Roman Honor: The Fire in the Bones

By Carlin A. Barton | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
Confession and the Remedies of Defeat

The Roman centurion says, “I say to one 'Go,' and he goes; to another 'Come,' and he comes, and to my slave 'Do this,' and he does it. ”

MATTHEW 8.9

As soon as little Octavian began to talk, Suetonius tells us, it chanced that the frogs were making a racket at his grandfather's country house. He bade them be silent, “and they say that since then no frog has ever croaked there” (Augustus 94.7). Juvenal's willful mistress says: “This is what I want; this is what I order. Let my will be its own argument” (Satirae 6.223).1 The greatest force of the soul that a Roman could imagine was effective speech.

For us the voice is an airy, disembodied phenomenon. But for the Romans it was the airiness of the really real. The immediacy and embodiment of one's will, one's spirit in the world was accomplished, above all, through the force of one's own speech—and through the words spoken about one by others, one's fama.2

The Romans may have been down-to-earth, but they were not “materialists. ” It was difficult for the Romans to trace our line between “physical” and “spiritual”; in speaking, the body was “spiritualized” and the spiritual “embodied. ” The culture of the voice “charged, ” “vivified” the spirit, like the loud war-cry cultivated by Cato.3 It was physical exercise and demanded discipline and control.4 According to Seneca, speech was the grooming, the adornment of the soul (oratio cultus animi est [ Epistulae 115.2]). And just as the gods and the dead would cease to

____________________
1
hoc volo, sic iubeo, sit pro ratione voluntas.
2
One could argue that, in our culture, the failure to cultivate the voice has resulted in the separation of the soul from the voice and from the “breath. ” We are not “in” our words. We can separate our voices from our words and from our life-spirits.
3
The Romans cultivated the loud war-cry: Plutarch, Regum et imperatorum apophthegmata, Cato 7, 23 (Moralia 198E, 199C), Cato maior 1.6, 9.4; Coriolanus 8.3; Alan Astin, Cato the Censor, Oxford, 1978, p. 37.
4
Speaking was strenuous exercise. See Aline Rouselle, “Parole et inspiration: Le travail de la voix dans le monde romain, ” History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 5 (1983): 129–157; Maud Gleason, Making Men: Sophists and Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome, Princeton, 1994.

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