- The Laws of the Roman People: Public Law in the Expansion and Decline of the Roman Republic
Laws enacted by citizen assemblies occupy a prominent place in the history of the Roman Republic. In this large book, Williamson aims to examine the culture and practices of lawmaking and to link legislation to Roman expansion over Italy and to the creation of structures of accommodation of sufficient strength to allow the formation of a fairly integrated Italian world. Williamson has set a large task for herself, one that addresses many major themes in Roman history, and she has produced a wide-ranging and complicated argument that should be set out in detail.
The book is divided into three broad parts, each made up of three substantial chapters. Part 1 is the core. In the first chapter, Williamson addresses change over time in the frequency of legislative assemblies, the relationship between frequency of lawmaking and periods of crisis, and the functions of public lawmaking. She finds that legislative activity was concentrated in times of crisis, but that the number of laws proposed or enacted in non-crisis years increased markedly from the third to the first centuries and that Roman officeholders proposed laws primarily in instances where the matter was controversial, suggesting that the primary function of lawmaking through popular assemblies was a legitimizing one in just those circumstances where the legitimacy of an action might be questioned.
In general, these conclusions are possible and, in some cases, probable, [End Page 469] but they rest on foundations that are not as firm as one would like. Williamson's demonstration centers on a collection of laws and proposed laws from c. 350 to 44 B.C.E., which she has arranged chronologically in twenty-five-year segments that furnish the means to discern changes over time and that, in later chapters, provide the essential temporal structure to integrate lawmaking with a wide range of developments. In appendix B, intended to justify her approach, she acknowledges and dismisses two potential sources of error: the possible use of a statistically invalid sampling procedure and the possible bias introduced by the differing interests of the authors who provide the bulk of the evidence: Cicero, Livy, Cassius Dio, Appian, Plutarch, and Polybius. Yet there is another possibility that Williamson does not consider. Our sources certainly favor some periods over others. Thus, historical accounts become fuller for the Second Punic War and as they approach the first century, just the periods that supposedly exhibit clear signs of an increase in legislative activity. We may know of more laws or proposed laws in periods of war and political conflict than in times of peace, not only because more laws were put forward then but also because such times attracted more interest on the part of historians. Finally, substantial portions of the texts of Livy, Dio Cassius, and Polybius are lost, and the gaps cover much of the third and second centuries. The evidence, then, is extremely uneven over time.
One way that Williamson uses the evidence is especially problematic. She notes that three methods of enacting programs or regulations existed simultaneously: magisterial edicts, senatorial decrees, and popular legislation. Since she finds that the kinds of matters addressed in legislation are indistinguishable from the range of issues addressed by the senate, she concludes that, to some extent, it was a matter of choice whether a magistrate went to the senate or to the people for authorization. Thus, when a proposal was moved forward by a law rather than by an edict or senatorial decree, she suggests that the measure was probably controversial and required the legitimizing function of a popular assembly. Unfortunately, our sources often fail to set out clearly just what procedures a magistrate followed. Sometimes, as Williamson notes, a senatorial decree and the proposal of legislation mark successive stages in the legislative process. And certain operations, such as the creation of provincial assignments or promagistracies, could be addressed...