The History, 27.3

Ammian  translated by C. D. Yonge

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3At this time, or a little before, a new kind of prodigy appeared in the corn district of Tuscany; those who were skilful in interpreting such things being wholly ignorant of what it portended. For in the town of Pistoja, at about the third hour of the day, in the sight of many persons, an ass mounted the tribunal, where he was heard to bray loudly. All the bystanders were amazed, as were all those who heard of the occurrence from the report of others, as no one could conjecture what was to happen.

2But soon afterwards the events showed what was portended, for a man of the name of Terence, a person of low birth and a baker by trade, as a reward for having given information against Orsitus, who had formerly been prefect, which led to his being convicted of peculation, was intrusted with the government of this same province. And becoming elated and confident, he threw affairs into great disorder, till he was convicted of fraud on transactions relating to some ship-masters, as was reported, and was executed while Claudius was prefect of Rome.

3But some time before this happened Symmachus succeeded Apronianus; a man deserving to be named among the most eminent examples of learning and moderation; under whose government the most sacred city enjoyed peace and plenty in an unusual degree; being also adorned with a magnificent and solid bridge which he constructed, and opened amid the great joy of his ungrateful fellow-citizens, as the result very plainly showed.

4For they some years afterwards burnt his beautiful house on the other side of the Tiber, being enraged because some worthless plebeian had invented a story, which there was no evidence or witness to support, that he had said that he would prefer putting out the limekilns with his own wine, to selling the lime at the price expected of him.

5After him the prefect of the city was Lampadius, who had been prefect of the prætorium, a man of such boundless arrogance, that he grew very indignant if he were not praised even when he spat, as if he did that with more grace than any one else; but still a man of justice, virtue, and economy.

6When as prætor he was celebrating some splendid games, and giving abundant largesses, being unable to bear the tumult of the populace, which was often urgent to have gifts distributed to those who were unworthy, in order to show his liberality and his contempt for the multitude, he sent for a crowd of beggars from the Vatican, and enriched them with great presents.

7But, not to digress too much, it will be sufficient to record one instance of his vanity, which, though of no great importance, may serve as a warning to judges. In every quarter of the city which had been adorned at the expense of different emperors he inscribed his own name, and that, not as if he were the restorer of old works, but their founder. This same fault is said to have characterized the emperor Trajan, from which the people in jest named him “The Pellitory of the wall.”

8While he was prefect he was disturbed by frequent commotions, the most formidable being when a vast mob of the lowest of the people collected, and with firebrands and torches would have burnt his house near the baths of Constantine, if they had not been driven away by the prompt assistance of his friends and neighbours, who pelted them with stones and tiles from the tops of the houses.

9And he himself, being alarmed at a sedition, which on this occasion had become so violent, retired to the Mulvian bridge (which the elder Scaurus is said to have built), and waited there till the discontent subsided, which indeed had been excited by a substantial grievance.

10For when he began to construct some new buildings, he ordered the cost to be defrayed, not from the customary sources of revenue, but if iron, or lead, or copper, or anything of that kind was required, he sent officers who, pretending to try the different articles, did in fact seize them without paying any price for them. This so enraged the poor, since they suffered repeated losses from such a practice, that it was all he could do to escape from them by a rapid retreat.

11His successor had formerly been a quæstor of the palace, his name was Juventius, a man of integrity and prudence, a Pannonian by birth. His administration was tranquil and undisturbed, and the people enjoyed plenty under it. Yet he also was alarmed by fierce seditions raised by the discontented populace, which arose from the following occurrence.

12Damasus and Ursinus, being both immoderately eager to obtain the bishopric, formed parties and carried on the conflict with great asperity, the partisans of each carrying their violence to actual battle, in which men were wounded and killed. And as Juventius was unable to put an end to, or even to soften these disorders, he was at last by their violence compelled to withdraw to the suburbs.

13Ultimately Damasus got the best of the strife by the strenuous efforts of his partisans. It is certain that on one day one hundred and thirty-seven dead bodies were found in the Basilica of Sicininus, which is a Christian church. And the populace who had been thus roused to a state of ferocity were with great difficulty restored to order.

14I do not deny, when I consider the ostentation that reigns at Rome, that those who desire such rank and power may be justified in labouring with all possible exertion and vehemence to obtain their wishes; since after they have succeeded, they will be secure for the future, being enriched by offerings from matrons, riding in carriages, dressing splendidly, and feasting luxuriously, so that their entertainments surpass even royal banquets.

15And they might be really happy if, despising the vastness of the city, which they excite against themselves by their vices, they were to live in imitation of some of the priests in the provinces, whom the most rigid abstinence in eating and drinking, and plainness of apparel, and eyes always cast on the ground, recommend to the everlasting Deity and his true worshippers as pure and sober-minded men. This is a sufficient digression on this subject: let us now return to our narrative.

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