North Carolina (2021) p/b 312pp £37.89 (ISBN 9781469668628)

Virtus is intimately connected to Roman historiography in different ways, argues Catalina Balmaceda, associate professor of ancient history at Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile. She explores these connections by analysing the significance of virtus in four Roman historians: Sallust, Livy, Velleius Paterculus, and Tacitus. Each author is allotted one chapter. There is an introduction and conclusion to the book, as well as one further chapter on the concept of virtus.

Much of Roman history consists of accounts of the wars and conquests that the Romans pursued against other peoples. Since virtus was the chief quality of the soldier and general, the concept plays a very important part in the development of these accounts. In this way, virtus is bound up with Roman identity, but also works as an ‘explanatory resource’: Romans win and conquer because of virtus.

Furthermore, the Romans succeed not only because of the courage of their soldiers and generals, but also because of other outstanding moral qualities. The word virtus can bear this meaning as well (as in the English ‘virtue’), especially in the plural form virtutes. Romans such as Cicero were aware that the word virtus was derived from the word for ‘man’ (vir), e.g. Tusculan Disputations 2.43: appellata est enim ex viro virtus. In the highly militaristic society of Rome, physical prowess and courage—especially shown in war—remained the central elements of manliness throughout the republican period and into empire. B. names this virilis-virtus. In this way, there is a parallel with the Greek andreia (manliness) derived from anêr (man). However, the Romans also knew that the term virtus could translate the Greek aretê (excellence, including moral excellence). B. calls this sense of the word humana-virtus.

B. situates her book within the scholarly approach of studying the history of Roman politics, society and culture thematically, through the study of key concepts such as fides, libertas, clementia, or pudicitia. With regard to virtus specifically, she distinguishes her book from previous studies of Roman virtus, such as Eisenhut Virtus Romana: Ihre Stellung im römische Wertsystem (Munich, 1973), Sarsila Being a Man: The Roman Virtus as a Contribution to Moral Philosophy (Frankfurt, 2006), and McDonnell Roman Manliness: Virtus and the Roman Republic (Cambridge, 2006). This book will appeal to readers interested in these areas of Roman history.

The approach is well suited to an analysis of Sallust, since he explained history through moral standards. The Bellum Iugurthinum and Bellum Catilinae are studies of moral crisis and decline. On the one hand, Sallust gives many examples of the virtus that had brought about Rome’s ascent to domination. Metellus, for example, is praised for handling his army in the ancestral fashion (more maiorum) and for achieving victory through his virtus (victor … virtute fuisset, B.J. 55.1). On the other hand, after the destruction of Carthage, vices started to enter the minds of Rome’s elite, almost like a plague (uti tabes, B.C. 12.2). The famous character sketch of Sempronia in the Bellum Catilinae is a good example of the interconnectedness and symbiosis of vitium and virtus. Metellus is marred by the vice of superbia (arrogance), the great Marius is prone to ambitio, and Sulla is susceptible to luxuria. B. argues that ‘Sallust seems actually more concerned with virtus and its decline than with the narrative itself’, but more than that, ‘his vocabulary becomes his narrative’, meaning that words such as virtus become part of the story.

Some of B.’s most interesting analysis of virtus in the Roman historians arises from absences of the term. In Livy, for example, virtus is never used for the actions of women, with the single exception of Cloelia. Women were valued above all for pudicitia (chastity). Livy’s Verginia, who set up an altar to Pudicitia Plebeia in 296 BC, says: quod certamen virtutis viros in hac civitate tenet, hoc pudicitiae inter matronas sit (‘just as the men in our state are rivals in valour, our matrons may compete with each other in chastity’, Livy 10.23). This quote encapsulates the rivalry amongst the Roman republican elite, who would compete with one another to display their virtus. B. explains that virtus could be demonstrated in both military and political spheres. Political virtus tended to be closely bound up with the concept of libertas. Most notably, Servilius Ahala was praised by Cincinnatus for putting Spurius Maelius to death, macte virtute, C. Servili, esto liberata re publica (‘praised be your courage, C. Servilius, you have delivered the commonwealth’, Livy 4.14).

Velleius Paterculus is not everyone’s favourite historian, but for B. he is a good example of how writers of history adapted to the changed political circumstances of the principate. Velleius has a positive view of Roman history, which culminates almost triumphally in the accession of Tiberius. Velleius praises the virtues of Tiberius, and B. argues persuasively that imperial history is starting to be written through the emperor’s virtues, just as republican history was written by Livy through the virtues of the Roman people and by Sallust through their vices.

The longest chapter is the one devoted to Tacitus and analyses of virtus in Agricola, Germania, the Histories and the Annals. These analyses are subtle and nuanced, as one would expect in the case of a writer as complex and brilliant as Tacitus. There is, however, an over-arching thesis, which is well argued and persuasive. The Romans were traditionally competitive, seeking glory through the performance of spectacular feats, whereas the new mode of virtus under the principate involved resisting wrong through the unspectacular qualities of patience, self-control, resolution and endurance. The heroes of the Annals are men like Barea Solanus and Thrasea Paetus, the so-called Stoic Opposition. When Nero had them killed, says Tacitus, he desired to kill virtue itself: Nero virtutem ipsam excindere concupivit interfecto Thrasea et Barea Sorano (Ann. 16.21).


Giles Gilbert