: On The Pointlessness of Biased History

Polybius, Histories 1.14

“I am also compelled to understand this war by something no less important than anything else I have already said—the fact that those who seem most qualified to write about it…have not sufficiently reported the truth.

I do not suspect that these men lie willingly (based on their manner of life and their choices), but they do seem to me to have suffered in the way that lovers do….It is certainly right for a good man to be loyal to his friends, to be patriotic, and to commiserate in his friend’s hatreds and take pleasure in his friends; but whenever someone takes up the historian’s post, he must banish all of these biases to the point of often gracing his enemies with the finest praise when their actions deserve it and also often rebuking and blaming those closest to him, whenever they reveal to him errors worthy of it. For, just as closed eyes make the rest of an animal useless, what is left from a history blind to the truth is just a pointless tale.”

Οὐχ ἧττον δὲ τῶν προειρημένων παρωξύνθην ἐπιστῆσαι τούτῳ τῷ πολέμῳ καὶ διὰ τὸ τοὺς ἐμπειρότατα δοκοῦντας γράφειν ὑπὲρ αὐτοῦ, Φιλῖνον καὶ Φάβιον, μὴ δεόντως ἡμῖν ἀπηγγελκέναι τὴν ἀλήθειαν. ἑκόντας μὲν οὖν ἐψεῦσθαι τοὺς ἄνδρας οὐχ ὑπολαμβάνω, στοχαζόμενος ἐκ τοῦ βίου καὶ τῆς αἱ-ρέσεως αὐτῶν· δοκοῦσι δέ μοι πεπονθέναι τι παραπλήσιον τοῖς ἐρῶσι… · καὶ γὰρ φιλόφιλον εἶναι δεῖ τὸν ἀγαθὸν ἄνδρα καὶ φιλόπατριν καὶ συμμισεῖν τοῖς φίλοις τοὺς ἐχθροὺς καὶ συναγαπᾶν τοὺς φίλους· ὅταν δὲ τὸ τῆς ἱστορίας ἦθος ἀναλαμ-βάνῃ τις, ἐπιλαθέσθαι χρὴ πάντων τῶν τοιούτων καὶ πολλάκις μὲν εὐλογεῖν καὶ κοσμεῖν τοῖς μεγίστοις ἐπαίνοις τοὺς ἐχθρούς, ὅταν αἱ πράξεις ἀπαιτῶσι τοῦτο, πολλάκις δ’ ἐλέγχειν καὶ ψέγειν ἐπονειδίστως τοὺς ἀναγκαιοτάτους, ὅταν αἱ τῶν ἐπιτηδευμάτων ἁμαρτίαι τοῦθ’ ὑποδεικνύωσιν. ὥσπερ γὰρ ζῴου τῶν ὄψεων ἀφαιρεθεισῶν ἀχρειοῦται τὸ ὅλον, οὕτως ἐξ ἱστορίας ἀναιρεθείσης τῆς ἀληθείαςτὸ καταλειπόμενον αὐτῆς ἀνωφελὲς γίνεται διήγημα.

Ancient Greek Monuments, Temple of Athena, Theatre of Dionysus

The Mind Rules All (Or Fails…)

Sallust, Bellum Jugurthinum 1

“The race of man complains wrongly about its nature, namely the fact that it is feeble in strength, limited in years and ruled more by chance than virtue. To the contrary, you can realize through contemplation that nothing else is greater or more extraordinary—that human nature lacks only perseverance instead of strength or time.

The leader and ruler of mortal life is the mind. When it proceeds to glory along virtue’s path, it is fully powerful, potent and famous; it does not need fortune since fortune cannot grant or revoke honesty, perseverance, or any other good quality from any man.

But a mind seized by desires is dedicated to laziness and worn by obedience to physical pleasure; accustomed to ruinous temptation for too long, when, thanks to sloth, strength, age and wit have diminished, only then is the weakness of nature at fault. Every man shifts his own responsibility to his circumstances.”

[1] Falso queritur de natura sua genus humanum, quod inbecilla atque aevi brevis forte potius quam virtute regatur. Nam contra reputando neque maius aliud neque praestabilius invenias magisque naturae industriam hominum quam vim aut tempus deesse. Sed dux atque imperator vitae mortalium animus est. Qui ubi ad gloriam virtutis via grassatur, abunde pollens potensque et clarus est neque fortuna eget, quippe quae probitatem, industriam aliasque artis bonas neque dare neque eripere cuiquam potest. Sin captus pravis cupidinibus ad inertiam et voluptates corporis pessum datus est, perniciosa libidine paulisper usus, ubi per socordiam vires tempus ingenium diffluxere, naturae infirmitas accusatur: suam quisque culpam auctores ad negotia transferunt.

BH- Zeus Olympia

I can’t help but thinking that maybe Sallust had read (or heard) the beginning of the Odyssey where Zeus complains that Aigisthus ignored divine warnings (1.32-34)

ὢ πόποι, οἷον δή νυ θεοὺς βροτοὶ αἰτιόωνται.
ἐξ ἡμέων γάρ φασι κάκ’ ἔμμεναι• οἱ δὲ καὶ αὐτοὶ
σφῇσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν ὑπὲρ μόρον ἄλγε’ ἔχουσιν

“Mortals! They are always blaming the gods and saying that evil comes from us when they themselves suffer pain beyond their lot because of their own recklessness.”

But, of course, there is a typically eclectic blend of Roman philosophy in Sallust’s statements: some Stoicism, an echo, perhaps, of Empedocles and much more….

Sulla As Dictator and the Evils of Civil War

Velleius Paterculus 2.28

“The evils of the civil war seemed to have ended when they were rekindled by Sulla’s cruelty. Once he was made dictator—and this honor had been avoided for a hundred and twenty years since the last time it had been used was one year after Hannibal quit Italy—and it is obvious that the fear which prompted the Roman people to want a dictator was less than how much they feared his power. As dictator, Sulla applied the power which earlier dictators had used only to save the country from the greatest dangers with unmeasured degrees of savagery.

He was the first—and I wish he had been the last—to discover the model of proscription with the result that in the same state in which legal recourse is available to an actor booed from the stage, in that state a price was set for the murder of a Roman citizen: he would have the most who killed the most! The reward for the killing of an enemy would be no greater than for the murder of a citizen.

In essence, each man was valued for the price of his own death. Such savagery was applied not only to those who had carried arms against them, but against many innocents too. In addition to this, the goods of the proscribed were offered for sale: children already deprived of their father’s goods were also prohibited from the right of seeking public office and, the most unjust thing of all, they had to maintain the standards of their social rank without recourse to the rights.”

Videbantur finita belli civilis mala, cum Sullae crudelitate aucta sunt. Quippe dictator creatus (cuius honoris usurpatio per annos centum et viginti intermissa; nam proximus post annum quam Hannibal Italia excesserat, uti adpareat populum Romanum usum dictatoris haud metu desiderasse tali quo timuisset potestatem) imperio, quo priores ad vindicandam maximis periculis rem publicam olim usi erant, eo in inmodicae crudelitatis licentiam usus est.3 Primus ille, et utinam ultimus, exemplum proscriptionis invenit, ut in qua civitate petularitis convicii iudicium histrioni ex albo redditur, in ea iugulati civis Romani publice constitueretur auctoramentum, plurimumque haberet, qui plurimos interemisset, neque occisi hostis quam civis uberius foret praemium Geretque quisque merces mortis suae.4 Nec tantum in eos, qui contra arma tulerant, sed in multos insontis saevitum. Adiectum etiam, ut bona proscriptorum venirent exclusique paternis opibus liberi etiam petendorum honorum iure prohiberentur simulque, quod indignissimum est, senatorum filii et onera ordinis sustinerent et iura perderent.

Sulla - Wikipedia

What Should One Learn from Early Histories?

Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, Praefatio 9

“But these tales and those like them—whether to ponder them or how to weigh them—I don’t emphasize greatly. Let anyone who reads these instead pay attention to what life was like, what the customs were, through which men and by which skills the empire was born and increased. And, when discipline bit by bit deteriorated, how at first customs degraded with desire, then they collapsed more and more, then they began to fall headlong until we came to our own time when we can endure neither our sins nor their remedies.”

ad haec tempora quibus nec vitia nostra nec remedia pati possumus. Sed haec et his similia utcumque animaduersa aut existimata erunt haud in magno equidem ponam discrimine: ad illa mihi pro se quisque acriter intendat animum, quae vita, qui mores fuerint, per quos viros quibusque artibus domi militiaeque et partum et auctum imperium sit; labente deinde paulatim disciplina velut desidentes primo mores sequatur animo, deinde ut magis magisque lapsi sint, tum ire coeperint praecipites, donec ad haec tempora quibus nec vitia nostra nec remedia pati possumus perventum est.

Elections or Street Violence

Cicero, Letters to Atticus 4.3 [22 November 57]

“The candidate Marcellus has been snoring so loudly that his neighbor—me—can hear him. I have learned that Clodius’ yard is almost completely empty, only a few nobodies with a lamp. They all claim that this has come about thanks to my plan, ignorant of how much is in the spirit of that Milo, and how great his judgment is too.

I won’t talk about certain recent miracles, but this is the essence of it. I don’t think the elections will happen, Clodius will be a defendant, unless he is killed beforehand and I think it is in Milo’s hands. If he thrusts himself into that mob, I suspect that he will be killed by Milo himself. He is not at all in doubt about it and looks forward to it. He does not fear what I faced—he’s never going to listen to jealous and deceptive advice or trust his life to a lazy nobility.”

Marcellus candidatus ita stertebat ut ego vicinus audirem. Clodi vestibulum vacuum sane mihi nuntiabatur: pauci pannosi sine lanterna. <m>eo consilio omnia illi fieri querebantur, ignari quantum in illo hero<e> esset animi, quantum etiam consili. miranda virtus est. nova quaedam divina mitto, sed haec summa est: comitia fore non arbitror, reum Publium, nisi ante occisus erit, fore a Milone puto; si se in turba ei iam obtulerit, occisum iri ab ipso Milone video. non dubitat facere, prae se fert; casum illum nostrum non extimescit. numquam enim cuiusquam invidi et perfidi consilio est us<ur>us nec inerti nobili<tati> crediturus.

Cicero denouncing Cataline (from The Comic History of Rome, c. 1850)

If Our Republic Falls Apart

Cicero, Letters to Friends 6.2 To A. Torquatus, April 45

“Truly our republic will either be oppressed by constant fighting, will flourish again if weapons or put down, or face complete ruin. If we turn to fighting, you don’t need to worry about which side forgives you or which you help. If we put weapons down in a treaty, give them up in exhaustion, or have them taken away in victory, the the state will breathe anew and you will be allowed to enjoy your status and your luck. But if everything falls apart—that every outcome which the most prudent man, Marcus Antonius was already fearing when he gazed at the great, impending destruction—then one solace will remain for you, even if it is sad however necessary for someone like you: that what happens to an individual will need be mourned no less than what has transpired for the state.

The detail contained in these few words—and there would have been more best not written in a letter—you will understand something you probably already do without any update from me that you have something to hope for and nothing to be afraid of in this or any other state. If all goes to hell, then you must bear what chance brings since you would not wish to survive the end of the republic, even if it is possible, especially since you are free of guilt. That’s enough of these things.”

est enim aut armis urgeri rem publicam sempiternis aut iis positis recreari aliquando aut funditus interire. si arma valebunt, nec eos a quibus reciperis vereri debes nec eos quos adiuvisti; si armis aut condicione positis aut defatigatione abiectis aut victoria detractis civitas respiraverit, et dignitate tua frui tibi et fortunis licebit; sin omnino interierint omnia fueritque is exitus quem vir prudentissimus, M. Antonius, iam tum timebat cum tantum instare malorum suspicabatur, misera est illa quidem consolatio, tali praesertim civi et viro, sed tamen necessaria, nihil esse praecipue cuiquam dolendum in eo quod accidat universis.

Quae vis insit in his paucis verbis (plura enim committenda epistulae non erant) si attendes, quod facis profecto etiam sine meis litteris, intelleges te aliquid habere quod speres, nihil quod aut hoc aut aliquo rei publicae statu timeas; omnia si interierint, cum superstitem te esse rei publicae ne si liceat quidem velis, ferendam esse fortunam, praesertim quae absit a culpa. sed haec hactenus.

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Cicero

Divine Justice is a Lot Slower than it Used to Be

Anonymus, Origin of the Roman Tribe, 18, 2

“Aremulus Silvius ruled after him, and he was reported to be a man of such arrogance against not only humans but even against the gods that he declared that he was greater than Jupiter and when the sky was thundering told his troops to slap their shields with their swords to make a louder sound.

Well, he suffered retribution for this almost immediately: he was struck by lightning, ripped away by a wind, and plunged into the Alban Lake, according to the fourth book of the Annals and in the second Epitome following Piso. Aufidius claims in his Epitome—and Domitius repeats this in his first book—that Aremulus was not hit by lightning, but that he was immersed in the Alban Lake along with his whole palace thanks to an earthquake.”

Post eum regnavit Aremulus Silvius, qui tantae superbiae non adversum homines modo, sed etiam deos fuisse traditur, ut praedicaret superiorem se esse ipso Jove ac tonante caelo militibus imperaret, ut telis clipeos quaterent, dictitaretque clariorem sonum se facere. (3) qui tamen praesenti affectus est poena; nam fulmine ictus raptusque turbine in Albanum lacum praecipitatus est, ut scriptum est Annalium libro quarto et Epitomarum Pisonis secundo. (4) Aufidius sane in Epitomis et Domitius libro primo non fulmine ictum, sed terrae motu prolapsam simul cum eo regiam in Albanum lacum tradunt.

The status of Zeus at Tonnerre de Zeus at Parc Astérix

Sergius, Victor Over Fortune

Pliny, Natural History 7.104-106

“Even though the great accomplishments of Sergio’s virtue are clear in these deeds, the impact of fortune is greater. I do not think that anyone can justly rank any person higher than Marcus Sergius—even with his great-grandson Catiline undermining his name.

Sergius lost his right hand in his second expedition; in two campaigns he received twenty-three wounds and even though he was disabled in both hands and both feet, his spirit was still whole and he still served on many campaigns despite his disabilities. He was captured twice by Hannibal—for he was no regular enemy at all—and escaped twice from his chains even though he was guarded in bonds or shackles every day for 20 months.

He fought only with his left hand four times and had two horses he was riding on killed under him. He made an iron right had for himself and with that tied on, he ended the siege at Cremona, rescued Placentia, and seized twelve hostile camps in Gaul. All these exploits are told in his speech during his quaestorship when his senatorial colleagues wanted to expel him from the sacrifices because he was disabled—this man who would have made a heap of wreaths had he faced a different enemy. How much a difference the times in which your virtue emerges matters! What civic rewards were offered by Trebbia, Ticinus or Trasimine? What crowns were earned after Cannae, where the greatest virtue was flight? Others were victors over men, only Sergius conquered fortune.”

Verum in his sunt quidem virtutis opera magna, sed maiora fortunae: M. Sergio, ut equidem arbitror, nemo quemquam hominum iure praetulerit, licet pronepos Catilina gratiam nomini deroget. secundo stipendio dextram manum perdidit, stipendiis duobus ter et vicies vulneratus est, ob id neutra manu, neutro pede satis utilis, animo tantum salvo, plurimis postea stipendiis debilis miles. bis ab Hannibale captus—neque enim cum quolibet hoste res fuit—,bis vinculorum eius profugus, in viginti mensibus nullo non die in catenis aut compedibus custoditus. sinistra manu sola quater pugnavit, duobus equis insidente eo suffossis. dextram sibi ferream fecit, eaque religata proeliatus Cremonam obsidione exemit, Placentiam tutatus est, duodena castra hostium in Gallia cepit, quae omnia ex oratione eius apparent habita cum in praetura sacris arceretur a collegis ut debilis, quos hic coronarum acervos constructurus hoste mutato! etenim plurimum refert in quae cuiusque virtus tempora inciderit. quas Trebia Ticinusve aut Trasimenus civicas dedere? quae Cannis corona merita, unde fugisse virtutis summum opus fuit? ceteri profecto victores hominum fuere, Sergius vicit etiam fortunam

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As the amazing Dr. Liv Yarrow recently let me know, there is a coin commemorating Sergius. Check out her post. She also wrote an awesome follow-up.

A Tyranny Gained Through Luck

Sallust, Letter to Caesar 2.3

“While the courts just as in previous eras have been run by the three orders, those political factions still rule them: they give and take what they may, giving the innocent the runaround and heaping honors on their own. Neither crime nor shame nor public disgrace disqualifies them from office. They rob, despoil whomever they please. And finally, as if the city has been sacked, they rely on their own lust and excess instead of the laws.

And for me this would only be a source of limited grief if, in their typical fashion, they were pursuing a victory born from excellence. But the laziest of people whose total strength and excellence come from their tongue are arrogantly administering a tyranny gained through luck and from another person! For what treason or civil discord has obliterated so many families? Whose spirit was ever so hasty and extreme in victory?”

Iudicia tametsi, sicut antea, tribus ordinibus tradita sunt, tamen idem illi factiosi regunt, dant, adimunt quae lubet, innocentis circumveniunt, suos ad honorem extollunt. Non facinus, non probrum aut flagitium obstat, quo minus magistratus capiant. Quos commodum est trahunt, rapiunt; postremo tamquam urbe capta libidine ac licentia sua pro legibus utuntur.

Ac me quidem mediocris dolor angeret, si virtute partam victoriam more suo per servitium exercerent. Sed homines inertissimi, quorum omnis vis virtusque in lingua sita est, forte atque alterius socordia dominationem oblatam insolentes agitant. Nam quae seditio aut dissensio civilis tot tam illustris familias ab stirpe evertit? Aut quorum umquam in victoria animus tam praeceps tamque inmoderatus fuit?

 

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Distracted from Justice by Profit

Plutarch, Life of Brutus 29

“Faith in his sense of principle provided was the foundation of his great good will and fame. For Pompey the Great was not expected—should he overcome Caesar—to put down his power in deference to the laws, but people thought he would keep his political control, smooth-talking the people with the name of consulship or dictator or some other more palatable office.

Now it was imagined that Cassius, an eager and emotional man often distracted from justice by profit, was pursuing war and adventure to create some dynasty for himself rather than freedom for his fellow citizens. For in an earlier time than that, people like Cinna, Marius, and Carbo, even though they made their own country their victory prize and source for spoils, they warred by their own confession for tyranny alone.”

καὶ μέγιστον ὑπῆρχεν αὐτῷ πρὸς εὔνοιαν καὶ δόξαν ἡ τῆς προαιρέσεως πίστις, οὔτε γὰρ ἐκεῖνος ὁ μέγας Πομπήϊος, εἰ Καίσαρα καθεῖλεν, ἠλπίζετο βεβαίως προήσεσθαι τοῖς νόμοις τὴν δύναμιν, ἀλλ᾿ ἀεὶ τὰ πράγματα καθέξειν, ὑπατείας ὀνόματι καὶ δικτατορίας ἤ τινος ἄλλης μαλακωτέρας ἀρχῆς παραμυθούμενος τὸν 5δῆμον· Κάσσιον δὲ τοῦτον, σφοδρὸν ἄνδρα καὶ θυμοειδῆ καὶ πολλαχοῦ πρὸς τὸ κερδαλέον ἐκφερόμενον τοῦ δικαίου, παντὸς μᾶλλον ᾤοντο πολεμεῖν καὶ πλανᾶσθαι καὶ κινδυνεύειν αὑτῷ τινα δυναστείαν κατασκευαζόμενον, οὐκ ἐλευθερίαν 6τοῖς πολίταις. τὰ μὲν γὰρ ἔτι τούτων πρεσβύτερα, Κίνναι καὶ Μάριοι καὶ Κάρβωνες, ἆθλον ἐν μέσῳ καὶ λείαν προθέμενοι τὴν πατρίδα, μονονουχὶ ῥητῶς ὑπὲρ τυραννίδος ἐπολέμησαν.

 

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