- Public Opinion and Politics in the Late Roman Republic by Cristina Rosillo-López
Rosillo-López’s book continues a long-running discussion about communication and public participation in the Roman Republic. (For an overview of the debate, see M. Jehne, “Methods, Models, and Historiography,” in N. S. Rosenstein and R. Morstein-Marx (eds.), A Companion to the Roman Republic [Malden MA, 2006].) Rosillo-López inserts public opinion into a discussion that has heretofore focused on public oration, and she does so by arguing that politicians made decisions based on perceived public opinion. Her case is, first, that Habermasian public opinion did exist in Rome; and, second, that politicians like Cicero used public opinion to silence dissent and draw support from their peers. She supports her argument with short case studies, mostly taken from Cicero’s career.
Rosillo-López gives a description of public opinion that requires there to be an issue that inspires a significant number of people to have an opinion and assert it. To demonstrate that such a culture existed in Rome, she devotes two chapters to defining and describing a new category of “political literature.” These are works that have immediate bearing on current affairs, feature either critique or praise of a person or situation, have a clear political objective, were widely circulated, might be anonymous, and must be textual. This definition is so broad as to include almost anything surviving from the Republic. While the breadth of the category makes it cumbersome to study as a unit, it nevertheless also facilitates Rosillo-López’s argument that public opinion existed. If it is agreed that the Philippics, Catullus, triumphal chants, and graffiti can all coexist on the same continuum of political literature, then it follows that even the Roman masses engaged in public opinion.
The book suffers from two minor weaknesses: organization and source materials. The book is divided into eight chapters and a short introduction. The first chapter begins with a discussion of Roman attitudes towards gossip and the Latin vocabulary for it. This discussion is then shelved for the rest of the chapter until it is revived in chapter 3 in an overview of modern scholarship on gossip. The discussion of Latin vocabulary is thus divorced from a discussion of modern scholarly terms used to discuss gossip and rumor. Likewise, the second chapter discusses the spaces in which Romans socialized, and the sixth chapter considers the people responsible for spreading rumors in the city. These are best taken together instead of being separated by overviews of scholarship on gossip and the discussion of political literature. Finally, chapter 6, on the people who share gossip, separates chapter 7, on oratory and public opinion, from chapters 4 and 5, on political literature, with which it has more in common. For a full view of [End Page 274] a single issue such as political literature or the way in which rumors and gossip might spread in Rome, the reader needs to jump chapters.
Rosillo-López’s issues with sources are akin to those that plague any scholar of Roman history, but she makes decisions that weaken her ability to use the best materials. When she discusses pamphlets, for example, she relies on Suetonius’ (at best) secondhand account of pamphlets that circulated about Julius Caesar, even though she could have used Cicero’s Philippics or drawn on late-Republican authors who discussed pamphlets. Her case studies are often short and presuppose a well-informed reader. Rosillo-López relies too much on old anthropological studies of rumor and gossip that have long since been expanded upon in sociology and social-networking theory.1 Her promised use of the spatial turn in archaeology is limited to just the second chapter.2
Rosillo-López’s book is meant for scholars. She alludes to historical debates and authors without giving details and assumes a clear understanding of the historical background of the late Republic. This is a solid addition to the debate...