Cambridge University Press
0521827884 - Roman manliness - virtus and the Roman Republic - by Myles McDonnell


On the fifth of December in 63 the Roman senate met to discuss a grave crisis.1 Senators and a sitting praetor had been accused of conspiring to murder the chief magistrates and overthrow the state. Over the previous seventy years, the old and aching Republic had suffered terrible violence, but seldom if ever had men from the inner circles of power been accused of such crimes. In the debate to decide the fate of the accused senators, three of Rome’s leading figures gave speeches that would become famous. Cicero’s Fourth Catilinarian became a classic of Latin oratory, mined for examples of urbane wit.2 Even more celebrated were the speeches delivered by Caesar and the younger Cato, which were immortalized by the historian Sallust, writing some twenty years after the event.3 A central concern of Cicero’s speech, and of the words Sallust placed in the mouths of Caesar and Cato, was the decline of ancestral standards of manliness.4 Given that some of the men charged with planning to slaughter their peers had held the highest offices of the Roman state, and were the descendants of men who had made Rome great, this is not surprising.5 “Manliness” – what it was and how it had been perverted – was, in a real sense, what the debate and the crisis were about.

   The Latin word for manliness is virtus, from vir, meaning man,6 and virtus designates the activity and quality associated with the noun from which it is derived; virtus characterizes the ideal behavior of a man.7

In all accounts of ancient Roman values virtus holds a high place as a traditional quality that played a central part in war, politics, and religion. So close was the identification of virtus with Rome that when virtus was honored with a state cult, the image chosen for the cult statue was the same as that of the goddess Roma herself: an armed amazon. Virtus was regarded as nothing less than the quality associated with, and responsible for Roman greatness, and was central to the construction of the ancient Roman self-image. The place of virtus in ancient Roman values is well expressed by Cicero in a speech he gave before the Roman populace in 43:

crudelitatem mortis et dedecus virtus propulsare solet, quae propria est Romani generis et seminis. hanc retinete, quaeso, Quirites, quam vobis tamquam hereditatem maiores vestri reliquerunt. [quamquam] alia omnia falsa, incerta sunt, caduca, mobilia: virtus est una altissimis defixa radicibus, quae numquam vi ulla labefactari potest, numquam demoveri loco. hac [virtute] maiores vestri primum universam Italiam devicerunt, deinde Carthaginem exciderunt, Numantiam everterunt, potentissimos reges, bellicosissimas gentis in dicionem huius imperi redegerunt.

But virtus usually wards off a cruel and dishonorable death, and virtus is the badge of the Roman race and breed. Cling fast to it, I beg you men of Rome, as a heritage that your ancestors bequeathed to you. All else is false and doubtful, ephemeral and changeful: only virtus stands firmly fixed, its roots run deep, it can never be shaken by any violence, never moved from its place. With this virtus your ancestors conquered all Italy first, then razed Carthage, overthrew Numantia, brought the most powerful kings and the most warlike peoples under the sway of this empire. Philippics 4.138

Virtus is the special inheritance of the Roman people, and it was by this virtus, this “manliness,” that Roman supremacy had been built. The Romans believed they were successful because they were “better” men.9 In order to understand the ancient Romans, therefore, one must understand their concept of manliness, and to understand that, one must understand virtus.

   Yet virtus is a notoriously difficult word to translate.10 As in most cultures, in ancient Rome the term for manliness had a number of different denotations. Yet it is striking that a word whose etymological connection to the Latin word for man is so apparent, can be attributed not only to women, but to deities, animals, abstract ideas, and inanimate objects.11 As a purely linguistic phenomenon this is noteworthy, but since virtus was regarded by the Romans as a preeminent social and political value, its wide and sometimes odd semantic range has implications that go beyond philological significance.

   The phenomenon has received less attention than it deserves primarily because scholars have viewed virtus as an unchanging Roman value and have construed the word as having a semantic range intrinsically so elastic as to make almost any use of the word unremarkable. The general opinion among philologists and political historians is that virtus was an essentially unchanged concept, which from earliest times had a wide semantic range. Moreover, virtus is said to have been a single, all-embracing concept that subsumed other cardinal Roman virtues. It has been termed “homogeneous” or “undivided Roman virtus,” and its significance sought in a “virtus complex” of moral ideals. The prevailing view is that whatever changes may have occurred in the meaning of virtus were minimal and insignificant.12

   The central ideals of a society are, however, seldom entirely static. Speaking at a time of civil war, when he was rallying forces to defend traditional senatorial government against generals who challenged it, Cicero in the Philippics strove to present virtus as both traditional and unaltered. But, as Cicero knew, the meaning of virtus had changed over the course of centuries. Many Latin texts certainly do present virtus as a wide-ranging and all-encompassing ethical concept, but such texts, almost without exception, date to the period of Cicero or later. A general weakness of philological analyses of virtus, and other Latin values as well, has been their tendency to impose usages found in late-republican and imperial literature on to occurrences of virtus found in early (pre-Classical) Latin.13 The consequence of this myopic emphasis on uses of virtus found in Classical Latin has been, on one hand, to undervalue the meaning of virtus that predominates in early Latin – martial prowess or courage – and, on the other hand, to underestimate seriously the extent of Hellenic influence on virtus. That the Latin language was greatly influenced, especially in its lexicon, by borrowing from Greek, is certainly the case. In addition, the idea that virtus had an intrinsically wide semantic range is at odds with the conclusions of historians of ancient Roman institutions, religion, and art, who in examining the evidence for its cult, have agreed that virtus was primarily a martial concept.14

   It is Latin usage itself, however, that makes the notion of virtus as a wide-ranging ethical ideal untenable. This will be demonstrated in the following chapters, but two passages are worth noting here. In his tragedy Hectoris lytraThe Ransom of Hector – the Latin poet Ennius, who lived from about 239 to 169, has Priam state that justice – ius – is better than virtus because bad men often possess virtus:


Melius est virtute ius: nam saepe virtutem mali
Nanciscuntur: ius atque aecum se a malis spernit procul.

justice is better than virtus, for bad men often acquire virtus:
justice and fairness take themselves far away from bad men.

155–6 Jocelyn = sc. 188–9 Vahlen = 200–1 ROL


The lines repeat a famous Socratic dictum about justice – δική – and courage – ἀνδρ∊ία,15 and it might be argued that Ennius’ characterization of virtus merely reflects the paucity of Latin vocabulary that compelled the single word virtus to regularly translate both ἀνδρ∊ία, the Greek word for courage, and ἀρ∊τή, the Greek word for excellence. Indeed, ἀρ∊τή was a broad-ranging and decidedly ethical concept, and virtus was the standard Latin word used to translate it.16 But in Greek literature one does not find ἀρ∊τή contrasted with ethical ideals as Ennius here contrasts virtus to ius. Quite the contrary, as early as the mid-seventh century, the poet Theognis expressed the view that “the whole of ἀρ∊τή is summed up in justice” – ἐν δὲ δικαιοσύνῃ συλλήβδην πᾶς᾽ ἀρ∊τή ᾽στιν. (147 West). By the mid-fourth century this idea had become proverbial.17 Ennius’ lines, however, which were recited before a Roman audience, draw a clear contrast between ius, an overtly ethical quality, and virtus, and stand in stark contradiction to the theory that virtus was conceived of as an ethical ideal representing the sum of the qualities valued by Romans.18

   Some might argue that the view of virtus expressed in these lines of Latin tragedy are poetic, Greek-influenced, and somehow un-Roman. Such things, however, cannot be said of its appearance in the prose work of a quintessentially Roman author. In Book Three of De bello civili, Julius Caesar writes of two Allobrogian brothers named Raucillus and Egus, who commanded Caesar’s Gallic cavalry at the battle of Dyrrachium in 48. Caesar states that he had given them position and wealth because of the great virtus they had displayed in war:

...singulari virtute homines, quorum opera Caesar omnibus Gallicis bellis optima fortissimaque erat usus. his domi ob has causas amplissimos magistratus mandaverat atque eos extra ordinem in senatum legendos curaverat, agrosque in Gallia ex hostibus captos praemiaque rei pecuniariae magna tribuerat locupletesque ex egentibus fecerat. hi propter virtutem non solum apud Caesarem in honore erant sed etiam apud exercitum cari habebantur; of outstanding virtus, whose excellent and very brave services Caesar had employed in all his Gallic wars. Because of this he had given to them the highest offices in their own country, and had seen to it that they, extraordinarily, were enrolled in the senate, and had awarded to them land in Gaul captured from enemies and a great amount of very valuable booty, and had turned them from poor to rich men. Because of their virtus, these men were not only held in honor by Caesar, but were also dear to the army;

BC 3.59.1–3

Succumbing to greed, however, the brothers embezzled the pay of the soldiers under their command. This conduct is described as an ethical failing by Caesar, who writes that it brought public scorn as well as guilt to the two Gauls.19 Caesar, however, decided to put off any punishment of the brothers, and did so, he tells us, in large measure because of their virtus.20

Caesar neque tempus illud animadversionis esse existimans et multa virtuti eorum concedens rem totam distulit;...

Caesar, deciding that it was not the time for punishment, and conceding much to their virtus, postponed the whole business;...

BC 3.60.1

   The statement of Caesar, who was famous for his precision with words,21 that he had temporarily excused the ethical failings of Raucillus and Egus because of their virtus, makes little sense if virtus were normally considered a single all-inclusive and ethical concept. The contention that virtus comprised a “complex” of moral ideals that was “regarded by the Romans themselves as embodying the specially Roman ideal” is, therefore, demonstrably untrue.22 Yet it is the case that Caesar’s contemporary Cicero both states that an ethical usage of virtus (as the quality that engenders and preserves friendship) is its meaning in colloquial speech – ex consuetudine vitae sermonisque nostri –, and not infrequently employs virtus as a unified, all-embracing, ethical term.23 Virtus was a far more complex value than modern scholarship has supposed, and how it came to be used in various and contradictory ways requires explanation. But a study that privileges usages of virtus found only in Classical Latin will not do.

   The first three chapters of this book examine the various meanings of virtus, from its earliest occurrences, with each instance of the word evaluated on its own terms by paying close attention to both textual and historical contexts. The influences of Greek words and ideas, in particular ἀρ∊τή, on some of these meanings are evaluated, as are the socio-linguistic mechanisms by which these influences were effected. From a philological perspective, this will be seen to be largely a process by which Latin virtus came to take on the modern meaning of “virtue.” But analyzed as a purely ethical concept, virtus is inevitably a poor cousin to the more semantically wide-ranging and philosophically sophisticated Greek concept ἀρετή, from which many of the ethical references of virtus were adopted. A proper study of virtus must situate the Roman concept in its cultural and historical context as well as concentrate on the basic meaning of the term, which is “manliness,” and how it functioned in Roman society.

   It will be seen that the pervasive influences of Hellenism on mid- and late-republican Rome, not only altered the meaning of the word virtus, but the idea of manliness itself. As a consequence, two distinct conceptions of the term developed – one traditionally Roman and essentially martial in nature, the other Greek-influenced and primarily ethical.24 Not only that, but beginning in the late-second century, the divergent meanings of the term denoting Roman manliness were publicly debated, and the contested meaning of virtus played a critical ideological role in the crisis that shook and finally ended the Roman Republic.

   Anthropological and sociological studies have shown that despite differences of content and definition, in most cultures manhood is regarded not as a status gained merely by coming of age, but as something that must be demonstrated or won, a concept that is precarious, elusive, and exclusionary. Moreover, in most cultures the term denoting manliness comprises a variety of qualities, emphasis on one or exclusion of another depending on societal values.25 This book, therefore, also addresses the fundamental questions of what it meant to be a man – vir – in ancient Rome, how the status was attained, and how it changed over time. Institutions that taught and encouraged the aggressively martial types of behavior that Roman manliness traditionally comprised are examined, together with the ways in which manliness was demonstrated. Of great importance for understanding the nature of Roman manliness are the distinctive ways in which virtus was represented visually – the armed amazon and the mounted warrior – and the ideological significance of the latter in regard to republican values. In addition, it will be shown how, in order to insure the stability of the state, the Republic developed a singular system of institutional constraints on aggressive displays of manliness, and that the cult to divine Virtus played a central role in challenges to those constraints that were posed in the late Republic by ambitious Roman leaders.

   The scope of this study is limited, with certain exceptions, to the republican period. (Because of the notoriously poor documentation for much of this period, some of the arguments that are later advanced are ambitious; I hope not excessively so.) This decision was made, in part, to keep the book to a reasonable length, but for a number of substantive reasons as well. First, with the exception of one or two new usages found in late Latin, the semantic development of virtus seems to have been completed by the time of Cicero. Second, it was under the Republic, as Rome grew from an important Latin community to a great Mediterranean power, that the institutions and mores that are characteristically Roman were shaped, and the ancient Roman self-image was constructed. Roman values that changed under the Empire did so, to a large degree, in reaction to the lost but not forgotten Republic. Finally, there is an intrinsic connection between virtus and res publica. Before the establishment of the Republic, royal women, such as Tanaquil and Tullia, were imagined to have played an important and active role in public affairs, and the political power of imperial women rose to great heights with the Principate. But in the intervening 500 years, the Republic defined political power as male. In this Rome was not unusual, because political power was a male preserve in virtually all ancient societies. But the bond between the form of the state and the status of being a man was closer and more essential in Rome than in others, because in Rome, serving the Republic was the only way many Romans males could lay claim to being a man.

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