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Diachronicity and Metaphor in Roman Conceptions of Courage

William Short

Recent scholarship on Roman conceptions of courage has focused on virtus and its role in the dynamics of elite social competition. For example, McDonnell (2006) has demonstrated how virtus served as a locus for competitive, individualistic expression among the aristocracy of the late Republican and early imperial periods. Understood as martial prowess displayed in the service of the state, elites vied to advertise their virtus through funerary inscriptions, temple dedications, and images on coins. When under the principate this brand of martial “manliness” was appropriated by the emperor, virtus was reinterpreted as a moral value concept, opening up competition on a more “philosophical” level (see also Rosenstein 1990, Harris 2006, Noreña 2011).

By focusing on virtus, scholars have left important aspects of Roman culture’s concept of courage unexamined, however. To begin with, careful attention to Latin’s vocabulary of courage indicates that this category was in fact most regularly conceptualized in terms of animus. What’s more, the perspective of an embodied semantics (cf. Lakoff and Johnson 1980; Palmer 1996; Kövecses 2005) reveals that Latin speakers’ conceptualization of courage vis-à-vis animus was delivered largely metaphorically. Thus, Latin speakers imagine courage as a kind of object “given” or “served” to a person (cf., e.g. Ov. Met. 5.46–47, datque animos; Verg. Aen. 9.764, animumque ministrat), or as a substance that “fills” the body (e.g., Sil. Pun. 1.105, animos . . . implet). Courage may also be construed in terms of the spatial proximity of animus (e.g., Liv. AUC. 4.18.3, Romanis . . . animi accessere), or in terms of sharpening (e.g., 25.51.7, animos . . . acuebant). In another metaphor, courage is understood as a fire that “burns” the animus (e.g., Verg. Aen. 12.426, animos accendit). Or courage may be conceptualized through images of vertical orientation, structural integrity, visual prominence, and energetic motion, so that in Latin to be courageous is “to be with an upright animus (erecto animo esse)” or to “rise up with animus (animo adsurgere)” or to “lift up one’s animus (animum tollere, excitare)”; to embolden is to “make firm (confirmare)” or “make whole (integrare)” the animus; someone brave has an animus “standing forth (praestans)”, “towering (excellens)”, or “huge (ingens)”; or, equally, “quick (alacer)” or “active (strenuus)”.

Yet these metaphors are not all equivalent. The metaphors of vertical orientation, structural integrity, visual prominence, and energetic motion in particular can be distinguished in several ways. First, by their internal consistency: whereas the other metaphors draw on isolated images in characterizing courage alone, these metaphors recruit pairs of images toward the understanding of courage and cowardice. Second, by their figurative scope: whereas the other metaphors target conceptualization at a level of generality that includes, but is not limited to courage, these convey concepts of courage and cowardice specifically. Third, by their coherent motivation: whereas the other metaphors are independently grounded, these appear to emerge together from a specific context of human embodied experience – namely, the so-called “fight or flight response”. Fourth, and crucially, by their chronological range: whereas the other metaphors tend to be restricted to classical authors, these can be found structuring Latin’s semantic system already in the archaic period of the language. Furthermore, these metaphors provide the symbolic underpinnings for certain representations of courage and cowardice in the exempla tradition – especially in the legends of Horatius Cocles, Mucius Scaevola, and Manlius Torquatus – which imply the early existence of a model of courage in Roman society according to which courage is viewed not only as not individualistic but as in fact consisting in group belonging. Introducing a historical viewpoint into the study of Latin’s metaphors therefore enables us to uncover an overlooked archaic Roman “folk theory” of collective courage that stands in direct contrast to the competitive ethos of Republican virtus, as well as to provide empirical support for the notion, in cognitive semantics, that metaphor operates not only synchronically but also diachronically in cultural meaning making.

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The Anthropology of Roman Culture: Models, History, Society

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