“I have been silent for a while, struck with pains
By these evils. The disaster runs over all bounds
of speaking or asking about its suffering.
Still, necessity forces mortals to endure the pains
The gods send us. Pull yourself together,
Tell us everything that happened…”
“Friends, whoever gains some practice in troubles
Understands that when a wave of troubles come
We mortals tend to fear everything.
But when a god makes things easy, you think
You’ll always sail under the same favorable wind.”
“Every generation produces a Clodius, but every one doesn’t make a Cato. We lean more easily into ruin, not because we have no leader or lack a guide, but because the action itself happens easily without a leader, without help. The path to vice isn’t just downhill, it’s steep too and it makes many of us unfixable because life’s mistakes feel good while screwups in all the other arts are a source of shame and causes harm to those who do them.
A captain doesn’t smile when his ship flips over; a doctor doesn’t grin at a sick patient dead, an orator does not laugh when the person they’re defending loses because of their mistake. But in contrast, everyone’s personal crime is a source of pleasure! This guy is charmed by adultery, the same ‘difficulty’ that got him into trouble in the first place. Another dude finds counterfeiting and theft a thrill, and isn’t disappointed with his fault until his luck fails him. This is the outcome of debased practices!
However, so that you know that our spirits possess some notion of proper behavior even when they have been seduced into the worst things and that we are not ignorant of what is wrong, just negligent, everyone covers over their faults and, even if they do it well, still enjoy their products even while disguising them. The good conscience wants to step out and be seen–evil is afraid of shadows. So, I think that Epicurus put it well that “It’s possible for a guilty person to hide, but it’s impossible to trust the hiding.”
Or, if you think it is better to convey the sense in this way: “There’s no advantage for people who screw up to hide because even if that have the good luck, there’s no promise of staying hidden.” I mean this: crimes can be safeguarded, but they can never be secure.”
Omne tempus Clodios, non omne Catones feret. Ad deteriora faciles sumus, quia nec dux potest nec comes deesse, et res ipsa etiam sine duce, sine comite procedit. Non pronum est tantum ad vitia, sed praeceps, et quod plerosque inemendabiles facit, omnium aliarum artium peccata artificibus pudori sunt offenduntque deerrantem, vitae peccata delectant. Non gaudet navigio gubernator everso, non gaudet aegro medicus elato, non gaudet orator, si patroni culpa reus cedidit; at contra omnibus crimen suum voluptati est. Laetatur ille adulterio, in quod inritatus est ipsa difficultate. Laetatur ille circumscriptione furtoque, nec ante illi culpa quam culpae fortuna displicuit. Id prava consuetudine evenit.
Alioquin ut scias subesse animis etiam in pessima abductis boni sensum nec ignorari turpe, sed neglegi; omnes peccata dissimulant et, quamvis feliciter cesserint, fructu illorum utuntur, ipsa subducunt. At bona conscientia prodire vult et conspici; ipsas nequitia tenebras timet. Eleganter itaque ab Epicuro dictum puto: “potest nocenti contingere, ut lateat, latendi fides non potest,” aut si hoc modo melius hunc explicari posse iudicas sensum: “ideo non prodest latere peccantibus, quia latendi etiam si felicitatem habent, fiduciam non habent.” Ita est: tuta scelera esse possunt, secura esse non possunt.
“I write to you while staying that that very home of Scipio Africanus, now that I have given my due to his memory and the altar that I believe is the grave of so great a man. I am certain that his spirit returned to the sky it came from, not because he led enormous armies–for irate Cambyses also had armies and he used his rage well–but thanks to his exceptional moderation and his dutifulness.
I judge this quality to be more admirable than the fact that left his country while he was defending it. For either Scipio had to stay in Rome, or Rome could be free. He said, “I wish to limit the laws in no way, nor to undermine our customs. Let the law be equal for all citizens. My country: use the good I have done without me. I have been responsible for your freedom and I will also be its test. I leave as an exile, if I have grown beyond what is good for you.”
How can I but admire this greatness of spirit that guided him to depart voluntarily into exile and unburden the state? Circumstances were drawn to a point where either freedom would abuse Scipio or Scipio would abuse freedom.”
In ipsa Scipionis Africani villa iacens haec tibi scribo adoratis manibus eius et ara, quam sepulchrum esse tanti viri suspicor. Animum quidem eius in caelum, ex quo erat, redisse persuadeo mihi, non quia magnos exercitus duxit, hos enim et Cambyses furiosus ac furore feliciter usus habuit, sed ob egregiam moderationem pietatemque, quam magis in illo admirabilem iudico, cum reliquit patriam, quam cum defendit; aut Scipio Romae esse debebat aut Roma in libertate. “Nihil,” inquit, “volo derogare legibus, nihil institutis. Aequum inter omnes cives ius sit. Utere sine me beneficio meo, patria. Causa tibi libertatis fui, ero et argumentum; exeo, si plus quam tibi expedit, crevi.”
Quidni ego admirer hanc magnitudinem animi, qua in exilium voluntarium secessit et civitatem exoneravit? Eo perducta res erat, ut aut libertas Scipioni aut Scipio libertati faceret iniuriam
“But should all these things befall us, the Ides of March may console. Our heroes too accomplished most gloriously and magnificently everything it was in their power to do. For the rest, we need money and troops, neither of which we have.”
Sed omnia licet concurrant, Idus Martiae consolantur. nostri autem ἥρωες quod per ipsos confici potuit gloriosissime et magnificentissime confecerunt; reliquae res opes et copias desiderant, quas nullas habemus
Cicero, Letters to Brutus I.15 (23) 14 July 43
“Therefore, come here, by the gods, as fast as possible; Convince yourself that it would do your country no greater good if you come quickly than you did on the Ides of March when you freed your fellow citizens from slavery.”
subveni igitur, per deos, idque quam primum, tibique persuade non te Idibus Martiis, quibus servitutem a tuis civibus depulisti, plus profuisse patriae quam, si mature veneris, profuturum.
Cicero, Letters to Brutus, 1.15 (23) July 43
“After the death of Caesar and your unforgettable Ides of March, Brutus, you will not have lost sight of the the fact that I said that one thing was overlooked by you—how much a storm loomed over the Republic. The greatest disease was warded off thanks to you—a great blight was cleansed from the Roman people—and you won immortal fame for your part. But the mechanism of monarchy fell then to Lepidus and Antonius—one of whom is more erratic, while the other is rather unclean—both fearing peace and ill-fit to idle time.”
Post interitum Caesaris et vestras memorabilis Idus Martias, Brute, quid ego praetermissum a vobis quantamque impendere rei publicae tempestatem dixerim non es oblitus. magna pestis erat depulsa per vos, magna populi Romani macula deleta, vobis vero parta divina gloria, sed instrumentum regni delatum ad Lepidum et Antonium, quorum alter inconstantior, alter impurior, uterque pacem metuens, inimicus otio.
“While some were left behind on the roads because of illness, others were because of exhaustion, or because of the heat, or because they could no longer withstand thirst. And when they fell behind there was no one to guide them on, nor did anyone stop to help them.
That is because the march was made at great speed, and he [Alexander], concerned for the army as a whole, necessarily did not care about individual men.
Some were left behind on the roads because sleep overcame them (the marches were made mostly at night). When these men got up again, even when they were still able to follow the tracks of the army, only a few out of many were saved. The majority of them, like men tumbling into the sea, died in the sand.”
In that country, no one finds vice amusing; nor is seducing or being seduced celebrated as a sign of the times. Even better are those communities where only virgins marry and a promise is made with the hope and vow of a wife. And so, they have only one husband just as each has one body and one life so that there may be no additional thought of it, no lingering desire, that they may not love the man so much as they love the marriage. It is considered a sin to limit the number of children or to eliminate the later born. There good customs are stronger than good laws.
There are children there naked and dirty in every house growing into the size of limbs and body at which we wonder. Each mother nourishes each child with her own breasts; they are not passed around to maids and nurses.”
nemo enim illic vitia ridet, nec corrumpere et corrumpi saeculum vocatur. melius quidem adhuc eae civitates, in quibus tantum virgines nubunt et cum spe votoque uxoris semel transigitur. sic unum accipiunt maritum quo modo unum corpus unamque vitam, ne ulla cogitatio ultra, ne longior cupiditas, ne tamquam maritum, sed tamquam matrimonium ament. numerum liberorum finire aut quemquam ex agnatis necare flagitium habetur, plusque ibi boni mores valent quam alibi bonae leges.In omni domo nudi ac sordidi in hos artus, in haec corpora, quae miramur, excrescunt. sua quemque mater uberibus alit, nec ancillis aut nutricibus delegantur.
During the siege of Helicarnassus, Alexander took his midday rest. A swallow, however, flew about his head twittering loudly. Here and there it alighted on his bed, singing more intently than usual.
The irritant woke Alexander, yet he couldn’t quite keep from sleeping. Annoyed by the chirping, he shooed the swallow away (not harshly) with his hand. He did hit it. And since it had to move off a little, it settled on Alexander’s head, and would not budge until Alexander was fully awake.
Alexander did not treat the incident as insignificant: he told Aristander, the Telmissian seer, about the swallow. Aristander responded that it was a sign that one of Alexander’s friends was plotting against him, but it was also a sign that the plot would be revealed. That is because the swallow is a companionable bird, friendly to humans, and also more talkative than any other bird.
“Satyrus writes in his Life of Philip: “When Philip lost his eye, Cleisophos followed him with the same eyed bandaged. And later, when Philip’s leg was wounded, Cleisophos accompanied the king, limping. And if Philip should ever find any food bitter, Cleisophos would squeeze his face together as if he were eating too!” In the land of Arabia, they used to do this sort of thing not for sake of flattery but according to polite custom: if one of the king’s limbs were wounded, they would act as if they suffered the same malady, although they also thought it was ridiculous to be eager to be buried with him when he died, they did not hold the same belief for emulating his suffering when he was wounded.”
Skimming through the Wall Street Journal at school the other day, an article about the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine caught my eye. It did not talk about military progress or strategic victories, but rather, it raised alarmist concerns about the education system in occupied Ukraine. Russian forces were coercing Ukrainian teachers to teach a new curriculum in Russian that laundered the reputation of Russia and its leading figures. In other words, revisionist history.
After the immediate feeling of shock subsided, I remembered that revising history has been the tried-and-true method to building an empire.
Throughout history, there are several examples of exalted historians manipulating the tales they are telling in service of an empire. One such case would be the famed Byzantine historian Procopius (d. 565 ce). Procopius chronicled the reign of Justinian I (d. 565 ce) and his wife Theodora (d. 548 ce). His official histories of Justinian I’s rule have been extolled for millennia as the peak of historical recording since the Roman Empire.
Several centuries later, a dusty tome was found hidden behind a fake wall in the Vatican Library. Procopius’ Anecdota, informally referred to as the Secret Histories, tells a tale not of the good emperor that he extols in his official histories, but rather of a demon disguised as a man, seeking the total destruction of his empire: “That Justinian was not a man, but a demon, as I have said, in human form, one might prove by considering the enormity of the evils he brought upon mankind.”
In contrast to the vitriolic tone of Procopius’ Anecdota, the official histories are more formally penned and glorify Justinian I. For example, at the conclusion of Procopius’s historical text Buildings he ends with connecting the emperor to a demi-god; “They swell with pride and smile upon the Emperor, offering him honours as though to a demi-god, after his magnificent achievements.” During the time of the official histories’ writing, the Byzantine Empire was waging several wars on the periphery of their borders. Two of these wars were the subjects for Procopius’ histories, aptly titled Histories of the Wars. In them, Procopius talks at length about the campaigns underway in continental Italy and the posturing happening at the Persian border. The important conflict for us to look at is the war between the Ostrogoths and the Byzantines in Sicily and southern Italy. This campaign was meant to be Justinian’s crowning achievement, reuniting the Eastern and Western halves of the Roman Empire. In this campaign, the famed Byzantine general Belisarius was constantly winning battle after battle for Justinian, and making tremendous gains in terms of territory in Italy. As such, the Histories of the Wars rightly lauds both Belisarius for his military prowess and Justinian for his statesmanship.
The official histories are just that, official histories. As Procopious’ later works evinced, Justinian was not only losing his military campaigns but was also unfit to rule. “As for seizing property and murdering men, he never got his fill of them, but after plundering numerous homes of affluent men he kept seeking new ones, straightway pouring out the proceeds of his earlier robbery in making presents to sundry barbarians or in erecting senseless buildings.”
“Official histories” like Procopius’ serve to launder the reputation of whatever empire that employs them. They have been endorsed by the state and are propped up as the government-approved history of the empire. This is quite similar to what Russia is trying to do in Ukraine, albeit not in the same manner. Instead of trying to moderate the histories that get written into a book, Russia is trying to instead manipulate the history that will be taught in schools. Russia is not the only country who has attempted to massage the details of their history. An example of this in very recent U.S. history would be the 1776 project begun by former President Donald Trump. The 1776 project was aimed to provide American children with a “patriotic education,” ostensibly defending the link between America’s founding and the legacy of slavery, while also likening modern-day progressivism to fascism.
It is interesting to note that official histories are often written when things go wrong. Empires tend to fixate on knowledge production and legacy the most when the seams are unraveling beneath them. The change in curriculum comes at a time when Putin is losing his grip in Ukraine; he is trying to force Russian identity into Ukraine, in an effort to try and justify its continued presence in Ukraine. This is an echo of what occurred in the Byzantine Empire under Justinian’s reign. Justinian urged Procopius to write about all the battles he was winning in Italy when, in reality, his armies were being annihilated in the fields and his captured territories being reconquered.
Procopius’ writings help to better understand the present in the sense that they offer a word of warning about the ways in which empires will go about revising history. The state-sponsored history in Russian-occupied Ukraine, the official histories written by Procopius, and the 1776 project in the United States (among many other examples) are echoes of one another, with each shedding light on the ways in which nations alter their history to better suit their needs.
This poem moves from praising the victory of Hiero’s horses at Olympos to the tale of Croesus’ reaction to the sacking of Sardis. In this version of the tale, he prepares to sacrifice his family on a pyre. The story is, well, a bit horrifying.
Bacchylides, Victory Odes 3.1-60
“Kleio, sweetness-giver, sing of Demeter
Who rules rich-grained Sicily, and also
Her purple-crowned daughter, and the swift
Olympic-racing horses of Hiero.
For they rushed with overwhelming Victory
And Glory alongside the broad-eddying
Alpheos where they made the blessed son of Deinomenes
A master of the crowns.
And the people shouted out:
“Oh, thrice-blessed man
Who obtained from Zeus
The widest-ruling power of all the Greeks
And knows not to hide his towered health
With black-cloaked shadow.
The temples overflow with sacrificial feasts
And the streets overflow with hospitality.
And god shines too in glancing light
From the tall-wrought tripods which were set up
In front of the temple where the Delphians
Take care of the greatest grove of Apollo
Alongside the waters of Kastalia—let someone
Glory in god, in god—this is the best of the blessings.
For once there was a time when
Even though the Sardians were sacked by the Persian army
Because Zeus had brought to an end
The judgment which was fated,
The leader of the horse-taming
Lydians, Kroisos, golden-sworded
Apollo protected. For Kroisos,
When he had come to that lamentable, unhoped for day
Was not about to wait for slavery any more. But he
Had a pyre built up in front of his bronze-walled yard.
There he climbed up with his dear wife
And his well-tressed daughters who were
Mourning uncontrollably. Then he raised his hands
Up to the high sky above
And he shouted: “Powerful god
Where is divine gratitude now?
Where is Leto’s son the lord?
Alyattes’ halls are falling down.
[what of the] myriad [gifts I gave you?]
[What trust can mortals give to gods?]
[Look now, the enemy has sacked my] city,
And the gold-eddying Paktôlos runs red
With blood and women are shamefully dragged away
From the well-built halls.
What was hated before is now dear. Dying is the sweetest thing.”
So much he said, and he ordered his light-stepping attendant
To Set fire to the wooden home. Then the girls were crying out
And they were throwing their hands to their
Mother. For mortals most hateful death
Is the one we see coming.
But as the shining strength
Of the terrible fire was leaping forth
Zeus sent over a dark-covering cloud
To extinguish the yellow flame.
Nothing is unbelievable when divine care
Makes it. Then Delian-born Apollo
Carried the old man to the Hyperboreans
And settled him there with his thin-ankled daughters
Because of his piety, because he sent to sacred Pytho
Gifts greatest of all the mortals.