Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.3.06

J.E. Lendon, Empire of Honour. The Art of Government in the Roman World. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. Pp. xii, 320. $75.00. ISBN 0-19-815079-2.

Reviewed by Michael Peachin, Classics, New York University,

Twenty years ago, Fergus Millar published the first edition of The Emperor in the Roman World, and five years after that, Richard Saller's Personal Patronage under the Early Empire appeared.1 It seems safe to say that these two books have largely driven subsequent discussion of the imperial governmental system. Millar revealed an emperor who reacted, when this became desirable or necessary, to the needs or wants of his subjects; and those reactions very often took the form of favors. Saller then laid out the broad social milieu that shaped and controlled the exchange of such favors; his was a Roman world (governmental and otherwise) knit together by relationships of patronage. Put briefly, the imperial Romans turn out to have governed their realm in a generally ad hoc fashion, and many aspects of their administrative system turn out to have been impelled more by social concerns than by what we would call rational bureaucratic or administrative considerations. With the excellent book here under review, Jon Lendon has refined this whole discussion. He adroitly and cogently delineates an aspect of Roman mentality, which must have done much to cause emperors, or governmental officials, to function as Millar or Saller would say they did; the subject of L.'s book is the Romans' exquisitely honed sense of honor.2

A thirty-page introduction sets the stage, with the first page revealing exactly where we are headed. L. is interested to discover the very fuel upon which the imperial machine ran: " how the emperor got his officials and subjects to do what he wanted, how officials procured the obedience of subjects, and how subjects and officials could bend other officials, and even the emperor, to their will" (p. 1). As L. points out, the tag-team of force and fear was clearly effective where subjects were concerned; but as he also notes, the former was applied in such limited doses, that these can hardly have been the only elements in the overall maintenance of order. And besides, by what mechanism did an emperor, for example, persuade his soldiers to do his bidding, thereby being able to frighten or force others into obedience? The question is, in the end: What exactly sustained an emperor's (or any other official's) authority? That which we would name constitutional law (insofar as the Romans had any of it) is argued not to have carried much weight at all.3 Various elements of what we would call superstition -- miracles, divinity, election by the gods, superhuman charisma -- may have helped emperors to rule, and to keep on ruling; but, such things cannot by themselves sufficiently explain a given emperor's position having remained steady. A nexus of patronage relationships likewise played an important role in buttressing rule; yet, as L. points out, there is something still obscure that will have lain beneath patronage, and which must have allowed it actually to work. That something, of course, he will reveal as honor.

Essential to L.'s argument is this comment: " the representatives of the Roman government, at several levels, were perceived as moral agents, and not as professional puppets jerked about by their official duties, pursuing policies emanating from their job descriptions" (p. 18). The result of such thinking, of course, was that governance came to be based on interpersonal relationships, with these, in turn, regulated principally by the dictates of the broader social fabric: " the subject paid 'honour' to his rulers as individuals deserving of it in themselves, and, in turn, the rulers are seen to relate to their subjects by 'honouring' them" (p. 23). Thus honor functioned as a "rhetoric of concealment" for harsher, more unpleasant (to the Roman taste) underlying realities -- for example, obedience necessarily rendered to superiors by subordinates (n.b., masters expected obedience from their slaves). Nevertheless, honor was not simply, as L. remarks (p. 24), "a plaster fig-leaf concealing something less publicly acceptable." As he urges, it had a real, practical power all its own. The rest of the book, then, examines how the realities and the fantasies of honor worked together actually to propel the Roman governmental machinery.

How did honor actually function? How did it bring about action? A second chapter lays this out. What L. says just before launching into these matters, however, is crucial. The workings of honor, though intricate and highly differentiated, were perfectly familiar to a Roman; that is not so where we are concerned. Therefore, in order somehow to introduce ourselves to what was indeed a complicated realm, an artificially tidy, overly systematic picture must be painted. The picture is perforce inadequate, and L. wisely warns the reader of this pitfall (p. 31). Moreover, in subsequent pages he is always careful to keep his own admonition in mind.

Honor functioned, then, as a sort of "common currency," by means of which various individual attributes could be tallied, thus providing an overall estimation of a man. However, the calculation was accomplished in the context of a highly varied and variable opinion-community; hence, honor was seldom static. In short, honor resided in the eye of the beholder, which in turn caused the Roman aristocrat to be forever studying himself in the gazes of his peers, and making himself over on the basis of what he there saw reflected. A number of pages (31-55) are therefore devoted to showing what might constitute honor, and to how a Roman might hope to acquire it for himself, or deny it to his rivals. This involves discussion of recommendation letters, the exchange of favors generally, dinner parties, the use of force, insults and abuse, etc. The next step is to demonstrate various methods for converting this currency of honor, once accumulated, into action (pp. 55-73). What might be considered a digression (though an interesting one) follows. Since honor in the Graeco-Roman world was not limited to humans, since the central theme of the book is honor as it affected government, and since government in the Roman world inevitably involved cities, L. devotes a number of pages to the ways in which a city might function just like a man in the realm of honor (pp. 73-89). In all of this giving and getting of honor, there lay an inherent danger. If the beholder, whose gaze was the bank which stored and dispensed honor-currency, closed his eyes to the values of the would-be honoree, the whole system might collapse. Thus, L. rounds out this chapter (pp. 89-103) with a look at potential challenges to aristocratic honor; challenges posed by philosophers, Christians, or various "communities of honour" beneath that of the aristocracy (e.g., gladiators, pantomimes, imperial slaves). The result is not a surprise: aristocratic conceptions of honor, like the aristocrats themselves, exerted a heavy weight of influence upon the vast array of society below.

The very pinnacle of Roman imperial society, the emperor, is the focus of a third chapter, which is divided into several subsections. The first (pp. 108-120) shows that imperial honor was effectively the same as that aspired to by aristocrats, though obviously more magnificent, and asks how emperors protected and increased their portion of honor. We are next shown briefly (pp. 120-129) how an emperor's necessary concern for his own honor could lead to his being manipulated by those below him, e.g., by the urban plebs. Then comes a detailed analysis of the ways in which honor allowed an emperor to rule (pp. 129-160), which, in turn, is followed by an excursus on the imperial cult (pp. 160-172). To my taste, there is one slight problem with the argument of this chapter (the following point also applies, to some extent, to the book's next chapter, on governmental officials and honor). The whole complex of honoring the emperor and being honored by the emperor was, it seems to me, set in motion by one simple fact: a certain man had at a given moment been made Caesar. Along with the purple, that man simply acquired an insuperable quantity of what the Romans called auctoritas. We might call it (in this imperial manifestation) brute power. Nor was this merely the bald, violent force that could be exerted via military muscle and steel.4 It was, in a more complete sense, a construct in men's minds, a mental perception which converted the man at the top effectively into a superhuman force.5 No doubt, just as L. argues, inappropriate behavior could eat away at any prince's honor (or auctoritas), could even lead to his downfall and death. But the game of 'honor and emperor' always began suddenly, on the dies imperii, and the emperor started the game with his power-bank full. In sum, it might have been preferable to give just a bit more weight to the complex of raw power that came automatically with the position and to the ways in which this power affected honor flowing to and from the emperor.6

A fourth chapter considers governmental officials other than the emperor, and the ways in which honor affected them, their work, and those dominated by them; as L. puts it, "the realities and humbugs of office and honour" (p. 177). The chapter opens in an especially intriguing fashion. L. reminds us (working from a particularly juicy imperial rescript, CTh 1,6,7) that relationships between Roman aristocrats, hence governmental officials, invariably hinged upon honor -- who had more or less of it, thus who was superior to whom. Given that, he points out the trouble potentially caused by one aristocratic official giving orders to another. And so we find that in administrative circles, appropriate reverence of one official toward another constituted "a second stream of power alongside strict obedience" (p. 180). From this observation proceeds an excellent discussion of the ways in which honor and office functioned hand-in-hand: giving or receiving an office was an honor; more honor could be gained in various fashions once in office (pp. 181-201). L. then turns to the relationships between rulers and ruled. The provincial governor is beautifully described: "A destructive whirlwind of rods and axes, he could be as arbitrary as a whirlwind too" (p. 201). Provincials might try in various ways to avert the havoc of such a storm: eventual prosecution of the governor, bribery, even revolt were possibilities. But obviously, none of these was very satisfactory. L.'s gaze thus turns again to things like deference, gratitude, honor, and dishonor; he demonstrates lucidly the ways in which such instruments shaped the relationships between governors and the governed. And in particular, there are here a number of fascinating thoughts about how the latter, by wielding these tools, might attempt to control the arbitrary terror of the former (pp. 203-222). The chapter closes with some tantalizing remarks on the dysfunctional aspects of late antique government. To put it briefly, and in L.'s own words, "under-honourable governors and over-honourable subjects" (p. 223). The former simply could not rule the latter.

A last chapter takes up the army (pp. 237-266). As L. points out, we might, on the one hand, perceive the soldiers as the plebs in arms, thus bestowing, along with the senate, proper political legitimacy upon the emperor, and thus becoming a constitutional partner in the government.7 Or, a harder stance can be taken (which L. inclines to do), namely, that force was necessary to the stability of the empire, and that the soldiers supplied this force, albeit without any proper constitutional authority. In this way -- i.e., with the argument that whether properly or not, the soldiers were central to the stability of the government -- L. explains his inclusion of a chapter on the army. While it might be argued that the intermediary role played by army commanders deserves more attention than it is here given, still discussion of honor and the soldiers seems justified.8 Several main points emerge. First, the army formed an honor-community separate and distinct from any others that existed. Secondly, the aristocrats who held positions of command in the army were expected by the common soldiers to adhere to the standards fixed by this particular society. Conversely, the soldiers expected their officers to be, and to behave as, aristocrats, i.e., also in various ways to adhere to the aristocratic code of honor. Third, the stability of any emperor's reign depended to a great extent upon a properly regulated honor-relationship directly with the soldiers (again, the role of commanders needs perhaps more attention here).

In the end, some might incline to argue that L.'s book offers no great surprises, especially given the general direction that opinion about Roman imperial government and administration has recently been taking. That is to say, we have already come to know that the Romans did not run their realm in a modern, rationalistic, bureaucratic fashion -- that the workings of patronage, e.g., in many ways replaced that kind of governance. However, the case for a dominant role played by social concerns has thusfar been made largely with respect to appointments to offices, or where adjudication is concerned; further implications have not been followed up in a systematic manner.9 It is here that L.'s book makes a real, and a really important contribution. He begins to show us the precise ways in which the Romans' socially-oriented mentality affected directly, constantly, and thoroughly the gritty day-to-day business of running an empire. In particular, we come to see how this kind of thinking largely determined the ways in which governmental officials dealt with one another. Two quotations draw all of this out with force.

"Roman government was at its most effective when official hierarchies recapitulated the social hierarchy, when lawful authority, the ability to coerce, and the preponderance of honour lay in the same hands; where that was not the case, Roman government worked less well." (p. 222)

"Roman government did not imagine itself as a government in our sense. Its members imagined something more akin to a football league, a realm of glory, profit, and competition -- and some administration." (p. 236)
Here we see reflected, on the one hand, the ways in which authority was regulated mainly by social conventions; and, on the other hand, the fact that the very act of governing, to the Roman aristocratic mind, was usually more a question of social maneuvering than of something we would label administration. To begin to realize the extent of this mode of thinking and behaving, as does L., is necessarily to begin to observe the Roman imperial administrative structure through an entirely new lens.

L. highlights another aspect of Roman mentality, which likewise greatly influenced the way the Romans ran (not to say thought, or wrote about) their empire. In question here is the slippery problem of what may be called self-deception. One of L.'s themes throughout is the subtle interplay of reality and illusion in the realm of honor. What he develops better than has anyone yet, are the various charades continually mounted by the Romans, so as to disguise those especially unpleasant realities with which they had burdened themselves; and he demonstrates lucidly how these charades played real roles in the governing of an empire.10 Here is his concluding description of the honor had, and dispensed, by emperors.

"It took a great deal for an emperor to disgrace himself: the yearnings of his subjects, on the one hand, and his ability to terrify, on the other, made sure of that. Imperial honour was not merely part of the shared fantasy of the Roman world. It was something fantastic within that fantasy, a glorious orchid imagined by the flowers of an imaginary garden." (p. 175)
If we make of L.'s book a garden, then it is one both beautiful and luxuriant. It is, in fact, a garden that must be visited by anyone interested in understanding how the imperial Romans governed their empire.11


1. F. Millar, The Emperor in the Roman World (Ithaca and London 1977); R. Saller, Personal Patronage under the Early Empire (Cambridge 1982).  

2. There was, of course, no one Greek or Latin word for our 'honor'. A rich vocabulary, in fact, described this cognitive territory. L. provides an excellent "lexicon of honour" as an appendix (pp. 272-279), there discussing the ranges of meaning for words such as gloria, decus, fama, honos, auctoritas, splendor, time, axiwma, doxa. It should be noted that throughout his text, L. simply uses the English 'honour;' but, wherever necessary, he provides the original Greek or Latin word.  

3. Valuable contributions (aside from the items listed by L., p. 9 n. 33) regarding constitutionality and the imperial governmental structure are also to be had from: J. Bleicken, "Prinzipat und Republik. Überlegungen zum Charakter des römischen Kaisertums" Sitzungsberichte der wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaft an der Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main 27 (1991) 77-94; J. A. Crook, "Political history, 30 B.C. to A.D. 14" and "Augustus: power, authority, achievement" in CAH X, 2nd ed. (Cambridge 1996) 70-146; K. Galinsky, Augustan Culture. An Interpretive Introduction (Princeton 1996) 10-79. Also excellent on the nature of the new imperial government is A. Lintott, Imperium Romanum. Politics and Administration (London and New York 1993) 111-128.  

4. L. seems inclined to equate closely the emperor's power (in the present sense) with military power. See, e.g., p. 173. And while he is absolutely right, in that various ancient authors do just this, there is other evidence that demonstrates, I think, the broader sweep of imperial power. A cogent example might be the famous Scaptopara inscription. There, some Thracian villagers ask Gordian III for assistance in keeping soldiers off their backs. They say that previous appeals to the governor have not brought sufficient help; thus, a plea to the emperor himself, whose "sacred words" are expected to save them. The words that in fact came told the people from Scaptopara to have the governor appoint a judge to resolve their problems; yet, these words were inscribed with some ceremony by these petitioners. There is no military threat involved here, nor are the emperor's words themselves in the least grandiose or forceful. Nevertheless, the simple weight of imperial auctoritas borne by these simple words meant a great deal to some rural villagers. Nor do I think that the Scaptoparenes merely considered themselves honored by this rescript, or to be doing a special honor to Gordian by having it inscribed. Rather, their hope, in inscribing Gordian's response, was to demonstrate that the imperial might somehow stood with them, even if it did not provide the ultimate solution to their troubles. Doing honor, or being honored, must have been a secondary concern at best. For this inscription, see now K. Hallof, "Die Inschrift von Skaptopara. Neue Dokumente und neue Lesungen" Chiron 24 (1994) 405-441.  

5. Note, for example, that L. explains the decision to worship an emperor in terms of, " deference to the emperor's honour and reciprocation for his favours " (p. 163). I would again argue, though, that the very bulk of an emperor's power (which, again, initially came to him automatically) was what ultimately caused him to be treated as a god. In this regard, the comments of E. Bickerman, "Consecratio" in Le culte des souverains dans l'Empire romain. Entretiens sur l'antiquité classique XIX (Geneva 1973) 1-25 are still quite valuable. Cf. more recently J. Ferguson, "Ruler Worship" in J. Wacher (ed.), The Roman World II (London and New York 1987) 778.  

6. That elevation to the purple gave immediate and impressive power, regardless of anything and everything else -- and that this power led to honors --, is nicely demonstrated by an inscription from Diana in Numidia (CIL VIII 4598 = ILS 463). There, on the architrave of a triumphal arch, was cut an inscription, ordered by the res publica upon the decree of the decurions; it honors the emperor Macrinus, who is called providentissimus and sanctissimus. Now, this man came to the throne as an equestrian, i.e., without the honorific pedigree expected of an emperor. He had also been involved in the murder of his predecessor. Nevertheless, the people of Diana saw fit to cut this inscription. Clearly they intended to honor their new prince; but, I would argue that they desired to do so because of his (now) immense power, and not because they thought him especially worthy (in any sense that had to do with Roman honor) of being honored.  

7. For interpretation in this vein, see Th. Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht II 2, 3rd ed. (Berlin 1877) 842-844.  

8. L. sees this possible objection, but argues that soldiers sometimes disagreed with their commanders regarding whom to support as emperor, and thus killed the officers. The examples he provides, though, might not carry the weight of the argument. Tac., Hist. 3.13-14: A. Caecina Alienus, serving Vitellius as general, attempts to trick his troops into joining the fleet at Ravenna in declaring for Vespasian. The troops realize what is going on, and will not cooperate. Tac., Hist. 4.27: The officer corps along the lower Rhine is secretly pro-Flavian, whereas the soldiers are steadfast in their loyalty to Vitellius. Dio 78.32.4: When Elagabalus is put up, Macrinus' praetorian prefect, Ulpius Julianus, leads some troops against those supporting the Syrian. The troops under the prefect, however, desert to the other side. Note also that before the secret was revealed in 68/69, Seneca thought Claudius to have demonstrated that empire was better maintained by favors (beneficia) than by arms: Sen., Dial. 11.12.3.  

9. See generally P. Garnsey and R. Saller, The Roman Empire. Economy, Society and Culture (Berkeley 1987) chpt. 2 (entitled "Government without bureaucracy"); and for a fairly recent follow-up to the work of Saller on patronage, see P. Leunissen, "Conventions of Patronage in Senatorial Careers under the Principate" Chiron 23 (1993) 101-120. A. Wallace-Hadrill, "The Imperial Court" in CAH X, 2nd ed. (Cambridge 1996) 283-308 is excellent on the various ways that social concerns affected the overall working of the imperial court. On the administration of the provinces, there is a brief but splendid account (which sees the social side of things) by G. Burton, in J. Wacher (ed.), The Roman World I (London and New York 1987) 439. I have recently tried myself to show how this kind of thinking affected the administration of justice under the early empire: M. Peachin, Iudex vice Caesaris. Deputy Emperors and the Administration of Justice during the Principate (Stuttgart 1996) 33-79.  

10. One thinks here also of, e.g., A. Wallace-Hadrill, "Civilis Princeps. Between Citizen and King" JRS 72 (1982) 32-48, laying out the Roman feeling that, effectively, the best emperor was he who best pretended not to be emperor.  

11. Aside from the quibbles already raised (having mainly to do with L.'s presentation of the relationship between honor and raw power), it seems to me that there is not much to criticize in this book; and where complaint can be registered, it is minor. There is, for example, some repetition of argument, which might have been eliminated. That would have made the book a bit shorter, its argument tighter and perhaps more easily followed. For those interested in models based on other societies, and the like, there will be little here. On the other hand, L. works after the fashion of his 'Doktorvater' (Ramsay MacMullen) -- the arguments are massively documented. I have spot-checked references to ancient sources, and found no real mistakes. With regard to p. 34 n. 16, it may be noted that Cicero calls Roscius' father not just splendidus, but splendidus et gratiosus. And Sen., Ben. 4.30.2-3 appears to be a mistake for 3.30.2-3 (p. 64 n. 166). In the bibliography, the book on the fasti of Roman Britain, attributed to Eric Birley, was in fact written by the son, Anthony.