Between 74 B.C. and 70 B.C., a man named Gaius Verres served as the Roman governor of Sicily, his term being characterized by numerous, horrid abuses of authority. One of Verres’ most notable outrages was against a man named Publius Gavius. Verres had accused Gavius of being an agent of Quintus Sertorius, who was leading a revolt in Spain, and imprisoned him. In truth, Gavius’ only crime was carrying valuable cargo, which Verres confiscated for his own purposes. Gavius escaped his prison and protested his treatment. “I am a Roman citizen,” he proclaimed, implying that a Roman citizen could not be imprisoned or harmed without trial.
It didn’t matter. “I am a Roman citizen.” Verres arrested Gavius once again and had him flogged. “I am a Roman citizen.” Then Verres ordered Gavius executed without trial. “I am a Roman citizen.” Crucifixion was a punishment reserved for slaves and non-citizens, but Gavius was nailed to the cross all the same. “I am a Roman citizen.” Gavius could not understand what was happening, and until his dying breath kept saying again and again the same magical phrase, “I am a Roman citizen.”
When he returned to Rome, Verres was prosecuted for misconduct by the up-and-coming lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero. Verres had the best defense lawyer in Rome, Quintus Hortensius, who very nearly got Verres off the hook for his misdeeds. Cicero, however, pursued the case doggedly and, after bringing Verres’ case to court, delivered such a powerful oratorical indictment that Hortensius declined to reply and Verres went quietly into exile.
It would be difficult to find a more perfect example of general moral decay—a public official murders a citizen in blatant violation of the law and gets off with a wrist-slap—were Roman history from those days not thick with such episodes. The continuing decline of Roman morals is well-documented: a few decades after Verres’ trial, Livy proclaimed that the Romans “can bear neither our vices nor their remedies,” and a perusal of Petronius or Juvenal confirms that these trends continued long into the Imperial period.
Yet from the time of Juvenal comes another tale with a different message. In 101 A.D., Emperor Trajan was preparing to march out from Rome on campaign against Dacia when a woman pushed her way through the crowd and begged the emperor to hear her plea. She was a widow whose son had been murdered, and she cried out to the emperor for justice. At first, Trajan brushed her off, telling her to wait for his return, but then the widow asked, “But Caesar, what if you do not return?” Reminded of his duty, the Emperor stopped and settled the widow’s case.
How did Rome pass from the crimes of Verres to the justice of Trajan? Was there some moral revolution, a revival of the mos maiorum, and a rejection of license and decadence? The answer is no, and yes, somewhat.
As difficult as it may have been for ancient authors to overstate the moral decrepitude of their time, it is nonetheless likely that they succeeded. If one wishes to criticize the morals of a society, the many basically honest and worthy people going about their lives, performing their duties without fanfare or sensation, do not make for good material. Instead, moralists emphasize the antics of the extraordinarily villainous. Every society has a certain measure of corruption and misbehavior—just read Livy for proof—so just because the censorious have material does not mean the whole society is rotten.
Indeed, as far as our sources are concerned, the moral decay was worst among the elites, and there were certain factors mitigating the decline of elite morals. In terms of political corruption, the rise of the Principate worked wonders. Under the Republic, corrupt officials were taken to court publicly and often tried by a jury of their peers, aristocrats who were disinclined to punish their fellows even for genuine wrongdoing. The Emperor, however, was more concerned with performance than with class solidarity and the honesty and efficiency of public officials increase notably under the Caesars.
The Emperors applied themselves specifically to moral reform with varying degrees of zeal. Augustus outlawed adultery and exiled Ovid for promoting promiscuity. He stood firm when his own daughter Julia was found guilty of adultery, exiling her, but later recalled her, undermining his reform effort. Tiberius and his successors largely abandoned any projects for reforming morality. The best remembered emperors—Claudius, Vespasian, Titus, and the Five Good Emperors—did very little in terms of public morals, but rather simply did their jobs well and kept the vices, if any, private. This allowed moralists and philosophers to portray them as moral exemplars, whether they actually were or not. The extreme case is Marcus Aurelius, who received very good press from the philosophers.
Domitian was the one emperor who actually tried to legislate morality, and his experience demonstrates a certain measure of hypocrisy in the Roman moralists. They, like their subjects, were largely from among the elite, and while they were perfectly happy excoriating their subjects’ vices, they didn’t want to actually do anything to repair the moral climate of their society. By most conventional measures Domitian’s reign was a success, but he received very bad press under his successors.
As Emperor, Domitian renewed Augustus’ law concerning adultery and prosecuted corruption among the aristocracy and the equestrian class. According to Suetonius, Domitian terrified his underlings with his zeal for combating corruption. Most notably, Domitian revived the customary punishment for a Vestal Virgin who broke her vows: under his reign, for the first time in over a hundred years, an unchaste Vestal was executed in the traditional manner of being buried alive. For his trouble, Domitian was slandered as an adulterer himself, a hypocrite trying to enforce upon everyone else a moral code to which he himself did not adhere.
The moral improvement evident in the story of Trajan’s justice is of a narrow and particular kind: the emperor proves to be virtuous, whether or not anyone else was. Indeed, the story suggests that Trajan is the last virtuous man in the whole empire, since the widow cannot be assured of justice from anyone but him. The senatorial class much preferred Trajan to Domitian and so ran an effective propaganda campaign in his favor, but their decadence did not vanish just because the emperor was virtuous. There must have been some kind of redemption of the Romans since the Principate lasted for over 250 years with remarkably little internal discord, but exactly how it came about is difficult to pin down.
There are two lessons to be drawn from Roman morals under the Principate. The first is that attempts to legislate morality tend to produce resentment among the immoral. Augustus’ reform effort failed; Domitian’s may have been more successful, but it doomed his memory; in the 3rd century, the Emperor Aurelian was assassinated when his secretary tried to avoid punishment for corruption. Mere legalistic reward and punishment is insufficient to change attitudes and provokes backlash.
On the other hand, a virtuous leader will be much admired, so long as he does not actually insist that everyone else be virtuous. Confucius wrote that a wise ruler makes his people moral purely by example, and Lao Tzu can be read in a similar way, but the results are inconclusive. Vespasian and Titus were admirable men, but there was still a great deal of moral decrepitude for Domitian to clean up.
It appears that there is no surefire way of improving a society’s morals from the top-down. This is not to say, as the libertarians would have it, that there is nothing a ruler can do, merely that total success is beyond mortal man’s reach. But this is in no way surprising to someone with a realistic understanding of human nature: perfection is not to be expected of mortal men, but only of gods.