Roman Honor: The Fire in the Bones

By Carlin A. Barton | Go to book overview
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The Tarquinii took Brutus with them to Delphi—more as an object of sport than as a companion. And it is said that Brutus carried with him, as a gift for Apollo, a rod of gold enclosed within a hollow stick of cornel wood—an image, obliquely, of his own spirit.

LIVY 1.56.911

Roman culture was without inwardness. FLORENCE DUPONT, DAILY LIFE IN ANCIENT ROME2

My need to understand the Roman emotions of honor arose from my previous study of homo in extremis, of humans faced with the inordinate and the impossible. In studying the ways in which the Romans accommodated themselves to the horrors of civil war, the collapse of the Republic, and the establishment of the autocracy, I was led to the study of what it was that the Romans fought hardest to preserve. What did the Romans think was the core and definition of being? When everything solid melted into air, what would they cling to? When they fought on the nakedest possible plane, what did they fight for? What was the spirit that Livy's Brutus hid from the tyrannical Tarquins lest it be destroyed?

Even those who are well-disposed toward the ancient Romans, scholars who have devoted their lives to them, hesitate to grant them a rich and complex inner emotional life. They have ever been the model men of action flat-footing it on the stage of world history, strong but seldom soulful. I hope that this book will go at least part of the way toward creating a sense of the resonant inwardness of Roman life partially hidden from us by the obscurities and obliquities of that life.


Impulses and emotions explain nothing: they are always results, either of the power of the body or the impotence of the mind. In both cases they are consequences, never causes.


Many Roman historians would, perhaps, agree with Lévi-Strauss. But the Romans understood themselves above all as emotional beings. When the Romans

Is tum ab Tarquiniis ductus Delphos, ludibrium verius quam comes, aureum baculum inclusum corneo cavato ad id baculo tulisse donum Apollini dicitur, per ambages ffigiem ingenii sui.
Daily Life in Ancient Rome, Oxford, 1993, p. 240.
Totemism, trans. Rodney Needham, Boston, 1962, p.71.


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