Money over morals: the corruption of people and place in first century Rome

The Rome of the first century CE, from writings of the day, has evolved substantially from the days of its founding. It is a place lacking in humanity, preferring artifice to substance, money to morality. The increasing wealth and sophistication of its built form disguise its social stratification, corruption of the wealthy and well-positioned, and the exploitation of the poor. Aspiring to appear successful and on-trend is exhausting, expensive, and unfulfilling, with precarious housing, superficial interactions, and pressures of pace adding to a sense of unease.

With Rome growing increasingly inhospitable even to its native-born, a desire for a simpler life, hearkening back perhaps to a more bucolic Roman past, provides a psychological and economic antidote. This life is imagined as free from the venality and pressures particular to the city. It is rather in tune with nature, relishing in its abundance, its un-hurried pace, and its more meaningful interactions.

At Rome’s founding, Romulus filled the city with the homeless and destitute, free folk and slaves. These were “the first real addition to the City’s strength, the first step to her future greatness.”[1] But where disparate populations were then welcomed and integrated, the Rome of the first century CE has stratified into classes, with wealth and power corrupting society just as it corrupts Rome’s natural environment.  

As “the face of Nature is being everywhere reduced to a level” [2] in pursuit of decorative stone, so too the natural protection against the elements and unfriendly neighbours is laid low, raising the risk of destructive events. Meanwhile, Rome’s shiny new surfaces glisten garishly, the “flash marble” adorning Egeria’s grotto, now “modernized past recognition,” an affront to the native limestone and grassy banks.[3]

The city becomes claustrophobic as it is built up and densified, its chaos and tension beating down upon Horace as “a hundred concerns of others dance on top of my head and all around me.”[4] It is a proscribed space, artificial and exhausting. It is both contrary to human nature, and oppressive by its nature, for even in inclement weather, Horace must “answer duty’s call,” beset as he is by inane small talk, traffic, and rude fellows.[5] 

If the customs of business and politics have become unnatural, then the laws are no different, seemingly designed to serve those who serve themselves. Juvenal writes of the poor being hustled out of select areas of the theatre for their meagre incomes, because “the law’s the law.”[6] Whether the law serves society or is well-reasoned is irrelevant where there is privilege to be protected, and where money makes some people feel worthier than others.

The affairs which take place on the surface of the city may be oppressing, but the work below is literally depressing. The sewers, “a work more stupendous than any,”[7] are a widely beneficial but unglamourous project. Literally out of sight underground, the plight and pain of those who toil there are just as surely out of mind. Pliny writes that “the lower classes” were sent to build the sewers, and so dire was the work that suicides became common. But rather than easing the workers’ burden or displaying empathy for their sacrifice, the dead were made a macabre display of, “a spectacle to their fellow-citizens.”[8] This morbid tableau served as a warning for other workers not to so defile themselves. Built on the backs of the poor, of those with no choice in the matter, Rome’s achievements masked callous cruelty and exploitation and the great personal expense paid by those invisible workers.

The importance of appearances, of style over substance, extends to the aspirational among Rome’s numbers. Juvenal writes that, “we all live in pretentious poverty,”[9] incurring debts to keep up with the latest fashions. Even language betrays artifice, where Greek Romans insert themselves into civic life with their “gift of the gab that outsmarts a professional public speaker.”[10]

 Artifice was of little concern to Romulus in establishing Rome. The nascent city needed to be functional first, and its geographical situation was no exception. Cicero praised Romulus’ choice of location for the city, away as it was from the corrupting influences of the sea.[11] And yet, this modern Rome betrays moral bankruptcy and the corrupting influence of wealth, not least of all in the glad-handing of officials. “No governor will take me on his staff” who refuses to abet larceny, while engineers and architects bamboozle their way into contracts only to, “pocket the profit and fraudulently file their petition in bankruptcy.”[12]

The accumulation of private luxury dovetails with this fraudulent wealth, with the desire for marble “the leading folly of the day.”[13] Prodigality proliferates, with spoils stolen from conquest or the state, and serviced by poor labourers so that, “others may take their repose in the midst of variegated stones.”[14] Juvenal imagines a cartload of marble toppling, and crushing those who convey it. So final would this event be that “the poor man’s flattened carcase would vanish along with his soul,”[15] the body beyond identification were it to be claimed. In this Rome, the poor are so dispensable as to merit no dignity even in death. Where the bodies of those suicides of the sewer workers were strung up for garish display, the ignobility of these workers is the possibility of seemingly never having existed at all.

Yet wealth is no guarantee of security, but rather begets a new breed of violence and rebellion. Scaurus’ villa, replete with expensive theatre fittings, is “burned by his servants in the spirit of revenge.”[16] Rome’s social stratification, and the growing disparity in wealth and well-being, evokes envy, vengeance and destruction.

The alternative to living amidst the disparity and danger of the city is to escape from it. A retreat to the country offers affordable freehold housing, abundant garden plots, and shallow basins for drawing water, and perhaps most compellingly, a peaceful night’s sleep: “myself, I prefer life without the fires, without nocturnal panics.”[17] The town mouse experiences first the luxuries, then the calamities, of the city, realizing that, “I don’t need this kind of life…my wood and hole, secure from alarms, will keep me content with simple vetch.”[18] Horace’s own “citadel in the mountains” provides sanctuary where meals are simple, friendships are meaningful and conversations substantial, reflecting on the nature of happiness, friendship, and goodness. In the city there is neither time nor taste for such lofty conversation, but in the country, “no wretched desire for advancement makes my life death.”[19]

Indeed, Livy worries that modern greed and excess have made society “in love with death both individual and collective,” recalling a time when poverty and contentment resided mutually in Rome. A slow moral decline leads to “the final collapse of the whole edifice,”[20] yet edifice is what this Rome is made of, with its marble splendours, indebtedness to fashion, its small-talk and striving. While the Rome has grown in its apparent sophistication, it has at the same time become more savage beneath the surface. Corruption, exploitation, and social stratification have made for a brusque city where wealth and power are fraudulently acquired, and progress comes at great personal cost to the labouring lower classes.

Far from Romulus incorporating people of myriad origins and means, this Rome divides and subjugates them. Priorities are asunder as people scramble for position, at the cost of their purse and their well-being alike. The privileged make ostentatious displays of their wealth and depravity, and nature is razed and glazed for the sake of decadence. In the midst of this arises a longing for escape, to a simpler, unharried, more pastoral life. The desire for humane living drives citizens to protest this Rome by leaving, and in so doing, forging a life that evokes the spirit of an earlier time.


Bibliography

Cicero. De Republica, II. 2-7. Excerpt provided in LS 810. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1877.

Horace, Satire 6, excerpt provided in LS 810, n.d.

Juvenal, Satire III, excerpt provided in LS 810, n.d.

Livy, The Early History of Rome. London: Penguin, 2002. Pliny, Natural History – excerpts from Books III and XXXVI provided in LS 810


Notes

[1] Livy, The Early History of Rome, (London: Penguin, 2002), 39-40.

[2] Pliny, Natural History, Book XXXVI Ch. 1 (excerpt provided in LS 810, n.d.), 6.

[3] Juvenal, Satire III (excerpt provided in LS 810, n.d.), 14.

[4] Horace, Satire 6 (excerpt provided in LS 810, n.d.) 53.

[5] Horace, 53.

[6] Juvenal, 17.

[7] Pliny, Book XXXVI, Chap. 24, 2.

[8] Pliny, Book XXXVI, Chap. 24, 2.

[9] Juvenal, 19.

[10] Juvenal, 16.

[11] Cicero, De Republica, II. 2-7, excerpt provided in LS 810. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1877, 2.

[12] Juvenal, 15.

[13] Pliny, Book XXXVI, Chap. 1, 6.

[14] Pliny, Book XXXVI, Chap. 1, 7.

[15] Juvenal, 21.

[16] Pliny, Book XXXVI, Chap. 24, 4.

[17] Juvenal, 19-20.

[18] Horace, 55.

[19] Horace 53-54.

[20] Livy, 30.

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