Clive Skidmore, Practical Ethics for Roman Gentlemen: The Work of Valerius Maximus. Exeter: Exeter University Press, 1996. Pp. xvii + 142. ISBN 0-85989- 477-0. UKú30.00.
University of Cape Town
Skidmore's book is a much revised version of his Exeter 1988 Ph.D. thesis and makes a solid contribution to the recent revival of interest in Valerius Maximus. Skidmore's aim is to rebut the frequent assumptions about Valerius' work as a mere collection of rhetorical material and to invest it with a higher purpose as 'a comprehensive source of reference for anyone faced with moral decisions' (p. xvii). Even if one rejects this thesis in the form that Skidmore presents it, there is much to be taken with profit from Skidmore's work.
Skidmore's work is organised in three parts. Firstly (pp. 3- 30), he considers the role of examples in Greek and Roman education and the views of Quintilian and Seneca the Younger: e.g., 'Who will teach courage, justice, loyalty, self-control, simplicity and contempt of grief and pain better than men like Fabricius, Curius, Regulus, Decius, Mucius and countless others?' (Quint. Inst. 2.30). Skidmore concludes his section on Quintilian: 'Quintilian lays down guidelines for the moral education of a Roman orator or statesman and Memorable Words and Deeds identifies in very respect with his requirements' (pp. 24-5).
Part Two (pp. 31-52) looks at the form of Valerius' work, beginning with an examination of the ideas of accessibility, convenience and brevity which Valerius enunciates in the preface. Skidmore then considers Hellenistic compilations of sayings, which were arranged by person rather than theme, philosophical collections of historical examples on specific themes (e.g., Chrysippus' On Dreams, where the illustrative material comprised the great bulk of the work), and thirdly collections of paradoxographical material. Romans authors produced works of all three types, but Valerius, whose work encompasses a vast range of material, seems to have surpassed his predecessors in the complexity of arrangement and scope. In passing (pp. 47-8) Skidmore disposes of the theory of Klotz and Bosch that Valerius' work is a mere rehash of a pre-existing Roman collection, perhaps that of C. Julius Hyginus.[]
The third, and most important, part of Skidmore's work (pp. 53-118) begins with an examination of the moral purpose of Valerius' work. Skidmore gives correct emphasis to words from the preface, 'by your [Tiberius'] divine wisdom are the virtues of which I am about to speak encouraged and the vices punished with the utmost severity' (Skidmore's translation), and shows how throughout the work the themes of good and bad conduct with their respective concomitants of reward and punishment are hammered home by Valerius. Through his prefatory remarks to individual examples as well as to chapters, Valerius 'preconditions' (p. 57) the reader and guides him in the understanding of the following example(s). Valerius' antiquarianism has a moral purpose: he believes in the moral decline of Rome and points to the virtues which need to be cultivated in order to preserve the Roman empire. The Roman virtue fundamental to their acquisition of world rule was dutiful worship of the gods (see 1.1.8), which Valerius treats at length in his first book. The gods are the guarantee of the moral order Valerius supports; for him they are not literary ornaments, but forces active in human affairs.
Valerius' advice is not just moral, but Skidmore sees him as a kind of 'agony aunt' confronting the ambiguities of certain topics, such as dress sense (3.6), and instructing the reader who may be in a dilemma. Also Valerius' advice is often practical -- the chapters on legal questions in Book 8 'are clearly included for the instruction of the audience, and could be applied in a number of ways; they would be relevant to those adjudicating on cases as well as those engaging in litigation' (p. 73). Consolatory guidance is also presented (e.g., 7.6, 8.13), making use in particular of the concept of Fortune (e.g., 6.9, 7.1). Valerius' programmatic statement requires him to consider vices, the subject of Book 9, but they occupy a small part, as they are less profitable to read (5.3, 3.5).
In chapter 8, on Valerius' choice of examples (pp. 83-92), Skidmore discusses Valerius' belief in the efficacy of examples in preference to moralising words or ethical treatises, as essentially more 'real'. His criteria for selecting his examples are their authority, plausibility and entertainment value, this last provided in particular by foreign examples (pp. 89-91) not at all at odds with the overall purpose of moral instruction. The question of plausibility is addressed in chapter 9 (pp. 93-102) where Skidmore demonstrates that Valerius can show a degree of scepticism towards examples from the mythical period and rejects fable. By contrast his religious credulity is high.
While there is much to be commended in Skidmore's presentation of a case for seeing a serious moral, educative purpose in Valerius, he perhaps goes too far. In many cases the examples are of no direct relevance to a Roman of the first century AD. We need not retreat to the old position of seeing Valerius' examples merely as a collection to be mined by those in the declamation schools, as Valerius' moulding and presentation of his material shows clearly that he wants it to be read as continuous prose. In fact, Valerius demonstrates how his examples can be used by declaimers, whose world was often safely distanced from contemporary political or social problems.
A work on virtues had a role to play in the early empire when abstract qualities were politicised as never before. The recently published senatus consultum de Pisone patre,[] which appeared too late for Skidmore, provides an intriguing context for Valerius' work. The decree's words, 'the Senate, mindful of its clemency and justice and generosity of spirit, virtues which it inherited from its ancestors and learned in particular for Divus Augustus and Tiberius Caesar Augustus, its principes . . . ', advertises to the whole empire, with indisputable official support, exactly what Valerius offers in his work -- a time-honoured moral system exemplified by the greats of Roman history and latterly (and most influentially) by the lives of the emperors. In his consideration of the audience for the work (chapter 10, pp. 103-112) Skidmore rejects the recent suggestion by Martin Bloomer that Valerius was writing primarily for those outside of Rome, from the new bourgeoisie of Italy,[] and stresses the usefulness of his material to 'an audience which was well educated and of high social status' (p. 107). I am not convinced that Valerius' examples made an ideal accompaniment to upper class dinner-parties; in particular Skidmore's attempt to interpret Suetonius' aretologoi (Aug. 74) as Valeriuses is dubious. Given the importance of virtues within the ideological system of the early empire and the emperors' concern to promulgate it as widely as possible, I would not restrict Valerius' audience as Skidmore does. He had a wide 'market' for his work.
In his brief concluding discussion of Valerius' identity Skidmore may place too much weight on 5.5 praef., 'I inherited equal glory from the busts of our ancestors', as evidence that Valerius descended from a family whose ancestors had held curule magistracies.
All in all Skidmore's work is to be welcomed as a contribution to Valerian studies.
[] C. Bosch, Die Quellen des Valerius Maximus: Ein Beitrag zur Erforschung der Literatur der historischen Exempla (Stuttgart 1929); A. Klotz, Studien zu Valerius Maximus und den Exempla (Munich 1942).
[] W. Eck, A. Caballos, F. Fernandez (edd.), Das senatus consultum de Cn. Pisone patre. Vestigia 48. (Munich 1996).
[] Martin Bloomer, Valerius Maximus and the Rhetoric of the New Nobility (Chapel Hill 1992).