The Idleness of the Roman One Percent, aka the In Crowd

Millenials and digital naives (alleged) take note! They didn’t even like analog legacy-style reading, let alone digital:

“they keep their libraries locked up like tombs”

et bybliothecis sepulcrorum ritu in perpetuum clausis

Ammianus Marcellinus 14.6.18
But if you’re going to get a job so you can live in the style to which you’re accustomed, you’ve got to learn something. Right? Wrong, very wrong:

“they hate learning like poison”

Quidam detestantes ut venena doctrinas

Idem, 28.4.14

There’s multum in parvo here (“much said in few words”) so let’s get to it.

Ammianus Marcellinus (infra) describes the Roman socio-economic elite, that is, the senatorial order, of the fourth century AD. I’ve furnished two pungent excerpts from the two passages, which in full reek of  spleen and sarcasm.

Clearly these senators were idlers, but why? Didn’t we all learn in World History courses that senators ran Rome? Correct, but not in perpetuity. In the first two centuries AD, the emperors sometimes gradually, sometimes speedily made senatorial government irrelevant. Imagine one of those emperors saying “be reasonable, do it my way” if feeling kindly or, rather less suavely, “my way or the highway.”

One thing senators did retain until the third century AD was their military commands. In the old-timey Roman republic, senators had significant military experience at all stages of their careers, at least if they ever wanted to have one of the two crowning achievements, the consulship. The other achievement which came from military experience was the Roman triumph, and there was no more big-ass honor for a Roman. Kill five thousand worthy opponents in battle and you were…a true Big Man in Town. In fact, senators were known to have refused an enemy’s surrender so they could amass 5K now-cold bodies and get the triumph.

Nothing is forever. Senatorial political irrelevance in the second century led senators to leave the system, and that means military service. Only incompetents were left. Incompetents lose battles. During the second century Pax Romana it mattered less. But in the third century it mattered. Barbarian pressures were rising, the commanders were incompetent, and by mid-century every frontier had collapsed.

Mid-century along came a new emperor, Gallienus. Depending on how you read the source, he either forbade senators to hold military commands, or made it very hard for them to do so. He, and later emperors substituted an “aristocracy of service”, where you received status and promotions based on your performance. Put differently, it no longer mattered that your ultra-great grandfather had played poker with Romulus.

So what was a senator to do?

Ammianus didn’t like it one little bit, although he had no solutions to the problem. In fact, his history of the fourth century, which of which we have perhaps half, really doesn’t like much of anything about the time. Nevertheless, along with Livy and Tacitus he is one of the three great Roman historians

[pedantic note: in the second excerpt, venenum ”poison” means more than that in Latin. It can be poison in the modern sense, it can be love potions, or it can be outright ”magic.” This makes his line especially cruel and ominous.  Ammianus writes the most evocative, baroque Latin ever. Thus he’s not as much studied as the Third Great Historian is…his Latin is terribly difficult. Not every professional Latinist I’ve known is up to it. You have just learned a dirty little secret.]

Back to where we started with The In Crowd….

One thought on “The Idleness of the Roman One Percent, aka the In Crowd

Leave a Reply