All entries for December 2017

December 15, 2017

Prudens Simplicitas: The Decline of Simplicitas

Simplicitas rudis ante fuit: nunc aurea Roma est

Et domiti magnas possidet orbis opes

(Ov. Ars 3, 113-4)

In Latin literature simplicitas was considered one of the most important features of elite Roman citizens. Romans were proud of their simplicitas (Lucr. 1, 548; 1, 574; 1, 609; 2, 157; Ov. ars. 3, 113; Val.Max 2, 5, 5; Plin. Nat. 35, 67).

Simplicitas, which appears for the first time in Lucretius may be translated as simplicity, or, in a moral sense, as frankness, innocence, and honesty. Ovid in Tristia 1, 5, 39-42 asserts that his simplicitas caused his exile:

Saepe fidem adversis etiam laudavit in armis,

Inque suis amat hanc Caesar, in hoste probat.

Causa mea est melior, qui non contraria fovi

Arma, sed hanc merui simplicitate fugam

Often faith even among his enemies in arms has been praised by Caesar; when it exists among his own, he loves it; in an enemy he approves it. My case is still more favourable since I did not nurse strife against him, but earned this exile by my simplicity.

The mistake(s) which led Augustus to exile Ovid has been endlessly discussed. Ovid often refers to it, but he is so vague that finding out the real cause is unrealistic.

In Ovid, as well as in the majority of Augustan poets, simplicitas has a negative and unforeseen outcome: it is responsible for his exile. In Horace (Sat. I, 3) simplicitas has a positive meaning only when it corresponds to the ideal of moderatio; Livy (40, 8, 2) admits that in his day only children could display sincerity.

Honesty and frankness make Ovid weak and exposed to the anger of Augustus. Despite Suetonius (Aug. 71, 1) once defining Augustus as simplex, Augustus did not appreciate this quality in the poet. Ovid is overly naïve and does not consider the effect of his disposition. In doing this, he is comparable with the female heroines of his myths. Despite her malignant attitude, Ovid defines Medea (alongside with Cidippe and Phillys) as simplex because she believes in Jason and subsequently loses everything.

Tacitus himself seems aware of the perils resulting from simplicitas (hist. 3, 86). Speaking of Galba, the historian describes the emperor as a man in possession of simplicitas et liberalitas, qualities which, Tacitus remarks, will prove the ruin of their possessor, if unchecked. Tacitus’ words here echo Seneca’s earlier advice: simplicitas is a double-edged sword.

In the preface to the fourth book of Naturales Quaestiones, Seneca identifies simplicitas as one of the strategies used by those who want to put on a pretense.

Seneca summarizes this ambivalence and develops the potential risks implicit in this concept: simplicitas is a weapon in the hand of adulators. In De Tranquillitate Animi (15, 1; 17, 2) the philosopher, aware of how difficult it is to find traces of simplicity, seems to miss the old simplicitas. The times are so degenerate as to be unable to find traces of simplicity. Ovid had already complained about the absence of simplicitas in Rome. According to Ovid (Ars 1, 237-242) what rare appearances of simplicity there were, were due to wine:

Vina parant animos faciuntque caloribus aptos:

Cura fugit multo diluiturque mero.

Tunc veniunt risus, tum pauper cornua sumit,

Tum dolor et curae rugaque frontis abit.

Tunc aperit mentes aevo rarissima nostro

Simplicitas, artes excutiente deo.

Wines give courage and make men apt for passion; care flees and is drowned in much wine. Then laughter comes, then even the poor find vigour, then sorrow and care and the wrinkles of the brow depart. Then simplicity, most rare in our age, lays bare the mind, when the god dispels all craftiness.


The idea that “in wine there is truth” is a topos, already observed in Plato (leg. I, 649 a-b) and recurs also in Horace (sat. I, 4; epist. 1, 18) and in Diodorus Siculus (XX, 63, 1) (Ferrero, 1979: 56).

However, in Seneca’s view, it would be anachronistic to reintroduce simplicity: the philosopher is conscious that simplicitas would be unsafe (parum tuta simplicitas) at the imperial court. In his writings simplicity is on the opposite pole to dishonesty: ideally, simplicitas must be preferred to simulatio, nevertheless at the imperial court it is better to put on an act than to be frank. In De Ira Seneca refers to the historical exempla of men who, refusing honesty (simplicitas), don a mask in order to be disingenuous, nevertheless the Stoic philosopher justifies them.

Martial (epigr. 10, 47) identifies a series of specific features that make life happy: amongst them, he includes the ability to purposefully adopt simplicitas (prudens simplicitas).

Simplicitas went from being one of the most well-respected hallmarks of the ancient Romans to a sign of questionable moral character; a good quality which came to imply pernicious consequences. Due to this, if people still possessed a natural predisposition to simplicitas, they had to be able to moderate it. In the Roman Empire simplicity was allowed only if checked.

Select Bibliography:

Barchiesi, A. The prince and the poet: Ovid and Augustan Discourse (Berkeley-Los Angeles-London, 1997)

Ferrero, A.M. Simplicitas in Cicerone (AAT, 110, 1976b: 53-69)

Ferrero, A.M. Il concetto di simplicitas negli autori augustei (BStudLat 9, 1979: 52-59)

Ferrero, A.M. La simplicitas nell'età Giulio-Claudia (AAT 114, 1980: 127-154)

Rudich, V. Political Dissidence under Nero: The Price of Dissimulation (London, 1993)

Rudich, V. Dissidence and Literature under Nero: The Price of Rhetoricization (London, 1997)

Roller, M.B. Constructing Autocracy: Aristocrats and Emperors in Julio-Claudian Rome (Princeton-Oxford, 2001)

Currently, Martina is a PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick sponsored by the Wolfson Association. Her project investigates the discourse of flattery in Seneca’s philosophical texts, and analyses the extent to which Seneca developed a theory of adulation. More broadly, her interests within Classics focus on the Latin literature of the first century A.D. Along with Seneca, she works on Petronius and Lucan. She has a strong research interest in the connection between literature and history in Imperial Literature.Email:

December 2017

Mo Tu We Th Fr Sa Su
Nov |  Today  | Jan
            1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28 29 30 31

Search this blog


Most recent comments

  • Thinking back to my work on this ten years ago (Guilt by Descent, [Oxford, 2007]), this is a promisi… by Neil Sewell-Rutter on this entry
  • Really interesting! And so cringe–making to back at this car crash of a publicity stunt, not least b… by VR on this entry
  • While the premise of your is sound, I must note that your essay is horribly one–sided. Bear in mind,… by Craig Jacobs on this entry
  • Someone I am following on twitter featured your blog this morning but I am ashamed to say I cannot f… by Colin Gough on this entry

Blog archive

Not signed in
Sign in

Powered by BlogBuilder