exemplum / by Anthony Gibbins

Here is Livy on the virtues of writing and reading history: What chiefly makes the study of history wholesome and profitable is this, that you can behold the lessons of every kind of example set forth as on a conspicuous monument; from these you may choose for yourself and for your own state what to imitate, from these mark out for avoidance what is shameful in the conception and shameful in the result. And on writing on Rome specifically: For the rest, either love of the task I have set myself deceives me, or no state was ever greater, none more righteous or richer in good examples.

Now, while I don’t agree with Livy’s thoughts on Roman exceptionalism, I am interested in his thoughts on history; that it might provide examples to be followed or avoided, and that the value of a state’s history might lie in the examples that it offers. The Latin word that Livy is using here is exemplum.

Here is a selection of the meanings offered for exemplum in the Oxford Classical Dictionary; that which serves to exemplify, a typical instance or specimen, a precedent, an archetype, a pattern, an example for imitation, a warning example, a deterrent. And from Cassell’s; an example of what may happen, warning, object-lesson, an example to be followed, a model. This all reminds me of the title of a very good documentary series I once viewed: The Nazis: A warning from history.

Tucked away at the end of both dictionary entries is a much more prosaic definition for exemplum a copy. Both offer this quote from Cicero, litterarum exemplum tibi misi I have sent you a copy of the letter(s). This is the meaning I have in mind for today’s (and yesterday’s) page, as Miranda asks Marcellus to make an exemplum copy of the map.

‘Without a doubt,’ Marcellus replies confident, ‘I am able to do it.’ Marcellus, by quickly painting, makes an extremely similar copy. ‘Excellently [done]!’ Miranda says.