Taking Stock Of The Roman Effort To Crack Down On Vice From The Top-Down

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.

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5 Comments

  1. If Emmet Scott’s book, Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited is correct, the Roman world outside of Italy was in a state of vigour, prosperity and population increase up until the Muslim invasions. In other words the political entities calved off as the power of the emperor decayed, now Christianized, had reversed the centuries long decline of Greco-Roman civilization. Now isn’t it interesting how Roman society, which became more and more a consuming society instead of a producing society, experienced a decline in population at the same time as a decline in morals. Children become a liability, sexual activity became valued for its pleasurable aspect under such circumstances. Sound familiar? Along with these trends came faddish religions and other popular enthusiasms. Of those new religions, Christianity, opposed to infanticide, and preaching a doctrine of equality which disapproved of slavery, proved the only one capable of reinvigorating society. The one problem with Christianity seems to be that it has a tendency to pacifism which makes it reluctant to defend itself.

  2. I think we’ve seen from history, and from our own circumstances, that the primary destroyer of a nation is the corruption of the people and their culture; bad policy – especially debt, cronyism and slackening standards in upholding the rule of law – are symptoms of that wider decay.

    I think one approach worthy of consideration, would be to limit the pressure applied from the top to directly promote morality, in favor of simply affirming traditional mores, and then erecting barriers against “bottom-up” pressure while affirming the populace’ natural right to strengthen and defend the culture, “laterally.”

    For example, the State constitution would recognize the Catholic Church and the tradition of Natural Law as it has fully developed amongst the Scholastics and Thomists as the norm of morality; the State forbids the passing of any law that would be contrary to this, and serious vices in a man’s private life result automatically in exclusion from any public office or civil service. Thus, without “cracking down” forcefully on immoral persons, the State prevents barriers to their rise or participation in authority. At the same time, while the State certainly enforces laws against serious and public moral failures, the State does very little to stop private acts of immorality.

    But, here’s the key thing: the State recognizes the right of the people, inherently, to defend their own culture. In semi-private and local matters (i.e., where one or several persons’ “private” sins are starting to spill over into a public problem, or where a group of people is starting to advocate for something contrary to faith, morals or culture), the State prefers to let the nearest people handle it directly, and stands by them when they have done so.

    One of the many disastrous effects of our “rights-based” culture, is the sense of castration and paralysis the people feel as they behold the collapse of their culture; this is because we defend people’s “rights” to do things that are objectively wrong, with the effect that the State actually promotes iniquity and suppresses morality under colour of authority. This is treason and abuse of office, plain and simple; no such government is even remotely legitimate. The right of self-defense exists at all times, not only when a man is assaulting you directly; people have a right to defend their culture and way of life from people who seek to undermine it.

    Many of our moral problems would have been solved long ago, or nipped in the bud, if we lived in a real State that upheld an actual standard, rather than insisting on this incoherent pretense of neutrality (promoting people’s “rights” to morally abstracted acts), which effectively neutralizes any principled opposition to the moral drift by undermining the notion or influence of moral principles in the first place. If people knew that the State would defend their right to burn down the Zionist propaganda mill posing as a newspaper in their little college town, or to round up and whip the sodomites who dared to march down their city street, stark naked (or nearly so) while protesting and committing sex acts in broad daylight, the culture would not have been forfeit. But the people feel that their natural and true right to defend their culture has been superceded by these people’s “right” to perform and advocate for heinous sins and ideas, so long as they stop short of directly assaulting anyone with physical violence.

    One must be careful to avoid the mistake of Leftism, that “the power is of the people.” No. Man’s good, his rights and his causes (including his natural and supernatural end), are all rooted in God, as is all authority. The authority of the State is rooted in God, not the people; the validity of laws and true rights are rooted in God, not the State. But the State itself exists only for the purpose of better coordinating men in the pursuit of their common good, their natural end and the fullest exercise of their rights; thus, what right the State has to punish crime, curb sin and promote virtue, is rooted in its purpose of coordinating and defending the people’s God-given rights and ends. I think the State’s authority is best upheld, then, when it holds itself forth as what it truly is: a tool for coordinating and prospering the people’s natural activity and, in extremities, a defender of God’s rights and laws, and of the people’s rights against wrongdoers at home or abroad.

    it is true that the full force of the State often provokes people to side with an underdog even when that underdog has destruction of the commonwealth for its goal. This is especially true, when the State puts itself forward as a law and a power unto itself (as, for example, when Henry VIII launched the ideas that would seek to invest morally abstracted power in the “divine right” of the king himself, again without regard to what is right). Thus, I think it’s good for the State to let the people defend their own interests – or, even, to encourage people to fulfill their obligation of defending the commonweal – with the confidence that the State will defend and support them for having done so, rather than the fear that they will themselves be punished for defending their rights and the common good, on account of the pretense of the “rights” of iniquitous persons to deracinate the culture. Many of these concepts are relevant to features in English Common Law, for example, the posse comitatus, where the local authority (shire/county and sheriff/count) could assemble any able-bodied men of the community to deal with a problem, and those men’s actions were regarded as a process of official, rather than private or “vigilante,” justice. When the most local authorities deal with problems, the people feel most connected to it, and proud of it. This is relevant to the sound, Catholic principle of Subsidiarity.

    It goes without saying that the State, while upholding the people’s general right to act in this way, would also look into such matters when they arise. Chaos would ensue if folk were free to murder their neighbours on their own, unquestioned testimony that “Really, honest! He was a Zionist and a Pornographer!” Yes, that all goes without saying, and so we’ll omit it, here, as I’ve already said too much.

    1. I agree with the assessment that we should be able to defend our Christian moral without interference from the government. I also share your opinion about the appropriateness of Subsidiarity when dealing with moral wrongs.
      For many private wrongs moral discredit, public rejection, and ostracism are possible responses that do not require the involvement of the government.
      Accordingly, the seizure or otherwise damage of private property, as well as physical attacks should be banned for two reasons. Firstly, the certain risk of excess when defending our moral mores could lead to even worse crimes. Secondly, that overzealousness could be the shortest way to make martyrs out of the sinners.

  3. The Dissenting Sociologist March 22, 2016 at 9:16 am

    “serious vices in a man’s private life result automatically in exclusion from any public office or civil service.”

    It’s sociologically interesting that this remains true in practice even in our own debauched and besotted Liberal societies, e.g. adultery and other sex scandals still arouse enough public opprobrium to kill a political career dead in its tracks. It appears that no amount of liberal indoctrination can convince man in the mass to deign to take orders from the vicious; the maxim. “who cannot command himself, shall not command others” seems hard-coded in human nature itself. Maybe there’s hope for us after all…

    the State does very little to stop private acts of immorality.

    “In semi-private and local matters (i.e., where one or several persons’ “private” sins are starting to spill over into a public problem, or where a group of people is starting to advocate for something contrary to faith, morals or culture), the State prefers to let the nearest people handle it directly, and stands by them when they have done so.”

    I respect and share your commitment to the spirit of subsidiarity and organic government in the spirit of our common-law traditions- but I think that this is ultimately wrong-headed and disagrees with the nature of things. The problem seems to rest on the dubious Liberal distinction between “private” and “public” wrongs. Surely, if an action is intrinsically wrong enough to merit serious criminal pains (e.g. forfeiture and destruction of personal property), it is no longer a “private” matter; it befalls who has care of the whole community- i.e. the State- to proscribe the act at positive law and punish it accordingly. This sovereign power to legislate and mete out punishments in accordance with the natural law legitimately devolves onto the community itself only where the authority of the State has actually broken down in a fairly serious way.

    A State that decided to arbitrarily forfeit its power to legislate and punish in certain matters, on the basis of a distinction between public and private wrong that can never be rigorously defined, would be seriously disordered, since it would derelict with respect to its duty of care- not least among which is a duty to maintain its own rightful sovereign authority. Moreover, for the State to use its sovereign authority to back up extra-judicial punishments meted out by the community in a void of authority created by the very authority of that very State would be downright perverse on the face of it, a species of “anarcho-tyranny” if there ever was one.

  4. Thank you for the nice reminder here that monarchy alone, and getting the incentives right for a monarch alone, cannot be made into a formula for reactionary success. Deeper moral changes are indeed needed.

    The recent Reactionary Future criticisms of Hestia as liberal seems to be missing the point that we are typically describing a world in which middle powers are free rather than advocating it. Bringing them into a healthy subservient relationship with a sovereign will be a delicate operation. It cannot be too direct or antagonistic or we, like these emperors, will provoke our removal to irrelevance or death (and we do not have the privileges and defenses of emperors!). But advocating delicacy is not advocating gentleness.

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