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Roman Exempla and Situation Ethics: Valerius Maximus and Cicero de Officiis*

  • Rebecca Langlands (a1)

When reading exempla and applying them to ethical decisions, Romans had to bear in mind the principle of situational variability: whether an action can be judged to be right depends on the circumstances in which it is performed; what is right for one person in a given situation may not be right for another. This principle and its ramifications are articulated by Valerius Maximus, Facta et Dicta Memorabilia. Comparison with Cicero, de Officiis suggests that situation ethics was a key feature of Roman ethics and that, within this framework, exempla may be understood as moral tools mediating between universal and particular.

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The ideas in this article have been a long time germinating, and over the years I have presented the material that forms the basis of this article to audiences in St Andrews, Exeter and King's College, London; I am grateful to the responses and discussion that ensued on these occasions. I am also very grateful to the anonymous readers of this Journal, whose comments, I feel, have enabled me to improve radically upon the draft I initially submitted. However, my warmest gratitude is for Chris Gill, who first suggested that my discussion of Valerius Maximus would benefit from a comparison with Cicero, de Officiis and then helped me, through discussion and through comments on successive drafts, to see what the significance of the parallels between the two might be.

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1 The term ‘situational variability’ is used by Brad Inwood in his discussion of Stoic philosophy and the writings of Seneca (Inwood, B., ‘Rules and reasoning in Stoic ethics’, in Inwood, B., Reading Seneca: Stoic Philosophy at Rome (2005), 95131, discussed further below). The concept of ‘situation ethics’ was developed in a Christian context by Joseph Fletcher in Situation Ethics: The New Morality (1966); on this as applied to Roman ethics see Morgan, T., Popular Morality in the Early Roman Empire (2007), 179–90, discussed below.

2 Morgan, op. cit. (n. 1), especially 179–90.

3 cf. the phrase ‘situational sensitivity and variability’ (Inwood, op. cit. (n. 1), 104).

4 cf. Long, A. A. and Sedley, D., The Hellenistic Philosophers. Vols 1 and 2 (1987), 429 on the issue of the practical application of moral rules as a long-standing problem for Stoics. For a discussion of special circumstances within the context of Stoic ethics and the idea of the ‘proper functions’ see Long and Sedley, op. cit., vol. 1, 359–68, with the ancient sources cited there, especially Diogenes Laertius 7.108–9 (E): ‘Proper functions which do depend on circumstances are mutilating oneself and disposing of one's property’; Philo, On the Cherubim 14–15 (H); Epictetus, Discourses 2.10.1–12 (Q). In Stoic thought, some actions are ‘justified by a rational assessment of the circumstances’ even though they ‘conflict with what would be proper in most cases’ (ibid., 366). Cf. Diogenes Laertius 7.130: ‘they say that the wise man will commit a well-reasoned suicide both on behalf of his country and on behalf of his friends, and if he falls victim to unduly severe pain or mutilation or incurable illness’ (ibid., 425).

5 Inwood, op. cit. (n. 1), 109–10; cf. Schauer, F., Playing by the Rules: A Philosophical Examination of Rule-Based Decision-Making in Law and in Life (1991).

6 Inwood, op. cit. (n. 1), 131.

7 On the relationship between popular morality and philosophical theory in ancient Rome see further Morgan, op. cit. (n. 1), Appendix 3, 333–40, where she concludes that by and large these operate as discrete ethical systems. However, she also suggests that Stoic or Stoicizing writings such as those of Cicero and Seneca often bore a close relation to Roman upper-class mores (Morgan, op. cit. (n. 1), 335–6): Stoic ideas ‘not only coincided conveniently with many of the traditional views of the Roman elite, but were adapting to them as they became more popular’. Moreover, in Morgan's analysis, exempla as an ethical medium are more closely associated with élite values than other forms (Morgan, op. cit. (n. 1), 128–9).

8 Morgan, op. cit. (n. 1), 125–30 and 159; see also Langlands, R., ‘Reading for the moral in Valerius Maximus: the case of severitas’, Cambridge Classical Journal 54 (2008), 160–87 for the Facta et Dicta Memorabilia as a work of practical ethics.

9 Inwood, op. cit. (n. 1), passim. Teresa Morgan's brief discussion of the work of Sayla Benhabib and Philippa Foot points the way towards further exciting avenues of study (Morgan, op. cit. (n. 1), 185–8).

10 On the latter see Inwood, op. cit. (n. 1), 107–9.

11 cf. Montaigne, Essais III, 13, 1070: ‘tout exemple cloche’ (‘every example is lame’). Further on the inadequacy of exempla in relation to a ‘crisis of exemplarity’ in the Renaissance, see the special edition of the Journal of the History of Ideas 59 (1998), especially F. Rigolot, ‘The Renaissance crisis of exemplarity’, 557–563. On modern criticisms of exempla as rigid and dogmatic see Mitchell, J. Allan, Ethics and Exemplary Narratives in Chaucer and Gower (2004), Introduction, and Langlands, op. cit. (n. 8), 161–4 with further bibliography.

12 On this fundamental flexibility of exempla see Chaplin, J., Livy's Exemplary History (2000), Roller, M. B., ‘Exemplarity in Roman culture: the cases of Horatius Cocles and Cloelia’, Classical Philology 99 (2004), 156, and ‘The exemplary past in Roman historiography and culture’, in Feldherr, A. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Roman Historiography (2009), 214–30.

13 See Mayer, R. G., ‘Roman historical exempla in Seneca’, in Reverdin, O. and Grange, B., Sénèque et le prose latine (1991), 140–69, especially 165 for the way that Seneca himself attempts to theorize the function of exempla in Roman ethics.

14 On this see Dyck, A. R., A Commentary on Cicero's de Officiis (1996), 40–1 and Walsh, P. G., Cicero, On Obligations (de officiis) (2001), xxxiv.

15 All translations are my own, unless otherwise indicated.

16 Other versions of the story, where the defendant is named as Munatius Plancus, and emphasis is placed on the hypocrisy of Pompey's behaviour, can be found at Plut., Cat. Min. 48 and Pomp. 55.

17 See especially de Off. 1.93–153, discussed in more detail in Section ii below.

18 For this ‘reading for the moral’ as an expectation of the reader of Valerius' work, see Langlands, op. cit. (n. 8) with Mitchell, op. cit. (n. 11).

19 For a discussion of this issue see Langlands, op. cit. (n. 8), especially 173–8, with further bibliography.

20 Morgan, op. cit. (n. 1), 185.

21 Mitchell, op. cit. (n. 11), 28; on de Officiis as a work which uses exempla as a springboard for ethical deliberation see further Olmstead, W., ‘Exemplifying deliberation: Cicero's de Officiis and Machievelli's Prince’, in Jost, W. and Olmsted, W. (eds), A Companion to Rhetoric and Rhetorical Criticism (2004), 173–89.

22 cf. Gill, C., ‘The ancient self: issues and approaches’, in Remes, P. and Sihvola, J. (eds), Ancient Philosophy of the Self (2008), 3556, at 41, n. 24: ‘Regulus is offered as an illustration of Cicero's overall project in Off. 3, that of helping ordinary well-motivated people (i.e., in principle, anyone) to discriminate between what is just and what is expedient (3.7–16, 99, 110, 115).’

23 3.100–10: e.g. ‘“O stultum hominem”, dixerit quispiam, “et repugnantem utilitati suae!”’ (3.100); ‘At stulte, qui non modo non censuerit captivos remitttendos, verum etiam dissuaserit’ (3.101); ‘“quid est igitur”, dixerit quis, “in iure iurando?”’ (3.102); ‘addunt etiam … addunt etiam … haec fere contra Regulus’ (3.103). Cf. Gill, C., ‘Personhood and personality: the four-personae theory in Cicero de Officiis I’, in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy VI (1988), 169–99, at 198: Cicero ‘engages in debate on behalf of [Regulus’] response, with imagined spokesmen for the more conventional and common-sense view that Regulus was acting with unnecessary moral rigour and against his own best interests'. The text of de Officiis used throughout is that of Winterbottom, M. (ed.), De Officiis (2nd edn, 1996).

24 ‘Atqui hoc idem Sophocles si in athletarum probatione dixisset, iusta reprehensione caruisset’ (1.144). Valerius Maximus tells this same story at 4.3.ext.1 and this has been identified as a passage where Valerius is drawing directly on Cicero, de Officiis. However, it is worth noting that there the story is used to make a different moral point, about Pericles' admirable sexual continence. My sense is that where Valerius is using exemplary material from de Officiis, he makes a point of giving it a different moral emphasis to indicate both his own independence and the flexibility of the material itself; for another example of this see also n. 55 below. For a list of passages where scholars have thought Valerius Maximus is drawing directly on Cicero, de Officiis see Fedeli, P. (ed.), M. Tulli Ciceronis de Officiis Libri Tres (1965), xx. For some explicit comparisons between the two works see Bloomer, W. M., Valerius Maximus and the Rhetoric of the New Nobility (1992), 89 (de Off. 3.45 and Val. Max. 6.5.4), 128–31 (de Off. 1.40 and 3.86 and Val. Max. 6.5.1), 106 (de Off. 2.71 and Val. Max. 7.2.ext.9). See also Dyck, op. cit. (n. 14), 40–1 and Walsh, op. cit. (n. 14), xxxiv which describe Valerius Maximus as using Cicero's anecdotes rather than his ideas.

25 On this four-personae theory, see Gill, op. cit. (n. 23) with Gill, op. cit. (n. 22), 36–45 and Gill, C., ‘Particulars, selves and individuals in Stoic philosophy’, in Sharples, R. (ed.), Particulars in Greek Philosophy. Philosophia Antiqua 120 (2010), 127–45, especially 137–43.

26 As indeed will any decision about what action is absolutely appropriate: ‘Haec igitur omnia, cum quaerimus quid deceat, complecti animo et cogitatione debemus’ (1.117).

27 cf. Gill, op. cit. (n. 23), 190: Cicero ‘reflects a larger divergence in thinking about roles and role-playing’.

28 1.110: ‘neque enim attinet naturae repugnare nec quicquam sequi quod adsequi non queas’; 1.119: ‘nam cum in omnibus quae aguntur ex eo quo modo quisque natus est, ut supra dictum est, quid deceat exquirimus, tum in tota vita constituenda multo est eius rei cura maior adhibenda, ut constare in perpetuitate vitae possimus nobismet ipsis nec in ullo officio claudicare.’

29 For this phrase, see Gill, op. cit. (n. 25), 137, citing M. Schofield, ‘The fourth virtue’, in W. Nicgorski (ed.), Cicero's Practical Philosophy (forthcoming); the English phrase ‘just right’ is useful because it incorporates the sense of appropriateness in addition to a sense of moral righteousness that is present in the ancient concept of decorum.

30 ‘Atque haec differentia naturarum tantam habet vim ut nonnumquam mortem sibi ipse consciscere alius debeat, alius in eadem causa non debeat’ (de Off. 1.112).

31 For the continuing debate about the significance of this passage in understanding Roman attitudes towards the individual and the self, see Gill, op. cit. (n. 23); Sorabji, R., Self: Ancient and Modern Insights about Individuality, Life and Death (2006); Gill, op. cit. (n. 22); R. Sorabji, ‘Graeco-Roman varieties of the self’, in Remes and Sihvola, op. cit. (n. 22 ), 13–34; Gill, op. cit. (n. 25); and A. Hobbs, ‘On Christopher Gill “Particulars, Selves and Individuals in Stoic Philosophy”’, in Sharples, op. cit. (n. 25), 147–55. On what it can tell us about Roman attitudes to death and self-killing, see Hill, T., Ambitiosa Mors: Suicide and Self in Roman Thought and Literature (2004), 6771 and Edwards, C., Death in Ancient Rome (2007), 147–9.

32 1.112: ‘Catoni cum incredibilem tribuisset natura gravitatem, eamque ipse perpetua constantia roboravisset, semperque in proposito susceptoque consilio permansisset

33 Gill, op. cit. (n. 23), 185; cf. Gill, op. cit. (n. 25), 141: ‘although consistency is the general goal for everyone, Cato is also presented as exceptional in the consistency with which he has maintained his natural disposition on a life-long basis.’ On which see Hobbs, op. cit. (n. 31), 153: ‘Gill is absolutely right to highlight the importance of constantia and aequabilitas in Stoic (and Stoic-Roman) thought as foundational organising concepts.’

34 Gill, op. cit. (n. 25), 130.

35 cf. Gill, op. cit. (n. 23), 178.

36 Gill, op. cit. (n. 25), 137: ‘The four-personae theory is introduced as providing a co-ordinated set of reference points by which we can establish what is decorum/prepon (which we might translate as “just right”)’, see n. 29 above.

37 Inwood, op. cit. (n. 1), 110 and 123–30 for his discussion of de Officiis which focuses primarily on Book 3.

38 1.114: ‘suum quisque igitur noscat ingenium acremque se et bonorum et vitiorum suorum iudicem praebeat.’

39 In addition to the passages cited here, see the use of videre in de Off. 2.9 and 3.34.

40 See Morgan, op. cit. (n. 1), 155, cited above.

41 de Off. 1.148.

42 In labelling sections 1a, 1b etc. I follow here the numbering of the Loeb Classical Library edition of Shackleton Bailey, D. R. (ed. and trans.), Valerius Maximus: Memorable Doings and Sayings. Two Volumes (2000) which differentiates more clearly between the individual exemplary anecdotes than the Teubner edition, Briscoe, J. (ed.), Valerii Maximi Facta et Dicta Memorabilia (1998).

43 See Langlands, op. cit. (n. 8) for analysis of how this functions in Val. Max. 2.7 and 6.3 and Langlands, R., Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome (2006), ch. 3 on Val. Max. 6.1.

44 The acts inspired by confidence involve breaking the rules: Scipio acts against the Senate's orders (senatu vetante 3.7.1c), tears up accounts in the Senate House (3.7.1e), and appears to act contrary to the law (3.7.1f). Daring, of course, always risks spilling into culpable rashness, as 3.7.5 reminds us: ‘fiduciam non solum fortem sed paene etiam temerariam.’ Moreover the rejection of Carthage's offer of help during the war against Pyrrhus might be seen as downright ungracious and highhanded (3.7.10).

45 Hill, op. cit. (n. 31), 157.

46 Indeed with the Phidias anecdote of 3.7.ext.4 the chapter seems to have lost its way entirely and conveys no moral message at all, since it picks up the theme of a visual artist taking lines from Homer as his inspiration, but without the self-referential boast of Zeuxis in the preceding exemplum.

47 The name Alcestis is almost certainly an error; perhaps Acestor, a playwright contemporary with Euripides, is meant (see Shackleton Bailey op. cit. (n. 42), ad loc.).

48 And as such may have some resonance with the earlier story of Rome's rejection of Carthage's offer of help in 3.7.10a, see n. 44 above.

49 See especially the earlier chapter 2.7 on military discipline with discussion in Langlands, op. cit. (n. 8), 169–78. The contradictory moral guidelines found in different parts of Valerius' work remind us that, for all his commentary upon ethics, Valerius is not attempting a consistent philosophical account of an ethical system; instead exempla provide ad hoc examples of ethical responses to difficult situations. However, it is also the case that these contradictions reflect moral tensions inherent in the Roman ethical system between the competing criteria for moral evaluation which are available to moral agents. On the deliberately controversial nature of exempla, see further Langlands, op. cit. (n. 8).

50 It is clear that here we must understand ethics in a rather broad sense, rather strictly pertaining to the good and virtuous, as seems to be the case also in Cicero, de Officiis, on which see Gill, op. cit. (n. 23), 188–92. See also the idea of artistic talent as parallel to moral virtue in the case of Accius, below.

51 ‘If we identify with the wrong character [in a moralizing narrative] or pick the wrong piece of advice, we are liable to suffer disastrously for it’ (Morgan, op. cit. (n. 1), 188; see further 179–90).

52 See Kaster, R. A., Emotion, Restraint, and Community in Ancient Rome (2005) for an extremely interesting exploration of how this idea might have functioned in Roman culture; he provides extended discussion of the regulatory emotions of verecundia, pudor, paenitentia, invidia and fastidium. On de Officiis see pp. 17–18 with n. 11 on p. 154.

53 See Plutarch, Sayings of the Spartans for the same one-liner attributed to a variety of Spartans. Valerius quite often rounds off his chapters with the sayings and deeds of anonymous Spartans: 3.2.ext.5; 4.1.ext.8; 4.5.ext.2; 4.6.ext.3; 6.4.ext.5.

54 Again echoing the insulting responses of the Senate and of Euripides earlier in the chapter, see nn. 44 and 48 above.

55 This famous idea that it is shameful to have to confess ‘non putaram’ also appears elsewhere in Valerius Maximus, at 7.2.2, where the sentiment is attributed to none other than Scipio Africanus.

56 cf. 1.34–5 where this sentiment is also set out as a doctrine of Panaetius (see Dyck, op. cit. (n. 14), ad loc.) and also 2.56 which will be discussed below.

57 Note the mention of the sapiens here. Dyck suggests this is an echo of his source Posidonius who may have been referring to the Stoic sage in his original discussion (Dyck, op. cit. (n. 14), ad loc.).

58 ‘Ea Posidonius conlegit permulta, sed ita taetra quaedam, ita obscena, ut dictu quoque videantur turpia. Haec igitur non suscipiet reipublica causa, ne respublica quidem pro se suscipi volet’ (1.159).

59 It is comparable in rôle to the whimsical Nature as depicted in Book 1 (1.8.ext.18), or elsewhere either a component of inescapable fate or bad fortuna leading to desperate circumstances (1.7.ext.4, 1.8.ext.10, 2.10.6, 4.3.7, 5.3.ext.3, 7.3.8, 7.6.1a, 8.1.absol.6, 9.8.2).

60 cf. Vander Waerdt, P., ‘Zeno's Republic and the origins of Natural Law’, in Vander Waerdt, P. (ed.), The Socratic Movement (1994), 272308, at 300: ‘I suggest that Zeno considered incest and cannibalism as test cases of moral prohibitions that might be thought to apply without exception. His argument in reply would be that there may indeed be certain special circumstances — namely when there is a divergence between the common nature and the individual nature — in which these practices would accord with nature.’

61 See Inwood, op. cit. (n. 1), 102 on cannibalism as something that a Stoic sage might consider in the right circumstances. In Juv., Sat. 15.93–109 the siege of Calagurris, described at Val. Max. 7.6.ext.3, is used as an example of the kind of mitigating circumstances where cannibalism might be acceptable. However, the claim in lines 106–7 that ‘melius nos Zenonis praecepta monent’ (‘we know better because of Zeno's teachings’) is best seen as an indication of the ignorance of the satirical speaker of the poem, who has misunderstood entirely the Stoic position (on this see McKim, R., ‘Philosophers and cannibals: Juvenal's fifteenth satire’, Phoenix 40 (1986), 5871, especially 65–6). See also Ps.-Quint., MD 12; both texts have a lot of fun revelling in the horrors of cannibalism.

62 Diogenes Laertius 6.72–3 and cf. 7.109 on mutilation; 7.121 ‘on special circumstances’; 7.130 on the Stoic idea that a wise man will kill himself under certain circumstances.

63 7.6.2: ‘in propinquo situm Casilium, incolarum virtute clarum, perseverantis amicitiae pignore impios oculos verberavit.’

64 cf. 7.6.1b for the Punic War described as a tempus, i.e. providing a particular temporal context: temporis convenientia.

65 His work is dedicated to the emperor Tiberius and was probably published c. a.d. 30.

66 ‘quanta violentia est casus acerbi’, 7.6.1.

67 In Valerius' work being speciosus is usually something to aspire to, especially in a military context. See e.g. 2.7.1, 5, 6, 8 and 15; 3.7.1g, 10a and ext.5; 6.3.1b and 10a (and cf. 1.1.14; 3.2.7, 20, ext.4 on fortitudo; 3.5.1a). The term generosus also draws a particular contrast with chapter 3.7 (3.7.1a and ext.7); cf. on the generous spirit of fortitudo and patientia.

68 Comparison of these two passages also strengthens the assimilation between the processes of making moral decisions and reading exempla.

69 cf. Suet., Galba 7 for a similar tale of Galba's punishment of a soldier who sells part of his ration for an exorbitant price during a time of famine and is left to starve to death.

70 ‘id passi sunt quod eos ne victor quidem pati coegisset.’ Note the implication that the enemy is honourable. Drinking urine perhaps might be counted as a form of self-mutilation of the kind usually not to be contemplated in Stoic doctrine.

71 This is a well-known example, told by Appian in The Wars in Spain 96–7. The Numantines are described as doing this terrible thing and then surrendering to Scipio with an expression of fear and misery on account of their consciousness of having eaten human flesh. See Florus 1.34 for a slightly different account in which they live for a while off corpses.

72 Another mention of this story, which clearly aroused Roman interest, is found at Juv., Sat. 15.93–109; cf. Orosius 5.23.14.

73 Inwood, op. cit. (n. 1), 113.

74 See nn. 60 and 61 above.

75 On this see further Langlands, op. cit. (n. 8).

* The ideas in this article have been a long time germinating, and over the years I have presented the material that forms the basis of this article to audiences in St Andrews, Exeter and King's College, London; I am grateful to the responses and discussion that ensued on these occasions. I am also very grateful to the anonymous readers of this Journal, whose comments, I feel, have enabled me to improve radically upon the draft I initially submitted. However, my warmest gratitude is for Chris Gill, who first suggested that my discussion of Valerius Maximus would benefit from a comparison with Cicero, de Officiis and then helped me, through discussion and through comments on successive drafts, to see what the significance of the parallels between the two might be.

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