- Rome After Sulla by J. Alison Rosenblitt
In 63 bc an elderly senator was plucked from relative obscurity and thrust into the center of Roman political life. He was accused of perduellio, treason against the state. C. Rabirius was to be tried before duumviri perduellionis, a seemingly cruel process that would have allowed the urban praetor to elect two individuals in effect to sentence him to death. In his life of Caesar, Suetonius tells us quite clearly who was behind it, and why, painting it as little more than a political ploy. Cicero and Hortensius defended Rabirius, and Cicero’s Pro Rabirio Perduellionis Reo became a staple tool with which to teach future orators. This is the traditional interpretation of events, placing Rabirius as the unwitting and aged victim in the acerbic political infighting of the 60s bc. Rosenblitt opens her book with this example, and in so doing urges us not to follow blindly what has been written before, but instead to look anew at these familiar narratives and moments of the late Republic. In a rather provocative and unsettling allusion Rosenblitt joins together the trial of Rabirius with that of Edgar Ray Killen in 2005. Killen was a Klansman, a preacher, and the figure behind the murder of three civil rights activists on June 21 1964. This was during the Freedom Summer, and his case further involved collusion with local police and the mobilization of Klansmen in the area. Some 41 years separated the crime and the successful conviction (for manslaughter; not murder). Through this comparison, uncomfortable as it may be, we are forced to reckon with the crime that lies at the heart of the Rabirius case: the killing of the tribune L. Appuleius Saturninus in 100 bc. The parallel here lies not just in the mob violence, or the murder of those challenging power, but in the fact that both Rabirius and Killen were known to have been involved in, or behind, these attacks for many years before they faced justice. Would we be so willing to regard Rabirius as simply an aged senator prosecuted for contemporary political show if he was transposed from Rome to twentieth century Mississippi? And if the crime was not motivated by class but instead by race?
This is a book that is unafraid to ask difficult questions of the late Republic, and to provide often nuanced explorations of the important moments and sources that shape our understanding of this period. At the core of the work is the argument that “Sulla’s settlement of Rome was never stable, and that the instability and insecurity of his settlement were felt almost immediately after he laid down formal power” (1). This is largely well developed and defended, and the use of Sallust as a guide to this world is excellent throughout. The book is divided into three sections. The first looks to 80–79 bc (“Negotiating the End of Sulla”; 17–44), with a detailed and in parts eloquent analysis of Cicero’s Pro Roscio. The careful investigation demonstrates how Roman society was still reeling from Sulla’s dominance, and from the terrible uncertainty surrounding the future of the Republic (chapter 2)—uncertainties reinforced by the ambiguity surrounding the families of those who had been proscribed (chapter 3). The second section turns to M. Aemilius Lepidus, and suggests a much greater importance to these events and the figure behind them (“Counter-revolution”; 45–92). The third section is arguably the strongest in the volume (“Sallust and the Political Culture of Rome After Sulla”; 93–140). Here, Rosenblitt focuses on Sallust’s Historiae, offering a persuasive interpretation of the writer, his work, and the instability and trauma still visible in Roman political culture. Every chapter in [End Page 109] this section is first-rate, guided by close analysis of the evidence, and an ability to place this against the diversely shifting narrative(s) of the late Republic.
There are some issues in the book. The structure is not always as clear as needed to fully...