The History, 14.6

Ammian  translated by C. D. Yonge

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6At this time Orfitus was the governor of the Eternal City, with the rank of prefect; and he behaved with a degree of insolence beyond the proper limits of the dignity thus conferred upon him. A man of prudence indeed, and well skilled in all the forensic business of the city, but less accomplished in general literature and in the fine arts than was becoming in a nobleman. Under his administration some very formidable seditions broke out in consequence of the scarcity of wine, as the people, being exceedingly eager for an abundant use of that article, were easily excited to frequent and violent disorders.

2And since I think it likely that foreigners who may read this account (if, indeed, any such should meet with it) are likely to wonder how it is that, when my history has reached the point of narrating what was done at Rome, nothing is spoken of but seditions, and shops, and cheapness, and other similarly inconsiderable matters, I will briefly touch upon the causes of this, never intentionally departing from the strict truth.

3At the time when Rome first rose into mundane brilliancy—that Rome which was fated to last as long as mankind shall endure, and to be increased with a sublime progress and growth—virtue and fortune, though commonly at variance, agreed upon a treaty of eternal peace, as far as she was concerned. For if either of them had been wanting to her, she would never have reached her perfect and complete supremacy.

4Her people, from its very earliest infancy to the latest moment of its youth, a period which extends over about three hundred years, carried on a variety of wars with the natives around its walls. Then, when it arrived at its full-grown manhood, after many and various labours in war, it crossed the Alps and the sea, till, as youth and man, it had carried the triumphs of victory into every country in the world.

5And now that it is declining into old age, and often owes its victories to its mere name, it has come to a more tranquil time of life. Therefore the venerable city, after having bowed down the haughty necks of fierce nations, and given laws to the world, to be the foundations and eternal anchors of liberty, like a thrifty parent, prudent and rich, intrusted to the Cæsars, as to its own children, the right of governing their ancestral inheritance.

6And although the tribes are indolent, and the countries peaceful, and although there are no contests for votes, but the tranquillity of the age of Numa has returned, nevertheless, in every quarter of the world Rome is still looked up to as the mistress and the queen of the earth, and the name of the Roman people is respected and venerated.

7But this magnificent splendour of the assemblies and councils of the Roman people is defaced by the inconsiderate levity of a few, who never recollect where they have been born, but who fall away into error and licentiousness, as if a perfect impunity were granted to vice. For as the lyric poet Simonides teaches us, the man who would live happily in accordance with perfect reason, ought above all things to have a glorious country.

8Of these men, some thinking that they can be handed down to immortality by means of statues, are eagerly desirous of them, as if they would obtain a higher reward from brazen figures unendowed with sense than from a consciousness of upright and honourable actions; and they even are anxious to have them plated over with gold, a thing which is reported to have been first done in the instance of Acilius Glabrio, who by his wisdom and valour had subdued King Antiochus. But how really noble a thing it is to despise all these inconsiderable and trifling things, and to bend one’s attention to the long and toilsome steps of true glory, as the poet of Ascrea has sung, and Cato the Censor has shown by his example. For when he was asked how it was that while many other nobles had statues he had none, replied: “I had rather that good men should marvel how it was that I did not earn one, than (what would be a much heavier misfortune) inquire how it was that I had obtained one.”

9Others place the height of glory in having a coach higher than usual, or splendid apparel; and so toil and sweat under a vast burden of cloaks, which are fastened to their necks by many clasps, and blow about from the excessive fineness of the material; showing a desire, by the continual wriggling of their bodies, and especially by the waving of the left hand, to make their long fringes and tunics, embroidered in multiform figures of animals with threads of various colours, more conspicuous.

10Others, with not any one asking them, put on a feigned severity of countenance, and extol their patrimonial estates in a boundless degree, exaggerating the yearly produce of their fruitful fields, which they boast of possessing in numbers from east to west, being forsooth ignorant that their ancestors, by whom the greatness of Rome was so widely extended, were not eminent for riches; but through a course of dreadful wars overpowered by their valour all who were opposed to them, though differing but little from the common soldiers either in riches, or in their mode of life, or in the costliness of their garments.

11This is how it happened that Valerius Publicola was buried by the contributions of his friends, and that the destitute wife of Regulus was, with her children, supported by the aid of the friends of her husband, and that the daughter of Scipio had a dowry provided for her out of the public treasury, the other nobles being ashamed to see the beauty of this full-grown maiden, while her moneyless father was so long absent on the service of his country.

12But now if you, as an honourable stranger, should enter the house of any one well off, and on that account full of pride, for the purpose of saluting him, at first, indeed, you will be hospitably received, as though your presence had been desired; and after having had many questions put to you, and having been forced to tell a number of lies, you will wonder, since the man had never seen you before, that one of high rank should pay such attention to you who are but an unimportant individual; so that by reason of this as a principal source of happiness, you begin to repent of not having come to Rome ten years ago.

13And when relying on this affability you do the same thing the next day, you will stand waiting as one utterly unknown and unexpected, while he who yesterday encouraged you to repeat your visit, counts upon his fingers who you can be, marvelling, for a long time, whence you come, and what you want. But when at length you are recognized and admitted to his acquaintance, if you should devote yourself to the attention of saluting him for three years consecutively, and after this intermit your visits for an equal length of time, then if you return to repeat a similar course, you will never be questioned about your absence any more than if you had been dead, and you will waste your whole life in submitting to court the humours of this blockhead.

14But when those long and unwholesome banquets, which are indulged in at certain intervals, begin to be prepared, or the distribution of the usual dole-baskets takes place, then it is discussed with anxious deliberation whether when those to whom a return is due are to be entertained, it is proper to invite also a stranger; and if, after the matter has been thoroughly sifted, it is determined that it may be done, that person is preferred who waits all night before the houses of charioteers, or who professes a skill in dice, or pretends to be acquainted with some peculiar secrets.

15For such entertainers avoid all learned and sober men as unprofitable and useless; with this addition, that the nomenclators also, who are accustomed to make a market of these invitations and of similar favours, selling them for bribes, do for gain thrust in mean and obscure men at these dinners.

16The whirlpools of banquets, and the various allurements of luxury, I omit, that I may not be too prolix, and with the object of passing on to this fact, that some people, hastening on without fear of danger, drive their horses, as if they were post-horses, with a regular licence, as the saying is, through the wide streets of the city, over the roads paved with flint, dragging behind them large bodies of slaves like bands of robbers; not leaving at home even Sannio, as the comic poet says.

17And many matrons, imitating these men, gallop over every quarter of the city with their heads covered, and in close carriages. And as skilful conductors of battles place in the van their densest and strongest battalions, then their light-armed troops, behind them the darters, and in the extreme rear troops of reserve, ready to join in the attack if necessity should arise; so, according to the careful arrangements of the stewards of these city households, who are conspicuous by wands fastened to their right hands, as if a regular watchword had been issued from the camp, first of all, near the front of the carriage march all the slaves concerned in spinning and working; next to them come the blackened crew employed in the kitchen; then the whole body of slaves promiscuously mixed up with a gang of idle plebeians from the neighbourhood; last of all, the multitude of eunuchs, beginning with the old men and ending with the boys, pale and unsightly from the distorted deformity of their features; so that whichever way any one goes, seeing troops of mutilated men, he will detest the memory of Semiramis, that ancient queen who was the first person to castrate male youths of tender age; doing as it were a violence to nature, and forcing it back from its appointed course, which at the very first beginning and birth of the child, by a kind of secret law revealing the primitive fountains of seed, points out the way of propagating posterity.

18And as this is the case, those few houses which were formerly celebrated for the serious cultivation of becoming studies, are now filled with the ridiculous amusements of torpid indolence, re-echoing with the sound of vocal music and the tinkle of flutes and lyres. Lastly, instead of a philosopher, you find a singer; instead of an orator, some teacher of ridiculous arts is summoned; and the libraries closed for ever, like so many graves; organs to be played by water-power are made; and lyres of so vast a size, that they look like waggons; and flutes, and ponderous machines suited for the exhibitions of actors.

19Last of all, they have arrived at such a depth of unworthiness, that when, no very long time ago, on account of an apprehended scarcity of food, the foreigners were driven in haste from the city; those who practised liberal accomplishments, the number of whom was exceedingly small, were expelled without a moment’s breathing-time; yet the followers of actresses, and all who at that time pretended to be of such a class, were allowed to remain; and three thousand dancing-girls had not even a question put to them, but stayed unmolested with the members of their choruses, and a corresponding number of dancing masters.

20And wherever you turn your eyes, you may see a multitude of women with their hair curled, who, as far as their age goes, might, if they had married, been by this time the mothers of three children, sweeping the pavements with their feet till they are weary, whirling round in rapid gyrations, while representing innumerable groups and figures which the theatrical plays contain.

21It is a truth beyond all question, that, when at one time Rome was the abode of all the virtues, many of the nobles, like the Lotophagi, celebrated in Homer, who detained men by the deliciousness of their fruit, allured foreigners of free birth by manifold attentions of courtesy and kindness.

22But now, in their empty arrogance, some persons look upon everything as worthless which is born outside of the walls of the city, except only the childless and the unmarried. Nor can it be conceived with what a variety of obsequious observance men without children are courted at Rome.

23And since among them, as is natural in a city so great as to be the metropolis of the world, diseases attain to such an insurmountable degree of violence, that all the skill of the physician is ineffectual even to mitigate them; a certain assistance and means of safety has been devised, in the rule that no one should go to see a friend in such a condition, and to a few precautionary measures a further remedy of sufficient potency has been added, that men should not readmit into their houses servants who have been sent to inquire how a man’s friends who may have been seized with an illness of this kind are, until they have cleansed and purified their persons in the bath. So that a taint is feared, even when it has only been seen with the eyes of another.

24But nevertheless, when these rules are observed thus stringently, some persons, if they be invited to a wedding, though the vigour of their limbs be much diminished, yet, when gold is offered in the hollow palm of the right hand, will go actively as far as Spoletum. These are the customs of the nobles.

25But of the lower and most indigent class of the populace some spend the whole night in the wine shops. Some lie concealed in the shady arcades of the theatres; which Catulus was in his ædileship the first person to raise, in imitation of the lascivious manners of Campania, or else they play at dice so eagerly as to quarrel over them; snuffing up their nostrils and making unseemly noises by drawing back their breath into their noses; or (and this is their favourite pursuit of all others) from sunrise to evening they stay gaping through sunshine or rain, examining in the most careful manner the most sterling good or bad qualities of the charioteers and horses.

26And it is very wonderful to see an innumerable multitude of people with great eagerness of mind intent upon the event of the contests in the chariot race. These pursuits, and others of like character, prevent anything worth mentioning or important from being done at Rome. Therefore we must return to our original subject.

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