Roman Honor: The Fire in the Bones

By Carlin A. Barton | Go to book overview
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The Poison of Shame—and Its Antidotes

CYRANO: It is my pleasure to displease. I love hatred…. The Spanish ruff I wear around my throat is like a ring of enemies: hard, proud, each point another pride, another thorn—so that I hold myself erect perforce, wearing the hatred of the common herd haughtily….

LE BRET: Tell this to all the world—and then to me say very softly that… she loves you not.


As there were orders of shame, so there were disorders of shame; Latin pudor embraced a range of emotions from a mild stimulation to a stunning panic.2 The shame that animated a soul and a society could also destroy that same soul and society. The Roman who lost his or her poise might stagger headfirst into a spiraling descent from which there was no recovery, like a stunt pilot who has lost control of her plane or a high-wire artist who has lost a grip on her bar.3

In the following pages I describe the various attempts made by the Romans, at all times in their recorded history, to salvage something of their souls from the wreckage of their honor.


The most extreme and toxic version of shame was a feeling of insufficiency or incompetence that could not be rectified.4 In 102 B. C. E., while serving as a legate under the consul Catulus, the son of Marcus Aemilius Scaurus fled before the victory charge of the Germans. His father sent word that he would prefer to see him dead than accused of a disgraceful flight. “If there remained any trace of shame in his breast, he would avoid the sight of the father he had humiliated” (Valerius

Trans. Brian Hooker, New York, 1923, p. 126.
See Leon Wurmser, The Mask of Shame, Baltimore, 1981, p. 52.
Modern notions of shame tend to revolve around the noxious aspects of shame discussed in this chapter. This is Freud's shame, the tyrannical censor and hostile suppressor, which compels humans to wear suffocating masks and crippling corsets.
For excellent descriptions of the more powerful emotions of inadequacy, see Wurmser, Mask of Shame, pp. 32–33, and James Gilligan, Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, New York, 1997.


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