Virtus Romana: Politics and Morality in the Roman Histories

Virtus Romana: Politics and Morality in the Roman Histories

Virtus Romana: Politics and Morality in the Roman Histories

Virtus Romana: Politics and Morality in the Roman Histories


The political transformation that took place at the end of the Roman Republic was a particularly rich area for analysis by the era's historians. Major narrators chronicled the crisis that saw the end of the Roman Republic and the changes that gave birth to a new political system. These writers drew significantly on the Roman idea of virtus as a way of interpreting and understanding their past.

Tracing how virtus informed Roman thought over time, Catalina Balmaceda explores the concept and its manifestations in the narratives of four successive Latin historians who span the late Republic and early Principate: Sallust, Livy, Velleius, and Tacitus. Balmaceda demonstrates that virtus in these historical narratives served as a form of self-definition that fostered and propagated a new model of the ideal Roman more fitting to imperial times. As a crucial moral and political concept, virtus worked as a key idea in the complex system of Roman sociocultural values and norms that underpinned Roman attitudes about both present and past. This book offers a reappraisal of the historians as promoters of change and continuity in the political culture of both the Republic and the Empire.


Virtus… propria est Romani generis et seminis

Virtus is an inalienable possession of the Roman race and name

—Cic. Phil, 4.13

In recent years, it has proved fruitful to approach the history of Roman politics, society, and culture thematically, through the study of key concepts such as fides, libertas, clementia, or pudicitia. Among such concepts, none was more important to Romans themselves than virtus. Virtus could be found everywhere and under any circumstance: it was what everybody claimed, an aim for life, a means to achieve gloria, a criterion by which to judge people, a spur to action, the courage to undertake brave deeds, the essence of manliness, the moral code of the maiores … For the Romans it was difficult to approach any important topic without referring to virtus.

As a moral and political idea, however, virtus was present in Roman thinking and acting in many more ways than have been explored hitherto. Past approaches to virtus have tended to be word studies. of particular note is the work of A. N. van Omme, Virtus, semantiese Studie (Utrecht, 1946), which was later completed and enriched by the book of W. Eisenhut, Virtus Romana: Ihre Stellung im römische Wertsystem (Munich, 1973). Eisenhut’s work is an impressive lexicographical exercise; he traces almost every occurrence of virtus in classical Latin, but the conclusions are limited and unduly biased toward the view that Greek culture played an essential role in the formation of the concept. Additionally, Eisenhut argues that the different kinds of virtus remained fairly stable throughout Roman history.

More recently, other word studies on virtus appeared in the same year, yet approaching the theme from different angles. Juhani Sarsila’s study Being a Man: the Roman Virtus as a Contribution to Moral Philosophy (Frankfurt, 2006) considers and catalogues exhaustively different types of virtus in Roman literature from Livius Andronicus to Livy. It is a thorough analysis author by author and concludes that virtus must be placed at the very center of the Roman set of values. Unfortunately Sarsila devotes little time to explaining one of the most interesting phenomena, namely, why all these meanings are . . .

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