BMCR 2007.03.38

Response: McDonnell on Kaster on M. McDonnell, Roman Manliness: Virtus and the Roman Republic

Response to 2007.02.08

I’m sorry that Robert Kaster didn’t like my book. I might complain that he reviewed only the first three, philological chapters. Roman Manliness also examines, among other things, the distinctly non-domestic (sexual or parental) references of virtus and its relationship to the familia, the role of the Roman cavalry in establishing the new patrician-plebeian nobility in the fourth century, and in the changing values of the Roman nobility over the course of the second, and the central place of divine Virtus in the challenges of M. Claudius Marcellus, Scipio Aemilianus, Marius, Pompey, and Caesar to the hegemony of the senatorial aristocracy.1 But Kaster is a philologist, not a historian, and he was not wrong in stating that the arguments of the later chapters (IX and X more than the others) rest to a considerable degree on chapters I-III (I would include chapter IV). My response will be on the narrow terms of the review.

Kaster objected to my statement that “deeds of courage” is the regular meaning of virtutes in early Latin primarily, it seems, because he did not find the meaning in the OLD. As much as I admire and enjoy the OLD, it is by no means the final authority on early Latin. Nor is the reviewer, though he sets himself up as that by pronouncing that of the eleven occurrences of the plural virtutes in Plautus only one, Asin. 558, can possibly be construed as meaning deeds of courage. But in G. Lodge, Lexicon Plautinum II, p. 879, eight such occurrences are found under the rubric facta bellica, res gestae, and the usage has been widely acknowledged in pre-Ciceronian Latin by Ussing, Lorenz, Brix, Ernout, Nixon, Poeschl, even by Earl and Eisenhut; the list could go on. In pre-Ciceronian Latin plurals of abstract nouns commonly denote concrete examples of the quality in question.2 Kaster was on no stronger ground when he objected to my construing , facta et virtutes tuas at Terence, Eun. 1090 as “your deeds and courageous acts.” Because facta means “deeds,” Kaster maintained virtutes must mean something else. But the type of iteration found here, in which near synonyms are repeated for rhetorical effect, is so common in Roman comedy, as well as in the play in question, that the objection has little force.3 Of course, not all of the scholars who have acknowledged the meaning of virtutes as deeds of courage are in agreement with all of my interpretation of the word’s occurrences. But disagreement about the meaning of virtus in early Latin is to be expected. What is not is a review that employed snide innuendo—”That this ‘regular’ meaning is not acknowledged by the Oxford Latin Dictionary is not an obstacle.”— by someone who is apparently unfamiliar with the scholarly literature and who seems to have consulted only the most basic research tool.4

Kaster also objected to my concluding that although virtus in early Latin covered both steadfast and aggressive courage, it most often meant, and was in essence, the latter. Kaster deemed the very attempt to make the distinction ludicrous. But again, some distinguished scholars—Knoche, Dahlmann, Buechner and Rosenstein, to name a few—have thought otherwise, and it is against their insistence that virtus was essentially steadfast in nature that I argue. It is true that a single Latin word often, even usually, expresses a concept that is covered by more than one word or concept in English. When dealing with such instances it is important to keep in mind that the differences in meaning or nuance that exist in English may all be contained in the single Latin word. But if a particular sense of a term is recognized and emphasized as distinct by ancient authors, it would unwise to ignore the distinction, and the difference between steadfast and aggressive courage was clearly important to Romans of the republican era.5

What seems to have upset Kaster most is my statement that in its traditional sense virtus was not an ethical concept. But Kaster was unwilling to acknowledge the distinction I make between sets of values based on absolute or ideal standard of right and wrong, which I define as “ethical,” and values that reflect societal standards, but need not correspond to ideal standards of right or wrong, which I define as “moral.” Failure to observe this distinction has led to confusion in the past,6 and to avoid this I devote some pages (110-13) to explaining what I mean by “ethical” as opposed to “moral.”7 To support his denial of the distinction, Kaster gave two pairs of what he called “ethical” concepts that could be at odds: justice and mercy, and the bad man who is loyal. But both pairings confused what I define as moral (mercy and loyalty) with what I call ethical (justice and good and bad). A thief or a person bad in any other sense can be loyal, but not just. Mercy is something that is granted or denied, after a judgment about right or wrong has been rendered. If we take virtus to be not an ethical value, but, like loyalty, a moral one, then a man of virtus could be excused for embezzlement, as a brave man might be excused for showing loyalty to a bad cause or person; neither could be said to be ethically correct in the sense of right vs. wrong. It is in the narrow sense of right and wrong that I mean both the “ethical” standard of ius which Ennius contrasts to virtus ( Hectoris lytra, 155-6 Jocelyn), and the “unethical” conduct—embezzlement—that Caesar claimed to have excused because of the virtus of the embezzlers ( BC 3.59-60.1). In both the Ennius and Caesar passages in question, and in all other instances where it is used in what I call its traditional or native sense, virtus is of course among the things desired by good men, but it is a moral, socially approved value rather than an absolute standard of right vs. wrong.

Kaster’s charge that I strip away tension that might have existed between virtus and the Roman ethical system is, therefore, misconceived. In fact, Roman Manliness deals extensively with the tension that existed between virtus and what might be called the “moral” system of republican Rome (see below on socially sanctioned, individual ideals versus the common good). But significant as this kind of tension may be, it is not unusual in a militaristic society such as that of mid-republican Rome. What is unusual is that by the late Republic virtus could be used, on the one hand, by Caesar to mean a non-ethical quality invoked to excuse an ethical failing, and, on the other hand, regularly by Cicero as a quintessentially ethical term. This is remarkable and requires explanation. The explanation is to be found in semantic borrowing from the Greek word arete. Kaster was again dismissive, in part because of his opinions about ethical and moral, in part because he imagines that by the late third century Roman culture and the Latin language had been for so long and so thoroughly influenced by Greek that the attempt to distinguish one from the other in the literary record is “one of the book’s essential implausibilites.”8

But the idea that early Hellenic influences on Rome preclude distinguishing Greek from Roman at a later period, rests on a truism passed along by scholars who have not considered its implication. Certainly Greek influence on Latin began early, as early as the late 9th century if those are Greek letters scratched on the vase found at Osteria dell’Osa. But the assumption that the Greek influences seen in a fifth century temple to Castor and Pollux in the Forum, or in the Twelve Tables were equivalent in kind or degree to those at work in the times of Naevius, Plautus, and Ennius is historically nave. One can think of the significant Jewish influences on New York City after the Civil War. But the impact of the great immigration of Yiddish speakers from c. 1880-1920 was of a different order. It transformed the city into what it had not been before in numerous ways, not the least of which was in how all working-class New Yorkers spoke English. So also Rome was transformed into something it has not been before by the enormous influx of Greek speakers that began with the enslavements of Greek populations during the Pyrrhic War and continued through the first two Punic Wars.

In regard to arete, since its influence on some usages of virtus is undeniable, denoting the fertility of farmland, for example, it is reasonable to suppose that it influenced others also. It is the case that where virtus does occur in early Latin with an unambiguously ethical meaning—right vs. wrong—, it is almost always in comedy, and in the great majority of cases in dramatic contexts that correspond to a select number of moralizing topoi in Greek New Comedy in which arete is regularly found. Roman Manliness argues that in these instances the ethical usages of virtus in Roman comedy were affected by arete, and, drawing on sociolinguistic studies, speculates on how popular drama might have affected popular Latin usage. Nor is virtus the only Latin word to have had its ethical sense affected by a Greek term. It has been cogently argued that sapientia took on ethical and philosophical denotations from the Greek sophia.9

Parts of Kaster’s review are puzzling, even strange. It was not clear to him why a Latin word with a delimited semantic range would be used to render the Greek term arete, and he asked why, if virtus were “not much more than a common synonym for fortitudo,” was it and not fortitudo semantically extended? But both these issues are dealt with in my book. Virtus was broadened by a process socio-linguistics calls semantic calque, which works by expanding the semantic range of an indigenous word by analogy with a foreign word with wider references but some common meaning, in the case of virtus and arete this being martial courage. As for fortitudo, it is found very rarely in early Latin and, outside of Cicero’s philosophical works, rarely at all in republican Latin—as a glance at a few indices verborum, the TLL, or the index of Roman Manliness shows. It is recognized to be a neologism coined for the purpose of avoiding confusion when virtus was used to denote something other than manly courage. The clearest example is fortitudo used to render the Greek andreia, when virtus (= arete) is employed as the covering term for the four canon virtues— prudentia, iustitia, temperantia, and fortitudo.

Kaster’s critique is perhaps strangest when it appealed directly to logic. Mercifully this happened only once, in a short disquisition on an “ideal as a final good” that cannot admit “limitation or modification.” From this Kaster proceeded: “. . . if virtus just was belligerent aggression of a socially threatening sort, as M says, it cannot have been the ‘ideal of Roman manliness’; if it were that ideal, it cannot have been what M. says it was.” Granting the premise, I suppose this is true. The problem is that it doesn’t address the point being made, which is about the conflict between a socially sanctioned, individual ideal and the common good, which is neither illogical nor even unusual.

Although he would no doubt deny it (at the end of the review he nodded at the distance between ancient and modern concepts and sensibilities), Kaster seems wedded to the notion that ancient Roman ideas of manliness can be understood by reference to modern. He began his review by recounting responses from Princeton colleagues he had asked to define manliness, and ended it by stating that Roman manliness was a container “as empty of specific content as its English counterpart.” Predictably, Kaster’s colleagues responded with a large number of definitions and traits that were various, skeptical, and of course, ironic. According to Kaster this is closer to what the Romans thought about manliness than the picture of virtus in the republican era that I present. But surely contemporary views about manliness, and gender issues in general, especially those of an educated elite, are the result of multifarious influences produced by a rapidly changing culture and technology. In his lifetime Kaster has witnessed a dramatic expansion in the signs associated with manliness—short hair, long hair, no hair—based largely on mass communications. In earlier times ideas about manliness were far more stable. Take for example the long career of dueling in defense of manly honor. It came into prominence during the 16th century, but survived the demise of the Old Regime and was adopted by the manly elite of bourgeois society. The last recorded duel in France took place in that annus mirabilis 1967.10 In a deeply traditional society such as republican Rome, ideas about manliness, and much else, would have been far more stable and restricted. If the Romans of the republican era took their manliness more seriously than do contemporary academics, we should try to forgive them, and to understand them. While the Republic functioned the public life of Roman citizens was a very serious business. Unlike today, elite Romans and substantial portions of non-elite citizens fought the wars they had declared. The attitudes of contemporary academics about manliness are very different from those of Romans of the Republic, and that is largely because most of the former live lives without risk.


1. Kaster gave a neat and fair precis of the book’s thesis, but did not mention the subjects of the chapters not reviewed, which include history, numismatics, and architecture.

2. See e.g., Plaut. Mil. 233, Stich. 657. On the usage see A. O. F. Lorenz, Ausgewaehlte Komoedien des T. Maccius Plautus, IV. Pseudolus (Berlin 1876) pp. 52, 56-7, citing virtutes at Asin. 558, and P. Langen, Beitraege zur Kritik und Erklaerung des Plautus (Leipzig, 1880) pp. 105-14.

3. See e.g., Plaut. Capt. 429, Mil. 878, Pseud. 580, 672, 705; Ter. Eun. 236, 928-9, 937, 1079; cf. ORF 48.27.5; with Lorenz, pp. 40-55 and Langen, pp. 103-4.

4. Kaster listed a number of other interpretations that he found “especially procrustean, arbitrary, or otherwise unsatisfactory.” I will not reargue these but will note that at Plin. NH 21.7 my conclusion agrees with that of Mommsen, at ILLRP 309 with that of Courtney. I do not, as Kaster stated, claim that the contrast between virtus and voluptasvitium was entirely Greek in origin, see Roman Manliness, pp. 55-6.

5. See Polybius 6.24.9 and Roman Manliness, p. 66, on Caesar reserving virtus for displays of aggressive courage by centurions. My caveat in note 132 about the nature of the virtus of centurions at BG VI.40.7 was unnecessary, since at VI.40.8 it is clear that the type of virtus Caesar credits to them is aggressive— Militum pars (centurionum) horum virtute summotis hostibus. . . in castra pervenit.

6. It was the failure to distinguish between the two that accounts for much of the heat in the disagreement over the meaning of fides in early Latin between E. Fraenkel, Rh.M. 71 (1916): 187-99 and R. Heinze, “Fides,” Hermes 64 (1929): 140-66.

7. It is important to be clear that the issue is not about the meanings of “ethical” and “moral,” but the distinction between behavior that adheres to abstract standards of right and wrong as opposed to behavior that follows prevailing social standards. Kaster dismissed my discussion of the latter distinction as confused. But if there is any confusion it is his in writing that my contrasting of virtus to ethical conduct “suggest that M. means not ‘ethical’ but ‘moral’ in the modern sense.” I quote the American Heritage Dictionary, under “synonyms for “moral”: “Moral applies to personal characteristics and behavior, . . . measured against prevailing standards of rectitude,. . . . “—”Ethical stresses conformity with idealistic standards of right and wrong, . . .”

8. Kaster wrote that I attempt to “neatly severe” Roman from Greek. In fact I stress the difficulty, see pp. 105, 110, and the qualifications made at pp. 108-9, 117, 119, 123, 137-8.

9. On sapientia and sophia see G. Luck, ABG 9 (1964): 203-16, G. Garbarino, AAT 100 (1965-6): 254-84, and E. L. Wheeler, Historia 37 (1988): 166-95.

10. On the duel see F. Billaçois, Le Duel dans la société française des XVIe-XVIIe siècles (Paris, 1986), and on its place among bourgeois codes of manly honor, R. A. Nye, Masculinity and Male Codes of Honor in Modern France (Oxford, 1993). For the 16th century, see also E. Schalk, From Valor to Pedigree (Princeton, 1986).