Practical Ethics for Roman Gentlemen: The Work of Valerius Maximus

Practical Ethics for Roman Gentlemen: The Work of Valerius Maximus

Practical Ethics for Roman Gentlemen: The Work of Valerius Maximus

Practical Ethics for Roman Gentlemen: The Work of Valerius Maximus


Practical Ethics for Roman Gentlemen is a collection of historical anecdotes written during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius in the fist century A.D. The book aims to redefine the significance of the work of Valerius Maxiums, author of The Memorable Deeds of the Men of Rome and Foreign Nations and is likely to become the standard reference work on this author.
Dr Skidmore argues that modern scholarship's view of Valerius' work as a mere source-book for rhetoricians is misconceived. The popularity of the work during the Middle Ages and Renaissance was due to its value to the readers of those times as a source of moral exhortation and guidance which was as relevant to them as it had been to Valerius' contemporaries. The wider appeal of the book lies in its examination of earlier forms of exemplary literature, in its discussion of how Roman literature was communicated to its audience, and in its original theory concerning the identity of Valerius Maximus himself.


Historical examples were the basic means of moral instruction in the ancient world from the earliest times. Valerius’s aim of moral education achieved by imitation of great deeds is as old as Western literature.

Greek poetry

From the time of Homer, examples were pointed out for the young to emulate, a practice not confined to youth but maintained throughout life. An educational practice dependent upon such a concept is a product of a particular kind of society, in which imitation and competition were closely connected, and the aim of success was to triumph over one’s rivals. This is the attitude of Homer’s heroes (Marrou, 1956, p. 12; Martin, 1984, pp. 29–48). The ideal value to which everything must be sacrificed in Homeric society is arete, and glory is the recognition of it by one’s fellow warriors. This ideal is dependent upon competition with and imitation of those who have already achieved arete as well as one’s contemporaries (Marrou, 1956, pp. 11–12). The idea is encapsulated in Peleus’s advice to Achilles which inspired later ages: ‘Always to excel, out-topping all the rest’ (Iliad VI. 208=XI. 784).

Homer educates his audience as the counsellors educate the heroes, by setting before them the great examples of previous men to fire the urge to imitate and compete. Thus Phoenix recommends reconciliation to Achilles by reference to the tale of Meleager, and Athene uses the story of Orestes to goad on Telemachus (Iliad IX. 524f.; Odyssey I. 296f.). Like the counsellors of the heroes, Homer impressed upon his hearers examples of arete and the immortalization of the heroes motivated his listeners in turn to the pursuit of glory (Marrou, 1956, p. 13). Thus poetry was the original literary medium from which the ancient Greeks drew their examples for . . .

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