Jon Lendon
Empire of Honour

The elements that elicited the community recognition that was honour—that is, the qualities that would be perceived as honourable—included high birth in an illustrious home town, wealth (provided it came from reputable sources, and preferably in the form of landed estates), legal status (that of a senator or an equestrian, or at least a citizen, not that of a freedman or slave), a great house, a grand procession of slaves and clients on the street, expensive clothes. And there were more subtle qualities, all the signs of a proper upbringing and education and an aristocratic manner: the proper accent, words, posture, bearing—in short, elegance. Two aristocrats never needed to enquire of genealogies to realize that they were both gentlemen; all they needed was a glance.

Among the upper classes, these characteristics enjoyed prestige only because aristocratic opinion accorded it. But who were these aristocrats? Within the general category of the rich, the possessors of property, a sub-group can be distinguished—call it the aristocracy, although neither Greek nor Latin had an exactly equivalent word, since 'us' and 'them' sufficed—a group defined by its shared values, and in particular by its members' esteem of the same qualities. The aristocracy was an opinion-community; it granted, and was defined by, honour. 'For prestige to exist, the agreement of many who are illustrious and outstanding [that is, have prestige themselves] is required,' as Seneca put it. No quality was honourable in and of itself. Honour was mediated through the perceptions of others, and even a superfluity of worthy qualities was of no use unless these qualities were publicly known, and approved by other aristocrats. You have no standing in aristocratic society if, like Apuleius' rich provincial adversary in court, 'you are, through rusticity, an unknown.' To be an aristocrat, then, was essentially to be thought well of by other aristocrats. It was not an objective quality, it was membership in a co-opting club, and fundamentally it was membership in this club which distinguished, say, the unquestionably aristocratic Pliny the Younger from the enormously rich but (to aristocratic opinion) declasse freedman, Trimalchio.

Slowly evolving custom laid down for aristocrats prestige value for various attributes and accomplishments, and aristocratic opinion enforced those values in aristocratic society by means of an honour sanction. Consider the prestige offered to literary accomplishment, whether in rhetoric (most prominently), or in poetry or philosophy. High culture, 'which pertains to the greatest praise of the most brilliant men,' as Cicero put it, and its practitioners came to be universally revered among aristocrats and would-be aristocrats. Thus Trajan's utterance to the sophist and philosopher Dio Chrysostom, 'I don't understand a word you're saying, but I love you as myself.' So closely were high culture and high status associated that a schoolmaster could pass himself off as a senator in late second-century Gaul, and when, in the fifth-century whirlwind of barbarian invasion, all other claims to honour had been turned topsy-turvy, literature could be deemed the denning quality of aristocracy. To admire high culture was required of all gentlemen, and the least talented nabobs at Rome, even the emperors themselves, produced streams of turgid prose and excruciating poetry. To do otherwise was to violate an aristocratic code, and to risk slighting asides of 'not our class, dear.' For it was likewise crucial to one's honour not to trip over any of the many codes which regulated aristocratic conduct. The club had rules. A member must not work with his hands—indeed, best not to work for profit at all. An aristocrat must not make a public display of himself—not sing in the street or dance in the forum. Pompey was reviled for the licentious practice of scratching his head with a single finger, Crassus for extravagant grief at the death of his pet lamprey. By the 370s AD aristocrats' chewing in public had become such a scandal at Rome that the Prefect of the City forbade it, to the vast relief of Ammianus Marcellinus and, one assumes, all other right-minded residents. Clearly taste is one of the most slippery aspects of any society—'The unwritten norm of a civilization resembles a melody more than what modern physicists and jurists call a law,' as a modern commentator on Japan observes—and it is very difficult to deduce what else Roman aristocrats would have approved of and what they would have found uncouth. Suffice it to say that it would have been instantly obvious to them. And an aristocrat could go through life constantly checking his behaviour by studying the faces of his peers: 'from a glance of the eyes, a raising or lowering of the brows, a groan, a laugh,' he could regulate his conduct. His competitors were always watching him.

Indeed, the greater a man's honour, the higher his position in society, the more people watched him, and the more he felt his actions hemmed in by his own rank. It was signally disgraceful—especially destructive of honour—for a nobilis, one of the highest born in Roman society, to waste his fortune, or to be morally vicious, because of the 'bright light' his ancestry held over him. When a senatorial deputation sent to Germanicus fell among mutinous soldiers in the German camp the other envoys fled; but Munatius Plancus did not, for his greater dignity forbade such a course, and thus he was nearly killed. To remind a man of the glory of his family and his need to act in accord with it was a usual way of pressing him on to action; the unwelcome requests of a distinguished man could be beaten off by sharply pointing out that they did not accord with his dignity.

The opinion-community of the aristocracy granted honour to men for a great many attributes and accomplishments, military and civil, as well as for popularity among the lower orders and for political and religious—in late antiquity, including ecclesiastical—offices. A brilliant speech in court or in declamation, a profound knowledge of the Roman law, the destruction of a political enemy, paying off a friend's debt, the proper education of a young wife, or the possession of a remarkable ass: anything praised by aristocrats conferred glory. Consider Sallust's famous equation of the honour of Julius Caesar and Cato the Younger:
In greatness of spirit they were equal, and in glory as well (although in other things they differed). Caesar was deemed great because of the favours he did and his generosity, Cato because of the moral stringency of his life. The former became brilliant through his kindness and clemency; his austerity gave the latter dignity. Caesar gained glory by giving, assisting, and pardoning, Cato by never giving a bribe. The one was a refuge for the wretched, the other a bane to the wicked. The one was praised for his adaptability, the other for his firmness.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.