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Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History

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Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History
By Victoria Emma Pagán. (University of Texas Press, Austin: 2004. Pg. viii, 197.) ISBN: 0-292-70561-1.

Reviewed by Simone Bonim - March 2, 2005

Conspiracies and conspiracy theories are nothing new, and have been a part of human history for as far back as the written record goes. It is a safe assumption, that such schemes pedate the written record. Studying ancient conspiracies and conspiracy theories can be difficult due to the lack of documentary evidence. The Ancient Romans were, however, an exception. Conspiracies were an integral component of the Ancient Roman political landscape, and fortunately for modern scholars, a plethora of documents survived that detail the various plots, who was involved and what their motives were, the results of their efforts, and what happened to the conspirators.

In Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History, Victoria Emma Pagán makes a detailed and informative literary study of Roman conspiracy narratives, drawing on the works of such famed historians as Livy, Sallust, Tacitus, Josephus, and Appian. Pagan examines how these authors documented various conspiracies, their motives for writing about them, and how these accounts were used - from being read as pure historical accounts to being used as propaganda. As Pagan explains in her introduction to Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History, this book is not meant to be read as an historical text, rather she is primarily concerned with studying how these conspiracies were portrayed in the literary and historical works of the period.

The text is divided into two main sections. The first section deals with three conspiracies that failed. Namely the Catilinarian, Bacchanalian, and Pisonian Conspiracies. Her study of these conspiracies is based largely upon Sallust's Bellum Catilinae which documents the Catilinarian Conspiracy, Livy's description of the Bacchanalian conspiracy, and Tacitus take on the Pisonian Conspiracy which is detailed in his Annales. Each writer details the background of the conspirators, tries to explain why they felt it necessary to secretly scheme against those in power, the role that various women played in the schemes, how the plots were uncovered, and the punishments meted out to the conspirators. Pagan also touches upon the conspiracy theories that surrounded these events and how these theories may have tainted the historical record.

The second section of this book deals with two conspiracies that succeeded. Namely, Josephus's account of the assassination of Caligula as detailed in his work Jewish Antiquities, and the assassination of Julius Caesar as detailed in Appian's Civil War. Throughout, the choices that the various writers made in how they depict the various characters involved in the conspiracies offer telling insights into the political environment in which the accounts were written, and the mind set of each individual writer.

In exploring these five conspiracies, Pagan takes care to contrast the accounts written by Livy, Sallust, Tacitus, Josephus, and Appian with works by other writers such as Cicero, Vergil, Velleius Paterculus, Plutarch, Suetonius, and Dio, who also wrote about these conspiracies. Pagan shows where the various accounts agree with each, and were they don't. In those instances were the writers disagree over a specific event or outcome, Pagan explores the various reasons that might account for the discrepancies between the various writers.

Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History is a fascinating book to read. Not only do the conspiracies themselves make for compelling reading, but so does the explanations on how and why these events were chronicled. This book will fascinate anyone interested in Roman history or literature. It will also fascinate anyone with an interest in women's history / studies as the work details the influential role that women played in the conspiracies. In addition to well-documented endnotes, this book also includes an outstanding bibliography.

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