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The concept of improbitas in Plautus, Lucilius, and Cicero : improbi behaviours and their consequences in Roman society Krupkin, Anastasia


This study begins by demonstrating that there is a lacuna in our understanding of the Roman concept of improbitas. An overview of scholarship devoted to improbitas shows not only that there is a dearth of research on the subject, but that the approach to date has been misguided. The noun improbitas and its related adjectival and adverbial forms have been translated very freely and inconsistently, almost whimsically, and used as catch-all words that can take on a wide variety of vague meanings. My study investigates two main questions: what sorts of behaviours earn the label of improbus, and what are the consequences of those behaviours, that is, what does it mean to be improbus in Roman society? I start with a brief investigation of the plays of Plautus in order to examine improbitas in domestic settings. I demonstrate that the adulescens character has a limited understanding of improbitas in comparison with his father, the senex character, while the slave character’s view is influenced by that of the senex. The remainder of the study focuses on improbitas in public life. The fragments of Lucilius containing improbus or its forms are systematically divided into physical actions and speech acts in order to identify what kinds of behaviours are considered improbi: these are largely gluttony, greed, and harsh speech. I identify three major aspects of improbitas: that an improbus person transgresses standards and expectations; that by being associated with an improbus person it is possible to become improbus; and that the improbus person is unwanted and ultimately removed from the community. Finally, I use Cicero’s In Verrem to demonstrate how he specifically employs the word in order to persuade the judges to pass a guilty verdict. He indicates that a not-guilty verdict will associate the judges with Verres and cause them to become improbi in turn. By questioning Verres’ right to Roman ranks, by provoking the judges to label Verres for themselves, and by inflicting an aural bombardment of the ‘prob-’ root, Cicero leaves no doubt that Verres must be labelled improbus and as such, he must be exiled from the community.

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