Kings and regime change in the Roman Republic

Kings and regime change in the Roman Republic

By Olivier Hekster

Imperialism, Cultural Politics, and Polybius, edited by Christopher Smith and Liv Mariah Yarrow (Oxford University Press, 2012)

Abstract: This chapter analyses the ways in which political circumstances in Republican Rome were exploited by foreign kings to strengthen their positions. It argues that kings consciously used the increasingly public lack of cohesion within the Roman senate to boost their own standing, but that the lack of cohesion also made it more difficult to anticipate how Rome would react. Taking Numidia and Egypt as diachronic case studies, it highlights the importance of personal patronage in Republican foreign policy, and suggests that the clarity of obligations which client kings had towards Rome became more problematic as ‘Rome’ was increasingly difficult to define. Finally, it notices the somewhat biased position of Cicero in describing this process in the Late Republic.

Introduction: Fathers of the Senate, my father Micipsa admonished me on his death-bed to consider that I was only bailiff to the kingdom of Numidia, but that the right and authority were in your hands: at the same time he asked me to try and be as helpful as possible to the Roman people in peace and in war; to regard you as my relatives and kin. He declared that if I did this, I should find in your friendship an army, and wealth, and protections for my kingdom. Patres conscripti, Micipsa pater meus moriens mihi praecepit, ‘uti regni Numidiae tantummodo procurationem existimarem meam, ceterum ius et imperium eius penes vos esse: simul eniterer domi militiaeque quam maximo usui esse populo Romano; vos mihi cognatorum, vos affinium locoducerem: si ea fecissem, in vestra amicitia exercitum, divitias, munimenta regni me habiturum. (Sallust, Jug. 14.1)

When Adherbal wanted to accomplish regime change in Numidia, he turned to Rome. He was neither the first nor the last “friendly king” to do so, though in his case Rome did notcome to his rescue, to Sallust’s dismay. In many ways, and for an extensive period of time, regal disputes throughout the Mediterranean were settled at Rome.

“Regime change” is, of course, a highly politicized term to use in this context, and thus very much in keeping with the dedicatee of this volume. In fact, it follows directly from an extended, and at the time highly topical, late-night discussion with Peter on regime change in the (Roman) world. Though the niceties of argument are difficult to recall (for reasons that must be clear to anyone who ever had prolonged late-nights discussions in Peter’s rooms), the next morning Peter sent me the handout of a paper he had just given at The Second Wadham Classics Reunion, called “Polybius: historian for our time”. It included a list of Roman-originated regime change in the period of Polybius’ history. The list is striking, and once more makes clear two points which Polybius – and Peter – continued to stress: how important it was for Rome that all were to “submit to the Romans and obey their orders”, and that Roman actions are often (and were towards the later Republic perhaps increasingly) to be explained through self-interest.

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