Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae 14.6

Meanwhile, Orfitus ruled the eternal city with the power of prefect, exalting himself immoderately beyond the measure of the office conferred upon him, a man—it is true—of foresight, and exceedingly skilled in forensic affairs, but in the splendor of a liberal education he was furnished less than befits a noble. While he governed, serious mutinies were stirred up by a lack of wine, for which, the mob—eager for greedy use, was agitated to action desperate and frequent.

And, since I suppose that some foreigners, those who may perchance read this (if one comes upon it), could wonder for what reason, when the account turns to showing that which was done at Rome, I narrate nothing except uprisings and taverns and other vulgarities similar to these, briefly I will touch on the reason, nowhere of my own volition intending to digress from the truth.

In the time when, from first auspices, Rome ascended to world-wide brilliance, to live as long as there were men, in order that she be exalted by lofty increase, Virtue and Fortune came together for a pact of eternal peace, although usually disagreeing, if either of them were absent, she would not ultimately reach the highest point. Her people, from earliest cradle right up to the last period of childhood, because they were enclosed all around for almost three hundred years, endured wars around her walls; and then entering her adult age, after multifold tribulations of wars, she traversed the Alps and the sea; raised to her youth and manhood, from every region that the boundless sky encompasses, she carried back laurels and triumphs; and now turning toward senility, and conquering now and then in name alone, she departs to the more tranquil age of her life.

Therefore, the venerable city, after the haughty necks of savage tribes were oppressed, and laws were borne, that fundament of liberty and its eternal tether, just as a frugal parent, both prudent and wealthy, thus to the Caesars as if to her own children she has permitted the right to rule over her estate. And for a time there was license for the tribes to be idle, and the centuries pacified, and there were no contests for suffrage, but the security of the time of Pompilianus had returned, yet through all boundaries and parts of the world, as many as there were, as a mistress and a queen she is received, and everywhere the grey eminence of the senators is revered with authority, and the name of the Roman people is regarded and venerated.

But this magnificent splendor of unions is wounded by the disordered inconstancy of a few, giving no consideration of where they are begotten, but like indulgences that give licence to faults, they are fallen to error and impudence. For as Simonides of the lyre instructs, he who would live blessedly by perfect reason, it is agreed, must before all other things have a glorious nation. Some of these men, estimating that they can commend themselves to the ages with statues, ardently strive for them, as if to attain more reward from formations of bronze lacking feeling than from an awareness of deeds done honorably and righteously, and they take pains that these are gilded in gold, which was conferred first to Acilius Glabrionus, when he overcame the king of Antioch by arms and counsels. How fine it would be, however, spurning things petty and least, to reach for the ascents of true glory, distant and steep, as the seer Ascraeus recalls, Cato Censorius did demonstrate. He was asked, for what reason, among so many men … he had no statue. “I prefer,” he answered, “the good to debate, for what reason did I not merit it, than, which is more serious, to mutter, why did I win it.”

Some men, placing the highest honor in carriages grown more lofty than custom, and in much-sought finery of vestment, sweat beneath the weight of their cloaks, which, inserted into their collars, they fasten around their own throats, fluttering too much for the delicacy of the weave, awaiting with violent agitation and especially the left, so that the lengthy fringes and their tunics glitter conspicuously, fashioned with a diversity of threads in manifold depictions of animals. Others, although no one asks, with their faces in feigned severity, exalt their own estates to immensity, multiplying the annual fruits of their fertile (so they think) plantations, which they proclaim they possess in abundance from rising to setting of the sun, no doubt ignorant that their own ancestors, by whom Roman greatness was thus extended, to shine forth not by her riches, but through terribly savage wars, differing not in their means, nor in their sustenance, nor in the cheapness of their garments from common soldiers, surpassed all opposition by their virtue. For this reason Valerius Publicola himself is interred with small offering, raised by contributions, and by the subsidies of her husband’s friends, the destitute wife of Regulus, with her children, is sustained, and the daughter of Scipio is endowed from the treasury, since the nobility blushed on account of the flower of matured virginity lasting so long, due to the absence of her impoverished father.

But now, if you should, for the first time, enter as an honorable visitor to pay your respects to anyone well moneyed, and puffed up on this account, you will be received as if long wished for, and be asked many questions, and be compelled to speak falsehoods; you will wonder, since you have never before been seen here, at an eminent man so strenuously attending to you, a trifling man, so as to make you sorry, on account of these things, like special favours, that you had not seen Rome a decade earlier. And once you had confidence in this affability, when you do the same the next day, you will be tarried, like an unknown and unexpected visitor, while that man, yesterday’s encourager … for counting, wonders all day who you might be and whence you came. Finally recognized in truth and received in friendship, if you yield to constant attendance, paying your respects for three years without pause, and you are absent the occasion for the same number of days, you will return to endure the same things, and not asked where you were, and, if you do not depart from there unhappy, you will squander your whole life in vain from submitting yourself to a blockhead.

When, however, separated by appropriate intervals, they begin to prepare their tedious and offensive feasts, whether the distribution of the ritual gifts is managed with anxious deliberation, or, with those excepted to whom the vicissitude is owed, it is decided that the foreigner be invited and if, once the council is fully arranged, it is pleasing that it be done, he is summoned who sleeps outside, before the houses of charioteers, or who professes his skill of dice, or who pretends that he knows certain very secret things. For they shun learned and sober men as if they were ill-omened and useless, in addition to which, their secretaries,1 habituated to selling these and other such favours, once a fee is accepted, introduce to the payments and the luncheons certain counterfeit men, ignoble and obscure.

The endless maw of the dinner tables and the various enticements of pleasures, so that I don’t go on too long, I will pass over to change the subject, that some men, rushing through the ample spaces of the city and the overturned stones, without any fear of the risk, they urge their horses like the public ones,2 with marked hooves, dragging a train of servants like a predatory throng at their backs, and not even Sannio, as the comic says, is left at home. Imitating these men, numerous matrons run about, their heads and sedans covered, through all quarters of the city. And like leaders practised in battle, who first place dense crowds in opposition, and strong, and then lightly armed men, spearmen after that, and finally the auxiliary battle-lines, if chance should grant, to provide assistance, thus it is for the overseers of the urban household, carefully and anxiously arranging their own, whom they make prominent by rods fitted to their right hands, like the watchword given to a soldier; near the front of the carriage the whole weaver’s shop marches; to this the blackened ministry of the kitchen is attached, and then the whole servitude in common, with unemployed plebs from the district joined in; long after, a multitude of eunuchs going from from old men to boys, pale and tormented, deformed at the join of their lineaments, so that wherever anyone departs to, when they see a train of mutilated men, he curses the memory of Semiramis, that queen of the ancients, who first of all people castrated males of a tender age, as if applying violence on nature, and twisting the same from her fixed course, which, during the very childhood of a man’s arising, through the originating fonts of seed, by a silent law, as it were, she shows the ways of increasing posterity.

Since this is so, the few houses formerly celebrated for their serious cultivation of studies now toil in mockeries, numbed by laziness, resounding with the sound of voice, the fluttering tinkling of lyres. And finally, instead of a philosopher, a singer is invited, and in place of an orator, a teacher of skill in games, and after the libraries shut up in perpetuity, in the manner of tombs, hydraulic organs are constructed, and huge lyres in the appearance of chariots, and flutes and not insignificant instruments of theatrical gesture.

At last we have come to this state of indignity, such that, not so long ago, when because of a feared poverty of provisions, the foreigners were being driven headlong from the city, and although the very few adherents of the liberal disciplines were expelled without any respite, the attendants of mimes were most certainly kept, whoever impersonated them for the occasion, and three thousand dancing girls remained, with their choruses, not even disturbed, and just as many conductors. And there was liberty, any which way you might turn your eyes, to gaze upon many women, curls in their hair, to whom, had they married, already thrice by their age the pain of children could have come; sweeping the floor with their feet to the very point of tedium, to be thrown in flying gyres, while they portray the innumerable forms which the theatrical tales devise.

This, however, is not doubted, that once, when Rome was the domicile of every virtue, most of the nobility held fast to her free-born visitors, as the Homeric Lotus-eaters did by the sweetness of their berries, they by the multifarious kindnesses of their humanity. Now, rather, the vain blustering of some esteem anyone born beyond the walls of the city as cheap, except for the childless and the unmarried, and it could not be credited with what diversity of obsequities men without children are cultivated at Rome. And since then, among those men, as in the capital of the world, the bitter pains of diseases have gained high dominion, for the allayment of which, every public promise of healing is idle, an auxiliary for giving health has been devised, that one does not even see a friend enduring anything similar, and another sufficiently powerful remedy has been added by a cautious few, such that servants, sent to inquire to what measure they gain strength—those known to be bound by the illness, are not received to the house before they cleanse their body with a bath. Thus even a blemish seen by the eyes of another is feared. But even so, although these things are so very carefully attended to, some men, although the vigour of their limbs is diminished, when they are invited to weddings, where gold is offered to the fortunate cupped hands, they diligently proceed even as far as Spoleto. These are the habits of the nobles.

Of the throng of the lower lot and the poor, in truth, some stay all night in wine taverns, a few lurk beneath the coverings of the theatrical awnings, which, imitating Campaniam lewdness, Catulus hung up during his aedileship; either they contend combatively in dice games, clamouring with foul sound, by breath withdrawn through their roaring nostrils; or, which is the greatest of all endeavors, from the rising of light to evening, rain or shine, they tire themselves seeking in minute detail the strengths and flaws of charioteers and horses. It is a marvel of great measure to see the innumerable plebs, some ardent desire applied to their minds, hanging on the outcome of furious chariot races. They permit these and similar such things to be done at Rome, but nothing earnest or worthy of memory; thus we must return to the text.

1. The Latin word that I’ve translated as “secretaries”, nomenclatores, refers to servants that had the job of keeping a list of all the attendants at a banquet, and keep their masters informed of who they were speaking to.
2. The Roman Emperor kept horses hitched at points throughout the city so for his servants to use on urgent business.

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