Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.9.10


Clive Skidmore, Practical Ethics for Roman Gentlemen. The Work of Valerius Maximus. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1996. Pp. 142. £30.00. ISBN 0-85989-477-0.


Reviewed by Jane D. Chaplin, Middlebury College.

In this book, a revision of his 1988 doctoral thesis, Skidmore (S.) seeks to rescue Valerius Maximus from his current lack of popularity and to establish him as a writer of substance. S. starts by redressing Valerius' inaccessibility. He gives basic, introductory information about Valerius and his text, provides a conspectus of the text by offering a translation of the chapter headings that accompany it, and addresses two related questions: what was the purpose of the book, and for whom was it intended? In S.'s view, the book was not a mere handbook for declaimers, but was written as moral instruction for educated Romans. This argument governs the organization and contents of the book.

In Part One, S. surveys the role of exempla in ancient education. Chapter 1 deals with exempla in Greek literature as a source of moral instruction. Chapter 2 then looks at instruction by exempla at Rome. Apart from any Greek influence, Roman aristocrats traditionally found models for imitation and emulation in the deeds of their ancestors, which were brought to mind both by physical objects (such as imagines) and by verbal representations (such as funeral orations). Eventually the practice of using the past as a guide to conduct spread beyond aristocratic families. Chapter 3 discusses the part Quintilian, Cicero and Seneca assign to literature in providing exempla for moral instruction.

In Part Two, S. looks at the form of Valerius' work. In Chapter 4 he identifies brevity, accessibility, and comprehensiveness as the central characteristics of the work. After pointing out similar qualities in Vitruvius, Velleius Paterculus, and Frontinus, S. turns in Chapter 5 to the Hellenistic compilations, which he sees as models for Valerius' work. In Chapter 6 S. returns to Valerius and shows that he has gone beyond these models in organizing his material thematically.

In Part Three, S. finally examines Valerius' work itself. Chapter 7 is the longest and takes us deepest into the text to demonstrate S.'s argument that the book was a work of substantive moral instruction and not simply an amanuensis for declaimers. He starts with the text's opposition of uirtus and uitia, which receive praise and blame respectively, and shows that the idea of a 'just reward" is essential for any moral system (p. 57). Then he focuses on Book 2, which has "Ancestral Customs" as its subject and implicitly and explicitly holds the past up as a model for the present. The morality of ancestral ways led to the foundation of the empire, and so the welfare of the state ultimately depends on collective personal morality. Closely related to traditional morality is religio, the subject of Book 1. As S. shows, moral behavior is predicated on the belief that the gods observe all human actions and reward and punish them according to their merits. S. next treats areas where Valerius goes beyond exhortations to proper conduct and provides actual moral guidance. His heavy-handed presentation leaves no doubt about what any episode means: the besieged Casilinates were right to sustain themselves by eating leather; the Numantines were wrong to resort to cannibalism; the Praenestine who sold his rations and starved was too miserly; the Praenestine who bought the exorbitantly-priced rations and survived was prudent (pp. 70-71). Valerius also shows how exempla can console people for the reverses of politics, poverty, fortune, and death. S. concludes the chapter by discussing Valerius' attitude towards vices and their role in moral instruction.

Chapter 8 considers Valerius' principles of selection, beginning with the decision to make a collection of exempla and then looking at the criteria guiding his choice of exempla. S. cites plausibility, entertainment and credibility (fides). In Chapter 9 he treats Valerius' criteria of belief: anything based on divine will is acceptable since religio is the basis of any moral system, but in general, Valerius has a skeptical attitude towards anything too antique or too fantastic; he also rejects fables, which are for the instruction of children and the uneducated.

Part Four is entitled 'Author and Audience'. Chapter 10 argues that Valerius' target audience was the "property-owning Roman paterfamilias" who was "educated" and "of high social status" (p. 105), to whom Valerius's work was read by a trained slave over dinner. In his 1992 study, Valerius Maximus and the Rhetoric of the New Nobility (University of North Carolina Press), Martin Bloomer argued that Valerius intended his work not for the old aristocracy, but rather for those who came from outside Rome and its well-established powerful families; these are the people who would have needed to read a book to learn what traditional Romans absorbed as part of their upbringing. S. refers to and dismisses Bloomer's thesis without satisfactorily refuting it. In the final chapter S. argues that Valerius himself belonged to a patrician family and turned to writing when he did not achieve a political career. S. does not explain the implications of Valerius' status for the work, and the book ends abruptly without a conclusion.

This book has a number of advantages. Unlike Valerius, it is extremely accessible: the argument is broken down into brief chapters, and translations follow the quotations. It provides a good introductory discussion to the centrality of exempla in Roman life and thought, and it offers a challenge to the traditional approach to Valerius. Its narrow focus, however, leads to over-simplification and precludes exploration of some of the more complex questions implicitly raised about Valerius. For example, in Chapter 7, S. marshals plenty of evidence to defend his thesis that Valerius had a genuine moral program, and yet avoids the more problematic aspects of Valerius' interest in morality. As S. points out, advocating the use of historical exempla implies that the past is somehow superior to the present and has something to teach it; but on the other hand, Valerius views the Caesars positively in general and has high praise for Tiberius and his regime in particular. If the empire is flourishing, what can Valerius' almost exclusively Republican exempla contribute to its success? Or, if the past is in fact the paradigm, what exactly about the present should be changed? S.'s book does not address such questions and thereby does not pursue the complexities of its provocative thesis.