Vice & Virtue
Author: Erin C. Harding, 1998
The history of ancient Rome was dominated by vicious events that lead to virtuous, profitable outcomes that significantly contributed to the evolution of the city and its society. These acts permeate the life of the city, influencing and enforcing changes in leadership, government, social morals and ideals. Virtuously idealized vicious acts begin with the founding of the city and continue through the Monarchy, Republic, and Imperial eras. In fact, the most significant events in the founding and refounding of Rome are of this sort. The founding of the city by Romulus, the founding of the Republic after the rape of Lucretia, and even the Neronian era recovery from the devastating fire can all be seen as vicious acts that had profitable outcomes and that are often looked back on as virtuous examples in Roman history.
Rome's vicious history grows from the fraternally bloody soil on which it was founded. Romulus, full of vice and anger derived from the jealousy tainting the relationship between him and his brother Remus, slew Remus on the spot where Rome's first hill now stands. This vicious act was attributed to Remus' alleged trespass in Romulus' territory. This fratricidal event was idealized by Romans for generations as a noble feat of virtue. Romulus set an ideal for civic pride when he pledged: "So perish whoever else shall overleap my battlements." (Livy 40) Romulus was seen as a moral exempla for his dedication to his city and his home. This ideal of intense civic pride and of protecting Rome even at the cost of one's own family continued throughout the cities history. From that point on, Romans were willing to fight to the death for their city, and they did so on many occasions in battles with surrounding municipalities including Alba and Veii, and against the Gauls and the Carthaginians.
As his tenure as leader of Rome continued, Romulus performed other vicious deeds that were later deemed well thought and virtuous. One such event was the rape of the Sabine women. In this episode, Romulus realized that Rome was severely short of wives so he lured women from neighboring areas with their families into the walls of Rome. When all was right, he and his men captured the young women and drove the rest of their families out. Romulus then, like all good Roman heroes, used rhetoric to alleviate the women's fears and to take controls of the situation. According to Livy he explained the situation to them and assured the women that as Roman wives they would be well loved and cared for. The women apparently understood and eventually agreed that Romulus had done the only thing he could to further the growth of his city. Once again, such a vicious act is remembered only as necessary and a tribute to the virtues of such a strong leader.
The city's history progressed through the monarchy lead by men full of vice and men full of virtue. During the reign of the seventh king, Tarquin the Proud, Roman citizens and the Senate were growing weary of the tyranny and bestiality of the monarch. But there existed no universal sentiment around which to rally, so Tarquin continued to reign ruthlessly. Tarquin's sons were no more virtuous than he, particularly his youngest son Sextus. It happened that Sextus met the wife of a friend by the name of Lucretia. Lucretia was a very chaste and virtuous woman. It was this virtue in addition to her beauty that fueled a lust for her in Sextus. He decided that he was determined to Œdebauch' her and visited her home with innocent pretenses one evening. He then attacked her, threatening death, which did not phase this virtuous woman. It was only when he threatened to destroy her honor did she give in to his lustful desires. This act shamed the chaste Lucretia who went to her father, husband and his friend Brutus to confess. Despite their noble assurances that she had done no wrong and that "it was the mind that sinned, not the body" (Livy 99) Lucretia killed herself as a lesson in virtue for all other women. Enraged by this wrong the men swore to end the reign and tyranny of Tarquin and his family. The city of Rome fell quickly behind their cause and the monarchy was overthrown. Brutus and Lucretia's father eventually were given control of the city and ushered in the Republican era. Once again in this significant point in Roman history, it can be seen that a vicious event, the rape of a woman, lead to a productive end and to a virtuous lesson for the Roman people. It demonstrated the virtues of chastity and honor, as well as the virtue of revenge where it is due. Once again Roman history turns vice into virtue.
The third and final event that I believe exemplifies the Roman ideal of turning vice into virtue involved the great fire during the Neronian era. Nero was essentially the Emperor of Vice. His life was lived from one debauchery to the next. Nero's reign was full of excesses, usually at for his own benefit. During his reign Rome suffered from a massive fire which destroyed ten of Rome's fourteen districts. (Tacitus 363) Thousands of people died, and those that survived were left homeless and hungry, their means of life destroyed in the fire. According to authors like Seutonius, Nero set fire to the city himself out of vice: "Pretending to be disgusted by the drab old buildings and narrow, winding streets of Rome, he brazenly set fire to the City." (Seutonius 230) Others claim that it was not Nero who set fire to the city, that he was in fact out of town when it started and rushed back as soon as he heard the news. Despite this apparent alibi and Nero's claims of innocence, it was rumored that while the fire was engulfing the city "Nero had gone on his private stage and, comparing modern calamities with ancient, had sung of the destruction of Troy." (Tacitus 363) But, no matter what or whom initially caused the fire, it was the good work Nero performed after the event that allow me to suggest it falls under the category of vice transformed into virtue. Before the fire, Rome was a poorly planned city, or rather it had grown wildly without a plan. The streets were narrow and indirect, the buildings were built in such a way that caused fire hazard (hence the rapid and thorough spread of destruction), and lacked amenities such as universal easy access to necessities such as clean water. After the fired Nero began to rebuild Rome with a plan. He designed it for accessibility, safety, as well as beauty. He funded the clearing of rubble, the building of wide streets at regular intervals and colonnades to line these streets. He provided incentive programs to people who completed houses and blocks by certain dates. (Tacitus 364) Despite all of the horrible things Nero did before and after this period of his reign, he turned a horrible event and a vicious reputation into an opportunity to rebuild the city of Rome into a more beautiful one. The new city he helped to (re)build helped define the beginnings of the Rome that is loved by its citizens and the citizens of the world today.
Romans frequently look back on the heroes and events of their city's past to identify virtuous qualities and actions. Frequently these virtues are defined not by good and wholesome events, but by vicious events or people full of vice that have been transformed into acts of virtue. Rome has been built on the ideal of grasping otherwise horrible events and turning them into progressive, prosperous and often pivotal moments in time. These transformed ideals were the building blocks of both the physical and social cities of Rome and thus the delicate interplay of vice and virtue forms the foundation of Rome as an ancient and modern city.
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