Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2020.01.10 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2020.01.10

Paul Chrystal, Rome: Republic into Empire, The Civil Wars of the First Century BCE.   Barnsley:  Pen & Sword Books, 2019.  Pp. 243.  ISBN 9781526710093.  $39.95.  

Reviewed by Anthony Smart, York St John University (

The end of the Roman Republic is a subject that attracts strong argument and debate. The attempts to date when it ceased to exist as a real political entity can vary greatly, and rest not just upon an understanding of Augustus and the early Principate, but also of the fracturing of the Republic from the Gracchi onwards. The res publica itself can defy definition, and it meant different things to different writers at different points of Roman history. For Cicero it could be seen as a partnership, between the different component parts of the constitution, and the rewards it offered. For Caesar, quite famously, it was something that lacked substance and body. In his Res Gestae Augustus himself could claim to have restored it; whether we interpret that as historical fiction or political mendacity, it speaks to a rather different understanding than that found in Cicero or Caesar. Any discussion of this period needs not only to recognise the shifting constructions of Republican identity, but also to engage with a vast historiographical field.

This book does not do that. Historiography, although drawn upon at certain moments, is not engaged with in a consistent argumentative and analytical manner. The bibliography represents wide ranging reading, but scholarly debate appears rather muted and sporadic, and it is not always clear exactly how this scholarship has been used in shaping the chapters. This is, I suspect, because the book is aimed at a general readership. Nonetheless, it would be useful for any reader to understand and see how the approaches to this period have changed, and how some of the points being made reflect shifts in historical attitudes. This is certainly true of the opening chapter, where provision should have been made for placing this book more firmly against the important scholarly writings indicated in the bibliography, as well as considering what the res publica was and could be. A full engagement with recent thoughts on the Republic such as Hölkeskamp’s Rekonstruktionen einer Republik or his Libera Res Publica, Die politische Kultur des antiken Rom: Positionen und Perspektiven would have allowed for a greater sense of direction and purpose to the volume.

The book moves at a frenetic pace, presenting a descriptive and narrative history of the first century BCE. Chrystal discusses the Social War (11-18), Sulla (19-26; 27-40), Spartacus (41-50), and the disaster at Carrhae (55-68) in the opening chapters. The book then considers the first triumvirate (69-74), before focussing upon Caesar (75-92; 93-112; 113-126), and the second triumvirate (127-140;141-146). The book closes with slightly more wide-ranging chapters that are welcome for their more analytical tone (‘The Cleopatra Effect’, 147-150; ‘The Social and Literary Impact’, 151-182). The book also contains a useful timeline (195-198), a short glossary of Latin terms (231-236) and two appendices (237-240) that explain the cursus honorum and Roman assemblies. The immediate criticism here is that in moving so fast through the events the reader does not always grasp the importance of each moment, and the prose is rather descriptive and narrative. Although focussing on a general readership, it is difficult to see the real purpose here that sets this volume apart from other standard treatments of the end of the Republic. Chrystal writes that this book ‘is not just another arid chronological list of battles, their winners and losers’ (xix), and while this is true, the piece would have benefitted from a greater sense of purpose and self. The final two chapters are promising. Here description gives way to useful analysis, and although the structure could have been tighter in both, the sources are presented in more detail, which allows for a greater sense of authorial voice and rationale. This does not fully correct for the narrative focus seen elsewhere.

The greatest strength of the book is that Chrystal draws upon extensive quotations from the contemporary evidence. This adds genuine value to the volume and makes it useful not just to the interested lay reader, but also to students new to the topic. In drawing forth so many contemporary interpretations, Chrystal invites the reader to make their own mind up about the events and the breakdown of political coherency. There is a criticism here too, as I think about the student reader. Each of these sources when first used would have benefitted from a more nuanced examination, with greater emphasis on the immediate contexts motivating the perspectives offered in, for instance, Appian, Plutarch, Cicero and Caesar. Nevertheless, the ancient writings provide much-needed detail and texture within the otherwise fast pace of the volume. This is certainly where the book is most useful.

To close, this is a fast-paced narrative history of the dying years of the Republic, and one grounded in the characters, events, and voices of the period. A crucial criticism rests in the lack of historical argument and analysis, which limits its usefulness for students and scholars, but this is mitigated in part by the focus on ancient sources.

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