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Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late…

Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late Roman Republic

by Robert Morstein-Marx

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I can't vouch for accuracy since I'm not a professional historian, but as a layman interested in political history I can say that this is one of the best history books I've read in recent years.

Students of the Roman Republic know that it's hard to label its government "democratic" without stretching the concept beyond reasonable limits (Fergus Millar's The Crowd in the Late Roman Republic is one attempt to apply that label). Many elements of Republican politics seem to lie much closer to "aristocracy", but the meaning of that word is contestable as well. In any event, this book deals with the republican "contio" institution, the public meeting where members of the Senate presented and debated political matters in front of a group of citizens prior to legislative votes and elections. It is perhaps the institution where the interplay between the democratic and aristocratic aspects of Roman republican government can best be investigated.

Sorting out the relationship between people and senate, and between citizens' common knowledge and senators' inside knowledge, the author argues that neither social facts nor ideological preferences were centrally important in contional debates. Opposite views on society seldom clashed. What mattered more was the perceived credibility and trustworthiness of the senatorial speakers. In seeking the required public support, a senator's first priority was to emphasize his credentials as a benefactor of the people and to discredit his opponent. The contio was by and large the only source of public political information, so a senator's word in the contio was pretty much the only thing the public could appraise.

The intentions expressed by a senator in the contio often differed widely from what he thought in private and what he actually did in the senate. The author takes Cicero as an example. The secrecy of the senate made it impossible for citizens to know anything about his agenda behind closed doors. This is evident from the contrasts between his speeches in the contio and the senate. But even from such a disadvantaged position, the people were not just blindly led wherever senators wanted them to go. There was actual competition for public support between rival senators. The author writes that the Roman people were, in their own way, well informed (as judges of character, not fact). A failure to convince citizens in the contio foreshadowed bad results in the ensuing vote.

All in all the picture that emerges is that of a unique but ossified political system. Roman public debate did not lead to institutional reform even though political crises were so frequent in the late Republic. Of course there's more to the story than this book reveals. The internal politics of the senate are (naturally) given only a peripheral role in this study.

But I do strongly recommend this book to everyone interested in the history of government. I liked the author's reflections on modern political thought (the ideals of deliberative democracy) and modern government (the role of news media), but also the fact that the comparisons were not overdone. The writing is lucid throughout the book and the selected quotations hit the spot perfectly. The arguments are built up in a clear manner, moving from broad considerations down to a variety of more detailed examples. After reading this book you will not only know one aspect of the Roman Republic well, you will also look at modern democracy from a new, historically informed perspective. What more can you ask for?
  thcson | Dec 12, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0521823277, Hardcover)

Examining how public political discourse influenced the distribution of power between the Senate and people in the Late Roman Republic (133-42 BC), this work analyzes comprehensively the "ideology" of Republican mass oratory. Robert Morstein-Marx analyzes it within the institutional, historical and physical contexts of the public meetings in which these speeches were heard. Morstein-Marx emphasizes the perpetual negotiation and reproduction of power through communication.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:34 -0400)

This book examines how public, political discourse shaped the distribution of power between Senate and People in the Late Roman Republic. The 'ideology' of Republican mass oratory is analyzed comprehensively and situated fully within the institutional, historical and physical contexts of the public meetings in which these speeches were heard.… (more)

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