Social Life During the Roman Republic




SOCIAL LIFE AT ROME IN THE AGE OF CICERO

Home | Prev | Next | Contents


THE GOVERNING ARISTOCRACY

Above the men of business of equestrian rank, in social standing though not necessarily in wealth, there was in Cicero's time an aristocracy which a Roman of that day would perhaps have found it a little difficult to explain or define to a foreigner. Fortunately all foreigners coming to Rome would know what was meant by the senate, the great council which received envoys from all nations outside the Empire; and the stranger might be told in the first place that all members of that august assembly, with their families, were considered as elevated above the equestrian order, and as forming the main body of the aristocracy proper. But if the informant were by chance a conservative Roman of old family, he might proceed to qualify this definition. "There are now in the senate," he might say, "plenty of men who are only there because they have held the quaestorship, which Sulla made the qualification for a seat, and there are many equites whom Sulla made into senators by the form of a vote of the people; such men, even the great orator Cicero himself, I do not reckon as really members of the nobility, because they do not belong to old families who have done the State good service in past time. They have no images of their ancestors in their houses; they come from municipal towns, or spring from some low family in the city; they may have raised themselves by their talents, perhaps only by their money, but they have no guarantee of antiquity, their names are not in our annals. All we true conservative Romans (and a, Roman is hardly a Roman if not conservative) profoundly believe that a man whose family has once attained to high public honour and done good public service, will be a safer person to elect as a magistrate than one whose family is unknown and untried--a belief which is surely based on a truth of human nature. I should count a man who happens not to be in the senate himself, for want of wealth or inclination, but whose family has its images and its traditions of great ancestors, as far more truly an "optimate" than most of these new men. Fortunately our most famous families, whose names are known all over the Empire, are still to be found in the senate, and indeed form a powerful body there, capable of resisting to the last the revolutionary dangers that threaten us. The people still elect to magistracies the Aemilii, Lutatii, Claudii, Cornelii, Julii, and many more families that have been famous in our history, and will, I trust, continue to elect them so long as our Republic lasts."[149]

There was indeed a glamour about these splendid names, as there is about the titles of our ancient noble families; their holders may almost be said to have claimed high office as a right, like the Whig families Of the Revolution for a century after their triumph. Though we may use the word in a wider sense in this chapter, these grand old families were the true aristocracy, and inspired just that respect in the minds of men outside their circle which is still so familiar to us in England. Cicero was to such men an "outsider," a novus homo; and the close reader of Cicero's letters, if he is looking out (as he should be) for Cicero's constantly changing attitude of mind as he addresses himself to various correspondents, cannot fail to see how comparatively awkward and stilted he often is when writing to one of these great nobles, with whom he has never been really intimate; and how easily his pen glides along when he is letting himself talk to Atticus, or Poetus, or M. Marius, men who were outside the pale of nobility. It is true that he is sometimes embarrassed in other ways when writing to great personages, as, for example, Lentulus Spinther, consul in 57, or to Appius Claudius, consul in 53; but had they been men of his own kind he never would have felt that embarrassment in the same degree. When writing to such men he rarely or never indulges in those little sportive jokes or allusions which enliven his more intimate correspondence, nor does he tell the truth so strictly, for they might not always care to hear it.

Here is a specimen which will give some idea of his manner in writing to an aristocrat: he is congratulating L. Aemilius Paullus, who secured his election to the consulship in the summer of 51 B.C.:

"Though I never doubted that the Roman people, considering your eminent services to the Republic and the splendid position of your family, would enthusiastically elect you consul by a unanimous vote, yet I felt extreme delight when the news reached me; and I pray the gods to render your official career fortunate, and to make the administration of your office worthy of your own position and that of your ancestors.... And would that it had been in my power to have been at home to see that wished-for day, and to have given you the support which your noble services and kindness to me deserved! But since the unexpected and unlooked-for accident of my having to take a province has deprived me of that opportunity, yet, that I may be enabled to see you as consul actually administering the state in a manner worthy of your position, I earnestly beg you to take care to prevent my being treated unfairly, or having additional time added to my year of office. If you do that, you will abundantly crown your former acts of kindness to me."[150]

This Aemilius Paullus, like Spinther and many others, belonged to a respectable but somewhat characterless type of aristocrat; these formed a considerable and a powerful section of the senate, where they were an obstacle to reform and administrative efficiency. They were really a survival from the old type of Roman noble, which had done excellent work in its day; men in whom the individual had been kept in strict subordination to the State, and whose personal idiosyncrasies and ambitions only excited suspicion. But towards the end of the Republican period the individual had free play; at no time in ancient history do we meet with so many various and interesting kinds of individuality, even among the nobilitas itself. This is not merely the result of the abundant literature in which their traits have come down to us; it was a fact of the age, in which the idea of the State had fallen into the background, and the individual found no restraint on his thoughts and little on his actions, no hindrance to the development of his capacity either for good or evil. Sulla, Catiline, Pompeius, Cato, Clodius, Caesar, all have their marked characteristics, familiar to all who read the history of the Roman revolution. Caesar is the most remarkable example of strong character among the men of high aristocratic descent, and it is interesting to notice how entirely he was without the exclusive tendency which we associate with aristocrats. He was intimate with men of all ranks; his closest friends seem to have been men who were noble. While the high aristocrats looked down as a rule on Cicero the novus homo, and for some years positively hated him[151], Caesar, though differing from him toto coelo in politics, was always on pleasant terms of personal intercourse with him; he had a charm of manner, a literary taste, and a genuine admiration for genius, which was invariably irresistible to the sensitive "novus homo." With Pompey, though he trusted him politically as he never trusted Caesar, Cicero was never so intimate. They had not the same common interests; Cicero could laugh at Pompey behind his back, but hardly once in his correspondence does he attempt to raise a jest about Caesar.

Thus in the governing or senatorial aristocracy we find men of a great variety of character, from the old-fashioned nobilis, exclusive in society and obstructive in politics, to the man of individual genius and literary ability, whether of blue blood like Caesar, or like Cicero the scion of a municipal family which has never gained or sought political distinction. But for the purposes of this chapter we may discern and discuss two main types of character in this aristocracy: first, that on which the new Greek culture had worked to advantage, not destroying the best Roman qualities, but drawing them into usefulness in new ways; secondly, that on which the same culture had worked to its harm by taking advantage of weak points in the Roman armour, sapping the true Roman quality without substituting any other excellence. We will briefly trace the growth of these two types, and take an example of each among Cicero's intimate friends, not from the famous personages familiar to every one, but from eminent and interesting men of whom the ordinary student knows comparatively little.

Ever since the Hannibalic war, and probably even before it, Roman nobles had felt the power of Greek culture; they had begun to think, to learn about peoples who were different from themselves in habits and manners, and to advance, the best of them at least, in wisdom and knowledge; and this is true in spite of the unquestioned fact that it was in this same era that the seeds were sown of moral and political degeneracy. We shall have abundant opportunity of noting the effects of this degeneracy in the last age of the Republic, but it is pleasant to dwell for a moment on that more wholesome Greek influence which enticed the finer minds among the Roman nobility into a new region of culture, stimulating thought and strengthening the springs of conduct.

Even the old Cato himself, most rigid of Roman conservatives, was not unmoved by this influence,[152] and it was to him that Rome owed the introduction of Ennius, the greatest literary figure of that age, into Roman society[153]. But the first genuine example of the new culture, of the Hellenic enthusiasm of the age, is to be found in Aemilius Paullus, the conqueror of Macedonia, a true Roman aristocrat who was delighted to learn from Greeks. Plutarch's Life of this man is a valuable record of the tendencies of the time. After his failure to obtain a second consulship, Plutarch tells us[154] that he retired into private life, devoting himself to religious duties and to the education of his children, training these in the old Roman habits in which he had himself been trained, but also in Greek culture, and that with even greater enthusiasm. He had about them Greek teachers, not only of grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy, but of the fine arts, and even of out-door pursuits, such as hunting (to which the Romans were not greatly addicted), and of the care of horses and dogs; and he made a point of being present himself at all their exercises, bodily and mental. The result of this wholesome Xenophontic education is seen in his son, the great Scipio Aemilianus, who was adopted into the family of the Scipios in the lifetime of his father. Whatever view we may take of this great man's conduct in war and politics, there can hardly be a doubt that the Romans themselves were right in treasuring his memory as one of the best of their race. When we put all the facts of his life together, from his early youth, of which his friend Polybius has left us a most beautiful picture,[155] to his sudden and probably violent death in the maturity of his powers, we are compelled to believe that he was really a man of wide sympathies, a strong sense of justice which guided him steadily through good report and ill, perfect purity of life, and hatred of all that was low and bad, whether in rich or poor. He was not, like his father, a Roman aristocrat patronising Greek culture;[156] in him we see a perfectly natural and mature combination of the noblest qualities of the Roman and the wholesomest qualities of the Greek. "It was an awakening truth," says a great authority, "in the minds of Romans like Scipio, that intellectual culture must be built upon a foundation of moral rectitude: and such a foundation they could find in the storehouse of their own domestic traditions."[157] When Cicero, who held him to be the greatest of Romans, wrote his dialogue on the State (de Republica), with the new idea pervading it of the moral and political ascendancy of a single man, he made Scipio the hero and the one ascendant figure in his work, and ended it with an imitation of the Platonic "myth," in the form of a "dream of Scipio."

Scipio gathered round him a circle of able and cultured men, both Roman and Greek, including almost every living Roman of ability, and among the Greeks the historian Polybius and the philosopher Panaetius, of whom we shall have more to learn in the course of this volume. Of this circle the best and ablest men of Cicero's earlier days were mentally the children, and his own views both of literature and politics were largely formed upon the Scipionic tradition. Indeed to understand the mental and moral furniture of the Roman mind in the Ciceronian age, it is absolutely necessary to study that of the generation which made that mind what it was; but here space can only be found to point out how the enlightenment of the Scipionic circle opened out new ways in manners, in literature, in philosophical receptivity, and lastly in the study of the law, which was destined to be Rome's greatest contribution to civilisation.

Manners, the demeanour of the individual in social intercourse, are a valuable index, if not an entirely conclusive one, of the mental and moral tone of society in any age. Ease and courteousness of bearing mean, as a rule, that the sense of another's claims as a human being are always present to the mind. Whatever be the shortcomings of the last age of the Republic, we must give due credit to the fact that in their outward demeanour towards each other the educated men of that age almost invariably show good breeding. It is true enough that public vituperation, in senate or law-courts, was a fact of every day, and the wealth of violent personal abuse which a gentleman like Cicero could expend on one whom for the time he hated, or who had done him some wrong, passes all belief.[158] But the history of this vituperation is a curious one; it was a traditional method of hostile oratory, and sprang from an old Roman root, the tendency to defamation and satire, which may itself be attributed in part to the Italian custom of levelling abuse at a public man (e.g. at his triumph) in order to avert evil from him.[159] To single out a man's personal ugliness, to calumniate his ancestry in the vilest terms,--these were little more than traditional practices, oratorical devices, which the rhetorical education of the day encouraged, and which no one took very seriously.[160] But we are concerned in this chapter mainly with private life; and there we find almost universal consideration and courtesy. In the whole of the Ciceronian correspondence there is hardly a letter that does not show good breeding, and there are many that are the natural result of real kindly feeling and true sympathy.

A good example of the best type of Roman manners is to be found in Plutarch's Life of Gaius Gracchus, the younger contemporary of Scipio, who had married his sister. Plutarch draws a picture of him so vivid that by common consent it is ascribed to the memoirs of some one who knew him. "In all his dealings with men," says the biographer, "he was always dignified yet always courteous"; that is, while he inspired respect, men felt also that he would do anything in his power for them. That this was said of him by a Roman, and not invented for him by Plutarch, seems probable because the combination is one peculiarly Roman; so Livy, when he wishes to describe the finest type of Roman character, says that a certain man was "haud minus libertatis alienae quam suae dignitatis memor."[161] This same combination meets us also in the little pictures of the social life of cultivated men which Cicero has left us in some of his dialogues. There the speakers are usually of the nobility, often distinguished members of senatorial families, as in the de Oratore, where the chief personae are Crassus, Antonius, and Scaevola, the conservative triumvirate of the day. They all seem grave, or but seldom gently jocular, respectful to each other, and perhaps a trifle tedious; they never quarrel, however deeply they may differ, and we may guess that they did not hold their opinions strongly enough to urge them to open rupture. We seem to see the same grave faces, with rather noses and large mouths, which meet us in the sculptures of Augustus' Ara Pacis,[162]--full of dignity, but a little wanting in animation.

There is one singular exception to the good manners of the period; but as the result rather of affectation than of nature, it may help to prove our rule. Again and again in Plutarch's Life of Cato the younger the mention of his rudeness proves the strength of the tradition about him. It was said that this lost him the consulship, as he declined to make himself agreeable in the style expected from candidates[163]. Even in a letter to Cicero, an old friend, though not actually rude, he is absurdly patronising and impertinent to a man many years his senior, and writes in very bad taste. Probably the enmity between him and Caesar arose or was confirmed in this way, as Cato always made a point of being rudest to those whom he most disliked. He fancied that he was imitating his great ancestor, and asserting the virtue of good old Roman bluntness against modern Greek affectation; he did not in the least see that he was himself a curious example of Roman affectation, shown up by the real amenities of intercourse, for which Romans had largely to thank Greece[164].

In literature too the average capacity of this aristocracy was high, though the greatest literary figures of the age, if we except Caesar, do not, strictly speaking, belong to it; Cicero was a novus homo, and Lucretius and Catullus were not of the senatorial order. But the new education, as we shall see later on, was admirably calculated to train men in the art of speaking and writing, if not in the habit of independent thinking; and among the nobles who reaped the full fruits of this education every one could write in Latin and probably also in Greek, and if he aimed at public distinction, could speak without disgracing himself in the senate and the courts. Oratory was, in fact, the staple product of the age, and the chief raison d'être of its literary activity. Long ago the practice had begun of writing out successful speeches delivered in the senate, in the courts, or at funerals; the means of publication were easy, as a consequence of the number of Greek slaves who could act as copyists, and thus oratory formed the basis of a prose literature which is essentially Roman,[165] rooted in the practical necessities of the life of the Roman noble, though deeply tinged with the Greek ideas and forms of expression acquired in the process of education in vogue. Treatises on rhetoric, the art of effective expression in prose, form an important part of it; two of them still survive from the time of Sulla,--the Rhetorica ad Herennium of an unknown author, and Cicero's early treatise de Inventione. Later on Cicero wrote his admirable dialogue de Oratore and other works on the same subject, ending with his Brutus, a catalogue raisonnée, invaluable to us, of all the great Roman orators down to his own time.

In history writing the standard was not so high. The rhetorical education made men good professional orators, but indifferent and dilettante historians, and the example of more accurate historical investigation and reflection set by Polybius was not followed, except perhaps by Caelius Antipater in the Gracchan age.[166] History was affected for the worse by the rhetorical art, as indeed poetry was destined also to be; Sallust, though we owe much to him, was in fact an amateur, who thought more of style and expression than of truth and fact. Caesar, who did not profess to be a historian, but only to provide the materials for history,[167] stands alone in making facts more important than words, and rarely troubles his reader with speeches or other rhetorical superfluities.[168] Biographies and autobiographies were fashionable; of the former only those of Cornelius Nepos, one of Cicero's many friends, have come down to us, and none of the latter, but we know a long list of eminent men who wrote their own memoirs, including Catulus the elder, Rutilius the famous victim of equestrian judges, Sulla, and Lucullus. But far above all other prose writers of the age stand two men, neither of them Roman by birth, but yet members of the senatorial order; the one a man of encyclopaedic learning, with what we may almost call a scientific interest in the subjects which he treated in awkward and homely Latin, the other a man of comparatively little learning, but gifted with so exquisite a sense of the beautiful in expression, and at the same time with a humanity so real and in that day so rare, that it is not without good cause that he has recently been called the most highly cultured man of all antiquity.[169] Of Varro's numerous works we have unluckily but few survivals; of Cicero's we have still such a mass as will for ever provide ample material for studying the life, the manners, the thought of his day.

A large part of this mass consists of the correspondence of which we are making such frequent use in these chapters. Letter-writing is perhaps the most pleasing and genuine of all the literary activities of the time; men took pains to write well, yet not with any definite prospect of publication, such as was the motive a century later in the days of Seneca and Pliny. The nine hundred and odd letters of the Ciceronian collection are most of them neither mere communications nor yet rhetorical exercises, but real letters, the intercourse of intimate friends at a distance, in which their inmost thoughts can often be seen. Cicero is indeed apt to become rhetorical even in his letters, when writing under excitement about politics; but the most delightful letters in the collection are those in which he writes to his friends in happy and natural language of his daily life and occupations, his books, his villas, his children, his joys and sorrows. It is strange that the great historian of Rome in our time entirely failed to see the charm and the value of these letters, as of all Cicero's writings; his countrymen have now agreed to differ from him, and to restore a great writer to his true position.

In philosophical receptivity too the brightest and finest minds among this aristocracy show an ability which is almost astonishing, when we consider that there had been no education in Rome worth the name until the second century B.C.[170] I use the word receptivity, because the Romans of our period never really learnt to think for themselves; they never grappled with a problem, or struck out a new line of thought. But so far as we can judge by Cicero's philosophical works, the only ones of his age which have come down to us, the power to read with understanding and to reproduce with skill was unquestionably of a high order. The opportunities for study were not wanting; private libraries were numerous, and all Cicero's friends who had collected books were glad to let him have the use of them.[171] Greek philosophers were often domesticated in wealthy families, and could discourse with the statesman when he had leisure from public business. Much of this was no more than fashion, and real endeavour and earnestness were rare; but the fact remains that one philosophical system, more especially on its ethical side, took real possession of the best type of Roman mind, and had permanent and saving influence on it.

Stoicism was brought to Rome by Panaetius of Rhodes, the intimate friend of Scipio, a mild and tactful Greek whose Rhodian birth gave him perhaps some advantage in associating with the old allies of his state. He came to Rome at a critical moment, when even the best men were drifting into pure material self-seeking; and the results of his teaching were during two centuries so wholesome and inspiring that we may almost think of him as a missionary. The ground had been prepared for him in some sense by Polybius, who introduced him to Scipio and his circle, and who was then engaged in writing his history. From Polybius the Romans, the best of them at least, first learnt to realise their own empire and the great change it had wrought in the world; to think about what they had done and the qualities that enabled them to do it. From Panaetius they were to learn a philosophical creed which might direct and save them in the future, which might serve as ballast in public and private life, just when the ship was beginning to drift in moral helplessness. He was the founder of a school of practical wisdom, singularly well adapted to the Roman character and intellect, which were always practical rather than speculative; and far better suited to ordinary human life than the old rigid and austere Stoic ethics, of which the younger Cato was the only eminent Roman disciple. From what we know of Panaetius' ethical teaching,--and in the first two books of Cicero's work, de Officiis, we have a fairly complete view of it,--we do not find the old doctrine that absolute wisdom and justice are the only ends to pursue, and everything else indifferent; a doctrine which put the old-fashioned Stoic out of court in public life. The relative element, the useful, played a great part in the teaching of Panaetius. Though his system is based on the highest principles to which moral teaching could then appeal, it did not exclude the give and take, the compromise without which no practical man of affairs can make way, nor yet the wealth and bodily comforts that secure leisure for thought.[172]

Panaetius' mission was carried on by another Rhodian philosopher, the famous Posidonius, who lived long enough to know Cicero himself and many of his contemporaries; a man less inspiring perhaps than Panaetius, but of greater knowledge and attainment; a traveller, geographer, and a man of the world, whose writings on many subjects, though lost to us, really lie at the back of a great part of the Roman literary output of his time.[173] He was the disciple of Panaetius; envoy from Rhodes to Rome in the terrible year 86; and later on the inmate of Roman families, and the admired friend of Cicero Pompeius, and Varro. Philosophy was only one of the many pursuits of this extraordinary man, whose literary and historical influence can be traced in almost every leading Roman author for a century at least; but his philosophical importance was during his lifetime perhaps predominant. The generation that knew him was rich in Stoics; for example, Aelius Stilo, the master of Varro, "doctissimus eorum temporum," as Gellius calls him;[2] Rutilius, who was mentioned just now as having written memoirs; and among others probably the great lawyer Mucius Scaevola. Cato, as we have seen, was not a follower of the Roman school of Stoicism, but of the older and uncompromising doctrine; but Cicero, though never a professed Stoic, was really deeply influenced, and towards the end of his life almost fascinated, by a creed which suited his humanity while it stimulated his instinct for righteousness.[174] And, like Cicero, many other men of serious character felt the power of Stoicism almost unconsciously, without openly professing it.

Stoicism then was in several ways congenial to the Roman spirit, but in one direction it had an inspiring influence which has been of lasting moment to the world. Up to the time of Panaetius and the Scipionic circle the Roman idea and study of law had been of a crabbed practical character, wanting in breadth of treatment, destitute of any philosophical conception of the moral principles which lie behind all law and government. The Stoic doctrine of universal law ruling the world--a divine law, emanating from the universal Reason--seems to have called up life in these dry bones. It might be held by a Roman Stoic that human law comes into existence when man becomes aware of the divine law, and recognises its claim upon him. Morality is thus identical with law in the widest sense of the word, for both are equally called into being by the Right Reason, which is the universal primary force.[175] It is not possible here to show how this grand and elevating idea of law may have affected Roman jurisprudence, but we will just notice that the first quasi-philosophical treatment of law is found following the age of Panaetius and the Scipionic circle; that the phrase ius gentium then begins to take the meaning of general principles or rules common to all peoples, and founded on "natural reason";[176] and that this led by degrees to the later idea of the Law of Nature, and to the cosmopolitanism of the Roman legal system, which came to embrace all peoples and degrees in its rational and beneficent influence. If the Greek had a genius for beauty, and the Jew for righteousness, the Roman had a genius for law; and the power of Stoicism in ennobling and enriching his native conception of it is probably not to be easily over-estimated.

Thus behind the stormy scenes of public life in this period there is a process going on which will be of value not only to the Roman Empire but to modern civilisation. It was carried on more especially by two men of the highest character, Q. Mucius Scaevola, Cicero's adviser in his early days, and often his model in later life; and Servius Sulpicius Rufus, his exact contemporary and lifelong friend. Neither Scaevola nor Sulpicius were, so far as we know, professed disciples of Stoicism; but that they applied perhaps half unconsciously the principles of Stoicism to their own legal studies is almost certain. The combination of legal training and Stoic influence (whether direct or unconscious) seems to have been capable of bringing the Roman aristocratic character to a high pitch of perfection; and it will be pleasant to take this friend of Cicero, whose public career we can clearly trace, and one or two of whose letters we still possess, as our example of a really well spent life in an age when time and talent were constantly abused and wasted.

Sulpicius and Cicero were born in the same year, 106; they went hand in hand in early life, and remained friends till their deaths in 43, Sulpicius dying a few months before Cicero. They were both attached in early youth to the Scaevola just mentioned, the first of the great series of scientific Roman lawyers. But the consulship of Cicero made a wide divergence in their lives. In that year Sulpicius was a candidate for the consulship and failed; and then, resigning further attempts to obtain the highest honour, he retired for the next twelve years into private life, devoting himself to the work which has made his name immortal. His writings are lost; nothing remains of them but a few chance fragments and allusions; but he was reckoned the second of the great writers on legal subjects, and it is probable that he contributed as much as any of them to the work of making Roman law what it has been as a power in the world, a factor in modern civilisation. For he treated it, as his friend said of him,[177] with the hand and mind of an artist, laying out his whole subject and distributing it into its constituent parts, by definition and interpretation making clear what seemed obscure, and distinguishing the false from the true in legal principle. In the splendid panegyric pronounced on him in the senate after his death,[178] Cicero again emphatically declared him to be unrivalled in jurisprudence. In beautiful but untranslatable language he claims that he was "non magis iuris consultus, quam iustitiae,"--an encomium which all great lawyers might well envy; he aimed rather at enabling men to be rid of litigation than at encouraging them to engage in it.

From such passages we might conjecture, even if we knew nothing more about him, that Sulpicius was a man of very fine clay, of real humanitas in the widest sense of that expressive word; and this is entirely borne out in other ways.[179] Emerging at last from retirement, he stood again for the consulship in 52 B.C., and was elected. The year of his office, 51, was the first in which the enemies of Caesar, with Cato at their head, began to attack his position and clamour for his recall from his command; this violent hostility Sulpicius tried, not without temporary success, to restrain, and the fact that a man of so just a mind should have taken this line is one of the best arguments for the reasonableness of Caesar's cause.[180] When war broke out he was greatly perplexed how to act; his breadth of view made decision difficult, and he seems to have been at all times more a student than a man of action. With some heart-burnings he joined Caesar in the struggle, and accepted from him the government of Achaia; it was at this time that he wrote the famous letter of consolation to Cicero on the death of his beloved daughter Tullia, which is full of true feeling and kindliness, though evidently composed with effort, if not with difficulty. After Caesar's death he of course acted with Cicero against Antony, and in the spring of 43, making always for peace and good-will, he gave his life for his country in a way that claims our admiration more really than the suicide of Cato the professional Stoic; he headed an embassy to Antony, though dangerously ill at the time, and died in this last effort to obtain a hearing for the voice of justice. He has a monumentum aere perennius in the speech of his old friend urging the senate to vote him a public funeral and a statue, as one who had laid down his life for his country.

We must now turn to consider how the mischievous side of the new Greek culture, in combination with other tendencies of the time, found its way into weak points in the armour of the Roman aristocracy.

The pursuit of ease and pleasure, to which the attainment of wealth and political power were too often merely subordinated, is a leading characteristic of the time. It is seen in many different forms, in many different types of character; but at the root of the whole corruption is the spirit of the coarser side of Epicureanism. As with Roman Stoicism, so too with Roman Epicureanism, it is not so much the professed holding of philosophical tenets that affected life; in the case of the latter system, it was the coincidence of its popularity with the decay of the old Roman faith and morality, and with the abnormal opportunities of self-indulgence. Cato as a professed Stoic, Lucretius as an enthusiastic Epicurean, stand quite apart from the mass of men who were actuated one way or the other by these philosophical creeds. The majority simply played with the philosophy, while following the natural bent of their individual character; but such dilettanteism was often quite enough to affect that character permanently for good or evil.

"Epicureanism popularised inevitably turns to vice." Was it really popular at Rome? Cicero tells us in a valuable passage[181] that one Amafinius had written on it, and that a great number of copies of his book were sold, partly because the arguments were easy to follow, partly because the doctrine was pleasant, and partly too because men failed to get hold of anything better. The date of this Amafinius is uncertain, but it is probable that Cicero is here speaking of the latter part of the second century B.C.; and he goes on to say that other writers took up the same line of teaching, and established it over the whole of Italy (Italiam totam occupaverunt). If this was in the time of the Social and Civil Wars, of the proscriptions, of increasing crime and self-seeking, we can well understand that the doctrine was popular. We have a remarkable example of it in the life of a public man of Cicero's own time, the object of the most envenomed invective that he ever uttered.[182] We cannot believe a tithe of what he says about this man, Calpurnius Piso, consul in 58; but in this particular matter of the damage done him by Epicurean teaching we have independent evidence which confirms it. Piso, then a young man, made acquaintance with a Greek of this school of thought, learnt from him that pleasure was the sole end of life, and failing to appreciate the true meaning and bearing of the doctrine, fell into the trap. It was a dangerous doctrine, Cicero says, for a youth of no remarkable intelligence; and the tutor, instead of being the young man's guide to virtue, was used by him as an authority for vice.[183] This Greek was a certain Philodemus, a few of whose poems are preserved in the Greek Anthology; and a glance at them will show at once how dangerous such a man would be as the companion of a Roman youth. He may not himself have been a bad man--Cicero indeed rather suggests the contrary, calling him vere humanus--but the air about him was poisonous. In his pupil, if we can trust in the smallest degree the picture drawn of him by Cicero, we may see a specimen of the young men of the age whose talents might have made them useful in the world, but for the strength of the current that drew them into self-indulgence.

Not only the pursuit of pleasure, but its correlative, the avoidance of work and duty, can be abundantly illustrated in this age; and this too may have had a subtle connexion with Epicurean teaching, which had always discouraged the individual from distraction in the service of the State, as disturbing to the free development of his own virtue. Sulla did much hard work, but made the serious blunder of retiring to enjoy himself just when his new constitutional machinery needed the most careful watching and tending. Lucullus, after showing a wonderful capacity for work and a greater genius for war than perhaps any man of his time, retired from public life as a millionaire and a quietist, to enjoy the wealth that has become proverbial, and a luxury that is astonishing, even if we make due allowance for the exaggeration of our accounts of it. To his library we have already been introduced; those who would see him in his banqueting-hall, or rather one of the many in his palace, may turn to the fortieth chapter of Plutarch's most interesting Life of him, and read the story there told of the dinner he gave to Cicero and Pompeius in the "Apollo" dining-room.[184]

The same cynical carelessness about public affairs and neglect of duty, as compared with private ease or advantage, seems to have been characteristic of the ordinary senator. Active and busy in his own interest, he was indifferent to that of the State. There are distinct signs that the attendance in the senate was not good. When Cicero was away in Cilicia his correspondent writes of difficulties in getting together a sufficient number even for such important business as the settlement of provincial governments.[185] On the other hand, much private business was done, and many jobs perpetrated, in a thin senate; in 66 a tribune proposed that no senator should be dispensed from the action of a law unless two hundred were present.[186] It was in such a thin senate, we may be sure, that the virtuous Brutus was dispensed from the law which forbade lending to foreign borrowers in Rome, and thus was enabled to lend to the miserable Salaminians of Cyprus at 48 per cent, and to recover his money under the bond.[187] Writing to his brother in December 57, Cicero speaks of business done in a senate full for the time of year, which was midwinter, just before the Saturnalia, when only two hundred were present out of about six hundred. In February 54, a month when the senate had always much business to get through, it was so cold one day that the few members present clamoured for dismissal and obtained it.[188] And when the senate did meet there was a constant tendency to let things go. No reform of procedure is mentioned as even thought of, at a time when it was far more necessary than in our Parliament; business was talked about, postponed obstructed, and personal animosities and private interests seem, so far as we can judge from the correspondence of the time, to have been predominant. With wearisome iteration the letters speak of nothing done, of business postponed, or of the passing of some senatus consultum, the utter futility of which is obvious even now.[189] Even the magistrates seem to have been growing careless; we hear of a praetor presiding in the court de repetundis who had not taken the trouble to acquaint himself with the text of the law which governed its procedure;[190] and that praetors were worse than careless about their action in civil cases is proved by another law of the same tribune Cornelius mentioned just now, "that praetors should abide by the rules laid down in their edicts."[191]

But all these futilities, and much of the same kind outside of the senate, together with the quarrels of individuals, the chances and incidents of elections, and all such gossip as forms the staple commodity of the society papers of to-day, were a source of infinite delight to another type of pleasure-loving public man, the last to be illustrated here.

If the older noble families were apathetic and idle, there were plenty of young men, rising most often from the class below, whose minds were intensely active--active in the pursuit of pleasure, but pleasure in the comparatively harmless form of amusement and excitement. One of these, the son of a banker at Puteoli, Marcus Caelius Rufus, stands out as a living portrait in his own letters to Cicero, of which no fewer than seventeen are preserved.[192] Of his early years too we know a good deal, told us in the speech in defence of him spoken by Cicero in the year 56; and these combined sources of information make him the most interesting figure in the life of his age. M. Boissier has written a delightful essay on him in his Cicéron et ses amis, and Professor Tyrrell has done the like in the introduction to the fourth volume of his edition of Cicero's letters; but they have treated him less as a type of the youth of his day than as the friend and pupil of Cicero. Caelius will always repay fresh study; he was amusing and interesting to his contemporaries, and so he will be for ever to us. He is a veritable Proteus--you never know what shape he will take next;

Omnia transformat sese in miracula rerum----

we can trace no less than six such transformations in the story of his life. And this instability, let us note at once, was not the restlessness of a jaded roué, but the coruscation of a clever mind wholly without principle, intensely interested in his monde, in the life in which he moved, with all its enjoyment and excitement.

Caelius' father brought his son to Cicero, as soon as he had taken his toga virilis, to study law and oratory, and Cicero was evidently attracted by the bright and lively boy; he never deserted him, and the last letter of Caelius to his old preceptor was written only just before his own sad end. But Cicero was not the man to keep an unstable character out of mischief; he loved young men, especially clever ones, and was apt to take an optimistic view of them, as he did of his own son and nephew. Caelius, always attracted by novelty, left Cicero and attached himself to Catiline; and for this vagary, as well as for his own want of success in controlling his pupil, Cicero rather awkwardly and amusingly apologises in the early chapters of his speech in his defence. Wild oats must be sown, he says; when a youth has given full fling to his propensities to vice, they will leave him, and he may become a useful citizen,--a dangerous view of a preceptor's duty, which reminds us of the treatment, of the boy Nero by his philosopher guardian long afterwards.[193]

Caelius escaped the fate of Catiline and his crew only to fall into the hands of another clique not less dangerous for his moral welfare. He became one of a group of brilliant young men, among whom were probably Catullus and Calvus the poets, who were lovers, and passionate lovers, of the infamous Clodia; they were needy, she found them money, and they hovered about her like moths about a candle. In such a life of passion and pleasure quarrels were inevitable. If the Lesbia of Catullus be Clodia, as we may believe, she had thrown the poet over with a light heart. It was apparently of his own free will that Caelius deserted her: in revenge she turned upon him with an accusation of theft and attempt to poison. What truth there was in the charges we do not really know, but Cicero defended him successfully, and in this way we come to know the details of this unsteady life.

In gratitude, and possibly in shame, Caelius now returned to his old friend, and abandoned the whole ring of his vicious companions for diligent practice in the courts, where he obtained considerable fame as an orator. A fragment of a speech of his preserved by Quintilian shows, as Professor Tyrrell observes, wonderful power of graphic and picturesque utterance.[194] Cicero, writing of him after his death,[195] says that he was at this time on the right side in politics, and that as tribune of the plebs in 56 he successfully supported the good cause, and checked revolutionary and seditious movements. All was going well with him until Cicero went as governor to Cilicia in 51. Cicero seems to have felt complete confidence in him, and invited him to become his confidential political correspondent; fifteen out of his seventeen letters were written in this capacity. These letters show us the man as clearly as if we had his diary before us. Caelius is no idle scamp or lazy Epicurean; his mind is constantly active: nothing escapes his notice: the minutest and most sordid things delight him. He is bright, happy, witty, frivolous, and doubtless lovable. It is amusing to see how Cicero himself now and again catches the infection, and tries (in vain) to write in the same frivolous manner.[196] Caelius has some political insight; he sees civil war approaching, but he takes it all as a game, and on the eve of events which were to shake the world he trifles with the symptoms as though they were the silliest gossip of the capital.[197] In none of these letters is there the smallest vestige of principle to be found. On the very eve of civil war he tells Cicero[198] that as soon as war breaks out the right thing to do is to join the stronger side. Judging Caesar's side to be the stronger, he joined it accordingly, and did his best to induce Cicero to do the same. As M. Boissier happily says, he never cared to "ménager ses transitions."

He had, however, to discover that if to change over to Caesar was the safer course, to turn a political somersault once more, to try and undermine the work of the master, meant simply ruin. We have the story of his sixth and last transformation from Caesar himself, who was not, however, in Italy at the time.[199] Credit in Italy had been seriously upset by the outbreak of Civil War, and Caesar had been at much pains to steady it by an ordinance which has been alluded to in the last chapter.[200] In 48 Caelius was praetor; in the master's absence he suddenly took up the cause of the debtors, and tried to evoke appeals against the decisions of his colleague Trebonius,--a great lawyer and a just man. Failing in this, he started as a downright revolutionary, proposing first the abolition of house-rent, and finally the abolition of all debts; and Milo, in exile at Massilia, was summoned to help him to raise Italy against Caesar. This was too much, and both were quickly caught and killed as they were stirring up gladiators and other slave-bands among the latifundia of South Italy.

Caelius' letters give us a chance of seeing what that life of the Forum really was which so fascinated the young men of the day, and some of the old, such as Cicero himself. We can see these children playing on the very edge of the crater, like the French noblesse before the Revolution. In both cases there was a semi-consciousness that the eruption was not far off,--but they went on playing. What was it that so greatly amused and pleased them?

What Caelius is always writing of is mainly elections and canvassing, accusations and trials, games and shows. Elections he treats as pure sport, as a kind of enjoyable gambling, or as a means of spiting some one whom you want to annoy. With elections accusations were often connected: if a man were accused before his election he could not continue to stand; if condemned after it he was disqualified; here were ways in which personal spite might deprive him of success at the last moment.[201] Accusations, too were of course the best means by which an ambitious young man could come to the front. The whole number of trials mentioned by Caelius is astonishing; sometimes there is such a complication of them as is difficult to follow. Every one is ready to lay an accusation, without the smallest regard for truth. Young Appius Claudius accuses Servilius, and makes a mess of the attack, while the praetor mismanages the conduct of the trial, so that nothing comes of it; but finally Appius is himself accused by the Servilii de vi, in order to keep him from further attacks on Servilius![202] Appius the father quarrelled with Caelius and egged on others to accuse him, though he was curule aedile at the time. "Their impudence was so boundless that they secured that an information should be laid against me for a very serious crime (under the Scantinian law). Scarcely had Pola got the words out of his mouth, when I laid an information under the same law against the censor, Appius. I never saw a more successful stroke!"[203]

Of the games, and the panthers to be exhibited at them, about which Caelius is for ever worrying his friend in Cilicia, we shall see something in another chapter. There is plenty of other gossip in these letters, and gossip often about unsavoury matters which need not be noticed here. It lets in a flood of light upon the causes of the general incompetence and inefficiency; the life of the Forum was a demoralising one:

Uni se atque eidem studio omnes dedere et arti uerba dare ut caute possint, pugnare dolose: blanditia certare, bonum simulare uirum se: insidias facere, ut si hostes sint omnibus omnes.[204]

From what has been said in this sketch it should be clear that we have in the aristocracy of this period a complicated society, the various aspects of which can hardly be united in a single picture. It is partly a hereditary aristocracy, with all the pride and exclusiveness of a group of old families accustomed to power and consequence. It is in the main a society of gentlemen, dignified in manner, and kindly towards each other, and it is also a society of high culture and literary ability, though poor in creative genius, and unimaginative. On the other hand, it is a class which has lost its interest in the State, and is energetic only when pursuing its own interests: pleasure-loving, luxurious, gossiping, trifling with serious matters, short-sighted in politics because anxious only for personal advance. "Rari nantes in gurgite vasto" are the men who are really in earnest, but they are there; we must not forget that in Lucretius and Cicero this society produced one of the greatest poets and one of the most perfect prose writers that the world treasures; in Sulpicius a lawyer of permanent value to humanity, and in Caesar not only an author and a scholar but a man of action unrivalled in capacity and industry.




Prev | Next | Contents








Social Life in Roman Empire
Advertisements: