Wednesday, January 29, 2020


Rebecca Langlands, Exemplary Ethics in Ancient Rome. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. 336. ISBN 9781107040601. $99.00.

Reviewed by Matthew Roller, Johns Hopkins University (

Version at BMCR home site

In her splendid book on Roman exemplary ethics, Rebecca Langlands tellingly remarks that she required more than two decades to produce it. I experienced a moment of recognition as a fellow-toiler in this field, whose book on Roman exemplarity also appeared in mid-2018 and itself required decades of effort: this is exactly how it is to work with this vast, formless, and intractable material, to try to grasp its scope and implications, and to give it structure.1

Langlands' book builds upon her earlier publications to create a more general picture of the "exemplary terrain" on which Romans operated. An introduction and 13 thematic chapters address a range of interrelated questions within exemplary ethics. The chapters' topics are varied but connected. Extensive discussion of the figures of Mucius Scaevola, Marcus Curtius, Regulus, and Titus Manlius Torquatus span multiple chapters and provide continuity. Also, Langlands everywhere presses home her overarching contention that exempla are, at all times, living and emotionally resonant touchstones for moral thought, providing rich and complex scenarios through which Romans could think out the conflicts and tradeoffs that accompany moral reasoning and action. Indeed, she insists (pp. 4-5) that the ethical function of exempla is their primary function in Roman culture. Finally, the book is avowedly a literary study: Langlands keeps her focus firmly on literary texts and the catchment of consumers that such texts can reach, though many of the figures she treats also leave traces in other media.

Chapter 1, "Roman values and the archetypal exemplum," offers an overview of the moral functioning of exempla. Descriptions of the story patterns associated with three figures, Mucius Scaevola, Marcus Curtius, and Valerius Corv(in)us, illustrate the main components Langlands regards as typifying the exemplary moral tale: the hero, the story, and the moral, the latter of which insists on the hero's embeddedness in a community and subjection to its values. Langlands emphasizes the variability among individual renditions of any given hero's story: while some elements persist, remarkable divergences are also found. Points of consensus and points of divergence are both key to facilitating an exemplum's operation as a moral touchstone.

Chapter 2, "The special capacity of exemplary stories," argues that moral tales are the "lifeblood" of Roman moral thought. Comparanda from other cultures' moral story traditions illuminate how Roman tales might have worked. Based on this comparative evidence, Langlands stresses the multivalency of Roman exemplary tales—that embedded in their fabric are points of doubt, ambiguity, the opportunity to question whether the narrated deed was properly done, and so on—and that Roman moral thinking occurs precisely through such debates. This analysis, like other recent scholarship, stresses the moral openness (not prescriptiveness) of exemplary tales and the opportunities for developing and refining moral judgment that they afford.2

Chapter 3, "Exploitation, participation, and the social function of exempla," elaborates the themes of chapter two. A riveting discussion of exemplary heroic tales from Maoist China suggests that even stories generated within a state apparatus and imposed top-down give subaltern consumers the opportunity to interpret otherwise, or resist, or find countervailing elements in the stories that change their "intended" message. Exemplary tales always provide an excess of interpretive resources, permitting them to be understood in different ways by different users.

Chapter 4, "The experience of learning from exempla," explores the moral learning experienced by participants in exemplary practice. Langlands proposes that exempla first seek to arouse wonder and to inspire comparison. These stimuli may lead the learner to attempt to imitate or emulate the deed portrayed; they may also (or alternatively) lead him/her to grasp better the virtue instantiated in the exemplum, hence to develop her or his own capacity for ethical discrimination. For these processes to take place, she contends that exemplary deeds must purport to have happened in actuality, lest they lose their authority as precedent.3 Langlands delves into ancient theorizing on imitation and modeling, and addresses via Cicero and Seneca (with side glances at Aristotle and Kant) both how we "learn" from exemplary models in order to make cognitive and epistemological progress, and how such learning can go awry. Here she enters the realm of Roman "situation ethics," a topic she defined a decade ago in an influential article.

Chapter 5, "Multiplicity, breadth, diversity, and situational sensitivity in exemplary ethics," further develops "situation ethics." Langlands contends that lists of exempla gathered under a single moral category (as found, e.g., in Valerius Maximus) show readers that the moral category is constituted by a multiplicity of situations, actors, and nationalities. This display of variability helps readers develop the situational sensitivity necessary to judge a given situation correctly, and to "hit the target" in their own moral action.

Chapter 6, "Working consensus around Roman exempla," considers the question of what the participants in exemplary practice agree on. For there must be points of consensus—"common currency"—in any exemplary tradition, simply to have identifiable exempla to talk about in the first place. Langlands contends that this consensus includes agreeing to disagree: agreeing, that is, that any exemplum inherently contains morally indeterminate elements that are themselves essential to its moral operation. Further, exempla provide affordances by which people at every level of moral development and sophistication can engage with and benefit from them.

Chapter 7, "Indeterminacy of exempla: interpretation, motivation, and improvisation," offers a case study of how the consensus about the indeterminacy of moral meaning works in practice. Langlands examines the ways different authors treat the Mucius Scaevola exemplum in different rhetorical and philosophical contexts, focusing particularly on his alleged motives. Tracking representations of this exemplum from Cicero to late antiquity, Langlands shows how the story is adjusted so that the action becomes morally good in different ways (or, rarely, morally vicious or simply evacuated of moral content) in each context. The old tale is never fossilized, but is constructed afresh for each new context.

Chapter 8, "Sites of exemplarity: referentiality, memory, orality," introduces new terminology: a "site of exemplarity," modeled on the phrase "site of memory" employed by scholars of cultural memory, is an amorphous repository of sedimented cultural knowledge about an exemplary figure and deed, lodged partly in texts and monuments and partly in people's minds. Each new telling deriving from such a body of knowledge can be described as a "remediation"—the reinsertion of this knowledge into a medium in which others can access it. To illustrate the operation of a "site of exemplarity," Langlands offers detailed and fascinating discussion of the figure of Robin Hood—an excellent parallel for Roman exemplary figures, with the advantage that this legend (or "site of exemplarity") still continues to be "remediated" and is readily available for study.

Chapter 9, "The dynamics of cultural memory: forgetting, rupture, contestation," pursues the discussion of the "site of exemplarity," with a focus on how "remediations" may lead to rupture. In illustration, Langlands adduces the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline Hill, which came to be known in the middle ages as Constantine, with suitable backstories generated to account for the statue's existence in this form. Similarly, she shows how various elements enter and exit the Robin Hood story to meet evolving political and economic exigencies.

Chapter 10, "Changing sites of exemplarity: two case studies" considers further how exemplary tales change from one retelling to another. Langlands begins by making a compelling, if circumstantial, argument that the story of Mucius Scaevola's burning hand enters the tradition only in the mid-first century BCE, as an "explanation" for the cognomen that was already associated with the gens Mucia. This story then "stuck" and became central to the subsequent tradition. Langlands connects this development to a growing interest from the later Republic onward in matters of personal virtue, resilience, and resistance. Thus she speaks of "trends" and "social change" underpinning changes in exemplary tales.4

Chapter 11, "Diachronic overview of the exemplary terrain," pursues the question of how literary exempla, and the virtues and themes their remediations foreground, change from Sulla to Trajan. Langlands convincingly contends that exempla in general display somewhat different preoccupations in, say, Pliny's day than in Cicero's day, noting (e.g., p. 251) that these changes may follow the needs of the texts in which they are embedded. This chapter contains the book's most systematic survey of scholarly literature on Roman exemplarity—especially useful for a scholar seeking orientation into this field. Langlands also reiterates that scholars who attribute a "crisis of exemplarity" to this or that historical moment are actually noting a defining element of exemplarity as such—the inherent indeterminacy and moral ambiguity in the DNA of all exempla (cf. chapters 5-6).

Chapter 12, "Controversial thinking through exempla," analyzes specific literary texts to establish how authors marshal the built-in moral indeterminacy of exempla to stimulate debate and reflection. Here Langlands provides a particularly nice discussion (among others) of how Cicero in de Finibus deploys the figure of Titus Manlius Torquatus to bootstrap a philosophical debate he has constructed between Stoics and Epicureans regarding human motivation—personal interest or "pleasure" vs. serving the community and pursuing honor.

Chapter 13, "Literary and philosophical adventures in the exemplary terrain," is the last and longest chapter. Its main exhibit is extensive discussion of the exempla of Fabius Cunctator and Horatius the sister-killer. Again Langlands considers how authors mobilize the moral indeterminacies that constitute these exempla to advance literary and philosophical ends. Here she focuses on "dissenting voices," figures like Minucius in the Fabius tale who present counterarguments to the strategy and approach that will eventually prevail. Such voices, she argues, help bring the reader into the moment of decision-making, reminding them of the difficulty of establishing what is right to do in a particular circumstance. These analyses provide the book's concluding flourish; a very brief (3 pp.) "conclusion" reiterates with all brevity a few of the overarching themes.

A concise general index and index locorum provide real intellectual guidance to the book's main themes. One could wish for the table of contents to include chapter subsections, to provide a more complete overview of the structure and flow of topics. While I spotted a few typos and slips in translation, production is very clean.

This (dare one say) exemplary book enriches the study of Roman exempla and of exemplarity as such. It opens many paths of productive debate, and will provide a trove of ideas and prompts to further research.


1.   While Langlands and I have discussed our work and read one other's publications, our books developed independently. Their diverse organizational schemes attest to the material's protean quality.
2.   On p. 59 Langlands overstates (in my view) a supposed scholarly consensus that Roman exempla are "highly directive" and communicate clear, unambiguous moral messages (a consensus she rejects). I do not believe any such consensus has existed in recent decades. To my eyes Langlands' analysis here, and generally, swims with current scholarly tides rather than against them.
3.   This argument, also reprised in chapter 9, seems debatable. Some Roman exemplary narratives stress that the narrated deed is unlikely actually to have happened, yet the stories are (re)told anyway with reservations expressed. In modernity, philosophers construct overtly fictional scenarios as "thought experiments," aiming to effect precisely the cognitive and epistemological gains Langlands describes. A relation of analogy, rather than factuality, may suffice for exempla to be efficacious: see Steven Knapp, "Collective memory and the actual past," Representations 26 (1989): 123–49.
4.   I am dubious about connecting particular renditions of exemplary tales to overall social change or historical development. An author tailors a particular textual rendition of an exemplary tale to meet the needs of the specific literary context, and authors produce their texts in light of social and historical contingencies. But this suggests that the exempla included in these texts participate in the texts' rhetoric, logic, and histories, not that they have their own autonomous histories.

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