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Manifestum est non Naturam Defecisse sed Curam: Education and Identity in the Flavian Period

Samantha Breecher

University of Pennsylvania

The Flavian dynasty found itself in power by unprecedented means during the Roman imperial period. Armies could make emperors, and Vespasian became imperator after the rapid disposal of three emperors in 69 CE. From the beginning, then, it was imperative that Flavian efforts were concerned with creating a sense of unity and stability while also bolstering their authority. Vespasian, as an emperor without prestigious lineage (Suet., Vesp. 1), had to legitimize his dynasty in a way that would recursively support his claim to power, and certain ideological shifts had to take place concerning imperial elite Roman identity. This change can be witnessed not only in the construction of a new administrative elite (Mellor 2003) but also, as I argue in this paper, in literary discourse which deemphasizes the importance of one’s lineage and parentage and stresses the importance of one’s rearing and education.

I begin with Statius’s Silvae 4.5, in which Statius sings the praises of his friend, Septimius Severus. Statius, a Flavian supporter, reflects contemporary social mores, according to which elites attributed less prominence to descent and placed more value on elective relationships (Bernstein 2015). We get to the heart of what makes Septimius Severus so beloved among the Roman elites in Silvae 4.5.45-48. He is Italus as evidenced by his speech, mannerisms, and mentality. Although born in Libya, Severus grew up in Rome and was reared by the city. The poem is a wonderful example of the praise and prestige a provincial could attain in elite Roman social circles and demonstrates the social currency in one’s rearing, regardless of birth. Meanings are often contested in this poem (Shackleton Bailey 2015, Coleman 1988), and so I turn to a suggestive cluster of literary discourse on education, which demonstrates a similar partiality towards one’s upbringing rather than parentage. For example, in Institutio Oratoria, Quintilian emphasizes the vital importance of children’s nutrices, pueri, and paedagogi (Inst. 1.1.11). He rejects as false statement that the majority are not mentally capable of learning and explains that the proof of potential is frequently seen in children. It is not nature which fails them, but rather the care they receive (Inst. 1.1.2). Similarly, in Tacitus’s Dialogus, with a dramatic date set within the Flavian period (75 CE), Messalla, encouraged by Maternus to explain why their contemporaries fall short in eloquence of the old days, points first to the crucial role of the nurse in a child’s life (Dial. 29). In both Tacitus and Quintilian, these precepts are entangled with ideals about what it means to be a good Roman citizen.

I conclude that the literary discourse is consistent in its deemphasis of lineage and emphasis of education which reflects a changing ideology concerning Roman elite identity. This new identity aligns much more favorably with Flavian policy which must confront both a lack of prestigious lineage and the legitimization of a new dynastic power. 

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