Charlatans With Unjustified Confidence and Unmeasured Words

M. Cornelius Fronto to Marcus Aurelius (c. 139 CE)

“I believe that a lack of experience and learning is completely preferable in all arts to partial experience and incomplete education. For one who knows that he has no experience in an art tries less and fails less thanks to that. In fact, such hesitation limits arrogance. But whenever anyone uses knowing something lightly as expertise he makes many mistakes because of false confidence.

So, people claim that it is better to never taste Philosophy than to sample it lightly, as it is said, with just the lips. Those men turn out to be the most malicious kind, who travel to a discipline’s entrance and turn away rather than going completely inside. It is still possible in other arts that you can play a part for a while and seem experienced in what you do not know. But in how to choose and arrange words, one shines through immediately when he cannot provide any words but those that show his ignorance of them, that he judges them poorly, provides them rashly, and cannot know either their usage or their strength.”

1. Omnium artium, ut ego arbitror, imperitum et indoctum omnino esse praestat quam semiperitum ac semidoctum. Nam qui sibi conscius est artis expertem esse minus adtemptat, eoque minus praecipitat; diffidentia profecto audaciam prohibet. At ubi quis leviter quid cognitum pro comperto | ostentat, falsa fiducia multifariam labitur. Philosophiae quoque disciplinas aiunt satius esse numquam adtigisse quam leviter et primoribus, ut dicitur, labiis delibasse, eosque provenire malitiosissimos, qui in vestibulo artis obversati prius inde averterint quam penetraverint. Tamen est in aliis artibus ubi interdum delitescas et peritus paulisper habeare quod nescias. In verbis vero eligendis conlocandisque ilico dilucet, nec verba dare diu quis1 potest, quin se ipse indicet verborum ignarum esse, eaque male probare et temere existimare et inscie contrectare, neque modum neque pondus verbi internosse.


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Fresco, Mercury (Pompeii)


“Beware the many, if you do not fear the one”

From the Historia Augusta, on the two Maximini, IX

“In order to hide his low birth, he had everyone who knew about it killed—not a few of them were friends who had often given him much because of his pitiable poverty. And there was never a crueler animal on the earth, placing all in his strength as if he could not be killed. Finally, when he believed that he was nearly immortal because of the magnitude of his body and bravery, there was a certain actor whom they report recited some Greek lines when he was present in the theater which had this Latin translation:

Even he who cannot be killed by one is killed by many
The elephant is large and he is killed.
The lion is brave and he is killed
The tiger is brave and he is killed.
Beware the many if you do not fear the one.

And these words were recited while the emperor was there. But when he asked his friends what the little clown had said, they claimed he was singing some old lines written against mean men. And, since he was Thracian and barbarian, believed this.”

IX. nam ignobilitatis tegendae causa omnes conscios generis sui interemit, nonnullos etiam amicos, qui ei saepe misericordiae paupertatis causa pleraque donaverant. neque enim fuit crudelius animal in terris, omnia sic in viribus suis ponens quasi non posset occidi. denique cum immortalem se prope crederet ob magnitudinem corporis virtutisque, mimus quidam in theatro praesente illo dicitur versus Graecos dixisse, quorum haec erat Latina sententia:

“Et qui ab uno non potest occidi, a multis occiditur.

elephans grandis est et occiditur,
leo fortis est et occiditur,
tigris fortis est et occiditur;
cave multos, si singulos non times.”

et haec imperatore ipso praesente iam dicta sunt. sed cum interrogaret amicos, quid mimicus scurra dixisset, dictum est ei quod antiquos versus cantaret contra homines asperos scriptos; et ille, ut erat Thrax et barbarus, credidit.


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I am big. Really big. Everyone is saying that, not me. I mean, look how big I am.

A Failure of Education: Commodus’ Cruelty

From the Historia Augusta on Commodus, 1

“Therefore, when his brother had passed, Marcus tried to educate Commodus with his own writings and those of famous and prominent men. As teachers he had Onesicrates for Greek literature, Antistius Capella for Latin and Ateius Sanctus for rhetoric.

But teachers of so many disciplines were useless in his case—such was the power of his native character or of those who were kept as instructors in the palace. For from his early childhood, Commodus was nasty, dishonest, cruel, desirous, foul-mouthed, and corrupted. For he was already a craftsman in those things which were not proper to the imperial class, such as making chalices, dancing, singing, whistling, playing a fool, and acting the perfect gladiator.

When he was twelve years old, he provided an omen of his cruelty at Centumcellae. For, when his bath was accidentally too cool, he ordered that the bath-slave be thrown into the furnace. Then, the slave who was ordered this, burned a sheep’s skin into the furnace, so that he might convince the punishment was performed through the foulness of the smell.”

mortuo igitur fratre Commodum Marcus et suis praeceptis et magnorum atque optimorum virorum erudire conatus est. habuit litteratorem Graecum Onesicratem, Latinum Capellam Antistium; orator ei Ateius Sanctus fuit.

Sed tot disciplinarum magistri nihil ei profuerunt. tantum valet aut ingenii vis aut eorum qui in aula institutores habentur. nam a prima statim pueritia turpis, improbus, crudelis, libidinosus, ore quoque pollutus et constupratus fuit. iam in his artifex, quae stationis imperatoriae non erant, ut calices fingeret, saltaret, cantaret, sibilaret, scurram denique et gladiatorem perfectum ostenderet. auspicium crudelitatis apud Centumcellas dedit anno aetatis duodecimo. nam cum tepidius forte lautus esset, balneatorem in fornacem conici iussit; quando a paedagogo, cui hoc iussum fuerat, vervecina pellis in fornace consumpta est, ut fidem poenae de foetore nidoris impleret.


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Retreat or Resist? Seneca and Plutarch Disagree on Peace of Mind

How do we maintain equanimity in the midst of chaos? It is probably not at all coincidental that I keep turning to authors from the Roman Imperial period for answers….

Seneca, Moral Epistle 94.68-69

“Don’t believe it is possible for anyone to be happy because of someone else’s unhappiness. The these examples placed before our ears and ears, must be taken apart—we have to empty our hearts of the corrupting tales that fill them. Virtue must be introduced into the place they held—a virtue which can uproot these lies and contrafactual ideologies; a virtue which may separate us from the people whom we have trusted too much, to return us to sane beliefs. This is wisdom, truly: to be returned to a prior state and to that place from where public sickness dislodged us. A great part of health is to have rejected the champions of madness and to have abandoned that union which was destructive for everyone involved.”

Non est quod credas quemquam fieri aliena infelicitate felicem. Omnia ista exempla, quae oculis atque auribus nostris ingeruntur, retexenda sunt et plenum malis sermonibus pectus exhauriendum. Inducenda in occupatum locum virtus, quae mendacia et contra verum placentia exstirpet, quae nos a populo, cui nimis credimus, separet ac sinceris opinionibus reddat. Hoc est enim sapientia, in naturam converti et eo restitui,unde publicus error expulerit. Magna pars sanitatis est hortatores insaniae reliquisse et ex isto coitu invicem noxio procul abisse.

Seneca seems to be unfamiliar with schadenfreude (probably because it was a Greek word). Or, perhaps he refuses to acknowledge it as real tranquility. Plutarch may have agreed that Seneca’s prescription was good for attaining ataraxia, but Plutarch does not see it as a efficacious for mental health. 

Plutarch, On the Tranquility of the Mind 465c-d

“The one who said that “it is necessary that someone who would be tranquil avoid doing much both in private and public” makes tranquility extremely pricey for us since its price is doing nothing. This would be like advising a sick man “Wretch, stay unmoving in your sheets” [Eur. Orestes 258.].

And certainly, depriving the body of experience is bad medicine for mental illness. The doctor of the mind is no better who would relieve it of trouble and pain through laziness, softness and the betrayal of friends, relatives and country. Therefore, it is also a lie that tranquility comes to those who don’t do much. For it would be necessary for women to be more tranquil than men since they do most everything at home….”

Ὁ μὲν οὖν εἰπὼν ὅτι “δεῖ τὸν εὐθυμεῖσθαι μέλλοντα μὴ πολλὰ πρήσσειν μήτε ἰδίῃ μήτε ξυνῇ,” πρῶτον μὲν ἡμῖν πολυτελῆ τὴν εὐθυμίαν καθίστησι, γινομένην ὤνιον ἀπραξίας· οἷον ἀρρώστῳ παραινῶν ἑκάστῳ
μέν᾿, ὦ ταλαίπωρ᾿, ἀτρέμα σοῖς ἐν δεμνίοις.
καίτοι κακὸν μὲν ἀναισθησία σώματος φάρμακον ἀπονοίας· οὐδὲν δὲ βελτίων ψυχῆς ἰατρὸς ὁ ῥᾳθυμίᾳ καὶ μαλακίᾳ καὶ προδοσίᾳ φίλων καὶ οἰκείων καὶ πατρίδος ἐξαιρῶν τὸ ταραχῶδες αὐτῆς καὶ λυπηρόν.
Ἔπειτα καὶ ψεῦδός ἐστι τὸ εὐθυμεῖν τοὺς μὴ πολλὰ πράσσοντας. ἔδει γὰρ εὐθυμοτέρας εἶναι γυναῖκας ἀνδρῶν οἰκουρίᾳ τὰ πολλὰ συνούσας·

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Polemon The Sophist Was Rather Impolite (Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists 535)

“Once when an actor of tragedy from the Olympian games in Asia presided over by Polemon, promised to sue him because he had kicked him out at the beginning of his play, the Emperor [Marcus Aurelius] asked the actor what time it was when this happed. When the actor said that it occurred around midday, the Emperor responded wittily: “Well he kicked me out of his house in the middle of the night and I didn’t sue him.”

Let these details be a clear sign of both a mild emperor and an arrogant man. Polemon was so conceited that he talked to cities as if they were beneath him, to rulers as if they were not above him and to gods as if an equal.

When he gave a performance of improvised speeches to the Athenians upon his first visit to the city, he did not deign to offer praise for the city even though there are many things which one might say on Athens’ behalf. Nor did he expatiate on his own fame, even though this approach often benefitted sophists in their performances. No, because he knew well that it was natural for Athenians to need to be restrained rather than be encouraged, he spoke as follows: “They say that you, Athenians, are wise audiences of speeches. I will test this.”

And when a man, who ruled the Bosporus and was outfitted with all types of Greek learning, came to Smyrna to learn about Ionia, Polemon not only failed to take his place among the attendants, but he put the man off frequently even when he requested an audience until he forced the lord to come to his own house carrying a payment of ten talents.

When he arrived in Pergamon, because he was sick in his joints, he convalesced in a temple. When Asclepius appeared to him and advised him to refrain from cold drinks, Polemon said, “Dear man, what if you were tending to a cow?”

ὑποκριτοῦ δὲ τραγῳδίας ἀπὸ τῶν κατὰ τὴν ᾿Ασίαν ᾿Ολυμπίων, οἷς ἐπεστάτει ὁ Πολέμων, ἐφιέναι φήσαντος, ἐξελαθῆναι γὰρ παρ’ αὐτοῦ κατ’ ἀρχὰς τοῦ δράματος, ἤρετο ὁ αὐτοκράτωρ τὸν ὑποκριτήν, πηνίκα εἴη, ὅτε τῆς σκηνῆς ἠλάθη, τοῦ δὲ εἰπόντος, ὡς μεσημβρία τυγχάνοι οὖσα, μάλα ἀστείως ὁ αὐτοκράτωρ „ἐμὲ δὲ” εἶπεν „ἀμφὶ μέσας νύκτας ἐξήλασε τῆς οἰκίας, καὶ οὐκ ἐφῆκα.”

᾿Εχέτω μοι [καὶ] ταῦτα δήλωσιν βασιλέως τε πρᾴου καὶ ἀνδρὸς ὑπέρφρονος. ὑπέρφρων γὰρ δὴ οὕτω τι ὁ Πολέμων, ὡς πόλεσι μὲν ἀπὸ τοῦ προὔχοντος, δυνασταῖς δὲ ἀπὸ τοῦ μὴ ὑφειμένου, θεοῖς δὲ ἀπὸ τοῦ ἴσου διαλέγεσθαι. ᾿Αθηναίοις μὲν γὰρ ἐπιδεικνύμενος αὐτοσχεδίους λόγους, ὅτε καὶ πρῶτον ᾿Αθήναζε ἀφίκετο, οὐκ ἐς ἐγκώμια κατέστησεν ἑαυτὸν τοῦ ἄστεος, τοσούτων ὄντων, ἅ τις ὑπὲρ ᾿Αθηναίων ἂν εἴποι, οὐδ’ ὑπὲρ τῆς ἑαυτοῦ δόξης ἐμακρηγόρησε, καίτοι καὶ τῆς τοιᾶσδε ἰδέας ὠφελούσης τοὺς σοφιστὰς ἐν ταῖς ἐπιδείξεσιν, ἀλλ’ εὖ γιγνώσκων, ὅτι τὰς ᾿Αθηναίων φύσεις ἐπικόπτειν χρὴ μᾶλλον ἢ ἐπαίρειν διελέχθη ὧδε· „φασὶν ὑμᾶς, ὦ ᾿Αθηναῖοι, σοφοὺς εἶναι ἀκροατὰς λόγων· εἴσομαι.” ἀνδρὸς δέ, ὃς ἦρχε μὲν Βοσπόρου, πᾶσαν δὲ ῾Ελληνικὴν παίδευσιν ἥρμοστο, καθ’ ἱστορίαν τῆς ᾿Ιωνίας ἐς τὴν Σμύρναν ἥκοντος οὐ μόνον οὐκ ἔταξεν ἑαυτὸν ἐν τοῖς θεραπεύουσιν, ἀλλὰ καὶ δεομένου ξυνεῖναί οἱ θαμὰ ἀνεβάλλετο, ἕως ἠνάγκασε τὸν βασιλέα ἐπὶ θύρας ἀφικέσθαι ἀπάγοντα μισθοῦ δέκα τάλαντα. ἥκων δὲ ἐς τὸ Πέργαμον, ὅτε δὴ τὰ ἄρθρα ἐνόσει, κατέδαρθε μὲν ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ, ἐπιστάντος δὲ αὐτῷ τοῦ ᾿Ασκληπιοῦ καὶ προειπόντος ἀπέχεσθαι ψυχροῦ ποτοῦ ὁ Πολέμων „βέλτιστε,” εἶπεν „εἰ δὲ βοῦν ἐθεράπευες;”

I must confess that I couldn’t convey Polemo’s nastiness to the Athenians well enough in the translation. In addition, I really don’t know what is going on with his comments to Asclepius.

He Did Not Finish His Father’s Projects! Commodus’ Sudden and Unfruitful End

Historia Augusta: Commodus Antoninus 17.1-8

“Compelled by these things, but still too late, the prefect of the guard, Quintus Aemilius Laetus, and his concubine, Marcia initiated a conspiracy for killing [Commodus]. First, they poisoned him. When this did not work out, they had him strangled to death by an athlete he used to exercise with.

Commodus had a decent body with a vacant expression, as is often the case for drunkards. His speech was not sophisticated, his hair was always dyed and shining thanks to gold dust—and thanks to a fear of the barber, he used to shorten his hair by singeing it.

The senate and the people requested that his body be dragged by hook and then put into the Tiber. But, later, thanks to the command of Pertinax, it was installed in Hadrian’s Mausoleum.

No public buildings remain from his time apart from the bath which Cleander built in his name. And the senate erased the name he had inscribed on the works of others. He did not even complete his father’s projects.”

His incitati, licet nimis sero, Quintus Aemilius Laetus Marcia concubina eius inierunt coniurationem ad occidendum eum. 2 Primumque ei venenum dederunt; quod cum minus operaretur, per athletam, cum quo exerceri solebat, eum strangularunt. 3 Fuit forma quidem corporis iusta, vultu insubido, ut ebriosi solent, et sermone incondito, capillo semper fucato et auri ramentis inluminato, adurens comam et barbam timore tonsoris. 4 Corpus eius ut unco traheretur atque in Tiberim mitteretur, senatus et populus postulavit, sed postea iussu Pertinacis in monumentum Hadriani translatum est. 5 Opera eius praeter Iavacrum, quod Cleander nomine ipsius fecerat, nulla exstant. 6 Sed nomen eius alienis operibus incisum senatus erasit. 7 Nec patris autem sui opera perfecit.

Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius and inspiration for the mad emperor in Gladiator, was actually a roman emperor who reigned from 180-191 CE.

Here’s a statue made during his lifetime depicting him as Herakles:


The Senate Loved Augustus for His Virtue, Clemency, Justice and Piety. Truly.

Yesterday we posted a bit from Ovid’s Tristia where he appears to be a little less than sincere in his lament from exile. Today, here’s a bit from the man who allegedly exiled him–Augustus Caesar–which I do wish were a little more ironic. The full Greek and Latin texts are drawn from the Loeb and made available online by Lacus Curtius.

“In my sixth and seventh consulships [28-27 BCE], after I had ended the civil wars and had achieved power over everything by universal consensus, I returned the state from my control to the guidance of the senate and Roman people. For this, the senate decreed that I would be named Augustus: the door posts of my house were decorated with laurel; a public crown was put up over my doorway, and a golden shield was dedicated in the Curia Julia, whose inscription declared that the senate and people of Rome gave it to me to recognize my virtue, clemency, justice and piety. After that moment, I stood apart from all other men in authority, but I had no more power than those who were my associates in any magistracy.”

In consulatu sexto et septimo, postquam bella civilia exstinxeram, per consensum universorum potitus rerum omnium, rem publicam ex mea potestate in senatus populique Romani arbitrium transtuli. Quo pro merito meo senatus consulto Augustus appellatus sum et laureis postes aedium mearum vestiti publice coronaque civica super ianuam meam fixa est et clupeus aureus in curia Iulia positus, quem mihi senatum populumque Romanum dare virtutis clementiaeque et iustitiae et pietatis caussa testatum est per eius clupei inscriptionem. Post id tempus auctoritate omnibus praestiti, potestatis autem nihilo amplius habui quam ceteri qui mihi quoque in magistratu conlegae fuerunt.

34 Ἑν ὑπατείαι ἔκτηι καὶ ἑβδόμηι μετὰ τὸ τοὺς ἐνφυλίους ζβέσαι με πολέμους κατὰ τὰς εὐχὰς τῶν ἐμῶν πολειτῶν ἐνκρατὴς γενόμενος πάντων τῶν πραγμάτων, ἐκ τῆς ἐμῆς ἐξουσίας εἰς τὴν τῆς συν κλήτου καὶ τοῦ δήμου τῶν Ῥωμαίων μετήνεγκα κυριήαν. Ἐξ ἧς αἰτίας δόγματι συνκλήτου Σεβαστὸς προσηγορεύθην καὶ δάφναις δημοσίαι τὰ πρόπυλά μου ἐστέφθη, ὅ τε δρύινος στέφανος ὁ διδόμενος ἐπὶ σωτηρίᾳ τῶν πολειτῶν ὑπεράνω τοῦ πυλῶ2 νος τῆς ἐμῆς οἰκίας ἀνετέθη, ὅπλον τε χρυσοῦν ἐν τῶι βουλευτηρίωι ἀνατεθὲν ὑπό τε τῆς συνκλήτου καὶ τοῦ δήμου τῶν Ῥωμαίων διὰ τῆς ἐπιγραφῆς ἀρετὴν καὶ ἐπείκειαν καὶ δικαιοσύνην καὶ εὐσέβειαν ἐμοὶ μαρτυρεῖ. Ἀξιώμὰτι πάντων διήνεγκα, § ἐξουσίας δὲ οὐδέν τι πλεῖον ἔσχον τῶν συναρξάντων μοι.

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