It is the prerogative of every society and every era to believe it is uniquely afflicted by existential threats, whether natural or self-inflicted, ruled by unprecedented waves of criminals and corrupt incompetents, and saddled with a feckless and foolish spoiled younger generation of popinjays.
Ours is a hag-ridden age in which the unlimited fears afforded by apprehension rule our lives. Ancient Rome, the most sophisticated political, military and economic state of antiquity, turns out to be like looking in a mirror.
Roman writers loved to celebrate the great men of the Roman past who spurned luxury and indulgence and bemoaned the decadence of their own times when wealth and consumption had become the only measures of success. They exulted in a fantasy of the good old days, a paradise when Rome’s farmers, their hands encrusted with grime, dropped their ploughs to pick up swords and fight a war for freedom and security and then return to the fields.
Roman historians like Livy and Tacitus became obsessed with the idea that Rome’s military success had brought so much wealth it was corrupting the minds and bodies of the Roman people who were sinking into a world of excess and indulgence. Rome had become “burdened by its magnitude”, said Livy. Banqueting descended into decadence with haute couture cooks, a profession once derided as suitable only to the “most worthless of slaves”, and female musicians. These were, Livy warned darkly, trifling compared to what was to come. A writer called Quintilian poured scorn on how a natural appearance had given way to using curling irons and caking on cosmetics “so that it really seems as if physical beauty depended entirely on moral hideousness”.
In the first century BC, during the late Republic, the politician Sallust identified the growth of avaritia (avarice), especially for money, and how “virtue began to lose its lustre”. In his description avaritia is a miasma, a poisonous substance in the atmosphere that pervaded a man’s body and soul and “effeminated” him.
Sallust had enough self-awareness to realise he was no different. He looked back to his own early political ambitions:
Dishonest behaviour, bribery, and a quick profit were everywhere. Although everything I saw going on was new to me – and I looked down on them with disdain – ambition led me astray and, having all the weakness of youth, could not resist. Regardless of my efforts to dissociate myself from the corruption that was everywhere, my own greed to get on meant that I was hated and slandered as much as my rivals.
Sounds familiar? The statesman Cicero observed that men needed money in the first instance to pay for necessities, but that for the most ambitious their love of money was all about power and having the means to stump up for favours or bribes, or even bankroll a private army.
One day in the mid-50s BC the general Pompey was standing near to where the elections for the aedileships (a junior magistracy) were taking place. With so much at stake and the jealous factionalism that Rome was riven with at the time, an explosive fight broke out, resulting in fatalities. Pompey was showered with blood so members of his staff quickly provided him with clean clothing (this must have been a normal part of the baggage of a man of substance out on business in Rome) and rushed the soiled garments back to his house.
In 54 BC Cicero was outraged by how bribery and corruption had taken off yet again, and how a large sum of money had been lined up to bribe the voters who were entitled to cast the first votes in the comitia centuriata. “The whole matter was an inferno of ill-will,” he said.
Under the circumstances it is not entirely surprising that within less than 25 years the Roman world had passed under the control of one man, Augustus. Although he pretended to have restored the Republic after the civil wars of the 40s and 30s BC following the assassination of his great-uncle Caesar in 44 BC, he had established a despotic monarchy. Tacitus said everyone went along with the pretence for the sake of peace.
Under the Emperors who followed, the Empire did enjoy a couple of centuries or so of relative stability punctuated by a couple of bouts of civil war. But ordinary people in Rome had very good reason to gibber in their sandals.
When your house is closed, and your shop locked up with bar and chain, and everything is quiet you’ll be robbed by a burglar, or perhaps a cut-throat will wipe you out quickly with his blade.
So said the poet Juvenal. Rome was a tense place to live, even for ordinary individuals trying to go about their business. Many of them were crammed into dangerously crowded and badly built tenement blocks. Contrary to the popular belief that the Romans were magnificent town planners, Rome had expanded without any controls.
Men and women alike were vulnerable to attacks on the streets of Rome or any other city, though custom and the paternalistic society did mean that women were much less likely to be out alone after dark, especially women of high status. Lethal violence could erupt without warning, to say nothing of the Roman habit of hurling broken pots out of the window. Oddly, the available evidence suggests that much the most dangerous cutthroats were often young men from aristocratic families.
Juvenal said that there were so many such hazards in Rome that anyone who went out to dinner without making a will first was guilty of sheer negligence. The poet Horace mentioned how easy it was to be taken for a fool by a beggar loitering at any one of Rome’s numerous road junctions pretending to be lame.
During the reign of Domitian (81-96) there had been an outbreak of a sinister new offence, not only in Rome but also elsewhere. The perpetrators’ modus operandi was to spread poison on needles and then prick anyone they could with them. This extraordinary story of the original spikers sounds like something from the Sherlock Holmes stories, but Rome had no celebrated sleuth, fictional or otherwise, to solve the crimes. The result was that many victims died, most of them unaware of what had happened to them.
Some of the needle killers were informed on, caught and punished. The mystery is what the motive was. The historian Dio, who recorded the outbreak, suggests it was some sort of crooked business, but there is no suggestion that the murderers were after money. The wave may have been driven by nothing more than a malicious desire to spread panic. If so, it succeeded.
Even taking a bath was risky. Vibbenius and his son were notorious clothes thieves at a baths in Rome. The poet Catullus called the anonymous son a cineaedus (‘sodomite’) which might simply have been an insult or instead implied that perhaps the son distracted selected willing members among the clientele while his father emptied out the lockers and made off with the loot.
Prostitution was rife. At Isernia in central Italy between Rome and Naples one innkeeper and his wife set up a monument to their business which they operated under what were evidently trade names. He was called Lucius Calidius Eroticus and she was Fannia Voluptuas. The names scarcely need translating. At Pompeii hints on where to pick up prostitutes were everywhere. More references to prostitution have been found on Pompeian graffiti than any other profession by a considerable margin. One was inscribed at the rear entrance of the House of the Menander, of the town’s most extravagant houses. In this case the advertisement was for Novellia Primigenia, a prostitute who worked in a nearby town called Nuceria “in the prostitutes’ quarter”.
On and off for over 20 years in the 160s to 180s the Roman Empire was hit by plague. Today little is known about the disease because there is no surviving detailed record of the symptoms, but smallpox is often suggested. By 166 the plague had reached Rome. The contagion struck Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus’s army on campaign against the Marcomanni tribe across the Danube in late 165 or early 166. Once the disease reached the congested population of Rome it was bound to take off rapidly.
The plague clung on, apparently recurring with a major outbreak in Rome again in 189 during the reign of Commodus when Dio said as many as 2,000 people died in a single day, making it the worst of any plague he had any knowledge of. The historian Herodian also referred to this incident, describing it as having hit the whole of Italy “but it was most severe in Rome which, apart from being normally overcrowded was still getting immigrants from around the world”.
The Romans were ever vigilant, watching out for omens that served as portents for the future. Anything that seemed deviant was recorded and scrutinised, whether it involved a meteor falling from the sky, a talking cow, a swarm of bees, a maidservant giving birth to a boy with only one hand, or anything else that looked or sounded peculiar.
By such signs, promising or ominous, the Romans ruled their lives. Particularly popular was the examination of entrails of sacrificial victims for appropriate indicators of impending doom or great prospects. Cicero wondered whether the superstitious observations and the attention paid to omens and their interpretation amounted to self-induced imprisonment. A comet was, for example, “the evil sign of war”.
Pliny the Elder, the natural historian, called the earth a “dot in the universe” and bemoaned how “here we fill positions of power and here we covet wealth and put mankind into a turmoil repeatedly and fight wars, even civil wars, and empty the land by killing one another”. He described this as the “outward madness of nations”.
His nephew, Pliny the Younger, wrote to a friend after experiencing a terrible storm. “Here [in Rome] we have incessant gales and repeated floods. The Tiber had burst its banks and wrecked homes and many people injured and killed.”
Pliny the Younger finished up, “When disaster is actual or expected, the effect is much the same, except that suffering has its limits but apprehension has none. Suffering is confined to the known event, but apprehension extends to every possibility.”
He couldn’t have described the fear and despair promoted at every opportunity in our own time better. The only difference is that now it’s turned into an industry.