Sunday, November 06, 2011

The Long Tradition of Public Achievement and Private Greed

I've been fussing all week about the rapacity of the Renaissance Popes who seemed to regard the assumption of the tiara as a license to line the pockets of their nearest and dearest.  On reflection, I can see that this was short-sighted of me.  Through history I suppose it has been the posture of every successful contender for political leadership to trun his public triumph into private gain.

And certainly in Rome.  Long before their were Popes--before there were Emperors--there were those who achieved the privilege of governing--rather "looting" a province in a manner that became the stuff of legend.  The practice was so endemic that it was the very absence of private greed that became the topic of note. Here's Plutarch, remarking on Caesar's Brutus:
[6] μέλλων δὲ διαβαίνειν εἰς Λιβύην Καῖσαρ ἐπὶ Κάτωνα καὶ ΣκηπίωναΒρούτῳ τὴν ἐντὸς Ἄλπεων Γαλατίαν ἐπέτρεψεν εὐτυχίᾳ τινὶ τῆςἐπαρχίαςτὰς γὰρ ἄλλας ὕβρει καὶ πλεονεξίᾳ τῶν πεπιστευμένων ὥσπεραἰχμαλώτους διαφορούντωνἐκείνοις καὶ τῶν πρόσθεν ἀτυχημάτωνπαῦλα καὶ παραμυθία Βροῦτος ἦν[7] καὶ τὴν χάριν εἰς Καίσαρα πάντωνἀνῆπτενὡς αὐτῷ μετὰ τὴν ἐπάνοδον περιϊόντι τὴν Ἰταλίαν ἥδιστονθέαμα τὰς ὑπὸ Βρούτῳ πόλεις γενέσθαικαὶ Βροῦτον αὐτόναὔξοντα τὴνἐκείνου τιμὴν καὶ συνόντα κεχαρισμένως.
[6] When Caesar was about to cross over into Africa against Cato and Scipio, he put Brutus in charge of Cisalpine Gaul, to the great good-fortune of the province; for while the other provinces, owing to the insolence and rapacity of their governors, were plundered as though they had been conquered in war, to the people of his province Brutus meant relief and consolation even for their former misfortunes. [7] And he attached the gratitude of all to Caesar, so that, after Caesar's return, and as he traversed Italy, he found the cities under Brutus a most pleasing sight, as well as Brutus himself, who enhanced his honour and was a delightful companion. 
Bernadotte Perrin ed. 1918, Loeb Classical Library reprinted at Perseus here and here

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

An interesting idea with regard to upper classes of previous centuries. Before the 19th century, all of the economies of the world were essentially Malthusian. Which meant that whenever there was an improvement which improved life (better plows), the population increased until the standard of living was roughly what it had been before.

Of course, this also applies to the other side as well. Whatever taxes had to be paid ultimately decreased the population (fewer babies born, etc.) until everybody is as well off as they were before.

This means that in some sense the richest were not actually decreasing living standards as long as they kept taxes reasonably consistent. Instead they merely presided over smaller populations than they otherwise would have.

Just a different perspective on the effects of oppression in history...