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The Roman Clan: The Gens from Ancient Ideology to Modern Anthropology

July 2008 (112.3)

Book Review

The Roman Clan: The Gens from Ancient Ideology to Modern Anthropology

By C.J. Smith. Pp. xiii + 393, figs. 3. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2006. $100. ISBN 0-521-85692-2 (cloth).

Reviewed by

The Roman clan, or gens, describes a close-knit familial group of aristocratic descent that wields considerable political, social, and economic power. This concept of the clan has had a profound impact on modern ideologies and has long been seen as the basis for early Roman social and political institutions. Was the concept of clan as deeply engrained in the early Roman mindset as is typically thought? Smith’s monograph offers a provocative and thoroughly convincing account that this familial entity in Early Republican history (sixth–fourth centuries B.C.E.) is not as impermeable and exclusive as is traditionally thought.

Smith presents the evidence for the clan in the Early Republic in two main parts. The first part (chs. 1–4) delves into an analysis of the primary sources and material remains to show the methodological incongruities and complexities associated with the term, gens. Smith proposes that formulating a single, concise definition of gens has been next to impossible for both ancient and modern scholars. Particularly enriching is Smith’s approach to modern historiographers, especially 19th-century figures such as Niebuhr and Mommsen who have essentially skewed our perceptions of what the gens really stood for. Their methodological approaches used the gens as a basis to illumine the legal, political, and social issues of their own day. Other methodological flaws are apparent with the comparative approach of the Roman gens with the Attic genos. Rather, Smith suggests a heuristic strategy between the two to arrive at three important conclusions. First, our preconceived ideas of the genos derive from obscure notions of the gens. Second, the derivation of genos relies largely on contemporary historical developments. Third, ancient writers offer conflicting and confusing accounts behind the aristocratic origins of the genos that have been conveniently smoothed over and idealized by modern scholars. The same complexities and conundra also appear in the archaeological evidence, traditionally driven by social anthropological methodologies. Brief case studies of the Latian sites of Osteria dell’Osa, Satricum, and Auditorio are used to show that egalitarianism was not the norm, and that the so-called great families represented in the material remains from these areas tended to survive for three generations at best. Smith then wades through the Etruscan data to counter accepted claims that early Etruscan society marked a period of crisis for “gentilician” families—claims that are unfounded vis-à-vis the archaeological evidence for the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. In short, both historical and anthropological methods have not been useful for interpreting the nature of the gens in the Early Roman period.

After reading the first part of the work, one might think it futile to arrive at some clear picture of what the gens constituted in Early Republican Rome. Part 2 (chs. 5–11) of this book dispels such an impression and offers to reconstruct the function of the gens, especially during the enigmatic fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E. Smith’s challenging assertion is that traditional scholarly views taken on patrician/plebeian fissures are not centered on the gens and are by no means clear-cut. He elucidates the complex dynamics inherent between the two groups and that have created in effect a fictional account of what the clan in reality was. To investigate further this claim, Smith turns first to the clientes, or clients who are traditionally viewed as having a lower economic standing than the patricians and who were partially subservient to them. Smith suggests the opposite to be true: the clients who came from different social and economic backgrounds were part and parcel of the political success stories of certain patrician individuals. Smith then assesses the speculative role of gens within the early curiae. The early curiae were made up of both patricians and plebeians—the full citizen body. The gens for Smith was a minority in the early curiae and did not play a surmountable political role per se in its early stages. To substantiate these claims further, Smith draws readers to two appendices that cover Dionysos of Halicarnassus’ interpretation of the early curiae, as well as the primarily religious function of the curiae in the Early Republic. The role of the gens within the creation of the rural tribes is also taken to task. Rather than opting for a monolithic interpretation of the gens as the sole driving force behind the tribes, Smith sees a combination of factors. In specified instances, not all the gentes were envisaged as “local powerbases” (249) within certain tribes. In other instances, the tribes oversaw the combined usage of private and public land. Furthermore, Smith focuses on the role the gens Fabia played at Veii to nuance tensions shared by the plebeians and patricians. The author demonstrates that aristocratic families pooled their resources to fight external foes in order to protect their own personal needs. At the same time, they played a role in levying forces reflective of the entire citizen body.

Smith’s provocative emerging picture reveals that the gens was a fictional creation used by the patricians to justify themselves within Roman society. In contrast to the usual disparate and broken view of society that is usually portrayed in the secondary literature, Smith shows that the early period also embodied cohesion and success between the orders. What does this mean in terms of the relevance of the Romans gens to the modern world? Smith concludes that we can no longer see early Rome as conservative, primitive, or irrational. Instead, the Early Republican political system embodied a complex and dynamic society that was open to change and involved the entire citizen body, not just the so-called great gentilician families.

Overall, this is a magisterial work that will impact insights on the role of the gens, not only in antiquity but also in light of modern history. Smith’s methodology is sound, and his approach to the topic logical and comprehensive. The breadth of this work will also have wide appeal to ancient historians, archaeologists, students, and specialists alike.

Lisa A. Hughes
Department of Greek and Roman Studies
University of Calgary
Calgary T2N 1N4

Book Review of The Roman Clan: The Gens from Ancient Ideology to Modern Anthropology, by C.J. Smith

Reviewed by Lisa A. Hughes

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 112, No. 3 (July 2008)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1123.Hughes

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