Rules and the unruly
Roman exemplary ethics
in Rules and ethics
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This chapter discusses the relationship between moral rules and virtue ethics as it appears in ancient Roman exempla. Exempla – heroic tales about their ancestors – were for Romans an important resource for moral learning and development. They most often illustrated, in heightened form, the tension between different values and obligations that moral life in practice entails: the patriotic Horatius killed his sister in a fit of rage at seeing her grief at the death of her fiancé, with whom Rome was then at war; the general Manlius Torquatus executed his son for disobeying his orders in bravely winning a challenge to single combat from a hostile warrior. Here rules, virtues and cases should be seen as complementary rather than contrary genres of moral thought. On the one hand, exempla seem to turn on the implicit moral imperatives generated by the virtues and vices of virtue ethics. On the other, they engage with the multiple rules of ancient Rome’s plurality of ethical systems, from the mos maiorum, ‘the custom of the ancestors’, to Roman law. Exempla often depict extreme scenarios based on agonising conflicts of conscience between different such obligations. The chapter argues that they were used as case studies for thinking through the complexities of the real-world application of rules. Exempla were thus not defined against a rule-based culture, but provided a space for engaging with it.