In the general collapse of humane studies that marks the declining decades of the 20th century, a few areas continue to produce important scholarship. One of those fields is Roman history, especially the history of the Roman Republic. Emilio Gabba in Italy, Christian Meier in Germany, Ernst Badian and Togo Salmon in North America, to name some of the best, have produced books and articles that are both original and readable. Arthur Eckstein’s Senate and General reassures us that this tradition is not dying out. Senate and General is as indispensable for understanding the sinuosities of Roman foreign policy as Badian’s classic Foreign Clientelae (1958).

Was the Roman expansion that ended with the domination of the entire Mediterranean a case of “muddling through,” or was it the result of a policy of aggression, carefully monitored by the Roman Senate? The second view has the (sometimes shaky) support of the great Greek historian Polybius, and was at the heart of William Harris’s forceful War and Imperialism in Republican Rome, 327-70 B.C. (1979). However, Eckstein’s close reading of the sources reveals that no single explanation will enable us to understand the enormous transformation that came over the world as Rome moved from its position as the greatest power in Italy in the early 3rd century, B.C., to the dominant force in the Mediterranean just a century later. A number of key decisions, however, from the start of the First Punic War to the defeat of the Macedonian monarchy, which placed Greece in Rome’s hands, were made by generals on their own and only later confirmed by the Senate.

Many arguments found here have appeared in Eckstein’s articles in scholarly journals. Their presentation in a coherent fashion clarifies as never before just how Roman policy was rooted in a basically defensive senatorial policy that was perpetually evolving in the face of the decisions made by Roman generals, who were themselves affected by many quite diverse factors. Appius Claudius involved Rome in the First Punic War in 264 for glory’s sake. Gaius Servilius Geminus’ attack on the Gauls in 203 has seemed to many scholars to be the beginning of a major Roman offensive. Eckstein shows that the general was probably trying to rescue his father, who was a Gallic hostage.

In a state that possessed no State Department or any standing bureaucracy, and lacked our means of rapid communication, the settled consensus of the older members of the Senate might be overturned by the exigencies of active warfare, or the glory-seeking of a general out of reach of easy communication. As someone who has lived in Italy for many years, I know how easy it is to plead the unreliability of the Italian mail in order to avoid answering an embarrassing letter. In 223 B.C. Consul Gains Flaminius set a precedent for this attitude by not opening a message from a politically hostile Senate forbidding him to attack the dangerous Gallic tribes he was sent to watch. He crossed the Po, won a victory, and then opened the dispatch. Although the irate Senate denied Flaminius a triumph, they also instructed the next year’s consul to continue to wage vigorous war.

Since the conflicting attitudes found in Harris and Eckstein reflect their diverse political attitudes, are not the two books examples of “politicizing the academy”? I think not. Although neither was written in a political vacuum, their arguments are grounded on reading the ancient sources carefully and insightfully. Politicizing the academy involves rejecting traditional scholarly standards for faddish political ones, and neither Harris nor Eckstein is guilty of that.

Contemporary historians are often led astray by an obsession with “new questions” with which to confront old sources. Eckstein’s masterful handling of the Greek sources shows that a thorough philological command of the relevant foreign languages is not only essential for progress in historical studies, but that it can still bear considerable fruit in the form of original and convincing results.

When I said that Roman studies continues to produce important new scholars, I did not mean to imply that the great figures in the study of ancient history were not men raised in the Golden Age before the First World War: Eduard Meyer, Karl Julius Beloch, Gaetano de Sanctis, for instance. It strikes the reader of Eckstein’s footnotes how often his new insights are rooted in a query or paralleled by a comment made by one of these great scholars, especially de Sanctis. The futility of much contemporary research is often the fault of young scholars’ ignorance of their great predecessors, as Arnaldo Momigiliano once remarked to me. Eckstein’s control of past scholarship is as impressive, and as rare, as his command of Polybian Greek.

A.E. Housman told his Cambridge Inaugural audience in 1911:

Clear wits and right thinking are essentially neither of today nor yesterday, but historically they are rather of yesterday than of today: and to study the greatest of the scholars of the past is to enjoy intercourse with superior minds. . . . Let us not disregard our contemporaries, but let us regard our predecessors more; let us be most encouraged by their agreement, and most disquieted by their dissent.

It may seem paradoxical—though in fact it is not—that such an attitude is the true foundation for creativity in the humanities, today and tomorrow.


[Senate and General: Individual Decision-Making and Roman Foreign Relations 264-194 B.C., by Arthur M. Eckstein (Berkeley: University of California Press) 381 pp., $39.95]