Negotiating Honor

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 11:30 AM
Thurgood Marshall Ballroom West (Marriott Wardman Park)
Carlin Barton, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Abstract: Negotiating Honor

This paper addresses the “transvaluation of all values,” the radical movement from “honor” to “honesty” in the early Empire. Livy had said: “Every Roman should be prepared to render an account of himself” (38.50.8-9). A century later the Christian Polycarp will say: “Everyone must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, each rendering an account of himself.”

             Rome of the Republic had been an armed culture without a centralized monopoly of power. Not gods and laws and threats of coercion but the “sense of shame”, pudor, and fear of the vendetta acted as regulating forces. The Roman had to be a many-eyed Argus constantly, carefully, anxiously, deftly reading the forces of the world so that he might orient himself, manipulate and negotiate with “The Powers That Be”. It was a delicate balancing system requiring alacrity and elasticity. Rigidity, fixity, obstinacy were forms of dangerous excess. To be static, “fixed” was to be, as we would say, “in a fix” – to be stymied, paralyzed, incapable of performing the necessary negotiations, the bargaining with man and god. The unbending, immoderate “virtue” of the Younger Cato demonstrated not honor but an absence of balance, just short of wanton cruelty (Cicero Pro Murena 60-66). The stubbornness and inflexibility, the pertinacia and inflexibilis obstinatio, the refusal to negotiate of the Christians seemed to Romans like Pliny and Marcus Aurelius, to be, like that of the Jews, the product and co-ordinate of anti-social and licentious behavior (e.g. Tacitus, Historiae 5.5; Minucius Felix, Octavius 9).

            I will try to explain why this inflexibility, this consistent and inflexible obedience to a set of divinely inspired and enforced laws will replace Roman pudor as the positive governing force in the state and in the cosmos – even for the Romans.

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