Some Roman Morals for a Season of Gifts

Cicero, De Officiis 3.118

“For goodness, generosity and kindness cannot exist any more than friendship if they are not pursued for themselves but are nurtured for the sake of pleasure or advantage.”

Neque enim bonitas nec liberalitas nec comitas esse potest, non plus quam amicitia, si haec non per se expetantur, sed ad voluptatem utilitatemve referantur.

Publilius Syrus, 78

“Generosity even devises an excuse for giving”

Benignus etiam causam dandi cogitat.

Seneca, De Beneficiis 4

“All generosity hurries—it is characteristic of one who does something willingly to do it quickly. If someone comes to help slowly or drags it out day by day, he does not do it sincerely. And he has thus lost the two most important things: time and a sign of his willing friendship. To be slowly willing is a sign of being unwilling.”

Omnis benignitas properat, et proprium est libenter facientis cito facere; qui tarde et diem de die extrahens profuit, non ex animo fecit. Ita duas res maximas perdidit, et tempus et argumentum amicae voluntatis; tarde velle nolentis est.

Image result for Ancient Roman friendship frieze

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Aeneas Panel from the Ara Pacis

A Banquet of Learning; A Dinner No-Show

Cicero Topica V

“But because I have welcomed someone eager for a feast of learning, I shall prepare it so well that there will be some leftovers rather than allow you to leave still hungry for more….”

Sed quoniam avidum hominem ad has discendi epulas recepi, sic accipiam, ut reliquiarum sit potius aliquid quam te hinc patiar non satiatum discedere.

Pliny the Younger to Septimius Clarus (Letter 15)

“Who do you think you are?! You agree to come do dinner…but you don’t come? The judgment is passed: You must pay my cost to a penny, and this is not moderate. All was set out: a lettuce for each, three snails, two eggs, wine with honey chilled with snow—for you should include this too among the highest expense since it dissolves on the plate—and there were olives, beets, pickles, onions and countless other things no less neat.

You would have heard a comedy or a reader or a singer of all of them, given my generosity. But you went where I don’t know, preferring oysters, a sow’s belly, sea-urchins, and Spanish dancers. You will suffer for this, somehow, believe me. You did something bad to one of us, certainly to me, but perhaps to yourself too. How much we played, laughed, and studied! You might eat better food at many homes, but nowhere will you eat so enjoyably, simply, and freely. In sum: try me: and if later you don’t excuse yourself from another’s meal, you can always lie to me again. Goodbye!”

Plinius Septicio Claro Suo S.

Heus tu! promittis ad cenam, nec venis? Dicitur ius: ad assem impendium reddes, nec id modicum. Paratae erant lactucae singulae, cochleae ternae, ova bina, halica cum mulso et nive (nam hanc quoque computabis, immo hanc in primis quae perit in ferculo), olivae betacei cucurbitae bulbi, alia mille non minus lauta. Audisses comoedos vel lectorem vel lyristen vel (quae mea liberalitas) omnes. At tu apud nescio quem ostrea vulvas echinos Gaditanas maluisti. Dabis poenas, non dico quas. Dure fecisti: invidisti, nescio an tibi, certe mihi, sed tamen et tibi. Quantum nos lusissemus risissemus studuissemus! Potes adparatius cenare apud multos, nusquam hilarius simplicius incautius. In summa experire, et nisi postea te aliis potius excusaveris, mihi semper excusa. Vale.

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Fresco from Pompeii

Cicero had a Reason to Lament, You Don’t

Martial, Epigrams 9.70

“Cicero once said “What customs, what times!”
As Cataline laid out his sinful designs
And when a son and father-in-law met with dread arms
And dyed the ground red with civil blood.
But why do you repeat “What Customs, What times” now
What can displease you now? Caecilianus, what is it?
We have no clash of kings or insanity of sword.
Our customs don’t make you hate your own times,
but your own do, Caecilianus.”

Dixerat ‘O mores! O tempora!’ Tullius olim,
sacrilegum strueret cum Catilina nefas,
cum gener atque socer diris concurreret armis
maestaque civili caede maderet humus.
cur nunc ‘O mores!’ cur nunc ‘O tempora!’ dicis? 5
quod tibi non placeat, Caeciliane, quid est?
nulla ducum feritas, nulla est insania ferri;
pace frui certa laetitiaque licet.
Non nostri faciunt tibi quod tua tempora sordent,
sed faciunt mores, Caeciliane, tui.

Cicero throws up his Brief like a Gentleman (from The Comic History of Rome, c. 1850)

Life’s Purpose, The Pursuit of Knowledge?

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 7.2

“Hêrillos the Karthaginian said that our purpose was knowledge: we should live by adducing the life of knowledge to everything and surrendering nothing to ignorance. He believed that knowledge was a practice of the imagination, imperturbable by argument. He used to say that there was no single end, but that it changed depending on events and situations, just as a bronze figure could be made into either Alexander or Socrates.”

Ἥριλλος δ᾿ ὁ Καρχηδόνιος τέλος εἶπε τὴν ἐπιστήμην, ὅπερ ἐστὶ ζῆν ἀεὶ πάντ᾿ ἀναφέροντα πρὸς τὸ μετ᾿ ἐπιστήμης ζῆν καὶ μὴ τῇ ἀγνοίᾳ διαβεβλημένον. εἶναι δὲ τὴν ἐπιστήμην ἕξιν ἐν φαντασιῶν προσδέξει ἀνυπόπτωτον ὑπὸ λόγου. ποτὲ δ᾿ ἔλεγε μηδὲν εἶναι τέλος, ἀλλὰ κατὰ τὰς περιστάσεις καὶ τὰ πράγματ᾿ ἀλλάττεσθαι αὐτό, ὡς καὶ τὸν αὐτὸν χαλκὸν ἢ Ἀλεξάνδρου γινόμενον ἀνδριάντα ἢ Σωκράτους.”

Lactantius, Inst. Div. 3.7

“The highest good according to Herillus is knowledge; according to Zeno, to live congruously with nature, and according to some Stoics, to pursue virtue.”

Herilli summum bonum est scientia, Zenonis cum natura congruenter vivere, quorundam Stoicorum virtutem sequi.

Cicero, De Finibus 2.14

“Erillus, moreover, since he refers everything back to knowledge, imagines one certain good, but it is not the greatest good by which you could steer a life. For this reason, Erillus has been dismissed for a long time. No one has directly disputed him since Chrysippus.”

Erillus autem ad scientiam omnia revocans unum quoddam bonum vidit, sed nec optimum nec quo vita gubernari possit. Itaque hic ipse iam pridem est reiectus; post enim Chrysippum non sane est disputatum.

Cicero, Academica  2.42

“I am not including the philosophies which now seem abandoned, for example Erillus who positioned the highest good in thinking and knowledge. Although he was a pupil of Zeno, you can see how much he disagreed with him and how little with Plato.”

Omitto illa quae relicta iam videntur—ut Erillum, qui in cognitione et scientia summum bonum ponit; qui cum Zenonis auditor esset, vides quantum ab eo dissenserit et quam non multum a Platone.

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Life In Exchange for Burning Your Books?

The following piece from the elder Seneca (Yes, Seneca the Elder, not the Younger) is based upon the imaginary story that Marcus Antonius offered to preserve Cicero’s life in exchange for the destruction of all his books. 

Seneca the Elder, Suasoria 7

Cicero Deliberates whether to burn all his writings since Antony has promised his safety if he did so

Deliberat Cicero an scripta sua conburat, promittente Antonio incolumitatem si fecisset, 11

Here the conditions [of the agreement] were intolerable. For nothing is so intolerable as to burn up the proofs of your own genius. In addition, this was an insult to the Roman people, whose language Cicero had elevated so that their eloquence outstripped the knowledge of arrogant Greece as much as their fortune in war. This would be a crime against humanity! Cicero would regret breaths bought at so high a price, since he would have to grow old as a slave using his eloquence only for one thing: praising Antony. This was a wretched sentence: to be granted life, but surrender genius.

Pompeius Silo proceeded to argue that Antony was not negotiating but instead was mocking Cicero. This was a not a condition, it was an insult: For even after the books were burned he would still kill him. Antony was not so foolish that he believed that burning the books was a concern to Cicero, a man whose writings were already famous over the whole world. Antony did not seek this thing he could do himself, unless of course he did not have the power over Cicero’s books which he had over Cicero. He sought nothing other than to kill Cicero after reducing him to a state of shame because he had spoken bravely and often about his contempt for death. Hence, Antony was not giving him life on a condition, but he was seeking his death in dishonor. Thus, Cicero ought to suffer bravely now what he would certainly suffer later in shame.

Hic condiciones intolerabiles. <Nihil tam intolerabile> esse quam monumenta ingenii sui ipsum exurere. Iniuriam illum facturum populo Romano, cuius linguam huc ipse extulisset ut insolentis Graeciae studia tanto antecederet eloquentia quantofortuna; iniuriam facturum generi humano. Paenitentiam illum acturum tam care spiritus empti, cum in servitute senescendum fuisset <et> in hoc unum eloquentia utendum, ut laudaret Antonium. Male cum illo agi: dari vitam, eripi ingenium.

Silo Pompeius sic egit ut diceret Antonium non pacisci sed inludere: non esse illam condicionem sed contumeliam; combustis enim libris nihilominus occisurum; non esse tam stultum Antonium ut putaret ad rem pertinere libros a Cicerone conburi, cuius scripta per totum orbem terrarum celebrarentur, nec hoc petere eum, quod posset ipse facere, nisi forte non esset in scripta Ciceronis ei ius cui esset in Ciceronem; quaeri nihil aliud quam ut ille Cicero multa fortiter de mortis contemptu locutus ad turpes condiciones perductus occideretur. Antonium illi non vitam cum condicione promittere, sed mortem sub infamia quaerere. Itaque quod turpiter postea passurus esset, nunc illum debere fortiter pati.


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Not a fan of Cicero.

Birthday Parties in Greece and Rome

 Several years ago I posted an absurd speculation about how to say happy birthday in Ancient Greek. Evidence from the ancient world reveals that parents held birthday sacrifices and feasts for children, communities observed birthday feasts for gods and heroes, and people arranged for their own birthday feasts as well. In addition, poetic, political, and philosophical luminaries had their birthdays celebrated after death. And, strangely enough, some people provided for their own postmortem birthday celebrations in their wills.

Valerius Maximus, Memorable Sayings and Deeds 2.12

“Truly The Thracians have earned great praise for their wisdom in celebrating birthdays by weeping and deaths with joyous cheer. Without any fine doctrines from scholars, they have penetrated the true nature of the human condition. Therefore, let life’s sweetness, native to all creatures, the very thing which compels them to act and suffer terribly, let it disappear if its end should still prove more lucky and blessed than its beginning.”

Thraciae vero illa natio merito sibi sapientiae laudem vindicaverit, quae natales hominum flebiliter, exsequias cum hilaritate celebrat, <si>4sine ullis doctorum praeceptis verum condicionis nostrae habitum pervidit. removeatur itaque naturalis omnium animalium dulcedo vitae, quae multa et facere et pati turpiter cogit, si tamen ortu eius aliquanto felicior ac beatior finis reperietur.

Porphyry, Life of Plotinus, 2.35

“And he neither revealed to anyone the month in which he was born nor the day of his birth because he did not think it right for anyone to sacrifice or have a feast on his birthday even though he sacrificed and held meals for his friends on the birthdays conventionally dedicated to Plato and Socrates—when it was necessary that the friends who were capable read aloud some argument to those who had gathered.”

οὔτε δὲ τὸν μῆνα δεδήλωκέ τινι καθ᾿ ὃν γεγέννηται, οὔτε τὴν γενέθλιον ἡμέραν, ἐπεὶ οὐδὲ θύειν ἢ ἑστιᾶν τινα τοῖς αὐτου γενεθλίοις ἠξίου, καίπερ ἐν τοῖς Πλάτωνος καὶ Σωκράτους παραδεδομένοις γενεθλίοις θύων τε καὶ ἑστιῶν τοὺς ἑταίρους, ὅτε καὶ λόγον ἔδει τῶν ἑταίρων τοὺς δυνατοὺς ἐπὶ τῶν συνελθόντων ἀναγνῶναι.

Plautus, Pseudolus 165-6

“Today is my birthday, and you all should celebrate it with me.
Put the ham, pork rind, innards and sow’s teats in the water. Can you hear me?”

nam mi hodie natalis dies est, decet eum omnis uosconcelebrare.
pernam, callum, glandium, sumen facito in aquaiaceant. satin audis?

A fancy birthday pen…

Greek Anthology, 6.227 Crinagoras of Mytilene

Procles sends this, on your birthday,
This silver newly made pen tip in its holder
With two easily dividable ends,
It moves well over a flowing page
A small gift but one from a bigger heart
A close friend for your recent ease for learning.”

Ἀργύρεόν σοι τόνδε, γενέθλιον ἐς τεὸν ἦμαρ,
Πρόκλε, νεόσμηκτον †δουρατίην κάλαμον,
εὖ μὲν ἐϋσχίστοισι διάγλυπτον κεράεσσιν,
εὖ δὲ ταχυνομένην εὔροον εἰς σελίδα,
πέμπει Κριναγόρης, ὀλίγην δόσιν, ἀλλ᾿ ἀπὸ θυμοῦ
πλείονος, ἀρτιδαεῖ σύμπνοον εὐμαθίῃ.

A homemade gift….

6.326 Leonidas

“One sends you from nets, another from the air or sea,
Eupolis, these birthday gift,
But take from me a line from a Muses, which
Will remain with you always as a sign of friendship and learning.”

Ἄλλος ἀπὸ σταλίκων, ὁ δ᾿ ἀπ᾿ ἠέρος, ὃς δ᾿ ἀπὸ πόντου,
Εὔπολι, σοὶ πέμπει δῶρα γενεθλίδια·
ἀλλ᾿ ἐμέθεν δέξαι Μουσῶν στίχον, ὅστις ἐς αἰεὶ
μίμνει, καὶ φιλίης σῆμα καὶ εὐμαθίης

Birthdays ad infinitum

Select Papyri, Wills 84a (Roman Period)

“My wife, and after her death, my son Deios, will give to my slaves and freedmen [100 drachma] for a feats they will hold near my grave every year on my birthday.”

δώσει δὲ ἡ γυνή μου καὶ μετὰ τελευτὴν αὐτῆς ὁ υἱός μου Δεῖος τοῖς δούλοις μου καὶ ἀπελευθέρ[οι]ς εἰς εὐωχίαν αὐτῶν ἣν ποιήσονται πλησίον τοῦ τάφου μου κατ᾿ ἔτος τῇ γενεθλίᾳ μου

Cicero, De Finibus 2.102

“Therefore, no one has a true birthday. “But the day is observed.” And I take that as if I did not know it. But, is it right that this is still celebrated after death? And to put it in a will when he told us as if giving an oracle that nothing matters to us after death?”

Nullus est igitur cuiusquam dies natalis. ‘At habetur.’ Et ego id scilicet nesciebam! Sed ut sit, etiamne post mortem coletur? idque testamento cavebit is qui nobis quasi oraculum ediderit nihil post mortem ad nos pertinere?

Invitation to a rural birthday party

Alciphron, Letter 3.18

“When we have a feast for the birthday of my child, I invite you to come to the party, Pithakniôn—and not only you, but bring your wife, children, your worker. And, if you wish, bring your dog: she’s a good guard and she frightens away those who plot against the flocks with her loud barking.”

Τοὐμοῦ παιδίου γενέσια ἑορτάζων ἥκειν σε ἐπὶ τὴν πανδαισίαν, ὦ Πιθακνίων, παρακαλῶ, ἥκειν δὲ οὐ μόνον ἀλλ᾿ ἐπαγόμενον τὴν γυναῖκα καὶ τὰ παιδία καὶ τὸν συνέργαστρον· εἰ βούλοιο δέ, καὶ τὴν κύνα, ἀγαθὴν οὖσαν φύλακα καὶ τῷ βάρει τῆς ὑλακῆς ἀποσοβοῦσαν τοὺς ἐπιβουλεύοντας τοῖς ποιμνίοις.

Imperial Birthday appropriation

Ad. M. Caes III.9 Marcus Aurelius to Fronto

Dear best teacher,

I know that on everyone’s birthday friends make prayers for the person whose birthday it is. Nevertheless, because I love you as much as I love myself, I wish on this birthday of yours to make a prayer for myself.”

Salve mi magister optime.

Scio natali die quoiusque pro eo, quoius is dies natalis est, amicos vota suscipere; ego tamen, quia te iuxta a memet ipsum amo, volo hoc die tuo natali mihi bene precari.

Plautus, The Captives 175

“Since it is my birthday: I want to be asked to a dinner at your home.

quia mi est natalis dies;
propterea te uocari ad te ad cenam uolo.

Birthday Sorrow

Sulpicia, 14.1-3

“The hated birthday is here, the sad day which
Must be celebrated in annoying hicksville without Cerinthus.”

Invisvs natalis adest, qui rure molesto
et sine Cerintho tristis agendus erit.

Cicero, Letters to Atticus 3 Jan 47

“I write these things to you on my birthday, a day which I wish had never seen me or that no one else had been born from my mother afterwards. I am kept from writing more by weeping”

Haec ad te die natali meo scripsi; quo utinam susceptus non essem, aut ne quid ex eadem matre postea natum esset! plura scribere fletu prohibeor.

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Changing Tack: Cicero on Ends and Means in Politics

Ep. 20 (I.9) Cicero to Lentulus Spinther

“For I do not think it is necessary to fight against such powers nor to get rid of the precedence taken by our highest citizens, even if it were possible; nor do I think it necessary to affix myself to a single opinion when situations change and the desires of good men change with them—no, one must change with the times. Remaining in an permanent opinion has never been praised among exceptional men for the governing of the state.

But, as in sailing it is good to get ahead of a storm even if you will not find the harbor; yet if you can make it to safe ground by changing your approach, only a fool would risk danger to hold to the course he began rather than make his destination by changing something. Thus, while all of us running the state should seek the proposition which I have often sought—peace with dignity—we should ensure not to speak the same but always to seek the same thing.”

  1. nam neque pugnandum arbitrarer contra tantas opes neque delendum, etiam si id fieri posset, summorum civium principatum <neque> permanendum in una sententia conversis rebus ac bonorum voluntatibus mutatis, sed temporibus adsentiendum. numquam enim <in>praestantibus in re publica gubernanda viris laudata est in una sententia perpetua permansio; sed ut in navigando tempestati obsequi artis est etiam si portum tenere non queas, cum vero id possis mutata velificatione adsequi stultum est eum tenere cum periculo cursum quem coeperis potius quam eo commutato quo velis tamen pervenire, sic, cum omnibus nobis in administranda re publica propositum esse debeat, id quod a me saepissime dictum est, cum dignitate otium, non idem semper dicere sed idem semper spectare debemus.
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Burney 275