The "Moment of Truth" in Ancient Rome:
Honor and Embodiment in a Contest Culture
I like a look of agony because I know it's true.
On the morning of June 6, 1989, a riveting photograph appeared on the front page of the Daily Republican in Greenfield, Massachusetts; it was of a young Chinese man in a white shirt, casually
blocking with his body the advance of a line of tanks into Tienanmen Square. It was a photograph that appeared on the front page of nearly every newspaper in America. It was a playful, almost whimsical
gesture for this man to make: to saunter out in front of the lead tank, to move a little left, to move a little
right—to gamble everything in one heart-stopping and almost frivolously theatrical moment. Perhaps it
was that juxtaposition of terror and whimsy that transfixed us, terror and grief for the stark fragility of that one human life and a thrilling admiration for the person who would spite that frailty.
This was the Roman discrimen, the "Moment of Truth," the equivocal and ardent moment when, before the eyes of others, you gambled what you were. This was the agon, the contest when truth was not so
much revealed as created, realized, willed in the most intense and visceral way, the truth of one's being, the truth of being.
The Romans of the early and middle Republic lived in a small face-to-face culture with an acute sensitivity
to the bonds (religiones, obligationes, moenia and munera) that defined them. Community was conceived of and expressed as a product of the bond. At the same time, boundaries were not stable: all Roman
boundaries were highly-charged but also restless, irritable, and permeable membranes—more like rings of fire than walls of adamant. Every wall was a wager, every bond a risk. The vow and the oath, the
Romans' most sacred forms of contract, were wagers or bets in which one staked one's head, one's eyes, one's reputation.
Undergoing the ordeal (labor, periculum, discrimen, certamen, contentio, agon) was the act of defining one's boundaries, of determining one's share or portion. It was necessary for a sense of one's being.
And because, in a contest culture, one's part was not fixed, the discrimen established, momentarily, one's position. It located one in a field, in a "pecking-order." One gambled what one was.
The Crucible of the Contest
As gold is proven by fire, so are we by ordeals.
Minucius Felix, Octavius 36.9
Virtus and the honores won in the contest were shining and volatile; competition produced a heightened
sense of vividness, a brilliant, gleaming, resplendent existence. The man of honor was speciosus, illustris,
clarus, nobilis, splendidus; the woman of honor was, in addition, casta, pura, candida. At the same time,
to produce this exalted state, the good competition obeyed restrictions; it needed to be: a) circumscribed
in time and space; b) governed by rules known and accepted by the rival parties; c) strenuous (requiring an equal or greater-than-equal opponent); d) witnessed.
To have a glowing spirit one needed to expend one's energy in a continuous series of ordeals. Labor, industria and disciplina were, for the Romans, the strenuous exertions that one made in undergoing the
trial and in shouldering the heavy burden. In labores and pericula one demonstrated effective energy, virtus. There was no virtus, in the republic, without the demonstration of will. The absence of energy
(inertia, desidia, ignavia, socordia) was non-being. In inactivity the spirit froze.
As Cicero remarks, the desire for honor and glory set men on fire (Tusculanae disputationes 1.2.4). "By
nature we yearn and hunger for honor, and once we have glimpsed, as it were, some part of its radiance,
there is nothing we are not prepared to bear and suffer in order to secure it" (2.24.58). Sallust describes the emotions that the Romans associated with the challenge presented by their ancestors' wax images:
I have often been told that Quintus Fabius Maximus and Publius Scipio Africanus, and other illustrious men were wont to say: 'When they beheld the images of their ancestors,
their spirits were violently inflamed to virtue' (Bellum Iugurthinum 4.5).
Here it is important to point out that in Roman culture, as in very many cultures, a male (mas) was not
necessarily a man (vir); a man was not a natural being. In the words of David Gilmore, "manhood...is a precarious or artificial state that boys must win against powerful odds....[M]anhood is problematic, a
critical threshold that boys must pass through testing."2
It is with the words, "If you are men," that Lucretia challenges Brutus and Collatinus to revenge her violation (Livy 1.58.7). Tullius incites the Volsci
saying, "Rome has declared war on you, and she will be sorry for it—if you are men" (Livy 2.38.5). "Who," Seneca asks, "—only let him be a man, and intent upon honor—is not eager for the honorable
ordeal and prompt to assume perilous duties? To what energetic person is not idleness a punishment?" (Seneca, De providentia 2.2). A male was transformed into a man by the willful expenditure of energy.
Above all, a man willed himself to be expendable.
The more extreme the ordeal, the greater its annealing, its defining power. "The greater the torment the
greater the glory," asserts Seneca (De providentia 3.9). "He has won without glory who has won without
peril" (3.4). Fortune, he believed, sought out the great soul to be challenged. "Mucius was tested by fire, Fabricius by poverty, Rutilius by exile, Regulus by torture, Socrates by poison, Cato by death. One
cannot find a great exemplum except in misfortune" (3.4). The 2nd-century Christian Minucius Felix admonished the Romans: "Your men of power, whom you commend as moral examples, flourished
through their tribulations" (Octavius 36.8). As for us, he asserts, "God tries and examines each one
through adversity; he weighs the spirits of individuals through perils, exploring the will of a man up to the
extreme moment of death" (36.9). "Without an adversary," Seneca asserts, "virtus shrivels. We see how great and how viable virtus is when, by endurance, it shows what it is capable of" (De providentia 2.4).
At perhaps the shining moment of all Livy's Roman history, the messengers arrived at the city with news of the devastating defeat of the Romans at Cannae at the hands of Hannibal in 216 BCE. Fifty thousand
were dead on the field. "No other nation in the world," according to Livy, "could have suffered so tremendous a series of disasters and not been overwhelmed" (22.54.10). And the great soul, the magnus
animus of the Romans was revealed in their unwillingness even to mention peace after Cannae or to ransom back the survivors. "The Romans had a greater spirit after the terrible disaster of Cannae than
they would ever have in success" (De officiis 3.11.47). The willingness to expend everything (up to and
including the state) was, paradoxically, the final insurance of the continued existence of both the state and
of the spirit. Sulla, anticipating a fight with the enemy Iugurtha, admonished his small force: "You will be
the safer the less you spare yourself" (Bellum Igurthinum 107.1). Or, as Seneca succinctly puts it, "Who scorns his own life is lord of yours" (Epistulae 4.8).
Verginius wins the contest of wills between himself and the vastly more powerful Appius Claudius by slaughtering his beloved daughter. In the Romans' potlatch mentality, Verginius' willingness to sacrifice
what he loved most in the world was his trump card. Like Seneca's and Euripides' Medea or the mother of the Second and Fourth Maccabees or the Passio Perpetuae, men and women of honor made very
Hannibal's will was broken, his animus fractus, according to Cicero, when he received news that the
Romans were "discarding" their soldiers at the moment when they were most in need of them (De officiis 3.32.114). The defeated Romans not only refused to ransom their own soldiers, but ordained by law that
soldiers must vanquish or die, so that, according to Polybius, there might not be any hope of survival in case of defeat (Polybius 6.58.11). In the words of the Belle of Amherst, "All is the price of all."
As a mortal, what one risked in the contest was one's "face," or to be more exact, one's persona, one's
mask. The persona, and the role expressed by that mask, the professio were the very boundary and definition of one's being, the sine qua non of existence. For the Romans of the Republic there was no
depth without surface.
The persona was composed of the reputation (existimatio, fama, and nomen), supported by effective
energy (virtus) and enforced by a sensitivity to shame (pudor). The persona guaranteed the existence of
the will, the driving vitality at the core: the animus. The face was also a provocation; whatever persona you publicly professed was a line drawn in the sand. "I am a Roman. My name is Mucius. I have come to
kill you," Livy's captive hero proclaims (2.12.8). Marcus, the son of Cato Uticensis, died at the battle of
Phillipi. When the army was retreating, he stood his ground and shouted his name and that of his famous father (Brutus 49.9-10).
We have the notion that you can save your soul even if you have lost your face. But the Romans lost their
souls when they lost their faces. The penetrable, false or broken persona enclosed only emptiness; the exposed Roman was vanus, inanis, cassus. The discrimen disclosed, for example, that there was nothing
any longer but cowardice beneath the reputation for great valor of the Helvetii (Tacitus, Historia 1.68). Metellus, the general sent out by the Romans against the defiant Numidian Jugurtha was, according to
Marius, a man of regal arrogance but, as the course of the war had shown, an homo inanis (Sallust, Bellum Iugurthinum 64.5).
The Moment of Truth
A Roman's hyper-consciousness of his or her "face," produced a keen sense of embodiment. The person who underwent surveillance or a contest, who risked death or humiliation, lived critically in the moment,
like a deer trapped in the headlights of an oncoming car. For the Roman "on the spot," "up against the wall," the world was sharp, immediate, visceral. As in archaic Greek thought and much of Japanese
thought—and for similar reasons—the Romans tended to physicalize everything, to make everything present. Reality was immanent; it was spectatus, expertus, probatus, argutus, manufestus. It hit you in the
face or you could smack it with your hand. How literally this could be in Roman culture can be observed
in the following scene from Plautus. In the Amphitryon the slave Sosia is confronted by his mirror image, the god Mercury; Mercury (the street tough) challenges the mortal:
Mercury: Where do you think you're going?
Sosia: What's it to you?
Mercury: Are you free or slave?
Sosia: I'm whatever I want to be.
Mercury: Oh yeah?
Mercury: You're a whipped slave!
Sosia: You lie!
Mercury: I'll make you say that I'm telling the truth (341-345).
The god proceeds to whip Sosia into not only affirming Mercury's words but even into surrendering his
name and his identity! In this little agon, the type that occurs every day of the year in the sixth-grade school-yard, reality is established by contest.
As a result of living in a contest society, the Romans, like the Homeric Greeks, the Japanese, or the Bedouin, were sensitive to their "face;" they were delicatus, "thin-skinned," liable to blush. (The os
durum, the os ferreum, the hard, stony, brazen face belonged to the stupid and shameless. "My master," Palaestrio declares in the Miles Gloriosus "has the hide of an elephant and the stupidity of a stone"
). Seneca imagines the irritations of the "touchy" aristocrat: "He greeted me with too little courtesy;
he failed to cling to my kiss; he abruptly cut off a conversation barely begun with me; he did not invite me to dinner; he appeared to avert his face" (Seneca De ira 2.24.1).
The Romans' sense of embodiment was not only keen but brittle. The Romans, like the Homeric Greeks,
and many warrior cultures, had a pathetic sense of their own frailty: "Fortune is glass; just when it shines it
shatters" (Publilius Syrus [ed. Otto Friedrich] no. 189). "The radiant visage....bodily strength, and all
other things of this sort quickly perish" (Sallust, Bellum Iugurthinum 2.2). For Horace, "All of life is only a
little, no long-term plans are allowed. Soon night and half-remembered shapes and drab Pluto's walls will be closing in" (Carmina 1.4 lines 15-17). For Ovid, "everything human hangs by a slender thread"
(Eipistulae ex Ponto 4.3.35).
Polybius reports the words that Scipio Aemilianus spoke to him when he watched the defeated Carthage
burn: "Turning round to me at once and grasping my hand, Scipio said, 'A glorious moment, Polybius, but I have a dread foreboding that some day the same doom will be pronounced upon my own country"'
(38.21.1). Scipio, when he looked upon the city as it was utterly perishing and in the last throes of its
complete destruction, is said to have shed tears and wept openly for his enemies. After being wrapped in
thought for long, and realizing that all cities, nations, and authorities, must, like men, meet their doom, and
that this happened to Ilium, once a prosperous city, to the empires of Assyria, Media Persia, the greatest
of their time, and to Macedonia itself, the brilliance of which was so recent, either deliberately, or the verses escaping him, said: 'A day will come when sacred Troy shall perish, and Priam and his people
shall be slain.' And when Polybius, speaking with freedom to him, for he was his teacher, asked him what he meant by the words, they say that without any attempt at concealment he named his own country"
(Appian, Punica 132).
Pliny the Elder describes a display of precious myrrhine crystal that he saw in Nero's private theater: "I
saw pieces of a single broken cup included in the exhibition. It was decided that these broken shards should be displayed in a kind of sepulchre, like the body of Alexander, as a testament to the sorrows of
the age and the envy of Fortune (Naturalis historia 37.7.19). As Pliny explains, once it has been broken, rock-crystal cannot be mended by any method whatsoever (37.10.29). Just so, Catullus asserts, "Once
night comes for us, it is night forever" (5.5-6).
The Saving Face
Being in the spotlight created a heightened, but often painful self-consciousness, that resulted, ironically, in
a sense of unreality and disengagement. Confounded, exposed to the eyes of others, it became difficult to
act or speak at all. Plautus' Sosia, challenged by the bully Mercury declares, "I'm afraid. I am altogether numb" (Amiphitruo 335). Crassus, Cicero tells us, went pale whenever he had to stand up to plead in
court, his whole body trembling and shuddering (Cicero, De oratore 1.26.121). There are many agonizing depictions of the anguished narcosis of exposure in Roman literature. Perhaps the most
memorable description of this phenomenon in the Roman sources is Livy's dramatization of the Roman
soldiers anticipating, experiencing and reliving the appalling humiliations occasioned by their capture at the
Caudine Forks (9.1-11). The agony stops time and paralyzes the Roman soldiers who emerged from the defile after passing under the yoke of their Sabine enemies. They are silent and all but deaf and blind.
They cannot bear the eyes of others; they cannot even bear the light (pudor intuendae lucis (9.7.3).
Because unmediated embodiment was shocking, the man or woman in the spotlight had difficulty "being
himself" or "being herself," and tended to lapse into confusion and stupefaction. For that reason, the Romans tended to frame contests as formalized and scripted dramas or games (whether it be the
decorum of daily intercourse, or the etiquette of the games, the law courts, or senatorial debates). The
Romans relied on ritualization for the preservation of the self, of the citizen's animus. The formalized "game'' was employed in those situations where the desire to preserve the community was stronger than
the desire to break the spirit of the opponent. Precisely because it alleviated shock, it was especially at
moments of grief and terror that games were most effective. The gladiatorial games and the decursiones
funebres were, for instance, services to the dead, funeral games. As the ethologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt points out, "the more ritualized the behavior, the more easily it is released."
When the Roman soldiers first ascertained that they were surrounded and trapped in the Caudine Forks,
they came abruptly to a halt, a stupor and a sort of torpor having seized their limbs. For a long time the
soldiers stood in silence, immobilized, observing one another, each imagining the other to be more in command of his senses (Livy 9.2.1011). Suddenly, and without having been given any orders, they
launched into the Roman soldier's daily and arduous ordeal of building a walled camp. The enemy mocked them and they mocked themselves, knowing full well the inanity of building a fortress within a
cage (Livy 9.2.12-14). Still, the automatic and formalized behavior provided a relief from stupor. It allowed them to move and to show energy.
Closely related to the shock-relieving function of rituals was the shock-relieving function of roles. The
Latin persona was not only the mask but also the part associated with that mask. Latin professio aside from being an open avowal, was the affirmation of the role or part presented by the persona—and the
challenge presented by that affirmation.
It was the discipline and training, the habituation to a particular role or roles that gave one the ability to
endure the "Moment of Truth." How is it that stalwart gladiators endure the blows? How is it they offer
their necks without flinching? "They are well trained" (bene instituti sunt), Cicero explains. "Such is the power of exercise, of practice, of habit!" (Tusculanae disiputationes 2.27.40-41). And so the good
parent, out of love for the child, acted as a trainer, endlessly manufacturing trials for the child (Seneca, De
providentia 2.5). The Elder Cato, good father that he was, subjected his frail son to the extremes of heat
and cold and made him swim the wildest and most swiftly flowing stretches of the Tiber (Plutarch, Cato Maior 20.4).
Do you imagine that the Spartans hate their children whose spirits they test by the administration of public whippings? Their own fathers exhort them to bravely endure the
blows of the lash and call upon them, lacerated and half dead, to keep offering their wounds for wounding (De providentia 4.11).
There are many Roman stories which expressed the admiration of the Romans for those able to preserve
their roles in circumstances of great stress. Livy tells of the dauntless Gaius Fabius Dorsuo, who, at the
time of the Gallic sack of Rome, nonchalantly descended from the besieged Capitol into the midst of the enemy in order to perform the family's ritual sacrifices (5.46.1-3). He tells of the brave seniores who
faced the invading Gauls dressed in their finery with their emblems of office, sitting like statues on their
curule chairs in the vestibules of their houses (5.41.1-3). Seneca's Aemilius Paulus proceeded with his
triumph despite the loss of two sons, whose death he interpreted publicly as payment, to the envy of the gods, for his Roman victories. "Behold the greatness of his spirit: he congratulated himself on his
bereavement!" (Seneca, Consolatio ad Marciam 13.3-4). Only the empty chariot of Paulus revealed what that courage had cost him.
"Going on with the show" was not a sign of delusion, but a supremely defining moment, for Roman society, as well as for the man and woman who could play their roles with grace, honoring their
obligations, even while threatened with death or chaos. The tremendous calm and deliberation with which Tacitus' Valerius Asiaticus committed suicide, taking scrupulous care—like Cato of Utica or the emperor
Otho in similar situations—for others, moving his pyre lest it singe the trees, demonstrated his ability to
play his role to the end (Tacitus, Annales 11.3.2). It kept the play, in which he had a part, and through which lived, alive. One can compare the polite "thank you" that Julius Canus mustered in reply to his
condemnation to death by Phalaris, servant of Caligula. The centurion who came to drag him to his execution found him playing chess. Julius Canus blithely bid his guard to check the state of the game—in
which he was ahead—lest his opponent should later claim to have won (Seneca, De tranquillitate 14.4).
It is the very absurdity, the "impossibility" of Julius Canus' behavior that renders it ferocious. He saves
nothing, clings to nothing, grasps at nothing, and in doing so he asserts the magnificence of his spirit, and
the potency of the code by which he lives. The gladiator who bared his throat to the death-blow, who adhered to the etiquette of the arena through to the moment of his death, was an actor who turned what
might be a farce into a supremely transcendent moment. Theatricality, then, allowed for the immanence of truth.
The Bonds of Competition
The Roman was radically present in a role or game where his or her life or reputation was at risk. In
preserving one's role to the end of the ordeal one demonstrated both "sincerity" and "authenticity" in their
Roman senses. Radical presence was "sincere" in the sense that one held nothing back, that everything one had was at stake in one's role. Sincerity was the positive version, the vivifying version of
The perception of sincerity created transparent and mutual sympathies within Roman culture. The Roman
identified with a role that was voluntary. When they had the sense that someone was doing something voluntarily they had the sense that someone was "authentically" there; that he or she had "earned their
role." It is hard to be alienated from the man or woman on the high wire without a net. One might compare the Roman sensibility to the radical subjectivity of Zen, the warrior's Buddhism, with its fragile
sense of all that is and its ideal of keeping nothing in reserve, of expressing everything fully. The Roman of the Republic might have understood the notion of sunyata: emptiness as fullness.
It was for the vivid, translucent emotions of bonding that a Roman audience witnessed with pleasure a great performance in the ordeal. The values of the community—indeed the very sense of the existence of
a community—were formed by those who were willing to risk all.
Stone and Ice
Victory is fleeting, but losing is forever.
Billy Jean King
Being was ephemeral but non-being was absolute. Valor was glass and fire, but humiliation was stone
and ice. Honor was evanescent but degradation had no end. According to Josephus, the captured Jewish generals were displayed on the triumphal floats of Titus and Vespasian, frozen in the postures in which
they were captured (Bellum Iudaicum 7.139147). Ovid's prostrate and defeated Phineus was turned to stone in the act of begging for his life by the victorious Persius (Ovid, Metamorphoses 5.214-235). The
exhibition of the slave's defeat was perpetual. As Reginald Haynes Barrow expressed it, "To enslave an enemy rather than to slay him was a device to reap his labor, but it was also a way of enjoying a
perpetual triumph over him."
The Bad Contest
Where the rules of the game were arbitrary or unknown, where there were no limits in scope or intensity
of the contest, where the contestants were unequally matched, the contest turned caustic and brutal; rather than anneal, it charred and calcinated. There had always been destructive and unequal
competitions in Rome: between a master and a slave, an adult and a child, a patron and a client. But it
was, above all, in the period of the collapse of the republic and the civil wars that the Romans increasingly came to recognize and describe the bad or destructive contest. By the early empire the game had
degenerated to a ludibrium, a farce:
A gladiator...against whom Caligula was fencing with a wooden sword deliberately fell to the ground; whereupon Caligula drew an iron dagger, stabbed him to death, and ran about
waving the palm-branch of victory (Suetonius, Gaius 32.2).
Nero inaugurated the Neronia, a festival of competition in music, gymnastics, and
horsemanship....At the prize-giving Nero descended to the orchestra stalls where the senators sat, to accept the laurel wreath for Latin oratory and verse which had been
reserved for him by the unanimous vote of all the distinguished competitors (Suetonius, Nero 12.3).
Commodus descended into the arena and cut down all the domestic animals that
approached him and some that were led up to him or that were brought to him in nets (Dio 73;19.1).
Several occurrences in the course of the history of Rome spoiled the play. Firstly, with the rapid conquest
of the Mediterranean in the second century BCE, Rome went from a society where the rules of the game were "givens," to a society of greatly expanded possibilities where the rules became unclear or
unenforceable. The Romans, having gained their "empire without end," their imperium sine fine, entered a
kind of Nietzschean world where "the rules of the game" could no longer be taken for granted. After the destruction of Carthage in 146 BCE, according to Sallust, "nothing was sacred" (Bellum Iugurthinum
41.9). The Roman religiones no longer embraced and realized the physics of the universe, but appeared as somewhat quaint artifacts that increasingly had a history, an evolution and an origin. Seneca spoke of
the age of Cato "when the old credulity had been thrown off" (De constantia sapientis 2.2). It has not escaped me, judges, that the old moral exempla are now reckoned fairy tales" (Cicero, In Verrem
The triumphs of the Roman Republic were purchased with the destruction of the codes which made these
triumphs meaningful, the codes by which these activities could be framed and interpreted. The feeling of
triumph was the feeling of a vivified will, of effective energy—but effectiveness is always relative to a
code. The enormous increase in wealth and the potentialities set in motion in Rome by the conquest of the
Mediterranean brought with them a sense of liberation from the old restrictions, but, also, and even more
keenly, a sense of deprivation, a taedium vitae, a dulling of the senses, a feeling of corruption, loss and entrapment.
As Miguel Cervantes put it, "Whether the pitcher hits the stone, or the stone hits the pitcher, it's bad for
the pitcher." And in the terrible, unfair, and unequal competition of the inferior with the superior, of the
slave with the master, the client with the patron, even the victor was without glory. And so, the dying king
Micipsa admonished the young Iugurtha, "in every contest, whoever has more power, even if he is the one who receives the injury, because he is dominant, he will seem to have inflicted it" (Bellum Iugurthinum
10.7). When the contest was too often or too irremediably lost, or when the odds against winning were
too enormous and too consistent, the test became a supplicium, a torture. Instead of invigorating, it could
debilitate. Instead of confirming, it could mutilate the spirit. Contests, labores, were, for the powerless,
sufferings, aerumnae, or, at best, punishments, piacula. In the words of Caecilius Balbus, "When there are
no effects, labor grows more weighty" (Sententiae 189 [ed. Friedrich]). The contest, Cicero explains, is
different between a competitor and an inimicus (De officiis 1.12.38). The competitor held back; for the
competitor there were still taboos and limitations. For the enemy there were no boundaries and no bonds; the enemy sought to break the spirit.
In Seneca's scorching and beautiful Trojan Women, Andromache engages the victorious Achaeans in a battle of wit and will for the life of her son Astyanax. Seneca's "tyrant" Ulysses reminds the pathetically
outmatched Andromache, struggling to hide from him the secret whereabouts of her son, "The agony of being flogged and burned and racked, will compel you to speak aloud, however unwilling, what you now
conceal; it will dig out those things hidden deep in your breast. Necessity is wont to be more powerful than piety" (Seneca, Troades 578-81). Seneca's angry Theseus threatens the old nurse who is defending
Phaedra with her silence: "With whips and bonds the old woman can be made to reveal whatever she declines to utter. Chain her! Let the force of the scourge extract the secrets of her mind" (Seneca,
Phaedra 882-85). As Tacitus remarks, "There is nothing that cannot be obtained by torture or the promise of reward" (Tacitus, Annales 15.59.4). Torture was the contest without condition. If the ordeal
made citizens, torture made subjects.
Stand by a stone and slander it: what effect will you produce? If a man listens like a stone, what advantage has the slanderer?
Arrian, Elpicteti Discorsi 1.25
As a result of the collapse of the rules of the game, it was increasingly difficult to alleviate the shock of
embodiment. Immobility and stupor were almost as frequently depicted as violence in the literature of the great heterogeneous Roman Empire. The absence of clear rules and common ground inhibited speech
and action. When the competition was insupportable, paralysis, the desire to hide, and the desire to be insensitive and autonomous became widespread cultural phenomena. With the loss of the good contest
and the rules that framed it, callous, brazen shamelessness became a cure for shame. Servius Sulpicius reminds Cicero, inconsolable at the death of his beloved daughter Tullia, of their far greater losses.
Having lost patria, honestas, dignitas, honores, "what spirit, trained in these times, ought not to become
insensitive?" (Cicero, Epistulae ad familiares 4.5.2 [45 BCE]). Cicero himself, in the same baleful year, remarks to his friend Atticus: "What could be more dishonorable? But now we harden ourselves to these
humiliations and shed our humanity" (Ad Atticum 13.2 [May 45 BCE]). Even earlier Cicero had written to Caelius, "Your letter would have caused me great grief if reason itself had not already dispelled all
burdensome thoughts, and had not my spirit, from lasting despair, hardened itself against any new sorrows" (Cicero, Epistulae ad familiares 2.16.1 [May 49 BCE]).
When the Romans begin to talk about saving things; when they begin to talk about salvation, the stone—once the image of callousness and stupidity—became an ideal. It was a desperate strategy to
preserve both life and honor.
The face became a facade. The persona went from being primarily expressive to primarily defensive. The
Romans donned, as it were, the armor of hypocrisy, to borrow a phrase from Samuel Dill. As it was for Livy's Brutus under Tarquinius or Suetonius' Claudius under Caligula, the mask, even a dishonorable
one—or I should say especially a dishonorable one—was a relief and an assuagement for embarrassment and humiliation, a defense against an unbearable "now" that would crush you. When Tacitus' Nero
poisons his rival Britannicus, Octavia looks upon the death throes of her brother with a brazen face that hides her anguish and protects her life (Annales 13.16). The "thick-skinned" would survive.
Shamelessness as a Relief from Shame
The reaction against unbearable humiliation often took the form of disengagement. The hardened skin is
the disposable skin; it could be put on and off like armor or makeup. The subject, like the dependent,
delighted in being callidus, wily as well as hard; he or she enjoyed being a versipellis, a protean creature
who changed his or her skin to suit the moment. Tacitus' aristocrats often adopted the survival strategy of
Plautus' slaves: metamorphosis. It is important to add, moreover, that if being an itinerant trickster made
one like a the slaves in Plautus or Petronius, it also made one like a god. Jupiter was, of course, the ultimate versipellis (Plautus, Amphitryon 123). The slave, like the god, was unattached to his face.
The loss of the good contest also helps to explain the reception in Rome of the Cynic and Stoic ideal of inviolate independence, autarkeia:
Surround yourself with philosophy, an impregnable wall; though fortune assault it with her many engines, she cannot breach it. The spirit that abandons external things stands on
unassailable ground; it vindicates itself in its fortress; every weapon hurled against it falls short of its mark (Seneca, Eipistulae 82.5).
Seneca imagines Socrates' reaction to insults:
The hardness of a stone is felt by no one more than the one striking it. I present myself no differently than the lonely rock in the sea: on all sides there is commotion; I am continually
buffeted, but not for that reason do they move that rock nor consume it—though the battery continue through the aeons (De vita beata 27.3).
Shamelessness in the form of apathy and autonomy was raised to a high virtue among the Cynics and
Stoics of the Empire. Indeed, virtus begins to lose its association with "manliness" and comes increasingly
closer to "godliness." The hero Cato does not respond to insult; he does not blush; he does not defend himself; he does not play the game. Everything might move around him, but Seneca's Cato is unmoved.
"Through it all," according to Velleius, "he was nearer in spirit to the gods than to other human beings"(2.35).
To struggle in vain and to obtain, by exhausting oneself, nothing but loathing, is an act of insanity
Sallust, Bellum Iugurthinum 3.3
If you do not wish to fight, you are permitted to flee.
Seneca, De Providentia 6.7
Children, when things do not please them, say, 'I will not play anymore'; so, when things seem to you to reach that point just say, 'I will not play anymore,' and
so depart, instead of staying to make moan.
Arrian, Epicteti Discorsi 1.24
Otium, vacatio, immunitas—withdrawal, leisure, became values in Roman society at the moment when it
became impossible to maintain one's being by contest, and when the isolation of withdrawal was less painful than the humiliation that came with societal bonds. "Otium begins to be a necessity for us because
that thing we would prefer to otium nowhere exists" (De otio 8.3). Virtus, while remaining the active principle par excellence, began to be used to describe passivity, endurance, resistance; it began to be
used for internal qualities, even those unseen or unacknowledged. It looks more and more like our "virtue." But it was a revolution in Roman values to entertain the idea that one could have virtus in otium,
that one could have virtue without the contest, without the rules, without the witnesses.
An Abstract Life
Honor, in ancient Rome, had always been "sightliness;" dishonor had ever been "unsightly," a dehonestamentum (something that disfigured), a dedecus (a blemish). But when one could not defend
one's honor, visibility, embodiment, became enervating, crippling, isolating. When one could not resist the injury, when one could not have integrity, one was tempted to remove an "essential being" from the
social/physical world, to sheath it, as it were, in asbestos. The excruciating sense of an unbearable
immediacy unrelieved by effective rules and rituals resulted in an intense desire to remove the animus from
the contest,, to "break the spell" of embodiment. One is tempted to say: "This is not real; this is not really
happening to me." The divorce of the animus from the body, the "mind/body split," and the notion that the body was an unsightly prison gained ground simultaneously in ancient Rome with the notion that the
contest had become impossible. It was as if, in this period, the ugliness of dishonor was relegated to the
visible and palpable which one could then slough off and discard. The withdrawal the self into an abstract
or transcendental Reality is a way of saying, "I am not my face. I am not what I see in your eyes" This is both a relief from the problem of face and an abandonment of face.
The abstract thinker is "shameless," autonomous, in that he or she does not submit his or her truth to common consent; ratio was a way of creating a reality over which one was totally sovereign. The abstract
thinker can have a reality without others, a being without others. Veritas, in Rome, was the symptom of cultural collapse.
As the rules got easier to break and there was less and less guilt associated with breaking them, the harder it was for Romans to sacrifice or risk their lives to uphold them. As a result death lost its
life-affirming value. And, as Seneca points out to Lucilius, no one is willing to die for a syllogism (Enistulae 82.22-24). When death lost its value, life became an abstraction, what Clifford Geertz calls a
"bloodless universal." A "virtuous" and absolute god arose, but it was an abstract god over a naked rock.
How reluctant the Romans were to give up being fragile, ephemeral men even to become gods of adamant is made ever so poignantly clear in the writings of men like Cicero and Sallust. Even while they
praise withdrawal from an untenable public life, they dreaded lest they appear to others as inactive and inert. The ideals of peaceful autonomy and hardness remained ever poor seconds to the contest. As
Cicero explains, he wrote philosophy because it was necessary. If the Roman Stoic wanted to be a rock, he longed to be a flame.
In the third book of Seneca's De ira the tutor and sometimes vicar of the Emperor Nero tells the story of the tyrant Cambyses and his friend and adviser Praexaspes. It is a story designed by Seneca to
demonstrate that confrontation could be avoided, the most violent emotions can be suppressed, and that one can protect oneself with an impenetrable mask of apathy. In the story Praexaspes admonishes
Cambyses that drunkenness is a disgrace in a king, a man who "is followed by the eyes and ears of all" (omnium oculi auresque sequentur). Cambyses, bristling, fastens on the words of his adviser as a
challenge. He declares that he will demonstrate that he is ever in control of his hands and eyes. Defying the pleas of his adviser, he continues to drink bidding Praexaspes introduce his son into the room.
Cambyses draws his bow and, calling out his intended mark, shoots the son of Praexaspes in the chest. Tearing open the breast of the corpse, the tyrant reveals to the father that the arrow had penetrated the
heart. Turning to his adviser he asks, "Is my hand not sufficiently steady?" Praexaspes calmly replies, "Apollo himself could not have made a more unerring shot."
Seneca's Praexaspes was meant to be the hero of this tale, another wise man like Stilbo who, when his fatherland had been conquered and his daughters had been raped by the soldiers of Demetrius
Poliorcetes, was able, through his imperturbable indifference to deny the victory to the mighty Demetrius (De constantia 5.7). But even the Stoic author, finally, cannot bear the consequences of his own
philosophy. He cries out: "May the gods damn him—a slave more in his soul than in his condition!" (Dii illum male perdant animo magis quam condicione mancipium! [3.14.3]). Praexaspes ought to have
challenged the king into giving still another demonstration of his skill upon the person of the father! Seneca
sedately concludes: "The point under discussion is clear—that it is possible to suppress anger" (3.14.4).
From this anguished and telling story several things can be seen: first, that it is not an equal contest. Cambyses shoots the son of Praexaspes as casually as Commodus shoots the animals led to him for
slaughter; there is no challenging the king and living (the tanks would roll right over you). Secondly, that
Seneca continues to see even these unequal contests as basic tests of the quality of one's being. Even while teaching his listeners how to preserve their being by withdrawing from the contest behind an
impenetrable mask of indifference, he is also teaching them that the mask of indifference is never impenetrable enough; the arrow of contempt always hits its mark.
Not so paradoxically, it is from the pen of the Stoic philosopher Seneca that we get the most beautiful Moment of Truth in all of Roman literature. In Seneca's Agamemnon the gods strike the Achaean
soldiers returning home from the Trojan War with a cataclysmic storm. One ship founders upon another. The sailors can do nothing to calm the storm or save themselves. The living envy the dead. The prayers of
those who beseech the gods—insatiate of evil—are cut short by death. In the darkening night only Ajax continues to fight:"solus invictus malis luctatur Ajax" (532-533). He is glanced first by one and then
struck by another bolt of lightning aimed at him with deliberate malice by Athena. The goddess is affronted by the resistance of the lone mortal:
Still Ajax struggles. Scorched, but unmoved, Ajax stands out from the deep, like a sheer rock, cleaving the wild sea and breaking the waves on his chest. Clasping his
ship in his hand he draws the flames behind him. And Ajax is illuminated. He causes all the sea to shine (539-543).
Carlin A. Barton
(1) This essay is an abridged version of two chapters in my forthcoming book, Fire in the Bones; the Emotions of Honor in Ancient Rome.
(2) David Gilmore, Manhood in the Making; Cultural Concepts of Masculinity (New Haven: Yale UP, 1990) 11.
(3) Irenäus Eibel-Eibesfeldt, "Ritual and Ritualization from a Biological Perspective," Human Ethology; Claims and Limits of a New
Discipline, eds. M. von Cranach, K. Foppa, W. Lepenies and D. Ploog (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979) 15.