Virtus Romana: Politics and Morality in the Roman Historians

By Gerrish, Jennifer | The Historian, Spring 2019 | Go to article overview

Virtus Romana: Politics and Morality in the Roman Historians


Gerrish, Jennifer, The Historian


Virtus Romana: Politics and Morality in the Roman Historians. By Catalina Balmaceda. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. Pp. xii, 297. $45.00.)

Rome's transition from Republic to Principate was not merely a political transformation; Roman identity itself was renegotiated, and traditional values and concepts had to adapt as well. Catalina Balmaceda's study of virtus in the late Republic and early Empire examines the role of contemporary historians in this process of redefinition. The Latin term virtus defies simple translation. In varying contexts, it can be rendered as "courage," "manliness," or, of course, "virtue"; for the Romans, virtus was a core political and ethical quality. Its meaning changed over time, particularly as Rome underwent dramatic political change. Balmaceda examines the treatment of virtus by four major Roman historians--Sallust, Livy, Velleius Paterculus, and Tacitus--in chronological order, encompassing the end of the Republic and the formation of the Principate. Balmaceda argues that historians are not just recorders of the past, but creators of meaning, and this book highlights the historians' role in marking both change and continuity in the expression of virtus.

An introductory chapter describes the etymology and use of virtus in order to "give the coordinates through which the chapters on the historians should be read" (11). Each subsequent chapter explores the development of the term in the historians' major works. During the final disintegration of the Republic, Sallust linked the collapse of the state with the decline of traditional virtus, suggesting that the Republic was doomed because virtus was now employed for individual advancement instead of the state's. …

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