ElAnt v6n1 - REVIEWS - Roman Honor: The Fire in the Bones

Volume 6, Number 1
July 2001

Roman Honor: The Fire in the Bones, Carlin A. Barton. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2001. ISBN 0-520-22525-2. Pp. xiv & 326.

Reviewed by Timothy J. Moore
Department of Classics, University of Texas at Austin

Barton aims to understand what she calls "the inner emotional life" of the ancient Romans. At the core of that inner life, Barton argues, lay an intense sense of honor and shame. Drawing widely from the fields of anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and sociology for analogies, Barton attempts to explain how this system of honor and shame worked.

Barton argues that the Roman ideal of moderation was not a bland compromise, but rather a passionate act of balance. Explaining how that balancing act worked, Barton turns first to virtus. Within the agonistic culture of Rome, virtus represented the "moment of truth," in which a man (or a woman: Barton wisely stresses that Roman concepts of honor and shame extended beyond the boundaries of both class and gender) risked all in the name of honor. The ability to display virtus in an agonistic context, however, depended upon a level playing field in which all might have the opportunity to excel. The rise of what Barton calls "rogue males" in the last years of the Republic and then the beginning of the principate removed this level field and left no opportunities for the display of virtus in the traditional way. The elite of the early empire, Barton argues, developed various ways of remedying the resulting dishonor: service like that of Tacitus' Agricola, the studied indifference of Stoicism, the withdrawal from public life.

Barton next addresses confession, which she claims played a central role in the balancing act of Roman honor. Confession was, paradoxically, both the ultimate humiliation, an admission of defeat, and something one could do strategically in order to honor others and show one's accessibility. Confession thus became another way Romans preserved their sense of self when their honor-based system collapsed with the demise of the Republic. By pronouncing the emperor pater patriae, his subjects placed themselves in the positions of sons and could thus endure the obsequium that came with their subjection to absolute power.

The third central concept Barton addresses is shame. Shame, she argues, was a constant and necessary companion of the Romans, as it provided an important sense of community for those within the culture of honor. When the demise of the Republic ended this sense of community, Romans' shame became unbearable, and the traditional system of honor was replaced by an ethical system based more on individual autonomy.

Barton's greatest strength is her wide range. Juxtapositions with other cultures from Japan to Africa to our own (though--astonishingly--ancient Greece is almost completely absent) provide provocative food for thought. Unfortunately, that same range is one of the book's principal weaknesses, for Barton makes analogies with other cultures without giving sufficient thought to just how the societies she draws from are and are not like Roman society. Particularly distressing is the careless way in which Barton uses analogies from modern sources. The central premise of Barton's book is that the Romans thought in a way profoundly different from us. She undermines this premise when she casually incorporates examples from modern behavior to explain what she wants to say about the Romans.

Similar lack of discipline plagues Barton's use of the ancient sources. Typically, Barton begins with a maxim (e.g., "Even the smallest challenge was important in Roman life," p. 47). She then lists several pages of citations from ancient authors that the reader is to assume demonstrate this maxim. Almost no analysis accompanies the citations, and very little thought is given to context. The result is exasperating. The reader is always left with the gnawing doubt: "Is this citation really indicative of Roman attitudes, or does it not rather reflect the concerns of a specific period, author, or character within a work?" It is all very well to speak, as Barton does, of the need to "abandon the linear and dichotomous tendencies of modern thought" (289) in trying to understand a pre-modern society; but when those allegedly insidious tendencies are replaced by scattered juxtapositions of only tangentially related observations, it is difficult to see what is gained.

Finally, one must ask whether or not Barton's analysis has really provided us a glimpse into the "inner emotional life" of the Romans that we did not see before. In fact, in the end Barton gives us the same discourse, with variations, that we have had since Sallust: an idealized republic followed by decay and then empire. The rhetoric is different: in place of Sallustian virtus we have Barton's notions of honor, balancing, and competition; in place of Sallust's avaritia and ambitio we have Barton's "rogue males" and "loss of a level playing field." The basic paradigm is the same.

by Kaavya Giridhar