Saturday, April 12, 2014

On Roman purity of manners

We saw what it took to be a Roman soldier.  Here is what it took (one of the things) to be an upper-class Roman [from Heather, pages 16-18]:

“Symmachus [a Roman Senator] and his peers were acutely conscious of the weight of history accumulated in themselves and in their institution, and this too is clearly registered in the letters.  In a couple of them, Symmachus refers to the Senate of Rome as ‘the better part of humankind], pars melior humani generis.  And by this he didn’t mean that he and his peers were richer than anyone else, rather that they were ‘better’ human beings in a moral sense as well: greater in virtue. . . . [Symmachus’] letters give us unique insight into the self-image of personal superiority with which the Romans of Rome justified their wealth.  About one quarter of the nine hundred letters are recommendations, introducing younger peers to Symmachus’ grander acquaintances.  Virtues of one kind or another are bandied about: ‘integrity’, ‘rectitude’, ‘honesty’ and ‘purity of manners’ all recur at regular intervals.  This is no random collection of attributes: for Symmachus and his peers, there possession was explicitly linked to a particular type of education.

“The bedrock of the system was the intense study of a small number of literary texts under the guidance of an expert in language and literary interpretation, the grammarian.  This occupied the individual for seven or more years from about the age of eight, and concentrated on just four authors: Vergil, Cicero, Sallust and Terence.  You the graduated to a rhetor, with whom a wider range of texts were studied, but the methods employed were broadly the same.  Texts were read line by line, and every twist of language dutifully identified and discussed.  A typical school exercise would consist of having to express some everyday happening in the style of one of the chosen authors (‘Chariot race as it might be told by Vergil: Go’).  Essentially these texts were held to contain within them a canon of ‘correct’ language, and children were to learn that language – both the particular vocabulary and a complex grammar within which to employ it.  One thing this did was to hold educated Latin in a kind of cultural vice, preventing or at least significantly slowing down the normal processes of linguistic change.  It also had the effect of allowing instant identification.  As soon as a member of the Roman elite opened his mouth, it was obvious that he had learned ‘correct’ Latin.  It is as though a modern education system concentrated on the works of Shakespeare with the object of distinguishing the educated by their ability to speak Shakespearean English to one another.  To indicate how different, by the fourth century, elite Latin may have been from popular speech, the graffiti found at Pompeii – buried in the eruption of AD 79 – suggest that in everyday usage Latin was already evolving into less grammatically structured Romance.”

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