Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Some thoughts on Robin Seager's "Pompey: A political biography".

Having read Adrian Goldsworthy's account of Caesar's life (discussed below), my appetite was whetted for some further reading on the Late Republic. My attention immediately turned to Caesar's great opponent (in the end, at least): Pompey.

Given the relative lack of dedicated English language monographs on Pompey, my choice was limited to a 2002 reprint of Robin Seager's 1979 work "Pompey: A political biography", nevertheless the work is a respected study, and so my hand was hardly forced reluctantly to read it.

Seager immediately states his intentions in the preface by saying the work is a political biography of Pompey, and will contain no detailed military discussions (it doesn't - important military battles are covered, or indeed not covered, with swift brevity. Not once does Seager mention a legion, or the triple acies). Coming straight from reading Goldsworthy (a particularly dedicated military historian), I thought this approach would be refreshing. That said, I had some reservations that the work may, as a consequence of the unswerving political focus, never quite get at an understanding of Pompey the man. That worry turned out to be somewhat founded, but I will discuss that later.

Seager chooses to carve up the corpus of Pompey's life into 13 sections, each hovering around 10-15 pages in length. The sections conform to the major events of Pompey's political life, and facilitate a somewhat breakneck jaunt through a rather full life. The opening introductory section is written in an exceptionally clear style, as is the rest of the work, and, to my mind at least, constitutes one of the clearest and brief discussions of the problems facing the Late Republic around, especially in understanding the complexities of land ownership, personal ambition and the changes in military organisation since the end of the Punic Wars (146 B.C.E).

The opening sections discuss the role of Pompey's father in his life, and the situation that Pompey faced after his death - particularly the social and political situation he had inherited. I found the explanations detailing the transition from here to Sulla's "hatchetman" (one among many instances of humour Seager injects into the narrative - pg. 32) especially engaging and adept, with special regards to understanding the complex and original position Pompey held within the Roman state. In fact, Seager does an excellent job throughout of explaining Pompey and his position at any given moment in relation to his piers and the state more generally.

It occurred to me after reading these opening sections that Seager uses a fair amount of Latin, which would seem to conflict with his statement that the work is for the general reader as well as the scholar or student. I then realised that the work was published originally some thirty years ago, and the standards for what has become popular history were undoubtedly different. The Latin provided some problems for myself, who has studied it, and so I can imagine it may hinder the understanding of some key parts of the text to those with no Latin.

Seager states in his afterword that no major scholarly advancement has been made in the thirty years since the original publication of his book, and given the views he expresses within the work it's difficult to disagree with him to any great extent, as the main elements of scholarly discussion and contention are around now as then, and he has similar views in the text to many modern scholars. He does tend to overstate the "popularis" vs "optimate" understanding of the Late Republic, but insomuch as these labels are useful he does use them appropriately, and he's careful to state the individual nature of the periods politics and the simplicity of any such conclusion (pg.29+128) and furthermore stresses the lack of a "monolithic bloc" anywhere in Late Republican politics (pg.132).

One of the areas I feel he fails to illuminate is the nature of a soldiers loyalty during this period. He does, of course, mention that a soldier has great loyalty to his General (as only the General, not the state, can ensure his future prosperity) (pg.28) but he fails to mention the further (logical, I think) conclusion that the soldiers were ultimately out for themselves, and would tie themselves to their General in the hope of self betterment. There is a wide tendency to overstate the post Marian General/soldier relationship as one of exclusive loyalty, and while it makes much sense, I feel it's important to stress not only the individual nature of Roman politics but also the, similarly, selfish world the soldiers likely inhabited too. Again, I think my view on this is influenced by Gruen's "Last Generation of the Roman Republic", so I will comment more fully on this in the future.

The greatest strength of the work is in how the political narrative can help one to understand the characters of the time. One is given an excellent understanding of the vanity of Pompey through his political decisions, and there is also considerable worth in the depictions of Cicero as equally vein (pg.77) and of the exceptionally petty actions of the ruling elite, Cato especially (pg.83-84).

The Late Republic was a time full of interesting characters, and Seager's political focus serves to highlight the often dirty side of the whole affair - which is an admirable achievement given the temptation to consider the "Great Men" of the period apart from their actions. The leading men of the time were usually corrupt, bribery was endemic and each would do almost anything to ensure their personal ambitions. It was a period of intense rivalry and widespread disorder. Seager manages to highlight these characters indirectly through his purely political discussion, and in doing so states only fact and reasonable judgements. Significant value judgements are left at square at the feet of the reader. This element of the work, I think, is an illuminating minor triumph.

One of the upshots from this is that Pompey is not painted as the tragic, somewhat bumbling political figure that he often is. Whether or not to view him like this is entirely for the reader to decide, and I found it quite refreshing to distance myself from the more common depictions of Pompey as a tragic figure and try to understand him as a more rounded individual.

Sadly, the greatest criticism is on a related note. The book feels less about Pompey and more about a constant fizz and rush of political events, albeit somewhat centred around Pompey himself. One can take a step towards understanding Pompey via his political decisions and actions, but there is very little reflection on Pompey as a man. This focus on Pompey as a political agent is perhaps a reflection of the works age - scholarship certainly used to focus on politics at the expense of other avenues, although critically this may all be for naught - as the work is clearly called a political biography. To my mind the criticism is not strong enough to damage the work significantly, but it's certainly valid enough insomuch as it highlights the age of the work and the faults that stem from that.

Defined by it's own terms the work is a success, I think, without any doubt. It's a clear and thoughtful story of the political life of Pompey that offers much to be pondered. Considered more generally it could be said to have certain weaknesses, many of these stemming from it's age and approach (Seager is aware of these and makes mention of them frequently in his afterword). He also is just one step away from rendering the reprint as pointless (given the lack of serious advances in scholarship on Pompey and in the debatable usefulness of political biography and secondary monographs more generally), but is saved by the fact that secondary sources for Pompey's life in English are somewhat lacking and having any in print serves the common good.

If indeed the work is somewhat outdated, the fact that it is now more available surely is a positive thing - for perhaps it can serve as a basis for the fuller study of Pompey that is still needed, the one that recognises not just political moving and shaking, but the events that may have driven him, like the death of Julia, or his intense fear of assassination. This criticism can be thrown at Goldsworthy also, insomuch as the death of Julia gets surprisingly little coverage or analysis, and so perhaps in many ways these two books about the two greatest figures of the Late Republic, despite claiming to be aimed at the normal reader, are still, if perhaps unwittingly, tied to the two dominant classical scholarly traditions of the past - that of politics and war.


Relevant bibliography: Seager, R, "Pompey: a political biography", Blackwell (2002).


Addendum: It occurred to me several days after initially posting this that Seager was perhaps limited to political biography because it's the only form biography that follows the facts we know, and somewhat avoids the problems of historiography (where possible). In that respect, many of the criticisms above are unjust, as they fail to give credit for a conscious decision in making it purely a political biography.

It's not that a more rounded study wouldn't be appreciated (despite the methodological problems that it may involve), simply that Seager considered the worth of secondary monographs more generally and concluded a political biography was the only avenue he could really explore.

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