Scholia Reviews ns 12 (2003) 22.

Carlin A. Barton, Roman Honor: the Fire in the Bones. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London. University of California Press, 2001. ISBN 0-520- 225125-2. Pp. xiv and 326. US$47.50.

D. Wardle,
School of Languages and Literatures, University of Cape Town[[1]]

The Oprah of Classics turns from gladiators[[2]] to deal with honour, a cardinal Roman virtue. In the introduction to her study Barton writes 'for the Romans, [honor] was the life that mattered, the life of matter -- and the life of matter was honor . . . the book addresses Roman emotional life through its volatile equilibrations, its daring homeopathic and homeostatic adjustments, its points of stress and dizziness and collapse, its radical realignments . . . I offer to the broadest audience I can reach the most complex understanding of the spiritual and emotional life of the ancient Romans I can articulate' (p. xi).

The book has three main sections: 1 (Chapters 3-4, pp. 34-130), 2 (Chapters 5-6, pp. 133-95) and 3 (Chapters 7-8, pp. 208-69). The first section deals with virtus ('honour', 'courage', 'manliness'), a quality not so much inherited as made; 'being a man was a mannerism' (p. 41). It seems to me Barton gives undue prominence to the sacrifice of Decius in her construction: to will one's own death was rare and extreme, to risk one's death for the good of the state was expected. She argues that virtus was demonstrated at 'the very instant of truth' (p. 65), where one's character was tested and proved. Barton takes over the Romans' own depiction of their history, a paradigm of decline from glorious 'free-market' competition of the Republic, through the machinations of evil monopolists like Caesar, to outright autocrats who took away the level playing field (cf. p. 91) and rewrote the rule-book. When the emperor was both player and referee, the other players had to be careful who and how they tackled; or like Seneca and other Stoics (or the English cricket team), they could choose not to play. Barton is, I fear, too credulous of the nostalgia in the likes of Tacitus (What odds on a Cisalpine Gaul making it to the top in the glorious Republic?).

Section 2 concerns confession. While sorry could seem to be the hardest word, involving utter humiliation and the admission of defeat, it could be employed strategically to honour others and preserve oneself. The clementia of the emperors, proudly paraded as a virtue, required the recipient to acknowledge his error, it made every Roman citizen a sinner (p. 192f.), a feeling they attempted to minimise by styling the emperor father of the fatherland and reconstructing their relationship with him.

Section 3 addresses shame (pudor), a natural concomitant of honour and 'an emotion of relatedness' (p. 207). This section of the book, particularly chapter 7 (pp. 202-21), is perhaps the best.

Who are Barton's Romans? From Barton's book the reader who is not a professional ancient historian would struggle to realise (the fleeting comments of pp. 11-13 aside) to guess that she is writing about a tiny proportion of the population of the Roman Empire for a relatively small period of its existence. By her concentration on literary sources, to the almost total exclusion of epigraphic material, Barton casts her spotlight (or scalpel, if we follow her metaphor of 'coaxing to the bone') on the sophisticated Roman Úlite. Much of her analysis depends on the extreme agonistic context within which the Roman male sought to excel, which was the paradigm of the Roman Republic, and which changed in fundamental ways with the coming of autocracy. Ninety-nine percent of Romans were oblivious of and unconcerned with the questions Barton lays at the centre of the Roman spirit; the struggle for existence in a subsistence economy was the field on which their virtus was displayed.

The fundamental criticism that I have of Barton's book, and one that, if correct, renders it largely worthless as an attempt in that worthy field of histoire de mentalitÚs is the treatment of the source material. She states 'I have given my attention, as freely and as fiercely as I could to every relevant expression of affect that I could detect. It does not matter, for my purposes, whether the actors and speakers are historical persons or fictional personae, whether their words are willful obfuscations or naked confessions. I have attempted to discern the depths of the Roman soul in the moving configurations of their thought: the symmetries and the syncopations, rhythms and reciprocities, the obliquities, torsions, discords ruptures, reversals, broken contours, and collapses . . . I listened for as many and as varied voices and gestures as I could, keeping in mind that my goal was in the end, to create a sort of composite psychological portrait of the Romans . . .' (p. 14). A phrase that reoccurs in her methodological statements is 'synchronically and panoptically' (p. 33, 134). The result is a smorgasbord of quotations from different genres and periods all smothered in a sickly-sweet dressing of Barton prose, a rich concoction of a thousand tastes in which the individual ingredients inevitably (and regrettably) lose their flavour.[[3]] The Barton methodology is to make an opening statement and then string together quotations from classical authors which are supposed to support the statement; rarely is there any analysis of the quotation or careful understanding of the authors' purposes. There is more value in older works which pay appropriate attention to context.[[4]]


[[1]] The reviewer is all too well aware of the apparently ungrateful action of having recently enjoyed the hospitality of the University of California, Berkeley, and in particular that of Professor Erich Gruen, whose most enthusiastic reception of the book adorns the back dust-cover, and now taking a less than favourable attitude to this book.

[[2]] Carlin A. Barton, The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans (Princeton 1993); and 'Savage miracles: the redemption of lost honor in Roman society and the sacrament of the gladiator and the martyr', Representations 45 (1994) 41-71.

[[3]] The work abounds in what I consider Gorgianic monstrosities, but others may laud as exemplary rhetoric: e.g. 'a man atoned for expanding by expending his being, by wasting the breath of his life' (p. 43). Cf. the comments on the dust-cover: 'vivid writing . . . engaging prose . . . sweeping readers along with the sheer power of its presentation' (Erich Gruen); 'beautifully written' (Daniel Boyarin).

[[4]] For example, H. Drexler, 'Honos', in H. Oppermann (ed.), R÷mische Wertbegriffe (Darmstadt 1967) 446-67.