BMCR 2018.06.23

‘Virtus romana’: Politics and Morality in the Roman Historians. Studies in the History of Greece and Rome

, 'Virtus romana': Politics and Morality in the Roman Historians. Studies in the History of Greece and Rome. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. xiii, 297. ISBN 9781469635125. $45.00.


Catalina Balmaceda’s book joins a refreshing trend in the scholarship of Roman moral and cultural values, a topic that for too long has been treated with purely semantic analyses or as a subset of literary criticism. Balmaceda’s goal is different, and astute: she traces the path of one value, virtus, through the works of Sallust, Livy, Velleius Paterculus, and Tacitus, scanning for changes in its uses as Rome tilted from Republic to Principate. Her aim is to reveal how the Romans perceived virtus in different historical circumstances, thus illuminating not only the underlying historical realities of these historians’ works, but also how the authors “helped to shape” their own times by “endorsing specific values, creating a tradition, constructing identity, and introducing role models” (2).

The results of this method are admirable, particularly in Balmaceda’s wise conclusions that these historians’ descriptions of virtus were not mere literary choice but reflected “contact with the real world, in an effort to name and identify reality as the historians saw it” (245), and in her reminders that for Roman historians, values and morals were not rhetorical niceties but political ideals, inclusion of which in historical writing showed sophisticated thinking, edified and educated the reader, and promoted an ideal society at one stroke. In this sense, the book helps dissolve the tiresome scholarly barriers long erected between history, literature, and historiography—a most welcome turn.

Chapter One starts with a general review of virtus ’ semantic valences and ambiguities, along with a comparison to Greek and Stoic virtues. Balmaceda’s conclusion is convincing: Roman virtus generally came in two flavors, virilis-virtus, roughly “manly courage,” and humana-virtus, something closer to our moral “virtue” that encapsulated further values such as clemency and justice. This is not a wholly new dichotomy, of course; any student of Latin will sense it intuitively. But Balmaceda’s contribution is to show how the Romans eventually adopted foreign articulations for a native Roman concept that changed organically over time—and was thus not, at least in its ethical sense, as Myles McDonnell argued in his 2006 work Roman Manliness Virtus and the Roman Republic, a late Hellenic import (22-25, 66-67). A further section on Cicero’s multifarious uses of virtus (34-42) illustrates the term’s multivocality well, although with several unnecessary critiques of Loeb translations that, although merited, don’t drive Balmaceda’s own points much forward.

Chapter Two, on Sallust, presents an intricate chain of argument. First, Balmaceda contends, Sallust broke with aristocratic tradition by attributing virtus both to nobiles and to novi, who gained the trait through action, not birth. But if virtus depended on comportment, it could obviously falter. Marius, whom Balmaceda identifies as the “summit of the exposition” (66) of Sallust’s theory of virtus, for instance, famously suffered from excessive ambition, while Catiline was a notoriously ambiguous figure. Sallust showed through such men the “disconcerting proximity” between virtus and vitium (78). That proximity next explains how in Sallust virtue decays so easily, through an “ease of transition” (80) from one state to another, mediated through slippage in the meanings of words that “can move the boundaries of behavior” (75), an insight for which Sallust could draw on Thucydides. From such slippage came political decline. Thus Sallust’s focus on virtus is not a mere literary technique but a lens into his theory of history; the growing confusion of virtus that he portrays mirrors the confusions that embroil the Republic. Balmaceda unfortunately does not take her insight a level deeper to examine whether the confusion that Sallust captured might have been a product of a confused state of virtus —think of Catiline and Cicero’s competing claims of fealty to proper Roman mores and the violence thence inspired—but her chain is otherwise tightly forged.

Chapter Three analyzes virtus in Livy, whose moral exempla show for Balmaceda “that virtus gave continuity to Roman history and, at the same time, explained when, why, and how change occurred” (92). Balmaceda sees virtus in Livy’s tales of the oldest days as bravery in defense of libertas against would-be tyrants or foreign hordes, in which novi fought valiantly and thus gained acceptance. This martial flavor of pristine virtus, however, slowly faded as wars of aggression replaced fights for freedom. In its place arrived virtus as moral uprightness in troubled times, even as this incarnation too slowly dissipated among personal lusts and moral decay. Yet for Livy neither flavor of virtus ever quite died, and there was hope for renewal in the virtuous Augustus’ reign—particularly if Livy could inspire his readers to display it as well. Balmaceda’s analysis rings true, and is a splendid example of how following a specific value through history and historiography can yield marvelous experimental results: here, fresh insight into the profound mix of uncertainty and optimism, of old and new, as the Romans and Livy passed from civil war to the “restored” “Republic.”

The one piece out of place in the otherwise excellent chapter is an aside on Livy’s portrayal of female responses to virtus. Balmaceda rather stretches here, equating Livy’s portrayal of virtus in the sense of manly courage with Livy’s exempla of feminine modesty and chastity (Lucretia, Verginia) and with wailing, praying, and being generous with gold during the Punic wars (117-124). Writes Balmaceda: “Many of these examples certainly qualify to apply the word virtus to them” (why?) “as the deeds of these women are undoubtedly brave and courageous” (suicide, conceivably, but wailing and praying and giving gold?) “but Livy avoids using virtus —so much the quality of a vir —and gives other synonyms.” Well, what should that avoidance tell us, especially when Livy knew well how to apply the word to, say, Cloelia? And even if we shoehorn such examples into virtus (as Livy chose not to do), Balmaceda might have taken up the opportunity to discuss men whom Livy had show pudicitia and modestia —a fascinating contrast that could have helped elucidate not just something of gender roles but also virtus ’ ambiguity as both warlike and quietist virtue. But no such insights are forthcoming, and the analysis feels perfunctory. One almost senses that Balmaceda’s heart isn’t in it in her prosaic conclusion that in Livy “[women’s] actions—or the actions done to them—matter and bring about changes for good or evil” (125).

In Chapter Four Balmaceda turns to Velleius Paterculus, who presents a challenge: what can be drawn from an author so long derided as a sycophant? But Balmaceda’s method is up to the task, and proves invigorating in squeezing historical value from Velleius’ fawning text. She analyzes how Velleius took the baton from Sallust and Livy and optimistically portrayed the Principate as the full restorer of personal virtus. Here virtus acts as the “mortar” or “historical hinge” (130) between Republic and Empire, between a glorious lost past and a glorious present now restored through the person of Tiberius, a man of virtus- virilis because of his difficult military campaigns, and of virtus-humana in his personal integrity, and particularly in his moderation.

Of course this image of Tiberius is puffery at best, but that is not Balmaceda’s point. We see the virtus -infused theory of history that Sallust had begun and that Livy had refined compressed by Velleius into historical biography : “[i]mperial history is starting to be written through the emperor’s virtues just as we saw republican history being written by Livy through the virtues of the Roman people and by Sallust through their vices” (152). Now, the Romans’ consideration of history through a moral prism was not new, and perhaps Balmaceda makes slightly too strong a claim for novelty here. But Balmaceda’s method does reveal Velleius’ work as an artifact of a society that could not help but mediate change—here the shift from People to Person—except through the mental channels of the old and venerated. That is, through Balmaceda’s tracking of virtus, a vision of Velleius as shameless propagandist lessens, and instead we recognize in Velleius a trace of a struggle in historical time and space to reconcile tradition and profound innovation. Velleius’ very banality gives Balmaceda’s method its greatest chance to shine.

Unfortunately, a single, misdirected premise prevents Balmaceda’s last and longest chapter on virtus in Tacitus from following on successfully. The trouble begins in Balmaceda’s analysis of the Agricola, in her claim that in the Principate virtus took on a “new” form: moderatio, which she defines as a willingness to cede place to one’s superiors (and, thus, the Emperor), combined with thrift and a sense of duty. Thus Agricola shares hardships with his soldiers, avoids lavisheness, and controls his emotions, and his “flexibility in the cloudy waters of politics is manifested above all” by his retirement from the “limelight” and return “to the obscurity of a privatus ” (165). Balmaceda takes such traits as Agricola’s “adapting” virtus to novel political circumstances and “redefin[ing]” the value for the imperial era (167). This strong claim for novelty and redefinition is repeated in Balmaceda’s analysis of all of Tacitus’ works, and is the main thesis of the chapter.

But it simply cannot be right that moderatio so defined was either new in, or an adaptation to, the Principate. How often do we see studied displays of this supposedly “new” virtue in the Republic? What of Cincinnatus, or Camillus, or M. Fabius Rullianus famously refusing some office or honor? No need even to resort to hoary legend: didn’t Sulla showily surrender his dictatorial powers? Didn’t Cicero promise the crowds that Pompey would quickly relinquish his extraordinary commands and always humbly obey the Senate? Didn’t Pompey (with varying degrees of warmth, to be sure) try to make good on those promises? If, moreover, moderation meant parsimony, consider Cato the Elder. And if moderation meant suffering with the soldiery, well, even Catiline aspired to that ideal. Nor was there anything particularly “new” in Tacitus’ telling: Livy touted all those tales of self-abnegation, and Velleius, as seen, had attributed moderatio to Tiberius.

Now, it might be true that old-fashioned moderatio had the new happy effect under the emperors of saving one’s own neck. But its practitioners were not creating something fresh or proprietary to the Principate. They were more likely consciously trying to replicate a fundamental Republican value that so starkly contrasted with the princeps ’ interminable despotism. That is, the lesson from Tacitus is not that virtus had evolved into a new creature. It is that there were those who wished to see its ancient manifestations restored.

Balmaceda’s miss of this clear alternate interpretation is perhaps attributable to a structural decision: by breaking the book into chapters author by author she makes comparisons among the authors—especially to Livy, which would have revealed the flaw readily —more difficult. Not impossible, no doubt: the book summarizes itself in a perceptive mock Ciceronian dialogue, in which Sallust gloomily decries the loss of virtus, Livy cheers him with tales of the virtus of old that countless times saved the Republic, Velleius warmly praises the virtus of the present, and then Tacitus closes with an oration on the changing meanings of virtus (244-45). But further direct comparisons of the subtle fluctuations of virtus across authors would have better clarified what the book actually ends up proving: first, that as virtus passed from Republic to Empire its range of imaginable meanings became contested and the consequences of showing it changed. Second, that those changing meanings and consequences can then be read like refracted beams of light that reveal what the historical “surface” from which the beams bounced must have looked like. Third, that the beams of light themselves could also work to shape that historical surface. In proving those points the book is a great success, and even with the above criticisms Balmaceda’s method shows the many insights into Roman society that can be gained from following its cultural values through time.