Romae omnia venalia esse.
At Rome every day there is a clearance sale.
Sallust, “Bellum Iugurthinum” 8
Originally written in 1992
A former wiseguy turned sting operator for Azscam, has written a book called “What’s In It For Me? “ Here he discourses on the easy corruptibility and corruption in the Arizona State Legislature. His account of business-as-usual in the hallowed halls of government would electrify even the most jaded of political cynics in this election-year of 1992, not least his conviction that he “could have gone anywhere in America and done the same thing.” Like Washington, D.C., perhaps? Or ancient Rome for that matter. The French have a saying that is as apposite as applicable: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
It is doubtful the Roman senators of the late second century B.C., had they been able to live again phoenix-like, could have taught the Phoenix solons anything new. Sallust, one of the greatest historians from ancient Rome, was personal witness, if not also a participant (he was no saint) in the social and military chaos of Roman society in the first century B.C. that led with retrospective inevitability to implosion and collapse of the world as it had been known. Senatorial incompetence, corruption and venality going back at least a hundred years were protagonists in this debacle.
The Roman army in Africa trying ineffectually to punish Jugurtha, the king of Numidia (present Algeria and western Tunisia) [this sound kinda familiar too (2011)], for securing his throne by the murder of his half brother, dangled before the charismatic young man the suggestion that you could buy anything at all in Rome if you had enough money. It is as if American politicians were to favor the interests of foreign powers, declared enemies of the state, and remind the spokesmen (we call them “foreign lobbyists”) that for the right price Washington is for sale, their only monitory note being, as that of the Roman senatorials was for Jugurtha, that the money should be spread around widely. After all, “periculose a paucis emi quod multorum esset” – ‘it would be dangerous to buy from the few what belonged to many’.
One may perhaps gain insight into the broader character traits of such patriots by observing that Sallust describes them, commoners and nobles alike, in evocatively contemporary terms as men “quibus divitiae bono honestoque potiores erant, factiosi domi, potentes apud socios, clari magis quam honesti “– ‘who held wealth in higher esteem than honor and the good, were political infighters on the domestic scene and influence peddlers among the allies, and were more concerned with their status as celebrities than with their reputations for integrity.’ And this happened about 2100 years ago, folks.
The French – as so often – have another neat phrase: “déjà vu.”
Now, in late 2011, almost twenty years after I first wrote these thoughts, it all sounds dreadfully familiar. So has anything changed?