The Roman Ninety-nine percent

You may well ask about them. Everyone who was not a member of the socio-economic elite. The overwhelming majority of people in the Roman empire. In the traditional “best” authors if they are lucky enough to appear at all, it is as  the object of olympic-class snark. Here is an example, again from Ammianus Marcellinus:

“And since I think it may be some readers by way careful examination may see and bring it against me as a negative that this, and not that, happened first, or that those things which they themselves saw are omitted… thus I must satisfy them this far, that not everything which has taken place among persons of the lowest class is worth describing; and if this were necessary to be done, even the mass of facts to be had from public records would not do, and this at a time when there was such a general plague of evils, and a new, reckless insanity was mingling the highest with the lowest; for it was clearly evident that it was not a judicial trial which was to be feared, but a suspension of legal proceedings.”
Ammianus Marcellinus 28.1.15

Et quoniam existimo, forsitan aliquos haec lecturos, exquisite scrutando notare, strepentes id actum esse prius, non illud, aut ea, quae viderint praetermissa: hactenus faciendum est satis quod non omnia narratu sunt digna, quae per squalidas transiere personas, nec si fieri fuisset necesse, instructiones vel ex ipsis tabulariis suppeterent publicis, tot calentibus malis et novo furore sine retinaculis imis summa miscente, cum iustitium esse, quod timebatur, non iudicium aperte constaret

I have colored the major sententia antiqua which, incidentally, appeared in the nifty title of review-article I wrote on same. [I do not claim the article to be nifty because niftiness of article, like love, is in the eye of the beholder.]

And here is what he has to say about a whole pack of the Ninety-nine Percent. The scene is a riot gone very far south in the fourth century:

“A few days later the populace again became excited to its usual hot temper….”
Ammianus Marcellinus 15.7.3

Diebusque paucis secutis cum itidem plebs excita calore quo consuevit….

Leontius, prefect of Rome didn’t get no respect. [Prefect of the City of Rome in the traditional senatorial career list was one of the proconsular posts (proconsular = for former consuls); traditionally those posts were reserved for consulars with distinguished consulships based on military achievements or civilian achievements. Military achievements got one a governorship of one of the major Roman provinces (Syria especially, also,among others, Britain and Africa); civilian achievements got on Curator of the Tiber or Prefect of the City of Rome. In the fourth century they had become a pale shadow of their former glory, since Gallienus in the third century had either forbidden, or made it very hard (the source texts are ambiguous) for senators to hold military commands. One result: senators opted out of the system and retired to their villas to sulk, hating learning like poison as we saw here. Still, they did hold the posts on occasion:

“Therefore, sitting in a carriage, with every appearance of confidence, he looked with fierce eyes at the countenance of the close packed mobs of rioters thronging towards him from all quarters, and agitating themselves like serpents.”
Ammianus Marcellinus 15.7.4

“Insidens itaque vehiculo cum speciosa fiducia contuebatur acribus oculis tumultuantium undique cuneorum veluti serpentium vultus.”

The rioters are graphically compared to snakes, and cuneorum, from cuneus means a military wedge formation; Ammianus is being very snide since the rioters are the exact opposite of the military.

One person does emerge from the mob, Peter Valvomeres, who comes to a rather unpleasant end. This passage gets a wonderful discussion in Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, a true classic of interpreation of literary texts from Homer to the twentieth century. Written during World War Two in Istanbul, when Auerbach had access to only texts and no scholarship, it is widely read and discussed even today. The third chapter discusses this passage and much more besides; seriously worth your consideration.

Is Ammianus being cranky? Of course. One of the many memorable things I learned as and undergrad from a wonderful Yale Latinist, Tom Cole, was that “to be a Roman historian you had to have a chip on your shoulder. But this is not Ammianus being true to that form in the fourth century AD, although it teemed with objects of crank…snark, even. Let’s wind it way back to the late Roman republic with Sallust:

It behooves all men who wish to excel the other animals to strive mightily and not to pass through life unknown, like the beasts, which Nature has fashioned grubbing he ground and enslaved to the belly. 2All our power, on the contrary, lies in  mind and body; we employ the mind to rule, the body rather to serve; the one we have in common with the Gods, the other with the brutes. 3 Therefore I find it becoming, in seeking good repute, that we should employ the resources of the intellect rather than those of brute strength, with the aim that, since the span of life which we enjoy is short, we may make the memory of our lives as permanent as possible. 4 For the renown which riches or beauty confer is fleeting and frail; mental excellence is a splendid and lasting possession.
Sallust, Catiline, 1.1-4

Omnis homines qui sese student praestare ceteris animalibus summa ope niti decet ne vitam silentio transeant veluti pecora, quae natura prona atque ventri oboedientia finxit. 2 Sed nostra omnis vis in animo et corpore sita est; animi imperio, corporis servitio magis utimur; alterum nobis cum dis, alterum cum beluis commune est. 3 Quo mihi rectius videtur ingeni quam virium opibus gloriam quaerere et, quoniam vita ipsa qua fruimur brevis est, memoriam nostri quam maxume longam efficere; 4 nam divitiarum et formae gloria fluxa atque fragilis est, virtus clara aeternaque habetur.

7 Success in agriculture, navigation, and architecture depends invariably upon mental excellence. 8 Yet many men, being slaves to appetite and sleep, have passed through life untaught and untrained, like mere wayfarers in these men we see, contrary to Nature’s intent, the body a source of pleasure, the soul a burden. For my own part, I consider the lives and deaths of such men as about alike, since no record is made of either.
Sallust, Catiline, 2.7-8

7 Quae homines arant, navigant, aedificant, virtuti omnia parent. 8 Sed multi mortales dediti ventri atque somno indocti incultique vitam sicuti peregrinantes transiere;1 quibus profecto contra naturam corpus voluptati, anima oneri fuit. Eorum ego vitam mortemque iuxta aestumo, quoniam de utraque siletur. 

And it’s not just these two cranky historians. Here’s a page from Zvi Yavetz, Plebs and Princeps (1969)

Yavetz Plebs

By now it is rather obvious; the One Percent had little time for the Ninety-nine Percent except to sneer. There were some exceptions, albeit not many. And the usual Latin word for the Ninety-nine Percent, plebs, did not always mean that, but something way different. There was a time when plebs meant someone who was also in the One Percent. But that is for another post, several actually.

Did anyone say “class warfare”?


The review article mentioned at the start of this piece is my:
Quae Per Squalidas Transiere Personas: Ste. Croix’s Historical Revolution, Helios 11 (1984), 47-82


One thought on “The Roman Ninety-nine percent

  1. I love this stuff. It almost makes me wish I worked on Roman History.

    (But only almost.)

    I will check out the review article. When it was originally published, I had just started kindergarten…

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