The Civilization of Rome
The Revolutions of Ancient Rome
Towards the middle of the second century B.C., Cato the Censor wrote a manual, De Agricultura, on the management of large estates operated with slave labor. “Sell the old work oxen,” he recommended, “the wool, the skins, the old wagon, the worn-out iron tools, the aged slave, the slave that is diseased, and everything else that [you do] not need.” This passage evoked in Plutarch several angry pages: this is not mere miserliness, he insisted, but excessive meanness of character. Professor Grimal, on the other hand, finds no room for the passage in the five pages he devotes to Cato’s book. He acknowledges that some of the slaves lived and worked in chains, but, he adds, “we are not to suppose that the master employed such methods because he liked them.” Elsewhere (in reviewing Michael Grant’s The World of Rome) he expanded that point in a most revealing way:
Is it just to state that “there is no trace of humanity in Cato”…? The book on Agriculture is just a handbook about the best way to make money. Cato has no intention of passing judgment on the human values of a system firmly established around him—and it is conceivable that even a good businessman might be humane in his private life… We are told that some of the most bloodthirsty jurists of the past have been kind men, devoted to their friends and quite amiable.
It is by such special pleading alone that it is possible to reach the remarkable conclusion that “Rome was the most marvelously humane society that the world had hitherto known.” What about the proscriptions under Marius and Sulla, in which both sides butchered thousands of their opponents in the streets of Rome? They get a single sentence and the word “proscription” does not appear in the index. The gladiatorial shows? Yes, that was pretty shocking, but—
it would be unjust to denounce it as a fault peculiar to the Latins of Rome. As we have already said, gladiatorial contests were of foreign origin… The best of the Romans are unlikely to have derived any pleasure from them. The spectators consisted mainly of the city plebs, packed with men from all the Mediterranean lands. The great popularity of gladiatorial contests dates precisely from the period when the plebs had ceased to be, properly speaking, Roman…
This racist defence—let us not mince words: that is what it is in its purest form—is an old story in the writing of Roman history. Mr. Cowell shares it with Professor Grimal though he judges Rome through spectacles of another tint. Marius had a “coarse foul nature”; Sulla “was worse”; Caesar may not have been “mentally diseased, personally contemptible, beastly or ruthless” like “dictators of our recent memory,” but his seizure of power was a “personal revolution” in which “constructive measures were few”; after Caesar, “never again were free institutions to flourish in Rome,” yet his assassination was “irresponsible folly.” All that Mr. Cowell can offer in…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.