Review of ‘Marius’ by Federico Santangelo (2016)

Santaneglo, Federico. 2016. Marius. London: Bloomsbury.

Biographies have fallen largely out of style among historians, particularly since they have been on the whole fetishized accounts of great men in history — or the exact opposite, polemical narratives aimed at “correcting” the historical record.  There are, of course, exceptions, among them is Santangelo’s present account of the life of Gaius Marius, a controversial figure in history if there has ever been one — but one who has gained much by the greater controversies which followed in his wake under figures like Sulla and the two triumvirates. That Marius’ life and career have been in need of a new account is self-evident to students of ancient history: the last major appraisal of his life in English came in R.J. Evans’ 1994 biography.  That recent history has demonstrated the pressing need for the study of demagogues and their abuse of popular politics makes this critical look at Gaius Marius all the more relevant to students and the public alike.

Although — or perhaps because — this text is meant for students, the author has gone to great lengths to make the subject-matter accessible to both scholarly and lay readers alike.  Its brief length — 103 pages, with an additional eight pages of notes for further reading — makes it quite convenient, and the book can very easily be read in a week’s time.  Here you will not find the sort of Tacitean expressions that can bog down readers of Syme’s works, nor will you find the sort of pedantic phrasing or arguments that make many works by classicists nearly impossible to stomach.  This is all the more remarkable when one realizes just how thoroughly Santangelo engages the ancient sources.  Unlike the works of many amateur — and even some professional — historians, Santangelo never takes their words or their agenda for granted.  What might then by another author devolve into philological arguments over cases or tenses is here instead a balanced consideration of the competing accounts, particularly between those of, first, Sallust and Plutarch and, later, Appian and Plutarch.

And as a historian should, Santangelo does not come down on one side or another.  Although he does certainly provide an educated opinion on how he believes events might most logically be reconstructed, he is at all times attentive to point out where gaps in our knowledge exist and where reasonable explanations may simply not be possible.  If this is unsatisfying to those who expect that history is a series of factual truths, then Santangelo is prepared to explain that all historical truths are a matter of the interpretation provided by their authors — and that although there is certainly a thing as “reality,” despite the rantings of some recent politicians, we must always be keen to observe the differences in accounts.

If it seems that I have gone on at length about Santangelo’s critical use of his sources, it is simply because I wish to draw attention to it and heap praise upon the author.  It is not easy to untangle these narratives without finding one’s self in a mire of academic arguments.  Rather than do this, Santangelo presents all the narratives and explains just why they differ or even contradict one another.  For example, rather than try to puzzle out Marius’ fantastical flight from Italy to Africa in 88 BCE, Santangelo spends time explaining to the reader the motivations and rhetorical approaches taken by his sources, particularly Plutarch.  This opens up discussions on the use of sources by the ancient authors — sources to which we no longer have access, but which we can verify existed with a certain degree of certainty.  Perhaps I am alone in this, but such explanations felt like invitations to engage the source material directly, and more than once I had to stop myself from seeking out the relevant sections in Plutarch or Appian, or to read competing narratives by modern scholars.

It may simply be my own interpretation of the text based on contemporary events here in the United States, but there is a certain amount of warning and foreshadowing present throughout the text.  Santangelo more than once points out the ways that republican institutions can very easily break down in a manner that appears both legal and normal to contemporaries living through the events he describes.  The obstructionist — often labeled “popular” — measures taken by tribunes, and the equally contentious backlash that came from the senate, shows a republic teetering on the verge of chaos, a chaos which ultimately spilled over into political and mob violence.  This book is replete with the assassinations and suicides of lawfully-elected officers of state, something that had begun with the assassination of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BCE and merely escalated into a form of “normal” political discourse by Marius’ day.  That Marius and Cinna, following their return to Rome in 87, felt justified in the purge of members of the aristocracy does not show so much a desire to side with the people against the oligarchy of the senate as it demonstrates the destructive nature of the republican political process in its death throes.  The outcome of this process was the legitimization of political violence, begun in 133 and made legal in 82/81 as the so-called “proscriptions” of Sulla — a legal recourse which was again repeated by Cicero in 63 and even more dramatic and far more bloody fashion under the “second triumvirate” of Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus in 43 BCE.

All of this is to say that this book should serve as something of a warning to our present political processes and institutions.  It takes very little to set a precedent of political self-destruction, particularly when it is headed by a demagogues whose primary interests are their own glorification rather than society and the state.  Although they claim to be the mantle of popular sovereignty and champions of the people, beware of such claims — they are rarely what they seem.

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