Empire of Honour by J. E. Lendon
Book Review by Ursus
Without taking a given culture’s values into account, any history of a nation might seem a haphazard catalogue of items. Politico-military events are important, as are biographies of key personalities, and finally economic concerns. However, a broader perspective is necessary to unite these various threads into a coherent picture. Human beings are just not creatures of war and commerce; they are products of a cultural impetus. For Romans, the central cultural imperative had always been honor. J. E. Lendon attempts to define this nebulous concept and elucidate its effects on Roman history. Specifically, he sees honor as the driving force through which the various Roman ruling classes were interwoven into the imperial government.
In his introduction, Lendon explains the other great achievements of the Romans – the army, bureaucracy, etc. – were necessary, but not sufficient, to maintain the health and unity of the Empire for so long. The Roman military and bureaucracy, respective to its population, was too small to fully ensure order. Laws are a unifying force – but those with wealth and power can make their own laws. Finally, some mention is made of the patron-client social contract which informed much of Roman thinking. Nonetheless, it seems evident the empire was more than a “colossal back scratching machine” between patrons and prospective clients. Lendon believes one crucial ingredient has been overlooked in our portrait of imperial society – how the cultural trait of honor influenced the agents of the empire.
In the modern West, one does not hear much talk of honor outside of a training ground for Marines. For us to understand the Romans, we have to jettison our own cultural understandings and adopt their mindset. Ancient Rome was what one might call a “prestige” society. Everyone was quite conscious of their place in the social hierarchy and sought constantly to elevate it. The strength, wealth and reputation of a man was his social currency. The Christian virtue of humility had not yet entered into the public conscious full force, much less the modern conceit of egalitarianism. That there was a social hierarchy was a given, and also given was the fact that those with any means to do so would jostle for a higher seat on the hierarchy. One sought unabashedly to be obeyed by one’s inferiors, to be accepted by one’s peers, and to be rewarded by one’s betters. To have glory and to rightfully enjoy it – that was honor in a nutshell.
With this in mind, Lendon focuses on how this force of honor motivated three key aspects of Roman government – the imperial court, the aristocrats and bureaucrats, and the military. The author uses innumerable examples from the literary and material history of Rome to clarify how these pillars interacted with each other and the general populace in the pursuit of honor. This cultural imperative was very much an invisible glue that held society together in a web of overlapping, reciprocal relationships. Honor was a two-way street. It encouraged those on the bottom rungs of the social ladder to obey their superiors. Yet it also inspired those at the top to conduct themselves in a way that benefited the empire as a whole - for personal integrity, martial valor, and public munificence were all considered paths to honor.
Lendon repeatedly refers to honor as a “fiction” (in postmodern language, what one might call a social construct). This “fiction” of honor was used by the ruling classes to manipulate the ruled, he says. The ruled, meanwhile, could also use the mass fiction of honor to delude themselves into thinking that there was worth in being conquered subjects. All of this is certainly true at times and to some degree. However, to reduce Roman perceptions of honor to mere class exploitation does not do justice to our cultural forebears. Theirs was a different worldview than ours, perhaps not better, but certainly not worse. To best understand the Romans, we cannot afford to be blinded by our own “social constructs” such as egalitarianism and our obsession with alleged oppression. Lendon does point out that the “fiction” of honor between ruler and ruled was preferred by both parties to naked displays of imperial power: “for although one form of power among many, honor was a fundamental way of thinking and talking about all forms of power.”
Lendon explains honor mostly in terms of the Greco-Roman experience. One might attempt to add honor as it was understood by the aristocracies of the other subject peoples, such as the Celts and Punics. However, Lendon does not dwell on this. I suppose it might have made the book too weirdly to expand the survey in this fashion, but it would make an intriguing subject for some other enterprising scholar.
For those who believe that Christianity had a hand in the downfall of the empire, there are brief but tantalizing passages that might be used as fodder. From this book’s perspective, the central effect of Christianity on the Roman empire was radically redefining the terms of honor. Christianity was not keen on the ancient values of pagan aristocracy. Indeed, there were elements of Christianity to suggest that wealth and martial valor were a definite impediment to spiritual progress. Christianity placed emphasis on humility, redemption and altruism. This obviously had a certain effect on Greco-Roman civilization – but the extent and manner of the effect is still open to debate. Lendon points out that centuries before Christianity, certain strands of Hellenistic philosophy were also becoming incompatible with traditional pagan concepts of honor. Therefore, if one condemns Christianity for unfavorably redefining concepts of honor, one must also lay some blame with its philosophical predecessors.
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The book itself makes for slow reading at times as the author infuses every page with copious amounts of detail. I stop short of calling it pedantic, but it dos not apologize for its thoroughness. Those wanting a more straightforward treatise on Roman politics may find the work dull and plodding. However, for those who admire Roman cultural values as well as Roman politics, this work may be considered a sound exploration of how the former influenced the latter. It is in this writer’s opinion that no true Romanophile – whether Pagan, Christian or Agnostic – should be without an understanding of what honor meant to our cultural forebears.