Two stories about honor

I am reading J E Lendon’s Empire of Honour. He argues that the Roman empire was, more or less, run on honor. He surveys a wide range of texts without attempting to determine if they are “historical” or not, but rather looks for ideas about how people thought. In his words,

The only practical method [to go about treating the wide ranging, variable-quality evidence] is to use the data we have not as sure indications of motive in individual instances, but as clues to how observers expected things to work; that is, to treat all the evidence as a kind of fiction, but as fiction that gives the historian legitimate insights into norms and broader realities. So this is an investigation of political culture rather than political history; the aim is not to discover why individual events occurred, but (ideally) to discover how a whole political world worked by studying how a range of people expected it to work. (p.28 )

So, while he uses texts that are mostly unhistorical, “largely invention,” the goal is not to resurface with a historical account but an understanding of the cultural forces that moved people. This does not mean, as he takes the time to say in many ways, that the second century BC and the second century AD are the same or that the writers have identical views, or even that the authors in the same generation have identical views. It is merely his sample and his research goal has already been stated.

I’ll eventually make a long post about methods, but let’s get to the two stories I want to share. I came across some salient illustrations of honor and I’ll be sure to pick out a bunch for later. These are short ones.

Let me remind you that honor is about prestige, respect, reputation–all done through public acts, all done with the perception of others in mind. To defer to someone was to show them proper honor or to honor them (depending on your relative status). To be praised by an honorable man was to be honored. On it goes, with endless examples of honoring and dishonoring.

1. There is a Latin word for a kind of honor that can have an utterly compulsive force, maiestas. Cato the Younger left a theatre in the middle of a performance, and his maiestas was so great that everyone else got up and left with him. (p.59)

2. Scipio Nasica headed a large group of senators in a rush to kill Tiberius Gracchus. According to Plutarch, bystanders were so compelled to move out of their way that they trampled themselves. They were compelled “because of the worthiness of the men.” This, says Lendon, is “action in the face of distinction” (p.61).

I admit I find these stories fairly humorous. At the same time I can imagine it in modern terms. A high profile critic whose opinion has immense sway, leaves a show in disgust and others who either do not want to disrespect her opinion or disagree, leave accordingly. But the similarities are thin and the imaginary is devoid of the tones of honor that are integral to understanding the forces in the story.

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One Comment on “Two stories about honor”

  1. Josh Says:

    That’s pretty cool. Do we have any analogue’s within the Gospels like this? I’m thinking Pharisee-Jesus interactions.


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