the Hellenic world. Yet this discussion makes up only a small part of this chapter, which focuses more prominently on the political consequences of Hellenization and the subsequent political struggles between the Hellenized elements of the Roman elite, such as the Scipios, and conservatives such as Cato the Elder. Bringmann fails to discuss the character of Roman art and culture prior to its Hellenization and neglects to detail what that art and theater actually looked like or said. His analysis falls short of providing insight into the culture itself, but rather simply acknowledges that changes in the culture corresponded with changes in politics. For example, he discusses the Bacchanalian affair by reporting on how the senate responded, but does not actual lay out what the Bacchanalian cult itself did or its context in larger Roman society.

Bringmann, in his chapter on the development of the monetary economy, addresses the consequences that minted currency brought to Roman politics. He does analyze the nature of Roman economics, mentioning the Roman transition from a barter-based, agrarian society into one involving finances and trade. Yet this analysis is limited to the economic activities of the equestrian and senatorial classes, admittedly the two primary economic forces in the Roman Republic but also both parts of the elite. He neglects to discuss the economic circumstances of the proletariat and small landowners. Bringmann also discusses the manner in which money began to influence and corrupt Roman politics, and touches upon the war debts that were accrued in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. There are parts of this chapter which provide interesting archeological insights and allow for a broader view on the Roman economy. Bringmann talks about the changing weights and value of Roman currency, and numerous images of Roman coinage are featured.

The chapter on the agrarian crisis of the 2nd century provides interesting insights into the nature of landownership and property rights in the Roman Republic, but is largely limited to their characteristics during the 2nd century. Bringmann’s analysis of property ownership is, again, largely limited to that of the elite classes and neglects a discussion of the lower classes and the nature of their property. Additionally, he does not provide much in the way of demonstrating how property ownership developed and changed in the centuries leading up to the agrarian crisis. His analysis mostly puts the political issues associated with landownership into context, and is therefore largely a discussion of the political rather than economic consequences. Indeed, this chapter serves more as background to his following chapters on the Gracchi than it does as an analysis of economics in Rome.

It must be acknowledged that Bringmann, in the first chapter of his book which details the origins of the Latin people, the foundation of the city of Rome, and the establishment of the Roman political order, does excel in his analysis of Roman society. He draws heavily from archeological data, presenting and discussing these archeological findings in the text, and lays out in detail the development and characteristics of archaic Roman society and culture. Yet to a degree it seems as though Bringmann has no choice but to provide a detailed analysis of Roman culture in this chapter, for he must describe the foundation of the city of Rome, which involved changes in settlement and cultural patterns, and the underlying social conditions of Italy before he can begin his narrative on Roman politics. Furthermore, there are very few, if any, primary sources contemporary to this time, and he must therefore rely upon the use of archeological data and broad cultural analysis to detail the developments of this time. Once his political narrative begins, however, he does not return to the deeply analytical discourse on culture that he provided in this chapter.

Bringmann does not entirely neglect Roman culture and society, though his analysis of them is intended to give context to Roman politics rather than actually discuss the culture itself. Perhaps such a criticism is overly harsh if Bringmann intended his book to be read as only a narrative of Rome’s political and military history, and as a student of history particularly interested in these aspects of Republican Rome, I found myself thoroughly enjoying it. Yet, as mentioned at the beginning of this critique, a true understanding of any historical civilization requires not only knowledge of its politics and military conquests but also knowledge of its culture, its society, and the lifestyle of both the elites and the masses. Again, Bringmann does not provide this, and I therefore felt his history was not the comprehensive analysis of Rome that it is touted as being.

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