The History, 28.4

Ammian  translated by C. D. Yonge

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4I have thus made a long and extensive digression from the affairs of the city, being constrained by the abundance of events which took place abroad; and now I will return to give a cursory sketch of them, beginning with the tranquil and moderate exercise of the prefect’s authority by Olybrius, who never forgot the rights of humanity, but was continually anxious and careful that no word or deed of his should ever be harsh or cruel. He was a merciless punisher of calumnies; he restrained the exactions of the treasury wherever he could; he was a careful discriminator of right and wrong; an equitable judge, and very gentle towards those placed under his authority.

2But all these good qualities were clouded by one vice which, though not injurious to the commonwealth, was very discreditable to a judge of high rank; namely, that his private life was one of great luxury, devoted to theatrical exhibitions, and to amours, though not such as were either infamous or incestuous.

3After him Ampelius succeeded to the government of the city; he also was a man addicted to pleasure, a native of Antioch, and one who from having been master of the offices was twice promoted to a proconsulship, and sometime afterwards to that supreme rank, the prefecture. In other respects he was a cheerful man, and one admirably suited to win the favour of the people; though sometimes over-severe, without being as firm in his purposes as might have been wished. Had he been, he would have corrected, though perhaps not effectually, the gluttonous and debauched habits which prevailed; but, as it was, by his laxity of conduct, he lost a glory which otherwise might have been enduring.

4For he had determined that no wine-shop should be opened before the fourth hour of the day; and that none of the common people, before a certain fixed hour, should either warm water or expose dressed meat for sale; and that no one of respectable rank should be seen eating in public.

5Since these unseemly practices, and others still worse, owing to long neglect and connivance, had grown so frequent that even Epimenides of Crete, if, according to the fabulous story, he could have risen from the dead and returned to our times, would have been unable by himself to purify Rome; such deep stains of incurable vices overwhelmed it.

6And in the first place we will speak of the faults of the nobles, as we have already repeatedly done as far as our space permitted; and then we will proceed to the faults of the common people, touching, however, only briefly and rapidly on either.

7Some men, conspicuous for the illustriousness of their ancestry as they think, gave themselves immoderate airs, and call themselves Reburri, and Fabunii, and Pagonii, and Geriones, Dalii, Tarracii, or Perrasii, and other finely-sounding appellations, indicating the antiquity of their family.

8Some also are magnificent in silken robes, as if they were being led to execution, or, to speak without words of so unfavourable an omen, as if after the army had passed they were bringing up the rear, and are followed by a vast troop of servants, with a din like that of a company of soldiers.

9Such men when, while followed by fifty servants apiece, they have entered the baths, cry out with threatening voice, “Where are my people?” And if they suddenly find out that any unknown female slave has appeared, or any worn-out courtesan who has long been subservient to the pleasures of the townspeople, they run up, as if to win a race, and patting and caressing her with disgusting and unseemly blandishments, they extol her, as the Parthians might praise Semiramis, Egypt her Cleopatra, the Carians Artemisia, or the Palmyrene citizens Zenobia. And men do this, whose ancestor, even though a senator, would have been branded with a mark of infamy because he dared, at an unbecoming time, to kiss his wife in the presence of their common daughter.

10Some of these, when any one meets and begins to salute them, toss their heads like bulls preparing to butt, offering their flatterers their knees or hands to kiss, thinking that quite enough for their perfect happiness; while they deem it sufficient attention and civility to a stranger who may happen to have laid them under some obligation to ask him what warm or cold bath he frequents, or what house he lives in.

11And while they are so solemn, looking upon themselves as especial cultivators of virtue, if they learn that any one has brought intelligence that any fine horses or skilful coachmen are coming from any place, they rush with as much haste to see them, examine them, and put questions concerning them, as their ancestors showed on beholding the twin-brothers Tyndaridæ,when they filled the whole city with joy by the announcement of that ancient victory.

12A number of idle chatterers frequent their houses, and, with various pretended modes of adulation, applaud every word uttered by men of such high fortune; resembling the parasites in a comedy, for as they puff up bragging soldiers, attributing to them, as rivals of the heroes of old, sieges of cities, and battles, and the death of thousands of enemies, so these men admire the construction of the lofty pillars, and the walls inlaid with stones of carefully chosen colours, and extol these grandees with superhuman praises.

13Sometimes scales are sent for at their entertainments to weigh the fish, or the birds, or the dormice which are set on the table; and then the size of them is dwelt on over and over again, to the great weariness of those present, as something never seen before; especially when near thirty secretaries stand by, with tablets and memorandum books, to record all these circumstances; so that nothing seems to be wanting but a schoolmaster.

14Some of them, hating learning as they hate poison, read Juvenal and Marius Maximus with tolerably careful study; though, in their profound laziness, they never touch any other volumes; why, it does not belong to my poor judgment to decide.

15For, in consideration of their great glories and long pedigrees, they ought to read a great variety of books; in which, for instance, they might learn that Socrates, when condemned to death and thrown into prison, asked some one who was playing a song of the Greek poet Stesichorus with great skill, to teach him also to do that, while it was still in his power; and when the musician asked him of what use this skill could be to him, as he was to die the next day, he answered, “that I may know something more before I die.”

16And there are among them some who are such severe judges of offences, that if a slave is too long in bringing them hot water, they will order him to be scourged with three hundred stripes; but should he intentionally have killed a man, while numbers insist that he ought to be unhesitatingly condemned as guilty, his master will exclaim, “What can the poor wretch do? what can one expect from a good-for-nothing fellow like that?” But should any one else venture to do anything of the kind, he would be corrected.

17Their ideas of civility are such that a stranger had better kill a man’s brother than send an excuse to them if he be asked to dinner; for a senator fancies that he has suffered a terrible grievance, equal to the loss of his entire patrimony, if any guest be absent, whom, after repeated deliberations, he has once invited.

18Some of them, if they have gone any distance to see their estates in the country, or to hunt at a meeting collected for their amusement by others, think they have equalled the marches of Alexander the Great, or of Cæsar; or if they have gone in some painted boats from Lake Avernus to Pozzuoli or Cajeta, especially if they have ventured on such an exploit in warm weather. Where if, amid their golden fans, a fly should perch on the silken fringes, or if a slender ray of the sun should have pierced through a hole in their awning, they complain that they were not born among the Cimmerians.

19Then, when they come from the bath of Silvanus, or the waters of Mamæa, which are so good for the health, after they come out of the water, and have wiped themselves with cloths of the finest linen, they open the presses, and take out of them robes so delicate as to be transparent, selecting them with care, till they have got enough to clothe eleven persons; and at length, after they have picked out all they choose, they wrap themselves up in them, and take the rings which they had given to their attendants to hold, that they might not be injured by the damp; and then they depart when their fingers are properly cooled.

20Again, if any one having lately quitted the military service of the emperor, has retired to his home. . . .

21Some of them, though not many, wish to avoid the name of gamblers, and prefer to be called dice-players; the difference being much the same as that between a thief and a robber. But this must be confessed that, while all friendships at Rome are rather cool, those alone which are engendered by dice are sociable and intimate, as if they had been formed amid glorious exertions, and were firmly cemented by exceeding affection; to which it is owing that some of this class of gamblers live in such harmony that you might think them the brothers Quintilii. And so you may sometimes see a man of base extraction, who knows all the secrets of the dice, as grave as Porcius Cato when he met with a repulse which he had never expected nor dreamt of, when a candidate for the prætorship, with affected solemnity and a serious face, because at some grand entertainment or assembly some man of proconsular rank has been preferred to himself.

22Some lay siege to wealthy men, whether old or young, childless or unmarried, or even with wives and children (for with such an object no distinction is ever regarded by them), seeking by most marvellous tricks to allure them to make their wills; and then if, after observing all the forms of law, they bequeath to these persons what they have to leave, being won over by them to this compliance, they speedily die.

23Another person, perhaps only in some subordinate office, struts along with his head up, looking with so slight and passing a glance upon those with whom he was previously acquainted, that you might fancy it must be Marcus Marcellus just returned from the capture of Syracuse.

24Many among them deny the existence of a superior Power in heaven, and yet neither appear in public, nor dine, nor think that they can bathe with any prudence, before they have carefully consulted an almanac, and learnt where (for example) the planet Mercury is, or in what portion of Cancer the moon is as she passes through the heavens.

25Another man, if he perceives his creditor to be importunate in demanding a debt, flies to a charioteer who is bold enough to venture on any audacious enterprise, and takes care that he shall be harassed with dread of persecution as a poisoner; from which he cannot be released without giving bail and incurring a very heavy expense. One may add to this, that he includes under this head a debtor who is only so through the engagements into which he has entered to avoid a prosecution, as if he were a real debtor, and that he never lets him go till he has obtained the discharge of the debt.

26On the other side, a wife, who, as the old proverb has it, hammers on the same anvil day and night, to compel her husband to make his will, and then the husband is equally urgent that his wife shall do the same. And men learned in the law are procured on each side, the one in the bedchamber, and his opponent in the dining-room, to draw up counter-documents. And under their employ are placed ambiguous interpreters of the contracts of their victims, who, on the one side, promise with great liberality high offices, and the funerals of wealthy matrons; and from these they proceed to the obsequies of the husbands, giving hints that everything necessary ought to be prepared; and . . . as Cicero says, “Nor in the affairs of men do they understand anything good, except what is profitable; and they love those friends most (as they would prefer sheep) from whom they expect to derive the greatest advantage.”

27And when they borrow anything, they are so humble and cringing, you would think you were at a comedy, and seeing Micon or Laches; when they are constrained to repay what they have borrowed, they become so turgid and bombastic that you would take them for those descendants of Hercules, Cresphontes and Temenus. This is enough to say of the senatorial order.

28And let us come to the idle and lazy common people, among whom some, who have not even got shoes boast of high-sounding names; calling themselves Cimessores, Statarii, Semicupæ, Serapina, or Cicimbricus, or Gluturiorus, Trulla, Lucanicus, Pordaca, or Salsula, with numbers of other similar appellations. These men spend their whole lives in drinking, and gambling, and brothels, and pleasures, and public spectacles; and to them the Circus Maximus is their temple, their home, their public assembly; in fact, their whole hope and desire.

29And you may see in the forum, and roads, and streets, and places of meeting, knots of people collected, quarrelling violently with one another, and objecting to one another, and splitting themselves into violent parties.

30Among whom those who have lived long, having influence by reason of their age, their gray hairs and wrinkles, are continually crying out that the republic cannot stand, if in the contest which is about to take place, the skilful charioteer, whom some individual backs, is not foremost in the race, and does not dextrously shave the turning-post with the trace-horses.

31And when there is so much ruinous carelessness, when the wished-for day of the equestrian games dawns, before the sun has visibly risen, they all rush out with headlong haste, as if with their speed they would outstrip the very chariots which are going to race; while as to the event of the contest they are all torn asunder by opposite wishes, and the greater part of them, through their anxiety, pass sleepless nights.

32From hence, if you go to some cheap theatre, the actors on the stage are driven off by hisses, if they have not taken the precaution to conciliate the lowest of the people by gifts of money. And if there should be no noise, then, in imitation of the people in the Tauric Chersonese, they raise an outcry that the strangers ought to be expelled (on whose assistance they have always relied for their principal support), using foul and ridiculous expressions; such as are greatly at variance with the pursuits and inclinations of that populace of old, whose many facetious and elegant expressions are recorded by tradition and by history.

33For these clever gentlemen have now devised a new method of expressing applause, which is, at every spectacle to cry out to those who appear at the end, whether they are couriers, huntsmen, or charioteers—in short, to the whole body of actors, and to the magistrates, whether of great or small importance, and even to nations, “It is to your school that he ought to go.” But what he is to learn there no one can explain.

34Among these men are many chiefly addicted to fattening themselves up by gluttony, who, following the scent of any delicate food, and the shrill voices of the women who, from cockcrow, cry out with a shrill scream, like so many peacocks, and gliding over the ground on tiptoe, get an entrance into the halls, biting their nails while the dishes are getting cool. Others fix their eyes intently on the tainted meat which is being cooked, that you might fancy Democritus, with a number of anatomists, was gazing into the entrails of sacrificed victims, in order to teach posterity how best to relieve internal pains.

35For the present this is enough to say of the affairs of the city; now let us return to other events which various circumstances brought to pass in the provinces.

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