Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.12.03 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.12.03

Matthew B. Roller, Models from the Past in Roman Culture: A World of Exempla.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2018.  Pp. xix, 321.  ISBN 9781107162594.  £75.00.  

Reviewed by Robert E. Hedrick III, University of South Florida (


It does not often happen that a scholar can work (on and off) on a monograph for nearly thirty years, but Mathew Roller’s excellent new volume on exemplarity in Roman culture, history, and literature shows the value that comes from such extended work on a topic — particularly an interdisciplinary one — throughout a long career. Of course, Roller has written on this subject over the years (the earliest of the articles that form the basis for this book was published in 20041), in addition to books and articles on a variety of other topics in Roman history and culture.2 Nevertheless, in this monograph he brings to fruition a topic that he has considered for a long time and revisited again and again in light of his own and others’ more recent work.

Exempla as discussed here (and as a term in Roman rhetoric) refers not to “examples” in the way we generally use the term (e.g., a sentence or practical demonstration that offers evidence of how, say, the subjunctive is used in a purpose clause), but rather to significant moral (or immoral) actions of historical (or fictional) people—think George Washington and the cherry tree. In this book, Roller develops a paradigmatic framework for how Romans created, utilized, and re-employed historical exempla as a rhetorical device, and presents a stimulating study that ranges over a wide array of monuments — including oratory, history, literature, and material artifacts — through a long period of Roman history (from the early Republic through the high empire). This allows him to articulate the mechanics of Roman exemplarity, to examine the evidence of it from different angles, and to address the complicating factors in its use and re-use over time. This book is, therefore, much more than a collection of earlier studies (although it is that), or a revision of them (although it does that as well). Rather, it is the culmination of systematic research on an important topic in Roman rhetoric, and it provides the final word (for now) on exemplarity in its manifold operations in Roman culture.

The book begins with an introductory chapter, in which Roller lays out the scope and methodology of his study, provides a “General Model of Roman Exemplarity,” and comments on the rhetorical, ethical, and historiographical dimensions of exempla in the Roman world. In its discourse the introduction is the densest and most theoretical, as Roller engages with scholarship both Classical and modern (including, Structuralism and post-Structuralism), yet his comments are, for the most part, accessible. Indeed, the general model of exemplarity that he establishes at the beginning is user-friendly and it provides a template that can be accessed repeatedly by the reader (and to which the author frequently refers back in subsequent chapters). Roller argues that exemplarity “is …a cultural phenomenon encompassing a particular set of social practices, beliefs, values and symbols” (p. 4), and that these work with one another through four operations (pp. 5-8): 1) an initial historical action that is performed before a witnessing audience; 2) an evaluation in which the action is judged an example (either positively or negatively) by the primary audience; 3) commemoration in which the action is recalled as a monument (either verbal or physical) by a later audience; and 4) norm setting, whereby later audiences accept (or re-inscribe) the deed as a paradigm of proper or improper behavior according to the Roman mos maiorum. While the chapter as a whole is aimed at a scholarly audience, Roller helpfully keeps the “General Model” easy to read, only engaging in more dense academic debate in the later parts of the chapter. The author is especially accommodating to the reader in using subsections to guide him/her to different levels of discourse so that portions of this chapter (and the others) might be excerpted for undergraduates, while the more difficult, theoretical issues can be left to scholars of rhetoric, historiography, and literature (within and outside of the Classics).

The next eight chapters are designed around individual case studies of exempla drawn from Roman history, concluding with a final chapter on Seneca, which grapples with the importance of and problems with exemplarity (from a Stoic perspective). The studies include: 1) Horatius Cocles; 2) Cloelia; 3) Appius Claudius Caecus; 4) Gaius Duilius; 5) Fabius Cunctator; 6) Cornelia, Mater Gracchorum; and 7) Cicero (in particular, the circumstances surrounding his exile and the destruction of his house). These incidents span approximately five centuries, from the (semi-mythic) early Republic to the late Julio-Claudian period, with textual sources mainly provided by historians and rhetoricians, such as Polybius, Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Valerius Maximus, Quintilian, Appian, and Plutarch (among others). Roller does not treat each case identically, but instead focuses on the way that the individual actions of these historical (or legendary) figures were rhetorically appealed to as models for Roman behavior either to be emulated or avoided. While reading the book, I often found myself wondering what Roller might have done with other exempla — say Romulus, Lucretia, the Scipios, Marius, Sulla, Caesar, etc., or even examples from Greece.3 I also would have enjoyed comparisons between Roman exemplarity and the contemporary use (and/or abuse) of this rhetorical device in the modern world — say, the debate over Confederate statues in modern America. The figures that the author has chosen, however, are all relevant to the topic. Moreover, they cover a wide range of historical time, include examples of both genders, and allow for many complications (as some are objects of praise and/or scorn, or are re-evaluated by later writers in order to question the ethical value of the traditional material and textual monuments). While it is tempting as a reader to want more, Roller has picked his evidence with a keen eye for the many facets of exemplarity in the Roman world.

As the author acknowledges (p. xiii), portions of nearly all of the chapters in the book have appeared in print before in some form, whether as journal articles or essays for combined volumes. Yet the great strength of this book is the extended, interconnected discussion of exemplarity in light of complications and different contexts. The sum is greater than the individual parts, although each chapter could also be excerpted for class reading and discussion. For instance, the textbook Latin for Americans includes readings on Horatius Cocles4; a high school or college teacher (or upper level student) would certainly benefit from Roller’s discussion of this figure. Thanks to the freedom a book-length project affords over an article, the author is able to delve deeper into his topic, to interweave chapters while noting similarities and differences, and to draw more fully upon material evidence and not just text. Furthermore, it allows him to stretch beyond comments on particular examples to their later applications and influences (for example, the discussion of Augustan teleology in the chapter on the third century naval commander, Gaius Duilius).

Roller utilizes not just textual sources for his evidence, but also the archeological and artistic record, including statues, coins, and buildings. To help keep track of the physical monuments discussed in the book, he provides a handy map of Rome with labels (pp. xvi-xix), to which he refers in the relevant chapters. This addition makes this volume’s discussion of monuments more accessible than in their article versions (which do not provide a map).5 Similarly, the final chapter on Seneca works better as the culmination of this study than as a stand-alone essay,6 as the philosopher’s critique of traditional Roman exemplarity is all the more potent in light of 250 pages of evidence about the value of exemplarity in Roman culture. In particular, the Stoic ethical criterion of constantia provides an opening for criticism of traditional Roman exemplarity because, as Seneca argues, value judgements based on exempla can be incorrect because of misreading of a particular situation (what Roller calls “The Misjudgment Critique”) or because of too little information (“The ‘Insufficient Evidence’ Critique”). By ending the book with this philosophical chapter, Roller invites us as readers to think back on the earlier evidence throughout the book and see the figures and their exempla in a new, more critical light.

In general, the book is readable and well-edited. A few minor errors and typos that caught my eye include: “kinds [of] performance” (p. 24), “a difficulties” (p. 138), “amidst [remove “of”] (p. 157), the numbering in n. 11 on p.201 (presumably 3-6), and missing “in” in the phrase “Clodius attacked him the senate” (p. 251). In the Seneca chapter, there is also a bit of confusion between the analysis and the translated passage on p. 278, in which Fabricius is cited by Seneca as an exemplum of the virtue innocentia for “doing no wrong in war” (in bello innocentem). Misunderstanding arises, however, when this phrase is discussed with the alternative translation “harmlessness,” which misses the mark of conveying Seneca’s point. Fabricius is being praised for acting as a good and honorable soldier (so, causing harm to the enemy on the battlefield is certainly not disparaged), but he is noteworthy for scrupulously avoiding disreputable actions that were in violation of his moral and soldierly code of honor (i.e. what we might call war-crimes; in particular, he refused to help poison Pyrrhus and even alerted Pyrrhus to the nefarious plans of his own physician). But these are just small quibbles with what is a very valuable book. It certainly deserves to be read by students of ancient rhetoric and historiography at all levels. Additionally, it provides many illuminating insights into ethics, art history, literature, and pedagogy that are applicable to the Classical world and to more recent ages, including our contemporary one.


1.   Roller, Matthew B. 2004. “Exemplarity in Roman Culture: The Cases of Horatius Cocles and Cloelia,” CP 99:1- 56.
2.   See, for instance, his other monographs: Roller, Matthew B. 2001. Constructing Autocracy: Aristocrats and Emperors in Julio-Claudian Rome. Princeton: Princeton University Press and 2006. Dining Posture in Ancient Rome: Bodies, Values, and Status. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
3.   In the introduction, Roller admits to the need for limiting the study, noting for instance (p.26): “the model of exemplarity developed in this book would, I believe, illuminate early Christian exempla no less than the classical exempla that are its primary object of investigation.”
4.   Ullmann, B. L. and Henderson, Jr., Charles. 2002. Latin for Americans. McGraw-Hill/Glencoe.
5.   See Roller 2004 (from n. 1).
6.   Roller, Matthew B. 2015. “Praecept(or) and example in Seneca,” in Gareth D. Williams and Katharina Volk (eds.), Roman Reflections: Studies in Latin Philosophy. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 129-56.

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