“Since when wealth became to be considered an honour, and glory, authority, and power attended on it, virtue lost her influence, poverty was thought a disgrace, and a life of innocence was regarded as a life of ill-nature. From the influence of riches, accordingly, luxury, avarice, and pride prevailed among the youth; they grew at once rapacious and prodigal; they undervalued what was their own, and coveted what was another’s; they set at nought modesty and continence; they lost all distinction between sacred and profane, and threw off all consideration and self-restraint”.
This sad portrait of times that are changing most certainly sounds like one of those brief – and perhaps somewhat trite – social backgrounds that normally accompany a comment-article on today’s degeneration of costumes and youth’s lack of moral values; it could resemble a sad and sour comment found in the papers beside one of the last tragic young-people-related breaking news or a new – and alas! nowadays not anymore a “scoop” … – political scandal… Ultimately words and remarks like these could have been easily extracted from the New York Times or The Guardian. Yet, they have been written exactly 2000 years ago by Sallust (Gaius Sallustius Crispus) a – to some extent – controversial ancient Roman politician and excellent historian, acute observer and brilliant interpreter of his own times:
“Postquam divitiae honori esse coepere et eas gloria imperium potentia sequebatur, hebescere virtus, paupertas probro haberi, innocentia pro malevolentia duci coepit. Igitur ex divitiis iuventutem luxuria atque avaritia cum superbia inuasere: repere consumere, sua parvi pendere, aliena cupere, pudorem pudicitiam, divina atque humana promiscua, nihil pensi neque moderati habere. Operae pretium est, cum domos atque villas cognoueris in urbium modum exaedificatas, visere templa deorum, quae nostri maiores, religiosissimi mortales, fecere”.
Rich, but not noble by birth, Sallust owed his early political success to Julius Caesar whose protective wing was hovering on him; although later on the verge of his denounce of the famous conspiracy against the Republic conceived by Lucius Sergius Catilina (Catiline), depicted by Sallust in his De Catilinae Coniuratione as a merciless and unscrupulous political criminal, he might have willingly forgotten that Julius Caesar could have been behind the early steps of the attempted coup and would have gained several advantages from its success… however, apparently when Catiline started recruiting rioters from the lower classes (seemingly even slaves) Julius Caesar and Crassus took their distance from the revolutionary plans and consul Cicero eventually discovered and diverted the putsch.
Perhaps due to his radical approach to politics, or simply because of the complex and quite confused and anarchical scenario of those days, Sallust himself was – it seems on false grounds – impeached and expelled from the Senate probri causa; but shortly after he was reinstated by Julius Caesar and appointed pro-consul of Numidia (the present Algeria). There he accumulated an enormous wealth that allowed him, once he retired after Caesar’s death, to devote himself to otium and writings in a magnificent mansion celebrated for its gardens: horti sallustiani.
De Catilinae Coniuratione was Sallust’s first published writing and it may be considered the first historical-theme monograph of Latin literature. Its structure and development follows the Hellenistic paradigm consisting of an introduction, description of the central character, a description of the social/political/ethical environment and then facts, documents and speeches. Within this framework Sallust was able to dart against the overly spreading dishonesty, the decadence of aristocracy, the lack of social commitment and the corruption of youth:
“Fortune then began to exercise her tyranny, and to introduce universal innovation. To those who had easily endured toils, dangers, and doubtful and difficult circumstances, ease and wealth, the objects of desire to others, became a burden and a trouble. At first the love of money, and then that of power, began to prevail, and these became, as it were, the sources of every evil. For avarice subverted honesty, integrity, and other honourable principles, and, in their stead, inculcated pride, inhumanity, contempt of religion, and general venality. Ambition prompted many to become deceitful; to keep one thing concealed in the breast, and another ready on the tongue; to estimate friendships and enmities, not by their worth, but according to interest; and to carry rather a specious countenance than an honest heart. These vices at first advanced but slowly, and were sometimes restrained by correction; but afterward, when their infection had spread like a pestilence, the state was entirely changed, and the government, from being the most equitable and praiseworthy, became rapacious and insupportable”.
Once again this above would easily be considered the outburst of indignation of a disappointed old citizen remembering the good old days, or the dismay of a voter against the scandalous turns of society and unreliability of politicians and politics. Yet, this is still Sallust who again rushes violently, against greed, shallowness and hyper-ambition; and his utmost motive of preoccupation and rage is the conduct of the younger generations:
“…saevire fortuna ac miscere omnia coepit. Qui labores, pericula, dubias atque asperas res facile toleraverant, iis otium divitiaeque, optanda alias, oneri miseriaeque fuere. Igitur primo pecuniae, deinde imperi cupido crevit: ea quasi materies omnium malorum fuere. Namque avaritia fidem probitatem ceterasque artis bonas subuertit; pro his superbiam, crudelitatem, deos neglegere, omnia venalia habere edocuit. Ambitio multos mortalis falsos fieri subegit, aliud clausum in pectore, aliud in lingua promptum habere, amicitias inimicitiasque non ex re, sed ex commodo aestimare, magisque vultum quam ingenium bonum habere. Haec primo paulatim crescere, interdum vindicari; post ubi contagio quasi pestilentia inuasit, civitas immutata, imperium ex iustissimo atque optimo crudele intolerandumque factum.
In truth in so far as younger generations are concerned not even Pericles’ Athens was a true Garden of Eden. The heroes of Marathon, only a few decades earlier, struggling for survival and for the protection of the city walls from the Persian invaders had been a fantastic inspiration for civil unity, political growth and social and cultural progress. Thus collectively allowed by several marvellous – by many judged historically unrepeatable – circumstances, and economically funded by the treasure of the Delian League a widely diffused high level of prosperity and a remarkable sense of safety and wellness had spread almost all over the population (meaning of course principally the urban Attic inhabitants of male gender and free from slavery…). Nonetheless the new generations were now born with a sort of natural swanky self-confidence, without any particular inclination towards sacrifice or room for any social conscience or a true civil involvement. As Professor Schachermeyer pointed out in analysing Pericles’ Golden Age:
“The new generation, lacking the push of danger or necessity, became lazy and indolent. Even within the families the so called trigenerational scheme reveals its typical succession: while the first generation starts an enterprise with hard work and the second one enlarges its size, the third one puts everything it has inherited in jeopardy because of its carelessness and arrogance.
…in those days it was frequent too see too loving and permissive, and thus weak, fathers and too insolent ungrateful children…
Therefore even in the Athens of the Pentecontaetia the richness and welfare so hardly gained, accompanied by the disappearance of moderation and rigorousness soon left room to a decaying society and its dissolving moral and values. Thus in that unparalleled half century where flourished arts and culture which have influenced the entire Western civilisation, many youths lost any inhibition and ethics facing their existence without any vacillation: aspiring to a life only of pleasures within a luxurious environment, where everything was allowed and any ill-action arguable and defendable by simply being socially highly recognised, boldly witty, politically well connected and above all rhetorically endowed – conducts and vices that the greatest play-writer Aristophanes portrays in such numerous and brilliant personages and dialogues:
CHORUS LEADER: Now down to work, you spinner of words,
you explorer of brand new expressions.
Seek some way to persuade us, so it will appear
that what you’ve been saying is right.
PHEIDIPPIDES: How sweet it is to be conversant with
things which are new and clever, capable
of treating with contempt established ways.
When I was only focused on my horses,
I couldn’t say three words without going wrong.
But now this man has made me stop all that,
I’m well acquainted with the subtlest views,
and arguments and frames of mind. And so,
I do believe I’ll show how just it is
to punish one’s own father.
These young people, mainly belonging to the Athenian fast growing mercantile class were enthusiastic only with luxury and extravagance; dreamed of a life of pure and sole enjoyment and were interested in any petty thing only for a very short while and then got easily bored. How many ancient Greek plays describe parsimonious bourgeois fathers struggling against dissipating children who wasted all their finances with comrades, parasites, courtesans and consequently assiduously eroding the family wealth. Crucial was the circumstance that the youth did not want anything to do with moral, did not see in the polis anything but an institution to be exploited in order to satisfy their own interests and get rich and famous quickly… actually so far nothing unheard or unfamiliar to a young man like myself and not at all an antiquate behavioural analysis of modern life’s goals and ambitions…
It is remarkably curious how these perceptions and complaints keep coinciding as we move along the centuries as well as we switch latitude/longitude. Huysmans describing French society of late nineteenth century vividly laments the absolute superficiality and impoliteness of French youths:
Bien que les penchants utilitaires transmis par l’hérédité et développés par les précoces impolitesses et les constantes brutalités des collèges, eussent rendu la jeunesse contemporaine singulièrement mal élevée et aussi singulièrement positive et froide, elle n’en avait pas moins gardé, au fond du coeur, une vieille fleur bleue, un vieil idéal d’une affection rance et vague.
The writer also plunges at the decadence of nobility and the greed and vulgarity of the fast growing bourgeoisie:
Après l’aristocratie de la naissance, c’était maintenant l’aristocratie de l’argent; c’était le califat des comptoirs, le despotisme de la rue du Sentier, la tyrannie du commerce aux idées vénales et étroites, aux instincts vaniteux et fourbes.
Plus scélérate, plus vile que la noblesse dépouillée et que le clergé déchu, la bourgeoisie leur empruntait leur ostentation frivole, leur jactance caduque, qu’elle dégradait par son manque de savoir-vivre, leur volait leurs défauts qu’elle convertissait en d’hypocrites vices; et, autoritaire et sournoise, basse et couarde, elle mitraillait sans pitié son éternelle et nécessaire dupe, la populace, qu’elle avait elle-même démuselée et apostée pour sauter à la gorge des vieilles castes!
…classe bourgeoise qui avait peu à peu monté, profitant de tous les désastres pour s’enrichir, suscitant toutes les catastrophes pour imposer le respect de ses attentats et de ses vols?
It is striking how Huysmans conclusion on the raising magnitude given simply and solely to money, luxury and power by an increasing number of one-dimensional people:
…rassurée, trônait, jovial, de par la force de son argent et la contagion de sa sottise…. Le résultat de son avènement avait été l’écrasement de toute intelligence, la négation de toute probité…
does not differ, in spite of the 1900 years of distance in between, from the lapidary but sadly modern thought of Sallust – taken from his other masterpiece De Bellum Iugurthinum:
Romae omnia venalia esse
something that even – and perhaps more than ever – nowadays sounds quite hopeless being Roma caput mundi… and considering that apparently humans do not seem to learn any lesson from history…