Virtues of War – Rome

Cicero’s Cardinal Virtues

virtuesofwar_ciceroMarcus Tullius Cicero was born into a wealthy family in the last century before the common era, or BCE. BC and AD have fallen from favor, as “before Christ” and anño domini” (year of our Lord) reflects a Christo-centric bias that carries with it memories of the crusades and the violent, coercive nature of Medieval Christendom. We might talk more about that later.

Cicero is credited with bringing Greek philosophy to Rome, and was an impressively talented writer and philosopher, introducing new Latin words to help bridge the intellectual gap between Athens and the Italian peninsula.

Unlike Aristotle, Cicero claims only four virtues: temperance, wisdom, courage, and justice. He and later moral philosophers calls these four virtues “cardinal,” from the Latin cardo, or hinge, as in the good life hinges upon them. In his De Officiis, or The Offices (Book I, Section 5), he claims that

all that is morally right arises from four sources: it is concerned either (1) with the full perception and intelligent development of the true; or (2) with the conservation of organized society, with rendering to every man his due, and with the faithful discharge of obligations assumed; or (3) with the greatness and strength of a noble and invincible spirit; or (4) with the orderliness and moderation of everything that is said and done.


Although Cicero was more known for being an orator, and he himself felt his most significant accomplishment was his time as a politician, he was first and foremost a lawyer. Amazingly, a record of his first major case is still extant, which was a defense of an alleged murderer. It was a bold move, as Cicero diverted the accusations toward a high ranking Roman military official favored by then-dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla. He had to play his hand very carefully to avoid being placed on the proscriptions, a list of people deemed enemies of the state who were assassinated without trial or due process, which served a similar function as the “Disposition Matrix” does in our own day.

The defendant was a young farmer, Roscius, who was accused of killing his father because he had supposedly been disinherited from the family estate. The disinheritance was never proven, so the case turned on Roscius’ motives (or lack thereof). Cicero leveraged some ill placed remarks by the prosecution about the farmer’s personality to his advantage to make the case about character types, about what kind of man could or would do something as disturbing for Romans as was patricide.

Luckily for Roscius, “extreme humility forms part of the positive stereotype of the young rustic.”  (Vasaly, 162) Note the narrative element of the defense; Young Rustic is made into a stereotype, one with positive, rather than negative, moral connotations. The ignorant young country bumpkin was acquitted in 80 BCE, shortly before Cicero took leave of Rome in a conveniently strategic move that may have helped keep him alive after indirectly marring the reputation of the dictator. It was after this vacation that Cicero became interested in philosophy and began the political and philosophical career for which he is much more known.

059_cicero-republicUnfortunately, Cicero’s luck turned when Mark Antony came to power with Octavian and Lepidus,
when he found himself on the Disposition Matrix for having publicly opposed the transition from Republic to Empire in a series of 14 highly publicized denunciations he called Philippics. Octavian opposed putting his name on the proscriptions, but Mark Antony prevaled. Cicero’s popularity made him the most notable target, but also made him the hardest to locate because ‘rustics’ young and old simply failed to recall having seen him. He was discovered not far from the coast in December, 43 BCE, by two soldiers. Even his last breath was a rhetorical flourish; “accede ueterane, et si hoc saltim potes recte facere, incide ceruicem.” (Seneca the Elder, Suasoriae VI.18) Some transations play on the double meaning of proper, rendering it as “There is nothing proper about what you are about to do, but at least do it properly.” The cutting words were to remind them what they came to do was not good, but to do it well, which was to kill him, and quickly. A more literal translation preserves his cutting wit, if not the double entendre; “Come on, vets, it’s the least you can do to cut my neck.”

Cicero’s legal defense of Roscius was entirely dependent upon what kind of person Roscius was, and the narratively determined assumption that such a type of man was totally incapable of murder. This was possible because of the kind of polis Rome imagined they inherited and which the poet Virgil helped solidify, the idea that “The early Roman state was a small agricultural community, and few cultures have guarded the memory of their simple beginnings as fiercely as did Rome.” (Vasaly, 162)

Virgil’s Aeneid

065_virgil-aeneidBefore we get to Rome’s narrative self-identity, we owe a quick glance back at Homer and the moral backdrop he endowed to Western civilization. You’ll recall our short discussion of Neoptolemus, Achilles son, orphaned by unyielding rage and adopted by self-interested deception. When we last saw him, bright eyed and bushy tailed, he had been deceived by Odysseus into deceiving Philoctetes, who had been abandoned by his mates to the isle of Lemnos. The bow and arrows he possessed, a gift from stricken Herakles for being the only person willing to put an afflicted demigod out of his misery, were needed to win the war over a woman. Neoptolemus, which means “new war,” was infected by moral pollution when he realized Odysseus’ duplicity and nonetheless becomes a knowing accomplice. The three of them sail off to Illium, Troy’s embattled capital city; one his honor long-lost, another whose honor is quickly receding, and one whose honor will soon be restored. With the magical bow of Herakles now secured by the Greek fleet, Trojan fates are sealed.

Homer does not tell us how Troy falls, for ‘the song of Ilium’ ends with Priam, the King of Troy, crossing no man’s land to retrieve his son’s desecrated corpse from its murderer. When he arrives at Achilles’ camp, the king begs for closure in no uncertain terms; “I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before — I put my lips to the hands of the man who killed my son.” (Fagles, 605) Homer ends his epic poem with tense reconciliation, as Priam dines with his son’s killer, who for the first time is described as “goodly” and whom Homer describes “was like the gods to look upon.” Rage is quenched, or at least is transferred, for the war is not over, and moral pollution yet spreads.

As for the end of the war, Homer does not give us much detail. The well-known tale of the wooden horse is mentioned only in passing in The Odyssey, in which “all our best encamped, armed with bloody death for Troy,” (Fagles, 133) “where the prime of Argive power lay in wait with death and slaughter.” (Fagles, 208) The boastfulness evinced by the prose is indicative of the author of such a deceptive ploy, for none could have devised such a cunning (and dishonorable?) strategy than the lying Odysseus…

Virgil picks up where Homer left off, telling us how the wooden horse effected the downfall of Troy. A Trojan seer, Laocoön, explicitly cites Odysseus’ reputation and (correctly) guesses as to the trustworthiness of the Greek ‘gift.’ The prophet is silenced by the gods, and the Trojans wheel in their own demise. It is not clear who exactly hides within the horse itself, for participants were chosen by lot. As soon as night falls, the hidden soldiers open Troy’s gates to the Greeks and the massacre begins. Achilles’ young son, fresh from his deceit of good Philoctetes, is quick to take center stage;

[Read Fagles, p.91]

Notice the place that names play for Virgil, a Roman poet writing what he knew would be the definitive Roman creation myth. At first referred as Pyrrhus, for the color of his hair, it is a nickname we might render as ‘redhead,’ or ‘ginger;’ not a name of honor or distinction. Notice he throws it off in the heat of his own inherited fury, as he brazenly kills the man to whom his own father granted clemency. Neoptolemus has begun a new war, one within his own soul, and the narrative fragments that survive about him outside Homer and Virgil do not paint him as anything but dishonorable. The exception to that rule is Sophocles’ Philoctetes

But I digress.

065_virgil-aeneidThe –id suffix of Aeneid, like The Iliad, indicates the subject of Virgil’s own epic poem; the song of Aeneas. Say it with me; ah-Nee-us. Not anas. As with Greek mythology, Aeneas was well known, but through narrative fragments; bits from Homer, others from elsewhere. Most, if not all, of the characters from Homer eventually make up a large part of the master narrative/s of the Roman world. Virgil picks up on these fragments and endeavors to unify them, to give Aeneas a coherent and linear identity. He does so, however, with an explicit purpose in mind, a predetermined motive, to distribute throughout the Roman imagination. The conscious desire to propagate one’s work is one we should keep in mind as we discuss the motives for propagating other stories, and it may be noted that many soldiers do not wish for their stories to be dispersed.

To hint at why this is important, I turn once again to etymology, the science of determining the origins of words. If I was not clear before, let me be so now; dictionary definitions contain the reigning use of words, which is subjective. Etymology, on the other hand, describes the historically situated meaning of words, which is slightly more objective. Take “exploitation,” for example. Earlier, we defined exploitation as the unjust (morally wrong) transfer of the benefit of one’s work to someone else. But the word is originally morally positive; “The action or fact of deriving benefit from something by making full or good use of it.” It only become negatively loaded in the last couple of centuries. The propagation of the recent, negative usage has usurped the objective, historically situated actual meaning.

Virgil set about knowingly to create the story of how Rome began. Stories are central to social group identity, as Lindemann has earlier established. This is woven throughout the character of Aeneas, and it begins with Homer. In Book Twenty, Aeneas attempts to face Achilles in battle, beginning his address “Here’s my story, Achilles,” before being tossed back by Poseidon to save him from certain death. It is from the loins of Aeneas that Rome springs, as the song Virgil composes has him flee flaming Ilium as a refugee, with his father upon his shoulders and his homeland aflame at his back.

Romulus and Remus, mythic founders of Rome, are hinted at in Book Six of The Aeneid, but it should be noted that they are the products of other earlier writers, like Quintus Fabius Pictor, for example, from a century and a half before Virgil. If true, then we may need to ask about Virgil’s reasons for writing a work he intended to propagate, with the full support of Octavian, one of the emperors. If Lindemann is right, that master narratives in part act to justify what we do, then is it not significant that Virgil re-writes (or at least re-imagines) Rome’s genesis right at the twilight of the Republic, as Rome becomes ruled by a succession of dictators?

066_vigil-empireFinally, what effect might the Aeneid have on Roman readers and hearers (apart from Virgil’s intent)? Do they see themselves as the descendants of the losers of the greatest war the world had known, refugees from a wasted, war-torn land? Or is the Trojan war and its wooden horse more like September 11th, an event which effectively inspires the dictum “never again;” thereby forever memorializing the Greeks, and the rest of the provinces at Rome’s borders, as treacherous terrorizers who can Never Again be trusted?

Questions for Discussion

  • Is Virgil using narrative fragments to challenge the status quo, or to defend it?
  • If counterstories are the work of marginalized social groups to revise and augment master narratives to restore their moral dignity, and master narratives are technically benign, then what do we call stories produced by cultural elites which reinforce master narratives and justify the actions or character of those in power?

What do you think? Sound off in the comments below!

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