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 explanation of the mess is a change in “the general ‘set’ and direction of mind” behind the process by which
freedmen and their descendants grew in numbers to swamp the descendants of free Romans. Here was a silent revolution which did more to alter the whole tone and quality of Roman civilization than all the political revolutions put together.
Mr. Cowell has read his Livy. Does he really believe that the pure-blooded senators of the early books were less ruthless, less brutal, more humane than Cato or Marius or Sulla, all of whom were, so far as we know, untainted “descendants of free Romans”? Or that Plutarch, a Greek like many of the Roman slaves and freedmen, had a weaker moral fiber than the foul Marius?
These are not useful categories of historical analysis in this naked form. “The general ‘set’ and direction of mind” is not something which just lives or dies or changes in mysterious ways all by itself, “Caesar was not Rome,” proclaims Professor. Grimal; the “conspirators who smote him in the name of freedom…were obedient to the very logic of Rome.” With that wholly meaningless remark we have attained a new kind of Nirvana, the state of complete emptiness.
I cannot rest there, however, without raising the question of what is happening to reputable publishing. Professor Grimal’s text occupies less than 300 pages. There are good maps and charts and a large number of useful pictures. The translation from the French is good. Then comes the padding. No fewer than 48 pages are occupied by chronological tables in six columns, the quality of which may be illustrated by the fact that the column headed “Cultural Events outside Italy” has exactly eight entries between 200 B.C. and 15 A.D. (extending between pp.377 and 395), of which five record the erection of buildings and a sixth is the absurd entry under the year 100 B.C., “so-called La Tene III Celtic civilization.” In place of a traditional index there is a “historical and biographical dictionary” of nearly 100 pages, some of which is useful but much of which merely repeats information already given in the main body of the book. The lengthy bibliography is altogether useless for the audience to which the book is directed. Most of the books are in French, German and Italian, many completely outdated; some of the most useful English works, such as Michael Grant’s or Rostovtzeff’s Rome or Westermann’s book on ancient slavery are omitted; available English translations are sometimes indicated but usually not; no serious effort has been made to check the latest editions. The notes on the plates are equally shoddy: dates are sometimes given, sometimes not, and the same is true of dimensions.
I do not know who prepared all this apparatus but the final responsibility is the publisher’s (in this case, I should say, an English firm in the first instance). These are chiefly technical matters that any good research assistant could cope with. At $11.50 a buyer is entitled to some consideration and even some expense.