More than Roman Salt: Sallust, Caesar and Cato in Twelfth- and Early Thirteenth- Century Moral Thought

Philippa Byrne


This paper examines one of the ways in which the classical historian Sallust was read in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and what this reveals about medieval moral thought. In this period, Sallust’s discussion of the character and virtues of Julius Caesar and Cato the Younger became a focus for annotation and commentary. Caesar and Cato were read as the embodiment of contrasting, even opposed, ideas of moral virtue — one liberal and forgiving, the other just and unbending. As medieval commentators recognised, both men embodied Roman virtue, but neither could be straightforwardly imitated. Medieval authors who considered the deeds of these two great Romans were obliged to address how the exercise of virtue was conditioned by circumstance and emphasised the importance of heeding counsel and engaging in debate before taking action. As a result, moral thought in this period can be seen as more contingent and pragmatic and less absolutist than it is sometimes supposed to have been.


Sallust; julius Caesar; Cato the Younger; virtue; morality

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