Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2009.03.54 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.03.54

Teresa Morgan, Popular Morality in the Early Roman Empire.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2007.  Pp. xiv, 380; ills. 5, table 1.  ISBN 978-0-521-87553-0.  $105.00.  

Reviewed by Cheryl L. Golden, Newman University (

Teresa Morgan's Popular Morality in the Early Roman Empire aims to examine popular attitudes toward right and wrong, virtue and injustice in the first and second centuries AD in an effort to discern the "degree of common moral ground" held by the people of both higher and lower status in the Roman Empire during the pax romana (2). Morgan begins with the assumption that morality and ethics, namely a shared understanding of what people can and cannot do if they want a predictable and secure existence in society (as regards land use, marriage, what constitutes murder, etc.), is essential to any group's success. Morgan places morality alongside political, economic and social behavior for analysis of the nature of a culture. That noted, Morgan then approaches her evidence with the tools of historical, literary, anthropological and philosophical inquiry. Her evidence for this study is both Latin and Greek proverbs, fables, gnomai and exempla. Morgan's use of this particular pool of evidence in a systematic way for historical and philosophical inquiry represents a breakthrough in social history and may serve as a model for others.

Getting at popularly held concepts in a society where possibly 80 percent of the male population was illiterate is daunting from the outset. Furthermore, the social, ethnic and geographic diversity of the Roman Empire presents an enormous obstacle. Morgan confronts these concerns by recognizing the limitations of written evidence for the examination of popular attitudes, but reminds us that Homer and others had a mass audience of listeners across the Mediterranean and that the tradition of oratory in the ancient world insured that large audiences heard speeches invoking such concepts. Aristotle maintained that fables were the poetry of the poor. Thus Morgan allows that proverbs, fables, gnomai and exempla may have worked both upwards and downwards socially, "percolating" as she has it, throughout society, thus helping us begin to understand how the elite of society influenced the common element, and how the reverse could also occur (324).

So how might one use "sayings" to study the problem at hand? Morgan outlines her method in the introduction. First, she claims that in this evidence that even though there are inherent ambiguities in the study of ancient language and religion, one can still identify a coherent systematic thought process behind them. Second, one might need to determine whether the evidence from sayings relates to widespread issues (concerns for all), or if they merely focus on marginal and/or disputed topics. Ultimately, Morgan contends that most proverbs, fables, etc. deal with topics that are "ethically ponderable" (18). Such "ponderables" speak directly to her aim to discern a commonly held attitude to the right and wrong ways of dealing with ethical issues. Finally, Morgan acknowledges the great efforts of literary criticism to analyze the various meanings, ambiguities and intentions associated with ancient texts as well as proverbs, fables, etc. The author then notes, however, that people in antiquity who used such sayings did not "live in a perpetual consciousness of ambiguity and refuse to come to conclusions; if they did they would hardly be able to act at all. Historians, therefore, do not need to focus on the infinite potential of the text, but on what it is reasonable to believe it may have meant in context" (22). Thus Morgan's method of research relies upon identifying the systemic nature of "ethical ponderables" found in the evidence to discern popular morality of the Roman Empire in its historical context.

Morgan has organized her presentation into three parts. Part one defines, presents and analyzes four categories of evidence: proverbs, fables, gnomai and exempla. Chapter six of part one then presents patterns found in the evidence. Morgan defines each category of evidence:

Proverbs: popular and anonymous sayings (23-31; 84)

Fables: stories providing a "useful source of wisdom and morality in general, teaching great moral lessons from small things" (59)

Gnomai: "moralizing quotations from a known author" (31; 84)

Exempla: "the sayings and doings of famous men and women of the past as examples to be imitated or avoided" (122)

For each category, Morgan proceeds to offer what she terms "a map of the ethical landscape," in which she orders the evidence into themes. Under the category of exempla, Morgan finds exempla commonly used in the areas of religion, such as courage, friendship, mercy and self control, and shows how these examples provide a general picture of Roman expectations regarding relationships between family members, law and its enforcement, and the relationship between gods and humans. At times the reader would like to see Morgan stretch a bit in her analysis. She seems to have anticipated the readers' frustration, writing at the beginning of her presentation on fables: "I shall try both to do justice to the multiplicity of possible readings of the fables, and to draw out what can defensibly be seen as their major concerns. It should be emphasized, however, that the nature of fables means that two listeners or readers will never see or hear them in quite the same way. As a result, no one analysis is definitive (and it is hard for anyone to be absolutely wrong)" (63). Thus, Morgan, while offering an analysis of the evidence, leaves room for the reader to take the evidence where it may or may not go for his own purposes. At the conclusion of each chapter, Morgan presents a graphic distribution of the main topics represented by each category, allowing another form of comparison across all categories of evidence. Again, this is a useful tool for the researcher hoping to develop his own conclusions about the evidence.

Part two offers more analysis as to the language of morality, focusing on the verbs and adjectives represented in this evidence, and noting what is "approved or disapproved of" in the sayings (191). This part also investigates the roles of authority and time represented in the evidence.

Part three looks at specific works that help to understand the connection between popular morality, ethics and high philosophy. Morgan intentionally saves this topic for last, hoping to have established the systematic thinking of popular morality before comparing it to the systematic thinking of high philosophy of the schools then active in the empire. Her appendices offer support for the validity of such a comparison. I will leave it to others better schooled in philosophy to judge Morgan's success.

Overall Morgan's work is an exhaustive study, helpful and entertaining. Her writing style is easily accessible. Her method, employing the work of history, classics, anthropology and philosophy should serve as an example for others hoping to delve deeper into the social history of Rome or any other past culture displaying similar evidence. Such an approach provides a pathway to understanding not only the early Roman Empire but other societies and times as well.

By systematically ordering and presenting bons mots preserved by Greek and Roman fabulists, biographers and poets of the Roman Empire, she has presented a method for historical inquiry into the largest part of Roman society. Ancient historians always bemoan the lack of literary evidence for the vast majority of Roman society and have turned rightly to economic theory, archaeological and epigraphic evidence, as well as demographic approaches to ascertain the typical Roman citizen's lifestyle, diet, and level of involvement in military, political and social organizations. Morgan's efforts to analyze this collection of literary evidence stand alongside such attempts, offering yet another tool to help us to "get at" the vast majority of people living under the Roman Empire.

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