The Roman One Percent…continued

I focused on two short quotes from Ammianus Marcellinus on idle Roman senators in yesterday’s post. Today brings the entire passages.

As a result of these circumstances, the few senatorial houses once famed for serious studies now ooze with the idle indulgence of ignorant self-indulgence, as those once noble houses clamor and echo with the sounds of song and the drunken revelry of flutes and lyres. Put differently, Pop Stars replace philosophers, and adepts in teaching cheap stage tricks have crowded out the noble orator. in place of the orator the teacher of stagecraft. And worse,  while the libraries are shut up tight as tombs, there is a big business in water-organs, lyres as large as carriages, and musical instruments too heavy for the actors who would saw the air with them.

Quod cum ita sit, paucae domus studiorum seriis cultibus antea celebratae nunc ludibriis ignaviae torpentis exundant, vocali sonu, perflabili tinnitu fidium resultantes. Denique pro philosopho cantor et in locum oratoris doctor artium ludicrarum accitur et bybliothecis sepulcrorum ritu in perpetuum clausis organa fabricantur hydraulica, et lyrae ad speciem carpentorum ingentes tibiaeque et histrionici gestus instrumenta non levia.

Ammianus Marcellinus 14.6.18

Some of senators hate learning like poison. Indeed, the read carefully only the frivolous writings of Marius Maximus; worse these senatorial idlers touch no other books than those of this ilk, although their reasons for it totally escape me.

Quidam detestantes ut venena doctrinas, Iuvenalem et Marium Maximum curatiore studio legunt, nulla volumina praeter haec in profundo otio contrectantes, quam ob causam non iudicioli est nostri.


In the second passage, Juvenal is the famous Roman satirist of the second century AD; we have sixteen of his satires. They are rude, crude and lewd; the sixth, on women, makes the misogynist Hesiod seem like a defender of women’s rights. In fairness, Juvenal doesn’t like much of anything or anybody. Putting lines into his mouth “things are at their worst in this worst of all possible world.” What a champ!

Marius Maximus, consul of the early third century AD, wrote biographies of the Caesars. His works are preserved in scattered fragments and comments from those who read him. One “person”, Vopiscus, who had read him observed “an extremely wordy author who in far too many volumes turned history into myth and myth into history.” [homo omnium verbosissimus, qui et mythistoricis se voluminibus implicavit (SHA Firmus 1.2)]

And now for an explanation, including why “person” has those quote marks. The acronym SHA stands for Scriptores Historiae Augustae, “Writers of the Augustan Historya series of biographies of the Caesars starting from where Suetonius left off in the first century and continuing well into the third century. Each “life” has an author’s name attached. But most of us now think the alleged authors never existed, at least as authors, hence my use of quotation marks. In fact, SHA was probably written by one author in the early fourth century, a mish-mash of facts, guesses and outright lies assembled higgledy-piggledy. Despite all that historians still use it for what it occasionally gets right. There is a regular published series of Studies of the work, along with countless books and articles.

For anyone wishing to read either Ammianus or SHA, each has excellent translations and notes in the Penguin series; I’ve used them often in teaching an advanced course on the later Roman empire. Ammianus is slightly abridged, omitting only some long geographical passages; the Penguin SHA volume is titled “Writers of the Augustan History”and includes an exhaustive, possibly exhausting introduction to problems of authorship and authenticity.

[Aside: I get props for probably being the first person this year, anywhere, for using “authenticity” in its correct sense.]

One thought on “The Roman One Percent…continued

  1. These two posts are really great. Who doesn’t love mocking the SHA? This might be the first time I have had respect for Ammianus Marcellinus, but that might just be due to by disciplinary prejudices.

    Speaking of prejudices, do you think his comments against the Roman senatorial class would differ much from an honest evaluation of ours?

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