Classically Inclined

August 1, 2011

Book review: The Senate of Imperial Rome – R. J. A. Talbert

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 6:26 am

I have a habit of reading things that I believe will in some way benefit me in a professional capacity, whether in terms of getting me to teach better or in widening my general knowledge about classics. As part of this scheme, a while ago it seemed a good idea to run my eye down the list of books which had won the American Philological Association’s Goodwin Award of Merit, and see whether any of the books in recent years looked like the kind of thing that would reward further study.

Enter the winner for 1987, Talbert’s The Senate of Imperial Rome. The workings of imperial politics is one of those things that I sort of know something about, in that vague ‘well, obviously it involves the cursus honorum, right?’ kind of way, seeing as most of my research doesn’t rely heavily on knowing the intimate details of senatorial policy and debate. That said, this is precisely the sort of thing that my professional development reading aims to flesh out, or at least direct me towards somewhere I can refer to should this type of issue become a pressing concern in the future.

I sat down and read Talbert’s Senate from beginning to end, and I can say at once that this is probably not it was designed for. It was, at the time of writing, attempting to correct the view of the imperial senate as corrupt and degenerate, and not holding any great power against the emperor (one scents the disapproving glare of Tacitus in this picture). Talbert goes very carefully through evidence of various kinds to explain precisely how the senate functioned, who held what posts when, how the emperor changed the system from the way it had functioned in the Republic (and how he didn’t), and generally does a great survey of the nuts and bolts of how government actually functioned. I had never before actually thought about how an agenda for a meeting of the senate got put together, but thanks to Talbert, I now have a fairly shrewd idea. I also now have a new sense of the importance attached to the fact that only senators were allowed inside the curia when the senate was meeting, and the significance that should be attached to the presence of anyone else reported inside that boundary, particularly soldiers.

The fact that Talbert deals, in minute detail, with pretty much every practical aspect of the senate’s function means that he reuses pieces of evidence two or three times, which stands out when you read the book straight through; however, if used as a reference volume for someone to dip into if they are uncertain of the finer points of the various junior magistracies, this repetition ensures that the evidence they need will be right there and not only accessible after a hunt through the cross-references.

In general, I’m sure some of Talbert’s conclusions must by this point have been superceded by more recent scholarship. However, he is very good at summing up all possibilities and options for interpreting evidence, and for frankly admitting when we don’t have sufficient information to make a judgement one way or the other, which is rather refreshing. I am glad to have added this to my library of useful resources, and am sure it will be a good starting point if I need to clarify details about political practicalities.


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