BMCR 2022.09.45

Exemplarität und Exzeptionalität in der griechisch-römischen Antike

Sebastian Bauer, Philipp Brockkötter, Exemplarität und Exzeptionalität in der griechisch-römischen Antike. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2022. Pp. 307. ISBN 9783949189098. €80.00.


[Authors and titles are listed below.]

This volume is the product of an interdisciplinary collaboration in the context of the German research project “Helden, Heroisierungen, Heroismen” (SFB 948) based in Freiburg. It tries to understand a complicated aspect of the discourse of exemplarity: the paradox that extraordinary individuals (‘heroes’, if you will) can offer standards of behaviour for common people. Indeed, it is hard to believe that the Homeric poems teach us how to become a Hector or Andromache, but at the same time nobody doubts that their words and deeds invite us to reflect on what it means to be a good man or woman. The editors take as their starting point Simon Goldhill’s influential 1994 article on the “failure of exemplarity” in the Odyssey,[1] and their main question is the capacity of exempla to establish norms and values for a society, despite their subversive and transgressive quality. They aim both to create new perspectives and to present “eine möglichst große Bandbreite an methodischen Zugriffen und Forschungsergebnissen” (pp. 40–41). I understand the editors’ reluctance to impose a systematic methodological framework on all contributions, and the quality of the chapters is generally high. Yet critical reflection on the exemplary vs. the exceptional does not seem to be the main focus of all chapters, which makes it difficult to grasp the implications of the volume at large. In this respect, Matthew Roller’s ‘Closing remarks and comments’ are helpful: he observes that there are two kinds of exemplarity: the one-of-many (following the meaning of eximo as ‘to take out’, i.e. ‘to sample’)[2], and the unique or unusual, for which the exceptional element comes into view (p. 305). Over time, the latter type of exemplary behaviour grows to be an accepted norm, erasing, as it were, the exceptional element.[3]

The first chapter (‘Exemplarität und Exzeptionalität im Spiegel der Forschung’) does in fact equip the reader with a solid theoretical framework. The editors Sebastian Bauer and Philipp Brockkötter provide a scholarly overview of the concepts of exemplarity and exceptionality. They have selected an interesting range of passages, including less traditional ones (e.g., Frontinus), to demonstrate the “diversifizierte, dabei jedoch stark von der Ebene der Funktionalisierung ausgehende Beschreibung der exempla” (p. 31) in ancient texts. On the basis of recent studies two main arguments are made: the discourse of exemplarity is a socio-ethical phenomenon, and the exemplum cannot be seen as separate from the exceptio, the exceptional and transgressive. “Gute und schlechte Eigenschaften, Exzellenz und Exzess, zu viel und zu wenig, Exemplarität und Exzeptionalität gehen … Hand in Hand” (p. 39). Here especially I would have appreciated a more thorough discussion of the groundbreaking studies by Langlands (2018) and Roller (2018).[4] Both scholars have gone far beyond, for example, Goldhill (1994) in theorizing the extraordinary and exceptional as part of the discourse of exemplarity, and they problematize in particular the didactic effect of subversive patterns of behaviour within exempla.

Part I of the volume (‘Exemplarität und Exzeptionalität in visuellen Medien’) shows well that the exemplum does not just operate on the literary-rhetorical plane, but can literally be part of the fabric of the ancient city. Katharina Kostopoulos argues that the Attic orators strategically included references to the visual monumental cityscape of Athens in their speeches. An interesting example of this is the orators’ mention of the city walls. In fourth-century Greek oratory, these walls represent not only the achievements of particular politicians, like Conon or Themistocles, but the success of the entire Athenian demos. Likewise, the national self-awareness of the Athenian people is strengthened by deictic references to the citizen graves in the demosion sema. Benjamin Wieland similarly brings to the fore the commemorative culture of the Greek polis, this time with a special focus on Cyprus. Wieland has examined 160 inscriptions on statue bases from Cyprus. The erection of a statue for an euergetês of the city was the “monumentalste, begehrteste und inhaltlich pointierteste Art von ‘Geschenken’, die durch das Kollektiv vergeben werden” (p. 67). Wieland shows that although the statue could send a message about the exemplary virtue of the individual portrayed, it was first and foremost an advertisement for the reciprocal relationship between the people and the elite. Through statues for Ptolemaic officials, the king was also implicated in this exemplary relationship, which points to an active, bottom-up confirmation of Ptolemaic rulership. In the third chapter, Matthias Bensch expresses his skepticism about the applicability of the paradigm of exemplarity with regard to Roman visual culture. He does so by reviewing Newby’s monograph Greek Myths in Roman Art and Culture (Cambridge 2016). Bensch very rightfully points out that, in order to state whether an image is an exemplum or not, we need to look at structural similarities between textual and visual narrations of a (semi-)historical episode, a task which requires more interdisciplinary research.

Part II of the volume (‘Weibliche exempla? Held_innen zwischen Exemplarität und Exzeptionalität’) derives its title mainly from Bauer’s contribution, which examines how the moral-didactic relationship between Plutarchan heroes and the readers of his work mirrors the relationship between two spouses. Bauer’s contribution weighs very carefully the limits of exemplarity in Plutarch’s thought: rather than giving a direct exhortation to imitate the deeds of his protagonists, Plutarch would encourage his readers to develop their capacity for critical thinking (proairesis).[5] Bauer’s chapter is very long (60 pages) and it lacks focus, mainly because it attempts to give a comprehensive overview of exemplarity, the role of the woman, and finally female exemplarity in Plutarch’s work. Karen Piepenbrink, in turn, argues that in early Christian literature of the 4th and 5th centuries, the stories of female ascetics very often have a strong exemplary tone. Whereas male ascetics constitute the typical ‘Einzelperson’ living outside of society, and thus represent the exceptional rather than the exemplary, the lives of female ascetics, who traditionally practiced their asceticism within the bounds of the family, are more easily accessible. These fascinating observations, which fit very well the general methodological aim of the volume, would have gained more force if the author had presented some of the Greek and Latin texts.

Part III (‘Heroische exempla zwischen Erinnern und Identitätskonstruktion’) has little heroisches, but it offers three excellent case studies of the actual use of exempla within Roman politics. All three illustrate the flexibility and timelessness of the exemplum, the interpretation of which always depends on the needs and expectations of a society. Brockkötter traces the exemplum Augusti from the early to the late imperial period and from Rome to India. Throughout the provinces, he argues, we see the same “leitkulturelle Bild des exemplum Augusti” (p. 186), which has specific features: Augustus’ portrait resembles a classical Greek, Alexander-like figure, while literary sources repeat his ending of the civil war, the motif of the res publica restituta, and the events of the years 28–27 BCE. The “Wandlungs- bzw. Anpassungfähigkeit” (p. 213) of this fixed image is emphasized for different contexts: examples are the reinterpretation of Augustan symbols (e.g., the pax Augusta) in the works of Augustine and Orosius, or, from an archeological perspective, the portraits of Augustus found in lower Egypt or along the Silk route. Another example of clever visual propaganda by Roman politicians is the ‘Hercules Tunicatus’ discussed by Peter Scholz. He illustrates how this extraordinary statue, brought to Rome by Lucullus among his spoils from the east, could become an exemplum of political competition. While initially a symbol of Lucullus’ defeat of Mithridates and Tigranes, after Lucullus’ death the statue came to symbolize the senatorial resistance against sole rulership; as a consequence, it was pulled down twice by Pompey and Mark Antony. By analyzing the history of the statue two traditions emerge: one in which Lucullus’ virtuous leadership is confirmed, and another, more dominant one, by which Lucullus ultimately became a model of luxury and vice. On a more theoretical level, Christopher Degelmann attempts to unravel the interaction between political practice and literary texts with regard to the exemplum of squalor. Originally a sign of grief, in the republican period squalor also became a political strategy. A Roman aristocrat standing on trial would dress veste sordida and go around the city with his family to evoke pity among his fellow citizens. When Scipio Aemilianus, then, standing trial in 139 BCE, explicitly refuses to follow this habit, he becomes a “role model” for later generations (p. 246)—we know of four cases where defendants openly refused to dress in squalor. Here, Degelmann illustrates the enormous impact of the historiographical sources in the continuing influence of exempla. The practice of squalor might not have been that frequent, but as a result of the celebrated stories about Scipio and others, the refusal to dress sordidly became a famous example of the virtue of integrity.

Part IV (‘exempla als (De-)Legitimationsstrategie sozialer Ordnung’) addresses the practice of norm-setting, which is inherent to (the discourse of) exemplarity. Isabelle Künzer problematizes, from the perspective of rhetorico-literary imitation, the canonization of republican orators and writers in the early Empire. The rules of Roman education stated that it was important to imitate the maiores, but the political order had changed considerably since the Republic. Moreover, the idealization of republican writers meant that the talent and ambitions of contemporary generations was structurally undermined. Therefore, since the imperial system left little room for high achievements, imperial writers and orators evaluated and imitated not so much the literary models themselves, but the choice of models which their colleagues followed. In arguing that these ancient models have become ‘empty shells’, representing an abstract reality (p. 274) or category of greatness, Künzer follows general ideas about the ‘depoliticization’ of exempla in the early empire (Bloomer 1992; Gowing 2005; cf. Lucarelli 2007, Wiegand 2013)[6]. Finally, Hendrik Wagner reviews the literary motif of anthropophagy. This topos symbolizes the opposition of chaos vs. order and barbarity vs. civilization, and often appears in descriptions of military conflict. Wagner presents us with an exceptional mention of cannibalism in Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, where the Gallic leader Critognatus advises, in a speech, that eating one’s fellow citizens is preferable to surrendering to the Romans. Wagner’s interpretation of this passage is appealing: Critognatus’ speech would exemplify the horrors that the Romans were up against in Gallia, thus legitimizing Caesar’s expedition. I would be interested to know how this speech, as a perfect, negative exemplum of barbarity, was received in the later tradition.

The volume is well-edited, apart from typographical errors in the Greek citations discussed in chapter 5. Due to the lack of thematic and methodological coherence this volume, in my opinion, is not entirely successful in creating a deeper understanding of the “connection between the exemplary and exceptional” (p. 34). However, as a collection of articles about exemplarity it offers many interesting case studies, and it is duly innovative with regard to its inclusion of literature and material culture from the classical Greek and Hellenistic periods. Overall, this book is an appealing invitation to study further the complexities surrounding the construction of ‘the great (wo)men of the past’ in antiquity.


Authors and Titles

Philipp Brockkötter, Einleitung

Sebastian Bauer, Philipp Brockkötter, Exemplarität und Exzeptionalität im Spiegel der Forschung

Katharina Kostopoulos, (Un-)sichtbare Helden. Visuelle paradeigmata bei den attischen Rednern

Benjamin Wieland, Exzeptionalität, Exemplarität und Reziprozität in Ehreninschriften aus dem ptolemäischen Zypern als Ausdruck einer Herrschaft der εὔνοια

Matthias J. Bensch, Ausgangsüberlegungen zu einer Problematisierung von Exemplarität und ihres möglichen Beitrags zum Verständnis römischer Bildkulturen

Sebastian Bauer, Liebe als pädagogisches Instrument. Weibliche Figuren zwischen Exemplarität und Exzeptionalität im Werk Plutarchs

Karen Piepenbrink, Exemplarität und Exzeptionalität in der Konzeption christlicher Asketinnen und Asketen im 4. und frühen 5. Jahrhundert

Philipp Brockkötter, Das exemplum Augusti aus trans- und interkultureller Perspektive

Peter Scholz, Der Hercules Tunicatus des Lucullus. Ein extravagantes Siegesmonument und sein politisches Erinnerungs- und Deutungspotential

Christopher Degelmann, Vom exemplum zur Politik und wieder zurück. Wechselwirkungen zwischen Text und Praxis von der frühen bis zur späten Republik

Isabelle Künzer, “Nur Gespenster messen sich mit Toten”. Die Folgen der Exemplarität für zeitgenössische Redner und Literaten der frühen Kaiserzeit

Hendrik A. Wagner, Der “heroische Kannibalismus”. Die Möglichkeit einer Unmöglichkeit zwischen Exemplarität und Exzeptionalität

Matthew Roller, Closing remarks and comments



[1] S. Goldhill, ‘The Failure of Exemplarity’, in I.F.J. de Jong, J. P. Sullivan (eds.), Modern Critical Theory and Classical Literature (Leiden 1994), 51–73.

[2] H. Kornhardt, Exemplum: eine bedeutungsgeschichtliche Studie (Göttingen 1936) is dated, but still useful.

[3] This is also the theory developed in M. Müller, ‘Exemplum and Exceptio: Building Blocks for a Rhetorical Theory of the Exceptional Case’ in an edited volume similar to this one: M. Lowrie & Susanne Lüdemann (eds.), Exemplarity and Singularity. Thinking through Particulars in Philosophy, Literature and Law (London 2015).

[4] R. Langlands, Exemplary Ethics in Ancient Rome (Cambridge 2018); M.B. Roller, Models from the Past in Roman Culture: A World of Exempla (Cambridge/New York 2018).

[5] I would also refer to R. Langlands, ‘Plutarch and Roman Exemplary Ethics. Cultural Interactions’, in A. König, R. Langlands, & J. Uden (eds.), Literature and Culture in the Roman Empire, 96-235. Cross-Cultural Interactions (Cambridge 2020), 75–94.

[6] M. Bloomer, Valerius Maximus and the Rhetoric of the New Nobility (Chapel Hill 1992); A.M. Gowing, Empire and Memory. The Representation of the Roman Republic in Imperial Culture (Cambridge 2005); U. Lucarelli, Exemplarische Vergangenheit. Valerius Maximus und die Konstruktion des sozialen Raumes in der frühen Kaiserzeit (Göttingen 2007); I. Wiegand, Neque libere neque vere. Die Literatur unter Tiberius und der Diskurs der “res publica continua (Tübingen 2013).