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  • Exemplary Ethics in Ancient Rome by Rebecca Langlands
  • J. Mira Seo
Rebecca Langlands. Exemplary Ethics in Ancient Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 368 pp. Cloth, $99.99.

While exempla and discourses of exemplarity are understood as distinctive to Roman cultural practice, as scholars we tend to take their existence for granted in our analyses of Roman literature, history, or philosophy. Elite Roman authors utilize them, and our task is to explain how and why they function. Building on the work of Jane Chaplin, Matthew Roller, David Levene, and others, this monograph distinguishes itself from previous accounts of Roman exemplarity in two significant ways: (1) The scope of the periods and texts under examination is far more comprehensive than that of any earlier studies on the topic, and (2) The framework of "exemplary ethics" focuses on the practice of using exempla and on what about these particular vignettes or stories makes them didactically productive in generating ethical awareness and even growth.

Even as its synthetic approach owes an acknowledged debt to Roller's groundbreaking 2004 article, "Exemplarity in Roman Culture: the Cases of Horatius Cocles and Cloelia" (CP 99:1–56), attention to ethical praxis ("exemplary ethics") reveals unexpected features and details in these most familiar tales. As Langlands explains, although the characters and scenarios may be relatively fixed in repetition, exempla are persistent and useful because of their essential hermeneutic ambiguity, not by embodying a single established lesson as one might expect. In two enlightening chapters, Langlands explores this indeterminacy as a feature, not a bug, of exemplary thinking that contributes to their educational capacity (chapter 2, "The Special Capacity of Exemplary Stories," and chapter 7, "Indeterminacy of Exempla: Interpretation, Motivation and Improvisation").

Given the broad chronological and generic scope of the evidence, in chapter 1 Langlands isolates a few specific narratives as "archetypes" (Mucius Scaevola, Fabius Maximus Cunctator, and T. Manlius Torquatus) and returns to these examples consistently throughout the work. While chapters 2–4 establish the practice of exemplary ethics by relying on these synthetic, archetypal narratives, precise case studies and close readings of individual literary and philosophical texts illustrate the complexity of exemplarity as an instructional medium for ethical education.

These close readings ground the methodological reframing of exemplary ethics in the early chapters and demonstrate the payoff of potentially abstract concepts like the "site of exemplarity" (related to studies in cultural memory, 173 and chapter 8 passim). In describing a site of exemplarity as a "heterogeneous field of reference" (175, original emphasis) rather than a singular point—that is, the exemplum itself—Langlands' analysis explains contradictions inherent in the exemplary tradition as productive ethical features. Chapter 12, "Controversial Thinking through Exempla," explores "controversiality" in two detailed readings: a debate in De finibus between Cicero and Lucius Torquatus on the latter's distinguished ancestor, T. Manlius Torquatus, and the problematic and contradictory figure of Regulus in multiple literary works. As Langlands states, [End Page 311] "It is a characteristic of exempla (or sites of exemplarity) to possess ethical ambiguities, conflicts or difficulties that stimulate such ethical debate and reflection" (258). This chapter well illustrates the interplay between cultural consensus and indeterminacy in two different kinds of "controversial thinking": in De finibus, Langlands shows how the interlocutors use "a tale whose possession of moral and cultural value is ultimately not in question, and used it to consider some highlevel philosophical questions about what might count as moral value, what kind of motivation for deeds would count as a good one, and what, in the end, counts as good in human life" (266). In the second case, Livy's debate between Scipio and Fabius on Regulus initially provides another illustration of a controversial exemplum deployed in rhetoric, which Langlands then expands to consider the contradictory accounts and interpretations found in Diodorus Siculus, Valerius Maximus, Cicero in De officiis, and Horace C. 3.5. Although these transformations and inconsistencies may seem to contradict the notion of consensus in cultural memory, Langlands explores how the Regulus exemplum functions differently in each of the works to demonstrate a range of ethical reactions. Regulus' essential indeterminacy as an exemplum makes the figure especially fungible for diverse literary and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3168
Print ISSN
0002-9475
Pages
pp. 311-313
Launched on MUSE
2020-05-28
Open Access
No
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