wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Jon Lendon

Empire of Honour

Status in the Roman world carried a great variety of privileges: public donations were regularly organized such that important townsmen, or members of a guild, received more money or oil or biscuits; the unimportant, less. The big man was punished less severely than the little for the same crime. Where there were conflicting witnesses, the jurist told the judge to give greatest credence to prestige, and in Cicero's courtroom it was remarkable when the testimony of men of the greatest dignity was disregarded. To the most distinguished volunteer went the right to prosecute when there was more than one candidate for the job. In sum, as Pliny expressed the norm to a governor, 'Conduct yourself so that you maintain a distinction between ranks and honours.'

Alongside familiar social codes requiring deference to parents, hus- bands, and age, ancient aristocrats were especially bound by one requiring deference to honour. On the streets of Rome men uncovered their heads when a distinguished man passed. They greeted him first, dismounted at his approach, kissed his hand, or chest, or knee. They mentioned him with respect and praised him in speeches and writing, and offered him hospitality, since 'it is very appropriate that the houses of illustrious men lie open to illustrious guests'. When Cato the Younger departed from the theatre to avoid seeing an actor undress on stage, such was his maiestas (in Valerius Maximus' view) that the rest of the audience followed him out. Prestige elicited, indeed required, honour from those around it.

The honorific implications of a great deal of conduct can only be understood when the relative distinction of the two parties, and thus their duty of deference towards one another, is known. For if a man did more than deference required, that could be an honour; less, an insult. Thus an act of deference appropriate to a superior performed for an inferior was honorific: when the great Sulla rose and uncovered his head for the young Pompey, this was meant and perceived as a tremendous honour. On the other hand, for Julius Caesar to refuse to rise at the approach of the massed senate and magistrates was to snub them, for his act implied superiority. An inferior insulted a great Roman whose invitation to dinner he refused: 'Better to kill a man's brother than to refuse his invitation,' as Ammianus Marcellinus put it. Relative position denned where one kissed the great man: if he offered hand or knee to one whose honour entitled him to kiss the lip, that was an insult, as was to offer only half the lip. Indeed, to avoid insulting people, a great man would necessarily submit to being kissed by many repulsive and diseased lips. Postumus thought he was honouring Martial highly by offering him his lips to kiss, but Martial preferred to kiss his hand, not liking where the lips had been.

In addition to defining the degree of honour one man owed to another, the deference demanded by prestige also included obedience. Why did one man obey another? Among other reasons, 'on account of his being outstanding in prestige', said Cicero (or his ancient glossator). Naturally, therefore, in obedience to the dignity of those who asked him, Cicero took up the defence of Sextus Roscius of Ameria. In obedience to their honour as nobiles it was expected that Cicero would admit Lentulus and Cethegus into his house; thereupon they would kill him at Catiline's orders. When evil Romans tried to kidnap the daughter of Philodamus, 'by birth, office, wealth, and prestige easily the first of the citizens of Lampsacus', it seemed to Cicero that it was Philodamus' dignitas, and the greatness of the insult to it, that moved the citizens of the town to defend his house.

Why honour and obey prestige? At the conscious level, to refuse due deference was shameful; that is, the opinion-community of the aristocracy punished the perpetrator with dishonour. Plutarch warned against holding a dinner where places were not assigned: if everyone scrambled for seats, the eminent might fail to get places appropriate to their honour, they would be offended, and the host would seem gauche. At the same time, zealous deference—say, putting up a statue of a distinguished man—was esteemed in aristocratic society: it was a public virtue that was perceived to confer honour upon its practitioner. But deference was not, fundamentally, calculating. It was inculcated early, vigorously enforced in the household, and operated for the most part at an unconscious level. Bad conduct in the presence of prestige raised a blush, and, psychologically, it was much more difficult to refuse the requests of distinguished men than those of the obscure. When Scipio Nasica, surrounded by senators, rushed from the senate building to kill Tiberius Gracchus, no one dared oppose them, as Plutarch has it, 'because of the
worthiness of the men'. Instead, onlookers turned and fled, trampling one another. There is no calculation here, just ingrained—almost instinctive—action in the face of distinction.

The concept of auctoritas lay at the heart of this pattern of influence. One meaning of the word was that aspect of honour which required deference in aristocratic society. And whether deference was conscious or unconscious, it is not hard to see how a distinguished man could use it to get others to do his bidding: when a freedman, terrified by his patron's anger, secured the intercession of the celebrated Pliny the Younger for his forgiveness, Pliny wrote to his patron, 'I fear if I were to join my pleas to his, that I should seem to compel you rather than ask you; I do so none the less.' The recipient of the letter did as he was bid, and received another note, in which he was praised for 'yielding to my auctoritas, or, if you prefer, indulging my prayers'. Although he is civil enough to suggest a more flattering colour for the patron's act, Pliny clearly had a right to give orders and be obeyed in a matter such as this.