Sallust and moralising historians

I particularly appreciate the phrase 'clueless in Gaza'. Milton fans will get the echo.

T.R. Fehrenbach: Society can learn much from ancient examples

Web Posted: 12/23/2006 01:00 PM CST

San Antonio Express-News

The Roman historian Sallust described the erosion of the old Roman values during the crisis of the Republic. These were the values and virtues that had carried Rome through the Punic wars — 70,000 legionaries slain at Cannae, 400 settlements destroyed, hundreds of thousands of Italians dead — and later sustained her conquest of the world.

“The very people,” Sallust wrote, “who easily endured hardship, dangers, and uncertain and difficult situations now found that leisure and wealth — desirable at any other time — became burdensome and destructive. The love of money grew first; the love of power followed. This was, so to speak, the root of all evil. Greed undermined loyalty, honesty, and the other virtues. In their place it taught arrogance, cruelty, disregard for the gods and the view that everything was for sale.”

Sallust, like other Roman writers of his era, believed that power, wealth and luxury destroyed virtuous Roman society. The result was the downfall of the Republic. These views strongly influenced the modern idea that Romans were ruined by luxury and corruption.

Modern historians dislike Sallust because of his moralizing. A moral view of history has long been unfashionable. Sallust makes us uncomfortable, because he could be describing an America reaching unprecedented wealth and power overnight, or, not to put too fine a point on it, moralizing Republicans loving both money and office.

However, Sallust may have known what he wrote about. He was a failed, and by all accounts, corrupt politician. He began his career as a partisan of the rabble-rouser Clodius and as tribune, attacked men such as Cicero. Expelled from the Roman Senate, he backed Julius Caesar and became praetor. But then he was prosecuted for extortion during a North African command. Caesar quashed the case, but Sallust was forced to retire from public life. He then took up writing history, inventing the monograph, with much greater success.

Actually the Romans believed all history was moral history. The Roman mind was not so subtle as the Greek. It judged historical personages as good or bad, true or false; character was everything; one did it or failed. There was little of the shoulda, coulda, woulda attitudes our legal minds have made infamous. And for what it's worth, some of our more eminent historians such as Niall Ferguson are reviving moral analysis of the past today.

I tend toward this myself. Writing in an age of philistine education and determined historical ignorance, it is often hard not to moralize or preach. For example, there are still people who lived in the 20th century who profess not to believe in human evil. If such willful ignorance remains invincible, history will repeat, and repeat again, while clueless in Gaza, our species tries to survive.

Just as alcoholics can't cure themselves until they admit their failing, I think we shall never subdue the dark forces that lie latent within us all until we recognize our nature. What can we learn from Roman history? Pretty much the same that we might have learned from 1901-2000, had anyone been looking.

First, that there have been and will be ethnic tensions so long as there are ethnicities. Romans had unpleasant experiences with Carthaginians, Greeks and Jews, plus a host of minor types. Second, that these wars increase when and if empires decay. The end of the British, French, Ottoman and Russian empires assured the bloody, messy world that we now view with alarm. Third, that profound economic change or deprivation unsettles governments and peoples and tends them toward belligerency. (We have no ethnic or imperialistic quarrel with China, but perceive the paranoia.)

As for moral questions, Romans revealed that seemingly intelligent actions lead peoples to the abyss, and that the more power women possess, the greater their licentiousness. But who among us would touch those themes?

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