Ancient and modern

Modern historians take a Roman approach to history – whether they admit it or not

28 November 2020

9:00 AM

28 November 2020

9:00 AM

To what use does one put history? Romans thought it provided ‘lessons’. Modern historians rather sniff at the idea, but do in fact dance to the same tune.

For Romans, the study of history was all about discovering exempla(‘models, examples’) applicable to current circumstances. Indeed, Valerius Maximus (1st C ad) composed his Memorable Deeds and Sayings entirely out of historical exempla, as ‘torches or spurs that make humans burn with desire to help others and win their respect’.


This may seem charmingly naive, but consider two stories from the historian Livy. Manlius Torquatus, ordered by his father the consul not to leave his position, accepted a challenge from an enemy, won and returned in triumph. His father’s reaction? ‘Manlius, disrespecting both a consul’s authority and a father’s standing, you defied my orders. You could not have done more to subvert military discipline, the very heart of Rome’s success to this day.’ He ordered his execution, calling it a ‘sad but, for young men in the future, salutary exemplum’. Horatius (no, not that one) was one of a deciding, winner-takes-all three vs three team combat against the Curiatii. Rome went 3-1 down, but Horatius saved the day, killing all three Curiatii. Flushed with triumph, he heard his sister grieving because she was betrothed to one of them. Enraged at such ‘treason’, he slaughtered her. This was parricide, a dreadful crime, and he was brought to trial. After anguished soul-searching among both judges and people, he was eventually acquitted.

Here are Romans thinking not theoretically (like Greeks) but pragmatically, about what moral behaviour entailed. They well understood that life was not a simple business of right and wrong, and that heroic deeds on behalf of the community could have appalling consequences. What was one to make of them? Later writers often discussed such exempla.

For all their denials, then, are not historians also dealing in moral exemplawhen they lecture us about the evils of e.g. slavery and colonialism? Though it actually gets worse. Some also accuse us of being personally responsible for them. Romans would have been staggered that any intelligent person would buy this ludicrous non sequitur.

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