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Book Review: The Life of Roman Republicanism by Joy Connolly

February 19th, 2018 | 33 min read

By Guest Writer

By Coyle Neal

In some ways, Dr. Joy Connolly’s introduction to the formal study of Rome mirrors my own.

“I began to study the republican tradition in earnest in 2001, at a time when the promise of rescue it offered—by mapping a third way between liberalism and communitarianism, bolstering the study of the past, reclaiming the language of virtue from the right—spoke directly and personally to me and many thinking people as the United States stumbled through an exceptionally difficult time.” (XIV)

I too began to seriously study Rome in 2001—my freshman year at the University of Wyoming. Even more specifically, when the United States invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003, I was snowed in a hotel in Casper, Wyoming, spending my unexpected free time reading in Tacitus’ Annals about the Roman invasion of the Middle East under Corbulo. Like us, the Romans showed up, smashed things, and then weren’t really sure what to do with the pieces. And, even accounting for the differences between the “study” done by an undergraduate and the study done by a seasoned scholar, the impact on my thought was on the surface very similar to that of Connolly. That was the moment I began to break with my neoconservative views that had been forged by hours of listening to talk radio in high school.

All that to say, I am somewhat sympathetic to much of what Connolly has to say. And yet, despite these similarities, I simply cannot endorse The Life of Roman Republicanism. I’ll give my reasons for that conclusion below, but first a few positive notes about the book overall.

First, Connolly is an excellent writer. Her prose is lucid and engaging, and at times even a delight to read. She blends what is clearly an informed background in the classics with a clear writing style and the occasional bit of humor that results in a book that is readable, but which never descends into fluff. Many academic books are dense quagmires of words that we simply must slog through to get to the author’s ideas. Whatever I think of Connolly’s ideas, such slogging is not required—her writing is excellent and I very much look forward to encountering it again.

Second, Connolly’s presentation of the various texts discussed in this book is by and large worth reading. While I object both to her methods and to many of her conclusions (see below), the bulk of the discussion of the texts themselves is usually provocative and often useful in its presentation. (See, for example, her summary of Sallust’s Jugurtha). In some sense, if this book were nothing more than Connolly’s expositions of the various texts from Republican and early Imperial Rome with no attention given to application or method, I would be able to give a cautious endorsement of the text. There would still be places where I disagree with her interpretations and conclusions, but so much the better. It is an academic (and societal) good to read dissenting ideas and discuss the meaning of such texts and their relevance for today, and The Life of Roman Republicanism could have been a more robust part of that discussion.

So much for my overall agreements. The rest of this review will include an analysis of the introduction, a discussion of each of the book’s chapters, and an overall conclusion.


The first chapter, appropriately, outlines Connolly’s reasons for writing the book and identifies a few principles to be kept in mind. Many of these reasons and principles are solid ones:

“I want to stage a productive collaboration between literary interpretation and the history of political thought: this is another important way antiquity may interface with modernity.” (6)

To be fair, I know next to nothing of contemporary literary interpretation, but I certainly know that the best classes I’ve had as a student (and the ones I’ve most enjoyed teaching as a professor) are those which combine literature, history, and philosophy. It stands to reason that blending the methodologies of those disciplines can only add to the richness of our encounter with ancient texts.

Additionally, Connolly rightly emphasizes the simultaneity of self and community in ancient thought. The modern world sets the individual against the community—particularly when talking about rights and freedom. This contrast would have been baffling to the ancients, who saw human beings as an organic and inextricable part of the community. Connolly notes that this involves a further unity between politics, ethics, and human nature which simply cannot be separated.

Connolly also provides an excellent discussion of neo-republicanism (10-12), as well as a solid defense of why we ought to study Rome rather than any other model, despite surface appearances to the contrary:

“On the face of things, Rome is a totally unpalatable model for politics. Neither modern theories of rights nor Athenian-style notions of equality existed there.” (13)

All that in addition to slavery, the oppression of women, etc etc etc. (13) And yet, Connolly intriguingly argues that these are the very reasons Roman Republicanism is relevant. Rome, like modern liberal states, existed with a tension between the reality of the entrenched oppressive leaders/norms/customs; the reality of a free citizen body; and the ideal of what a state should look like. While I disagree with some of the specifics of this tripartite comparison, I think she is probably on to something here that merits further reflection. Additionally, she correctly argues that the tension between the law, political leadership as it actually exists, and popular perceptions of how things should be, is as relevant now as it was then.

Finally, Connolly challenges us to understand the instability of the late Roman Republic as the source of Republican reflection on republicanism. Cicero, Horace, and Sallust all wrote as their political world was collapsing around them. (18-19) And again, I’ll disagree with some of the specifics, but this point is correct and worthy of further reflection by the reader.

And yet, even with all these strengths, we see even in the introduction that the overall project is at best inherently flawed:

“ ultimate aim is not to make guesses… about what each text could have meant to its readers at the moment of its composition. Nor is my ultimate purpose to discern what these authors intended to convey to their original audience… [Instead] I balance contextualist knowledge and regard for the words on the page with possible meanings that were not, perhaps because they could not be, expressed openly or given special emphasis at that originary moment. These are meanings that run just beneath the surface of the text, buttressing its structure, silently helping it cohere. At times, more radically, I treat these texts as prompts that make ideas available for our active use.” (1-2)

In other words, in reading The Life of Roman Republicanism, we are not ultimately learning about Roman Republicanism so much as we are learning about Dr. Joy Connolly.

I am not saying that the ancient texts under consideration are not complicated. It is undoubtedly the case that these writers were intelligent and subtle, capable of weaving together multiple layers of meaning. However, it does not follow that “complexity” implies “secrecy”—particularly when the “secret” meaning of the text being argued for by Connolly directly contradicts the text’s plain meaning. More on this below.

Connolly continues:

“Being neither for nor of our time, they [the texts] grant a sense of the past’s difference, and in doing so they grant us a perspective of difference and help us see ourselves and our world anew.” (2)

In one sense, this is obviously true. Cicero and Horace and the rest were certainly not writing for us, and in reading them we are forced to see differently as we look at the world through the filter of a time and place that are so very different from our own. Yet, we should note that when this nearly-traditional statement is placed in the context of the passage above, Connolly’s focus is still on us. This is exactly wrong.

When we moderns read and ancient text, we should of course be aware of how it affects us and how it might apply to the modern world. And yet, the purpose of reading such a text is not to mine it for ideas that we can lift out and twist into the service of our own perspective. Rather, the point is to learn from them in a way that challenges our perspective. We should be students at the feet of these texts, rather than tinkerers chopping them apart and rebuilding them in our own image. To put it another way, we should be changed by them; we should not change them to fit ourselves. More on this below as well.

Finally, Connolly’s definitions of a “republic” and “republicanism” leave much to be desired—specifically, they leave out the key characteristic that defines a republic in the first place. Connolly tries to offset this lack by denying our ability to define a ‘republic’ at all. Instead

“I explore Roman thinkers’ image of the republic as they saw it in past and present action, their emphasis on grasping the action around them, and the complex processes involved in making the judgments we make as citizens, all of which together involve reason, imagination, acknowledgment (specifically, the acknowledgement of limits), sensation, memory, and the emotions, especially hope and despair.” (4)

So rather than studying a republic, the stated goal of this book is to study the Roman “image of the republic.” In order to support this view, she wants to “draw a distinction between what I want to call ‘republican thought’ and the particular values espoused by the Roman governing class.” (19) Which brings us back to the ‘secret’ meaning of the texts. Connolly is claiming to draw out the ideas behind the Latin authors’ words rather than the ideas expressed by those words.

So just what is this “image of the republic” Connolly is going to explore—one that is somehow disconnected from the actual government? At one point, she gives the traditional definition of a republic only to reject it:

“[A republic is] the ideal of a free, unified, cohesive, neighbor-and nation-loving deliberative collective whose aim is concordia under the rule of law and whose defenders are staunch exempla of sovereign, self-knowing, self-governing virtue…” (17)

This definition is declared to be too limiting (18), as is the idea of any definition at all, since:

“To think about words is not necessarily to define concepts. Try asking the question: what is a republic?” (3)

If no definition can consequently be given, Connolly argues that it may be because of the limitations of language itself. After all, even thinkers as diverse as John Adams and Thomas Paine struggled to define the term. (3) Language, she suggests, may very well be an insuperable barrier to conversation.

If a single word were added to this statement I would agree with it. E.g.:

“To think about words is not necessarily” just “to define concepts.”

I cheerfully admit that language has limits and vagaries which must be acknowledged. And yet, surely to have meaningful discourse of any kind we must acknowledge that there concepts behind our words—even if those concepts are not set in stone for all time.

With all of that said, the argument about the usefulness of language is something of a red herring, given that Connolly clearly does have some kind of definition of “republic” in mind. Unfortunately, she only comes about it obliquely. She declares that she will:

“…approach these texts with particular contemporary questions in mind… this book does not advocate a defense of the classic vita activa, the ideal of life fully engaged with civic affairs, which is regularly understood in contemporary political theory as the core of classical republican thought. I identify priorities, above all attention to economic inequity, around which Roman writers build a strident moralistic tradition that fortifies itself against change even in the act of calling for it… I articulate a set of dispositions, habits of reading the world that empower citizens to live in a state of uneasy balance between security in the law and the understanding that laws alone are insufficient to guarantee everyone’s freedom, and carrying on from that, the understanding that laws must be resistible.” (19-20)

In other words we must set aside the key component of republicanism, the principle of “rule of law,” in order to read into these ancient texts the idea that the law does not rule. “Republicanism” is Connolly’s view is apparently the principle of resistance to oppressive laws in the name of the pursuit of economic equality.

It probably goes without saying that a definition of “republicanism” that undermines the rule of law and the virtues that uphold it—the very heart of what defines a “republic” in the first place—is in no way related to the writings of the Roman political thinkers.

Unfortunately, Connolly’s definition of a republic is not only distorted, but also affects her reading of the ancient texts. For example, citing the Annals Connolly argues that

“Tacitus saw disempowerment, not moral corruption, as the cause of the Roman people’s willingness to yield up their traditional rights of legislation and election.” (19)

However, this is most certainly not what we see in the Annals. This is the passage she references:

When the killing of Brutus and Cassius had disarmed the Republic; when Pompey had been crushed in Sicily, and, with Lepidus thrown aside and Antony slain, even the Julian party was leaderless but for the Caesar; after laying down his triumviral title and proclaiming himself a simple consul content with tribunician authority to safeguard the commons, he first conciliated the army by gratuities, the populace by cheapened corn, the world by the amenities of peace, then step by step began to make his ascent and to unite in his own person the functions of the senate, the magistracy, and the legislature.

Opposition there was none: the boldest spirits had succumbed on stricken fields or by proscription-lists; while the rest of the nobility found a cheerful acceptance of slavery the smoothest road to wealth and office, and, as they had thriven on revolution, stood now for the new order and safety in preference to the old order and adventure. Nor was the state of affairs unpopular in the provinces, where administration by the Senate and People had been discredited by the feuds of the magnates and the greed of the officials, against which there was but frail protection in a legal system for ever deranged by force, by favouritism, or (in the last resort) by gold. (Tacitus, Annals, 1.2)

One really cannot read this passage and get “disempowerment” as the reason behind the popular surrender of freedom (and that’s aside from whether voluntarily giving one’s freedoms up to a strong man in the name of equality is a good idea in the first place—I happen to think it is not). Safety, the end of war and social conflict, and the correction of bureaucratic corruption are the explicit reasons given by Tacitus for the rise of the Empire as the great Republicans were murdered, cowed, or themselves became dictators.

Examples of abusing texts in this way are far more common than should be the case for a scholar of Connolly’s clear ability—though of course not every citation is such an abuse, and as stated at the beginning of the review much of her analysis is thoughtful and worthwhile. My point here is just that the Introduction shows all the strengths and weaknesses of the rest of the book. Consequently, I won’t spend nearly so much time on each of the rest of the chapters.

Where Politics Begins: Cicero’s Republic

Whatever the limitations of this chapter, it’s worth remembering that Connolly’s overall point in discussing Cicero’s Republic is an important one: conflict in a republic is inevitable, and so an outlet for it must be provided by the rules and institutions of the state. (An idea the American Founders were of course well aware of, what with “ambition countering ambition” and all that). Connolly uses an interesting introductory approach by discussing the role of coercion, resistibility, and creation in art, and describing how aesthetics can therefore become a springboard into a new perspective on the state. I think there is something to this approach, though I’m not convinced it is what Connolly believes it to be.

This blending of aesthetics and politics, according to Connolly, is especially relevant to the reading and appreciation of Cicero’s Republic. Freedom and peace (“liberty and concord”) have traditionally been understood as the subject matter of that text—primarily because Cicero himself says they’re the subject matter of the text. Connolly, however, argues that much more important are the themes of “coercion and resistibility” as they relate to government processes, the people, and aesthetics. (26) At the very least, she argues, this enables us to get around the traditional definitions of things like the “common good” that are no longer relevant in the contemporary world. The way to keep Rome timely is to use our modern concerns to reinterpret old texts.

With that said, Connolly does still give an extended discussion of freedom—and quite a decent one at that. She notes that for the Roman Republican authors, freedom is “a possession to be defended against inevitable aggression,” and that one of that one of the major challenges to that freedom arises from the divisions that are inherent to society. (33)

Likewise, Connolly has some useful insights about Cicero himself:

“He belongs in that category of thinkers who are at once committed to the normative and keenly attuned to the inevitable failure of norms.” (35)

This is surely true, and only runs into difficulty when it hits the wall of application, which is where my primary objection to this chapter comes in. Cicero was a defender of the mos maiorum (the traditions of the Republic), while fully aware of the problems these traditions had led to in his own time. Yet Cicero’s understanding of that mos maiorum and of those problems is significantly different from what Connolly presents. Connolly claims that Cicero sees concord as a period of rest in a cycle of conflict between the rich and the poor (or between the aristocrats and the people). This cycle is one that moves towards greater freedom for the people (45-46). I believe a more accurate reading is that Cicero sees concord as a resolution of conflict with every person and class free in his or their own proper place in society. This freedom exists under Roman law with all citizens living according to the same traditions. I am not arguing that Cicero was a utopian by any means; just that he is more in line with Plato than he is with Marx.

This disconnect between Cicero’s Republic and Connolly’s The Life of Roman Republicanism sets up the key problem with Connolly’s argument: she presents Cicero as glorifying conflict as an end in itself. The idea of a republic as a balance between competing factions/classes isn’t wrong—what’s wrong is that Connolly presents Cicero as embracing the chaos of division as a means of moving society forward towards its set goals. (61) “Cicero’s writing suggests Rome is a society with antagonism built into it…” (63) This is a true enough statement, but so is literally every other society. What distinguishes Cicero’s Republic (among other things, of course) is that Rome is presented as a society with a way to peacefully resolve antagonism within accepted laws and practices. Cicero is certainly proud of his state’s means of conflict resolution, but Connolly suggests that he is (or should be) proud that the state has conflict in the first place since it is within that conflict that the imagination finds freedom.

And again, what Connolly says conflict resolution looks like (more power for the poor and more democracy) and what Cicero says it looks like (justice being done for all as each person/part of society gives due respect to the others) are two very different things.

Justice in the World: The Execution of Jugurtha

Sallust’s Jugurthine War, like his Catiline’s War, is one of the treasures of the ancient world. What’s more, Connolly’s survey of both the work and the author are both excellent. What’s significantly less excellent are the use to which she puts this work as she filters it through her definition justice and her use of the imagination.

So what is “justice”?

“For public matters a scale based on ‘just’ suits better than one based on ‘good,’ for justice connotes the distribution of good(s) across the commonwealth.” (65)

Justice, in this view, has little to do with actions or principles and everything to do with material goods—as we see explicitly in this sentence with the parenthetical transformation of the “good” into “good(s).” Justice is no longer a virtue to be pursued individually and institutionally; it has become an object to be seized, distributed, or protected.

With that said, Connolly is correct to notice the role of imagination in the functioning of justice in the world, just as she is correct to note that in our day the world has come unmoored and is in need of a new vision. (Her discussion of Kant, Arendt, and MacIntyre in this context is worth reading as a clear exposition of the problems in which the modern world finds itself mired, 66-71.)

But just what role does the imagination have? In Connolly’s reading of Sallust,

“Sallust directs his readers to things and people rather than concepts or identities. His histories do not only look beyond themselves in terms of past and future; they look outward to the world as it is lived.” (72)

More specifically, Sallust’s use of words and imagination direct us beyond ideas and concepts to people and things that exist in the real world. This is accomplished by a focus on the setting in which politics happens, which ultimately determines much of the results of justice in the first place. (72-82) And what we see in that setting is that poverty is ultimately the source of ills in the state, and that which drives rebellion.

“Macer, Catiline, and the rest of Sallust’s popular tribunes link the subservience of the life of poverty to the breakdown of justice and the end of political liberty. That is, they talk about poverty not only in what we now call economic terms… or utilitarian terms… but in terms of capability deprivation—here, the thing deprive being the capacity to function politically as fully free citizens.” (98)

Imagination, then, becomes the tool by which these disempowered poor can gain the recognition that is their just due. It is the way in which the otherwise unnoticed underclasses convince those in power that they too are human and have a rightful place in the state. Imagination is the faculty of man that reminds us that we live as part of a world full of other people who have the same nature and rights that we do.

As with the previous chapters, there is much here that is true and much that is wrong in the sense that I disagree with it, and some that is wrong in the sense that it does not square with objective reality. I’m glad that Connolly has zeroed in on imagination. This is a faculty that has not got the attention it deserves (the attention it is justly due?) despite its central role in human life. She is quite right to emphasize its function in the state and to highlight how it helps us connect to each other as citizens and as human beings.

But where she goes wrong is in the abstraction of the imagination from human laws and traditions. Speaking of Arendt’s reflections on the causes of the Holocaust, Connolly writes

“Elusive as her thinking can be, it compels us to reconsider our habit regarding political judgment as a process bounded by rules, institutions, familiar attitudes, concepts, or values. In minds crowded with mental furniture composed of concepts and rules, she enjoins us to make space for imagination and for worldly experience of ‘the things themselves’ that compose the world.” (69)

In doing so, Connolly argues, we are forced to turn outward and to engage with other people as people—murdering them in large numbers will thus be impossible. I would argue by counterpoint that most circumstances of murdering people in large numbers happens when long-standing rules, institutions, etc are rejected in favor of a powerfully free and independent imagination. Imagination is important, but it is important as a means of bringing the rules and traditions into practice in our own lives and in society. Imagination is the human faculty that answers the question “how can I live ‘thou shalt not kill’? in the here-and-now?”

In any case, whichever view of the imagination is correct, Sallust at the very least is closer to the traditionalist view than to the modern liberal one. Connolly recites the story of the brutal death of two Carthaginians at the hands of political rivals. She argues that the graphic nature of the story in Sallust is intended to humanize them in the minds of the reader, setting aside abstract concepts like “virtue” or “courage” or “injustice,” and focusing us on “the sensations of feelings, bodies, and objections.” (75) I would argue by contrast that Sallust’s point is to enhance concepts (although not abstract ones) by grounding them in historical reality. An act of cruel injustice on the part of the enemies of the state becomes a patriotic sacrifice that blesses the state and glorifies the innocent victims. Sallust uses the imagination to point the way towards virtue, rather than to sideline it.

Connolly closes out the chapter with a discussion of Occupy Wall Street. “What does all of this [Occupy Wall Street discussion] have to do with Sallust?” (111) As we might expect, the answer is: little-to-nothing. To her credit, she even admits that: “According to the writers of the traditional histories of politics and political thought, nothing at all.” (111)

“It is tempting to mold the existing textual evidence into a neatly uniform set of dispositions… expressed by such terms as virtus, dignitas, honestas, [etc]… But such a view obscures the multiple, possibly contested, meanings of these words.” (111-112)

It’s certainly true that these words have multiple meanings, and that we can argue over which of the meanings is the most important one (the Romans themselves had those arguments). But that is not the same thing as saying that these words are devoid of content and just waiting for someone to come along and fill them as their own political desires dictate.

Non-Sovereign Freedom in Horace’s Satires

This might be the best chapter in the book in terms of content, beginning with a clear and useful outline of how freedom is variously understood in the modern world (along with some notes about how Plato viewed freedom, 116-121). The discussion of standard Roman freedom as we see in the life, thought, and actions of figures like Cato (121-123) is likewise excellent.

Even more, Connolly’s defense of the study of poetry as political action and her exposition of how poetry can help us see the world in unique way are worthwhile:

“If we agree that free political judgments are bound up somehow with our aesthetic sensibility, we had best develop a critical language in which we can better grasp the sources of our spontaneous sensations and feelings, their consequences for our political commitments and judgments, and the possibilities of communicating or changing them… This is the role of a poet, an expert in the creation and manipulation of aesthesis: to influence and grant us insight into the sensorium.” (124)

Minus the word “spontaneous”, this is absolutely right. It is the job of the poets to help us see what we cannot see about ourselves, and to nudge us away from evil and towards the good through aesthetics and the imagination. Of the kinds of poetry available, satire is especially useful and important. Connolly is also correct to point out that there must be an element of community in our exercise of freedom. If my actions do not account for the existence and value of others, they are automatically suspect. These actions ought to be measured not against my own individual sovereignty, but against the life we all share in the community.

An important biographical note: I don’t have much to say about Connolly’s use of Horace. I am only loosely familiar with his works, and have avoided much of the later Roman poetic tradition. Latin poetry was the bane of my undergraduate language courses because no Virgil, I don’t know what words you left out—I’m not psychic. Anyway, I don’t have much to say about the accuracy of her interpretation of Horace.

With that said, a key idea in the chapter having to do with the role of poetry and satire is worthy of further attention. Connolly argues that satire (and poetry generally) is to lead us by means of our aesthetic sense out of slavery to reason and ‘common sense’ and into the art of judgment (142-143):

“Horace is deeply concerned with the formation and preservation of shared sensibility, but his games with authorial persona, his carnival and corporeal imagery, and ironic attitudes toward authority express ambivalence about the regulatory, disciplinary, homogenizing effects of moralistic ‘common sense.’ In a vast empire encompassing many ways of being in the world—and I am thinking now about us as well as the Romans—the satirist’s uneven performance of a moral discourse suggests that judging ourselves and others is an art we need to learn and refine through the experience of de-centered self-awareness, of free play within the constraints of meaningful dialogue. This is the exemplary experience satire provides.” (148)

Again, I can’t speak to whether this is an accurate portrayal of Horace or not (though a Roman working to undermine common sense strikes me as odd at the very least—then again, he was a poet, so I guess it’s possible). I can say that this seems to run counter to the function most satire serves. The primary function of satire (and of all political humor) is to use the aesthetic sense to encourage us to pursue reason and common sense. Certainly irrationality and poor judgment are tools the satirist uses to highlight problems in society, but the goal isn’t the increase of those two traits, it is rather their correction.  

Dividual Advocacy

The goal of this chapter is to develop a view of the citizen not as an agent of harmony in the state, but as an individual with a desire for harmony who finds himself caught up in a complex web of conflict and strife. (155-156) The model for this view is Cicero in his role as an orator.

Specifically, Connolly argues that the Republic is constructed of and upheld by speech. Speech is likewise the means by which the orator becomes a small picture of the state, with each component working together in one person and one voice.

“I argue… that Cicero’s construction of himself in these and other speeches resonates with his representation in his rhetorical works of the orator as a political exemplum; the speeches thus model a political subjectivity… Especially marked here is the contrast between the epistolary voice of Cicero the optimate and the rostra voice of the consul popularis in the contio…” (162)

That is, we see Cicero simultaneously—even contradictorily—wearing the hats of multiple factions in the state even in the same speech. Connolly argues that Cicero is identifying himself as a complex man of many parts that can associate with all these factions by serving as a personal beacon of sympathetic harmony and peace—peace otherwise unobtainable in a fractious and divided republic. This is an intriguing point, and one that I will certainly keep in mind the next time I read one of Cicero’s orations. It may be that Connolly is right and the traditional reading of Cicero as trying to stand above partisan politics in the name of the good of the Republic is inaccurate.

With that said, what is certainly wrong is what Connolly sees as the goal of the “contest” of politics in Cicero. In her view, Cicero’s goal is the same as that of an enlightened postmodernist progressive:

“As we saw in chapter 1, Cicero theorizes political authority as part of a broader conception of political action that privileges the virtuosic display of the speaker whose authority must be resistible and whose legitimacy is subject to public consensus. The legitimacy, indeed the inevitability of resistance is thus built into Cicero’s understanding of republican authority and order. If he has a lot to say about tradition, honor, and glory, he is equally alert to the fictionality of these qualities, and their inadequacies in the face of injustice.” (171)

The citizen, then has the job of continuously challenging the authority and power structures of the state—a job which “is naturally never finalized, and its unfinished aspect is the crucial point.” (171) The orator, on the other hand,

“in order to win… consistently thinks himself into the other position, and he believes in his performance…” (170).

What Connolly forgets is that the primary goal of the orator is to win, whether in the court, the forum, or the Senate. Cicero himself says this in The Brutus:

“Yet the real quality of an orator can only be deduced from the practical results that his speech-making attains. Now the three things a speaker ought to achieve, as I see the matter, are these: he should instruct his listeners, win their sympathy, and vigorously move their emotions…. For that is the distinctive mark of the supreme orator: that the public realizes his supremacy.” (Cicero, On Government. Trans. Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1993. 278-279)

Connolly makes the mistake of elevating the contest to an end in itself, without regard to the outcome. Which brings us back to my comments on the first chapter: unending conflict is not the goal of a state, even if that state has the most perfect conflict resolving device humanly possible (unless we’re discussing the state in 1984). Where Cicero simply refuses to wear utopian blinders when it comes to analyzing the results of conflict—no one ever truly wins a complete victory in a republic—Connolly portrays him as downplaying the results themselves in favor of his method. If we go along with Connolly in separating the common good from those results, then this isn’t necessarily an illogical conclusion. It’s just a conclusion that Cicero himself certainly never comes to.

Imagination, Finitude, Responsibility, Irony. Cicero’s Pro Marcello

This chapter is a more direct attempt to explore the faculty of imagination through the filter of Cicero’s Pro Marcello. As an introduction, Connolly’s makes the absolutely correct observation that there was a serious deficiency in the ancient understanding of the imagination and its role in the state. (173-177) Despite the fact that corrections to this deficiency did not begin to be made until the late 18th century, Connolly argues that there are still some critical points that can be made in this speech by Cicero that are relevant to the use of the imagination in the lives of the individual and the state today.

In brief, this little-known speech by Cicero was given in response to Caesar’s amnesty for the exiled Pompeian Marcellus. The speech was given at the command of Caesar in the Senate (though every Senator was commanded to speak on the topic, so there were technically hundreds of “pro Marcello” speeches at the time).

Connolly argues that this speech is neither pro- nor anti-Caesar. Instead, she claims that it is an attempt at healing that preserves the Republic while avoiding even the hint of a new civil war. This “preserved Republic,” however, will not be the Republic that Cicero and the present Senators had grown up in (at least those “present Senators” who weren’t Caesar’s barbarian appointees, anyway):

“By harnessing the power of fantastical untruth, Cicero becomes what Shelley calls the poet, an ‘unacknowledged legislator,’ exercising the power he and his audience have to remake the world in light of the new understanding of it which his literally, self-consciously false words unlock…. [Through Cicero’s words] Reality is split and reconfigured, at least temporarily, as double: the reality of Caesar, holding nearly unlimited power… and the reality of the senators as the leading men of the republic, who much somehow map out a way forward.” (184-185)

I think Connolly’s reading has a number of merits to it—a good orator will “somehow map out a way forward” through difficult times. But Cicero’s tone has different implications than she attributes to it. If Cicero’s goal is to imaginatively re-create the Republic as a means of preserving it, then the republic he creates is one of air and fantasy—not even one of speech, given how obliquely Cicero’s comments must be taken in order to get this meaning from them. We see this reinforced by the way Connolly presents Cicero’s view of the future of this republic

“Cicero here underscores the necessity of replacing the old republican ideal of self-sovereignty—individual striving for glory—with a new model of collective identity and collective endeavor. (181)

Cicero redefines the role of senator from seeking glory and defense of dignitas to a much more limited role: seeking to contest authority when it is exercised unjustly.” (182)

In other words, in Connolly’s reading Cicero is saying “embrace your chains, but keep the Republic secretly alive in your hearts.” The Senate needs to understand its new role not as leadership, but as a brake. (192) It is no longer the “head” of the state, it is now a corpse with the sole purpose of being chained to the Dictator to slow him down. To me, this sounds like much more of an imaginatively concealed eulogy than an imaginatively concealed spirited resistance to the growth of dictatorial power. Then again, Cicero was a sharp guy with a wonderfully developed sense of irony—it could very well have been both.

Conclusion: The Republic Remastered

At the end of the day, Connolly believes she has given us the suppressed or hidden history of the republican tradition, at least in its 1st Century BC Roman incarnation:

“This book has tried to recover the concept-and virtue-focused tradition’s entwined but distinctive counterpart—what I think of as the suppressed history of republican thought.” (203)

Which is to say, it’s not actually the “history” of republicanism at all. Connolly notes that she has focused on experience and emotion rather than reason (204), though her goal is to engage a broader use of reason that incorporates the aesthetic sense and the whole person. (206) This is because

“Forms of expression bound up with imagination, sensation, the non-normative and the a-rational, with rhetoric and poetics, are not primarily concerned with citizens as rational calculators nor with constitutional arrangements regarding the balance of power. When we exile them to the margins of theory and intellectual history, we hobble our ability to explore the republican tradition for ways to refresh our thinking about contemporary questions, historical and theoretical alike.” (205)

To that end, Connolly’s larger goal has been to provide us tools with which to work at this ‘republicanism’ thing, rather than ideas which we must hold:

“I have sought to offer practical tools for civic education by articulating learnable practices of knowing the world that characterize late republican texts… I hope it is clear that the purpose of laying out my own readings in detail is to put the interrogative ethos that fuels them on display as much as to advocate for their content.” (208)

This is not to say there are no ideas to be held in order to be a republican. Connolly has found several such ideas in these Roman thinkers, including ideas “on class antagonism, on corporeal knowing, on the privileging of process over ends, on the dangers of self-sovereignty.” (208) I’ll have more of a response to this in my conclusion below, but needless to say that while I appreciate many of Connolly’s comments on the importance of aesthetics, I simultaneously reject much of what she uses aesthetics to defend.

Conclusion (Mine, not Connolly’s)

As is undoubtedly clear, I have several substantive objections to much of what Connelly has to say about republicanism as well as to her use of Roman sources. So in conclusion to this already far-too-long ‘review’, I offer three more substantive objections and one whopping big methodological objection.

First, the figure looming in the background and utterly conspicuous by his absence is Augustus Caesar. He does get a mention here and there (123, 177, e.g.), but no substantive engagement is given to the formal end of the Roman Republic at his hand. Connolly tangentially admits this:

“…one topic on which I have been more or less silent is the possibility that the collective’s confrontation with the limits on their power might descend into violence. If my silence responds to a gap in Roman texts, it needs flagging here as a topic for future reflection.” (207)

I suppose in a sense there is a “gap in Roman texts,” in that Cicero was murdered, Sallust retired, and Horace befriended by the new regime. But in another, more accurate, sense, the first century BC and the first century AD is the best documented stretch of ancient history we’ve got. To speak of the imaginative recreation of the republic, resistance to the law in the name of the people, and the setting of the common good against traditional individual freedoms without speaking of Augustus, the man who intentionally incarnated all of those things in his reign, is odd, to say the least. (And I say this as someone who has very mixed thoughts about Augustus—he certainly did some awful things, but he also did some very good things as well.)

Second, The Life of Roman Republicanism ignores two concepts that are central, one to the idea of a “republic” in general and one specific to the Roman Republic. Generally, Connolly offers no real discussion of the “law” other than as an oppressor to be resisted. While there of course is room for legitimate resistance to an unjust law even—especially—in a republic, to say that what matters most is that the law is to be resisted is to undermine the very foundation of a republic in the first place. If the central idea of a republic is the rule of law (and I believe it is), then to encourage resistance not to any one specifically unjust law but to ‘the law’ in general is to strike at the very heart of republicanism.

As for the concept specific to Roman republicanism, Connolly provides no discussion of imperium. Without a discussion of this difficult idea one cannot understand the Republic that Cicero was so set on serving. To be fair, Connolly is neither providing an overview of Roman institutions, nor do the specific writings she engages directly deal with imperium. So far such an omission is fine. But if at least part of her goal in writing the book was explaining just what it is that the Romans thought they were doing with their Republic, then paying no attention to their core conception of power as practically applied makes no sense and ultimately leaves us not truly understanding how the Romans thought about republicanism.

Finally, as should be clear, I think that some of what Connolly has to say is correct. She is surely right in arguing that at the end of the Roman Republic many writers were a bit cryptic in what they had to say. No doubt they simultaneously wanted to uphold the ideals that were so obviously passing away, while also wanting to preserve their own lives against the brutality of successive autocrats. Some dissimulation was undoubtedly necessary for self-preservation. However, it’s simply wrong to read them as if their response to changing times were to become postmodern liberals.

So much for the substantive objections. The methodological objection is much more important.

First, an important disclaimer: it may be the case that at times I have misrepresented some of Dr. Connolly’s arguments. If so, these failings are mine and not hers. I have made a good faith effort to correctly convey her ideas and arguments and respond specifically to them, rather than to knock down straw men or caricatures.

But, in order to illustrate what I believe to be the fundamental failure of this text, let us imagine for a second that not only have I misrepresented her arguments, but have actively and intentionally done so. Would Dr. Connolly, if being consistent with her own professed methodology in reading the Roman sources, have any grounds to refute me? Would I not merely be imaginatively recreating the implied and secret subtext of her argument in a way that is more relevant and useful for our immediate circumstances?

If I were to apply Dr. Connolly’s method to her own book, is there anything to stop me from using it as an argument in favor of neoconservative militaristic interventionism abroad or alt-right racism at home? (To use two examples that I suspect both she and I find distasteful.) Such would be disconnected from and even contrary to her actual words and the ideas she articulates, but Dr. Connolly has already jettisoned both of those as standards for reading and interpretation.

If the reader’s aesthetic sense is all that remains, what is to stop the reader from reading his own views into everything? For that matter, why write a book on Roman republicanism at all? Why ought we read The Life of Roman Republicanism when what we really have, by Dr. Connolly’s own admission, is What I believe about Republicanism? The Life of Roman Republicanism in some ways would have been a more useful book without the facade of antiquity. Which is unfortunate, as I said at the beginning of the review, Dr. Connolly is a good writer who is obviously both thoughtful and well-versed in the classics. Had she used those skills creatively to read the republican wisdom of the past into our world rather than to read herself backwards into theirs, this would have been a far, far better book.

Dr. Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.

This book was provided by the publisher for free on the condition that I write a review; I was not required to write a positive review.