[Full disclosure: the reviewer is writing his own book on the Roman construction of the emotions, to be published by Oxford University Press; and Carlin Barton was a gracious referee of that book’s prospectus.]
Thirty pages into Carlin B(arton)’s new book I began to think, irresistibly, of “This Is Our Music,” an LP released by the Ornette Coleman Quartet in 1960.1 Following Coleman’s first album, “Something Else!” (1958), and especially the landmark “Shape of Jazz to Come” (1959), “Our Music” gave notice that the new sound (‘free jazz,’ as it came to be known)—a form that retained some ties to melody while largely abandoning conventions of harmonics, chordal ‘changes,’ and fixed time signatures, to allow the musicians to improvise freely off the melody’s ‘mood’—was not going away. This notice was likely to be the more dismaying the more adept you were as a musician: while the casual listener could enjoy Coleman’s melodies, many of which were quite hummable, and be taken by the flights of improvisational fancy, musicians who heard only dissonance in place of known harmonic structures and rhythmic values were not amused (“Man, you’ve got to have something to improvise off of” was the initial response of Charles Mingus, a musician of no small experience and imagination). The title “This Is Our Music” was not so much a provocation (“This is our music: wanna make something of it?”—though bassist Charlie Haden’s hooded glare on the LP cover suggests a bit of that) as it was a statement of fact. This is our music: get used to it.
Roman Honor is B.’s “This Is Our Music.” Coming eight year’s after B.’s first book, The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans, Honor quickly confirms that the manner and method of the earlier work were not momentary gestures but the sincere and authentic B., here redeployed in a new direction. Sorrows was a work of cultural psychology that used the figures of ‘the gladiator’ and ‘the monster’ as tropes or heuristic devices to get at the place of despair, desire, and envy—the emotions of “homo in extremis”—in the imaginary of early Roman imperial culture. Honor asks “what it was that the Romans fought hardest to preserve”: “What did the Romans think was the core and definition of being? When everything solid melted into air, what would they cling to?” (1). And what was their emotional experience as they clung there?
These are worthy questions, to which B. gives answers that are probing and passionate, if not always precise and persuasive, as she tries “to coax Roman history closer to the bone” (xi). The new book shares the virtues of the old: plenty of observations both astute and profound; an extensive familiarity with relevant literature in related fields (anthropology, social psychology, psychiatry);2 and a willingness to take intellectual risks (“if I must fall and fail…, I prefer to go careening off the roof rather than trip on a flat sidewalk” ). It also shares Sorrows‘ faults: arguments that proceed by overgeneralization and hyperbole; footnotes that do not prop up the text or are too ill-sorted to guide further study; and a way of handling the Romans’ words that struck even a generally sympathetic reviewer of Sorrows as lacking in finesse.3
B., on balance wisely, does not attempt yet another formal definition of ‘honor’ but instead allows the concept to unfold in the story she tells. The story has three main parts: (a) “The Moment of Truth in Ancient Rome: Honor and Embodiment in a Contest Culture”—Chapter 3 “Light and Fire” (34-87), Chapter 4 “Stone and Ice: The Remedies of Dishonor” (88-130); (b)”Confession and the Roman Soul”—Chapter 5 “The Spirit Speaking” (136-58), Chapter 6 “Confession and the Remedies of Defeat” (159-95); (c)”On the Wire: The Experience of Shame in Ancient Rome”—Chapter 7 “The Poise of Shame” (202-43), Chapter 8 “The Poison of Shame—and Its Antidotes” (244-69). These are preceded by an “Introduction” that does some ground-clearing (1-17) and a “Sort of Prelude” (“The Tao of the Romans,” 18-28), which excellently summarizes the principles of decorum and restraint that structured Roman public life. At the end are some conclusions that point a moral (“Choosing Life,” 270-88) and a “philosophical coda” in which B. reflects on her methods and herself (289-95). We can survey each of the three main parts in turn.
“Folk Tale” In the beginning (chapter 3) Rome developed, and for long maintained, the values of a warrior culture, in which a person’s identity was shaped through the good contest—a contest between relative equals that was public, strenuous, and framed by accepted boundaries (32). This contest—or “ordeal,” as B. prefers to call it4—established your portion, of respect no less than material goods, and your ‘face,’ understood as both the public role you maintained and the credit you received for maintaining it. The contest called for the exertion of your will, and by exerting your will within the rules of the contest you became a vir, which was not a biological/ontological condition (that was a mas) but an existential status achieved by choosing, learning, and playing your role.5 Playing the role produced and expressed virtus, and virtus was expressed nowhere more insistently than in the generous readiness of the vir to treat himself as expendable on behalf of the collectivity. As B. says in a fine sentence, “In Roman contest culture…to will death was not to deny life but to carve its contours” (43), and she gathers many story-fragments to suggest how deeply the Romans drank of “The Elixir of Desperation” (47-56: that the Romans might often have told themselves these scary but edifying tales less to convey something present in their culture than to conceal an absence does not necessarily detract from B.’s point).
In this culture, to lose your ‘face’ was to lose your ‘soul’: “Relieved of the burden or mask, removed from the endless challenges of the contest,…a Roman was not the authentic, genuine, original self as we imagine it, but a void” (64). Conversely, by acting with a “hyperconsciousness” of his ‘face’ a Roman of honor “lived critically in the moment,” where “the world was sharp, immediate, visceral” (65). Indeed, in an important sense there was no clear distinction between your performance and an external world, because the ‘truth’ was not something ‘out there’ as an objective reality against which you were measured: “Generally, in earlier Roman thought, the ‘truth’ of what one said was intimately linked with the ability of the speaker to endure a test or trial of some sort” (68: this generalization about “earlier Roman thought” is said, n. 175, to be “especially true” in the versions of Greek New Comedy by Plautus and Terence). Creating the world act by act and test by test was understandably a strain and a shock, producing a sense of fragility and doom (76); but the strain was relieved by the formalization of the rules and rituals (80), and that formalization in turn set limits on the competition. You played the game not to win or to humiliate your competitors but for the sake of the game itself (84): for that was the way you most radically created yourself—the way you established your sincerity and authenticity (86)—and at the same time honored the collectivity that honored you for playing the game. The “fire in the bones” of the book’s subtitle both kindled your desire to play the game and warmed you when you played it well: the manly men of the good contest culture burned with a hard, gemlike flame that would have reduced old Walter Pater to ash.
But then (chapter 4), something very bad happened: the contestants ceased to be equals but were distinguished by gross disparities of status and power; the rules of the game ceased to be generally accepted and became “arbitrary or unknown”; and the contest was not played only up to a certain limit and fundamentally for its own sake but to defeat, indeed to debase, the competitor at all costs (89-90). And so, “this is the sad chapter” (90). It is sad because, as the bad contest supplanted the good, the fire in the bones was damped down and died: where honor could no longer depend on the vivid, willful creation of an existential self and the stressful, exhilirating maintenance of a public ‘face,’ the concept of an ontological self—a self that just is, independent of external exigencies—became dominant, and the protection of that self became the highest goal: “As a result of the collapse of the traditional limitations, the erasure of the scripts…of Roman social and psychological life, it was increasingly difficult to alleviate the shock of embodiment” (94). Hence, instead of the virtus of a self realized in action, we get a ‘virtue’ that stresses the blandness of moderation and self-restraint; instead of the ‘honor’ that depended on the self’s embeddedness in continual contests, we get an ‘honesty’ that depends only on oneself; and instead of an authenticity created from moment to moment, we get an authenticity that can be preserved only by being freed from the momentary. In fact, we already have one foot out of this world and are ready (as B. ultimately will say, 283) to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. For B. this is not a good thing.
When I say that the bad contest supplanted the good, I use the verb “supplanted” advisedly: for though B. says (33) that the patterns of the good contest abided through the Republic and into the early Empire, and also says (90-91) that there had always been bad contests at Rome, her argument is dominated by the distinction between early and middle Republic, as the time of the good contest, and late Republic and early Empire, as the time of the bad contest.6 Which is to say, her argument largely transposes into different terms the Romans’ own understanding of their history. The watershed is (variously) the conquest of the Mediterranean in the second century BCE or the civil wars of the first century BCE (B. is not entirely consistent here, but neither were the Romans): that is when the rules changed forever, as various “rogue males” (Sulla, Marius, Pompey, Caesar…) sought, and one of them finally achieved, total victory at any cost, engrossing all ‘honor’ for himself (see esp. 99-105). In that context even to participate in the contest was a form of humiliation; and so “the Romans” sought various alternatives or therapies (115-26): turning “servitude” into “service,” seeking “the life of a rock” (this is how B. conceives the Stoics’ “living according to Nature”), choosing hypocrisy, or simply opting out. It is, as B. says, a sad chapter.
But having read these two chapters, which are much the most important in the book, are we closer to the “really real” that B. wants to give us? Certainly, parts of the story are familiar from other tellings. As already noted, some elements recall the stories that the Romans told themselves about their fall from a kind of grace. Other elements recall the way we used to explain the development of Hellenistic philosophy, as the ambulance that gathered up survivors of the old polis-world, to succor them once Alexander had turned that world to rubble. Still other elements recall the Maussian distinction between the socially embedded, externalized ethics of the personne and the internalized, highly individualized ethics of the moi.7 And the two models of contest and honor that B. presents are rich and useful to think with, or to push against; they might even capture the ways in which some individual Romans, at some times, experienced their lives. But that the experience of “the Romans” en bloc was as B. describes it is difficult to believe.
There are two obvious and broad weaknesses, and a puzzle. First, B.’s schema is so little differentiated, so generalized, and so little reflective of life’s messiness that it is hard to feel the real. It’s unpersuasive to generalize, as B. does, to “the Romans” as a whole from Cicero in one of his funks, or from Seneca at any time, but it’s not just unpersuasive: the generalizations manage to flatten out, to deprive of their particular humanity both Cicero or Seneca on the one side and “the Romans” on the other. Second, the perennial problem that bedevils any reconstruction of the social and psychological life of the early and middle Republic—the fact that virtually all our sources were produced generations later, by men filtering uncertain traditions through their own sensibilities and concerns—is aggravated by the terms of B.’s own argument: for, if she is right about the seismic shift that occurred, entailing “the erasure of the scripts…of Roman social and psychological life,” then Cicero, Sallust, Livy and the rest should have been so demoralized, deracinated, and generally bouleversé that it’s hard to see how we could trust their testimony on anything, even themselves. Finally, there’s the puzzle. Since mostly the same authors and texts are cited for both models, B. is by implication conducting a kind of archaeology, digging about in the texts and sorting this fragment into the “good old contest” bin and that fragment into the “bad new contest” bin. But it remains unclear where the bins themselves come from, and why we should find just these bins—exactly these bins, and only these bins—intellectually satisfying.
“Kaleidoscope” I can be briefer concerning Part Two (“Confession and the Roman Soul”), in part because it is the least controlled portion of the book, and I’m not sure what it is doing here: concerned as it largely is with “homo in extremis”—with defeat, torture, and extorted confessions, with men broken and humiliated—it seems to be a reprise of Sorrows. It starts (133) from the assertion that “it was above all one’s word that realized, that reified one’s spirit in the world” (despite the core contention of Part 1 that it was not one’s speech but one’s actions—the strenuous deeds of the contest culture—that developed virtus, gave you your ‘face’, and realized your animus). Accordingly, “confession…, insofar as it was the suppression or appropriation by one person of another person’s voice, was a humiliation” (134: not many readers will guess that in this semi-definition of “confession” B., as she reveals many pages later, is thinking specifically of coerced confession, and that the “suppression or appropriation” of voice mentioned here is that achieved by the person doing the coercing, not the person doing the confessing). As a result all confession becomes a form of “humiliation”: this is the how the topic enters a discussion of “honor.” “It was more honorable to exhaust all possible means of defense, including lying and blaming others even for one’s manifest crimes” (140): that some Romans behaved this way is certainly true, though I do not take this to be a distinguishing feature of their culture; that it was “honorable” to do so is supported by no Latin text that B. cites and is contradicted by texts she cites later on (156).
But suppose you were a broken spirit (164): what could you do? The bulk of chapter 6 seeks the remedy: in denial (182-83), in aggressive, shameless profession (185-90), and above all by throwing yourself on the mercy of the “father” (164-79)—in the first instance, the literal father, with his vitae necisque potestas, and by extension the emperor, as pater patriae, the father of all. But to accept such mercy (B. says) was to admit guilt and accept humiliation: you might save your animus, but “the soul that was redeemed was the very inverse of the ancient Roman soul; the animus that was saved by the Emperor, or Isis, or by the Christian God filled a vessel that…had been emptied of its will” (194).
It is also in Part 2 that Winston Smith—the protagonist of 1984, who first enters the discussion in chapter 4 (108)—becomes a recurrent presence, allowing B. to assimilate “the Romans” of the Empire to the denizens of a totalitarian state (the novel will at the end provide the book’s final epigraph : “His thoughts wandered again. Almost unconsciously he traced with his fingers in the dust of the table: 2 + 2 = 5”). But this trope does not do justice either to the evils of Roman autocracy or to the evils of Orwell’s nightmare vision. For all the worst deeds of Rome’s wackiest tyrants, Rome was not a totalitarian state. In fact, it was not even much of a state. It was a very large and terribly complex aggregate of many interlocking and overlapping communities and mini-cultures. The book’s unwillingness to face this complexity squarely is especially apparent in these chapters.
“Poise” Parts 1 and 2 were concerned less with emotions than with norms and strategies of behavior. Part 3 is concerned with the emotions of shame, which B. rightly understands as inseparable from (not the opposite of) honor; and overall it is very good indeed. The discussion is organized according to the “ordering” and “socializing” forces of shame on the one hand—”the fear that inhibited one from transgressing one’s bounds and the remorse that one felt as a result of transgressing”—and the “disordering” and “desocializing” forces on the other, “the more extreme and destabilizing emotions…that alienated one human being from another: irremediable inadequacy and inexpiable guilt” (200). Though “inadequacy” is not an emotion, and though B. leaves unclear what distinction she means to draw between “remorse” and “guilt” (an interesting question), the basic distinction works well, as does each of the chapters devoted to these forces.
Chapter 7, on the “ordering” force of Roman shame, is easily the best thing in the book. In an alert and patient survey guided by the work of the phenomenologist Max Scheler, B. draws out the importance of shame in Roman thought as an emotion that, above all, made people present and responsive to each other.8 As an “emotion of relatedness” (207), it kept those with a sense of shame attentive to others and attuned to reciprocities, and could impel them to exceed their limitations. In B.’s apt governing metaphor, persons with a sense of shame walked a high wire of self-control and self-awareness, observed by others and observing themselves: the involuntary blush that followed slips was both a mildly painful punishment and a prelude to reintegration, insofar as it signaled to others that you were aware of your fault and ready to make amends. On all these things and more B. has excellent things to say.
Chapter 8, on “The Poison of Shame—and Its Antidotes,” while not at the same level, still covers the ground. B. begins by considering “incorrigible inadequacy” (244-46) and “inexpiable guilt” (246-48): though as with ‘remorse’ and ‘guilt’ B.’s examples do not clarify the difference between these terms, the important point is that “incorrigibility” and “inexpiability” depended less on the specific character of the deed than on the reception of it by others and their readiness to allow you to correct or expiate it (“The distinguishing quality of severe and alienating shame was the lack (or perceived lack) of collaboration from others in maintaining one’s face,” 250). When you were thus “beyond the pale” there were four forms of relief: “Isolating withdrawal, impenetrable masking, brazen shamelessness [basically the same thing as masking], or rage” (256). B. then surveys these forms of relief (257-68, giving less attention than I expected to suicide as a form of “withdrawal”). The survey is rapid, and that is in accord with the evidence, which suggests that instances of irremediable shaming were in fact relatively rare: it is not the least attractive trait of the Romans that they devised many ways of claiming for themselves, or cutting each other, a good deal of slack.
“Humpty Dumpty” It comes as a shock, then, to find that in B.’s conclusions (270-88) the paralysis of irremediable shame plays a very large role—far larger than B.’s discussion or the evidence allows. Here the expansion to empire and the rise of the bad contest, of the need to win at all costs, produce an epidemic of pitiless shaming and irredeemable disgrace. As one of the consequences, the soul is driven in on itself, becomes “exsanguinated” (282), and withdraws into a pusillanimous ‘virtue’ that makes us unsuited to life on the edge and fit only for baptism.
And I do mean “us”: we, now, are the fallen heirs and successors of the bad contest, and it is B.’s purpose in these conclusions to call us back to the vigorous, trusting collectivity of the prelapsarian good contest. That is the aim of B.’s own version of the folk tale, and it is not at all a despicable aim. But for it to succeed we must accept not only B.’s version of the tale but also her version of “us,” as morally obtuse and pretty dumb to boot (272): “when we read that Brutus and Torquatus slew their sons or that Aeneas left behind his beloved Dido, we…do not want to think that the very point of these stories is the terrible choice, the anguish of a father having to follow a code that conflicted with a father’s intense feeling for a child, or the agony of a man whose duty to the gods conflicted with his commitment to the woman whom he loved. We do not want the double-bind to be “real.” We do not want irresolvable paradoxes to be at the heart of our spiritual lives. We want the choices to be clear to Brutus and Torquatus and Aeneas, and the heroes to be spiritually in harmony with the choices they have made and the demands of the code by which they have lived.”
On second thought, if the desires catalogued here do us justice, then it’s probably best that we not try to enact B.’s ideal. So many simpletons rushing about attempting strenuous deeds of vivid, willful virtus… Really, it’s not a pretty thought.
B. offers two interesting models of honor, even if she does not make a convincing case that these models developed as she describes, or for the reasons she presents, for “the Romans” tout court. Where the book most seriously fails, however, is in its attempt to get “closer to the bone.” This attempt might be doomed in any case, given the limits of what we can know; but B.’s version of the attempt is condemned by its own method to remain too generalized, too schematic, and above all too removed from the stories that are the closest we can come to the bone and blood of Roman life. It is B.’s primary expository-argumentative mode to construct paragraphs by making an opening assertion that is followed by four or five or six disembodied quotes meant to support or exemplify it: the quotes are presented with little more than a “Livy explains” or “Sallust declares,” and very often without even that; there is no necessary sequence or other relation among them, and no commentary or context provided by B.9 The effect is as enlivening as reading the “Sententiae Antiquae” in Wheelock at one go: the Romans become stick-figure cartoons, their mouths sprouting dialogue balloons filled with fortune-cookie apothegms. This is a consequence of B.’s method of handling texts, one that, as I’ve noted before, does not require an unsympathetic reader to find heavy-handed and reductive.
But this reductiveness is more than a methodological flaw, in this book especially; and there is no very gentle way of putting the point. Seeing B. refer (for example) to the time “Macrobius met the young poet Servius at a dinner party” (229), a reader who knows the text will wince at the error, comparable to citing the conversation that Plato had with the orator Agathon in the Symposium. But when B. goes on to speak of Servius, whom Macrobius represents as blushing modestly and becomingly before his elders and socio-cultural betters, as incapacitated by, specifically, shame (230), the reader will not just wince at an inconsequential slip but be brought up short by a claim that rather badly mistakes the significance of the blush in its context. And when B. later offers Servius’s supposedly ‘shame’-induced silence as “a last-ditch strategy for preserving his self-control and self-sufficiency” (258), the reader will see that B. is pushing the initial misreading to a false and melodramatic conclusion (so far from being a setting of crippling shame, Macrobius’s Saturnalia imagines a non-competitive collective in which status differences are minimized in pursuit of a shared cultural goal). The reader will then think that, well, the author might not exactly be playing by the rules here.
Or when, in another example, to confirm a sweeping generalization about the “hard brutishness” that came to dominate Rome after the rogue males had their way (275-76), B. invokes Cicero’s statement, at the outset of the pro Roscio Amerino, that the “ignoscendi ratio” has been lost from the community,10 a reader who happens to know the text will recognize the statement as part of Cicero’s opening captatio, will recall that Cicero is referring specifically to the indulgence that his youth should be accorded, and will know that Cicero is in effect seeking to shame his audience into ‘forgiving’ him his youth. That reader will accordingly know that the statement means the opposite of what B. represents it as meaning, as it enacts the belief that the capacity for ‘forgiveness’ has not been lost, in a community that has not become simply brutish.
And when such examples have been joined by many, many other places where the reader is offered unreliable versions of texts in which B. has seemingly made no attempt to discern the author’s will or discursive strategy, the reader will be led to consider two conclusions: that the bond of trust between author and reader crucial to an interpretive community is not reliably in force here; and that B. too often treats the texts she excerpts as the autocrat of her imagination treats the people whose confessions he seeks, to achieve “the suppression or appropriation…of another person’s voice.” Is it just that we come to be like what we hate?
B.’s manner of reading and citation does not just distance us from the Romans’ lives rather than bringing us “closer to the bone,” and it is not just that the quotations B. collects too often fail to support, when they do not actually subvert, her contentions. This manner of reading is simply unaccountable in a book that so plainly values a community built on trust and abhors the erasure of another’s will. To be sure, we cannot always get at the will behind the texts we read; and even when we can, the production of meaning does not stop there. But if we do not even make the sustained attempt, then I do not see the point of doing what we do.11
1. “This Is Our Music—The Ornette Coleman Quartet” Atlantic Records SD-1353: Ornette Coleman, alto sax; Donald Cherry, pocket trumpet; Charlie Haden, bass; Ed Blackwell, drums. The section headings in this review are taken from cuts on the LP.
2. There is one startling omission here, however: though B. tells us about (among others) the Japanese, the Inuit, and the Bedouin of early Bourdieu, she is—beyond a couple of general invocations of “Homeric Greeks,” a couple of references to Aristotle, and a somewhat misleading footnote on
3. James Davidson, JRS 84 (1994): 188 (“remarkably crude” was his phrase). I return to this point at the end of the review.
4. B.’s preference for this hyperbole is doubly unhappy. It risks confusion with ‘ordeal’ in the technical sense, the institution of medieval culture that was quite a different thing; and because ‘ordeal’ in common speech invariably connotes a painful experience that we would avoid if only we could (“What an ordeal!”: a root canal, a tax audit . . .), B.’s use obscures a point that she should want to highlight: in the culture she imagines, the test should have aroused great apprehension and great eagerness at the same time.
5. B. is surely right about the ‘scriptedness’ of vir and virtus, but it is awkward for her distinction (38) that the instance of mas most readers will recall involves notions of scriptedness as well: Catull. 16. 12-14 vos, quod milia multa basiorum / legistis, male me marem putatis? / pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo.
6. When B. does advert, at p. 98, to continuities and the maintenance of old patterns amidst the new, it is to compare the Romans of the late Republic to Nazis addicted to Ordentlichkeit and to zombies in the films of George Romero, the living dead who go through the motions of old behaviors empty of meaning. It’s not clear how such talk serves the aim stated in B.’s introduction, to “imagine [the Romans’] inner lives to be as complex and layered, as rich…as we feel our own to be” (17).
7. In this regard and others it is instructive to read B. in tandem with Matthew Roller, Constructing Autocracy: Aristocrats and Emperors in Julio-Claudian Rome (Princeton, 2001), especially his chapter 2, “Ethics for the Principate: Seneca, Stoicism, and Traditional Roman Morality.”
8. In her discussion B. treats pudor and verecundia indifferently, an especially unfortunate choice since the distinction between them is going to become important to her later on (282, on a supposed “supersession” of pudor by verecundia over time): a reader encountering that distinction will not know what it means, much less what evidence there is for it.
9. To take a typical case, here is the entirety of B.’s text in a section of chapter 3, “The Specter of Solidities” (75-78), once all the bald quotation is removed: “The Romans’ sense of embodiment was not only keen but brittle. The Romans, like the Homeric Greeks or the Heian Japanese, had a keen sense of their own frailty….This infirmity often translated into a sense of doom….Last words ( ultima verba) were compelling to the Romans, as they are to us—but not because they summed up or grasped the eternal essence of life… [W]e are affected by their words because they reveal the will of the speakers, the fantastic will of the doomed to let go of what there was the most extreme urgency to grasp. The ability of the Roman gladiator to carry through with the ‘play’ right up to the moment of death proved, perhaps more than anything, his terrifying courage…. Again, you were what you could live without.”
10. S. Rosc. 3 ego si quid liberius dixero, vel occultum esse propterea quod nondum ad rem publicam accessi, vel ignosci adulescentiae meae poterit; tametsi non modo ignoscendi ratio verum etiam cognoscendi consuetudo iam de civitate sublata est.
11. The book is generally well produced; its copy-editing is marred by such things as the “chasened silver drinking cups” on p. 72, the “praeclarus facies,” “licentia theatricalia,” and other striking bits of Latin scattered here and there, and the two instances where “valances” appear in contexts not concerned with draperies.